Coffee-Break Memories : Concorde – 40 years since the first commercial flight

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The Queen of the Sky always plucks an emotional chord at the heartstrings despite there being an incredible thirteen years since her demise. However, this week marks a significant supersonic anniversary. Mike Humble wipes away a tear and explains…

As the first officer calls out "rotate" G-BOAA makes her presence known at Heathrow as she makes the first British commercial supersonic flight bound for Bahrain.
As the First Officer calls out ‘rotate’ on the flight deck, G-BOAA blurs the background at
Heathrow as she makes the first British commercial supersonic flight – bound for Bahrain.
On the other side of the channel, an Air France fleet member is departing for Rio.

Can it really be 13 years since the demise of undoubtedly the world’s most famous airliner operated by the world’s favourite airline? Yes, it’s true – believe it or not, and many of us who enjoy other modes of transport as well as cars still feel a surreal sensation of loss, akin to losing an old friend despite the fact most people came only as close to her as the TV screen. I say she or her quite simply because she was alive, an aluminium hand-crafted work of art that touched the hearts of millions of people throughout the world… and still does!

However, to look back for a moment or two with a smile, this week marks the 40th anniversary of her world debut in a commercial capacity. On 21 January 1975 at exactly 11.40BST fleet member G-BOAA, looking resplendent in her new British Airways livery, took off from London Heathrow bound for warmer climes in Bahrain. Meanwhile, over in Paris, an Air France Concorde departed for Rio De Janeiro via Dakar at the same time – 12.40CET. For the princely sum of £356 plus taxes (around £2700 in today’s coinage) you could relax with a drop of `69 Dom Perignon, some lobster canapes and complimentary Havana cigar!

Concorde
SUD Avation’s Chief Test Pilot, Andre Turcat (pictured left), stands alongside our very own
(and SD1 owner) Brian Trubshaw – Chief Test Pilot with BAC. Sadly, both these great men
and war heroes are no longer with us.

With thanks, in part, to a close neighbour of mine called Johnny, a retired Concorde First Officer with 30 years British Airways service under his belt, here are one or two Concorde facts:

  • Based on actual flying statistics, in the time taken for a typical subsonic flight to travel to New York JFK from London Heathrow, a Concorde could have theoretically done the same trip both ways… AND head back to the USA by a few hundred miles.
  • Her cruising speed of 1350mph at 60,000 feet was considerably faster than a bullet fired from a 50 calibre sniper’s rifle. The typical flight time to the USA was around 3hrs 25 mins but the taps were opened up in 1996 with a recorded 2hrs 53 minutes.
  • The stories that were banded around about Concorde only breaking even in a certain year were totally fictitious and nothing more than urban myth. Both Air France and British Airways never published any profit and loss information on their respective Concorde fleet. However, considering only 14 were built and during development costs rose by over six times the original budget, it would be fair to say in pure commercial terms she was a flop.
  • In a cruel twist of fate, both English and French Chief Test Pilots never lived to see significant Concorde milestones or anniversaries. Our own Brian Trubshaw, who worked for BAC, died in 2001 – two years before Concorde’s last commercial flight. Andre Turcat of SUD Aviation passed away just a couple of weeks ago.

Happy anniversary Concorde… Gone, but certainly never to be forgotten!

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

33 Comments

  1. Commercially she may have been a flop–but Concorde has to be THE aircraft of all time, whatever yardsticks may be used. Probably the most significant regret in my life is that I never flew in her.

  2. Indeed Ian.

    Speedbird, for those who don’t know, is the call sign for all B.A aircraft. It goes back to pre British Airways company of B.O.A.C – the logo was a Swift that was known as the “Speedbird”

    Also… When BOAC merged with BEA to create BA the board were not happy with Concorde Oscar Charlie given the fleet ID: G-BOAC – it was deemed not fitting with the forward thinking new technology led company.

    All the employees were very proud of the name BOAC and the top brass decided to keep it that way following some pilots and senior crews displeasure of a forced merger that caused the loss and subsequent rebrand of a truly respected name – the British Overseas Airline Company!

