Logbooks: Concorde adventures

Editor’s Note: Richard Collins is looking back through his decades of logbooks and sharing his thoughts about memorable flights. It may surprise some that the first of these important flights was not in a GA aircraft, but rather in the Concorde. Here he shares what it’s like to be at the controls of this airplane and be part of the Concorde family.

Time spent with the most extraordinary airplane ever…

In my long career in the aviation business it was no secret that I didn’t care for overseas junkets. I never attended the Paris Air Show or Farnborough and I remember passing up boondoggle trips to Brazil and Japan among other places.

This probably explains my getting several “what’s going on” calls when my name showed up on a list of participants for a French trip to attend the first rollout of the Falcon 900 business jet. I had declined on many such events but this one came with a carrot that I simply couldn’t resist. Dassault, builder of the Falcons, had chartered an Air France Concorde to whisk us from New York to Paris for the May, 1984, festivities, and then bring us home.

They laid on a grand party with food and wine that I didn’t know existed, entertainment, the rollout, and a tour of the Normandy beaches.

Concorde at DFW
When Collins saw the Concorde land at DFW in 1973, he knew it was something special.

To this country boy at heart airplane nut, though, the Concorde trip was the really big deal. I was first smitten when I saw the first Concorde landing in the U. S. at the grand opening of DFW airport on September 20, 1973. I have read that the airplane was SN 002, the first built in England, but I have a picture of it that says “Air France” on the side. I did once hear that on some of those proving/test flights they put British Airways décor on one side and Air France on the other.

I also remember what the Concorde captain reportedly said when he stepped from the airplane out onto the air-stair landing and was asked what he thought about the new DFW airport: “My, concrete must be cheap in Texas.”

My original impression of the airplane, based on the ride in the cabin of the Air France Concorde on that charter flight, and a brief visit to the flight deck, was of a fast, noisy, complicated machine that operated without a lot of margins. I still remember that first takeoff from the wavy runway at JFK. It felt like a run to the end of the runway followed by a stagger into the air and an initial poor climb gradient.

I wrote about that in FLYING. There was no reaction from the French but the British, who also operated Concorde, sounded off loud and clear. I first heard from Captain John Bradshaw, one of the original Concorde captains, and then from John Silver of British Airways public relations. They proposed that I learn more about the airplane. I thought that was a fine idea.

I realized that they didn’t want me in their Concorde until I had learned something about the airplane when they sent me a First Class ticket on a 747 from JFK to Heathrow.

What followed was a fascinating immersion in all aspects of the Concorde.

It started in a pub in Bristol which is near Filton, where much of Concorde training was done. The simulator was there and the British airplane was built there and first flew from that airport on April 9, 1969. Concorde development and construction was concurrent in Britain and France and the first French airplane had flown a little earlier.

My pub briefers were Captain John Cook, First Officer W. D. “Jock” Lowe and Senior Engineering Officer George Floyd. Cook and I later became close friends and enjoyed family visits back and forth across the Atlantic. Lowe went on to become a captain, then Concorde chief pilot and later chief pilot of all British Airways.

It was pretty fine hangar flying and between sips of warm beer I managed to take a few notes. It was interesting to me that they thought Concorde had flown more supersonic hours than all the air forces in the world.

Starting the next morning I was given what amounted to a condensed version of the ground school on the airplane. I took pages of notes as I listened to two different instructors, and I wrote quite a long article about it in FLYING.

Here, I’ll just pass on some interesting and fun facts and not go into all the technical details.

Concorde landing
That famous drooped nose…

The airplane

One of the first things folks noticed when Concorde was on the ground was the famous drooped nose. This was seen primarily when the airplane was landing and provided pilots with a view out front when operating at high angles of attack. The delta wing had to operate at high angles to develop lift at slower speeds. There were no flaps (or speed brakes) so the shape of the wing does it all and the drooped nose allowed pilots to see what was going on.

The nose drooped 12-degrees for approach and landing, when the nose-up attitude was greatest, and five degrees for takeoff. When the nose was fully retracted, a visor was brought up that streamlined the whole thing and resulted in a perfect pointed nose. The visor had to be in place at Mach .95, before the acceleration through Mach 1.0. In most air-to-air photos of the airplane the nose is fully up and the visor down. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an in-flight photo of Concorde with the visor in place. When the airplane was parked, the nose is up and the visor down which is when the airplane is at its photogenic best. I think this is the way it is now displayed in most museums.

The maximum indicated airspeed down low was 300 knots. That increased to 400 at 5,000 feet and to 530 knots to 30,000 feet where the limit became a maximum of Mach 2.04. Going fast makes heat and the limit temperature at the nose (the hottest spot) was 127 degrees C, which is pretty warm for an aluminum airplane.

The speed resulted in considerable heat generation over the entire airframe and passengers with window seats sometimes mentioned noticing some heating of the sidewalls. The airplane had four air conditioning systems and with one inoperative the airplane had to be slowed below the normal Mach 2.0 cruising speed to manage the heating of the cabin. That heat caused the cabin to be nine inches longer at cruise than at rest.

Fuel was transferred aft, to a tail tank as the airplane accelerated and the center of lift moved aft. This was done to keep the control surfaces in a near-neutral position to minimize drag. There were six elevons across the trailing edge to control roll and pitch plus two rudder elements. Fuel was also moved to change the shape of the wing slightly near the top of the climb, for optimum cruise performance.

The pilot’s controls were like in any airplane and utilized a dual early version of a fly-by-wire system. If there were a problem there, the system had strain gauges that would measure pilot force on the controls and move the surfaces accordingly.

