PARIS – Fifty years ago, the Concorde performed its maiden flight in what was the prelude to a supersonic period of passenger airline travel that enthralled wealthy globe-trotters until 2003, when the noisy, fuel-guzzling plane was retired as it became unsustainable.
On Sunday, March 2, 1969, Concorde 001 warmed its engines at the end of a long runway at the Toulouse-Blagnac airport in southern France. Its first flight had been suspended for the two previous days due to bad weather.
Stood at the end of the tarmac was Germain Chambost, a pilot who had just left the Air Force to become a journalist and still remembers the deafening roar of the Concorde taking off.
“Everyone began to clap, not that you could hear anything,” he told EFE. “It was Europe’s revenge on the United States. For the Europeans, it meant a technical bet had come off. We did not want to imitate the Americans and we bet on the supersonic plane and were successful,” Chambost, a member of the Air and Space Academy, said.
The Americans dazzled the world with their moon landings just four months later.
More than a thousand people, mainly police and journalists, waited at the Toulouse-Blagnac airport on March 2, 1969, waiting for the early morning fog to clear.
Come early afternoon, the pilot crew of Andre Turcat, Henri Perrier, Michel Retif and Jacques Guignard made their final checks, took off and flew for a total of 29 minutes.
It was not until Oct. 1 that the Concorde broke the sound barrier.
Later, it would ferry passengers from London to New York in just over three hours, flying at Mach 2.0.
At the height of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union, and with the world divided between those two poles, Europe saw in the supersonic machine a way to develop its own technology.
Chambost recalled a conversation he overheard when the then United States Transport secretary asked his advisors if they were sure Washington had invested the same amount of money into funding an investigation into prototype similar to the Concorde.
“That is correct, sir,” an advisor replied, to the politician’s surprise.
But from the very first moment, the Concorde had its flaws.
Air France, which alongside British Airways were the only airlines to use the Concorde – they had seven each – found it hard to get permission to land the so-called great white bird at New York City’s JFK airport, the reason being: the noise.
The Concorde was put into commercial use seven years after its maiden flight, and it lasted up until 2003. But the price of running the fuel-guzzling aircraft weighed too much on the airlines’ coffers.
Then, in July 2000, Air France Flight 4590, a Concorde en route to New York, crashed after take-off at Paris Charles de Gaulle, killing all 109 people on board and four others on the ground.
The aircraft hit debris on the runway, which blew out the tire and pierced the fuel tank, turning the tail-end of the craft into a ball of flames. It was the only fatal accident in Concorde’s history, but it marked the beginning of the end of the supersonic venture.
The craft was retired just three years later.
Now, Concorde 001 is on display at Le Bourget Air and Space Museum near Paris.
Over its lifetime, it clocked up 812 flight hours, 255 of which were supersonic, in 397 trips.