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Concorde - End of the dream

G-BOAE lands at Heathrow on 24 October. Pic by Garry LakinAndrew Bates realises his dream - but for countless others, it is sadly at an end. Photography by the author, Gary Parsons, Garry Lakin, Geoff Stockle and Damien Burke

At precisely 16:05 on 24 October 2003, the last ever scheduled British Airways Concorde flight touched down at Heathrow Airport, so bringing to a close the era of supersonic passenger travel and also ending a distinguished twenty-seven year reign as BA's ever-elegant flagship. During the week leading up to this momentous event, BA had staged a supersonic tour of Great Britain, enabling other regions of the country the opportunity to bid farewell to a much loved icon. Thus, on each day of the five-day tour, a different airport had been selected for one last visit, which successively comprised of Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. The tour had been promoted by British Airways, during the summer, with the launch of the National Concorde Competition, which gave members of the public one last chance of flying on the glamorous lady herself. Thanks to the efforts of my dear wife, I was destined to sample the supersonic highlife from Birmingham Airport during the first day of the tour.

Back in 1976, like so many teenage schoolboys of my generation, I remember being captivated by the adverts on television promoting a new supersonic service from British Airways, which only further hastened my fast developing interest in aviation. From that day onwards, I always dreamed that perhaps one day, I too could fly faster than a speeding bullet. Of course, this was temporarily forgotten shortly after I'd discovered girls and rock music, but my interest was rekindled less than a decade later during my first Concorde encounter at Yeovilton's Air Day in 1985, where we were treated to a couple of Concorde flypasts, a At Yeovilton's Air Day, 1985highlight for many in the audience. Watching her swoop gracefully over the airfield, I remember thinking about that boyhood dream once again, and decided there and then that I simply had to fly on her one day.

As the eighties turned to the nineties, the occasional airshow appearance ensured the dream never faded. Thoughts of a special birthday or anniversary treat were always at the back of the mind, with perhaps my 40th birthday as prime candidate. The years continued to pass by and before I knew it, it was 2003 and time to plan my 40th celebrations. As ever, plans change, and my birthday treat was transformed into a holiday in the Keys, followed by a trip in a Tiger Moth - a complete reversal in performance terms, but great fun nevertheless. This just meant a further postponement of the dream, which I casually assumed would not be a problem. Then the bombshell news; British Airways is to retire their Concorde fleet in October. I just didn't know which was worse; the sad news that retirement was imminent or the realisation that I'd missed my opportunity to go supersonic. The dream very quickly began to fade. Fortunately, in true Baldrick style, the missus had a 'cunning plan'.

