February 28, 1978. Checking in for the Concorde, we are warned to remove film from our pockets before passing through Security, which raises a question about the effect of detecting devices on people, as well as on unexposed film. The list of articles forbidden aboard includes aqualungs and, unless sealed in polyethylene bags, thermometers.
In compensation for the cramped ride and abrupt meal service on the Concorde, small luxuries are offered before and after the flight. Each passenger is individually escorted to a special waiting lounge, where businessmen are squinting at stock-market averages in The Wall Street Journal while stewards bring trays of paté and bottle after bottle of Dom Perignon, like caterers at a Palm Beach wedding. The décor is bright and cheerful, the chairs are noninstitutional, and the wall is a large window with a view of the aircraft’s bowsprit-like nose cone. Coats and carry-ons are collected here and taken on board ahead.
The airplane is even smaller than reported, and no wider, it seems, than the one-propeller craft of thirty years ago. Entering the doorway, we are obliged to duck, and, in the narrow aisle, to turn sideways to pass, which accounts for the advance cloakroom service: it would be difficult to remove overcoats without jabbing neighbors. In fact the pocket-mirror-sized window might have been designed for a maximum security prison, the seat to prepare the occupant for a spell in a straitjacket. Basketball players would be well advised to travel subsonically.
To judge by their twang, many of the travelers are Texans, tall men who crouch when they stand and who talk about oilionaire sheiks and developments in Oman and Kuwait. By contrast, the accents and vocabulary of the crew seem markedly British, as when the cabin attendant says, demonstrating a life jacket, “Pull the knob smartly downward.” She points to the “entertainment console” in the armrest, but the seat is too constricting for normal-sized people to be able to see the buttons and dials, and thus to hear the stolidly English earphone concert of Elgar, Walton, and Vaughan Williams. The engine noise, like that of a powerful vacuum cleaner, grows louder with revving, and whistles at take-off like a Fourth of July rocket. The climb seems more rapid than in other planes, and, after a sharp initial dip of the tail, steeper. Ears crackle and nostrils fill momentarily with the smell of combusting fuel. The captain announces: “In the interest of noise abatement, we will reduce our speed, then in about twenty minutes this delightful aircraft will come into its element.” The braking, over Coney Island, feels like the suspension before the plunge in a roller coaster.
At the head of the cabin a Mach-meter, like a digital clock, begins to register at MO:34. The numbers tick off quickly until reaching the speed of Mach 1, and again, beyond the sound barrier, Mach 2 (1,350 mph), where, fluctuating no more than a point or so, they remain throughout the trip. Within minutes …