Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
“You may visit the flight deck now.”
Carefully I put down the glass of cognac, placed my cigar in the ashtray and followed the purser to the cockpit. Walking forward along the ridiculously cramped aircraft aisle, I was sure I detected mild contempt from many of my fellow passengers: they could tell this was a one-trip wonder.
The captain, first officer and engineer greeted me impressively warmly, considering they had already welcomed a dozen other first-time passengers to their cramped flight deck during the supersonic flight. But what grabbed my attention was the sight of the sun rising in the west.
Aesthetically, this was Concorde’s greatest trick. The evening departure from London Heathrow to New York JFK took off after dark. But with a cruising speed of 1,350mph the British Airways jet outpaced the earth’s rotation. Eleven miles above the planet, the sunset came to you.
This was the 1980s, when the fastest way to transport financial documents and news film between the two most important cities in the world was as checked baggage on Concorde.
Checked baggage needed a courier: a passenger actually sitting on board. Wisely the time-sensitive documents handler, which at the time was Securicor, realised there was no need to employ anyone – and that it could earn a bit of cash by selling each courier slot for £150. This was a small price to pay for backpackers who wanted a taste of the supersonic life. One caveat: to avoid drawing attention to the courier, and risking the wrath of passengers whose tickets had cost 10 times as much, males who took the role were required to wear a suit and tie.
The supersonic cabin was absurdly narrow. Elbow room was non-existent, but thankfully laptops had not caught on by the time Concorde flew off in search of the sunset for the final time.
To take passengers’ minds off the tightness of the titanium tube, the six cabin crew served champagne and an elaborate dinner, followed by Sir’s preferred form of tobacco (cigars were dished out like candy) and cognac, and a trip to the flight deck.
Twenty years ago this week, the final supersonic commercial flight, BA2 from JFK, touched down at…