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Concorde Takes Flight for Final Time

October 24, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Concorde soared into the sky on its last passenger flight Friday, heading for London as the world bid adieu, cheerio and farewell to the era of supersonic travel.

The British Airways plane, the skinny, needle-nosed 20th-century icon of international jet-setters, departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport on its final flight home.

The plane, carrying about 100 passengers, was scheduled to land in London’s Heathrow Airport three hours and 20 minutes later. Thousands were expected to gather to watch the near-simultaneous landing of the flight from New York and two other Concordes _ one carrying competition winners from Edinburgh, Scotland, the other taking guests on a circular flight from Heathrow over the Bay of Biscay, west of France.

``It’s been a wonderful achievement,″ said Ross Stainton, the former chief of the predecessor to British Airways, before boarding the London flight.

Stainton, who was with the British Overseas Airways Corp. when the Concorde was developed and was aboard its debut flight, said he was ``very sad, but also very proud.″

The Concorde, a joint project of the British and French governments, began commercial service in January 1976. The technological marvel and the ultimate symbol of jet-set glamour flew 11 miles above the Earth at up to 1,350 mph, crossing the Atlantic in about 3 1/2 hours. With the five-hour time difference, passengers arrived in New York earlier than they had left London.

The British and French hoped to sell hundreds, but in the end only 16 were built. They were used by British Airways and Air France.

Last April, both airlines announced they would be retiring the Concorde. Air France had its last flight in May.

Despite the glamor and social cachet attributed to the plane, which resembles a giant eagle poised to pounce on prey, it was a financial dud. With fares of more than $9,000 for a trans-Atlantic round trip _ well above the first-class fare on a Boeing 747 _ it remained a luxury for a wealthy few.

``Nobody will think about whether it was a commercial success or not,″ shipping company chairman Lord Sterling said before the flight. ``They will say this is another frontier which the human race has broken through.″

The passengers, all invited guests of the airline, included actress Joan Collins, supersonic frequent flier Sir David Frost and supermodel Christie Brinkley.

``I couldn’t resist one more chance to just pop over to London,″ Brinkley said before boarding.

The man at the controls of Friday’s flight was Capt. Michael Bannister, British Airways’ chief Concorde pilot, who estimated he has logged 8,000 hours and about 8 million miles _ the equivalent of 16 round trips to the moon _ since he began flying the supersonic jets in 1997.

``There’s a little sadness,″ Bannister said in a telephone interview on the eve of his flight. ``What we’ve tried to do is make the retirement of the Concorde a celebration. It’s something we’d like to do with the style and grace and elegance befitting this majestic aircraft.″

Bannister said the superlatives accorded the jetliner are all true.

``The ability to buy back time, to travel at the edge of space and fly faster than the Earth rotates, the opportunity to be in two places at once _ the designers were brilliant,″ he said.

Not everyone was lamenting the Concorde’s final takeoff from JFK. A congressman who has complained about airport noise was planning a champagne toast at a Queens park to mark the plane’s demise and the end of its sonic booms.

``The last flight of the Concorde may be chock full of celebrities, but the celebrating will be right here on the ground,″ Rep. Anthony Weiner said. ``At long last we will all be rid of this headache.″

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