The Concorde: It's life's fast lane at 60,000 feet

July 28, 2000|By Julius Westheimer

WHAT'S IT LIKE to fly in the Concorde, the supersonic jetliner that flies at the speed of a rifle bullet?

In mid-May 1976, 1 flew the first commercial Concorde flight, this epic dash from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, to Dulles outside of Washington.

Compressing distance and expanding time, our Concorde landed at Dulles airport at 11:53 a.m., more than two hours before we took off from Paris at 2 p.m. local time.

At takeoff, we felt a sharper "attack angle" than most jetliners develop. The first crash of a Concorde occurred on takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Tuesday, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground.

By the time we reached the English Channel, we were flying at twice the speed of sound, or 1,350 miles an hour, at about 60,000 feet, about twice the altitude of a cruising jetliner.

In the tiny cabin -- the plane holds only 100 passengers -- we peered through small portholes at a sky that appeared to be that deep blue reported by the Apollo astronauts on their way to the moon.

In many ways, our inaugural Air France race to the United States resembled the space flights of the 1960s. For example, the Concorde countdown on the Paris runway was computerized to the split second, like a Cape Kennedy blast-off: T minus 6, engines start; T minus 2, wheel chocks removed; zero, begin takeoff roll.

Once airborne, we heard no comments about safety.

A sumptuous (too big) lunch consumed our attention for more than an hour, when, over the public address system, the captain announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now two hours into the flight, and if you look out of the windows you will see the coastline of Newfoundland."

It was hard to believe. We had sped across the ocean in half the time a regular jetliner takes. Our speed would have taken us from Baltimore to New York in nine minutes.

If there was a sonic boom when we slipped through the sound barrier, passengers did not hear it. In many ways, once airborne, the flight resembled that of any commercial jetliner. There was nothing outside at 60,000 feet by which to measure our speed.

Before leaving Paris, I heard a few of my sadistic friends warn that this much-celebrated maiden voyage might turn out to be another Titanic. It was anything but.

Julius Westheimer writes "The Ticker" financial column twice a week for The Sun's Business section.

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