I hadn’t been in ground school for long when I began to really appreciate George Floyd’s Senior Engineering Officer title. That side-facing crewmember, with a massive panel of gauges and switches, was critical to the operation of Concorde.

Concorde takeoff
The four engines on Concorde, even with afterburners, produced far less thrust than modern jet engines.

It’s not possible to cram air into jet engines at Mach 2 so a complex system modulated the intake air to Mach .5. This was done automatically but in the event of a problem, the engineer could handle it manually. The four engines generated 32,000 pounds of thrust each with 38,050 available through the use of the afterburners, which the British called “reheat.” By comparison, the most powerful engine available on a twinjet 777 puts out 115,300 pounds of thrust.

New Concorde pilots, who all came from the left seat of subsonic jets, got six weeks of ground school before going on for 64 hours in the simulator, which is where I went next.

Simulator time

At that time it was an early-generation simulator. The visual was produced by a camera moving about over a diorama in a large room. The scenery was thus limited and the view was far from as good in today’s digital visual displays.

Rotation speed, Vr, was 200 knots for my first takeoff. There the nose was rotated to 14 degrees nose up (13.8, actually) and then to 19 degrees when the airspeed reached 250 knots to keep the speed at the limit below 10,000 feet (in the U. S.)

I quickly learned why the airplane had been so lethargic after that French takeoff at JFK. Concorde is simply not comfortable at lower speeds. There is a buffet because of the low speed drag and when the airspeed went above 325 knots the aerodynamics smoothed out and the rate of climb increased dramatically. There is also some vibration from the drooped nose when it is down.

John Cook was my simulator guide and he continually stressed that Concorde has to be flown with precision, with attitude the primary guidance. When he said 10.5 degrees nose-up on approach, that is exactly what he meant. The power was set by an autothrottle system so the airspeed would be correct.

Concorde had mechanical instruments including a quite large attitude indicator with a bug to set for the target pitch attitude. The flight director display was the old original cross-pointer style which I had flown, but not in a while. It took a little flying to become reacquainted with this display.

I flew a passable ILS and landing and was told that after touchdown the nosewheel had to be flown onto the runway. It’s pretty far off the ground in the landing attitude so letting it plop down was not an option.

Flying at low speed and low altitude, the controls were light and pleasant and after a while I sort of forgot about the differences in the delta-wing airplane that was following me around and enjoyed flying it.

We flew the simulator through a bit of a flight to New York which brought up the transition from departure to en route climb and the cruise. The latter two events are the same, really, because the crossing was with a block altitude assignment of FL480 to FL600. The speed was held constant at Mach 2.0 and after reaching FL480 the altitude drifted up as fuel was burned off. FL600 was not often reached on the crossing as by the time it was close, in the high 50s, it was time to start a descent.

I hand flew the simulator through Mach 1.0 and up to 1.7 where the procedure calls for turning the controls over to the autopilot.

Concorde mach 2
Passengers could keep track of speed and altitude in the cabin.

The supersonic part of a flight couldn’t begin until over water and when leaving London this happened over the Bristol Channel. There, at an altitude of FL280 and speed of Mach .95 the afterburners were relit two at a time (they had been used for a short while on takeoff), the nose-up attitude was increased about five degrees and the airspeed was held right on the never-exceed barber pole.

The airplane became less stable in both pitch and roll as it accelerated and maintaining a precise airspeed was hard work. Deviations of just a little bit set off a warbler which told you both that the speed was off and who would buy a round at the pub after the flight. I hoped someone warned the barkeep at the Barley Mew to have plenty of suds on hand. The good stability returned after the speed reached about 1.2.

When we got to Kennedy the simulated weather was down so I could see an autoland Category IIIa ILS to runway 31R. A logical question was asked here: Why did they put the Category IIIa ILS on the shortest runway at the airport? I told them that I would look into it. The answer had something to do with the environment around the runways.

A few years later I had a two and a half hour session in their completely upgraded Phase II simulator with a digital visual display which made that part of the flying far more realistic. That time I did such dicey things as have two engines out on one side. I found things like that to be manageable only if strict attention was paid to the drag characteristics of the delta wing.

Back to my first visit: When I arrived at Heathrow for the flight to JFK in the real airplane I felt like I knew at least a little bit about it.

Flying the airplane

It was an evening flight, with departure after dark in London in December, and with the almost ever-present fog. The estimated flying time for the trip was 3+22 with a fuel burn of 165,214 pounds. Fuel was added for an alternate, and more fuel for this and that, and, as it almost always did, the airplane had full tanks, 208,775 pounds. That made sense when headed for JFK on a foggy night.

Concorde cockpit
The cockpit had enough switches to make a modern airline captain panic.

I had been in the cockpit of the simulator but somehow the airplanes seemed different. There was not the sense of complexity in the simulator that was felt in the airplane. It seemed to have more switches and dials than I had ever seen in a cockpit. Certainly a modern-day captain of a two-crew jumbo with a glass cockpit would have looked around and said “What in the hell is all this?” Good question but, rest assured, the three people I was with that night knew all the details of every switch and gauge.

John Bradshaw was the captain. At our scheduled departure time the visibility (runway visual range, or, RVR) was 100 meters with 150 (about 450 feet) required for a Concorde takeoff. The RVR was variable and Bradshaw wanted to be at the ready and not sitting in a long line of jumbos waiting for his turn if and when the visibility hit 150 meters. Concorde did burn a lot of fuel on the ground. In fact, on takeoff, with afterburners, the fuel flow was 180,000 pounds per hour for just a few minutes.