  3. Concorde must have made money for both Air France and BA as they bought the aircraft after the development costs had been effectively written off by the British and French governments. If this had not been the case, they would surely have had much shorter service lives.

    The fleet were operated as a premium service with charges accordingly. BA operated their fleets sparingly to presumably spread the wear around all of their aircraft.

    In addition, the later aircraft ended up with the rest of the AF/ BA fleets as they were otherwise unsold aircraft with little sign of prospective buyers. I would have expected that the airlines would have paid less than a commercial rate for them as the only other option would have been scrap or display.

    I would love to see one fly again, but I do not think it is likely to happen. Concorde was at the specialist end of specialist and would need the close support of the aircraft companies and big bucks to make it happen. Much of the expertise that made Concorde happen is in retirement or deceased.

    We saw the efforts that had to be made to keep the Vulcan bomber flying and Concorde is orders of magnitude more complex – much of the technology is military spec after all.

    • All the production Concorde were sold for 1 pound or 1 franc each to BA and AF and even then they needed their arms twisting.

      AF always ran at a loss with Concorde and BA only turned a profit when Lord King given the task of privatising BA did a survey of the passengers on Concorde and found that most thought the tickets had cost twice what they had actually paid for them (as most had staff to arrange their travel) so he doubled the price.

  4. A fantastic looking and sounding plane, we live under the flight path of many of transatlantic journeys, and Concord would let us know when the Taps were opened by the double sonic boom that would resonate around the welsh mountains.

    And while Living alongside Cardiff airport during the late eighties , once a year Concord would visit the airport as part of its tour around the country taking VIP’S on a bit of a spin around the locality. In the case of the Cardiff airport stop, it would be a fly over the Severn bridge and the Bristol channel.

    It was while it was at the airport I had a cheeky tour of the plane, My Stepfather knew the staff at the airport and they let us walk through the baggage scales and the check in desk and onto the runway, there in front of us was the white sleek machine, and greeting us was the captain, who welcomed us aboard for a tour, and I remember being shocked at how small and narrow it was inside but impressed by the mach speed display on the wall.

    After the tour we were all given eye masks with the concord crest emblazoned on front, which I still have to this day.

  5. What needs to be considered Alasdair is that at the time of launch and right up to the early 1980’s in the case of BA is that Air France and BA were state owned airlines.

    Thus being the funding to develop the aircraft was being paid for by the UK and French tax payers… Like I said sadly a commercial flop.

    Wanna know what REALLY killed it off? The fibre optic cable. Both airlines relied on business travellers and thanks to superfast broadband internet and world wide web and the amazing level of communication in the business world, the Captains of industry no longer needed to jump on a plane to conclude that all important deal, they could do it from their office via a conference call and video link up.

    Post 9/11 business travel to the US in general had dropped by 30% and Concorde itself was operating for most of the time at under 50% capacity. The decision was taken by both parties owing to the point that if one company bailed out of operations, the other would become responsible.

    She worked as an amazing ambassador for both airlines and a wonderful figurehead for BA but in a world where ALL airlines were battling for survival it could no longer be justified on the books.

    A shame but business is indeed… business 🙁

  6. The G-BOAC plane was actually the default choice plane used by BA for any VIP flights undertaken for the Queen and PM’s.
    It was always the problem with the UK aircraft industry. They took so long to develop new planes because of successive Governments dragging heels and the huge difficulty of developing such a complex plane that the market completely changed in favour of large sub-sonic aircraft. The VC10 lost out to the 747 because of this as well. Fantastically designed, over-engineered planes that missed their opportunity. They should have gone into service 5-10 ten years before they did…
    Likewise the market today favours the flexibility and economy of long-range large two engined aircraft instead of the A380 and 747.

  7. Concorde is a great achievement, but I am afraid the story of civil aviation is a sad one for this country. After the war this country was miles ahead of the competition, in terms of jet engines and civil aviation.

    The bad luck with the Comet destroyed our lead, and we didn’t use Concorde to try and get it back. Supersonic flight was the wrong bet, but France used the Concorde programme to start Airbus, with it centred in France.

