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The 'First Lady of the Skies' in the landing configuration on the approach to New York's JFK International Airport.

The Concorde Story: First Lady of the Skies

It is now 40 years since Concorde made her first supersonic passenger flight, proving beyond question the faith of those who carried the project through to practical reality
The claustrophobic flight deck of Concorde. The two control columns with their familiar 'ramshorn' shape can be clearly seen. To the right is the Flight Engineer's instrumentation panel.

"Air France Concorde Flight 4590 burst into flames shortly after leaving Paris."

Peter Holthusen

 

Several months ago shortly after the Henley Royal Regatta, I had the privilege of catching up with an old family friend, Captain Jock Lowe, the former British Airways Commercial Manager Concorde, who had flown the supersonic flagship throughout her service.

Jock lives in Henley so we decided to meet at The Greyhound in Rotherfield Peppard which had always been one of our favourite watering holes, where we relaxed into an evening of blissful reminiscences of the heyday of Concorde and the flights we had taken together on the aircraft.

 

The aesthetic beauty of Concorde G-BOAB cutting an almost surreal outline against the Heathrow skyline shortly after returning from New York.

 

My late father was a pilot with BOAC (British Airways’ predecessor), where he earned his wings as First Officer on the airline’s ageing Vickers VC-10 fleet, and later as Captain on their Boeing 707, TriStar, DC-10 and eventually, BA’s new Boeing 747 series, so my interest in aviation was spawned from a very early age.

As a student I had intended to follow in his footsteps but failed the sight test abysmally, thus to my bitter disappointment I was compelled to yield for the softer land-based options of law or journalism as a career and subsequently chose the latter. Sadly, due to ill health my father retired from BA long before he was invited to take the mandatory conversion course to fly Concorde, but we did manage to fly on her on a number of occasions before he passed away.

It is now 40 years since Concorde made her first supersonic passenger flight, proving beyond question the faith of those who carried the project through to practical reality in the face of fierce opposition, but this remarkable aircraft never really recovered from the horrific Air France crash near Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on 25 July 2000 in which 113 people died.

At exactly 11.40 am on the morning of 21 January 1976, at London Heathrow Airport, the British Airways Concorde G-BOAA began to roll. Accelerating rapidly down runway 28L, with the distinctive sound of the four reheated Rolls-Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593-610 engines, the aircraft slipped the bonds of gravity and climbed out over the approach lights of the reciprocal runway, with the undercarriage retracting. Commercial supersonic air travel had begun.

As the British Airways Concorde, under the command of Captain Norman Todd, with Captain Brian Calvert as second-in-command and Senior Engineer Officer John Lidiard, reached her subsonic cruising altitude over the English Channel, the crew heard that the Air France Concorde F-BVFA had enjoyed an equally successful departure from Paris Charles de Gaulle. The odds, people had said, were heavily against achieving a simultaneous take-off, but as so often in the past Concorde had proved her pessimists wrong.

The Air France Concorde flew to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar; the British Airways Concorde flew to Bahrain. The first transatlantic service to Washington followed on 24 May 1976. The New York flights began in November the following year.

In October 1994, after 18 years, British Airways suspended their London to Washington service, the Miami extension to that route having been discontinued in March 1991. With the cutting of the latter two routes, BA saved six hundred supersonic sectors per year thus prolonging Concorde's useful years of service. Concorde's fastest transatlantic crossing was on 7 February 1996, when it completed the 3,750 mile New York to London flight in 2 hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

By June 1996, no less than 108 British Airways pilots and 41 flight engineers had successfully completed the Concorde conversion course.

Contrary to popular belief, the Concorde flight-deck was not only the domain of men, for on 25 March 1993, Senior First Officer Barbara Harmer, a former hairdresser and British Caledonian pilot became Concorde's first woman pilot.

Since the inaugural service from London Heathrow to Bahrain in January 1976, the seven Concorde's in British Airway's fleet had made some 63,000 flights, clocking up more than 150,000 flying hours, almost 110,000 of them supersonically, and travelling some 126 million miles – the equivalent of a journey from the Earth to the Moon and back more than 200 times. The airline had therefore built up more experience of supersonic flight than all of the air forces of the world put together, but the
'First Lady of the Skies' was in fact far younger than her "human years" suggested.

