End of the supersonic circus

Sure, Japanese and French railway engineers were outpacing us, and the Americans had cornered the market in subsonic jet travel. But growing up in the Sixties, it was comforting to know that Britain still led the world in some transportational affairs. Look, there goes the QE2, the pride of the Clyde, undergoing sea trials. And shortly afterwards the most beautiful aircraft the world has ever known nosed out of the factory to begin a new era.

The Americans were never even at the supersonic aviation races. The Soviet "Concordski", the Tupolev 144, proved disaster-prone even by the undemanding aviation standards of the USSR. Britain (oh, and France was somehow involved, I do recall) ruled the skies. Or at least, it would, just as soon as the interminable testing process for the supersonic jet was complete.

By the time the first commercial flights took place in 1976, Concorde already looked like a relic from some mad low-budget science fiction movie. "Mad", certainly; "low-budget", never. British and French taxpayers had pumped billions into the project. But the vast majority of citizens could not possibly countenance the expense of flying on an aircraft that consumes its own weight in fuel on a trip across the Atlantic. Equally, every airline that, in the heady days of cheap energy, had hinted it might want the jet, cancelled its options; one of Pan Am's more rational business decisions was to keep out of the supersonic race.

By any normal commercial standards, British Airways and Air France would have done the same. But the governments that owned the airlines insisted on them taking the supersonic jets, albeit on a hyper-subsidised plate. After all, how the French would be diminished without the shortlived supersonic link between Paris and Santa Maria in the Azores. And imagine the UK's shame were Joan Collins and Michael Winner not able to travel at 23 miles a minute.

Triumph or tragedy? You will have your own view on yesterday's spectacular triple landing of Concorde; if you were caught up in the immense traffic jams caused by the event, or aboard one of the many subsonic jets forced to "stack" and burn fuel over the Home Counties while the formation was assembled, you may offer an alternative description. But what about people in the aviation business?

"For the vast majority of people it was an irrelevance," says Tim Jeans, chief operating officer of MyTravel Airways. "Apart from a few round-the-Bay-of-Biscay jollies, it was a complete non-event . In terms of bringing air travel to the masses it failed comprehensively."

Nonsense, rebuts Stephen Bath of Bath Travel, who waved the jet goodbye yesterday at Heathrow. "It's the most famous aircraft of all time. It will be remembered long after the 747 is forgotten about." Mr Bath has chartered Concorde on 14 dates, and British Airways invited him to the grandstand to thank him for his custom. "We filled every seat on every flight. It was the most exciting time in travel, and also the most profitable." On one notable occasion, Mr Bath persuaded the Ministry of Defence to loan him the use of a military runway at Boscombe Down on Salisbury Plain; unlike his local airport, Bournemouth, this was long enough for Concorde to take off with a full load of fuel.

"Everyone had to check in at the nearest pub," he recalls. Perhaps this idea could solve BA's congestion problems at Heathrow (see Warning of the Week, below). The ad-hoc terminal was the Inn at High Post, close to Stonehenge. "We had British Airways girls checking people in from behind the Stella Artois pumps."

This week I travelled subsonically to Flanders to see a Concorde fitted with pumps dispensing Belgian beer. The Concorde Café in the fine city of Mechelen serves up Stella Artois or any of a dozen other brews. You may not get to sip Stella with Ms Collins or Mr Winner, but it will cost you a lot less and won't disturb the neighbours.

Predictably, Sir Richard Branson's long-haul airline pulled a stunt at Heathrow airport yesterday to try to steal a march on British Airways' forlorn funeral for the supersonic jet. Yet the Virgin Atlantic boss is prepared to pay his arch rival to preserve Concorde for a nation.

"I still can't quite believe that is it. All I can hope is that next week British Airways will announce that they are doing the right thing." According to the bearded billionaire, that would involve taking the airline's seven Concordes to the British Aerospace factory at Filton, north of Bristol, where the project began. There, most of the aircraft could be cannibalised in order to keep at least one Concorde flying.

"I was up in a Spitfire about a month ago, 70 years after it was built. In 60 or 70 years time, Concorde should still be there for us all to see," said Sir Richard.

He attributes the grounding of the supersonic airliner to "the fact that BA have got room in their first-class cabins to move people over from Concorde. It's like having two shops next to each other: both may be making a bit of money, but if you close one of the shops you hope that most of those people will go into your next-door shop."

Virgin Atlantic is spending £50m on its new Upper Class product to try to entice travellers whose supersonic wings have been clipped; perhaps not coincidentally, the new business class started operating between London and New York this week. But Sir Richard will contribute to keeping Concorde aloft "in air displays and on jubilee days, for the nation, for decades to come", even if it stays in British Airways colours. Even if the airline's accountants argue against preserving the jet, he says, "The marketing people should be screaming that this will do BA no end of good."

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has the power to intervene to stop great works of art leaving the country, and Sir Richard has written to her asking her to order BA to keep its jets in the country, on the grounds that Concorde is a national treasure.

"I've found the Government's attitude to this unbelievable," he says. "This is something that was built by the British taxpayer. There is no better symbol for Britain than Concorde." What about Queen Mary 2, the new flagship of the Cunard fleet, as an emblem? Oh no, she was built in France.

The supersonic age may be over, but as a 21st-century traveller you enjoy some compensations - such as the chance to encircle the planet without breaking the bank. Yesterday, Trailfinders was offering a round-the-world trip on British Airway and Qantas taking in New York, Los Angeles, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore for £1,002, which works out at little more than a fortnight's work at the average national wage.

To provide television viewers with some ideas about places to go and people to see, BBC1's Holiday programme has kindly sent me on a circumnavigation, part one of which is to be shown on Monday at 7pm. In this first stretch, I attempt to come to terms with some of the trickier aspects of American culture.

A couple of things you should know about American football: one - when you're in the US, drop the "American" prefix; two, make no jokes about it being a game played by men with funny-shaped balls and body armour.

To try to get an insight into this genetically modified version of real football, I went to see the Chicago Bears - "the monsters of the Midway" - in training. It's a fun way to spend an afternoon, a cross between a summer fete and an action replay of the Vietnam War.

In Ohio, I discovered that in addition to an official state song (a tune called "Beautiful Ohio", predictably enough), the state has an official state rock anthem. Unfortunately, it is "Hang On Sloopy", a Sixties dirge by the McCoys from Dayton that has not endured as well as Concorde. In the unlikely event that such a question comes up in a pub quiz, the only other state with an official rock song is Washington, which has chosen "Louie Louie" - written by Richard Berry and recorded by everyone from the Kinks to Frank Zappa.

TALKING OF weird Americans, David Blaine, who came out of his shell last Sunday, must concur with the claim posted outside the self-styled World's Best Beef Jerky booth in Sturgis, South Dakota. With the Tower Bridge diet in mind, it reads, "Studies show that people who eat Beef Jerky live longer than people who don't eat".

At the Mountain House Restaurant near Yosemite National Park, the speciality is a "British Burger", with bacon and swiss cheese.

"Jolly good!", asserts the menu. Rather like Concorde, God rest her soul.

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