Relations between France and the U.S. were strained during the war in Iraq, but there were raised glasses and smiles all around, last week, when Air France donated its historic Concorde to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly.
Calling it a "mythical aircraft," Gilles de Robien, French minister of Public Works, Transportation, Housing, Tourism and Maritime Affairs, entrusted the Concorde to the U.S. Said de Robien: "May it symbolize the ingenuity, imagination, hard work and, above all, the harmony and cooperation between our two nations."
Fittingly, the ceremony took place last Thursday morning, June 12, inside the museum's 293,707-square-foot aviation hangar. The Concorde had just arrived from Paris, an hour earlier, touching down at Dulles International Airport — where it will be stored until it's brought inside the museum in October-November.
The $311 million annex will open to the public, Dec. 15, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. It's off Route 50 west on 176.5 acres on the airport's south side. Main access will be via Barnsfield Road — a new, full-cloverleaf interchange being constructed from Route 28, just south of Dulles' gate 4.
The facility is actually named the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, after the man who, as a child in Hungary, became enamored of aviation, made it his career and later contributed $65 million toward the annex's construction. It will feature historically significant aircraft too large to display in the Washington, D.C., museum.
Udvar-Hazy participated in last week's festivities, and museum director Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey acknowledged his generous contribution. Noting that the facility's construction is "supported entirely with private funds," Dailey said a great part of it was made possible by "the dreams of a 7-year-old boy from Hungary, hooked by the magic and mystery of flight at an air show."
He said the 204-foot-long Concorde will be "one of the star attractions here," and Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian's under secretary for American Museums and National Programs, agreed. "This is an extraordinary day where we celebrate such an extraordinary gift," she said. "The Smithsonian offers the world a picture of America and, America, a picture of the world."
THE F-BVFA CONCORDE, referred to Thursday as "Fox Alpha" by Air France officials, is the world's only supersonic passenger jetliner and is the oldest of five in Air France's fleet. Until last month, when the Concorde ended 27 years of service, it regularly cruised at 1,350 mph — more than twice the speed of sound — and at altitudes up to 60,000 feet.
"The Concorde today flew 3,800 miles across the Atlantic in roughly three hours to get here," said Burke. "On Dec. 15, we'll celebrate the centennial flight of the Wright [brothers]. Both [the Concorde] and the Wright flyer speak to [man's] insatiable desire to go further and faster and to explore our world and beyond."
When museum visitors see both aircraft, she said, they'll see "the evolution of flight, [learn] what people are willing to risk and be inspired by it." Added Burke: "We hope we'll share what is best about the world and our culture."
Air France Chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta said the donation of the Concorde illustrates the close ties between France and the U.S. that date back to the transatlantic balloon flights of 1889. A century later, on April 16, 1989, France signed a document and created a plaque formalizing its intention to donate this beloved aircraft to the Smithsonian when it was someday retired from service.
"Just after the 9/11 attacks, I decided this plaque should be returned to the U.S. to symbolize the solidarity of France with the U.S. people after such a terrible tragedy," said Spinetta. "It is all the more fitting because, in May 1976, Washington, D.C., was the first city to welcome supersonic service between France and the U.S."
He said the Concorde flew around the world in 1998 in 41 hours, 27 minutes and, all totaled, has logged almost 18,000 flight hours on some 7,000 flights.
"It will be missed by France because it's a beautiful piece of machinery with an iconic design," said Spinetta. "It was the ultimate flight experience. Air France is tremendously proud that it will be on display [here] in these prestigious surroundings, bringing pleasure to everyone. It now belongs to future generations."
VIA A FRENCH translator, de Robien said the decision to pull the Concorde from service was a difficult one, "but the constraints facing all airlines today make it a necessary choice. But Fox Alpha will begin a second career in this beautiful place and will help keep aircraft history alive."
Udvar-Hazy called the acquisition "another milestone for the Smithsonian" and offered his sincere thanks to France, "whose contribution will represent another masterpiece of human creation" to be housed at the Chantilly facility.
"The Concorde represents one of the greatest achievements of the human race," he said. "Millions have flown it since 1976, and I hope future generations of Americans will be as awed by it as I was, growing up here in America."
Dailey, Spinetta, Burke and Udvar-Hazy then signed documents making the transfer official and the Concorde, in Dailey's words, "a treasure of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum."
Afterward, Capt. Edouard Chemel, former chief captain of Air France's Concorde Division, addressed the gathering in the hangar. He was the pilot flying the aircraft here last week, and his voice was filled with emotion as he spoke.
"She was the best of all the Concordes — always on time," he said. "She was the first to fly Mach II — on her maiden flight — and was the first to land in the U.S." The aircraft also has personal significance for Chemel, since he made his first Concorde flight as a captain in it, in December 1983.
French and U.S. representatives then toasted the Concorde's donation with French champagne. And as the ceremony ended, Dailey told Spinetta, "We guarantee that you have entrusted this to the right people. We will take very good care of it."