After 27 years in service, the memory of Concorde still evokes wonder, and it was my good fortune to fly on the aircraft on a number of occasions. On one particular flight between London and New York in 1997 I was invited to visit the flight-deck, where Captain Jock Lowe said to me: "Concorde was breath-taking and awe-inspiring when she made her first commercial flight in 1976. She still is and she'll still be turning heads long into the new millennium. As a pilot, I get a thrill every time I take the controls, and I can't see that changing."

Captain Lowe continued: "She was years ahead of her time when she first took to the skies and, with no firm signs of a supersonic successor in the wings, she is set to remain that way well into the 21st century. That means that for many more years to come, businessmen and women who make up to 80 per cent of Concorde's customers, plus those travelling for the first time, sitting alongside sports, pop and film stars and even Lottery winners, will still be able to leave London and arrive in New York more than an hour before they left".

Supersonic flight was still proving to be extremely popular until the Air France crash in 2000. In the run-up to Christmas the previous year, Concorde achieved the highest load factors – the percentage of seats filled by fare paying passengers – of any aircraft type in the British Airways fleet.

The 'First Lady of the Skies' may have been approaching adulthood, in terms of "human years", but her unique operating characteristics meant she was still a flighty young lass in comparison with conventional aircraft that first "raised their skirts" off the runway at the same time. Because of her speed and route network, Concorde carried out less than a quarter of a typical subsonic passenger jets' flying hours, landings and take-offs, the key criteria used for measuring the ageing of an aircraft.

Each of British Airways' seven Concorde's clocked up an average of just three flying hours a day, against more than 13 hours a day for a Boeing 747-400 and more than 7 for a Boeing 757. So, just as dogs’ and cats' lives can be measured in "dog years" or "cat years", as opposed to "human years", in "flying years" Concorde was still a spring chicken.

Concorde's phenomenal speed helped her keep younger still. The heat generated in the airframe by passing through the atmosphere at 1,350 miles an hour, faster than a speeding bullet, dries any moisture which may have gathered within the aircraft's internal structure on the ground and which, on conventional aircraft, would normally hasten corrosion.

Regular checks had always shown Concorde to be almost completely dry and free of corrosion. Her condition on the day of her retirement in 2003 was comparable to that of a three to four-year-old subsonic aircraft. These corrosion checks formed part of one of the industry's most robust maintenance programmes.

Quite apart from routine servicing before every flight and more comprehensive checks in the hangar at regular intervals, each of the airline's Concordes was regularly stripped down and rebuilt as part of the on-going process to ensure they were in as good a condition as the day they first entered service.

A programme funded by British Airways and Air France, in consultation with the British Civil Aviation Authority and its French counterpart, the DGAC, was originally carried out by the aircraft's manufacturers British Aerospace and Aerospatiale in France to predict Concorde's life expectancy. This took into account data from the original "life expectancy" indications of the aircraft, drawn up when they were first constructed, which concluded in 1983 after simulating 21,000 flight cycles, subjecting a specimen aircraft to the most intense testing possible. Even the most used Concorde in the British Airways fleet had at that time recorded less than 6,000 flight cycles.

Concorde's original design, by manufacturers British Aerospace and France's Aerospatiale, incorporated the most up-to-date space-age technology. This had been added to over the years, with the latest developments fitted to all the aircraft.

During her time in service, British Airways and Air France had regularly redesigned the aircraft's passenger cabin, to reflect changes in contemporary styles. In 1993, British Airways spent £7 million on improved seating, better galleys and the CD-quality digital in-flight entertainment systems.

Many of Concorde's passengers were regular supersonic travellers, but the actual number of individuals to have joined the exclusive 'Faster-than-Sound Club' was far fewer than the 2.5 million passengers credited overall. The most frequent passenger, an oil company executive from Guildford, Surrey, clocked up almost 70 round-trips a year.