    Yes we have the wing work, but the HQ and final assembly should be in this country. Another story of British engineers let down by British politicians, officials and management.

  8. Considering everything against them I’m still very impressed Concord managed to get into service.

    In 1996 me & a friend managed to see one land at Manchester airport in 1996, & I still have the photos.

    Virgin did offer to buy BA’s Concorde’s but not surprising considering the bad blood between the 2 BA refused to sell them.

  9. @Richard16378. Branson’s offer was a publicity stunt. Nothing more, nothing less. He would’ve had twice the support costs that BA paid (as AF were adamant they were stopping) for 7 aeroplanes with 7 years life (without airframe mods they would’ve been grounded by now). They would’ve needed new avionics (a requirement to continue flying to the US) and a massive transfer of knowledge including all captains, training officers and technicians.

    BA couldn’t make the figures add up. That’s why they stopped. It was a business decision. There was no way Branson could make it work. And he offered £1 for each plane.

    BA’s refusal was nothing to do with bad blood. Both BA and Branson knew this was a publicity stunt.

  10. @Foz

    Another problem that regularly affected British aircraft was developing aircraft specifically for a single domestic customer that continually changed its mind and altered specification, be it BOAC or BEA, which being state owned, they were obliged (sometimes under duress) to purchase.

    This effected both the DH121/Trident and the VC10, which were developed for these customers resulting in a capable technically advanced aircraft that didn’t suit anyone else and consequently sold poorly.

    The original Trident was to have been similar to the Boeing 727 with Rolls Royce Medway engines, but BEA deemed it too big. DH slimmed the design down, Rolls Royce offered the available, but less powerful Spey engine (the Medway was canned) and then BEA wanted a bigger aircraft. Most buyers thought the Trident too small and ended up buying Boeing 727s which sold in massive numbers.

    The VC10 was developed with “hot and high” destinations of Empire in mind and therefore had a very complex wing to give the appropriate perfomance in these locations. No one else wanted to pay for these high lift devices and ended up buying Boeing 707s that sold in massive numbers.

  11. I’ve always admired Concorde and enjoyed viewing the examples at Duxford & Yeovilton. I recall vividly on TV the first flight of the British prototype with Brian Trubshaw at the controls – didn’t realise he was an SD1 owner!

    Mike, didn’t BOAC stand for “British Overseas Airways Corporation” – not Company?

  12. Sad, but as Mike says in the comments, with telecommunications the need for the man in the suit to be there Monday 9am to discuss the papers isn’t as pressing.

    (In a far previous life, my manager discussed a takeover from a huge US multinational in a 3 way video conference call between Belfast, Colorado Springs and Raleigh. The papers were nextday fedex’d to all employees, I got in trouble as a huge book shaped parcel was picked up from the depot and I’d been ordering manuals for my then Alfa Romeo GTV….)

    Concorde looked like nothing else, it was like something straight out of Thunderbirds when all other planes looked – and still do – not a lot different from 1960s jets.

    Another futuristic craft that is no longer operating is the HSS ferry – it too looked like a futuristic Thunderbirds vehicle, used to operate the Irish Sea, Harwich to Holland and Sweden to Denmark routes. Replaced by a conventional ferry which again at first glance doesn’t look too dissimilar to a 1950s ro-ro.

  13. Man, I’m really getting up there in age! I never flew in Concorde as a paying passenger, but I got to tour it twice, once in 2002 when it was still operational, and G-BOAE, the one that is based here in Barbados, in 2007. I have always had a soft spot for it and to me it is the most beautiful airliner ever designed. It was also the subject of my second model kit in 1978 – I never completed it but that hobby has been part of my life ever since then. I doubt anyone will be that brave to consider such a project again, given that it wasn’t really a commercial success. And how practical or cost effective would supersonic travel had been if it was made available to the masses?

