First Click: What it was really like to go Mach 2 on Concorde

January 27th, 2016


I came straight from the club. I don’t recall the name, only that I was dressed in a too-tight T-shirt and shiny trousers that mirrored the silver bits of glitter on my skin, as I tottered into Concorde’s lounge.

“Good morning, sir,” said an impeccably mannered gentleman in a neatly pressed British Airways uniform. A greeting that disarmed me in vigor, considering the unholy hour, and because it lacked even a hint of sarcasm despite my appearance. “May I see your boarding pass?”

This was to be my first trip on Concorde, the supersonic jet that began passenger service 40 years ago this month before suffering an untimely demise in 2003, just three years after that fiery crash in Paris.

I like to think that I looked like a celebrity amongst all the very serious-looking suits awaiting BA002’s 8:30AM JFK departure. In reality I worked in the global IT department of a "Big Four" accounting firm, with an egregious number of air miles to my name. Nobody knew that, especially not Gwyneth Paltrow, who was now looking at me and smiling.

I only flew Concorde twice. The first time was indeed when I hung out with Ms. Paltrow, the second when I had to hurry back to Europe for the birth of my son. Today there’s an entire generation of humans alive who’ve never known a planet that offered supersonic transportation to the masses. Concorde was magical. But nostalgia, laced with I-should-have-bought-a-ticket regret have combined to over-romanticize the experience as a playground for the rich and famous. It was exactly that, of course, with round-trip tickets costing upwards of $10,000. But it wasn’t the height of opulence as many presume. It was so much more.

Concorde didn’t offer tiered seating divided up by first, business, or economy classes. A $10,000 round-trip ticket bought a seat in the only class available: supersonic. The interior was cramped. I had to stoop to walk down the narrow aisle that divided two columns of two seats, each running 25 rows deep. Bag storage was minimal and inflight entertainment was nil. The seats themselves were unremarkable, other than the fact that they offered little privacy and didn’t go flat like the first-class seats on BA’s slower 747 routes, and they were as narrow as coach seats albeit with a bit more legroom. But feeling myself pinned to that humble seat at takeoff was exhilarating.

The noise and vibration that shot through the aircraft as the afterburners kicked in was breathtaking and like nothing I’d experienced before on commercial flights, essentially turning the delta-winged aircraft into a rocket. I couldn’t help but smile. They fired again after clearing the coastline to take us supersonic. Soon we were cruising at Mach 2 (about 1,500 mph, or twice the speed of sound) at 55,000 feet (about 11 miles) in perfectly smooth air high above the Atlantic — so high that I could see the curvature of the earth offset by a deep indigo sky. My father worked on NASA projects, but it was I that almost touched the face of God.

BA made a big deal about the food onboard Concorde. (Some menus are available to view online.) However, the Michelin descriptions couldn’t live up to the reality of prepackaged meals, distributed in haste on Wedgwood china from Concorde’s galley. The wines were excellent, as was the Champagne. I was presented with a bottle of Pommery Cuvée Louise on my second flight, accompanied by the announcement of my son’s birth that had been radioed in from the lounge. I stood up to receive my award to the raucous applause of the 99 other passengers, unable to deny the fact that they liked me, right then, they liked me.

I wasn’t rich, and I wasn’t famous. But it sure felt that way when flying Concorde.

P.S. Gwyneth, DM me when you read this.

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