At the time of her retirement in 2003, a typical Concorde passenger was the business executive, who appreciated the unique advantages that come with flying supersonic. Principal among them was time saving. Cruising at 1,350 miles an hour, twice the speed of sound, a typical London to New York crossing took just three and a half hours. Travelling westwards, the five-hour time difference meant that Concorde actually arrived before she had taken off, in local time at least.

During my last flight to New York in 1997, I couldn't help but wonder at this marvel of aeronautical excellence. Here I sat in the sumptuous cabin of Concorde, discreetly elegant in shades of grey leather and soft fabric, while flying at an altitude of 55,000 ft – literally on the threshold of space.

Observing the 'Marilake' indicators at the front of the cabin, showing flight progress to the passengers, I pondered the exploits of pioneering aviators such as United States Air Force Captain Charles 'Chuck' Yeager, who, 50 years earlier, almost to the day, became the first man to break the 'sound barrier', piloting the rocket-powered Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis", an accomplishment that spawned supersonic flight and took man to the stars and beyond. As my thoughts returned to the present, I glanced at the 'Marilake' indicator which now read Mach 1.01, Concorde was now flying supersonic.

In 1947, Yeager's plane buffeted wildly as he approached the Mach 1 regime, yet here I was enjoying gourmet cuisine of fresh Maine lobster, Oscietra caviar and vintage champagne from the Concorde cellar without having to don a G-suit, which was the really sensational thing about Concorde, there was nothing to feel.

Concorde measured 204 ft in length – but that stretched by almost 10 inches in-flight, due to the heating of the airframe. Another performance profile was her characteristic droop nose which was lowered to improve pilots' visibility on landing. The four engines – specially modified Rolls-Royce/ SNECMA Olympus 593s – gave more than 38,000 lbs of thrust each, with "reheat". This added fuel to the final stage of the engine to produce the extra power required for take-off and the transitition
to supersonic flight.

For a growing band of businessmen, day trips from London to New York and back were scheduled regularly into their diaries. Around a fifth of all those on board the daily 10.30 am BA001 service from Heathrow to New York were tucked up in bed back home in the UK by the end of the day. Some of them did not even leave the Concorde Lounge at New York – using the special conference rooms British Airways made available at its JFK terminal for their business meetings.

By regular subsonic aircraft, such a journey would have taken two working days at least. Quite apart from this time-saving, Concorde's passenger cabin was pressurised to a more comfortable level than on subsonic aircraft, reducing flight fatigue still further.

Concorde's principle scheduled services were from London or Paris to New York. Over the winter months there was, for British Airways, a once, sometimes twice weekly scheduled service to Bridgetown, Barbados. Concorde also operated a range of charter flights, which took the aircraft to more than 150 other destinations worldwide.

However, her fate was determined on 25 July 2000, when Air France Concorde Flight 4590 burst into flames shortly after leaving Paris. The ill-fated jet, bound for New York, crashed into the Hôtelissimo in the town of Gonesse, 10 miles north of the city. It is understood the aircraft, which had taken off from Charles de Gaulle Airport just two minutes earlier, plummeted to the ground after one of the port engines caught fire on take-off as a consequence of hitting debris on the runway discarded from a Continental Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 during take-off from the same runway.

Following the accident all the British Airways and Air France Concorde fleet were taken out of service. A total of £17 million was spent on safety improvements and the aircraft went back into service on 7 November 2001.

After the atrocities of 11 September the same year, there were many who thought that Concorde would just not be able to pay its way, but when British Airways opened for flight bookings at 9.00 am on the morning of 16 October there was a rush for tickets, but Concorde never really recovered from the tragedy and was retired two years later.

This remarkable aircraft completed its last commercial passenger flight on Friday 24 October 2003, ending three decades of supersonic travel. On disembarking in New York, actress Joan Collins said there were "cheers and tears" among the passengers when the plane landed.

In an era when the contours of the world map are changing and high-technology is taken for granted, Concorde still remains the indispensable link between man and flying machine in perfect harmony. This is the yardstick by which other aircraft must be judged.

- Peter Holthusen

 

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