On April 10, eighteen years ago, British Airways and Air France made the announcement that the world’s most famous aircraft, the Concorde, was going to be retired. It took only one accident to ground the most graceful “birds” in the sky. Some 50,000 flights and two-and-a-half million passengers experienced the 1,350-mph speed, traveling through the sound barrier at Mac2; a horrific accident at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was the prelude to the demise of the program.
But this also brings back memories of a great event in the earlier days of Marco Island. During the height of the Concorde program in 1986, Marco Island hosted this incredible aircraft when it flew wide circles over the beach and the Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort at an altitude of only 400 feet! Together with British Airways executives, we were at a Marriott Penthouse listening to the Concorde program’s Chief Pilot, Brian Walpole, captaining the plane and jokingly asking from the cockpit why nobody had given him a map to find Marco Island. It was the first time our island was on all major national TV news networks and it was also the first time that some 5,000 people descended on our beaches.
Organizers of the largest annual travel, tour operator & airline international trade show in Florida, the Florida Huddle, selected Marco Island that year for their event. I still remember Lucky Condon, a manager for British Airways in the U.S., Pete Hubschmitt, General Manager for the Marco Island Marriott at the time, and myself gathered together to discuss additional publicity for the trade show.
We sat outside at Marriott’s Quinn’s terrace and the Concorde came up in conversation. At the time the scheduled service flew into Miami and it was discussed if the aircraft could possibly be utilized for publicity of the Marco Island show during its downtime in Miami. The rest is history. Dignitaries from Collier County were bussed to Miami to join the flight over Marco Island with a short detour to experience breaking the sound barrier down near Mexico.
Later I was fortunate enough to fly on the British Airways Concorde from London back to the United States. The interior was somewhat austere with space for 110 passengers in average sized dull, grey leather seats, a far cry from the luxury first class seats on the Jumbo jets covering the same route. I am not sure if we really felt going through the sound barrier, or if it was the digital speed counter on the wall giving us the sensation. It was impressive to realize that, because of the intense heat, the aircraft frame expanded between six- and 10-inches during flight. A specially developed white paint was used to adapt to the temperature changes. At a height of 11 miles, or some 60,000 feet, we experienced the perception of viewing the curvature of the Earth. However, my absolute highlight was the invitation into the cockpit for the landing. That was an experience ever to be forgotten, nor to be repeated in any aircraft since 911. The nose is lowered to give the pilot a better view when landing and it makes the aircraft look like a large raptor. Listening to the chatter of other pilots and the traffic tower, one could hear the respectful awe in their voices. And while the other take-offs and landings were addressed by flight numbers, our plane was simply “The Concorde.”
The aircraft was a joint venture of the British and French governments and met with strong opposition from the American government. Initially, the plane was not allowed to fly into New York’s Kennedy Airport. The excuse was “too much noise.”
That lasted until it was pointed out that the Jumbo, American’s Boeing 747, actually made more noise.
The accident in Paris was originally blamed on a piece of metal that fell off a Continental Airlines aircraft on take-off and hit the tires and subsequently a fuel tank.
But eventually, it was proven that shoddy maintenance and left-out parts, under Air France watch, ended in the loss of over 100 lives; all passengers and crew as well as four people on the ground at a hotel near the flight path. Additionally, it was discovered that the pilot license of the captain had lapsed. Obviously, not the reason for the crash, but another indication that maintenance and regulations at the French airline were neglected. It must be said that British Airways was the opposite with very strict rules and service records. As a matter of fact, Chief Pilot Brian Walpole, was relieved of his duty due to the strict restrictions. Returning from New York one day, he had 25 minutes of reserve fuel left instead of the required 30 minutes. According to these rules he should have landed in Shannon, Ireland to refuel, but instead made it safely and without a problem to Heathrow Airport in London. He was subsequently dismissed for taking that risk.
Costs of litigation, grounded aircraft, and fear of flying in light of possible new problems with the Concorde was the end to an elegant airplane that was way ahead of its time.
Ewout Rijk de Vries is a photographer and journalist who has lived full-time on Marco Island since 1984. He travels to the far-out corners of the world in search of the best photos and stories. He and his wife, Jill, also own America Travel Arrangements, Inc., a travel company on the island with clientele in six different countries. Ewout can be reached at email@example.com.