I guess engine start and push back was based on a hunch but it was a good one. As we crept along in the fog, only a 747, a 737 and an Airbus were ahead of us for the runway. We could only see the dim outline of the Airbus, directly ahead.

Our turn came after an Aeroflot Il-62 landed and we were cleared into position and hold, as was the terminology at that time. When the -62 went by, it could be heard more than seen.

Vr was 197 knots and the midpoint RVR was 250 meters. Bradshaw placed a damp cloth atop his head, donned leather gloves like racecar drivers wear, and the countdown, “three, two, one” was followed by the application of power and then the afterburners, two at a time. Power settings were electronically set based on power lever positions so the levers could be moved rapidly with no bad consequences. This was an early version of the power control systems (FADEC, for full authority digital engine controls) that have come to all modern jet engines.

Before going on, I can honestly say that the only thing that might have been more exciting would be a rocket launch into space.

The view of the runway lights whizzing by in the fog was pretty amazing as the speed reached Vr and the airplane was rotated to 14-degrees nose up. There was a bit of a strange sensation as the power was reduced to follow the noise abatement procedure. It felt a little like the world had stopped, like the feeling when the cat shot off a carrier is completed and the acceleration drops from that of the cat to that of the airplane.

When we got over the Bristol Channel and it was time to light the burners again and accelerate through Mach 1, the first officer got up and I was invited to take his seat, put my hands on the handlebars, and fly for a while. And I had thought the takeoff was exciting.

I didn’t write about this at the time except in my logbook. (“Capt. John Bradshaw let me hand fly accel from M .95 to M 1.7. Thrill of a lifetime!”) Nobody said not to write about it but I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble and had no idea how far up the line something like that was approved, if at all. I did feel it was probably something they had done before, more than once. We won’t go into what the Dom P sippers aft might have thought about it.

I had flown the acceleration in the simulator the day before so knew what to expect. But, believe me, I had that old “Mach 2 with my hair on fire” feeling that was expressed in “Top Gun.” As of the evening of December 11, 1984, I had actually flown an airplane supersonically, with a great deal of help. I filed that with other milestones.

All too soon we were approaching Mach 1.7 and I relinquished the controls and the right seat and returned to the jump seat.

An hour and 14 minutes in, we had drifted up above 50,000 feet and were indicating Mach 2.01. The groundspeed was 1,148 knots and the fuel flow 54,674 pounds per hour. An hour and seven minutes later we were at 56,600 feet doing 1,098 knots on 42,328 pph with 64,154 pounds remaining.

When we were an hour out of JFK all options were under review. The suitable airports from Halifax to Dulles were within reach and if JFK were questionable, the best time to plan a diversion would while still at altitude, doing Mach 2, which happens to be the best-range speed of the airplane.

The peak altitude on this crossing was 58,800 feet. To make the peanut butter and jelly come out even that altitude and all those knots had to be parlayed into a stop at the gate, near sea level.

Concorde had no vertical navigation system. Captain Bradshaw patted his head and said, “Use this computer right here. A lot of people don’t use it enough.”

Bradshaw’s personal computer worked perfectly and we hit every altitude restriction right on the money. Because we were still far enough at sea, the 250 knot restriction below 10,000 feet did not apply until near the end.

The view from the jump seat was quite good and to my eye the approach looked high. A glance at the glideslope showed that it was bang-on. The autothrottles were maintaining 162 knots on final and the engineer called out the radar altitude readings. At 15 feet, the power was retarded, a slight nose-up pitch adjustment was made, and Captain Bradshaw really greased it on. The turn off was 6,600 feet down the runway. Fuel remaining was 32,628 pounds.

That was a wonderful trip and the beginning of a great relationship with the airplane, the crews, and with British Airways. Needless to say, I came up with a number of article ideas and they were always ready with a Concorde jump seat ride to get me to London and back. (A seat in the cabin was also required in case an emergency called for clearing the flight deck of non-essential personnel.)

Oshkosh ’85

Early in 1985, John Cook came by my office in New York for a visit and lunch. While there he shared exciting news: He would be bringing Concorde to Oshkosh. The first thing that came to my mind was the length of the longest runway at OSH. It was substantially shorter then than now.

John assured me that he had been practicing short field landings and that they could actually make approaches at lower speeds than used for the big city airports. It takes a lot more power on final approach at the slower speed, that makes correspondingly more noise, and normal approaches to big airports all have a noise abatement element. No problem with that at Oshkosh. There, airplane excellence is judged more by how much noise they make than by quiet flight.

Collins and Cook on Concorde
The Concorde made quite a splash at Oshkosh 1985, where Collins met up with John Cook.

For the Concorde arrival at Oshkosh, I was stationed at the building right by the runway from which the air show was run. We spotted the eagerly-awaited airplane on a long final and as it drew closer I wondered what John would do to make the arrival a grand affair.

He touched, lowered the nose, applied full power and lit the afterburners for a touch-and-go. He passed where I was just feet away and the nose level was nothing short of spectacular. No other machine could turn fuel into noise like that one.

A low level turn followed, a chandelle off the runway, after which he came back for a normal landing and enthusiastic welcome.

For years, I was the unofficial estimator of the crowd at Oshkosh. I would look, guess, and put a number in the daily newsletter we published at the show. Everybody, including the newspapers and TV stations, would embrace my number so, accurate or not, it became the number. And I will say to this day that there were more people on the field at Oshkosh for the Concorde arrival in 1985 than ever before or since. The ground traffic jam that developed after the show was over that day became legendary and prompted a complete overhaul of the road traffic patterns as well as some road construction, all because of Concorde.

