Supersonic memories of Concorde’s high-flying era
PUBLISHED: 07:30 02 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:56 02 March 2019
Fifty years ago today, on March 2 1969, Concorde made its maiden flight in Toulouse, France. Nick Richards and Judy Rimmer salute the fantastic white plane.
“I was in England this afternoon. Funny old world innit?” Those were the words spoken by Phil Collins on July 13, 1985 as he took to the stage in Philadelphia at the America’s Live Aid concert.
He’d also played at Wembley Stadium hours earlier – an amazing double feat only made possible by the supersonic brilliance of Concorde.
It was one of the most famous trips every taken on the beautiful plane at the height of its 1980s excess which made flying from London to New York a three-and-a-half hour experience, albeit with an £8,000 return price tag.
Concorde was a 1960s dream, developed jointly between England and France that finally took flight in 1969. On March 2 that year, the French-built Concorde 001 prototype took off in Toulouse with pilot Andre Turcat taking the plane up to an altitude of 10,000ft and up to 300mph – around a quarter of its full speed – in a 27 minute flight.
Watching the first flight was Brian Trubshaw, who on April 9, 1969 took the British-built prototype, Concorde 002, on a 22-minute flight from a test runaway at Filton, near Bristol and landed at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.
Concorde’s first supersonic flight came later in 1969 but it wasn’t until 1976 that the first commercial flights took place.
Extravagance and opulence
While man landed on the moon later in 1969, creating a magical memory for anyone alive, the advances in airplane technology that year would eventually have far more impact for the general public - well those that could afford it.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, taking a journey on Concorde became a trip of extravagance and opulence – British Airways flew to Miami, Bahrain, Barbados as well as New York and Washington while Air France took passengers to places such as Dakar, Rio de Janeiro and Caracas.
But for all its beauty the plane was uneconomic, its heavy fuel consumption, small fuel tanks and low passenger numbers (it could seat 128 passengers) meant it could never enter the lucrative trans-Pacific market.
In July 2000 an Air France Concorde flying from Paris to New York crashed two minutes into its flight after debris on the runway caused a tyre to burst and a fuel tank puncture, killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground.
Despite millions being spent on safety improvements, the plane came back into commercial service at the end of 2001 but in the post 9/11 world, airline travel did not have the same appeal and 18 months later, in the spring of 2003, BA and Air France cited falling passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs as their reason for retiring the plane.
Concorde’s final commercial flight was on 23 October 2003.
Who flew on Concorde - both staff and lucky passengers?
Former air stewardess Sally Armstrong has many glamorous memories of eight years flying on Concorde in the 1980s.
It’s all summed up in the title of her book, Vintage Champagne on the Edge of Space: The Supersonic World of a Concorde Stewardess.
Sally, who grew up in Copdock, Ipswich, met many stars aboard the “pocket rocket”, including Rolling Stone Sir Mick Jagger, who was on her first flight and signed an autograph for her. Sally also met Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Richard Attenborough, Sir Richard Harris and John Travolta.
And, after chatting with Dame Elizabeth Taylor, she was even offered the chance to try on the legendary actress’s famous ring, bought by Richard Burton.
In her book, she says: “As a member of the Concorde cabin crew and flying supersonic at 60,000ft, it was for me another day of ‘going to the office’, and in this case going to the office was always a consummate adventure.”
Graham Hendry, who lived in Ipswich for many years but now lives in France, flew on the famous plane in the early 1990s. He recalled: “I was working in central government and was due to fly to Washington DC for talks with US colleagues. I had been booked on a BA B747 flight to Dulles but had to postpone my departure to attend an urgent meeting in Whitehall.
“My boss told the travel section to rebook me on the next available BA flight to Washington. They did. It was Concorde.
“I set off clutching my shiny Concorde ticket, much to the amusement and envy of my colleagues.
