Celebrity Passengers and Caviar at 55,000 Feet: What It Was Like to Fly Concorde in the '70s
Nearly 20 years after its final flight, Concorde continues to capture the imagination of many aviation enthusiasts as the most remarkable airplane in history: a brilliant, beautiful marvel of innovation and ingenuity that became the darling of the world’s jet-setting elite.
With the tagline “Arrive Before You Leave” for its ability to fly passengers westward across the Atlantic Ocean in about three hours, Concorde still holds the prestige of being the only commercial supersonic aircraft (though that status could soon be disrupted by several emerging players reviving the sector).
Even so, those lucky enough to have traveled on Concorde say the aircraft will always retain a rarified air not just for its engineering feats—flying more than twice the speed of sound and on the fringes of space, at 11 miles above the ground—but also for an unmatchable aura of thrill and luxury.
“The atmosphere in the cabin was one of an exclusive club, and it was because these were the people who controlled the world, controlled the world’s finance and the world’s trade,” says Joe Cuddy, who worked for nine years on the Concorde fleet as a flight attendant and senior fleet trainer. “It was such an incredibly unique experience, and you were going faster than rifle bullets, twice the speed of sound. It was just a fabulous time.”
Here's what it was like to fly on the iconic aircraft during its heyday—and why it continues to inspire such wonder more than two decades after its retirement.
A first-of-its-kind jet
First things first: Not unlike those A-list celebrities who only go by one name, Concorde, too, stands alone. There’s no preliminary “the” required; it’s simply Concorde.
The moniker, which is the French word for harmony or union, reflects the collaboration between France and Great Britain to develop the world’s first commercial supersonic aircraft, explains Bob van der Linden, the National Air and Space Museum’s curator of air transportation and special purpose aircraft. In the early 1960s, as the U.S. aerospace industry shifted into overdrive as the space race was heating up, the French and British focused on the supersonic sector, joining forces to share the multi-billion-dollar costs of developing a first-of-its-kind commercial aircraft from scratch.
“They literally did 50 percent each,” van der Linden says. “They fought over every little thing. They fought over the name. Of course, “Concord” in English doesn’t have an ‘e’ on it, and it does in French. The British compromised and said we’ll put an 'e' on it, and we’ll have the ‘e’ stand for excellence.”
Indeed, Concorde’s technological innovations still awe aviation experts today. British and French engineers designed features for the unique challenges of traveling at supersonic speeds: the aircraft’s adjustable droop nose, revamped brake systems, delta-shaped wing and expandable fuselage. Four Rolls Royce engines equipped with afterburners on each aircraft propelled it through liftoff and the sound barrier, or Mach 1, a speed of 662 nautical miles per hour at sea level, to a maximum cruising speed of 1,354 miles per hour, at altitudes up to 60,000 feet, right at the edge of space.
“People always ask me what it was like to fly Concorde, and I’ve always equated it to being a bus driver given a Ferrari to go and play with,” says Richard Westray, a Concorde pilot from 1999 until its retirement in 2003. “It really was extremely clever.”
A total of 20 aircraft were eventually produced, and 14 entered service with British Airways and Air France. On March 2, 1969, Concorde 001 flew into history with its maiden flight, and the first supersonic transcontinental crossing came in 1976, from Paris to Washington, D.C. Other early routes included Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Caracas, and Bahrain (which all were eventually scrapped, leaving just London and Paris to New York).
Fred Finn, a retired business executive whose 718 flights on Concorde earned him a place in the Guiness Book of World Records, still remembers seeing Concorde for the first time from the passenger lounge before his flight from Washington, D.C., to London in May 1976. “It looked like something out of the next century,” Finn says. “It was so futuristic and so gorgeous, and still is. People ask me which was my favorite flight and I say, ‘All of them.’”
For an average round-trip, across-the-ocean ticket price of about $12,000, Concorde shuttled its upper-crust passengers over the Atlantic in about three hours: an airborne assemblage of wealth, power, and celebrity hurtling along at breakneck speed.
