Flight of the Concorde

Twenty-five years ago, the supersonic future visited Seattle. It thrilled us all, especially those of us on board. But the legacy turned out to be a surprise.
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The supersonic Concorde

Twenty-five years ago, the supersonic future visited Seattle. It thrilled us all, especially those of us on board. But the legacy turned out to be a surprise.

Travel writers used to feast on freebies, trips to faraway destinations, resorts, or other vacation spots that are fully comped in the expectation of publicity. Travel writers are notorious for the sense of entitlement this breeds. One rule at a press event: Get between a group of travel writers and the buffet and you'll be torn apart in the ensuing feeding frenzy.

You can take a freebie too far, however. I knew a travel writer who was always hustling stories to match freebies he'd lined up. When I was editor of Seattle-based Adventure Travel magazine back in the late '70s he asked for an assignment to write about Air New Zealand's tourist flights over Antarctica. I turned him down, but he went anyway. Turned out he was aboard the ill-fated Flight 901 that flew over the frozen continent and slammed into Mt. Erebus. Mr. Freebie died along with 256 others. Many of the bodies are still there waiting to be unlocked from the ice and snow by global warming.

But not all fabulous, flying freebies end that way, and I was a lucky passenger on one that ended 25 years ago in Seattle. It was the first visit of the supersonic Concorde to the Jet City, a publicity stunt pulled off by Seattle restaurateur Mick McHugh. The chartered Concorde flew in a slew of paying passengers, celebrities and press, and a load of Beaujolais nouveau wine hot off the French presses. We'd started in Paris, flew to London, then went twice the speed of sound to New York. We made the final transcontinental flight at sub-sonic speed (America set a speed limit).

One other thing we'd accomplished on the trip: We had taken a shipment of Washington wines for the first-ever tasting in Paris (even after I'd lost a case at Heathrow and had a harrowing time finding it). The critics were impressed that a place they had never heard of had produced drinkable (mostly) wines. Not all were, however: I remember a British wine critic sipping a Yakima Valley Chenin Blanc, spitting it out with distaste: "F-f-f-izzy f-f-fruit juice," he announced with the upper-class stutter of George III.

Those of us on the plane had no idea what waited for us in Seattle, but we got an inkling as we approached a glorious Mt. Rainier. Suddenly, off our wing appeared the KIRO NewsJet to escort us in. Yes, this was in the 1980s when local TV stations were outdoing each other with new gadgets, as in, "We'll trump your copter with a news jet!" It began to dawn on us Concorde revelers that our landing was going to make news.

Inside the Concorde, we'd been in a hermetically sealed tube traveling at bullet speed across an ocean and continent, slightly cramped but treated to excellent food and drink, and enjoying the things that only the Concorde could do, like take off at an angle that made you feel like you we're in a rocket ship, or fly so high you could see the sky turning dark, as if earth orbit were just within reach. Our Concorde was a British Airways plane, but to tell the truth, First Class on a BA 747 was more luxurious (the aisles wide enough for laden tea carts, linens and stewards, the bar upstairs a wonderful place to drink oneself into oblivion), but, of course, they were much slower. But you didn't care. Can I have another slice of Stilton with my port, please?

The Concorde was built for speed, and made up for being a tad cramped with expediting passengers through customs and leaving us with loads of swag: fancy silvery carry-on bags, certificates, models of the jet itself. A trip on the Concorde enabled you to fill a shelf of your trophy case. We'd also rubbed shoulders with celebrities, in our case Lynn Redgrave.

The symbolism of the Concorde in Seattle was hugely potent. This was the city that brought the world into the Jet Age with the 707, and into the Space Age with 1962's Century 21 Exposition. This was the city that was supposed to have built the American Super Sonic Transport, SST, but the program had been killed. The Concorde arriving was a kind of victory lap for the competition, a chance for Seattle to see firsthand the contrail not taken.

If the 707 and the moon landing had built New Frontier expectations about Seattle leading the future in aviation, the passing on the SST and the flight of the Concordes introduced us to a "future" which would also be about hard choices. Here was the future of flight with someone else at the controls.

After the escort of the KIRO NewsJet, we descended on Boeing Field but instead of landing, we buzzed it. From my seat, I looked out and saw what seemed like the flash of million flashbulbs going off as we zoomed by. It turned out thousands of people had turned out to greet us. The pilot pulled up, and by the time the Concorde banked and turned around we were over south Whidbey Island. We swooped down to Boeing Field and got off the plane, greeted like the Beatles in 1964 as we filed down the stairs onto the tarmac and into a throng of media and well-wishers. Most great freebies don't include front-page treatment. I had goose bumps, the feeling I had just witnessed a bit of Seattle aviation history.

In the coming days, the Concorde took local bigwigs on a "Flight to Nowhere" over the Pacific and Seattle had a chance to ooh, ahh, and consider the pros and cons of having gone in a different direction. Today, I'm amazed at what's happened in the 25 years since.

If you had asked me in November 1984 if all Concordes would be out of service by now, if one like I flew on would be an exhibit at the Museum of Flight, I would have said you were nuts. Even as the Concorde was a piece of technology struggling to find a market, it was the zinging blade of the future as promised in 2001: A Space Odyssey where you could take Pan Am to the moon. In those pre-9-11 days, the crew allowed passengers inflight into the doorway of the tiny Concorde cockpit and I remember being amazed at how low-tech it seemed, with toggle switches and paper charts. The contrast between its futuristic contours and low-tech insides was a memory that stuck with me. Was it the future's sleek Potemkin Village? Perhaps the future always is.

In the end, the Concorde wound up exiting more like the German zeppelin fleet of the 1930s, a Jet Age Hindenburg after the terrible Air France crash outside Paris in 2000. It was a luxury that was economically unsound, and potentially unsafe. I was thrilled to have flown on it, on someone else's dime.

The anniversary of the Concorde visit is poignant because of the state of the Boeing company itself. The SST died, and even the last vestige of that dream, the Seattle Supersonics basketball team, has left town. Supersonic passenger travel was a dead-end, but today, Boeing is having trouble getting its own new generation of passenger jets into the air. Some say it is not so innovative, either. Boeing is in the process of leaving town, psychologically and physically: Its headquarters are in Chicago now, one of its new 787 production lines will be in South Carolina (maybe with more lines to follow), and the company has made it known that it has no long-term loyalty to place. If you'd asked me 25 years ago if Boeing would be departing Puget Sound like a retreating glacier, I wouldn't have predicted it.

The Concorde is part of history, and Boeing is facing its own turbulent future. The "Flight to Nowhere" is a more fitting metaphor than we knew.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.