  14. Frightening that it is 13 years since the last Concorde flights – only seems like yesterday. Back in the late 1960s, the Production Engineering Society at Aston University, Brum, had a group visit to Filton. We were taken on board the mock-up Concorde that gave an accurate impression of the interior, and I thought then that it was a mite claustrophobic – but then, you didn’t have to spend so much time inside it. Still have the Concorde and Rolls Royce aero-engine brochures that we were given to take away – reminder of a great day out. Sad to say, Aston University, though excellent in many ways, hasn’t even got a Production Engineering Department any more – which says it all, really…

  15. I never flew on it, sadly, but my younger son went to JFK on it a number of times, and said that the one thing that felt different from other aircraft was that you could feel the g in the turns !

  16. It seemed upto the 1970s that commercial flying (especially long distance) was seen as something only the well to do could afford.

    This was why Boeing thought the 747s would needed to be converted into air freighters as supersonic airliners became standard for long distance travel.

    Their attempt at a super sonic airliner is an interesting story, especially as one of the most talented design teams in the world had to keep starting again from scratch, trying to meet the spec issued.

  17. Concorde being a collaboration with the French, on election Wilson’s Labour Govt looked at the books, saw Britain was financially strapped and looked at the Concorde and the TSR2 projects, Wilson intended to cancel both project commitments on financial grounds but Concorde was a lock-in situation, Britain faced paying France 50% of the development costs if France had to go alone.
    Some commentators have written of Concorde project as Britain buying its way into the EEC after De Gaulle and his double veto of NON!

    • The Concorde deal was part of the post 1956 to 74 “love in” we had with the French after Suez that failed to get us into the Common Market.

      We gave them aviation and nuclear technology (the plutonium for the first french atom bomb came from the UK and their first reactors and reprocessing plants used Magnox technology) to help win them over, we had numerous other aviation projects as well, including a space program using the Blue Streak technology, but most got cancelled by one side or the other. One of the reasons why Macmillan was so angry at being refused entry by the French having given them so much.

      The most successful of these projects in the short term was the Jaguar and longer term was Airbus, which we must remember Tony Benn refused to fund saying Concorde was a better investment for Government money and so initial investment was a private venture by Hawker Siddeley.

      • Should be 66 not 74, the Labour Government in its first two years was in favour of the Common Market but then bowed to pressure from its Left Wing after 66.

  18. It’s a shame, but Concorde was doomed from the start as it could seat a fraction of the numbers of passengers a Boeing 747 could, fares were too expensive for most travellers and the development costs were massive. Had it been able to compete effectively with the big Boeings, and hold as many passengers, it’s likely Concorde would have been the natural choice for long haul flights.

  19. In 1976 I was working for the now defunct GEC, one of our projects was the new Concorde terminal in Manama Bahrain. I was stationed there for 5 months and one of our equipment plant rooms had an entrance just under the gate where Concorde would park.

    No real security in those days so I could pretty much walk around it anytime I wanted. I did get a quick flight deck tour and flew on it just once. Like Ian says it was very claustrophobic (the booze helped), I opted for a 747 on my final trip home when the project was signed off.

    The Concorde avionics were ancient tech even then, this airplane had an analog computer, the aircraft was very difficult to service as well according to friends at BA. Their were optimistic plans for a MKII which presumably would address the shortcomings.

    The cargo building at Manama was just at the end of the runway, I do remember collecting a package at the exact time that Concorde took off. OMFG about the loudest thing I ever have heard, louder than a Top Fuel Dragster.

  20. Will M the HSS on the Irish Sea has been sold to Turkey. Whether it will see further service is open to debate.
    But will oil prices as they are. it’s possible.
    One of the HSS was sold to Venezula…and they couldn’t afford the fuel and they have more oil than Saudi Arabia.
    But the thing that I found most interesting is that the HSS on the North sea between Holland and England.
    According to Stena at the time it was in service.
    It burned more fuel than their other 7 Conventional ferries which Stena operated in the North Sea.
    Also check out Finnjet ..a Ferry from the 1970’s powered by Gas Turbines ( jet Engines)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GTS_Finnjet

    And the story of the Maersk “B” class container ships built to carry 4,000 20 foot containers which achieved over 40 Knots on their builders trials in Germany.
    When the crash came they were laid up in Scotland for some time.
    http://clydesights.com/2010/06/maersk-beaumont.html

    • Interesting, thanks for sharing.

