Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brunch Aboard The Concorde

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"Never has such a beautiful object been designed and built by man," Air France's chairman, Jean-Cyril Spinetta

Before the private jet there was another symbol of luxury travel called The Concorde.

For nearly three decades, the Concorde delivered rock stars, models and other members of the limousine fraternity across the Atlantic for a round-trip price of $13,500. It was clubby: Madonna flew it. So did Tyler Brûlé, and Heidi Klum. It was not unusual for passengers to visit the cockpit with glasses of champagne.

The cockpit

Flying at an average speed of Mach 2.02 (1,330 mph), it cut the flight time from Europe to New York and Washington by more than half (it’s record time: 2 hours, 52 minutes).

For a certain kind of passenger it marked the high tide of high-tech travel luxury. For the rest, it was the first in a series of technologies that would shrink the world.   For the first time it was possible to breakfast on croissants in the 16th arrondissements and catch lunch on Madison Avenue the same day, thanks in part to the time difference. Not only that, it meant avoiding fatigue and the nemesis of frequent business travellers, jet lag.

There were two components that made the Concorde look timelessly cool .  One was the delta wing, in the shape of a triangle, developed in Germany during WWII. It was much stronger than a conventional swept wing and made room for fuel and other storage. Most importantly, it stayed behind the supersonic shock wave precipitated by the long narrow aircraft nose, which hydraulically lowered itself, or "drooped," so that pilots could have an unobstructed view for landing and takeoff.

The second characteristic was the needle shaped nose to assure maximum air penetration. In order to provide clear visibility to the crew, the nose was mobile and could be lowered for takeoffs and landings.  It had also a retractable visor which maintained the aerodynamic profile of the aircraft in flight and also protected the windshield.

The Concorde’s fuselage flexed more than conventional jets, and as a result the pilots could see the floor bend as they looked back through the length of cabin. The cruising altitude of 60,000 feet exposed passengers to almost twice as much solar radiation as a normal flight, and for this reason the pilots had a radiometer. If they detected unusually high readings they descended below 47,000 feet.

The fuel transfer gravity system was another high tech characteristic of the Concorde.  This allowed for fuel to be transferred from forward tanks to trim tanks in the rear of the fuselage during the changeover from subsonic to supersonic flight.

For years, and like everyone else on Kennedy Airport's Terminal One, I watched the Concorde taxi down the runway around 9:45 a.m. prior to boarding my flight to London,  something I did quite often in those days.  It was a ritual to behold.  I am surprised the terminal didn't sink with the weight of all those people shifting to the windows to see it take off.  Once it flexed it's muscle and accelerated down the runway, the whole airport shook.  It was quite a show.

Then in 1997 my first chance came.  How would I like to accompany a client to Paris for a quick business meeting and a shopping spree? And since money was no object to said client, we would leave on Air France's Concorde!

Christy Brinkley boards last Concorde flight in May 2003
Oh my heavens, what to wear! In those days dressing cool was a pair of couture jeans, an expensive white long sleeved shirt, a very expensive blue blazer and an extremely expensive pair of Tod's or Gucci loafers.  Check!  An Hermes handbag was the rigueur...check! I had a great fake in the right color recently purchased  in Hong Kong! Oh, and don't forget the Hermes scarf! check.  Patek Phillipe gold watch, check. Gold Cartier bracelet, double check.  Pearl studs....All set!

Arriving at the airport you checked in at a special post and were directed to a special lounge just for Concorde passengers.  All I did was check everyone's handbags and shoes so I could get ideas before shopping in Paris.  This didn' t look like an airport lounge... I might as well have been at the Hermes boutique on the Rue St Honore!

The Hermes Concorde Lounge

Once aboard, I was surprised at the narrowness of the cabin and the simplicity of the whole thing.  The seats were like the ones on a Porsche, kind of bucket seats, nice leather and very comfortable, but nothing like the plushness of the ones found on first class.  The only disappointment, was the token celebrity in flight, Marvin Hamlisch, the composer.  I was really looking forward to someone of more stature, if you know what I mean. Everyone else looked quite normal.

Inside the cabin

I don't remember too many things for the flight was only a little over three hours.  I remember the taxing down the runway and thinking of all the poor people watching us from the terminal like I had done so many times, and I remember the noise as it took off.  As a matter of fact, I remember how noisy the flight was all the way to Paris.  It was quieter in the back so we moved half way into the flight.  Above all else, I remember when we broke the sound barrier.  A little push back and then zoom!  And, of course, I would remember the scrambled eggs and truffles!

Brunch is being served!

The bathrooms

A year later I took the Concorde back from London, this time courtesy of an upgrade from British Airways.  No big deal, by this time I was a seasoned Concorde traveller!  The food was not as good as in Air France, but the service much better.  Any surprises there?

Lindaraxa breaks the sound barrier!

Unfortunately, after the fatal crash in Paris and September 11, the Concorde was retired in 2003.  For those of us privileged to have flown it, it is a memory none of us will ever forget.

Takeoff...get out the earplugs!

Images courtesy of Google, Life Magazine and Lindaraxa


  1. I've been waiting for this post after we talked at dinner last week. I said then how I remember it flying over where I lived and it was beautiful to watch. It had a different sound -sky filling - and was so exciting to hear. Such a pity it no longer flies!

  2. Wow Blue, you really were waiting for it for I published by mistake just a couple of minutes ago and then had to rush and correct the mistakes!

    After we talked I went looking for my stuff & couldn't find it! Luckily I pleaded with St. Anthony and mortgaged my soul and we just found them today.

    Writing this post really brought back those memories and a lot of sadness too.

  3. I love this post!
    I was lucky enough to fly on the Concorde in those days- it was indeed a glamorous way to zip across the world, although the seats were smaller than normal First Class seats, it was actually a little noisier and you did have the sensation of "moving" more than in the bigger jets- much like being in a terribly expensive sports car as opposed to a luxury sedan. The lounge was great people watching for sure! I do believe I saved some keepsakes from the Concorde have inspired me to look for them now.
    Thank you for this Blast from the Past :)

  4. It was a dream of mine, alas, that will never happen!

    I enjoyed reading about your experiences, however!

  5. You are quite the world traveller! wow, what an experience. Want to hear more about it someday..

  6. Slim, I'm still looking for my matches...I know I have them somewhere, and now that I almost lost my certificate, Im going to make sure I have it framed. Bet the grandchildren will be fighting for it someday!

    Libby...there's much more where that came from, stay tuned!


    It was indeed a fun experience and one I had forgotten and not given much thought to until I had dinner with Blue.

  7. I think you mean the accident in Paris, (on Air France), that decided its fate.

  8. I, too, was fortunate to fly on the Concorde years ago. I took it from London to New York with clients once. My three most vivid memories of it were (1) the flight attendants didn't bother with the usual safety demonstration when we were taxiing down the runway, since putting on a life jacket clearly wouldn't have done anyone any good if we went down, (2) looking out the window and seeing the curvature of the earth and a clearer view of the heavens above than I had ever seen before (or since), and (3) while we took of in the dark in London we landed in full daylight in New York.

    Fun post, thanks for the memories!

  9. Reggie,

    You are right...what a view!

  10. I had always hoped for the opportunity to take the Concorde, but never had the chance. The price also included a helicopter transfer from Manhattan to the airport, if I am not mistaken, on an as-available basis.

  11. Classicist,

    You are correct, I had forgotten all about it!


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