Final call

This Friday, Concorde stops flying, the end of an exotic era. Expensive, noisy and inherently elitist, it has been a symbol of modern, troubled technology. To launch our supersonic special, David Usborne takes his seat on one of the very last flights
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The onboard computer says that Concorde will be airborne for three hours and 42 minutes en route from Heathrow to Washington DC. With that flight time, it won't be setting any records. But the passenger in seat 15D will be setting personal records of his own. Among them: flying at 58,000 feet, seeing the curvature of the Earth and reaching America one hour before he is leaving England.

I had almost given up on ever flying supersonic. The last flight of Concorde's glamorous, if commercially inglorious, life will be from New York to London on Friday. Air France dumped its Concorde fleet, with nothing of the ceremony being accorded the plane by British Airways, in May. A marvel of technology and form, as well as a symbol of patriotic pride, is being grounded for good.

Ours is a special farewell flight to Washington. The BA Concorde used to fly there regularly until the service was suspended in 1994. At one time, it even used to go further, making a return loop from Washington to Miami. But "at one time" has long been the refrain of this thwarted plane, in commercial service now for 27 years. At one time airlines around the world were queuing up to buy it. At one time it had a perfect safety record. At one time it was the pioneer of supersonic travel, not its full-stop.

Soon it will simply be, "at one time we had Concorde". No longer will residents along the approach to Heathrow be able to set their clocks to its deep-throated roar as it returns every evening from New York. (True, this will be relieving news to some.) No longer will they gaze up as it passes overhead, its unique deltoid silhouette never failing to inspire wonder.

British Airways has kept five of its seven Concordes flying until the end. Ours happens to be the youngest of them all - more than 20 years old - with 16,000 hours on its clock. That is nothing. A Boeing 737 would typically do more take-offs and landings in three years than this baby has done. The paradox of Concorde is that you are flying in an antique, but an antique still on the front edge of commercial aviation technology. Theoretically, all the Concordes could be kept flying for a good many more years. The folks at BA will tell you they are being forced to retire the aircraft because Airbus is refusing to continue making parts for it. For that reason, they insist, its airworthiness certificate was due to be withdrawn on 1 November anyway.

Finally, Captain Paul Douglas lines us up with the runway and my body tenses in anticipation. The engines ignite and we start to roll. It is loud, as you would expect, very loud. The smell of aviation fuel infuses the cabin. The after-burners, which give the aircraft that crucial extra thrust, will be engaged for the first minute of flight and again later, over the ocean, to break through the sound barrier.

Although I have the fleeting sensation that I am on a space rocket, rather than a plane, I am not nervous. After the Air France crash outside Paris in 2000, engineers modified the planes to guard against such an accident recurring. But there is nothing smooth about this flying machine. The vibrations don't stop even after we are in the sky. There seems to be a recurring grinding sound from beneath my seat.

No Fergie, Sting or Paul McCartney. It is mostly aeroplane nuts on board today. Like Volka Kach, a 35-year-old German man who "just likes flying" and found out about this flight from the internet. Today, he woke up in Munich, flew to London, took his seat on Concorde and plans to go straight back to Munich after arriving in Washington.

It is true that Concorde is rather small inside. Though all one class, the cabin is divided in two sections, front and back, with 100 seats in all. Front is better than back, they tell me. I am in the rear section, but if this is toilet class, I can take it. What shall we have? The Pol Roger champagne is good - I already tried it in the Concorde lounge at Heathrow. Let's sample the Chassange-Montrachet.

Not that many of us sit for very long. Pity the flight attendants trying to meet the expectations of Concorde cuisine. Everyone wants to squeeze into its narrow aisle to mill and chat. You wonder why they gave the cameraman from ABC TV, Russell, a seat at all. He is determined to capture every minute of our journey, every ooh and every ah. Or in the case of Tinosh Davarinia from Atlanta, every tear. We are mid-Atlantic, flying at mach II, when the dapper man beside her, Douglas Mitchell, a pilot with Delta, whips out a diamond ring and proposes marriage, supersonic style. She accepts - on camera.

