Concorde

It was the summer of 1969 and there was a mood of excitement at my school. Somebody had heard that Concorde would be making a test flight in the area later that day. The British prototype Concorde, G-BSST (002) had recently made its maiden flight at Filton, Bristol, a few weeks after its French counterpart F-WTSS (001). I didn’t give it too much thought: even if Concorde did overfly the school, we’d probably be in lessons. But I was wrong – it was the lunch hour, we were in the playground, and Concorde came swooping over the school.

Concorde had been in the news for as long as I could remember; I’d seen innumerable artist’s impressions of it in flight; like millions of others, I’d watched the live coverage of 001’s maiden flight from Toulouse – but now here it was for real, flying over the school.

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my father I’d seen Concorde!

In adult life, living in London, Concorde became a familiar sight after it entered commercial service in 1976. It was always an attention-getter, in part because it was far louder than anything else flying, but in the main because it was utterly unlike anything else you were likely to see in the skies above London.

Almost three and a half decades after the British prototype made its flight over my school, most of my office in Fleet Street turned out to watch Concorde’s grand farewell as three aircraft flew in low over the Thames on their way to Heathrow and into retirement. It is the only occasion that I ever saw more than one Concorde at the same time.

I never got to fly Concorde – even the chartered trips around the Bay of Biscay seemed too expensive to justify, though I now regret not having taken the opportunity.

Fifteen years after its retirement, Concorde remains one of if not the most evocative name in aviation history. Almost half a century after its maiden flight, it remains the only passenger airliner to have flown the Atlantic in under three hours.

Only twenty Concordes were ever built, including two prototypes and four pre-production and development aircraft. Fourteen aircraft entered commercial service, seven each with British Airways and Air France. Further orders failed to materialise due to enormous cost overruns, and the restriction of supersonic flight to ocean crossings.

After the British and French governments wrote off the cost, Concorde was nevertheless profitable right up until the beginning of the twenty-first century. The end came with the Air France Flight 4590 disaster on 25 July 2000, which led to Concorde being grounded while safety modifications were carried out. This was followed almost immediately by the downturn in air travel following 9/11. Accordingly, BA and Air France decided to retire Concorde.

Air France’s final Concorde flight took place on 27 June 2003 when F-BVFC retired to Toulouse.

The British Airways Concordes retired on 24 October 2003. G-BOAG flew from New York while G-BOAF made a round trip over the Bay of Biscay, carrying VIP guests including former Concorde pilots, and G-BOAE made a round trip to Edinburgh. The three aircraft then circled over London, having received special permission to fly at low altitude. Witnessed by tens of thousands (including myself as noted above), they flew along the Thames before landing in sequence at Heathrow.

The last flight of any Concorde took place on 26 November 2003. Fittingly, it involved G-BOAF (216), which was the last Concorde to be built. The aircraft flew from Heathrow, going supersonic over the Bay of Biscay and performing a lap of honour over Bristol before landing at Filton, where it now forms the centrepiece of the Aerospace Bristol Museum.

Of the twenty Concordes built, all but two airframes still exist. F-BTSC (203) was lost in the Air France Flight 4590 disaster and F-BVFD (211) was scrapped in 1994 having been laid up since 1982.

There has long been talk of returning Concorde to flight, but to date nothing has come of any proposal. Sadly, the practical difficulties of getting even one of these iconic aircraft back in the air appear to be all but insurmountable.

Exterior of G-BOAF at Aerospace Bristol Museum, Filton.

Views of the cockpit and cramped interior. Note the tiny windows. On the other hand, the seats were upholstered with the finest leather.

501-trubshaw

Flight suit of test pilot Brian Trubshaw, who piloted the British prototype G-BSST (002) on its maiden flight on 9 April 1969.

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