- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

An Air France Concorde landed yesterday morning at Washington Dulles International Airport, turning into a museum piece from the world’s fastest passenger airplane.

The National Air and Space Museum officially took possession of the airplane as a gift from France. It will become a centerpiece of the museum’s $311 million Dulles exhibit center when it opens Dec. 15, during 100th anniversary celebrations of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The delta shape of Fox Alpha, the oldest in Air France’s five-plane fleet of Concordes, appeared over the horizon at 10 a.m.

Fox Alpha was the first Concorde to land at Dulles during a 1976 exhibition run.

“The plane is approaching,” a public relations man for the Air and Space Museum yelled to dozens of journalists who lined the runway. They far outnumbered the Air France executives, French government officials and airline staff members aboard the airplane.

Eddies of smoke swirled upward from the tires as they touched down on the runway. A crew member waved to the crowd from the cockpit as the Concorde taxied to its final stop.

“From now on it belongs to future generations,” Air France Chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta said at an Air and Space Museum reception later in the morning.

He was surrounded by biplanes and fuselages of early experimental aircraft — still wrapped in plastic — that will be displayed in the huge exhibit center near the Concorde.

In the end, the expensive 27-year-old Concordes were done in by economics.

Air France took its entire fleet out of service last month. British Airways plans to retire its seven Concordes at the end of October.

“They’re flying at 20 percent loads now, and it’s just not worth it,” said Don Lopez, the Air and Space Museum’s deputy director.

Mr. Lopez flew the Concorde during a 1989 trip to Paris, where Air France pledged to give one of the airplanes to the Air and Space Museum when they were retired. He talked about touching the windows and feeling heat from friction with the air as the airplanes flew at more than 1,300 mph.

The kings, queens, rock singers and movie stars who made up the Concorde’s passenger list typically paid more than $10,000 for a round-trip ticket.

In return, passengers received a three-and-a-half hour flight across the Atlantic, which is about twice as fast as subsonic airliner flights. However, traditional airline passengers paid as little as a few hundred dollars.

The airline industry downturn following the September 11 attacks cut further into the Concordes’ weak finances. The plane already had suffered a blow in 2000, when an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris, killing all 113 persons aboard.

In addition, flights were allowed only over oceans because sonic booms from the airplanes shattered glass and damaged equipment. The Concordes flew in the upper atmosphere, where they disturbed the ozone layer and used huge amounts of fuel.

Despite clearly failing finances that forced the Concordes out of service, “It was a difficult decision,” said Gilles de Robien, France’s minister of public works, transportation, housing, tourism and maritime affairs.

The Concorde will take its place in the exhibit center with the Enola Gay, the World War II B-29 bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, still the world’s fastest airplane with a top speed of 2,200 mph, and other pioneer aircraft.

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