Travel: Plane delight

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The Independent Travel
WHENEVER I see Concorde I turn into a plane spotter. No other aircraft particularly interests me: modern aircraft are like modern cars - they all look as if they've been designed by the same person.

But Concorde is different. It's pretty, stylish, supersonic and thrilling. Whether it's in the air or on the ground, you just have to stare and sigh.

Last weekend I called in to the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset where they have Concorde 002 on display. (This was part one of an eclectic two-part day out: Concorde in the morning, T S Eliot and East Coker in the afternoon.)

As its name suggests, Concorde 002 was the second Concorde to fly (001 was the first to take to the air from the Aerospatiale factory in Toulouse). Even cooped up in its crowded and curiously smelly exhibition room and surrounded by aviation curiosities such as the Flying Testbed (which I recognised from the photo in my 1963 Eagle diary), the Concorde still impresses with its simple elegance: a cheetah ready to pounce.

There is much else to see in the museum, but the pounds 15 family ticket was worth it just to drool over Concorde.

Without doubt my greatest travel thrill was my one and only flight on Concorde 11 years ago. I went as a courier for Securicor. This meant that I went for free, although I had the troublesome task of ensuring the welfare of several hundred letters and packages (you travel looking rather like one of Santa's helpers).

I remember every minute of the flight vividly. The special Concorde lounge in Terminal 3, the pre-flight champagne, being ushered on to the plane by an unctuous flunky. I remember being surprised by how small it was on board; the low ceiling, the cramped seats, two each side of the aisle.

But the plane was not overcrowded: I sat by the window. The noise of the engines as they were fired up was noticeably loud - the roar as we took off was pleasantly ferocious. The afterburners which kick in to push you through the sound barrier provided a satisfying boot in the pants.

For the first half-hour I sat with my nose pressed to the window (which really does get as hot as they say). And, yes, you fly so high that you do see the total blackness of outer space and the curvature of the earth.

The food and drink came in a steady procession (I pilfered some of the cutlery - somewhere I still have a Concorde cocktail stick). I had someone take my photograph standing in front of the machometer to show I had travelled at twice the speed of sound.

The back of the menu was a certificate which you keep to show that you have flown Concorde, with the printed signature of the then BA chairman, Lord King. By chance Lord King was on the flight and despite the fact that Business Traveller, the magazine for which I then worked, was the airline's harshest critic, he not only signed my certificate but invited me to sit with him for a drink and a chat.

That entire flight had a sense of magical unreality about it. I remember thinking that one day Concorde would be nothing more than a glorious piece of travel history. To have flown on it would be like saying that you had flown on the Hindenburg airship, or had sailed on a great Cunarder.

Fired up by the Somerset outing, I telephoned BA reservations to find out how much a one-way Concorde ticket to New York costs these days. The answer is pounds 2,522.80. (I like the 80p.) If pounds 10,000 should fall unexpectedly into my lap, I will step out and book four seats to take the family.

To complete the picture on the day's events, in case you were wondering about T S Eliot: East Coker, 15 minutes' drive from the Fleet Air Arm Museum, is a stunningly picturesque village, all thatched cottages and Range Rovers, and we had an excellent lunch at the Helyar Arms and strolled up to the churchyard where Eliot is buried. This is the way the day ended: not with a supersonic bang . . .

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