Many Saturday nights, during my pre-teen years spent in Richmond, Virginia, my father and I would ride the street car about three miles along Hull Street Road to the Venus Theater. Before the feature film we were treated to a cartoon, “previews,” news, and a short “serial” feature that was continued from week to week. One of my favorite serials was “The Adventures of Superman.” In a kind of reverential tone the announcer would exclaim how Superman flies through the air “faster than a speeding bullet!” Many a youngster probably dreamed of growing up to “fly” like this hero–I know I did. I guess I never really believed that I would be able to attain such a phenomenal speed through the air; however, amazingly enough, in later life, I actually did!
It would be more than 40 years until I found myself hurling through the skies at almost 1,400 miles per hour–1.7 times faster than your average “speeding bullet.” No supernatural kryptonite for me–just a seat aboard the SST Concorde which delivered me to London in just under three hours after departing New York’s JFK airport.
It was a beautiful September morning in 1991 when I arrived at the special “Concorde”
terminal building at the JFK Airport. Upon entering, I found myself in a luxuriously furnished lounge with a gigantic buffet filled with every imaginable breakfast delicacy of both American and British varieties. While I feasted on these tasty dishes soft music played, occasionally interrupted by announcements about boarding procedures, weather forecasts, and takeoff time.
When I entered the aircraft I was immediately struck by how small it was compared with the Boeing 747 models of that day. There was a center aisle with 32 rows of two seats on either side. There was no “first” and “coach” class distinction as all 128 seats were identical. Concorde cabins were initially only modestly furnished and decorated but gradually the interiors evolved toward greater luxury as the clientele became more demanding.
Due to its high-rate of fuel consumption, the Concorde was permitted to go to the front of the line for take-off. It was an amazing sight to witness this tiny aircraft taxi past the line of other, larger aircraft awaiting takeoff. During the takeoff roll, the noise from the four military-grade engines was like nothing I had ever heard. The thrust literally pushed me back into my seat. Upon reaching altitude, however, the noise all but vanished, replaced by an eerie silence. The flight became incredibly smooth. The sky was a dark blue, and I began to imagine that I was on a flying carpet!
The Concorde flew for 27 years (1976-2003) and ferried 2.5 million passengers great distances reaching speeds that were twice that of sound. During these years the Concorde completed about 50,000 flights. Easily one of the most fascinating routes was the one went “around the world.” The first of these was flown by a British Airways Concorde on November 8, 1986. The airliner flew 28,234 miles in just under 30 hours.
A brochure in the seat-back pocket explained that flight attendants with the most years of service were chosen to fly the Concorde. The brochure went on to explain that world-class chefs have been recruited to prepare the in-flight meal. Menus often included canapés and several courses of sumptuous food, high-end cocktails, and an impressive wine list. On my flight there was a six-course menu that included a choice of Angus beef or lobster for the entree. One food critic made this observation: “. . . while airline meals date as far back as 1919, none have matched Concorde’s for sheer lavishness or achieved quite the same wow factor. Concorde offered the only opportunity to eat at the edge of space, which made the food literally ‘out of this world.’” I would have liked to linger over such elegant dishes but there simply wasn’t time for that because the passengers were invited to move to the front of aircraft for a look inside the cockpit. Passengers did this in groups of three as soon as we reached supersonic speed out over the Atlantic Ocean. What a treat it was! The panel on the front bulkhead read 1,390 MPH (almost twice the speed of sound) as I entered the cockpit. The nose of the Concorde has been retracted so the plane looked like a cylinder. The pilots were most cordial, and they answered questions and explained various controls.
When I returned to my seat I saw an incredible sight that I will never forget. At a cruising altitude of 59,000 feet I looked out the window and saw clearly–for the first and only time in my life–the curvature of the earth. I know, I know! The members of the Flat Earth Society will tell you that what I saw was actually only an “optical illusion.” Even the curvature of the earth seen as a shadow on a quarter moon does not really reflect the earth’s true shape, they say. Sometimes I am convinced that P.T. Barnum seriously underestimated how many suckers were born each minute!
The Concorde typically flies at an altitude of around 60,000 feet (more than 11 miles above the earth). Due to the intense heat on the airframe, the aircraft actually stretches in length from 6 to 10 inches during a typical flight. The aircraft is painted with a special white paint to adapt to temperature changes and to aid in dissipating the heat generated by supersonic flight. Every surface, even the windows, is warm to the touch by the end of the flight. My flight had nine crew members on board: two pilots; a flight engineer; and six flight attendants.
I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity to fly aboard the SST Concorde. At Heathrow I waited in the taxi-line before facing the London traffic at rush hour. I did so, however, with an image of the heavens forever clearly imprinted in my mind. After traveling aboard the SST Concorde across the Atlantic, I believe I understand at least a little of what John Magee may have had in mind when he wrote the aviator’s poem known as “High Flight.” President Reagan thrust some of his words into the public consciousness in a speech he made when we lost seven astronauts in early 2003: “. . . “. . . I have slipped the surly bonds of earth . . . and touched the face of God.”