I’d always considered Concorde to be something truly special. A passenger aircraft conceived in the 1950s, designed & built in the 1960s and which still flew higher and faster than any other airliner in her final year of operation in 2003.
But mostly it was the sheer, timeless beauty of her. An aircraft which first took to the skies in 1969 and yet which still looks futuristic even after she’s been retired.
I was fortunate enough to fly on her six months before her retirement – the realisation of a childhood dream, and every bit as good as I’d imagined. Sadly, nobody will ever again have the same opportunity …
Tech note: digital cameras were rather primitive devices in those days, hence the low-resolution and horrible-quality photos. It’s also quite amusing to see the sequence of stills of Concorde arriving at the lounge, where these days we’d of course shoot video.
I know we live in an electronic world, but there is still something faintly surreal about e-tickets for Concorde. I had to ask for actual cardboard ones, and technically they are e-ticket receipts rather than tickets.
The cardboard ones did come in a pretty ticket wallet and accompanied by a couple of tags.
To add to the anticipation of the flight, I’d bought a model for my desk. I have to confess to a tendency to grin every time I looked at it. We’d booked several months in advance, and as is usually the way with these things it jumped from seeming a long way off to ‘Hey, we’d better get organised!’ in no time at all.
The VIP treatment begins at check-in. You don’t have to go anywhere near the regular check-in desks, instead you are guided into a private hall containing check-in desks for Concorde and First Class travel. A friendly member of staff welcomes you and guides you to a free desk. If all the desks are occupied, there are some comfortable leather chairs and sofas to lounge in until a desk becomes free.
The Concorde Room is a very short walk from security. Inside, it makes the normal Club lounges look distinctly second-rate.
Instead of bowls of peanuts and a few plastic-wrapped cakes, there is a menu of everything from simple snacks to full meals. There is also a constantly-circulating dessert trolley with several cakes that have probably been outlawed in many nations.
As this was one flight we did not want to risk missing, we’d arrived three hours before departure. I decided that a bacon sandwich was in order.
Getting there early was a top move as it enabled us to get the best seats in the house:
There was a real buzz in the room when she arrived, and when we took our photos in front of the window, lots of people came over to do the same. The shot of me ended up rather arty …
A friend who works for BA had shown us another great photo spot, in one of the gangways a couple of minutes from the lounge, so I nipped out there to take this shot:
We could see the aircraft being prepared, first fuelled, then the food arriving, then the baggage being loaded.
And then it was time to board Once seated, the Captain announced that boarding had been suspended due to a technical glitch with the jetty. But we didn’t mind the holdup as the delay in the remaining passengers boarding gave us time to get settled in and for an American passenger to offer to take our picture..
The first thing you notice when looking at Concorde from the outside is how small she is, and that’s reinforced when boarding her. There’s plenty of space in the seats, but you really see how narrow she is when everyone’s aboard. The width of the aircraft is more like one of those little 17-seater commuter jets you sometimes get on short domestic hops.
The overhead lockers are also tiny. Each pair of passengers gets their own locker, but this was one flight where our usual policy of handbaggage-only was completely out of the question. My camera bag and Birgit’s handbag filled the locker!
However, cramped she is not. The absolutely gorgeous Connolly leather seats, designed by Terence Conran, have plenty of legroom, and more than enough space around you.
The next thing you notice is how tiny the windows are. This is partly a reflection of the age of the aircraft, and partly due to the much higher pressures the windows have to withstand at 55,000-60,000 feet.
Synchronise watches …
We turned our attention to important matters.
A cabin attendant takes your drinks orders during the short taxi to the runway, ready to serve them shortly after take-off. Heathrow has two parallel main runways, South and North, with one used for take-offs and the other for landings. Although everything else was taking off on the South runway, resurfacing work meant that Concorde has to take off from the North runway (27R). This is because the much higher take-off speed of Concorde would place too much stress on the fuselage as she reaches the bumps where old and new surfaces meet. Air Traffic Control are very good at slotting her in between arriving aircraft. As a bonus, this means that she doesn’t have to queue up behind other aircraft for a take-off slot.