It was rare to have a flight without at least one famous passenger, from royalty to rock stars to supermodels. Finn counts Sting, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul McCartney, who “would draw happy faces and occasionally would play a tune,” among the many music legends he met on Concorde.
Finn, whose flights were covered by his employer, eventually became a celebrity of sorts himself for his constant presence on Concorde. He once made three transatlantic crossings in a single day to finish executing a contract, a feat that he says “was not a publicity stunt” and would be impossible today. “Concorde was a tool for business people like myself,” he says.
Concorde also enticed the wealthiest passengers with charters, both domestically and abroad, as well as several around-the-world trips. “They spent fortunes wherever we stopped,” says Cuddy, who worked on one. “We flew from Hong Kong to Delhi, and one woman spent $300,000 on carpets, to have them shipped back to the States.”
“They were an eccentric and demanding bunch, but great fun to be with,” he says.
Wining and dining at 55,000 feet
While Concorde’s crew relished the chance to mingle with famous passengers, serving them required a unique combination of professionalism and speed. The six cabin crew were in charge of executing multi-course meal service to 100-odd passengers per flight. “When you were traveling at twice the speed of sound, by the time you poured a glass of Champagne you’d gone 26 miles,” Cuddy says.
And pour Champagne they did. Dom Perignon was a popular choice onboard, and the Concorde Wine Cellar was curated especially for the fleet, with notable sparkling, red, and white wines, mainly French labels, paired to each course. Caviar was a signature starter, and entrees like lobster and duck à l'orange were served on fine china.
The inevitable hiccups happened, too, like the damage the aircraft’s steep rate of ascent could wreak on those exquisite meals. “They tried these new canapés that had a lot of stuff on each individual dish, and on takeoff it all tipped over and we couldn't use them,” Cuddy recalls. After that, he explains, special foil trays were used to keep items separate: one of many “service innovations” developed along the way.
Entertainment-wise, there were no cabin movies or back-of-seat screens—just the Mach display showing speed and altitude, and, of course, that astonishing view out the window. “Looking up it would be almost black, because at 55,000 to 60,000 feet, you’re almost on the edge of space,” Finn recalls.
Many passengers also relished the chance to be unreachable by the outside world for a rare few hours. “It was one of the only times when they couldn’t be contacted by fax or telephone, and they felt completely at ease,” says Cuddy, who counts the late Princess Diana as the most famous passenger he served on Concorde. “People used to join each other for a glass of wine, and then move on to another person.”
Others took advantage of the open-door policy to join pilots in the flight deck (except on takeoff and landing). Access like this helped create a remarkable camaraderie that both crew and passengers say they miss. “It was a big family,” Westray says.
The end of an elite era
Of course, all good parties must come to an end. Despite Concorde’s popularity among well-heeled jet-setters, its exorbitant operating costs—it required about a ton of fuel per seat, according to van der Linden—and the harsh toll on the environment became too much to justify. In 2000, the aircraft’s spotless safety record tragically ended when a French flight crashed on takeoff, killing all 109 passengers on board and four people on the ground. Three years later, both British Airways and Air France retired the aircraft for good.
“In the last few weeks of flying, there were a lot of tears of passengers as well as crew, because we knew we’d never see them again,” Westray recalls.
Today, Concorde’s successor could be in the works, with upstarts like Boom Supersonic and Aerion Supersonic aiming for a return to commercial supersonic flight, and recently selling 15 jets to United Airlines. In the meantime, Concorde enthusiasts can check out places like Brooklands Museum in Surrey, U.K., which houses “Delta Golf” Concorde and offers several Concorde-centric experiences, including the same simulator pilots trained on.
The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. is home to Air France’s F-BVFA, the first Concorde in service with the airline and the one with the most flight time: 17,824 hours. Van der Linden counts himself lucky to be among the passengers on the aircraft’s retirement flight.
“I’ve said this many times: I know why it failed, but it’s a real shame that it did,” van der Linden says. “We took off from Paris at noon and we arrived at Dulles at 10:10 [a.m.], and that's pretty cool, to arrive before you leave. Across the Atlantic in less than four hours—that’s just spectacular. It’s a shame they couldn't make it work.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler