A Last Hurrah for the Concorde

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British Airways Concorde Flight 1215 lands in Boston

We’ve all but forgotten this now, in these days of two-hour check-in lines, on these planes full of people but light on comfort, but there was a time when flying was a joy. The Concorde, the last, best symbol of the glamorous (and exclusive) world of air travel, makes its last flight today. Looking to recapture a little of that magic, I hitched a ride last week on one of the final flights of the British Airways Concorde. What I found was a plane filled not with bankers and rock stars, but with ordinary folks looking for the flight of a lifetime.

The once genteel and discreet Concorde Lounge at London's Heathrow Airport seemed more like a room full of excited school kids just before they set off on a field trip. Usually rational adults were elbowing each other for prime position for photographs, and giddily downed one — or both — of the two kinds of free champagne being offered. They pointed and chatted excitedly, and no one could stop smiling. I was one of them.

Sitting just a few feet away out the lounge windows was a British Airways Concorde, a sleek beauty that looks graceful and supersonic even while standing still. It would be our plane today. It's like admiring a great work of art and then being able to actually become a part of it. The flight was part of British Airways' long goodbye to the Concorde (Air France made its last Concorde run in May).

Onboard my Concorde was everyone from a grandmother who spent most of her life savings on the multi-thousand dollar ticket to ride this unique plane from Heathrow to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to a Baltimore banker who was on his seventh Concorde flight and just wanted to get home faster than taking the traditional flight to New York. There was a corporate pilot who paid $ 9 for his ticket because his brother used frequent flier miles to pay the bulk of the fare. There was acrobatic flying champion David Martin and his wife who was probably secretly wishing they could get to the cockpit and try and roll the plane into a loop.

And then we were off. The takeoff was smooth, but the speed and the bank of the plane was full of G forces that pushed me back into my deep blue leather (but surprisingly narrow) seat. I strained to see the disappearing English countryside out a window that's no bigger than a salad plate. Passengers struggled to hold their video cameras steady while the plane thrust upward.

The plane hadn't even come close to leveling off before people were out of their seats taking pictures, chatting with friends--old ones and those just minutes old. The cramped cabin and the common purpose pulled people together. If you didn't know your seatmate when you got on, you did by the time we hit 10,000 feet. The big distinction: Nobody was there because they had to be — no road warriors, no disgruntled passengers. The mood — remember this is onboard an airplane — was festive and lighthearted and even joyful. Some people couldn't believe they'd made it on. In the back cabin, a young man proposed to a woman (she accepted).

The flight attendants attempted to hand out drinks to the 100 passengers (it's less than a four-hour flight you know) and put down the linen tray cloths, but it was quickly turning into a rugby scrum in the aisles. The cabin crew held up remarkably well — dealing with hundreds of requests to pose or get out of the way as the 'Machmeter' on the bulkhead slipped past Mach 1 and headed for our final destination of Mach 2 and 56,000 feet. The attendants discreetly looked the other way as passengers looted the plane, taking everything from menus and coasters to even the salt and pepper shakers (which have no Concorde designation on them — you can just say you got them off the Concorde).

The approach to Dulles is flown at what aviators call a high angle-of-attack. The plane slows not level like a normal plane, but with its front much higher than its tail. It rumbles when the pilot throttles back the engines and stopping seems to take a bit too long. There are whoops of joy and applause. As I get off, the flight attendants hand me a picture of the Concorde and a certificate of my flight-signed by the pilot.

It's a short flight that no one wanted to end. As bittersweet as the Concorde's months-long retirement party has been, there's some justice that after 27 years of serving at the pleasure of the rich and richer, the Concorde in its last few days is a plane for everyone.