Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Concorde flies into the record books

END OF AN ERA British Airways yesterday retired its fleet of Concorde jets and with the last flight touching down in London, the supersonic era came to an end

AFP , HEATHROW, ENGLAND

A British Airways Concorde aeroplane makes its approach before landing at London's Heathrow airport on Thursday, a day before the scheduled supersonic service ended for good.

PHOTO: AP

Amid quiet ceremony and tears from its diehard fans, Concorde was yesterday flying into the history books, ending the world's first -- and thus far only -- regular supersonic jet service.

The end was due to come around 4pm when three British Airways Concordes roar in to land at Heathrow airport on the western edge of London, the last of which being a celebrity-packed flight from New York.

The three jets -- the other two will come in from Edinburgh and following a supersonic round trip over the Atlantic out of Heathrow -- will then taxi into a BA hanger for a brief event presided over by the airline's chairman Lord Colin Marshall.

That will then be that, apart from a handful of crew-only flights to take BA's remaining Concordes to their final homes in museums, although plane buffs hope one model might be kept airworthy for shows and flypasts.

With Air France, the only other carrier to have used Concorde, having retired its planes in May, the era thus will be over in which members of the public could pay money to be fired across the atmosphere faster than a rifle bullet.

Concorde is a relic of a bygone age. Initially conceived in the 1950s, it first flew in 1969 and was in service for 27 years.

In the post-Sept. 11 world of tumbling airline revenues, there is no market for such a luxury item, meaning that not one supersonic successor is even being planned.

Yesterday would see "mixed emotions," BA's Marshall said.

"Everyone has enormous pride in all that she has achieved but there is inevitable sadness that we have to move on and say farewell," he said in a statement.

For Concorde's army of at-times obsessive fans, however, feelings are decidedly less ambiguous.

Many thousands were expected to descend on Heathrow to catch a glimpse of the final touch-downs, despite dire warnings from airport officials that roads would be closed and people moved on to prevent chaos.

Special opaque nets have even been erected next to some roads to stop motorists lingering to gawp, causing traffic jams.

Only 1,000 long-since snapped-up seats are available in a specially built grandstand near the runways, meaning many others are planning to meet at car parks, hotels and other rendezvous points to weep together.

"Right now I'm feeling very tearful. BA, you're breaking my heart. I can't believe you're doing this to us. Have you no soul?" wailed one of a series of anguished postings on the message boards of British Concorde fan Internet site www.concordesst.com.

Arriving at New York's John F. Kennedy airport for the final flight, a smiling Captain Mike Bannister, BA's chief Concorde pilot, said he hoped the retirement of the supersonic plane would be a day everyone could look back at with pride.

"I am proud and privileged to be flying the aircraft today. When I power the engines for the last time at Heathrow I shall be thinking of all the people in BA who've kept this plane flying successfully for 27 years," he was quoted as saying by Britain's Press Association.

Concorde is being retired because BA insists it is increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain.

The catalyst for the decision came on July 25, 2000 when an Air France Concorde crashed after take-off from Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground.

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