Concorde: the supersonic symbol of luxury air travel

The Concorde is to date the world's only supersonic passenger plane, travelling at speeds that whisked an elite class of travellers between London or Paris and the US east coast in just over three hours.

Designed and built jointly by France and Britain in the 1960s -- before the latter country joined the European Union -- it made its first commercial flight in January 1976.

It was definitively retired in October 2003, three years after a devastating crash that killed 113 people.

The sleek, delta-winged aircraft could carry between 100 and 144 passengers: a tiny capacity compared to today's jumbo-jets that carry more than 500.

A distinctive feature was its long pointed nose, which drooped downwards during take-off, landing and taxiing to give the pilots better visibility.

Concorde could fly at over twice the speed of sound -- or Mach 2, in aviation parlance. Its cruising speed was 2,200 kilometres (1,370 miles) an hour.

In the 1950s Britain and France had each separately planned a supersonic passenger plane. When it emerged that their plans were similar however -- and that the craft would be exorbitantly expensive -- they decided to pool their resources.

Concorde's early years were bedevilled not only by controversy over elitism and cost -- it was never to make a profit -- but also by the 'sonic boom' generated when it burst through the sound barrier.

That led several countries to ban it from their airspace, so its main market became the trans-Atlantic flights, as well as charter excursions for people who wanted to taste the Concorde experience.

As the aircraft was never sold to a third country, its only operators were Air France and British Airways. Most of the time they operated a maximum of seven planes each.

On July 25, 2000, an Air France flight headed for New York, carrying mainly German tourists on their way to a cruise, crashed and burned on take-off from Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris.

All 109 people aboard died, as well as four people on the ground.

The accident, the only crash recorded by the Concorde in its 22 years of operation, was caused by shard of metal on the runway which burst a tyre, causing fragments to be sucked into one of the plane's engines.

After the accident, both countries suspended Concorde flights for a year as they tried to find out how to prevent such accidents being repeated. But things were never to be the same again.

After the September, 2001 attacks on New York caused a major crisis in the air transport industry, the Concorde's days were numbered.

Air France flew its final commercial flight in May 2003, and British Airways followed suit in October of the same year.

Today the Concorde, looking tiny next to most of its modern cousins, survives only as a museum exhibit.

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