NEW YORK, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- It sounds like something from a Jules Verne science fiction book rather than what was a daily reality for today's business traveler. Beauty may have killed the beast, but the ailing global economy Friday ended the career of the Concorde.
Before taking the supersonic jet's controls for the last time, British Airways pilot Mike Bannister told his passengers, which included celebrities including actress Joan Collins and model Christie Brinkley, "The world is watching us."
The crew waved U.S. and British flags out of the cockpit as the supersonic jet pushed away from its New York gate for the last time.
Airport fire engines from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport said farewell to the Concorde with an arched spray of red, white and blue foam to symbolize the flags of France, Britain and the United States.
Minutes later the world's only supersonic airliner, roared off into aviation history, heading home to London's Heathrow Airport on its last voyage and putting an end to the supersonic era.
As part of the celebrations British Airways organized for three Concordes to land at Heathrow. The Concordes will be arriving from New York, Edinburgh and a third will complete a supersonic loop out over the Atlantic Ocean before joining the other two aircraft in the celebrations.
Lord Marshall, chairman of British Airways, said: "Concorde is a wonderful aircraft and her last day is one of mixed emotions. Everyone has enormous pride in all that it has achieved but there is inevitable sadness that we have to move on and say farewell.
"Concorde's magic has attracted millions of loyal fans who enjoy her unique blend of speed, grace and beauty. The decision to retire Concorde was a tough one, but it is the right thing to do at the right time."
"Concorde will always be part of British Airways and will always hold a special place in the hearts of our staff and customers around the world," he added.
The Concorde was sleek, sexy, very technologically advanced and really too young by today's standards to retire. It was also elegant, despite a nose that sometimes drooped and its speed was unmatched, midway between an airplane and a rocket.
And, although it remains timeless, the world's economy has finally taken its toll on the crown jewel of British Airways and Air France after 34 years of faithful service, despite having the design and technology on the cutting edge of aviation engineering.
Air France and British Airways jointly announced on April 10 their intention to stop operating the Concorde. Air France's final supersonic flight was May 31.
BA said it is still looking at the possibility of Concorde making guest appearances at air-shows.
Rod Eddington, British Airways' chief executive, said the airline's decision to retire the Concorde had been made for commercial reasons with passenger revenue falling steadily against a backdrop of rising maintenance costs for the aircraft.
Air France Chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta said the poor economic performance of the trans-Atlantic route operated with Concorde was behind its decision to end supersonic flights.
"Air France deeply regrets having to make the decision to stop its Concorde operations, but it became a necessity. The worsening economic situation in the last few months led to a decline in business traffic, which particularly weighed on Concorde's results. Maintenance costs substantially increased and operating Concorde became a severely and structurally loss-making operation. Under these circumstances, it was unreasonable to continue operating it any longer," Spinetta said.
Analysts on Wall Street who track the airline industry said despite its retirement, the Concorde will remain state-of-the-art because no other passenger aircraft has matched its speed, efficiency and beauty, or measured up so well to the demands of today's fast-paced world.
Eddington said, "Concorde is a great British icon."
Looking ahead to Concorde's final resting place, Eddington explained, "Plans for the remaining planes may include the fifth terminal at London's Heathrow airport, the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River in New York, Manchester airport and London's Science Museum."
British Airways said it will make an announcement next week regarding where its fleet of seven Concordes will be located after retirement.
"Concorde has served us well and we are extremely proud to have flown this marvelous and unique aircraft for the past 27 years. This is the end of a fantastic era in world aviation but bringing forward Concorde's retirement is a prudent business decision at a time when we are having to make difficult decisions right across the airline. Our pride in the aircraft will never wane and I am determined that we make its final months in the sky a time for celebration," Eddington said.
Concorde was the world's only supersonic passenger aircraft, cruising at more than twice the speed of sound at around 1,350 miles per hour, and at an altitude of up to 60,000 feet --more than 11 miles above sea level. A typical New York crossing from London took a little less than 3 1/2 hours. Traveling west, the 5-hour time difference meant Concorde arrived before it had taken off, in local time at least.
"Each Concorde is young in airplane years having completed about the same number of take-offs and landings as a 3- or 4-year-old 737 and the same number of hours as a 4- or 5-year-old 747," Eddington said.
"And, British Airways has clocked up more supersonic miles than all the world's air forces," he added.
The supersonic aircraft was grounded back in July 2000 following the disaster in Paris involving an Air France aircraft. British Airways withdrew its Concorde from service on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2000, following notification from the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the British Department of Transport of new information that warranted, in its view, a recommendation from the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to suspend the airworthiness certificates from Concorde. The CAA accepted this recommendation and it was implemented the following day.