The comic on board is Rita Woods. Darn me if she doesn't take a picture of an overhead storage bin. It doesn't even say Concorde on it. Disappointingly, the magic word, spelling privilege and prestige, isn't written on much, aside from the menu and the safety brochure. Not much to steal, in other words. Certainly I don't want the cutlery which, courtesy of September 11, comes in nasty black plastic, robbing some of the pleasure from my lobster on tabbouleh and lamb in brioche crust. Apparently, they have had a run on lavatory seats from Concorde in recent weeks. They look like normal lav seats to me, if a bit small. I swear, just as we are achieving mach II, my stream of wee is bending sideways to the back of the plane.

Rita, 65, is not your usual Concorde flyer. A pensioner from Virginia, she has flown every contraption in the sky, even a blimp and a para-glider, but going on Concorde was her one unrealised dream. "This was a big withdrawal from my retirement funds," she admits. Just so there was no danger of missing it, she flew to London a week ahead of time. "I have never wanted the days to pass more quickly."

Some things surprise me. It takes almost the whole flight to reach maximum altitude and speed. (I see 1,270mph on the electronic display on the bulkhead as we pass over Newfoundland.) Someone explains that Concorde only really gets into her stride when her fuel tanks start to empty and she can rise higher in the atmosphere. And there is the heat. The fuselage outside warms to about 95C, and my window becomes hot. This heat makes the plane grow about 10 inches in length in flight.

Suddenly - much too soon - we are dropping through the clouds to Washington. Like the space shuttle, Concorde uses the surfaces of its wings to slow down, so we descend to the runway at a startling angle. At touchdown, the engines really erupt, applying reverse thrust and breaking another kind of sound barrier. We peer through the tiny windows to see hundreds of spectators outside. Two fire engines wait on the taxiway, opening up their hoses as we pass between them. It is a salute to Concorde, to her beauty and to the innovation that no aircraft manufacturer today seems willing to replicate or challenge.

Will any of us, aside from military flyers and astronauts, have this opportunity ever again? Not in his lifetime, at least, says Captain Douglas, who stops to chat after our landing. But he adds, a little wistfully: "You would have to be a real pessimist to believe there won't be supersonic travel ever again."

The fast show: the life and times of a supersonic marvel

* Concorde's maiden flight, from Toulouse, took place on 2 March 1969. One of the test pilots for the first British-built prototype, Brian Trubshaw, tested the delivery system for the UK's first atomic bomb. He had a Concorde-shaped weather vane on his house in Gloucestershire.

* The record crossing of the Atlantic between New York and London took place on 7 February 1996: two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

* Concorde's rudder disintegrated at 56,000ft in January 1991. The flight landed safely.

* Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax, was fined £200 on 11 June 1999 for lighting a cigarette in the lavatory during a flight. He said that he had become nervous during turbulence.

* There's no Row 13 and no in-flight films.

* Acceleration on take-off: zero to 360km/h in 20 secs.

* Diana Ross set off a metal-detector before boarding a flight to New York on 23 September 1999, and flew into a rage when a guard tried to search her by hand. Ross was arrested, but later released without charge.

* Concorde's per-passenger food budget is $55 (£33). US carriers spend about $3.87 to feed the average flier.

* More than 2.5 million passengers have flown supersonically on British Airways' Concorde since it entered commercial service. British Airways Concordes have travelled 145 million miles.

* There's only ever been one female pilot, Barbara Harmer, in 1993.

* An Air France Concorde crashed shortly after take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport on 25 July 2000, killing 113 people.

* Only 20 Concordes were ever built, of which 14 entered service.

* When Michael Jackson flew to Britain on Concorde last year, he is reported to have purchased a separate seat for his Pinocchio-style puppet.