The Fast Plane
by John Delach
One Sunday afternoon in early spring, I joined my son-in-law, Tom and his boy, Cace, for a visit to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. After Cace reached his saturation point of airplanes and flying hands-on mock ups of helicopters and jet fighters, we left the aircraft carrier. But on the way out, we took a quick tour of the British Airways’ Concorde parked on the pier.
As soon as I entered the cabin, I was drawn back to my own personal golden age of travel, an era that lasted from 1979 until 1993. During those fifteen years, marine and energy, the department where I worked was a top earner for Marsh & McLennan. New offshore oil and gas projects were happening everywhere. Our only real problem was finding new insurance capacity needed to cover the next project that required greater policy limits. We made crazy money for our company and, in return, we could expense things without much limit. In the words from a Jimmy Buffet song: We made enough money to buy Miami, but we pissed it all away.
In that time of expenses be damned, I flew in SST (Supersonic Transport) Concorde nine times all between JFK and London Heathrow airports. Just stepping into the gray on gray interior of the de-commissioned bird on that pier that day and stepping into its miniscule center aisle brought it all back, the two-by-two seats each no bigger, at best, than a domestic first class seat on a 737 but with less leg room. The tiny cabin windows and the tubular shape of the fuselage with a curve so narrow that for someone my size to squeeze into a window seat, I had to do it on a diagonal, legs first with my top shoulder brushing along the cabin wall. I remarked to Tom, “See the rest rooms, the toilets are sideways facing toward the back of the airplane.” Tom is 6’5” tall. “I don’t know how you could pee standing up. You’d have to contort your body on an angle to fit that curve.”
I told Tom about some of the other quirks of flying Concorde. “There are two cabins, fore and aft separated by rest rooms and galleys. For whatever reason, the forward cabin was considered Posh. Since most of my flights were thanks to upgrades, I usually rode in the aft cabin. Knowing my difficulties occupying a window seat, I quickly learned to ask for an aisle seat. What I didn’t expect was the unusual and somewhat disconcerting view this provided during takeoff. Because the airplane is so long and so narrow, the fuselage ungulates like a Slinky as the aircraft powers down the runway. By leaning slightly into the aisle, I was able to watch this scary scene down the runway from the aft cabin.
“If that wasn’t enough to get my attention, a member of the crew would first prepare the passengers for the experience of this bird during take off. Of course this was all explained to the passengers by a senior man enunciating a proper, re-assuring English accent. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, once airborne, you will experience a sudden deceleration and a falling sensation approximately seven seconds after takeoff. This will be due to noise abatement procedures as we shut down our afterburners used during takeoff. The aircraft will drop slightly and, simultaneously, the aircraft will bank left to avid populated areas.’ (Daddy wouldn’t lie.)
“Takeoff on the SST began with a WHooPoooOOOOOOOSSS-KABOOM as the afterburners kicked in. This blast of noise produced the G-forces that threw the passengers back into our seats as the bird rapidly accelerated. At takeoff speed the Concorde climbed quickly, steeply, very steeply with a lot of noise, a lot of drama; then, in an instant; relative silence, slowing down like someone hit air brakes or a brick wall. So too was there a noticeable drop combined with a left shear. Thank God for the warning otherwise the souls on board would presume it was time to meet our maker.
“When the aircraft reached international waters and it was time to go supersonic. The captain advised the cabin crew to stop service, everyone to return to their seats, seatbelts on. The afterburners were brought back on line and a second, albeit much quieter and relaxing takeoff ensued. Pinned back into my seat, I watched the mach meter go from 0.80 (or 80% the speed of sound) to 2.10 or more than twice the speed of sound. The thrust of the afterburners was the only sensation and there was no feel of speed as the SST accelerated. Cruising altitude was about 65,000 feet above the earth with the deep, deep blue of near space and the curvature of the earth visible through those tiny portholes.
“Landings were also unique and quirky. Concorde was most efficient when it was high and fast so the crew maintained altitude as long as they could. The resultant landings were steep, fast and dramatic.”
Tom thought a minute and asked, “It doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience. Was it worth it to go that fast?”
“Oh, yeah.” I thought about what it was like, smiled and said, “Remember that only British Airways and Air France flew the SST and they treated Concorde like royalty. Only fourteen ever reached operational status. Special lounges were more opulent than First Class where many times celebrity spotting wasn’t a challenge. Each passenger received a handsome souvenir, a pen, leather luggage tag, notebook, etc. each with the Concorde logo and the pilot signed a Mach 2 certificate for each passenger giving the date, speed and time of the crossing.
“But none of that meant much. It was the mere act of flying supersonic going faster than almost anyone else on earth had ever flown. The only people who flew faster were a select number of test pilots, fighter pilots and rocketmen who were paid to do it.”
I had my own expression about traveling by SST: “You can say anything about Concorde, but all of them mean the same thing: ‘She’s fast!”
The group of us that flew Concorde knew she was special, knew we had lucked out to fly her. Luck lends itself to hubris and we had the nerve to call her, “the Grape” as in:
“How’d you cross the pond this trip?”
“Took the Grape.”
We made a pact vowing that whenever on board Concorde either alone or collectively, we would eat nothing but caviar and drink nothing but champagne or chilled vodka.
I do believe that from time to time we cheated about the food.
Ah, life in the fast plane!