Following the grounding, the aircraft's manufacturers worked with regulators, British Airways and Air France to develop measures that allowed both airlines to return the Concorde into service. The measures focused mainly on preventing massive fuel leaks like the one in the Paris accident and to eliminate any potential ignition sources.
British Airways resumed operations with an initial six times a week service between London Heathrow and New York JFK on Nov. 7, 2001.
Britain and France started working separately toward a supersonic aircraft in 1956. They were working along such similar lines that in 1962 they decided to develop a supersonic craft jointly. This partnership, between the British Aircraft Corp., which is now Airbus UK, and Aerospatiale, which is now EADS, led to 20 supersonic aircraft being built. Each country manufactured one prototype, one pre-production and eight production aircraft.
The first flight of the British prototype aircraft took place from Filton, Bristol, on April 9, 1969.
The Concorde was subjected to 5,000 hours of testing by the time it was certificated for passenger flight, making it the most-tested aircraft in aviation history. Of the 16 production aircraft, 14 were made available for sale.
British Airways, which accepted its first supersonic passenger reservation in 1960, began flying the supersonic aircraft commercially on Jan. 21, 1976, from London Heathrow to Bahrain. Air France began service with flights from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. The first trans-Atlantic service, to Washington, followed on May 24 that year. New York flights began in November the next year.
Since they entered commercial services, the British Airways' Concorde operated almost 50,000 flights, clocking up more than 140,000 flying hours, more than 100,000 of them supersonic, and traveling some 140 million miles.
More than 2.5 million passengers flew on British Airways' Concorde since it entered commercial service in 1976. The most frequent passenger is an oil company executive who made almost 70 round-trip trans-Atlantic crossings a year.
Concorde's fastest trans-Atlantic crossing was on Feb. 7, 1996, when it completed the New York to London flight in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.
The aircraft measured 204 feet in length -- but that stretched between 6 and 10 inches in flight due to heating of the airframe, which also ensured the airframe was effectively corrosion-free.
The characteristics of the Concorde were also very different from subsonic jets, especially on landing, when the aircraft nose was lowered to enhance visibility for the cockpit crew, making the plane look like a large, graceful bird gently coming in for a landing. The landing speed was 187 miles per hour.
Take-off, too, was dramatic with the aircraft leaving the runway at 250 mph, or at 220 knots, compared with a subsonic aircraft speed of 165 knots. The secret was the Concorde's four engines, which were specially modified Rolls-Royce 47 SNECMA Olympus 593s -- developed specially for the Concorde -- and gave 38,050 pounds of thrust each with afterburners. The afterburners added fuel to the final stage of the engine "cycle" to produce the extra power needed for take-off and the transition to supersonic speed. They are the most powerful pure jet engines flying commercially.
Even decades after its debut at New York's JFK International Airport, people gathered around to watch the passenger jet take-off and land.
In other respects, Concorde performed in much the same way as subsonic aircraft.
Its flight crew consisted of two pilots, one flight engineer and a cabin crew of six.
The aircraft had a cruising speed of 1,350 mph, or Mach 2 at 60,000 feet, carried 100 passengers, 2.5 tons of cargo and had a range of 4,000 miles, which takes about four hours. Concorde could only travel at supersonic speeds over water, which reduces the time. It also had to reduce speed as it approached land and airports.
The aircraft was 203 feet, 9 inches long, 37 feet, 1 inch high with a wingspan of 83 feet, 8 inches. The aircraft used 5,638 Imperial gallons of fuel per hour.
It carried the same approach, holding patterns or diversion patterns as other jets, despite the absence of flaps and wing slats. Its runway requirements were also the same. Automatic approach and landing was a feature of Concorde so the craft could land even when visibility was less than ideal.
Research and technology for the craft's titanium-shell resulted in many dramatic scientific breakthroughs including the use of laser technology in medicine.
It's hard to believe, but manufacturing work on the aircraft involved 1,000 subcontracting firms.
Today, these firms enjoy the benefits of the intensive research they carried out.
Other immediate side benefits of the development of supersonic transport include electric flight and engine controls, carbon brakes, aluminum metallurgy (resulting in an alloy used on subsonic aircraft and other industries), special temperature resistant glass and micro switches used in nuclear power stations.
Some of the aircraft's famous passengers included Phil Collins, who took a 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 were singing Beatles hits.
Prince Philip, in January 1972, was the first member of the Royal Family to fly on Concorde. Queen Elizabeth II flew five years later.
Other supersonic celebrities included, the late Princess Diana, the Duchess of York and the Queen Mother; singers Elton John, Diana Ross, Annie Lennox and Cliff Richard; British talk show host David Frost; British politicians Ted Heath and Gordon Brown; and former and current British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.