Final Concorde flight lands at Heathrow

Friday, October 24th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Three Concordes swooped into Heathrow Airport Friday, joining in a spectacular finale to the era of luxury supersonic jet travel.

The last regular passenger flight from New York arrived with every seat filled, a feat that had become increasingly rare for a plane that was a technological marvel but a commercial flop.

Flight 002 landed just past 4 p.m., minutes after two other British Airways Concordes. One flew from Edinburgh, Scotland, carrying winners of a competition, and the other had taken off from Heathrow an hour and a half earlier and carried invited guests on a loop over the Bay of Biscay.

Thousands of enthusiasts gathered at Heathrow to watch the landings, but not everyone loved the Concorde. Over the years, many criticized its enormous roar and almost everyone found its fares of $9,000 and up for a trans-Atlantic round-trip too high.

Spectator Julia Zuk, 50, who lives near the airport, said she enjoyed her daily glimpses of the elegant jet and hadn't minded the noise.

``It's like wearing stilettos,'' she said. ``They hurt your feet, but you know they look a lot sexier than ordinary shoes.''

BA and Air France, the only carriers to fly the Concorde, announced in April that they would retire the jets, citing ballooning costs and dwindling ticket sales. Air France grounded its supersonic fleet in May. British Airways says it will announce next week what museums and other sites will get its fleet of seven Concordes _ which could mean one or more might fly again to its final destinations. But the airline has not announced any plans for further flights.

The flight from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport zoomed 11 crew and 100 passengers _ among the many celebrities on board were broadcaster Sir David Frost, actress Joan Collins and model Christie Brinkley _ across the Atlantic in about three hours and 30 minutes, at nearly twice the speed of sound.

The delta-winged plane made a stately final approach west along the Thames, granted a low-altitude approach for a last look at Big Ben and Buckingham Palace among the sights of central London.

It was a bittersweet end to nearly 28 years of commercial supersonic travel. Many Britons expressed pride in the technological achievement the Concorde embodied but sadness that its days in the skies were ending without a supersonic successor to take its place.

BAA, the company that operates Heathrow, set up a 1,000-seat grandstand on the airport's grounds for spectators. Outside the airport's perimeter, thousands watched with cameras and binoculars after gathering hours ahead of time, lounging on folding chairs and munching packed lunches.

Marilyn Payne, 55, lives under the Concorde's flight path, said that after 20 years she still rushed out to her garden to watch it.

``When Concorde flies over, a lot of people are covering their ears and complaining about the noise,'' she said. ``I'm smiling. We're going to miss it a lot.''

At the controls of the jet that took off from JFK was Capt. Michael Bannister, BA's chief Concorde pilot.

On a Heathrow-Edinburgh flight earlier Friday, Rupert Pilgrim, an Internet worker from Amersham, west of London, proposed to his girlfriend Catherine Murray when the aircraft reached its top speed over the North Sea.

Trays of poached salmon and champagne prevented him from getting down on one knee. Nonetheless, Murray said, ``He chose a good moment.''

Laura Lindsay, 36, a roadsweeper from Edinburgh, was aboard the same flight with her father, Walter Lindsay, 64. They won their tickets in a BA drawing.

``It has been absolutely fantastic even though I was so nervous and shaking before the flight,'' she said. ``It really was a chance of a lifetime.''

The Concorde, conceived and built by the British and French governments, began commercial service in January 1976. It was hailed as a technological marvel but its economics were shaky and it never made back the billions of dollars of taxpayers' money invested in it.

Planners expected to sell hundreds of planes, but there was little interest in the expensive, fuel-guzzling jets. Its limited range and rules that forbade it from setting off sonic booms over land meant it mostly stuck to its trans-Atlantic back-and-forth.

For years it was the favorite form of Europe-to-America travel for celebrities and high-powered executives. Cruising speeds of 1,350 mph, meant westbound travelers got to New York more than an hour and a half before they left Europe.

The beginning of the end came when an Air France Concorde crashed after takeoff from Paris on July 25, 2000, killing 113 people and forcing both airlines to ground their supersonic jets for more than a year.

Overhauled Concordes returned to service two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in the middle of one of aviation's worst slumps and a miserable global economy.

Daniel Payne, a BA pilot who flew the Concorde for three years, said the experience had been ``a true delight'' and brought his wife and children to watch the last landing.

``Its something to be celebrated rather than mourned, its a fantastic achievement,'' he said. ``For 30 of the 100 years of aviation, supersonic travel has been available and now we're losing that.''

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