The world is celebrating the hundredth year since the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The birthday and the big celebration will come in December, but the magazines, Sunday supplements and television networks already are recounting the dramatic story of those historic days near a North Carolina beach.

There is irony, however, in the fact that this year we also will observe (it could hardly be called a celebration) the first major setback in the history of commercial aviation. That setback is the end of the only regularly scheduled passenger flight faster than the speed of sound.

Air France flew the last Concorde flight on its New York-Paris schedule in the early summer. British Airways flies its last New York-London flight on Oct. 24.

It is difficult to find in the history of commerce and industry the withdrawal of a product or system that had so advanced the progress of the human race. The grounding of the Concorde is as if, after a dozen locations had been interconnected, Alexander Graham Bell and his associates had decided to go no further in their development of the telephone.

Supersonic flight shrank our world and contributed to the concept of the global village. It brought the realization that we could visit the most distant and remote locations in a day's travel. It also enhanced what began with the launching of satellites, which allowed us to talk instantly with one another around the world. The satellites projected by television a vision and a better understanding of that world to those with no hope of traveling.

The Concorde failed because of a combination of an insurmountable technical problem and a purely financial one. The unsolvable technical problem was the sonic boom, the explosivelike blast that followed like a shadow the Concorde's path overhead. This phenomenon occurred at the moment the plane pierced the sound barrier. It rattled windows and frightened birds, beasts and humans.

So serious were the repercussions that governments banned the Concorde from flight over their lands. Thus the planes were limited to transoceanic flights, and the only regularly scheduled service was between New York and London or Paris. (From those inland cities to the seacoast, the planes flew at subsonic speeds.)

The sonic-boom restriction, of course, limited the Concorde's profit potential but even more serious was the most disastrous of coincidences. Just as the Concorde was being introduced to the traveling public in 1976, world oil prices were soaring upward almost faster than the new aircraft itself.

The additional cost of operating the fuel-guzzling planes sent ticket prices beyond the pocketbooks of a large part of the flying public.

As the Concorde dies, there are those who feel no sorrow and brush off the plane's importance. They see not its potential and the deeper significance of its very existence, but only the fact that it was a big-ticket luxury item.

Actually, the plane was not noted for its comfort. The seats were small; the aisle was narrow (so narrow that when the food cart was in the aisle, one practically had to make an appointment to go to the restroom.)

But comfort was comparatively unimportant when the plane got you across the Atlantic in just more than three hours, barely an hour longer than a regular jet takes on the New York-Chicago run.

European executives flew the Atlantic in the morning, held board meetings in Kennedy Airport's airline lounges and flew home the same day.

Film and television personalities commuted across the Atlantic for one-day appearances. Television journalist David Frost was a regular commuter, with his one-day trips to New York to do his famous interviews.

The only silver lining I can find in the Concorde's demise is that Frost is now going to have to spend an occasional dinner with me in New York.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail@cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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