They stayed at the show a few days, flew every day, and hopped passengers just like we used to do at the local airport. The tariff was a bit steep and everyone was disappointed the FAA would not come to some agreement where they could go supersonic over the Great Lakes but it was still a sell-out.

While Concorde was at Oshkosh, John Cook arranged for me to have a free run of things. That was fun, being part of the Concorde family, and I got more insight into the special nature of the airplane.

At one point, John asked me to step from the cabin out onto the wing of the airplane. We used one of the over-wing exits to get out there and when I straightened up and looked around, I felt so discombobulated I almost sat down. We are used to standing on level surfaces and Concorde’s sensuous wing has some interesting shapes and is far from flat. The visual illusion sure isn’t one of standing up straight.

John and I did a program together one evening at the Theater in the Woods. We yukked it up a little and got a few laughs but one member of the audience greatly upstaged us. In a quiet pause, this attendee was overcome by a pronounced moment of loud flatulence that echoed through the woods and into the Wisconsin night air. John looked at me. I looked at John; then we, and the audience, spent a few minutes laughing.

There was a moment at Oshkosh when I had second thoughts about being considered part of Concorde’s family. A group was gravitating toward the flight line so I went along. I didn’t realize what we would be doing there until it came my turn to ride in, or on, a Breezy Pusher. What could I do but hop on and enjoy the ride. It was fun but something I probably would not have done otherwise. They had apparently given a free Concorde hop to the Breezy pilot.

Concorde came back to Oshkosh but on subsequent trips they toned down the nature of the air show participation. John Cook was on one of those trips, in 1988, and I took his son, Chris, out to Oshkosh from Maryland to meet him. Chris had flown into Dulles the night before.

The British Concorde was due to appear at Oshkosh again in July, 2000, 15 years after the first appearance, but on July, 25, the French Concorde crashed on takeoff. Initially, the British said they would still come but that changed rather quickly.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Concorde scheduled service, British Airways took 100 (the capacity) of its friends from JFK to Bermuda for lunch. Operating at much lighter weight than for a crossing we vaulted right up to FL 600. Because we had high officials from both the U. S. and Bermuda on board the customs business was handled en route.

After lunch, as we were preparing to launch for the return to JFK, a honcho from Bermuda asked the crew if they would show the airplane to all the residents of the island. What an airplane for a loud and highly effective buzz job. It was fun to ride through but both the flight crew and the folks on the ground had the most fun.

Memorable trips

One special thrill for me came when they suggested that my wife, Ann, come along on one of the trips. I took her for her first airplane ride in our Piper Pacer many years prior and this was to be quite a step up. I was button-busting proud to be able to take her along on Concorde, to be able to take her to work with me. She enjoyed it greatly and loved telling friends about the trip. I had to work a bit while there but while that was going on, John Cook’s wife, Joy, took Ann for a tour of the sights in London. She saw more than I had ever seen there. After that we played tourist for a few days and then dashed home.

On the trip with Ann, the return was a morning flight. I had a car meet us at JFK and the plan was to let me off at my One Park Avenue office in Manhattan and then take Ann on home to New Jersey.

One of the passenger-friendly features of Concorde’s speed was that it minimized jet lag. I got from London to One Park by nine that morning. Could I put in a productive day in the office and then ride the commuter train home to New Jersey at my normal time? The productive part was open to question and I did almost sleep through the station that afternoon. As for Ann, the trip on home after they let me off was pretty slow and her time en route from JFK to home was a few minutes longer that our Heathrow to Kennedy time.

On one trip I actually came back the day after I flew over. I worked all day at British Airways and took the evening flight back. When I was going through U. S. Customs, the agent looked at me with great suspicion and questioned why I had gone to England on Concorde and returned the next day. In fact, he insisted on knowing why. I gave him an honest answer: “I went for the airplane ride.” That wasn’t good enough for him but the supervisor who was called knew of my coming and going and told him it was okay.

At that time, the foreign airplanes had pretty liberal policies about cockpit visits. One night, I was on the jump seat watching the proceedings when a frequent Concorde traveler wandered onto the flight deck. He recognized me, introduced himself, and we had a nice visit. Some months later, I was again on the jump seat and lo and behold the same fellow came forward. He took one look at me and said, “Richard, you are still here!”

Another night, I was standing in the galley having a coffee with a Concorde captain who was deadheading to JFK. In the middle of our conversation he cracked a wry smile and asked if I thought I would ever be standing up enjoying a coffee while going 1,100 knots. He allowed that it still amazed him and he had been flying the airplane for years. Somehow standing close to that pointed nose and going that fast boggled the mind. The coffee was pretty good, too.

Still another night I peered down and saw some lights that appeared to be headed the other way. I asked the captain of that was a 747 going to London. “No,” he said, “that is one of our 747s going to New York. You know, we are 700 knots faster than a 747.”

Most of my Concorde flying was when I was Editor-in-Chief of FLYING, and living near Princeton, New Jersey. So a big challenge was getting to and from JFK in less time than it took to fly the Atlantic. After Ann’s long ground trip, I mentioned this to John Cook and he gave me a number to call to make better arrangements. The number was for the British Airways operations office at JFK and I quickly made arrangements for a Bonanza from Ronson Aviation in Trenton to come to the BA ramp at Kennedy and pick me up after the next trip back. The 25-minute flight was much nicer than a lengthy limo trip.

