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The British Airways Concorde
On a recent vacation to Europe, I got to experience a lifelong dream of mine to fly on the Concorde. The experience lived up to and exceeded my expectations. Here are some of my observations and experiences on the Concorde:
After check in, you get to stay in the Concorde Room, a lounge just for Concorde passengers. The one in JFK International was nicer than the one in London Heathrow, except that at Heathrow, the Concorde actually pulls right up to the window, and you get to watch it come in and get serviced. The lounge was very comfortable, with a buffet, complimentary reading materials, and people serving champagne and drinks.
Getting inside the aircraft, you find that it is quite compact inside. You have to duck to get through the door, and there isn't a lot room to move around at all, or to store handbags. Once in your seat, however, you are very comfortable, and there is a lot of room in front of you. The flight I took from NY to London had only 25 passengers onboard, so this gave the aircraft an even less cramped feeling.
The windows are incredibly tiny, like little portholes on a boat. They are double insulated for structural purposes and also to isolate the cabin from the tremendous heat at Mach 2.
When the four Rolls Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 Turbojets are spooled up, they don't sound much different from inside the cabin than say the large turbofans on a 747, although it seems like they take longer to spool up to idle speed. It takes about a whole minute for each engine to stabilize at idle. The engines also seem to overrun idle speed before the governor brings them back down, which was quite interesting.
Taxiing wasn't much different than any other aircraft. If you didn't know you were in Concorde, then you wouldn't be able to tell. In the rear of the aircraft, you can see the delta wing and in the very rear the engine exhaust nozzles.
On the runway, when the pilots give it full power and switch on the afterburners, you can really hear the engines. They are very loud, but not as loud as I expected inside the cabin. The Concorde rears back on its main gear, and accelerates very rapidly down the runway. The acceleration is breathtaking, and the speed builds very quickly. In less than a minute, we are doing 250 mph and the Concorde rotates and lifts off. After climing a few hundred feet, the afterburners are shut off, and engine power is reduced to minimize noise. At this point the Concorde just feels like any other airplane, except at these lower speeds, the angle of attack is always very high, and the inside of the cabin appears to be on a big slope.
The speed is still building fast though, according to the cabin displays. In a short amount of time, we have stabilized at Mach .95 and 26,000 feet. Once we are cleared for supersonic flight, the pilot switches on the four afterburners, two at a time, in pairs. As each pair of afterburners comes on, there is a very noticeable shove in the backside, and the aircaft starts to climb and accelerate through the sound barrier. Apart from the cabin display, there is no indication that you are supersonic; no vibration, no sound, nothing visual. You are simply flying faster than the speed that a sound wave would travel through the air. By the time we have reached Mach 1.4 the flight engineer has pumped a portion of the aircraft's fuel into a ballast tank in the very rear of the aircraft. This is to shift the aircraft's center of gravity rearward, to counteract the nose down pitching effect which occurs at supersonic speed.
After about ten minutes with the afterburners on, we reach Mach 1.7, and as we move further away from the shockwave we are creating, drag on the aircraft actually begins to decrease, enough so that the afterburners can be switched off. With the engines at full dry thrust, we enter our cruise climb phase. The Concorde never settles on one altitude. For the rest of the cruise phase, the aircraft is climbing towards 60,000 feet. At some point Mach 2 is reached, and is maintained as the aircraft continues to cruise climb. Ultimately, the aircraft reaches a speed of approximately 1,350 mph, enabling it to cover the New York to London route in just over 3 hours. Altitude reached at the end of the cruise climb phase is usually around 58,000 feet. At that altitude, there is no turbulence at all, lending to a very smooth flight.
From the cabin, the indications that you are on the Concorde mostly come from the windows. If you touch the windows at Mach 2, they feel very hot. This is the heat from air friction on the skin of the aircraft. At the tip of the aircraft, temperatures can reach 250 degrees F. Also, looking out the window, you can see a slight curvature of the earth, and you can see the cloud layer very far below. If you look out across the horizon, you can see a definite line where the atmosphere ends. If you look straight up, you can see blackness.
Despite all the technical traits of the aircraft and the concept of flying at Mach 2, the service is the thing that really separates the Concorde experience from your typical transatlantic flight. The crew is incredibly friendly and accomodating. They could see it was my first time on the Concorde, and they were happy to sit with me and answer questions and take photographs. The food is excellent. It is the kind of food that I would go to a fancy restaurant to eat. They offer any kind of drink you can imagine as well. I was truly spoiled by the Concorde service.
Descending to land is just like any other aircraft. The pilots throttle back the engines to about 85% and maintain altitude to slow down quickly to Mach 1.5, then they reduce power further and begin to descend. The aircraft becomes subsonic and continues to descend and decelerate as it once again assumes its high angle of attack. The aircraft is guided by air traffic control to its approach, and makes its way smoothly down to the runway. There isn't much of a flare on touchdown, and angle of attack is very high, but the touchdown is relatively soft. Once the nose gear touches down, the pilot engages the thrust reversers and spools up the engines. This is perhaps the loudest and most intense part of the flight, as the braking forces are tremendous, similar to standing on the brake pedal in your car, only from much higher speed. The Concorde slows quickly, and taxies to the gate. The turbojets are shut down one at a time, with a brief pause in between each shutdown.
After the flight I was invited to have a look at the flight deck, meet the captain, first officer, and flight engineer, and take a photograph. Flying on the Concorde was a truly memorable experience, and it is a shame that they are stopping Concorde service at the end of the year. I am very lucky that I was able to have the experience at least twice before the Concorde goes away forever.
To learn about the Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 turbojet engines which power the Concorde, click here
To see a video clip of the Concorde taking off from my window, click here. (Sorry for the poor quality, I used my digital camera.)
If you'd like to learn more about the Concorde, go to www.concordesst.com
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