From the touchline - Geoff Stockle reports from Birmingham
Red Arrows and Concorde - Fairford 1985
Funny, almost frightening how time flies! Just over 33 years ago a wide eyed five-year-old watched in awe as the most beautiful, streamlined, noisiest flying machine swept into view out of the murk at Farnborough in 1970. Sure, that year there were Lightnings, Phantoms, Harriers and Buccaneers, even a Jastreb and Galeb plus many other modern military types just as at any other SBAC week in September. That year however, it was a civilian aircraft and, God forbid, an airliner that stole the show and stopped the crowds dead on their feet, peering under their umbrellas and rain hoods to see Trubshaw put 002 through its paces. No doubt about it, even as I grew up and became a definite military metal fan, Concorde left a massive impression on me then and always has. Millions world wide have been touched the same way, some lucky enough to fly in it, an elite few even flying it, most though have had to settle for a walk through the grounded prototypes, firmly stuck on the ground or just to watch in admiration as the great white bird made innumerable arrivals and departures at a select few airports.
On 10 April 2003, after 27 years of commercial operation, British Airways followed Air France by announcing the retirement of their fleet and thus terminating supersonic flight for fare paying passengers.
How sad I felt on 20 October as I gathered with 8,000 other 'mourners' to witness Concorde's final visit to Birmingham International Airport, this being day one of the final farewell tour. This continued to Belfast, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh culminating in the arrival of three consecutive flights at Heathrow on Friday 24 October, to mark the end not only of civilian supersonic flight, but of an era - an icon of the 20th century - an institution.
So much has happened since this superlative piece of engineering made its first flight in the same year that man walked on the moon. Just as that incredible achievement has never been furthered, so now commercial travel takes a step backwards and remains firmly subsonic.
The 9-11 and Gonesse crash disasters have both been cited as the final nails in the coffin for the aircraft but without continued maintenance support form Airbus, BA had no alternative but to pull the plug. Continued flying could have taken place for a proposed further decade at least, by both airline operators. They both have now lost their flagships and the only thing that made them unique in the highly competitive industry of air travel. We, as the public and/or enthusiasts have now lost the chance to see Concorde gracing the skies and the dream of travelling on her is definitely beyond our grasp!
Much debate has been aired regarding the whole fiasco of retirement, and continues concerning the final resting places for the airframes. I have to agree that these are without doubt bizarre and act only to distance the aircraft from the public that funded its development, design, production and service for nearly five decades..
G-BOAC rotates at the 1985 IAT, RAF Fairford
My own memories are mainly from airshows where Concorde participated - indeed, during the mid to late '80s she was a regular participant performing some awesome demonstrations. However, display flights with passengers stopped after the Airbus crash during an airshow in France in 1988 which killed some on board. To be economical, the Concorde displays had to be at the end of a fare paying flight, rather than an empty airframe out on a 'jolly', thus preventing any more public appearances, other than arrivals and departures on charter flights or one off flypasts.
And so back to 20 October. 11.40 at Birmingham airport, a very chilly but sunny morning awaited us to witness G-BOAC arrive for a supersonic trip for lucky prize winners. A slight delay saw the familiar delta shape line up for a 2,500' fly over and orbit of the city, before touching down at around 12.10. After turning off, the machine took the long way around to taxi past the terminal and viewing areas where in excess of 8,000 well-wishers had turned up. She finally came to rest on the wash pan, many knowing this as the 'old' terminal apron of 'Elmdon' airport of yesteryear. Flight crew for the day were : Captain Andy Mills, F/O Les Evans,
Engineering Officer Jes Wood, and PR Officer Captain Les Brodie. At around 15.45 the drive back to the airport became an almost impossible task as again thousands of Brummies lined the streets to see the departure of this great beast. Thus at 16.10 the Sheldon area of Birmingham shook to the sound of four mighty Olympus in reheat as Alpha Charlie launched with fighter like gusto on its prize-winners' trip around the Bay of Biscay. Many lingered until the white delta disappeared from view completely, leaving the approach clear for the rather more mundane Airbuses, 737s and 146s. We probably won't see its like again in our lifetimes, and it may prove that humankind's requirement for supersonic flight for commercial reasons is never again realised. I'm just glad to have been part of the Concorde era and to have witnessed this incredible achievement in the air one last time.
Painful irony that in the year we celebrate 100 years of powered flight, Concorde, one of the most notable aviation developments is prematurely retired. British Airways should have pulled out all the stops to ensure that she was represented at a few air events this year - notably Fairford - its test base for many years - shame on you!

G-BOAF in her earlier BA livery. Pic by Andrew BatesDuring the summer, I had been vaguely aware of a BA telephone competition to fly on Concorde, but inexplicably did nothing about it. However, my wife, always one with an eye open for promotional competitions large or small, ensured that we submitted an entry. Better still, she had read the small print detailing the conditions; '…no purchase necessary, entries acceptable on postcards to the following freepost address…' So, instead of the one intended phonecall, she was able to submit a number of postcards, one per person within our family, and without even the cost of a stamp! She had explained all this in intricate detail to me, but as usual, it had been in one ear and out the other. Besides, I was far too busy with my summer schedule of necessary jobs around the house, such as cataloguing photos, checking serial numbers, cleaning cameras, writing reports for Air-Scene UK, creosoting the fence, etc. (only joking - didn't have time for the fence). Consequently, I had completely forgotten about the competition by early August, which is when we returned home to find the following message on our answerphone: "Hello, this is a message for Mr Andrew Bates. Could you please ring the British Airways Concorde competition hotline as soon as possible." According to my wife, my face was a picture. It was all I could do to keep exclaiming; "No, surely not!?" Feeling slightly dazed, I was all thumbs as I picked up the phone and dialled the number as fast as my fumbling fingers would allow. Less than five minutes later, the friendly voice at the other end had confirmed I was a winner. I just had to choose a companion to come with me. No prizes for guessing who that was after all her efforts. The dream was now very much alive and kicking.