John Cook Concorde
You might call this door-to-door service: delivering the captain to his flight in Collins’ P210.

John and Joy Cook were over visiting once and I took them to JFK in my P210 so John could fly the morning Concorde to London. They parked us on the ramp right by the airplane. Another time, I was going to meet someone and the BA ramp agent told me to follow him into operations, he wanted to show me something. Right there on the arrivals board, with Concorde, was Cessna N40RC.

I only got to fly Concorde with John Cook as captain once, from London to New York, and got a special treat at the end of that trip.

The Canarsie (now Parkway) visual approach to runways 13R and 13L at JFK has always been considered an airmanship challenge. It is truly visual, with landmarks (including a road to follow) and light clusters to use in navigating to the appropriate runway. Any experienced JFK controller will tell you that more than one airline pilot has screwed up on this approach.

I had flown the approach several times in my P210 and when it was assigned for John to fly this day I eagerly awaited his performance.

There are times when you are watching someone fly that you feel like they are wearing the airplane like their skin. John was erect in his seat. Head up. Doing the visual part, with an occasional glance at the panel to be sure everything was in its place. As he flew the beautiful supersonic transport around that pattern I just had the strong feeling that he was in his element, in his groove. Everything, including the landing, was perfect. I was truly in the company of a master of the art.

John Cook retired at age 55, as was the British rule at the time. He tried to stay active in aviation, and did so for a while but he finally just retired to the golf course. He died a while back and I miss his good company and wit.

We had moved to Maryland when I made my last crossing on Concorde and this one was from Heathrow to Dulles. We left London after the sun had set, I watched the sun rise as we outran it on the trip west, a car met me at Dulles, and when I watched the sun set for the second time that day I was enjoying a cool one on my deck in Maryland. Concorde was the only way in the world that a civilian could enjoy such an experience.

Concorde crash in Paris
A very public crash in 2000 spelled the end for Concorde.

The beginning of the end

The crash of the French Concorde in Paris in 2000 dealt a harsh blow to Concorde. I am sure there was thought of throwing in the towel and I had actually heard that if there was ever a fatal accident in the fleet of either airline, British Airways or Air France, that would be the end of it.

The Paris accident was one of those freaks, caused as it was by a foreign object on the runway that was picked up and thrown by a tire into the underside of the wing where a fuel tank ruptured and a fire started. There had been a somewhat similar incident years before, where something punctured a fuel tank on takeoff but there was a difference. No fire the first time, disastrous fire the second time.

I wrote about the French accident in my book “The Next Hour,” and the final moments of that airplane were an interesting commentary on how, when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, a flight crew comes upon the impossible.

They didn’t give up on the airplane after the accident, though, and modifications were developed to protect against wing punctures by foreign objects. This added some weight to the airframe but I know the British compensated for this with a new lighter interior.

The British had always been more enthusiastic about the airplane than the French and what happened after the crash was further illustration of this. The British modified and put five airplanes (of seven) back in service, the French three. They flew them until 2003. It was said that the drop in airline travel after 9/11 caused the end of Concorde service but I always suspected there were many other reasons.

Concorde had been flying with its original avionics the entire time and the equipment was, to say the least, obsolete. According to one source an avionics retrofit would have cost British Airways a minimum of 200 million pounds, to be spread over a maximum of seven airplanes. That would have been a steep hill to climb.

I recall a problem they had when TCAS (collision avoidance) had to be added to the airplane because that was the law of the land. I never heard how they solved the problem but in the beginning it was acknowledged that no existing TCAS antenna or external sensor could survive the high surface temperatures at cruise so they would have to start over on that. They did and it apparently worked.

Fuel costs were also a problem for the airplane. With the advent of twins for ocean flying, airplanes like the 777 and A-330 delivered over four times better seat miles per gallon than did Concorde. When jet fuel was cheap, this didn’t matter as much but as the cost escalated, it did.

Concorde always had a higher load factor coming this way than it did going the other way. The math is simple on that. Using local time, coming here you arrive before you leave there. Going the other way, you get there over eight hours after you leave here, again using local time.

For a while, they did a cruise deal with Cunard: one way on the QEII, the other way on Concorde. My friend John Cook did a number of these and one of the attractions was having the Concorde captain lecture during the ship part of the trip. Dinner at the captain’s table involved both captains, too. Guess which direction was the ship and which way Concorde? It was a way to fill eastbound seats that might have otherwise gone empty. I heard them say that Concorde would be wildly profitable if they could only fly the westbound trips.

Another Concorde advantage was that it flew above the often-howling winter winds so didn’t have the slower trips that bedevil the subsonic airplanes flying at lower altitudes.

I have forgotten the last one-way fare I heard about but a moment with a calculator and knowledge of rules of thumb suggests that the cost to the airline for each passenger would have been a minimum of $7,000. At that time, that was probably at least double (or more) the highest 747 fare. Since then, the airlines have discovered super luxurious accommodations, including privacy and beds, for First Class and are getting correspondingly high prices. The price of a “compartment” on a coast-to-coast or international flight would probably be about what a Concorde ticket would run today. Time will tell whether or not the super-expensive service will endure.

There are some who hold that Concorde was a failure. It was noisy and expensive, true, but it was really fast and that is what airplanes are all about. There is also the fact that Concorde flew passengers from 1976 to 2003, less a little time out for mods after the French accident. So, it basically flew passengers for 27-percent of the time that powered airplanes had been flying when it was retired. It had a perfect safety record in scheduled service. The French accident was on a charter flight.

