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Concorde roars into supersonic sunset

London, Oct. 24 (Reuters): Three Concordes flew into London today in a spectacular finale to the era of supersonic travel.

To tears and cheers from thousands of aviation fans, the needle-nosed jets touched down at London’s Heathrow airport in a carefully choreographed curtain call.

The flights — from Edinburgh, around the Bay of Biscay and finally from New York — touched down at two-minute intervals to bring a close to one of commercial aviation’s most exciting — and expensive — experiments.

Aboard the last trans-Atlantic Concorde, pilot Mike Bannister told the applauding passengers: “Concorde was born from dreams, built from vision and operated with pride.”

“Concorde is a fabulous aircraft and it has become a legend today,” he said after soaring for the last time to the edge of space and flying at twice the speed of sound.

Champagne and vintage wines flowed during the flight as passengers, including actress Joan Collins and model Christie Brinkley, enjoyed lobster, caviar and smoked salmon.

“It’s the best office in the world,” said cabin service director Tracey Percy as the planes taxied in with their captains waving Union Jack flags from the cockpits.

David Hayes, who paid $60,300 in a charity auction to fly with his wife on the historic flight, said: “I started crying and my heart was racing. It was time to say goodbye.”

Heathrow flight controller Ivor Simms said: “I was a trainee in 1976 when I departed the first New York flight, and it makes me very proud that 26 years later, I was in control as the last New York flight landed.

“My overriding feeling is one of relief that it all went to plan and nothing went wrong. It was nice to see all three of them together. That has never happened before.”

Concorde had set the standard for trans-Atlantic air travel. Now the drop-nosed Queen of the Skies is headed for a sedentary life in aviation museums.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, who took the first Concorde flight in 1976 and was now on the last, said: “I don’t think we will see it again — at least in my lifetime.”

For many it was a sad moment. British motoring correspondent and self-confessed speed freak Jeremy Clarkson, who took the last Concorde flight, said: “Getting off this plane will be one giant leap backwards for mankind.”

Back in the mid-20th century, Concorde’s Anglo-French creators had hoped it would become a standard-bearer for a new generation of airliners.

But the high running costs, deafeningly loud engines and sonic booms turned environmentalists against it and the plane quickly became little more than an exclusive toy for superstars.

The beginning of the end came in July 2000 when an Air France flight crashed outside Paris, killing 113 people and grounding the entire French and British fleets.

Concorde resumed flying in late 2001 in the teeth of a severe downturn in trans-Atlantic air travel that followed the September 11 attacks on US cities that year. Then plane-maker Airbus said this year that it would stop supplying parts and maintenance, sealing the jet’s fate.

Veteran British television presenter David Frost, who has flown the supersonic airliner up to 500 times, said Concorde “was the only way you could be in two places at once”.

And he concluded with an epitaph echoed by the other saddened passengers: “It is a great invention and a shame it has had to stop.”

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