Concorde returns and attracts both stars and gazers

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The Independent Online

Sting, the singing environmentalist and star media attraction for Concorde's return to the skies, was at least disarmingly frank as he queued to board the world's noisiest and thirstiest passenger jet.

Among 90 VIPs invited by British Airways to fly to New York yesterday, he insisted he had no personal qualms at taking his place on a fuel-guzzling supersonic plane.

Standing quietly at the check-in desk in Heathrow Terminal 4, he said: "I don't attempt to reconcile it with the environment. Concorde is a compromise. I drive a car too.

"Concorde is just fantastically convenient – it flies to New York in three and a half hours. I have been using it for the past 20 years and I'm glad to see it back. People should get back to their lives."

Indeed, as passengers arrived for the 10.30am departure of BA001 – one of three BA Concordes to have had a £14m refit since last year's Paris crash – Terminal 4 was brimming with patriotic pride.

A select cargo of opinion- formers, consisting largely of captains of industry and editors of national newspapers, had, in effect, been invited to help to restore confidence after not one but two disasters.

First, there was the tragedy at Charles de Gaulle airport 16 months ago, which claimed 113 lives when an Air France Concorde caught fire on take-off, prompting a complete overhaul of the famous plane's safety.

But the disaster on most lips yesterday was that of 11 September and the importance of an iconic aircraft – "synonymous with style, safety and glamour" according to BA – crossing the Atlantic.

Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said: "Concorde is a genuinely physical statement. It says to the world that business is operating as usual and that the globe's most stylish aircraft is flying again."

John Spellar, the Transport minister, who was also on board, said: "Business as usual. That is the best answer to the terrorists. They must not be allowed to disrupt our way of life and world's economy."

With Tony Blair adding his own stamp of approval by taking off hours later in a chartered Concorde to Washington to meet President Bush, it would have been difficult for BA's spin doctors to organise a better display of high-profile flag waving.

The only reminder of the grim reality of the terrorist threat came shortly after 8.30am at the check-in area when two policemen armed with sub-machine-guns shouted: "Whose is this bag?"

After a few moments of stunned silence, a red-faced reporter rushed forward to claim the offending article and the air of celebration was restored to the occasion.

BA001, complete with its bulletproof Kevlar fuel tank linings, reinforced tyres and new uber-chic interior designed by Sir Terence Conran, touched down at JFK Airport at 9.30am local time (14.30GMT but still that magic one hour before it took off from Heathrow).

Air France flight AF002, carrying 92 passengers, most of whom, unlike their British colleagues, had paid their own way, touched down an hour earlier.

Both aircraft were placed facing each other on the New York asphalt for another photocall. The Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani said: "Welcome back Concorde. You were missed."

The VIPs, who also included Sir David Frost and BA's chief executive, Rod Eddington, were rushed into central New York for a further round of proclamations about safety, luxury and recession-busting ticket sales. BA, which this week announced a profit of only £5m, said it has sold Concorde tickets worth £20m at up to £7,000 per flight.

But while the dignitaries toasted the rehabilitation of Concorde with vintage Krug champagne and Maine lobster (albeit eaten with post-11 September plastic cutlery), nothing could have matched the unbridled ecstasy of those on the ground at Heathrow watching the take-off.

As the famous drooping nose edged towards the runway, a crowd gathered on the edge of a dual carriageway outside Heathrow, like extras from Close Encounters of The Third Kind, their faces all turned skywards in anticipation.

The 70-year-old twin brothers, the young family from south Wales, the suited businessman, the white van man, the veteran plane spotter, the Home Counties couple, the vet and the man who had seen its first UK test flight 30-odd years ago formed an eclectic group with one common aim – to see Concorde fly again.

Shortly after 10.30am, a silence loaded with expectation fell on the crowd and an earnest-looking young man with binoculars frowned at those still in conversation.

"It's on the runway, it's on the runway," screeched 33-year-old Paul Cannon, who had already seen it flying "a hundred times".

Seconds later, the quiet was shattered by the roar of engines and the giant, gleaming white pterodactyl-like hulk of Concorde slid gracefully over us mere mortals below.

Most clutched their ears, their bodies shuddering under the power of aerodynamic excellence as it soared overhead.

As the 240ft plane sailed above, trailing orange smoke, and banked gracefully to the right, breathless sighs of "awesome" emanated from the plainly enraptured crowd.

"Excellent, you could feel your chest cavity vibrate," said John Gallagher, a 29-year-old north London vet, who had decided a year ago to be there.

"It is just so aesthetically beautiful, such direction and poise. When everything else in the world is so tame, there is this thing screaming its way across the Atlantic. It's intrusive, an assault on the senses," he explained.

Chris Tufts, 61, a retired airline mechanic who remembered Concorde's early test flights, said: "Sod the Yanks, we've got Concorde and it is wonderful. I am utterly delighted it is back. I was worried it would never fly again."

An ecstatic Sten Cummins added: "It was amazing. I was born in 1968 and this was a big deal. This is an important part of our Seventies."

Clive Richardson, an engineer, had dragged his wife and two small daughters out of bed in the early hours to bring them to Heathrow from south Wales and show them the plane he had once worked on. His wife Vanessa, 34, said: "I had a tear in my eye when it went over. It was worth it." Emily, her seven-year-old daughter, add-ed: "I liked the pointy nose," as Concorde arced up into the overcast sky.

Unlike many of those gathered, Thomas Francis, 70, had never been on Concorde. In fact, he had not flown since a trip in a Tiger Moth 50 years ago but he owned a Concorde tie, cufflinks and model.

Yesterday, Mr Francis and his twin brother, David, former long distance lorry drivers, beamed as they watched their favourite machine fly over – looking through a shared pair of blue plastic binoculars.

"It is just so lovely, so brilliant. I can't imagine it ever going out of service," he said.

But didn't he feel sorry for those living right in the flight path of this monster?

"Not at all," he responded, "I'd like a house right in the middle of the runway."