My Ride on the Concorde
A museum curator goes along for one last transatlantic voyage
As the National Air and Space Museum’s curator of air transportation, I am responsible for the Museum’s collection of 16 transports, which includes a Ford Tri-Motor and a Douglas DC-3. The most recent addition to our collection is one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built: the Concorde.
Both Air France and British Airways ended their Concorde service in 2003, but not before the technological marvel had transported an elite clientele in a way the rest of us could only dream about. The Concorde, which was created jointly by British and French engineers, began service in January 1976, flying passengers at twice the speed of sound. Such speed didn’t come cheap, though: A transatlantic flight required the high-maintenance aircraft to gulp jet fuel at the rate of one ton per seat, and the average round-trip price was $12,000. Eventually, the tough airline marketplace forced Air France and British Airways to cut back their already limited service; routes from London and Paris to Washington, D.C., Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Miami, Singapore, and other locations were cut, leaving only transatlantic service to New York. And even on most of these flights, Concordes flew only half full, with many of the passengers flying as guests of the airlines or as upgrades.
By 1989 airline executives realized that the aircraft’s days were numbered, so Air France promised to eventually give one of its Concordes to the Smithsonian Institution. In April 2003, Air France president Jean Cyril Spinetta informed us that the airline would end Concorde service on May 31, and that we would receive a Concorde in June. By remarkable coincidence, I was scheduled to be in France on business in mid-June, and therefore available to represent the Smithsonian on the Concorde’s retirement flight.
Air France scheduled its last transatlantic Concorde flight for June 12. While it was actually a ferry flight to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles airport in Virginia, Air France treated this one no different from its regular Concorde flights. In other words, Flight 4386 would be magnificent. Sixty people, including France’s transport minister, several past Air France presidents, and former Concorde pilots and crew members, would be on board. Mstislav Rostropovich, the famed cellist who always flew the Concorde with his cello in an adjacent seat, was to make the flight as well.
The flight was scheduled to leave Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport at noon. I was instructed to arrive at the Concorde desk at 10 a.m., but I arrived an hour early. My first hint that this was to be a special experience came as I was led to the front of the Customs line and whisked through while dozens of coach passengers waited and wondered who that person was who had just sailed past the authorities.
The privileges continued when I arrived at the Concorde lounge: Air France had created a beautiful waiting area (separate from the airline’s first-class lounge) with all the amenities. I checked in and received my ticket, along with a luggage tag and a special commemorative package. I had walked into a party; champagne was everywhere. Several French passengers stressed to me how honored they felt that the Smithsonian was accepting one of their Concordes. The aircraft had occupied a place in the hearts of the French people, and they felt both great pride and great sadness when the end had finally come. Despite the political strains our countries’ relationship had recently endured, I was happy to tell them that there was no gloating by Americans over the demise of Concorde; everyone I knew appreciated the technological brilliance and beauty of the aircraft.
I was thrilled to learn that the Smithsonian would receive Concorde F-BVFA, the pride of the Air France fleet. It was the first Concorde in service with the airline and the one that had the most flight time: 17,824 hours.
At 11:30 a.m. the party moved from the lounge through a checkpoint and down a jetway to the waiting airliner, which had been parked outside the window of the lounge for all to see and photograph one last time. Despite the festive atmosphere in the lounge, the day was a gloomy gray, with rain pouring down on the wings and fuselage. Before we entered the airliner, the cabin crew politely warned us to duck as we walked through the surprisingly small doorway. I had been assigned a seat in the forward cabin, where, during Concorde’s heyday, the elite had insisted on sitting. I was told several tales of temper tantrums by disappointed rock stars, who had been assigned seats in the rear cabin.
At noon the doors were closed, the four Olympus engines fired up, and the aircraft pushed back from the gate. Captain Jean-Francois Michel, head of Air France’s Concorde division, First Officer Gérard Duval, and Flight Engineer Jean-Yves Dronne were in the cockpit. As we taxied by the terminal, I looked out my tiny window and noticed hundreds of airport workers along the ramp, waving and filming our departure.
After getting takeoff clearance, Michel lit the afterburners for 30 seconds, and the Concorde responded by accelerating down the runway to 225 mph; after rolling less than 5,000 feet, we were airborne. As we climbed , the Concorde continued to accelerate, and after 19 minutes, we reached the French coast. We were at 25,500 feet, traveling at Mach .75, when the fuel transfer process began. (Because the Concorde’s aerodynamic center shifts as it transitions to supersonic speeds, high-speed pumps redistribute the fuel to compensate.) Once the fuel transfer was completed, Michel again ignited the afterburners and we continued to accelerate, leaving the English Channel behind.
With my eyes glued to the Mach meter on the forward cabin bulkhead, I watched as our speed increased, anticipating some kind of bump that would signify we had gone supersonic. I was pleasantly disappointed.
Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, we were 272 miles from Paris. At this point, the afterburners were shut down and cabin service begun. While there were only 60 passengers, we were tended to by seven flight attendants. As one would expect, the service was superb. Catherine Pellerin, a Concorde cabin crew instructor, was responsible for my section. I was sitting next to P. Girandet, a delightful elderly gentleman who I later discovered was the president of Air France when the Concorde entered service in 1976. He was polite but demanding of Pellerin, who responded with great attention and a caring smile for her former boss.
While dinner was being prepared, Pellerin brought caviar and champagne. Girandet explained to me in broken English that it was just unthinkable to serve champagne with caviar. What did I know? I’m a middle-class civil servant from the suburbs. Apparently, caviar should only be accompanied by vodka. I’ll remember that next time.
Next came an hors d’oeuvre, a choice between medallions of rock lobster with crab sauce or fois gras with chutney and carrot jelly. I chose the lobster, which was accompanied by a white wine.
Between courses I looked up and saw that we had reached Mach 2—1,350 mph, faster than Earth rotates. Our altitude varied between 52,000 and 59,000 feet, far above the rest of the air traffic. I noticed that my window was quite warm, and I could feel heat radiating from the fuselage, whose aluminum skin had heated to over 248 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky above us was a stunning dark purple. I tried to see the curvature of Earth, but to my dismay the entire Atlantic was clouded over.
My disappointment was soon forgotten with the arrival of pan-seared veal medallions, Maxime potatoes, and a rich Bordeaux. My place setting consisted of fine china, engraved glassware, and silverware—except for the knife, which, for security reasons, was plastic.
With the arrival of dessert—seasonal fruit timbale, petits fours, and a selection of fine cheeses—we began our descent. We had flown supersonically for two hours and 57 minutes; in the time it had taken to have dinner, we had crossed the Atlantic. Before I knew it, we were preparing to land. With the aircraft pitched high and its nose visor lowered for a better view, we made a straight-in approach to Dulles, landing smoothly at 170 mph. The entire flight had lasted just three hours and 49 minutes.
Though I was exhilarated with my supersonic experience aboard F-BVFA, I was saddened that it would never again fly. The Concorde was clearly superior to conventional airliners—if only you could afford the ticket. And few could, which is why we’re unlikely ever to see an airliner like the Concorde again. But at least F-BVFA will be preserved forever.
Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian.