Not even a hideous crash -- and the worst single event in the history of the airline business -- could permanently ground the most sensual and timelessly attractive of airplanes. And by the way, you don't say "the" Concorde.

By Patrick Smith
Published February 4, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

"I felt about the Concorde as one might feel about a beautiful girl walking into class on the first day of school: I had to get close to her somehow, whether we actually hooked up or not." -- James Kaplan, "The Airport"

It had never crashed.

That was the most notable thing about Concorde, or at least the one statistic everybody seemed to know. And citing the plane's so-far perfect record was, maybe, a welcome distraction for the citizens of Britain and France, a comforting mantra in light of the more than $3 billion they contributed to development of the supersonic transport project, which began in 1962.

As it was, however, Concorde was no safer than any other airliner. This was, after all, a meticulously maintained ship that made, on average, only two flights a day, oceanic crossings along familiar routes to familiar airports. And by the time production ceased in 1979, 10 years after the prototype first took flight, only 20 Concordes had ever been built. (By comparison, Boeing has rolled more than 1,100 747s from its factory in Everett, Wash.) An accident-free résumé was more the work of probability than engineering. In fact, owing to characteristics well known to its pilots -- aerodynamic instabilities and a hard-to-tame nature -- one suspects a proportionately equal number of Concordes on the rosters of the world's carriers might have resulted in a different reputation altogether.

Although 16 airlines, including Pan Am and TWA, initially held options for Concorde deliveries -- some 74 in all -- most of these were canceled in the early 1970s, and nobody except the flag carriers of Britain and France ever came to own one. Airlines were reluctant to take on not only the jet's high operating costs, but also its propensity for spewing out noise and air pollution. Sign-carrying protesters often greeted Concorde arrivals. The Port Authority of New York, wary of Concorde's sonic booming and generally bad (i.e., loud) temperament, refused to grant it landing rights at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a ban that lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1977.

Contrary to popular opinion, Concorde was not the only, or even the first, SST. (However pretentious it seems, you're not supposed to put "the" in front of its moniker, something only CNN's Christiane Amanpour, probably a frequent Concorde passenger, ever seems to get right on TV.) The Soviets beat the Anglo-French engineering team to the punch with the Tupolev Tu-144, a slightly larger Concorde look-alike that first flew on Dec. 31, 1968. The race to produce the world's first faster-than-sound passenger plane was rich with intrigue and danger, complete with the smuggling of Concorde specs into Russia hidden inside toothpaste tubes. Eager for glory but apparently not glamour, the Communists put their plane into revenue service on what we might call a "people's route" -- the run between Moscow and Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Such egalitarian deployment was something Concorde would never see, despite its designers' dreams of a fleet of 400-plus planes in the hands of most of the world's biggest airlines. Concorde would find its place as an anachronistic holdout -- an Orient Express of the skies, a White Star Liner in a Carnival Cruise world of crowded terminals and overbooked charter flights -- and would stay there.

The Tupolev's career, punctuated by a disastrous crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show, was short. But Concorde, its delta-winged profile instantly recognizable, became an icon. It was elegant. Its haughtily graceful outline (and equally impressive fares) suggested refinement and privilege, just as the industry was avalanching into the chaos of deregulation. It was international, in a sexy, James Bond kind of way. The sleek superbird, with its hydraulically adjustable nose (for visibility during takeoffs and landings), was a kind of European emissary, an ambassador of aesthetic and technological triumph.

Aside from JFK and Dulles International Airport, just outside Washington, Concorde flew regularly to Mexico City, Bahrain, Barbados and Singapore. Air France flew it between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, calling at Dakar, Senegal, on the African coast for fuel before blasting off across the South Atlantic. And despite an unquenchable thirst for kerosene, its two operators -- British Airways and Air France -- claimed their machine was profitable.

Braniff International, now defunct for more than a decade, is the only U.S. airline ever to play a role in the Concorde story. In 1979 the eccentric, Dallas-based carrier, which once contracted Alexander Calder to paint two of its airplanes by hand, operated Concorde as part of a code-share partnership with British Airways and Air France. Flown by Braniff pilots and carrying U.S. registrations, Concordes flew (alas, subsonically) between Dallas-Fort Worth and Dulles. Although crewed and registered by the U.S. airline, it never wore a Braniff livery.

Ticketless, but using my airline credentials, I once tried to talk my way aboard Concorde at JFK to snap a few photos of its flight deck. This was a few years ago, when skulking around an airport terminal didn't necessarily rouse the suspicion of employees, security guards or federal officials. My cargo-pilot identification issued by "the world's most experienced shipping company" was apparently not impressive enough for "the world's favourite airline." I was handed a pair of authentic Concorde baggage tags and sent on my way.

British Airways always parked its Concordes at JFK's Gate 1, closest to the interterminal road, giving those of us stuck in cabs or stuffed into shuttle buses a view of what we were missing. One of the inevitable remarks from those seeing it for the first time had nothing to do with how pretty or graceful it looked. It was about the windows: how small they appeared. Indeed, they were small -- tiny portholes from which, at 60,000 feet, roughly twice the average cruising altitude of most jets, the curvature of the earth could clearly be seen below. Their diminutive size was a concession to the extreme differential between the pressure of the cabin air and that of the lower stratosphere outside.

On the same day that B.A. turned me away, I made it over to the sparkling new Air France terminal, whose staff wasn't any more helpful. The marquee at the Club L'Espace lounge announced that Flight 2 would be departing shortly for Paris. Concorde uses these low and suggestively prestigious flight numbers. As a pilot, you hear them on the radio sometimes: "Speedbird 1, roger, cleared for ILS approach to Runway 31 left."

The Air France man sent me away like some kind of curiosity-seeking oddball. ("Oh, you wan' to look at ze era-plen, do you?") No Club L'Espace for me. So I got a look at the plane -- or at least its tail -- from the upstairs food court, kitty-corner to the windows, while eating a Supersize Big Mac Value Meal.

But that, in some sense, was perfect. I couldn't have been happier about not getting to see Concorde that day at Kennedy. The mystique. That's what Concorde was all about.

And, of course, it never crashed.

Not until July 25, 2000. On that day at Charles de Gaulle Airport, an Air France Concorde readied for takeoff. This particular ship, registered as F-BTSC, had been mothballed for some time. Only recently, the airline had given it an overhaul and pressed it back into service. It was the same aircraft that had once been borrowed for the filming of "Airport '79," and had even shuttled Pope John Paul II. Today its manifest included a full complement of 100 passengers, a group of German tourists headed initially to New York, and from there to catch a cruise boat in Ecuador. It was a charter flight, not the regular departure to JFK.

As the plane accelerated along the runway, it struck an L-shaped piece of titanium debris. Investigators would later determine this piece had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off for Houston. Upon impact, one of Concorde's tires burst violently. It did so in a manner, as British Airways pilot Mike Bannister recently told Airways magazine, that four different tire manufacturers all reported they had never seen in 40 years of aviation.

As is so often the scenario when it comes to air disasters, a chain of highly improbable events was about to end the lives of all those aboard. Down in the undercarriage, Concorde was playing the lottery with fate, and its number had come up, just as it might for a commuter plane to Dubuque or a cargo flight to Madagascar.

With tremendous velocity, a large chunk of exploding tire slammed into the underside of the wing, inside which, as on all large airplanes, were hundreds of thousands of pounds of jet fuel. The fuel cell was not impaled by the tire, but the resultant shock wave caused the fuel itself to knock out a section of its own tank, and the highly volatile liquid began to pour out, catching fire even before the airplane broke ground. From there the rest was more or less inevitable. The consuming plume of flame quickly rendered the plane unflyable. The pilots tried to make it back to the airport but couldn't. F-BTSC finally slammed into a hotel in Gonesse, on the outskirts of Paris, killing all 100 passengers, all nine crew members and five people on the ground.

Questions arose about the design of the tires and fuel tanks. Experts wondered about the possibility of another crash. In August 2000, European aviation authorities revoked Concorde's airworthiness certification. Many saw the crash as the end of Concorde altogether, the final curtain on a career marked with as much excess as romance -- too much noise, too much money, too much fuel. "Despite the world's longtime fascination with the supersonic Concorde, its presence may come to a swift end," reported Diane Seo in Salon.

But both British Airways and Air France predicted differently, even after the terrorist attacks last Sept. 11, which occurred at Concorde's only two U.S. ports of call. In the post-September turbulence, when reintroduction of a fuel-guzzling, technologically obsolete airplane seemed the last thing a reeling industry might propose, they stuck by their promise.

Concorde's perceived niche, after all -- an intercontinental limousine for sheiks, tycoons and film stars -- was perhaps not so easily discouraged by current events as, say, the noontime departure to Orlando. Sometimes you come across ads in Smithsonian or the New Yorker for one of the airplane's yearly round-the-world charters: luxurious, multistop junkets sold at some absolutely ghastly fare. A fully occupied Concorde, mind you, has room for only 100 passengers. That's fewer, even, than the classic Boeing 737. And with four-abreast seating, Concorde is no wider than a commuter jet. Such capacity restrictions, combined with fuel consumption rates normally seen by NASA, doomed the plane to novelty status. A gorgeous, adrenaline-inspiring novelty, but beyond the reach of mainstream travelers.

The plane was redesigned with new high-tech Michelin tires and Kevlar-protected fuel bays. During the safety overhaul, British Airways also revamped the interior, employing lighter-weight materials to offset additional weight imposed by the safety enhancements. Included in the plans were new "cradle seats" and lavishly outfitted lavatories. Total investment in the refurbishment ran about $42 million for B.A. alone, split about halfway between the technical and cabin upgrades.

Air France began airborne proving runs six months after the crash, on Jan. 18, 2001, when F-BVFB departed Paris for test flying. B.A. commenced supersonic evaluations from London's Heathrow on Sept. 11. Undaunted by the fallout of that day's other events, the testing continued at both companies.

And on Nov. 7, 2001 -- with two of their gleaming jets parked needle-nose to needle-nose at JFK -- British Airways and Air France officially resumed commercial Concorde flying. From either Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, travelers can again break the bank (if you have to ask, the typical trans-Atlantic Concorde fare runs $7,000 to $9,000 or so) for the chance to tell their business partners and mistresses they broke the sound barrier. British Airways reports strong bookings and high loads aboard its six weekly round trips.

Some are predicting a dismal 2002 for the world's airlines, and North Atlantic traffic has been hit particularly hard in the months since September. Nonetheless, this month marks the 26th anniversary of Concorde's inaugural passenger service. On Jan. 21, 1976, a Concorde lifted off from Heathrow headed for Bahrain, another from Paris to Rio. Today, JFK is its flagship destination, and the only place where you'll find it in both B.A. and Air France colors simultaneously. To see the airplane on the tarmac here again is inspiring, especially when its silhouette passes the vacant space where the World Trade Center once stood -- a dignified and defiant statement in these tough times aloft, a glimmer of optimism for a throttled and nervous industry.

One recent morning at JFK, a group of employees from a cargo company were eating breakfast from a canteen truck, when suddenly they rushed to the perimeter fence to watch a Concorde touch down along Runway 13L. Not even a 747 garners a second glance from jaded travelers and workers these days. But this wasn't a 747. Taxiing in, Concorde sits high on its tall silver legs. Its downward-arcing wingtips, long slender neck and raked fin give it a strangely anthropomorphic quality. Banking over the Rockaway peninsula on something pilots call the "Canarsie approach," its sharply curving span forms a distinct and suggestive hourglass.

Concorde evokes a lot of things -- a bird, a woman's back, an origami crane -- but it does not look old. Its anniversary is not just a milestone of economic endurance and longevity, but a statement of art and industrial design. What else in civil aviation, a world of Airbuses and pretzels and cheap plastic cups, carries such an aura, and could still appear so modern 40 years after its blueprints were first drawn up? Form has followed function to produce a sensual and timelessly attractive machine.

If neither a demoralizing crash nor the single most crippling event in the history of the airline business didn't kill Concorde, perhaps nothing will. At least until the aircraft reaches its design limit of flight cycles (takeoffs and landings), at which point -- now expected to be about seven years off -- its operators must decide if yet another life-lengthening investment is in order. If they determine it is not, Concorde will retire gracefully, a vestige of jet-age class and style in the increasingly uncivilized arena of commercial aviation.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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