Adieu, Concorde

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

An icon of designers and once the dream of jet-setters, the supersonic airliner Concorde is finally grounded for good by Air France after more than a quarter of a century in the skies. Hugh Schofield reports.

When flight AF001 touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside the French capital on May 31 after the three hour and 45 minute trip from New York, it marked the beginning of the end for a technological marvel that became a byword for grace and power.

Conceived in the 1960s as a symbol of a fast-moving and globalising age, Concorde has now succumbed to the demands of a different epoch: environmental worries, safety problems, soaring oil costs and - in an anxious, recession-hit world - declining numbers of the care-free and the super-rich.

Air France, which has five aircraft, and British Airways, which has seven, agreed in April to take their flagship out of service this year because the drain on resources finally outweighed the prestige.

After Saturday's farewell commercial flight, Air France Concordes will fly only four more times - as the jets are taken for permanent display in the United States, Germany, southern France and outside Paris. The fifth will remain at Charles de Gaulle airport.

In October it will be the turn of British Airways to discontinue its flights to New York and Barbados, marking an end - for now - of 27 years of supersonic passenger travel.

The disappearance of the classic Delta silhouette comes as a sad blow to the 145 people who have flown and staffed Air France's Concorde fleet.

"We feel we have all be orphaned," said Sébastien Weder, the team's commander. "It was our life - every day of it."

Indeed the plane inspired universal passion. Scientist boffins worshipped it; designers cooed over it; governments vaunted it; businessmen swore by it; pop stars and models adorned it; former Beatle Paul McCartney even played in it one Christmas, and everyone on the plane joined in.

"Every flight is a moment of delight. It is the Formula One of aviation - with the perfomance of a jet fighter on a civil transporter," said Jean-Louis Chatelain, who has flown Concordes since 2001.

But the dream vanished on a hot July day in 2000, when an Air France Concorde hit a piece of metal on runway 2 at Charles de Gaulle airport, sending up shards into the oil tank, which then burst into flames. The aircraft took off, veered leftwards, then crashed into a hotel in the suburb of Gonesse.

All 109 people on board were killed as well as four people on the ground. All 12 remaining Concordes were immediately grounded as exhaustive safety checks were undertaken. There were reports of other faults - broken rudders, engines stopping. Concorde's myth of invincibility was shattered.

The plane resumed commercial flights - with reinforced tyres and Kevlon-protected oil tanks - in November 2001, but for all the smiles it was clear its days were numbered.

The jet had never been a commercial success, and by early this year passenger loads on Air France's fleet were down to about 20 percent - in other words, fewer than 20 people prepared to pay the EUR 8,700 for the Paris-New York round trip.

British Airways and Air France were losing millions, and at the same time the world had changed. A high-polluting, high-consuming and exorbitantly expensive rich man's plaything no longer seemed such a commendable commodity in a time of recession, terrorism and global angst.

So Concorde ends its days, gawped at in museums around the world, as the symbol of an era gone by.

See also:
Concorde: boom time over,
Concorde: phoenix or lame duck? ,
Concorde: the last witness,
Concorde: one year on

May 2003


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