“On boarding, my impression was one of luxury (grey leather seats, tasteful interior decor) but all rather cramped. I think I was the only passenger who was not a regular user of Concorde. Everyone else seemed very underwhelmed while I was like the proverbial child in a sweetshop - I had always loved aeroplanes and flying.
“The aircraft flew at c70,000 feet in the cruise. There was no sense of speed at that height but a screen at the front of the cabin let us know how fast we were going. At that height, on the fringes of space, the sky was a very deep blue.
“The cabin service was impeccable. I was given a souvenir of a set of leather-bound, Concorde-branded, miniature dictionaries.
“We arrived into Dulles on time, just behind the B747 flight that I had been due to take!”
Another former passenger, Barrie Gilbert, remembered: “There was a lounge just for Concorde. Everything was very special. The seats themselves were indeed quite narrow, but they were leather and I found them comfortable. The food was excellent, and there was always champagne.
The flying experience was quite different, as they would tell you what Mach you were flying, and when you cleared Ireland landmass they put the plane up to the speed of sound. At that point you felt a strong nudge in your back as the plane accelerated. Many people on the plane were regulars and the staff knew them well.”
Barrie still has a grey leather Concorde portfolio which was given out to passengers.
Vicky Atterton from Norwich also remembers the plane with fondness. Vicky, 64, said: “I lived in Middlesex for a long time before moving to Norwich and Concorde used to fly over my house a couple of times a day.
“The engine noise was so distinct compared to other planes on the Heathrow flight path to the extent that I knew it was coming over without even looking in the sky.
“It used to bank over the house and it was so loud, the house used to shake. I used to go in the garden when it came over and shout at the top of my voice ‘One day I’m going to go on that’ as nobody else could hear me. I also used to take the phone in the garden when it came over and hold it up so my dad in Norwich could hear it coming over.”
Vicky’s dream did come to fruition in the late 1990s when she finally did fly on Concorde. She said: “My dad and I both loved Concorde and went on a short cruise in the Canary Islands and part of the offer was a flight home on Concorde. Unfortunately there wasn’t one available so we flew back on a normal plane with all the Concorde crew.
“As compensation we could have money back or another flight on Concorde and thankfully we chose the flight – it was only from Paris but it went over the Bay of Biscay to make the flight a bit longer.
“All I can really remember from the flight was that it was very compact inside and the thrust when we took off was incredible – you could feel it in back of your seat when you took off. I was very upset when they stopped flying, not many people can say they went on it, and I’m so glad I did.”
Rowan Mantell from Norwich said: “Concorde was part of my daily life long before I had flown in any kind of plane.
“Growing up in Devon, I would hear the sonic boom as it reached supersonic speeds way above us. I think it was as Concorde was hurtling westwards across the Atlantic to America. I do remember it being loud enough to be heard indoors, and to make the plates rattle on the kitchen dresser.”
Rowan never actually flew on the famous plane, though, saying: “The nearest I’ve ever come to travelling in Concorde was walking through the model at Duxford!”
Concorde’s resting place at an East Anglian museum
Flights in Concorde may now be a thing of the past - but many would-be passengers from East Anglia have visited the plane at Imperial War Museums, Duxford, Cambridgeshire.
Pre-production aircraft Concorde 101 arrived there in 1977, more than 40 years ago. The landing was quite tricky, as the runway at Duxford was too short, but pilot Brian Trubshaw safely brought the iconic plane in.
Concorde stood outside for 20 years, but is now part of the museum’s British Airliner Collection.
Duxford Aviation Society has been working to restore the aircraft, including the droop nose and flight deck instrument lights.
Donna-Louise Bishop, 33, of Cawston, near Aylsham, said: “My first and only experience of Concorde is visiting it at Duxford. I was looking forward to seeing it somewhere other than on the television and it did not disappoint. My only regret is that at the time, the museum wasn’t allowing people to walk inside it so I have yet to experience that. We are lucky to have one in a museum not too far away.”
Another local link is that Concorde paid a rare visit to Mildenhall Air Fete in the 1980s.