No, the original order book of over 100 airplanes from 19 different airlines didn’t work out. In the end, only 20 Concordes were built. Four of those were for testing, eight each wound up at British Airways and Air France. These were basically given to those airlines. Both airlines operated only seven of their fleet, holding one for spares.

The British and French taxpayers picked up the tab so the rest of us could have access to the best airplane ride of all time. Our heartfelt thanks to them.

The two airlines flew Concorde for about a quarter of a million hours, with the British flying more than the French. Several of the British airplanes had over 23,000 hours on them when retired. That was against a life limit of 45,000 hours on the airframe.

Maintenance was exhaustive and I had a look at a Concorde in the throes of major maintenance. The structure that I could see was complex and strong in appearance. When the airplane was first put into service, it was predicted that the first skin cracks would come at the top of the fuselage just ahead of the wing. The sole cause of those cracks would likely be the uneven runways at JFK. This was watched closely and it came true.

Despite the sturdy appearance, the design load factor of Concorde was plus 2.2 g and minus 1 g. That compares with 3.8 g for a normal category general aviation airplane. The nature of the airplane was such that turbulence would place far less stress on the airplane than on our airplanes. Concorde’s wing span of 84 feet compares with 212 feet and seven inches for a 777 so the wing bending loads in turbulence would be quite different.

A final flight

Before Concorde’s retirement, British Airways flew some flights to give friends of Concorde one last ride in the airplane. Mine came on August 9, 2003.

We launched from JFK at mid-morning, went to FL600 and Mach 2.0, had a nice lunch, circled around out about Bermuda and returned to JFK. That was my 14th and last Concorde flight.

The airplanes are now on display in museums if that turns you on. To me, though, Concorde in a museum is like a wild animal in a cage. It was an airplane of superlatives and my exposure to it was one reason why, when I was Editor-in-Chief of FLYING, I knew for certain that I had the best job in the world.

That last ride was a great day for me but a sad day for aviation technology. The fact that there was no further interest in an airliner that flew well over twice as fast as any other is, I think, one of the most regrettable aviation milestones in the history of our activity. Shame on us for not continuing the quest to always fly faster.

29 Comments

  • Great piece Richard! I had no idea you were so close to this formidable beast. I too am a fan of Concorde. I learned some cool things about this amazing airplane. Thanks for sharing!

    God Speed Concorde!

    Brent

  • Retirement of the Concorde was the first backward step in aviation that I can recall. Thanks for the memories!

    • Your comment is right on target. While I was at RAF Base, we got to see a concord practice landings. Great Aircraft, I just wish I could have got the chance to fly on it.

  • Thanks for the great article.
    I find it sad that the United States Government no longer fosters engineering and experimental greatness like we once did.
    We should regenerate interest in a project that personifies aviation at its finest; i.e., pick up where the British and French left off. We no longer are actively involved in the space program and will certainly lose ground to China in the quest for all things related to this.
    There must be some wealthy folks from Saudi Arabia who could afford the fuel to stir up interest…..

    • Andy – it is not sad at all that our government does not see fit to waste massive amounts of hard earned taxpayer funds in an to attempt to do what no private sector party was willing to risk their private capital to fund. Not only that, but large government agencies are inherently wasteful, non-responsive, and unmanageable – think VA medical care – whereas private capital is held accountable to investors, markets, and individual customers, none of which will tolerate gross waste and inefficiency.

      The Concorde was a boondoggle, and it was hugely inefficient, noisy, and not welcome in most airports. It effectively subsidized the travel of wealthy people on the backs of working class people, just so that the elite could cross the Atlantic in three and a half hours instead of seven hours, when working class taxpayers are lucky to afford the rent and the groceries. The resulting airplanes once developed were literally given away for practically nothing to BA and AF. If the two national airlines were not given the planes for free, none of them would ever have seen commercial service.

      Great commercial aircraft are aircraft that make money – for their investors, and for the airlines that operate them – and that make sense economically, unsubsidized, for the customers who ride them. The great commercial airliners of today and in the past – from the venerable B707 to the B737, B747, and B787 – all did that without the massive taxpayer subsidies that built the Concorde. Airbus, however, is a different story.

      If there is a market for supersonic travel today, and given that much better technology today allows for more efficient flight at lower noise levels and much lower costs per passenger mile, then next gen SSTs may be developed that will be vastly more successful than ever was the poor old Concorde. Several next gen SSTs are in development now, by both private aerospace companies and also one or two government entities, all claiming to be cost-competitive with current subsonic intercontinental airliners. We’ll see what the market can deliver.

  • Ah, Richard, no one else but you and John Cook could have pulled that off. I remember that (you know what) grin on your face after your first trip actually flying the airplane. What a gift John and British Air gave you, and you to us through your writing. Thanks.

  • Wow Mr Collins, that was just an absolute gem of an article!!! At times I really felt like I was there with you. You truly live an awesome life! And love the pic of your 210 on the ramp with the Concorde. I miss the Concorde too, though it never really came to the west coast. But I do love seeing it here in Seattle and occasionally I do the walk through at Boeing’s Museum of Flight.

    Jeff

  • Mr. Collins,

    Thank you for sharing this most unique of all adventures, especially the start of it all – sharing a beer with the flight crew before you embarked on this truly extraordinary experience. How did you sleep that night?

  • It is interesting that from early flight in WWl to now a certain camaraderie among all pilots exists irrespective of nationality, war or peace. It’s too bad we can’t bottle it and use it instead of having to go outside and crank our Piper or Bonanza if we’re lucky for that flight time salve of true calm. The Concorde. At ten grand a ticket, I can only see one in a museum, but what a dream. I’m lucky to live close to the Air Force museum. That is the field of my dreams.

