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20 years ago, the supersonic passenger jet Concorde flew for the last time

This is part of a special series where NPR looks back at our coverage of major news stories in the past. Listen to the full audio story to hear NPR's archival audio.

There was a time when you could fly from New York City to London at twice the speed of sound. Passengers dined on caviar and sipped champagne, all while zipping across the Atlantic Ocean in just 3 1/2 hours.

The plane had a slender white fuselage, a pointy nose that moved up and down, and a delta wing that formed a triangle.

Air France pilot Michel Butel told NPR that flying this plane was like flying a fighter jet.

"It's amazing what you can do with that machine," Butel said.

He was describing the supersonic airliner Concorde, which 20 years ago made its final flight — marking the end of a groundbreaking chapter in aviation history.

Concorde was a joint project between Britain and France, which is partly why the plane is synonymous with two airlines: British Airways and Air France. The plane's first commercial flight to the U.S. dates back to May 24, 1976. Concorde took off from London and landed with a roar at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

Ira Flatow covered the much-anticipated arrival for NPR.

"We literally were on the apron of the runway when the Concorde came by. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life," he remembered in a 2003 interview.

Travel time between the two continents was cut in half.

Concorde had its critics

Concorde's early triumph was hardly without turbulence.

Environmental advocates criticized the plane's inefficiency and argued its emissions would damage the ozone layer shielding humans and the environment from harmful levels of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

Concorde guzzled four times more fuel than a jumbo jet like the Boeing 747, which could also carry nearly 500 passengers (Concorde's cramped seating arrangement could carry just 100). And a round-trip ticket in the 1990s could cost as much as $10,000 — about $20,000 in today's money.

People on the ground complained about the noise from Concorde's boisterous turbojet engines, and its alarming sonic booms as it broke the sound barrier over the Atlantic.

But Concorde defied its critics. For almost three decades, the small fleet of jets kept flying — and shattering records. In 1996, a British Airways Concorde crossed from New York to London in just 2 hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds, which to this day is the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a passenger plane.

Concorde became the trendy way to travel for celebrity jet-setters, from Paul McCartney to Elizabeth Taylor. In 1985 during the worldwide benefit concert Live Aid, Phil Collins played the London stage, then boarded Concorde and made it to the U.S. in time to play the Philadelphia stage — all on the same day.

"I was in England this afternoon," Collins told the cheering Philadelphia crowd after taking his seat behind the piano. "Funny old world, isn't it?"

The crash that changed everything

Over the years the cost to maintain the aging supersonic jets grew more and more expensive. And even though Concorde had a reliable safety record, everything changed on July 25, 2000.

An Air France Concorde taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris struck a piece of metal debris left behind by another plane on the runway. The debris punctured one of the Concorde's tires, sending chunks of rubber into the fuel tank. The Concorde's left wing burst into flames, before the plane crashed into a roadside hotel.

"We overheard a very loud, roaring noise," said Jamie Ritchie, a British businessman who witnessed the crash. "And there was a large plume of smoke some thousand feet high."

All 109 people on board were killed, along with four people on the ground.

Aviation authorities immediately grounded every Concorde still in service. The planes wouldn't return for over a year amid government investigations and intense regulatory scrutiny.

A farewell to supersonic passenger travel

Concorde never fully recovered.

The crash did lasting damage to consumer confidence. Then, 9/11 rocked the airline industry. The sky-high costs of supersonic jet travel became even more difficult to justify.

"Commercial supersonic flight will become like travel to the moon: a goal achieved, and then long abandoned," commentator Lester Reingold predicted on NPR's Morning Edition.

Concorde made its last-ever flight on Nov. 26, 2003, departing London's Heathrow Airport and landing in Bristol, England, greeted by a cheering crowd gathered behind fences near the runway.

These days, Concorde is sitting in museums all over the world. But passenger air travel at the speed of sound may not be gone for good.

NASA and Lockheed Martin are developing a supersonic aircraft that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom. And a Colorado-based company called Boom has deals with major airlines including American and United to buy its supersonic plane, which is still in development.

The company says the jets will one day cut travel time across the Atlantic in half.

Sound familiar? [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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