Home Features Concorde: Before its time, past its prime

Concorde: Before its time, past its prime

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 Concorde in Seattle, photo taken with my Leica X1.
Concorde in Seattle, photo taken with my Leica X1.

Time flies. On October 25 it was 15 years to the day since the last Concorde commercial flight —BA2— from New York to London. The photo above was taken at the superb Boeing Field Museum of Flight in Seattle where one of the 20 Concordes built is on permanent display.

If you are in any way interested in aviation, Seattle is the place to go. Firstly there is the huge Boeing factory at Everett to the north of the city. The guided tour — you have to book in advance — is a must. Even my wife thought that it was superb. And to the south of Seattle, there is the Museum of Flight which is full of interesting aircraft as well as the Concorde.

Concorde was a fantastic technical achievement, but it was a commercial failure. Only British Airways and Air France operated the aircraft, and they both lost a lot of money along the flight path. There was a joint Singapore Airlines/British Airways Concorde service from London to Singapore via Bahrain from 1977 to 1980. The aircraft used on this service were owned by BA and had BA pilots and BA livery on one side and Singapore Airlines livery on the other. They had BA cabin crew in one direction and Singapore Airlines cabin crew in the other. There were problems with the routing of the flight due to noise issues in the countries it passed over, and it had to fly subsonic part of the way. This service ended due to low loads, a factor of the high ticket price and the fact that Concorde was very noisy, cramped and unsuitable for such a long flight.

 Ready for boarding: Regular Macfilos readers will know that another of the 20 Concordes is on display here at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, south-west of London. It’s one of Mike’s regular haunts and he took this picture with his Leica X2, the Mark II version of my trusty X1
Ready for boarding: Regular Macfilos readers will know that another of the 20 Concordes is on display here at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, south-west of London. It’s one of Mike’s regular haunts and he took this picture with his Leica X2, the Mark II version of my trusty X1

The crash of an Air France Concorde in France in 2000 — hastened its demise but the final blow was the slump in air travel following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the end, the Concorde’s technology was old, and it was proving very costly to maintain.

I never flew on Concorde to my eternal regret. But I did see and hear them flying over southern England, and the Qantas check-in at Heathrow was close to the special Concorde lounge. Many times I enviously watched passengers checking in for their Concorde flight to New York while I checked in for my “slow” Qantas 747 flight back to Sydney.

Editor Mike Evans tells me that he did fly in Concorde, from Washington DC to London in the early 90s. As a friend of a BA employee, he snatched a round trip ticket for a party £600 — and even got upgraded, staff privileges, on the outward sub-sonic flight. His verdict: All very nice and exciting, but cramped and it’s a waste to have only three hours to enjoy all that excellent food and fine drinking.

Concorde did fly to Australia a few times on charters, and I did see one on the ground at Sydney Airport once in the mid-80s.

  • You can find more from John Shingleton at The Rolling Road and on Instagram at therollingroad.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Firstly the top photo is an excellent composition – the positioning of the cloud is excellent. Almost like the pilot would be staring at the only cloud in the sky.

    As for Concorde, in its day an amazing technical achievement, but expensive to manage, maintain and you couldn’t always use it to its maximum – which is a shame. The problem I saw is that we didn’t really develop it, as we have done with other technologies.

    Dave S

  2. It was a regular sight flying sub-sonic over Wiltshire daily and much missed when withdrawn from service. There is memorable video footage of it flying over Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol on its final flight to Filton where it was built in the UK.

    There are two other survivors in the UK, possibly more. One is at the War Museum at Duxford near Cambridge; the other at Yeovilton in Somerset. Both are excellent and are worth visiting.

  3. Here in upstate NY, the big boy for British Airways, landed at Syracuse Hancock as part of Concorde 10th anniversary tour in US. They flew into 23 cities across USA, this Syracuse flight came in from NYC at the end of September 1986, non supersonic flight was 35 min from NYC because of flight speed restrictions over land, I was one of over 50k people to watch this magnificent aircraft land and take off, will never forget that day.

  4. We had occasional Concorde flights into and out of Dublin, but my main memories are of the long corrugated tunnel (not so affectionately called ‘the Paddy Tunnel’) to the Irish flights at Heathrow Terminal 1 shaking as the Concorde flights took off or landed. The Irish flights from Heathrow are now from the somewhat more salubrious surroundings in Terminal 2, but Concorde is now gone. With many short to medium flights these days one can spend as long in airports as on the flights themselves. With all of the added security, arriving just in time for a flight is no longer on. In Dublin we have pre-clearance for the US which is just like moving the marathon back across the Atlantic. If you do not have pre-clearance, then a Concorde replacement would just be a quicker way to an immigration/security queue. And my late mother, who never flew in her life, used to think that flying was glamorous.

    William

  5. As a schoolboy in Bath in the late 60’s/early 70’s we were privileged to see Concord prototypes heading out for test runs over the Severn Estuary. We could hear the "boom-boom" as the plane went supersonic somewhere out over the estuary – after all it was a lot more interesting than Ancient Greek…If we were lucky and out on the rugby pitch you would see it rumbling back to Filton. Many years after (1988) a friend and I decided excitedly that it would very cool to celebrate the Millennium New Year’s Eve in London and New York. He phoned BA and was told very politely that that flight was already fully booked – 12 years in advance! I never flew Concord but always wished there had been a way to do so.

  6. These images bring back memories for me – as they obviously have for others here. I worked at BAC Weybridge when we and BAC Filton (and others in England and France ) were making the early Concordes. A fun memory of mine was flying in a helicopter alongside a full-scale flying replica of a Vickers Vimy which the Apprentice School had made which (briefly) was flying alongside an early production Concorde photographing it for a PR exercise.
    Later when I was working in an office in Kingston-upon-Thames I regularly saw – around noon – from my window a service Concorde rising majestically into the skies in the early stages of its daily run from Heathrow to New York – it always gave me a feeling of joy and pride which lifted my day.
    However that project was emblematic of those days when the British aeronautical industry was dominated by engineers with little knowledge, or indeed interest, in any analysis of what markets actually wanted as opposed to their views of what they "should’ want. Excellently engineered planes like the VC10 – and above all of course Concorde – with disappointing economic futures. Disappointing for the industry and the many committed people who worked in it. I recall sadly the 3 BAC111s parked for months outside my satellite office at Hurn Airport … some of a number that we ended up discounting heavily to small South American airlines and bartering to Eastern Europe – in one case for thousands of pots of jam and poor quality machine tools ( needing a whole new department to offload this to unwilling buyers !) – just to recoup build costs . Great engineering but atrocious economics and market analysis.Great days in some ways but in other ways the sad beginning of the end of the great British industrial engineering pre-eminence.

    However thanks for posting the images they reminded me of the better days that we enjoyed for a while.

  7. I would fly home to NY from DC on weekends in our little Cessna underneath the congested airspace that surrounds New York City. We’d be in a bit of a trance, course Northeast, away from the sunset, droning directly under the approach path of JFK airport on Friday evenings.

    From 2500′ at sunset, the city, bridges and harbors are beautiful, covered in golden light. You might hear "Rhapsody in Blue" from the sight, if the cacophony from controllers orchestrating aircraft for 3 major airports wasn’t so severe, particularly on a Friday evening. The tight exchanges between controllers and aircraft form a single, streaming sentence spoken by many individual speakers. Fools who stumble, wasting even a fraction of a second, disturb the collective, professional performance and are silently shamed.

    Then, into this stream, "New York Approach, Speedbird 1 with you, 10,000" was inserted and for 2 or 3 seconds – an eternity – the radio would be silent. In that aluminum traffic jam professional pilots who could, looked out over the Atlantic for the approaching Concorde. After several decades, she was still that special. Every day.

    Unexpectedly, into the middle of this constant, high pressure stream of clearances and requests, a

  8. I absolutely love the first image – gorgeous! The article brought back memories of this amazing plane and I guess I can remove flying in it from my long bucket list; this shows the importance of seizing the moment or you may miss the opportunity. Thanks for an interesting and informative article.

  9. Concorde also flew to New Zealand. One flight was in 1986 as a charter flight ‘chasing’ Haley’s Comet,
    Another Concorde charter flight landed at Christchurch Airport on 9th April, 1989.
    I watched it land in Sydney later on- after Christchurch flight, and thought how small it looked. An aircraft that was super sleek and quite stunning, nevertheless.

  10. My wife and I were very fortunate to fly on Concorde in August 2003, together with our daughter – then aged 15, and our son – aged 11. I very much doubt we will have an opportunity to fly supersonic again – or not for a very long time! When people ask what it was like I usually tell them that it was noisy, cramped and late! But it was also a fantastic experience; we were late because a fellow passenger was ill and very reluctant to leave the plane as requested due to it being highly unlikely she would get another opportunity as the flights were coming to an end. We were talking to a fellow passenger in the Departure Lounge and she confided in me that she was doing the round trip to New York on her husband’s Air Miles – I wondered if he was an astronaut! I didn’t realise that the flight path meant that it didn’t reach 59,000 feet until just before it began its descent into JFK, and we did get to see the curvature of the earth. You don’t really notice going through the sound barrier – there is a discreet thump and the Mach Meter passes 1.00. I do regret sticking with the Sancerre served with the meal as I think it was a bit ‘heavy’ for the whole flight.

    Many of you know that Concorde expanded in flight because of the heat from friction. Apparently the carpet had to stretch about a foot (and contract when the plane descended). I didn’t know until more recently that a gap between the flight engineer’s control panel and the panel separating the cockpit from the main cabin also appeared and the crew needed to remember to remove anything that might have been put into the gap before the plane contracted back to its ground level dimensions.

    It was/ is an iconic aeroplane. People would always look up as it flew over and not just because it made a lot of noise. I once had to monitor the noise level as it took off (as part of a compensation claim being made by someone who had developed tinnitus while working at airport carparks). I calculated that you would receive your entire ‘Noise Dose’ for the day in about 15 seconds as it passed overhead.

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