From the Cockpit to the Cab

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, July 16, 2017

An Alco, by the way, and an operating steam locomotive.  Well outside the United States, however; in fact, an ocean away.  And the crossing of that ocean, in this case the Atlantic, provides the title reference for the first portion of this narrative.

For, on September 26, 1992, I was fortunate to fly on an aircraft exceeding the speed of sound, by a factor of slightly more than twice.  On my way to Toulouse, France, I left my home in northern Virginia and traveled to JFK airport in New York City, where I boarded F-BTSD, a supersonic Concorde operating Air France flight 001, for the trip to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. The ride on “Sierra Delta” would take a little more than three hours, and put me in France in time to spend the night in a hotel at the airport, even though we didn’t leave JFK until the early afternoon.

The experience didn’t disappoint.  You could feel the enormous power of the aircraft on takeoff, although it was possible also to observe the fuselage flexing as it accelerated down the relatively bumpy runway at JFK.  The service was excellent, including outstanding food; a wonderful beef main course, in my case, accompanied by excellent French wines that only added to the enjoyment.

My observation of the other passengers suggested that they seemed to fit into two groups:  those who were blasé about the experience, likely because they probably had done it many times, with the rest being excited about the trip, and evincing something approaching a party atmosphere.

No, I didn’t have anything to do with the actual flying, but did avail myself of the opportunity to visit the cockpit during the supersonic cruise portion of the flight.  I participated personally in the ritual of placing my hand between some of the flight engineer’s instruments and the fuselage, made possible by the expansion of the fuselage due to the friction produced by our great speed through what little atmosphere existed at that altitude; a further example was provided by the window at my seat, which had become hot to the touch.

The next day, I proceeded more sedately to Toulouse, where I checked into my hotel, and proceeded to the railroad station.  I set out to Albi, the home of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.  While I did visit the museum honoring him, I had a train to catch.

This was an excursion from Toulouse to Carmaux and back; it had departed before my arrival, but the return departure time from Albi allowed me to board there for the rest of the journey.  Yes, as you can see from the picture above, it was powered by steam; specifically 141R number 1126 (using the classification system that counts the locomotive’s axles, rather than the Whyte system’s convention of wheels), a “Liberation Mikado”, manufactured by Alco in Schenectady, New York, and sent to France to help with the rebuilding of Europe’s railways following World War II.

The 1126 and its train was operated by L'Amicale des Cheminots pour la Préservation de la 141 R 1126, a group consisting primarily of retired SNCF (the French National Railway System) employees based in Toulouse.  Due to operational difficulties that day, it was running in reverse on the way back to Toulouse, but that seemed to have little impact on its speed.

My friend and business colleague Peter Jost, an Airbus Industrie employee who also was a member of the sponsoring group had arranged for me to ride in the cab for a portion of the trip.  I did note a sign, in French, stating that the locomotive was limited to eight occupants; I counted 13 at one point, spread over the cab and the tender.  The “Friends” of the 1126 running the engine were at least as thrilled as the bon vivant cluster of the Concorde passengers the day before, and yes, that’s the engineer sitting on the left side of the cab. 

What can I say about the two (very) different transportation experiences, both observed from the ‘business end’ of their respective vehicles, within a 24-hour timespan?  Literally a once in a lifetime opportunity, and for the second act of the drama, a marvelous way to overcome jet lag.  

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