SPEEDBIRD ONE

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Speedbird 1

What do you regret?  What did you do that you wish you hadn’t?  Or didn’t do that you wish you had? Are you a cautious person who sits things out then wishes they’d been braver? Or the gun ho type who acts rashly and regrets at leisure?

On balance I’m not one for regrets. I like to say yes and hate being timid. Better to try – then fail, than not to try at all.

But there’s one big regret I have.  For once in my life, what others would call ‘common sense’ prevailed over desire. Timidity triumphed over throwing caution to the wind.  I fear it wasn’t common sense at all but an uncharacteristic conservatism.

In 2000 an Air France Concorde crashed whilst taking off from Paris.  With that one crash, civil aviation was never quite the same again. The crash mark the turning point when civil aviation became less civil.  It was the time when those ghastly Ryanair planes were becoming ubiquitous and flying becoming less glamorous.

Those graceful Concordes were quickly fixed and deemed skyworthy again, but a series of faults and unhelpful diversions to places like Bangor and Cardiff meant that the premium service was getting difficult to maintain as the jets started to show their age.

The ‘war on metal cutlery’ that began after the 9/11 attacks the following year didn’t help maintain a premium service.  I can’t help but think Concorde was doomed after they were forced to service their meals – caviar and foie grass – with plastic cutlery.

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it wasn’t long after plastic cutlery was introduced that it was announced that the whole Concord fleet – both Air France and British Airways’ aircraft – were to be retired and would no longer be plying the supersonic route across the Atlantic.

The end of supersonic aviation was suddenly in sight. We were no longer moving forward into a bold technological future. We were rapidly moving backwards. Getting slower. Never before had technology taken a leap backwards.

***

I was but a poor university student at the time of Concorde’s demise.  My student loan cheque had just come through and I through –  ‘it’s now or never’.

I priced up the cost of supersonic ticket on flight BA001 to New York, and the cheapest economy ticket back.  I phoned my bank and asked how much I could extend my credit card limit.  I contemplated a semester or two of penury at university.

And then… and then I wimped out.  I made the mistake I would forever regret.  I decided it was too much money.

A few months later a British Airways Concorde – with the flight number BA001 and that famous callsign ‘Speedbird One’ – made the last trip to New York and back again as BA002.

The jet touched the edge of space for the last time, allowing its passengers a final glimpse of the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space before bringing a sad end to the supersonic jet age.  And I never made it.

***

For years aviation lacked the excitement that Concorde used to bring.  Even new planes didn’t help. No one gets excited at the prospect of flying on a whale-like A380 or fire-prone Boeing 787.

Of course I continued flying. But it was all rather routine.

Then, quietly, British Airways did something rather innovative.  British Airways revived that famous call sign and flight number for another rather special flight.

***

Like Concorde, the new BA001 also whisks passengers across the Atlantic to New York. While Concorde packed 100 passengers into the plane, the new BA001 feels a little more exclusive. With a maximum of just 32 people on board, the new flights makes Concorde seem positively mass transport.

Six years after the final Concorde flight, British Airways procured two stubby little airbus A318 elite jets.  Both were retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and just 32 flat bed seats.  The planes were adapted to allow them to fly into London City Airport. Thus was born the Club World London City service.

***

And so some ten years after the last Concorde touched down, I finally booked myself on flights BA001 to New York and back on BA002.  This time there was no indecision and no regrets. There are rumours the flight is not making money and might not last.

By far the best thing about flying out of City Airport, is that you can arrive just 20 minutes before the flight – 15 minutes if you’re travelling without luggage.

I’d broken my first rule of travelling – that only losers check in luggage – and arrived some 35 minutes before take off.  I breezed through the security. City airport has no proper business lounge but BA have turned the tiny area around gate 24 into a makeshift lounge with a light breakfast on offer and a coffee machine.

There you’re welcomed by a ground crew who explain the details of the flight. They too seem genuinely excited by the flight, as do my fellow passengers.  There were just 16 of us on the flight so boarding – just walking 30 or so metres across the tarmac – was rather relaxed.

Concorde used to engage the afterburners during takeoff which led to a powerful surge down the runway. The A318 does’t have the afterburners but it still leaves City like a rocket.  The plane has the range to fly non-stop to New York, but the short runway at City Airport means the plane can’t take off fully fuelled.  So when flying west-bound you make the short hop to Shannon where the plane takes on extra fuel. This means the plane is exceptionally light leaving City. You take to the sky like catapult.  (Flying back from New York is non-stop.)

Landing at Shannon an hour or so later has an upside.  As the plane refuels the passengers disembark and pass through US customs and immigration – or doing the ‘Shannon Shuffle’ as it’s affectionally called by regulars on the route. All this mean you arrive in New York as a domestic passenger and avoid all the queues.

Shannon is an altogether different experience to border control in the US mainland. You’re escorted off the plane straight to customs. With virtually no queues and border staff who actually smile, all make this a pleasant way to enter the country.

Back on the plane half an hour later we lumber back to the runway, somewhat heavier on fuel.

Inside the plane, the cabin, while technically like any short haul airbus, feels more like the upper deck of a 747 but with much more space. There are just eight rows of seats.

After takeoff the champagne begins flowing again. Ipads are handed out, stocked with movies. Lunch is served – complete with metal cutlery.  The crew – who are all based out of Gatwick – seem genuinely happy to be on this unique flight.  Most of the BA crew out of Heathrow seem jaded by an airline that’s lost it’s mojo. But on BA001 you get the impression that civil aviation can still be civil and anything but routine.

BA’s normal Club World seats apparently don’t fit easily into the A318, so they had to come up with a new design, which I actually found exceptionally comfortable.

After lunch I commandeered a few spare pillows, reclined the seat into bed mode and settled down for a nap.

Concorde may have been quick but it wasn’t half a comfy for a nap.

I didn’t get to see the curvature of the earth or the darkness of space. I didn’t get to go supersonic. But I did get to sleep very well. And to dream.

Flying may have become horribly routine and formulaic, but there are still little corners of the industry doing something a bit different.

I’m not crossing the Atlantic any other way.

Speedbird 2 Speedbird 3 Speedbird 4 Speedbird 5 Speedbird 6Speedbird 1 (1)


Speedbird 2 (1)

 

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