      It does sometimes feel like we are going backwards a little in air and sea transportation, anything that is out of the ordinary has been culled for evolutions of regular jets / ferries.

  21. Issues with Concorde rarely mentioned.
    Flying at great height in the thinnest of air well above the ceiling of most modern jets meant a cabin de-pressurisation would cause 50% of the passengers to black out and suffocate (to death) before they could don oxygen masks, hence the small porthole windows to slow down the vent time.

    Even back then it was realised Concorde would damage the ozone layer and a the number of Concordes would have to be restricted to a modest world wide fleet.

  22. @ ExPatBrit, Concorde was a money pit and the complicated servicing and massive flying costs won’t have helped. It was never more than a luxury for well off passengers flying to New York, even if technically it was a fantastic plane, flying at double the speed of a Boeing, and doing the London- New York flight in just over 3 hours.

  23. A curious feature of this article is that no one has mentioned that Concorde was very cheap advertising for BA . It was the most technically advanced aeroplane in the world , and amazingly reliable given that fact . (Incidentally, there was nothing backward in its avionics which in the 70s were of the same standard as was fitted to most subsonic fleets , and it had INS just the same as the 747 ). Everyone wanted to fly on it whether or not they could afford to , and this rubbed off on the lesser services of BA . In this respect it resembled the VC10 or more particularly the Super VC10 , which was the previous aeroplane that everyone wanted to fly on , and this rubbed off on BOAC as a whole. Nowadays , double page spreads in the Sunday Times are required, and you can imagine what that costs !

  24. Concorde was a good plane. UK govt. should have funded a MK2 version. Curently I think electric fans for planes and SABRE look the way to go in avation.

    TSR2 bomber was intended to replace Vulcan and the other V bombers when it was found that V bombers would be very unlikely to reach the target due to their vunerabilty to anti aircraft missiles. The TSR2’s high wing allowed it to fly at ultra low level at high speed and thus avoid being shot down by ground based missile fire. Many docs on U-tube about TSR2, most seem to end in Labour bashing conclusions. TSR2 was a Tory crony government project, with so many Conservatives being bribed to support various aircraft and parts manufacturers the price sky rocketed and the project was badly managed.

    When PM Wilson was presented with the facts on TSR2, he made the right decision to cancel it and use the best thechnology from the program for a new multi-role plane, the Tornado. A Mig 31 or Tornado with look down shoot down makes ground hugging bombers like TSR2 useless. The job of TSR2 is better done with cruise missiles and submarines.

    The reason that all traces of TSR2 were destroyed was that the CIA feared Avro Arrow technology had gotton to the Soviets and helped them develop Mig 25. They didn’t want TSR2 tech gettng into Soviet hands and they wanted to sell F1-11 to the UK and damage UK aircraft industry as a competitor to the USA’s.
    The cancelling of TSR2 smoothed the way for the UK getting Polaris which the US were reluctant for us to have at the time.

  25. Tory crony project ? High wing allowed it to fly at low level ? Avro Arrow technology having some connection with TSR2 ? What, please, is your evidence for these interesting conjectures ?

  26. Concorde was worse than British Leyland and Rover! At least when the taxpayer bailed out BL, many of them could afford the product, whereas very few could afford to travel on Concorde.

    Everyone cites how BL ruined Harris Mann’s design for the Allegro, for various cost, practical etc reasons. It is a pity the same was not done to Concorde, because it may have stopped the development before any more money was wasted. As this article states, the first flights went to Bahrain and Rio – in 1969! Hardly important routes now, requiring supersonic travel, let alone nearly 50 years ago! They went there because nowhere else would accept it!

    At least at BL, someone saw the need to put a certain heater in the Allegro and a bigger engine and so the design had to be changed. With Concorde it was as if the accountants forgot to ask the engineers how much fuel it would use, how noisy it would be, how few people it could carry and how small its range would be.

