Air France Concorde On Last Leg

concorde jet landing AP

Flying into blue skies and history, the last Air France Concorde commercial flight for New York left Paris Friday, an emotional end to a pioneering chapter in aviation.

The white needle-nosed supersonic plane took off with a roar from Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, at 10.38 a.m. (0838 GMT), and landed in New York some 3 hours and 40 minutes later.

On Saturday, in its last ever commercial flight for Air France, Concorde will speed back to Paris from New York and then go into retirement.

"It's very emotional. Concorde is a story of joy, of emotion, of technical prowess," said Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, an Air France staffer, before the flight departed with 58 passengers, three pilots and eight cabin crew. Chief pilot Jean-Francois Michel was at the controls.

Air France and British Airways, the only carriers to operate the aircraft, are both retiring their Concorde fleets. The last British Airways flights are scheduled for October.

The Concorde's demise follows the July 25, 2000, accident over Gonesse, France, just after take off that killed 113 people, including four on the ground. The aircraft was taken out of service until November 2001, and refurbished based on findings by investigators.

The probe determined that a stray piece of metal on the runway punctured a tire. Rubber chunks then punctured the fuel tank, triggering a fire. The Concorde was fixed with sturdier tires and a fuel-tank liner, but things were never the same.

Flying fears after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, took a toll on airlines around the world, making it harder to keep the fancy flying machine, with its costly maintenance, in service.

Concorde's demise ends an era of Champagne at twice the speed of sound.

The menu for Friday's flight included caviar, foie gras in puff pastry, lobster and beef filet.

"We work in exceptional conditions, with an exceptional clientele, in an exceptional plane," said Jean-Charles Principeaud, a Concorde flight attendant. "To be able to serve a glass of Champagne while flying at Mach 2 was something that seemed impossible a few years ago. Now we are aboard the most beautiful plane in the world. It will remain an unforgettable dream."

The rich pampered themselves with supersonic trans-Atlantic travel. Concorde also served on-the-go diplomats like French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and executives making deals on both sides of the Atlantic. Another category of supersonic clients certain to feel wistful are neither rich nor high-powered, just faithful lovers of the Concorde, including the aircraft's specially trained crews.

The luxury aircraft began regular service in 1976. With a cruising speed of 1,350 miles per hour, it crosses the Atlantic in about three hours; because of the time change, westbound passengers arrive an hour before they left.

The idea of a supersonic passenger plane gained momentum in the 1950s, after Chuck Yeager's 1947 blast through the sound barrier. Manufacturers in Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States all worked on designs.

In 1968, the Concorde's first prototype rolled out at Toulouse, France. It lifted off 13 months later, three months after the Soviet version made its first flight.

But Air France says the aircraft is now too expensive to maintain and announced with British Airways in April that Concorde was being retired.

  • Francie Grace

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