THE FLIGHTDECK • August 2021
It’s almost two decades since Concorde touched down for the very last time, but what was once the flagship of the British Airways fleet still captures the public imagination. Was it as legendary as rumours would suggest? Aero-industry journalist Paul Sillers talks to those lucky enough to go supersonic
“On Concorde, you were among a class of people who had ‘arrived’”
Says who? Ernest Arvai, president of the Detroit-based AirInsight Group
Supersonic flight was a godsend in terms of productivity. I flew about a dozen times on Concorde while I was heading the aviation industry practice for consulting firm Arthur D Little. It enabled multiple meetings in the same day. On one trip, I had a breakfast meeting in the UK as well as a morning meeting in New York, because with the time change you got there earlier than you left. And then I had another meeting in Boston that afternoon. Three meetings in three cities.
Mixing with those kinds of people was a key benefit. On Concorde, you were among a class of people who had ‘arrived’. There was an air of credibility associated with it. I once sat next to a gentleman from Wall Street and it turned out he was working on an acquisition. We secured a due diligence assignment resulting from the flight, so Concorde had its benefits!
The thing I miss about Concorde is speed. You could just turn up at Heathrow 30 minutes before the plane took off and still make it.
Concorde in one word? Fast!
“You could leave New York at six in the evening and be back home in time to watch the News at Ten”
Says who? Danita Winstanly, Bronze Member of the Executive Club and racehorse owner
There were certain special trips I remember. For example, we went on a Concorde flight to Egypt to the opera to see Pavarotti sing Aida at the pyramids. Even regular flights were amazing – you could leave New York at six in the evening and be back home in London in time to watch the News at Ten.
We did get lots of memorabilia, such as a memorandum book in beautiful, fine leather. I still have my flight certificate from JFK to Heathrow, dated and signed by the pilot, Captain Dixon, chairman Lord King and chief executive Colin Marshall. The certificate even has the cruise metre details – take off from New York at 14:14, flying time three hours, 16 minutes, max altitude 56,500 feet, temperature -60°C and speed Mach 2.
In-flight food was top notch. The chef was the owner of Bentley’s, Richard Corrigan. And inside the grey leather folder there was also the special Concorde wine cellar list.
British Airways staff who ran Concorde were the finest, and were always very accommodating. They once allowed me to call France to listen to a race from the Concorde lounge at JFK at no charge. And our horse won!
Concorde’s test flight
“I will never forget seeing the curvature of the Earth”
Says who? Thomas Lee, head of business development at Applied Mobility Partners
There was a marketing arrangement between Cunard and British Airways where you could book a suite on the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner across the Atlantic – my wife and I were actually married aboard the QE2 while docked in New York City. We sailed across the Atlantic, took a safari in Kenya and picked up Concorde from Heathrow back to New York.
I remember we were at about 58,000 feet flying at Mach 2 and I will never forget seeing the curvature of the Earth, its incredible blue colours and then going to pure black, which you never see in a traditional commercial aircraft.
Three-and-a-half hours in the air was perfect for supersonic flight because it’s long enough to truly enjoy the experience, to have a long meal service. You didn’t have to rush. It was just the right amount of time to enjoy conversation, to enjoy the sights and maybe have a quick nap.
Concorde in a word? Superlative.
Concorde’s first commercial flight
“I felt dizzy from excitement, although the Champagne may have contributed”
Says who? Shirley Fox, who first flew on Concorde to celebrate her 60th birthday
I flew to New York in September 1999 as part of my 60th birthday celebration. When we got to the airport, the previous Concorde flight was delayed, so they checked us into the First lounge and, as the saying goes, ‘There is First class and then there is class!’
As we prepared for take-off, I was too excited waiting for the deafening roar that Concorde is famous for, but I didn’t hear it. Within seconds I was looking at the sea below. In the next few seconds, the control on the bulkhead in front of us was registering the altitude of 40,500 feet through Mach 1 and then it was 58,500 feet above sea level with a speed of 1,350mph at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. My heart raced and my companion was bemused at the child-like behaviour of a grown woman.
