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May 29, 2007

Too Fast to Live…too Young to die

New York to London in three-and-a-half hours? Yep. The Concorde could be making a comeback.

When Concorde was put out to pasture in 2003, it marked the first time in aviation history that man had gone back in speed. But now the supersonic dream may return to the skies. A consortium led by Richard Branson is angling to refit one of the former planes as a “heritage craft,” and already has the support of 30,000 Save Concorde acolytes. If successful, the Club Concorde campaign could bring the world’s fastest commercial jet out of retirement within three years — and would signal a major marketing victory for the Virgin chief over rivals, British Airways, who with Air France operated the trans-Atlantic service from 1976.

A triumph of technological wizardry, the world’s most celebrated speed machine still communicates a sense of something other. Cruising through the stratosphere at Mach 2 (or 23 miles-a-minute), Concorde was among the most indelible icons of the 20th-century. Yet for all its technical success, the craft never came close to recouping its $3-billion investment. Ecologically, it was also a disaster: with a cruising altitude of 60,000ft, it was the only thing emitting pollutants at a maximum concentration of the ozone. And, following its 2000 crash in Paris (killing all 113 passengers and crew), the plane never quite recovered its reputation.

How a reborn Concorde would address such ecological and safety concerns is still unclear. Yet one image remains indissoluble: the experience of flying New York to London at 1,350mph was a thing of beauty. The view outside was an incomparably richer, darker blue than anything you’d see at subsonic altitude. On clear days, you could make out the curvature of the earth. Even the oxygen was pumped through at a higher purity than today’s jets. As Captain Mike Bannister, chief pilot of BA’s Concorde fleet, once said to me mid-flight: “It’s a bit like riding a thoroughbred horse compared to a mule. Except we’re going faster than a bullet.”

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read more: 01. Air | 13. Tech

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