Ten years ago this week, the Concorde -- the supersonic passenger airliner operated by British Airways and Air France -- made its last flight across the Atlantic. For decades the Concorde was an icon of aviation engineering, as the jet's powerful engines and aerodynamic design allowed passengers (who could afford it) to travel at roughly twice the speed of sound from London to New York in about three and a half hours.
The loud noise created by the aircraft kept most airlines from adding it to their fleets, however, and after a downturn in business following the Concorde's only crash, as well as the events of September 11, it was discontinued in 2003.
There have been a few attempts to revive the Concorde, including an attempt by Virgin's Richard Branson to buy the remaining planes, but no airline has flown supersonic planes in their fleets since. That won't stop us from remembering a few reasons why the Concorde was just about the coolest thing flying 50,000 feet above the Atlantic:
1. It was so advanced for its time that the Soviet Union tried (and failed) to copy it.
Around the same time that the French- and British-built Concorde made its first test flights in the late 1960s, the Soviet Union was testing its own supersonic jetliner, called the Tupolev Tu-144. It was rumored at the time that Soviet espionage had brought early blueprints of the Concorde into Russian hands, leading to the design of the Tupolev. It's unclear whether that's true, but the Soviet version of a supersonic plane was inferior to the Western design in a few key areas, as it had a shorter range than the Concorde and suffered from structural problems that affected its flight stability at lower speeds. After about two years of commerical service in the 1970s, the "Concordski" as Westerners derisively referred to it, was discontinued.
2. The Concorde could catch up with the setting Sun.
On certain early evening transatlantic flights departing from London or Paris, passengers could watch the sunset in the terminal, and then see it come right back up once they were in the air. Ever seen the Sun rise in the West?
3. The Concorde would heat up during flight, and it was so intense that the airframe could acutally expand six to eight inches.
Traveling at Mach 2 means plenty of friction with air molecules, which caused the plane to heat up to such an extent that the frame expanded mid-flight and by the end of the trip, the entire plane felt warm to the touch.
4. The Concorde flew so high that passengers could see the curvature of the Earth.
To avoid turbulence, as well as to take more direct routes free of other planes, the Concorde flew at 50,000 to 55,000 feet altitude. As the flight went on and the plane expended fuel and became lighter, it actually slowly climbed higher, allowing passengers to get a better view of the planet's shape.
5. The tragic crash that drove the plane to retirement was its only accident.
Prior to the crash Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 that killed 113 passengers, the Concorde suffered no crashes, and was considered to be one of the safest planes ever built. In fact, the crash was caused when debris from another plane struck the flight.
With airlines focusing on budget flights and high-capacity plane designs, it's unlikely we will see another supersonic passenger jet any time soon. For those of us who still dream about buying a ticket to soar through the skies faster than sound, maybe a seat on Virgin Galactic will be the next best thing.