Riding the rocket

 - August 11, 2008, 5:17 AM

Is there a pilot alive whose pulse has not raced upon seeing Concorde’s lithe shape part the sky? Of the many airliner cockpit rides I have been fortunate enough to take over the past 25 years, uppermost in memory have to be seven flights aboard British Airways Concordes, six of them viewed from the jumpseat in that decidedly cozy cockpit.

The first one was a swift sprint from New York JFK to Miami in 1985 when British Airways briefly operated that leg as a continuation of its service from London Heathrow. Capt. John Hutchinson was in the left seat. If I recall, there were only 11 passengers in the back (and some of those were travel agents on “familiarization” rides), so for the one-and-a-quarter-hour run down to south Florida we were light on fuel, too. Having read that at light weights dry thrust can suffice, I asked “Hutch” if he would still use the afterburners for takeoff. He looked over his shoulder and, with a wry smile, said, “Oh, yes. It’s much more fun that way.” And off we sped in what is affectionately known by BA crews as Goldenrod, the Bionic Tea Tray and the Bionic Toothpick.

Particularly vivid memories from that first ride on the rocket were what I characterized as assorted burning smells once the four turbojets’ thrust levers were fully forward, the white reheat switches at their base were activated and she began to move. (Another Concorde pilot didn’t care for that image and suggested I call them “smells familiar to fighter pilots.”)

Another is the curious hush that descended on the flight deck during climbout as the visor slid up to cover the blunt-edged windshield panels–not unlike the sound of one of those modern airplane lavatories as it quits sucking. And finally I recall the almost violent swaying of the flight deck, suspended as it is some 60 feet ahead of the nosewheel as we rolled over bumps and undulations on the runway.

For my seventh ride I strapped into the last row of passenger seats to see the wing trailing edge at work on takeoff–the elevons take quite a beating from the vortex that creates the lift at high alpha–and to hear the music of the four Olympuses from the orchestra seats instead of the balcony. Up front, they’re nothing more than a distant rumble and a change in the hiss of the air conditioning. The flexibility of the fuselage on those runway bumps, when viewed looking forward to the cockpit from the wayback seat, was remarkable, as indeed are the following elements of Concorde:

• The relentless shove of 76 tons of thrust pushing 200 tons of airplane toward some ungodly rotation speed–190 knots at transatlantic weight, lower at our Miami takeoff weight.

• In cruise, covering a mile every 2.7 seconds, the speed with which things happen–and, in direct proportion, the speed with which the pilots must think and plan.

• The importance of the flight engineer, who manages not only fuel and power and climate but also the center of gravity to align it with the center of lift, which is seven feet farther aft at supersonic cruise.

• The famous gap in the flight deck, just downwind from the flight engineer’s panel. In cruise it’s thick enough to stuff your hand into, as the airplane heats (127 degrees C on the nose) and stretches by 5.5 inches. On the descent the gap vanishes. A manual placed in the gap in cruise and not retrieved before deceleration is stuck there until the Machmeter heads for 2.0 again.

• The buffeting and shaking as she moves through the bottom of the speed envelope, departing and arriving on the lifting power created by the massive vortex that cascades off that seductively curvaceous wing leading edge.

• The big drop as the nosewheel sniffs for concrete and, when it finds it, the awesome stopping power of reverse thrust and commercial aviation’s first carbon brakes.

• The bittersweet blend of elation and disappointment that the ride is over. Concorde, like life, is a journey, not a destination.

To even the most hardened businessman, a flight in Concorde was special, as it was in some way to everyone who traveled on her. To this lifelong Concorde admirer, seven years old when the French and the Brits decided to make a go of it, one trip stands out. In June 1989 our son, Christopher, then 11 months old, took his first steps unaided when he walked down the aisle of the SST between a couple of rows of seats. He is probably the only human being ever to take his first steps at 1,350 mph, 11 miles above the surface of the earth.

Alas indeed, Concorde’s life is about to draw to a close, but what a magnificent run.