Concorde goes out with a clink
ON BOARD CONCORDE (Reuters) - Applause and clinking champagne glasses lifted Concorde into the stratosphere on Friday for a cocktail party crossing the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound for the final time.
The droop-nosed jet -- the world's only supersonic airliner after 34 years in the air -- shot faster than a bullet out of New York, carrying the ultimate jet-set of millionaires, models, stars, business executives and the world's media.
"We have reached the magic number that Concorde was designed to achieve -- Mach 2, or 1,350 miles per hour," British Airways captain Mike Bannister announced as the windows grew hot with friction and the plane itself stretched.
Concorde's most experienced pilot, an Englishman who calls it one of the great loves of his life, kept his emotions in check when he opened the throttle for takeoff for the last time at New York's John F Kennedy airport at dawn.
Passengers were pressed back in their blue leather upholstered seats as its four power plants hurled Concorde down the runway at up to 250 mph.
Less than 10 minutes later, with a barely perceptible shudder, it sliced through the sound barrier.
That's when the world's highest cocktail party began, close to space, in a cramped cigar-tube cabin partly illuminated by a display that soon read "Mach 2, 59,000 feet." The jet-set unbuckled themselves and the champagne flowed, and flowed.
"Mach 1 for the last time, and Mach 2 for the last time," lamented U.S. model Christie Brinkley, who like another passenger, English model Jodie Kidd, has used Concorde often to criss-cross the Atlantic and beat the ravages of jet lag.
Actress Joan Collins and British television doyen Sir David Frost also toasted the occasion with a glass of the finest Pol Roger as the sun, brilliant with ozone, shone through the plane's tiny windows.
But it was far from a final day-out for just the glitterati. Self-made millionaires, top business executives and some founding members of the airline's so-called "Concorde family," including the cabin crew, filled the plane with nostalgic talk.
"Richard Gere was one of our favorites," said Tracey Percy as she used a silver tray to serve cognac after a breakfast of smoked salmon topped with caviar and lobster fishcakes with Bloody Mary relish and wilted spinach.
"You would ask a question and he takes off his glasses and closes his book and looks at you and asks you what the question was -- and by the time he has done that you have forgotten what it was yourself."
The heads of blue-chip companies, including British Airways Chairman Colin Marshall, as well as Kidd and Brinkley and several autograph hunters climbed over each other in the aisle to mingle, collect signatures on their Concorde menus and -- above all -- to take photographs of each other.
As the plane swept low over London on its final approach to Heathrow airport, the mood moved to sadness, especially among the seven cabin crew.
No one felt the wrench more than purser Julia Van Den Bosch who has been flying Concorde since the first commercial flight 27 years ago from London to Bahrain and who was fighting to hold back tears as the wheels of the plane thudded to the ground.
"It's ended in style," she said. "We have done it proud."
Bannister, who began flying Concorde in 1977, kept a stiff upper lip to the end, announcing simply with an enduring professionalism: "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for flying British Airways Concorde."
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