    Everyone talks about how it halved the journey time of a conventional aircraft, but that is nonsense. It only halved the flying time and it seemed to assume that everyone who travelled on it, lived next to Heathrow Airport. You still had to actually get to Heathrow. The airport formalites at both ends were no quicker, nor was the loading, taxiing. All it did was save 3 hours or so of the actual flying time at an inflated cost. What was a 3 hour saving in the context of travelling to and from and through very large, very busy airports in 2 of the most congested cities in the world?

    It is probably the case today, that the 32 seat subsonic BA001 that operates from London City to JFK is quicker door to door than Concorde. Business people travelling on it probably work in the Docklands and so are close to the airport from their office. City airport is much smaller, with few queues. Immigration is dealt with in Shannon, Ireland, avoiding the monunmental queues in JFK now because of the terrorist threats.

    By the end of its life, it was travelling from London and Paris to New York, and London to Barbados. The taxpayer funded a plane so that Simon Cowell and Michael Winner could go on holiday to Barbados for Christmas more quickly, and a Labour Government at that!

  27. A lot of projects had been cancelled by Duncan Sandys & his white paper in 1957, including Avro’s proposed replacement for the Vulcan.

    I did hear one of the reasons the TSR2 was cancelled as it was going to cost almost 3 times per plane compared to the F-111, which in the end ran into so many development problems it never became the standard fighter bomber it was intended to be.

    It didn’t help that the F-111 was a bit “jobs for the boys” as the USAF’s preferred design from Boeing was rejected in congress.

    I had thought Polaris was a replacement for Thor, which was cancelled at the last minute like a lot of defence projects at the time.

  28. @richard16378

    he 1957 White paper cancelled air defence aircraft as they were to be replaced by surface to air missiles (SAM) and high level bombers because the lead time for the AVRO mach 3 + bombers the RAF had desired as a replacement for the V bomber force meant they would be easily overtaken by developments in air SAM.

    For the RAF only the Lightning survived as it was considered too close to production to be cancelled and as the Javelin had never become truly effective it was considered a useful stop gap while a new generation of SAM were developed.

    However the Navy made a case for still needing a fighter to replace the Sea Vixen which became a long drawn out process to ensure they got what they wanted which was the F4 Phantom and a strike aircraft to replace the Scimitar which became the Buccaneer.

    Strategic Nuclear Deterrent would be provided by Blue Streak ICBM however this was cancelled in 1960 as it required expensive to build silo that it was difficult to find suitable locations to build them in the UK. Also the RAF did not relish the prospect of giving up planes for holes in the ground.

    Its replacement Skybolt was an air launched ICBM which would have been carried by a continuous air patrol of V bombers with the last Vulcans and Victors being delivered with the capability to carry 2 and 4 skybolts respectively. These eventually would have supplemented and no doubt replaced by a force of VC10s. However the Americans cancelled Skybolt after problems which resulted in a brief period of crisis before agreement was made to sell us Polaris.

    The Thor missile system was a stop gap system supplied and operated by the Americans but with RAF roundels and dual key (US and RAF officers) controls. It was largely seen from the outset as more show than go and those that were not destroyed in their above ground bunkers would have most likely missed their targets as at that time missiles were not accurate enough for the tactical role.

    This was why the F111 and TSR2 were developed although both aircraft suffered from being somewhat over specified to cover a multiple of roles and this being before the Mig 17 humbled the Phantom over Vietnam was being considered as the US air force and Navy next fighter. With so many potential F111 being built the price projections for it was very favourable and this was accepted by the Labour Government that whilst it did not announce its cancelation till 1966 had already decided in 1964 to cancel it.

    The cancelation of TSR2 is a thing of myth and legend, at the time the project was much delayed and various downward revision of defence budget had reduced a potential production run to just 64 aircraft. One common myth is that they were forced to destroy everything after cancelation which when one looks at the evidence was not the case and quite a lot survives today as a result.

    However the F111 over time went up in price and down in performance to the point it was both unaffordable to the UK as well as being of limited use. The cancelation costs Britain had to pay were greater than the projected cost of the 64 TSR2 at cancelation. However we also have to realistic had TSR2 been delivered it would also have been with a reduced performance and like the F111 it would most likely have had a relatively short service life because of the maintenance time and costs of its complex analogue, primitive digital systems and fragile engines.

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