Crowds awestruck as Concorde touches down for last time

Cahal Milmo
Saturday 25 October 2003 00:00 BST
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Just as it had begun 34 years ago with the awestruck applause of a gaping crowd pushing up against an airfield fence amid the swirling roar of twin Olympus engines, so it ended.

Many simply looked skyward in silence as the bent beak of the plane swooped in and out of the clouds one final time over Heathrow. One man took a reflective bite of his sandwich and pressed closer to the barbed wire while other people, such as Sheila Fogarty, shed a tear as they raised their hands to applaud.

On 2 March 1969, a BBC commentator watching the first Anglo-French Concorde scream down a runway outside Toulouse announced the arrival of what all believed to be a new era in air travel with the words: "She flies, she flies!" A month later, hundreds of onlookers watched from the perimeter of Filton airfield near Bristol when Concorde made her British maiden flight.

At 4.06pm on Friday 24 October 2003, British Airways flight BA002 from New York glided on to the northern runway of the world's busiest airport and with a puff of white smoke from its tyres consigned Concorde to the realm of aviation history, a delta-winged promise of mass supersonic flight that ultimately proved to be a false prophecy. Yesterday, the most common phrase among the 5,000 onlookers gathered to watch the occasion was: "Isn't it sad?"

Mrs Fogarty, 57, a cleaner at one of Heathrow's ranks of airport hotels, had come in early for her shift to witness the valedictory arrival of the plane that had made her pause in her work thousands of times since it entered service in 1976.

She said: "That bloody thing has deafened me more often than I care to remember. But I always have to stop what I'm doing when it takes off and look out of the window. Concorde has been part of my life and, when you see it, you can't help but think it's beautiful. That's why I'm sad today because we won't see it again."

The arrival of the flight was the choreographed finale of a day-long farewell to the supersonic jet, known to BA by its nickname "The Rocket". Within the space of seven minutes, three Concordes ­ two excursions carrying the winners of a BA competition and BA002 ­ grew from dots in the sky to land in rapid succession, watched by a gathering of elderly couples sat on shooting sticks, families eating McDonald's Happy Meals and plane spotters with crackling shortwave radios.

For those few minutes, Heathrow, which handles 60 million passengers a year, stood still. Hundreds of airport staff, dressed in spotless fluorescent jackets, could be seen forming an impromptu guard of honour as the planes taxied to a maintenance hangar for one last glitzy reception.

On board the New York flight, which had been seen off from JFK airport after passing through jets of red, white and blue water, were 100 of the sort of passengers with which Concorde flights have become synonymous.

There was the Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, the model Jodie Kidd, the broadcaster and supersonic veteran Sir David Frost and the actress Joan Collins. All mourned the passing of what had become the transatlantic shuttle of a wealthy elite, on which those able to stump up £9,000 for a return flight were served two different vintages of champagne and smoked salmon with caviar for breakfast.

For Sir David, who has flown on Concorde up to 500 times, it was the end of a time machine. He said: "You can be in London at 10 o'clock and in New York at 10 o'clock. I have never found another way of being in two places at once. I think this is a step back. I wonder if there will ever be another supersonic aircraft."

There are those, of course, who believed that the departure of the only plane capable of flying at the speed of a rifle bullet was premature. Sir Richard Branson, whose overtures to BA earlier this year to buy their Concordes for £1 a piece fell on stony ground, accused the Government of "cowardice" in failing to engineer a deal to continue running the aircraft commercially.

Instead BA, which is estimated to have made £750m from Concorde in the past 15 years, will announce next week whether it will keep one of its seven-strong fleet operational for air shows and fly-pasts.

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, the airline's chairman, who was on board the New York flight, said: "Concorde is a wonderful aircraft and her last day is one of mixed emotions."

The self-styled World's Favourite Airline admits that were it not for the downturn in demand for Concorde after the 11 September attacks, it would be flying the plane, as it had predicted, for another 25 years.

But the events on 25 July 2000, when a blazing Air France Concorde plunged to the ground moments after take-off from Paris, killing 113 people, were what signalled the end of the 1960s vision of a British and French engineering triumph to propel people around the globe via its stratosphere.

BA said the supersonic service, which cost up to £6,000 for a ticket, was being discontinued for economic reasons.

Among the crowd lining Heathrow's northern perimeter road it was a matter of widely recognised regret ­ a superstar as famous and unreachable as any of the acting and musical legends that had sat inside its cabin was bowing out.

Little wonder then that as the final Concorde touched down, hundreds of people were running across the road and bringing traffic to a halt just to get a little bit closer to a legend.

Rupesh Shah, 29, an airport supervisor who had brought his family to say farewell, said: "I wanted my lad to be able to take me at my word when I said we really used to be able to fly half way across the world in three hours and 20 minutes."

As normal service resumed for Heathrow's Friday evening rush, the only visible reminder of BA's iconic jet was the giant model of Concorde that greets motorists as they enter the airport via an underpass near the A4. The plinth surrounding the model still carried the slogan "Concorde. Timeless". A BA spokeswoman said: "Er, we might have to change that."

CONCORDE: SUPERSONIC FACTS AND FIGURES

¿ 120 Concorde planes were planned, but when only two airlines bought the aircraft that number was reduced to 14 planes and 2 prototypes.

¿ British Airways and Air France bought their initial nine aircraft for an estimated £23m each, £200m at today's prices. The development costs were an estimated £1.1bn, funded by the UK and French governments.

¿ The aircraft takes 2.75 seconds to travel one mile at cruising speed.

¿ Flying at 60,000 feet above the Earth, passengers see the planet's curvature. Only the space shuttle flies higher.

¿ It stretches by ten inches in flight.

¿ It can only travel supersonic over water. Overland, the sonic boom was too disruptive - a technical problem engineers could never overcome.

¿ More than 2.5 million passengers have flown supersonically on British Airways' Concorde. The youngest passenger was three weeks old; the oldest 102.

¿ It consumes 5,638 gallons of fuel every hour.

¿ Concorde holds the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing, from New York to London, in 2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds, set in February 1996.

¿ There is room for only 100 passengers on board and only one class - "Concorde class." There is no Row 13 or on-board film.

¿ A special white paint dissipates the heat generated by supersonic flight.

¿ Concorde's four engines - specially designed Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593s - give more than 38,000 pounds of thrust each.

¿ Britain dropped the "e" in "Concorde" during the Sixties, while France kept the traditional spelling.

¿ There has been only one female pilot, Barbara Harmer, who first flew Concorde in 1993.

¿ Hollywood power-broker Harvey Weinstein was fined $320 (£190) after being caught smoking in the toilet aboard Concorde. In a letter to the court, Mr Weinstein said he was "an extremely nervous traveller".

¿ Pascal Le Borgne, a French medical-meeting planner, has logged more than 400 trips to become Air France's most frequent Concorde flyer.

¿ Paul McCartney once led passengers in an impromptu singing of Beatles songs on a Concorde flight.

¿ "Flying at twice the speed of sound gives you a buzz," Sting said. "I'm still excited by it after all these years."

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