February 15, 2021.   Supersonic Regret.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, a retired Air France Concorde sits on a platform, there to remind you of the all promises, both failed and realized, of the Jet Age. The supersonic transport, only about twenty of which were ever built, was the ultimate culmination of technology and imagination, science and art — one of the most beautiful and audacious pieces of industrial design ever conceived. The one in Paris is an impressive monument, but a misleading one too. The plane looks strangely unlike itself, frozen in a peculiar, stop-action pose that caricatures rather than accentuates its sleekness. That’s not how I remember it.

I’m fortunate — which is to say old enough — to have seen the Concorde during its flying days, on numerous occasions. I have no idea how many times I saw it take off or land. Two dozen? Four dozen? Usually it happened at JFK: the thunder of the afterburners, and that unmistakable, origami crane profile as it banked southward over Canarsie. You always stopped. You always watched. It was always a thrill.

But while I’m happy to have these memories, I have two regrets. The first is that the only photograph I ever took of the needle-nosed superbird is the one you see above, snapped at Kennedy in, I believe, 1998. So it was in the days before mobile phones, when getting a picture meant lugging a camera with you. Thus my only keepsake is this grainy, blurry, off-center picture.

The second regret is much worse…

I have a “life list” of every commercial jet, and every airline, I’ve ever flown on. Maybe you find the tally impressive. To me, it’s sorely incomplete. Several planes could be, and should be, on the list, but aren’t, either through lack of opportunity or laziness. The IL-62, for instance, or the 747SP. But of all the conspicuously absent models, that one that bothers me most is the Concorde.

Granted, Concorde fares ran thousands of dollars, keeping the experience well out of reach for anyone who wasn’t a celebrity, a dignitary, or a corporate flyer on the fattest of expense accounts. For most of the years when the plane was in service, I was a commuter pilot making a few hundred dollars a week, struggling to make my car payments and blowing most of my disposable income on records.

But here’s the thing: For a while in the 1990s, British Airways offered a special deal to airline employees. It was a round-trip package between New York and London, with one of the two flights aboard the Concorde. You could pick the direction, eastbound or westbound. The price was four-hundred dollars.

Wait, how much? That’s right. You can adjust for inflation all you want, but the sad truth is, $400 was almost comically cheap — an absolute steal even for a bottom-feeder like me. Not only that, the flights were positive space! That is, you had a confirmed seat rather than having to chatter your teeth on a standby list, as is normally the case for employees. Four hundred dollars for a positive space seat aboard the coolest jetliner of all time.

And I never did it. It was always something I’d “get around to,” as the saying goes. Maybe next month. Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. Inevitably I had some excuse to put it off. And then one day it was gone. The offer disappeared, and not long afterward the airplane disappeared too. Looking back, I’m ashamed to call myself an airline geek.

I was asked once during a job interview what my greatest regret in aviation was, and that was my answer. They seemed a little taken aback. I sounded more like an enthusiast than a career-minded pilot. In fact I was both, and I was telling the honest to goodness truth.


Note: I’m aware that it was semi-official custom, at least British custom, to omit the “the” when speaking of Concorde. It was always simply “Concorde.” I avoid doing this because it feels snooty and pretentious. Also, more people would wonder why the article is missing than the number who’ll find it superfluous. Could be worse; I have a friend who pronounces “Concorde” exactly as you’d say the word “Conquered.”

Contest: The above photograph has four other airplanes in the frame. (Actually there are five, but four in which the tails are visible for a positive ID.) The first person to correctly identify the airline and aircraft of all four wins an autographed copy of my book. Submit your entries to patricksmith@askthepilot.com

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A LIFE LIST OF PLANES

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