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Concorde Era Draws To Close

The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith is on one of the last flights - at twice the speed of sound - from New York to London
CBS/The Early Show
The supersonic Concorde is, literally, in a class by itself: it flies faster than a rifle bullet, higher than any other civilian aircraft. And in three decades of flight, it has inspired the extremes of love and hate.

By the end of the month, the Concorde will be grounded. British Airways announced the retirement of its fleet of seven Concordes on April 10, 2003. The decision to retire the aircraft was based on commercial reasons. Passenger revenue has fallen steadily, as has travel in general, against a backdrop of rising maintenance costs for the aging aircraft.

The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith is on one of the last flights - at twice the speed of sound - from New York to London to give viewers a tour of the plane and to talk about the history of the Concode.

When the Concored first took wing back in 1976, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported, "Good evening, a new and controversial chapter in aviation history opened today. Two Concorde jets left London and Paris and streaked faster than sound almost 4,000 miles across the Atlantic."

In 1976, British Airways and Air France began Concorde flights to the U.S despite protests over the Concorde's louder-than-normal jet noise.

An angry resident back then was shown on tape saying, "You can't talk on the telephone and your house starts shaking. If this comes in, we're afraid our houses won't be there too long."

Eventually, regular Concorde service between the East Coast and Europe began. But it wasn't for everyone: a Concorde ticket cost even more than a seat in first class, so Concorde passengers were part of a very elite club.

The airlines created an atmosphere suited for the highest flyers: caviar was common and no wine was too fine. Even now, when air travel can be as appealing as a bus ride, the Concorde is a throwback to the days when flying was a special event.

Concorde is the world's only supersonic passenger aircraft, cruising at more than twice the speed of sound at around 1350 mph, and at an altitude of up to 60,000 feet (over 11 miles high). To put things in perspective, Concorde's pilot, Capt. Les Brody, says the New York to London flight, from takeoff to touchdown, covers "3,600 miles in 3:15 (hours), an average speed of over 1,000 miles an hour." The normal 747-flight takes about 7 and a-half hours, he notes.

The plane actually stretches when it is in flight, Brody says. "We're heating the air ahead of the aircraft and going through the air ahead of us so fast," he explains, "we compress the air and it results in connecting heating and we expand 10 inches to one foot during the flight."

Then it shrinks as the plane slows down. The surface temperature, he says, is 170 degrees centigrade on the nose, hot enough to fry an egg.

One drawback is the great amound of fuel it consumes. Brody says, "It turns on average 25 tons of fuel per hour, but there are 100 seats. That equates to about 18 miles per gallon per seat, so not that bad."

The Concorde's trademark nose cone, Brody says, streamlines the airplane in supersonic flight. He explains, "Takeoff, five-degree position and it slides down into the nose so we see where we're going to takeoff. Once we're above 250, that's when we bring the nose and visor up."

More than 2.5 million passengers have flown on British Airways' Concorde since commercial service started in 1976. The current most frequent passenger, an oil company executive, clocks almost 70 round-trip transatlantic crossings a year.

Concorde also operates a range of charter flights, which have taken the aircraft to more than 250 other destinations worldwide.

Hundreds of Britons will get a final chance to win free supersonic flights in a competition due to be launched next month by British Airways.

In addition, thousands more people will get the chance to say goodbye to Concorde at cities throughout the country during the aircraft's farewell tour of Britain, set to take place at the end of October.

There are still three flights, which will bring the plane back at Heathrow on Oct. 24, 2003. As the Concorde's days become limited, passengers have been taking liberties with souvenirs. They are taking everything that's not nailed down, officials say.

Famous passengers and famous flights

  • Phil Collins took Concorde from London to New York to appear on both sides of the Atlantic in one day for the Live Aid music event in aid of famine relief in Africa.
  • Paul McCartney played a guitar on board on a flight just before Christmas - and within minutes a group of top business travelers was singing Beatles hits.
  • Prime Minister James Callaghan was the first supersonic PM when he flew to Washington to negotiate landing rights for U.S.
  • Prince Philip was the first member of the Royal Family to fly on Concorde in January 1972. The Queen flew five years later.
  • Other supersonic celebrities include, or have included, the late Princess Diana, the Duchess of York, the late Queen Mother, Joan Collins, Sir Cliff Richard, Sir David Frost, Sir Elton John, Lady Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Annie Lennox, Sting, Kate Moss, Jodie Kidd and Ewan McGregor.

Concorde on the big and small screen

Concorde has appeared in many films and TV programs over the years. These include:

  • "Xanadu"
  • "Doctor Who"
  • "Airport '70: The Concorde"
  • "Live and Let Die"
  • "Coming to America"
  • "Johnny English"
  • "Noel Edmonds Xmas Presents"
  • "Long Good Friday"
  • "Record Breakers"
  • "Only Fools and Horses" Christmas edition

Following the Concorde disaster in Paris involving an Air France aircraft in July 2000, British Airways withdrew Concorde from service.

This followed notification from the AAIB (Air Accident Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport) that it had received new information which warranted, in its view, a recommendation to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to suspend the airworthiness certificates from the Concorde. The CAA accepted this recommendation and it was implemented the following day.

Following the grounding, manufacturers worked extremely closely with the regulators and both British Airways and Air France to develop a package of measures that have allowed British Airways to return Concorde safely back into service. The program of measures focused mainly on preventing massive fuel leaks like that the one that developed in the Paris accident, and to eliminate any potential ignition sources.

The new fuel tank liners - manufactured by EADS, the former Aerospatiale, in Toulouse - are made of a kevlar-rubber compound. They have been designed to contain the fuel, should the wing skin be punctured, adopting an approach already successfully used in military helicopters and Formula 1 racing cars.

The aircraft has been fitted with new Michelin Near Zero Growth tires, which are much tougher and less likely to explode, if punctured.