Our man breaks the sound barrier one last time
STRATOSPHERE — I'm assigned to seat 23-D. That's fairly far back on a plane that seats only 100 passengers, but I'm not complaining.
Sir David Frost, said to be this bird's most-frequent flyer, supposedly favored this very row. Michael Jackson also prefers this part of the cabin, says Neil, a red-haired flight attendant. So did JFK Jr. And "anyone with a passion for the airplane."
Sitting here, Neil explains, flashing a sly grin, "it feels like the engines are strapped to your behind."
The plane is Concorde, the engines a Rolls-Royce quartet that produces enough thrust to push the delta-winged craft to about 1,300 miles per hour - twice the speed of sound - and sling it 11 miles up, to that cold place where the sky blends from periwinkle to indigo to black.
I'm aboard British Airways Flight 1215 out of London, a one-time-only flight to Boston that's part of a farewell tour for an elegant airplane - 27 years in service and still a futuristic sight - whose time still hasn't come.
BA will fly Concorde commercially for the last time Friday. Air France, the only other carrier to operate the plane, which France and Britain developed jointly, has already ended its service.
Too noisy, yes. Too costly - and ultimately too uneconomic to pull its weight, especially after the post-Sept. 11 downturn in air travel.
Sunk deep in leather chairs in the Concorde Lounge, the rich and bored wait to board, sitting in pods of imperturbability while the rest of us, many drawn by the historic nature of the ride, take digital photos. It's a kick for a third-generation pilot - my grandfather once held a high- altitude record for parachute jumping - to hold a ticket.
A stocky British man who says his name is Robert Redford - then jabs a finger at his passport to prove that he's not kidding - plans to propose to his girlfriend up in the stratosphere. A German who once flew to Barbados in a Concorde just wants another taste.
Before long, we're all headed down a jetway and through an airplane door small enough that even a sub-six-footer has to duck to get through. The plane feels like an elongated corporate jet. Blue-leather sports-car seats sit two-by-two on each side of a narrow aisle.
Forget about trying to fit much more than a laptop under the seat. Forget about the lavatory, too, once the three-course meal service gets under way.
We taxi to an active runway. On takeoff roll, we're a Formula 1 race car: Concorde sprints to 250 m.p.h., generating enough lift to jerk its more than 400,000 pounds airborne. We're about to "ride the rocket," as Capt. Mike Bannister says. In less than an hour, no one but the handful of astronauts on the International Space Station will be farther from terra firma.
Except that all at once we are decelerating, fast - an aborted takeoff. Our No. 3 afterburner has failed to light. We're too heavy to try a three-afterburner takeoff, so we roll sheepishly back to the gate.
The problem turns out to have no quick fix. Fortunately, BA's seven Concordes (five of them operational, two used for parts) are based at Heathrow, so the airline rolls out a spare.
This time, boarding is a more conventional deal. Passengers - who've paid an $8,000 to $12,000 transatlantic fare - look a little sweaty and rumpled. The man in front of me bumps his head on the plane's low door, and a flight attendant jokes that the opening hasn't become any bigger.
This time it's a launch and a loud, steep climb. We bank to fly along the Bristol Channel as the captain offers some spin as balm for our late departure: We'll see two sunsets Friday, and two sunrises - one of them in the West.
Most in-flight sensations are subtle. Still in a climb and nearing Mach 1 - 660 m.p.h., the speed of sound - we feel only the slightest vibration. We're told the flight engineer is shifting some fuel to the rear tanks - Concorde has 13 in all - to help keep the plane properly trimmed.
Then the captain hits the afterburners - in two sets of two rather than all at once, for a gentler surge. This isn't some "Star Wars" jump to hyperspace. There's barely a ripple in my Highland Spring water and it's go West, slung man.
Reaching Mach 2 a little later just seems a matter of course. We'll spend 75 percent of our flight time traveling supersonic.
This ride is packed with superlatives and Ripley-like odd facts. At about 23 miles per minute we're moving faster than a rifle bullet. At 52,000 feet, it's 66 below zero C outside, and plus 130 on the tip of the plane's nose. The 4-by-7-inch windows feel warm, owing to the friction we're creating. The aluminum plane will lengthen in flight by about six inches.
Somewhere near the apex of our trajectory we dive into our salmon and sea bass. We eat from Royal Doulton bone china, though in a Sept. 11 reminder, we use plastic cutlery instead of the designer flatware that Andy Warhol is said to have enjoyed carting off. I pocket my Champagne truffle for later.
With the nose down at 990 m.p.h., the captain boosts the spaceship quotient by announcing "30 seconds to reentry."
To one who has crossed the Atlantic before, typically folded up in a coach seat, word that we're already off Newfoundland seems incredible.
A falling arrow, we go subsonic and become "an ordinary aeroplane." To mark the event I stand up - the first time I've left my seat on this flight. We slow noticeably, as if all that air friction has finally tired out this surging jet.
Belts are cinched tight as we approach Boston from the south, the harbor islands rushing beneath us. With an approach of about 190 m.p.h., and with no wing flaps to add lift and slow us, we're coming in hot, on pace to notch a 3:05:34 crossing time - a new east-to-west record.
The main gear grips Runway 33 L and Concorde's down-pitched nose gently follows.
Nosewheel down, the brakes become active, and the flight crew stands on them hard as they apply reverse thrust. The Rolls-Royce engines scream and - more so than on any jumbo jet - I feel myself almost sliding under my seatbelt.
On the taxiway we're greeted with arcs of water, a fire-truck salute. I clear customs in minutes - Concorde's Speedpass effect keeps on working - and walk toward the subway.
In my pocket, my truffle is a little melted. Among the straphangers there's no sign of Sir David Frost, and a subway door closes rudely on my backpack. How subsonic. Like Concorde, I'm back among the earthbound.