In our three hours, 20 minutes of flight, we observed when night met day and I would like to think that the pale blue outline below us was the curvature of the earth. All too soon the journey was over and we were checking out at Heathrow. I felt dizzy from excitement, although the Champagne may have contributed to the feeling.
“At take-off, you’d be pinned to the back of your seat”
Says who: David Avasthi, managing director, CME Capital Management, LLC
On Concorde, everybody would be staring at everybody, and you’d be racking your brains wondering where you’d seen them – on TV or perhaps in some movie? When you got home you would have reason to tell the family you saw some Hollywood actor or singer on Concorde.
At take-off, you’d be pinned to the back of your seat, something you don’t feel now as much on today’s planes.
I still have my certificates to say you’d travelled by Concorde, and I still have the pens and diaries with the Concorde emblem. Every time I come across them, I recall those Concorde memories. My son was a NATO jet fighter pilot, and it’s fun telling him about how I also used to fly supersonic all the time. All that memorabilia jogs your memory.
It’s difficult to describe Concorde in one word. Flying transatlantic and returning the same day, completing a full series of meetings and even a business lunch on the other side, in London, and landing back in New York at 5pm, was like a roller-coaster ride.
“I was a kid that was super proud that her dad was flying around the world on Concorde”
Says who: Cindy Rubbens, senior vice president people at Relayr.io
I can remember my father’s genuine and contagious enthusiasm and excitement around his whole Concorde experience. This was between 1994 and 1997. He was Belgian, his name was Frank Rubbens and he must have been around 37 years old at the time.
All I know is that the walls of the Concorde heated up when it was flying at full speed, and the food seemed to have been amazing.
I obviously look at all this from a child’s perspective; a kid that was super proud that her dad was flying around the world on Concorde. His international employers are the reason why I studied in the UK, lived in London and flew British Airways whenever possible.
Clarkson on Concorde
“I realised seat 9A was where they started the food service, so that became my seat”
Says who? Fred Finn, Guinness World Record holder for the most air miles flown (including 718 flights on Concorde), who is currently writing a book about his experiences of flying on British Airways and on Concorde
I was such a regular on Concorde that on occasions when it was very busy I helped the crew serve the flight deck with the food. On other flights, I’d sit on the jump seat with a headset on, and on one occasion talked to the Concorde coming the other way at 46 miles a minute closing speed.
I mostly tried to sit in seat 9A. My first ever flight on Concorde was in seat 9A from Washington to London on 25 May 1976. I realised that that’s where they started the food service, so that became my seat. Whenever I checked in, they put me in 9A and sometimes the captain would ask: “Fred, are you sitting at the back or with us today?” I used to know all the crews, and met many people on board, including Paul McCartney, Joan Rivers, and Muhammad Ali.
I once crossed the Atlantic in two hours, 59 minutes – that was possible in the winter. They’d take off from JFK and when the air was cold the engines worked better.
People often ask me which was my favourite flight, and I say, 717 of them, not the 718th, because that was on Concorde’s last flight.
Concorde’s final flight
“It looked like a beautiful predatory insect poised on the ice to spring”
Says who? Douglas Atkin, speaker, investor and author of The Culting of Brands
I saw the sun set, then rise, then set again as we decelerated on a Concorde flight in winter from London to New York. At midday over the Atlantic, the sky was indigo, you could see the stars and the curvature of the earth at 60,000 feet.
The first flight I took on Concorde from London to NY diverted to Bangor, Maine, because the whole of the Eastern Seaboard was closed due to snow. When we landed, the press was there to greet us. I held my bag up to my face… I didn’t want to be seen as I was going for an interview at a New York ad agency and had told my current agency I was sick. I overheard the captain saying he was flying back early the following morning to reposition the plane at Heathrow. Since I’d missed the New York lunch interview and had to be back the following day at work, I asked him if I could hitch a lift back. He agreed and at 6am they drove us out to the Concorde (it looked like a beautiful predatory insect poised on the ice to spring). They actually kept me waiting an hour because they wanted to find steak and lobster to serve me, even though it was a free flight for me.
British Airways made every flight feel special. On one flight, the First Officer excitedly said, “The only people higher than us right now are in the International Space Station.”