  • Thank you for an excellent article. The Concord was an amazing aircraft and your article captured the experience of flying in it so well. I had the awesome opportunity to fly in the cockpit of the Concord at subsonic speeds over the US, and it was a once in a lifetime experience for me. We were carrying a class of British Airways cadets to Battle Creek, Michigan and I remember
    ATC asking “Speedbird, you are going where?”. You also captured so well the generosity of the folks at BA. They were professionals and to this day I appreciate the opportunities they provided to me. Thank you for the outstanding insight into the Concorde and the staff at BA.

  • Congratulations Richard Collins on such a well-written, wide coverage article filled with insight and detail. It activated memories of my flight from JFK to LHR in July 1993 just before British Airways terminated SST ops. I remember the high noise level and rough ride on the departure runway. It was quite a thrill/experience to feel the ‘relighters’ engage over the ocean, accelerate to Mach 1 and Mach 2, climb 55,000 ft. (AIR), observe earth’s curvature, and see the cabin mounted airspeed indicator read 1440 MPH. All this while experiencing an almost never-ending service of delicious food and drink. Yes, it was luxurious. Top it off with a souvenir Concorde writing portfolio, Concorde pen (which I still have)and flight certificate signed by the captain. Travel time was 3+15 aided by a strong tail wind. Arrival was earlier than scheduled and we had to hold for 15 minutes to get sequenced. So much for supersonic travel – -time to spare, go by air. But, all-in-all rememberable.

  • My only encounter with Concorde came in 1991 on the island of Martinique. Bush 41 and Francois Miterand had gotten together for a summit on the island. As a US Army signal corp soldier and member of WHCA it was my last trip and my photo op with Bush 41 in front of AF-1. At that moment the French head of State departed via Concorde in full afterburner. AF-1 is impressive but I felt like they had one upped us with the Concorde.

  • Richard, congratulations on an amazing article that only someone like you could write. As a proud Brit, I never got the chance to fly on Concorde but you made it feel like I did. I now look forward to my first BA flight on the A380 to LAX. How expectations and anticipation has changed. Thanks again from a new pilot !

    Mark

  • This was on the PPrune forums a few years back, written by a long-time Concorde crewmember:

    JFK 31L, Kennedy 9 Departure, Canarsie transition, Concorde climb

    Speedbird 2, cleared take-off 31L.

    You call 3-2-1 Now, start your stopwatch, pre-set to countdown from 58 seconds, and slam the throttles fully forward till they hit the stops. Four RR Olympus engines start to spool up to full power and four reheats kick in, together producing 156,000 lbs of thrust, but at a total fuel flow of 27,000 US gallons per hour. A touch of left rudder initially to keep straight, as the #4 engine limiter is limiting the engine to 88% until 60 kts when it will release it to full power. The F/O calls Airspeed building, 100 kts, V1, and then, at 195 kts, Rotate. You smoothly rotate the aircraft, lift-off occurs at around 10° and 215 kts. You hear a call of V2 but you keep rotating to 13.5° and then hold that attitude, letting the aircraft accelerate.

    The F/O calls Positive Climb and you call for the Gear Up. On passing 20 feet radio height, and having checked the aircraft attitude, airspeed and rate of climb are all satisfactory, the F/O calls Turn and you slowly and smoothly roll on 25° left bank to commence the turn out over Jamaica bay. Some knowledgeable passengers will have requested window seats on the left side of the aircraft at check-in, and are now being rewarded with a very close look at the waters of Jamaica Bay going by very fast! As you accelerate through 240 kts, the F/O calls 240 and you pitch up to 19° to maintain 250 kts and keep the left turn going to pass East of CRI.

    54 seconds from the start of the take off roll you hear the F/O counting down 3-2-1 Noise whereupon the F/E cancel the re-heats and simultaneously throttles back to noise abatement power, around 96% as you pitch the nose down to 12° to maintain 250 kts. It is less than a minute from start of roll and already 435 US gallons of fuel have been used.

    Speedbird 2, contact departure, so long.

    Turning through heading 235°M, the F/E quickly re-applies full dry power as you pitch up to 17° to maintain 250 kts, but simultaneously reduce the left bank to 7.5°, in order to increase both the radius of turn (to stay on the optimum noise abatement track) and the rate of climb (less bank, higher RoC).

    On climbing through 2,500 ft you increase the bank angle back to 25° left bank and as you approach the 253° radial JFK, you hear 3-2-1 Noise from the F/O for the second time. The F/E actions the second noise-abatement power cut back, you pitch down to 12° and, if not in cloud, sneak a quick peek out of your left hand window, looking for the car park by the Marine Parkway bridge, as you would ideally like to pass right over the car park, if possible, as we tip-toe quietly across the Rockaway Beaches, in order to minimise the noise impact on the residents.

    Keep the left turn going and intercept the 176° radial outbound from CRI, and at 5 miles DME from CRI, call for the F/E to slowly re-apply full climb power as you pitch up to maintain 250 kts. We are still in US territorial airspace, below 10,000 ft, and subject to statutory speed control.

    Speedbird 2, present position direct to SHIPP, climb FL230, no speed control.

    The F/O selects direct SHIPP in the INS and tells you that she has selected that information into your Flight Director. Having checked that the gear lever is at neutral, you call for the Nose Up, and then the Visor Up. Flight deck noise levels drop dramatically as the Visor locks up. Now more than 12 miles away from the coast, we are clear of US speed control requirements so lower the attitude to 9°, accelerate to VMO, currently 400 kts, and ask for the After Take Off Checks.

    Speedbird 2, present position direct to LINND, climb in the block FL550-600, accelerate Mach 2.0

    Call for the Climb Checklist at Mach 0.7, which will trigger the F/E to start pumping fuel rearwards to move the CG aft, then when he’s done that, straight into the Transonic Checklist. Maintain 400 kts IAS, and around 24,500 ft, at M0.93, ask for the re-heats back on, in pairs, and raise the nose by 3° to maintain 400 kts as they kick in.

    Precise, smooth flying is required through the high drag transonic region, as the mach meter creeps up towards Mach 1. A sudden flicker on the VSI and Altimeter confirms that the shock wave has just passed over the static ports, and the aircraft is now supersonic. A quick glance at the elapsed time indicator shows that you’ve been hand flying for just over 9 minutes since the start of the take off roll.

    Another fun start to a day in the office, and to think we got paid for doing it!

    Best Regards

    Bellerophon

  • Great article,reminds me of my only flight on Concorde, charter from MIA to Grand Cayman when BA was operating Concorde flights from JFK to MIA in the mid 80`s.As we approached the Caymans the Captain announced we would cruise down Seven Mile Beach at 500ft.to give the natives a view of Concorde as it was probably the biggest deal there in a looong time.While looking out the window and seeing palm fronds whizzing past at eye level I said to my girlfriend those are either the tallest palm trees in the world or the Captain was fibbing about our altitude.Great flight even greater experience.Thanks for the memories

    • I was on that return flight, Rich, from Grand Cayman back to Miami, what a thrilling takeoff. Did you get any photos, I have none.

  • Great article Mr. Collins. I only got to see the Concorde fly once and that was when it visited Memphis,Tn. It made a couple of passes and it was geat. Went on board the one at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. You are right being a static display doesn’t do it justice but I’m not sure being on static display does any aircraft justice. They are made to fly.

    • Mike,

      Do you remember the year the Concorde was at the Memphis Airport? I was doing some research for an article and the memory flashed in my mind as well. We had been in Memphis to enjoy Libertyland. My mother heard about the historic visit on the radio. Se forced my dad to go to the end of the runway and watch it taxi and depart. IT was such a cool sight to behold. I believe it was somewhere between 1981-1983. I may be a little off. But, reading your comment give me hope that someone can remember what the timeframe was for this flight.

    • Hello Mike,

      Do you know when the Concorde visited Memphis? I remember it coming here and always have regretted not driving out to the airport to see it. I see that Wayne did see it! I am guessing it was mid to late 80s.

      Thank you,
      John
      Memphis, TN

  • A terrific article Richard. You succeeded in making the complicated subject of Concorde and supersonic flight something most of us sub sonic types could appreciate.Certainly memorable personal experiences for you with the bonus of making new lifelong friends. You are a master.

  • Dick,…..what a masterful account of your ‘relationship’ with Concord and its BA crews. For, YOU are the ‘master’ of ‘topping yourself’, as the years have gone by, with your ‘good-better-best’ articles. THIS was the BEST… IMHO. Jim

  • Excellent article Mr. Collins which brings back many fond memories for me. I was based in Toulouse with GE during the early days of Concord working flight test on the A300.

    I was fortunate enough to make 4 flights on Concorde during flight
    tests (mostly for ballast) and was thrilled each time as we exceeded mach 1.

  • Your excellent article brought back memories of my only Concorde trip. Lucky me, it was in the cockpit jumpseat situated almost directly between the pilots. This was July 14, 1986, Air France Concorde F-BTSC, captained by G. Caillat. The occasion was the appearance of the Concorde for flybys at Expo 86 being held in Vancouver British Columbia. To familiarize the crew with the local area, the flyby sites and the adjacent local mountains a first local trip was to carry a Transport Canada Civil Aviation Inspector in the cockpit to provide directions. That was me!

    My lasting impressions – how short an 11,000 foot runway could look especially on short final; the curvature of the earth at altitude; the sense of motionless at altitude even at mach 2.0; the temperature gauge that ran the auto-throttles to prevent skin overheat; the actual warmth of the skin behind the insulation above cockpit roof; and finally the crew reaction to ATC requesting a slow-down to 200 knots for traffic avoidance – I even got on the radio to rectify that one!

    All-in-all a great opportunity and memory for any pilot. It is a proud entry in my pilot logbook. I only recently came to discover this was the aircraft that crashed at Paris. I like many was saddened by the end of the Concorde service but have subsequently had the chance to crawl all over one now located in Seattle.

  • great story. I saw the Concorde in Oshkosh in the nineties. Flying and static. One of my fond memories was waiting to depart OSH off runway 27 and being nose to nose with the Concorde on the opposite side of runway as it was being repositioned. Another great day in aviation for me!

  • Also, remember Concorde was flown between D.C. and Dallas on regular schedule and was not expensive if you connected to another Braniff flight like I did going on to LA. Great flight. Sat by window in first row on left side.

    At low speed, plane was shaking a lot on final approach. All during flight, off and on, I could hear fuel being transferred from tank to tank under the floor. When we leveled off at near cruise altitude after a pretty steep and quick climb, they hit the afterburners (?) and put us all back into our seats. I have raced cars and never felt anything as great.

    First impression inside was how small cabin was. Great experience.

  • The concord is a true representation of what freedom, really is. Outpacing time itself so you have more time to love life. In my mind the idea of get there first, like the concord will always live.

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