Faster Than Sound

Concorde flies overhead

Photo: Adrian Pingstone

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the last flight of the Concorde, and the end of commercial supersonic flight for the foreseeable future. BBC Culture marked the anniversary with a tribute to “a 20th Century design classic.”

Concorde flew for the last time ten years ago. This supremely elegant airliner has yet to be replaced and, in an age of ubiquitous flying buses, cheap flights and long-term recession, perhaps it never will be. Glamorous and exclusive, a technological marvel and a thing of daunting beauty, Concorde belonged to an era that has vanished in a cloud of burned kerosene.

In 2003, there were still people willing to pay through the nose-cone to eat a lunch of canapés, fillet of beef, crème brulée, cheeses and petit fours washed down with four varieties of champagne while the Rolls-Royce Olympus-powered jet scythed through the stratosphere at Mach 2. Through the aircraft’s small windows, passengers could see dark blue space above them and the curvature of the Earth below. At 60,000-ft, they cruised twice the height of Jumbo jets, faster than a bullet and faster than the speed (1,070mph at the Equator) the Earth rotates.

In 1977, when the fare from Dulles to Heathrow was still comparable to a first class flight, my Mom and I flew on the Concorde. My Dad followed on his own supersonic flight a month later. Both were one way trips—we moved to London that year not knowing we’d be back in the States a mere ten months later.

I was eleven years old when I broke the sound barrier for the one and only time in my life. I remember seeing the dark blue of the stratosphere and the curvature of the Earth. I remember feeling the windows warmed from the friction of the thin air at Mach 2. I remember the gentleman in the seat across the aisle ate caviar and how gross I thought it was. I remember the narrow cabin, and imagining that we were traveling in a rocket to another planet. And I remember the flight ending quickly—after only three hours. It would take twice as long to return on a 747 the following spring.

I’d flown to London and back three times before that on subsonic airliners—the first trip at eighteen months that I was too young to remember, and two subsequent trips at ages six and ten. I flew there and back again after we moved to California. That was an eleven-hour flight from LAX to Gatwick—an eternity compared to the shot across the pond I’d taken ten years before.

I always wondered if I’d fly the Concorde again. I doubted it, but there was always the possibility. And then, a decade ago, the Concorde flew for the last time, and I realized that I got to do something few civilians had done, and none—save for a handful of billionaire space tourists and well-connected politicians—would probably do again in my lifetime.

I flew faster than sound.

Is there something you’ve done in your life that few others have done? Tell me about it in the comments.


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