The take-off was an experience I’ll remember forever. The first thing that happens is the incredible roar of the engines as they spool up to full power and the after-burners are lit. We had deliberately opted for the rear of the aircraft, both to see some of the wing in-flight, and to hear the engines up-close. The aural symphony we were experiencing now confirmed the wisdom of that choice!
The second thing is the strength of the push in your back as she leaps down the runway. The power-to-weight ratio is Ferrari-like. The roar grows beyond anything you can imagine from experience of other airliners, the sense of acceleration is utterly fantastic and the view through the window looks exactly like an ordinary take-off in fast-forward mode.
Then we’re in the air, and climbing with unbelievable rapidity. This is more like a fighter-jet than an airliner. I just want us to land and do it all over again!
Reheat has to be switched off very soon after take-off for noise-abatement reasons. The first officer tells us when it’s about to happen, and that we’ll feel the drop in acceleration. This turned out to be something of an understatement: you almost feel like the aircraft has run into a giant sponge!
Even before the canapes have arrived, we go through the sound barrier. There is absolutely no sensation at all as we do so, just an announcement by the Captain and the magic figure appearing on the Mach meter.
By the time we’ve eaten the canapes, we’ve already gone through Mach 1.7 and climbed to an altitude well above subsonic aircraft.
Then the canape plates are taken away and a crisp white tablecloth laid for the entrées.
We’re now travelling at twice the speed of sound, and much faster than a rifle bullet. At this speed, the whole aircraft is heated so much that it expands by about 10-15cm, and even the plastic covers on the inside of the windows are hot to the touch.
Now, this ‘being able to see the curvature of the Earth business’ … Some people report that they could clearly see it, others say it’s a myth. So, what’s the low-down? (Or, rather, high-up.) First, if you simply peer out of the window, you can see so little of the horizon that you would have no chance of seeing the curverture – though the darkness of the upper atmosphere does give a rather Space Shuttle-like feel.
However, if you sweep your head quickly across the window, to see a rapid pass of horizon, or look through several windows while standing in the aisle, then the curverture is just about discernable.
I do have to say that the more you drink, the more discernable it becomes, so several glasses of wine at this stage help to get the full astronaut impression.
In the meantime, the main courses arrived. These were an entirely schizophrenic experience. They looked exactly like any other airline meal. And yet both meals tasted absolutely divine. We’re talking really top restaurant divine here. But they must have been heated from frozen (or at least chilled) on board. Fantastic. Guinea fowl and veal, respectively.
And then the dessert trolley arrives. Unfortunately they’ve run out of the ‘chocolate silk’ by the time they reach us, but I was going to opt for the cheese anyway, and the cheese tray includes chocolates.
With dinner complete, it’s time for the one absolutely mandatory Concorde photo: posing in front of the Mach Meter while it’s reading Mach 2. There can’t be many people who’ve flown on Concorde and don’t have a similar pic of themselves. Our new-found American friend again obliges.
The supplied noise-cancelling headphones were quite remarkable tech in those days!
The landing was almost better than the take-off! You approach the runway at an incredible speed – one which would signify something having gone horribly wrong in any other airliner – and the blur through the window as you touch down is back to fast-forward mode. Then they kick in reverse thrust. It’s like a roller-coaster ride! Absolutely fantastic, and within what seems like seconds, we’re at taxying pace.
We arrived an hour-and-a-half before we left: the wonders of time-zones coupled to supersonic speeds. Across the Atlantic in 3h 36m.
Security procedures mean that the cockpit door had to remain locked throughout the flight, with not even the cabin crew allowed onto the flight deck, but it’s possible to pay a quick visit after landing.
I said to the crew that they must be very sad about Concorde’s end, and they both said that they were – neither of them wanted to go back to an ‘ordinary job’.
I’d said to Birgit that as I’d arranged the flight, she was in charge of accommodation. She did ok: she found a five-night deal at the Waldorf Astoria. The hotel was then kind enough to mess up our booking, resulting in a complimentary upgrade to a mini-suite. A fitting follow-up to the flight, I felt.