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Supersonic swan song

Friday, Concorde makes its last commercial flight. Its demise - and the failure of other similar planes - suggests that despite our go-go age, we have shelved supersonic travel for now.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2003

Steven Isilvia sits on a sea wall in Revere, Mass. Boston's Logan International Airport lies about three miles to the south, and this gray-haired son of Portuguese immigrants has planted himself beneath a frequent flight path for commercial jets inbound from Europe.

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A handful of people stroll the urban beach, walking dogs or watching children play. Mr. Isilvia alone scans the sky, a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as he points his binoculars toward distant planes.

In 1977, Isilvia saw a Concorde - one of the sleek, supersonic airliners that numbered 14 at the fleet's peak - parked on a ramp at London's Heathrow Airport. It looked like a spaceship to him then, and though he says he'd "probably chicken out" if he were offered a free flight - "I don't like roller coasters," he explains - he would like to notch one last sighting of the needle-nosed craft.

Today it has been nothing but widebodies and commuter planes. A hunter's moon begins to rise, and Isilvia decides to head home for dinner. No one else stands vigil. If they did it would now be wasted time.

It's about 6 p.m., and Concorde has just slipped into Logan, evading Isilvia by coming in from the south and kissing Runway 33 Left. The plane - which had visited this city only a few times before, for special events or engine trouble - will not land in Boston again. Friday, Concorde will make its last commercial flight ever.

Security concerns kept down media coverage of this Concorde visit. Far more Bostonians turned out for the Queen Elizabeth 2's final departure a few months ago than came out to see the Oct. 8 "farewell tour" arrival of Concorde.

But the low profile of this historic event also reflects a deep ambivalence about supersonic flight - whether Concorde or the United States' own aborted supersonic-transport (SST) program - that drifts across most strata of American society.

Ironically, for a society that prides itself on high-tech prowess, the nation has moved beyond the world's fastest commercial jetliner. The failures of SST, while caused by unique political and economic factors over three decades, also point out how American thinking about technology has evolved in that time.

"Probably if a space shuttle was flying over Revere Beach, people would come out here," Isiliva says with a shrug. "But I don't think anyone really cares about this."

Even for its advocates, commercial SST proved hard to love. Most critics point first to the brutal economics, made clear by the late-life travails of Concorde, a nationalized aircraft that owed its early existence to the heavy backing of the British and French governments. Only two carriers operated the plane, the subsidized Air France and British Airways, privatized in the mid-1980s.

The trouble with Concorde

The narrow airplane, which can soar at 60,000 feet and about twice the speed of sound, burns more than three times the fuel per passenger as the widebody 747. Parts are custom-made. By one estimate, engineers spent 100 man hours working on the aircraft for every hour it flew.

Concorde also lacked the range for transpacific service and didn't have "any great amount of margin," as one aerospace expert puts it, in crossing the Atlantic.

It lowered a sonic boom that meant once the plane was "feet dry" - flying over land - the plane had to be throttled back to inefficient subsonic speeds. And it was pestered by mostly minor mechanical problems that culminated with a fatal Air France crash outside Paris in 2000 that demonstrated the risk, some experts say, of storing jet fuel just above the landing gear. (British Airways spent millions of dollars adding a Kevlar barrier to the tanks after the Paris accident.)