In all her glory...
G-BOAD departs for the USA on 10 November. Pic by Damien Burke
G-BOAF - Pic by Garry Lakin
G-BOAF lands at Heathrow on 24 October. Pic by Damien Burke.
G-BOAG. Pic by Garry Lakin
G-BOAG. Pic by Damien Burke

The home location for competition winners very much dictated where they would fly from, as wherever possible, BA helpfully tried to match people to the nearest of the five nominated airports. Thus, living less than half an hour's drive from Birmingham Airport, it was no surprise when we received written confirmation that this would be our departure point during the first day of the tour, which was to be Monday 20 October. The local weather forecast had mentioned a high risk of some rain, but the day itself dawned bright and breezy, and subsequently remained so. In anticipation of perhaps partaking of the odd glass of champagne, we opted to use the train rather than drive to the airport. This was to prove a wise decision. We arrived more than an hour before Concorde's scheduled arrival time to find most of the roads leading to the airport gridlocked with traffic. There were people everywhere - in the car parks, in surrounding fields, at the roadside, on top of adjacent buildings. It was later estimated that approximately 5,000 spectators had turned up, but this really seemed to be a conservative estimate. Looking at all the young faces, it was highly likely that the truancy rate within the Birmingham area had temporarily increased tenfold or more!

Seeing as it was such a sunny morning, we decided it would be nice to watch the arrival close up, prior to checking in. So, wanting to get as close to the 'action' as possible, we managed to make our way through the crowds and found ourselves a fairly decent spot in one of the car parks, nicely adjacent to the threshold of runway 33. There, along with all the other adoring fans, we stood and awaited the arrival with bated breath.

The time ticked around slowly, as the wind numbed fingers with a stiff and cold breeze. Meanwhile, operations continued as normal, with scheduled flights arriving, and others departing. To all intents and purposes, it was probably like any other busy Monday at Birmingham Airport, and some of the 'civvie' enthusiasts were no doubt enjoying themselves watching some of the movements. But, despite such distractions, almost everyone remained with a fixed gaze up into the blue yonder, almost oblivious to some of the other air traffic.

As the anticipation mounted, time continued to creep along, until finally it had arrived at last - the ETA that is! Hundreds of beady eyes scrutinised the distant horizon, squinting into the sun and straining for that first glimpse. A few of the eagle-eyed amongst us suddenly began to point, a muted cheer was heard above the wind, and then, just visible in the distance, an intensely bright speck of illumination that could only be generated by landing lights. "Here she comes," shouted one young lad expectantly. I briefly thought of all the well-worn adjectives that were likely to get utilised in the next few moments. It's beautiful. It's magnificent. It's elegant. It's……"It's an Airbus!" exclaimed a disgruntled voice from behind. He was right. Obviously the glamorous lady herself was running late, but like so many other renowned ladies of glamour, she was just exercising her prerogative to keep her fans waiting.

The minutes continued to tick by, then finally, after a further couple of false alarms, the wait was over. Another distant dot on the horizon gradually transformed itself into that distinctive delta shape. At long last, Concorde was inbound to Birmingham, heading for a warm Brummie welcome. The incoming speed and height of the approach quickly indicated she was not on finals to land. On approach to Birmingham. Pic by Andrew BatesPermission had obviously been granted for one over-flight, which resulted in the most graceful 'run and break' I have ever witnessed. Heading around towards the Southeast, the subsequent leisurely return was flown across a wide arc of sky, enabling many other Midlands households to take a last fleeting glimpse of a national treasure.

Six or seven minutes later, and she was back in the circuit, but this time, firmly established on finals. With the gear down and nose drooped, she made for an impressive sight as she approached out of the sun. A few moments later, as countless videos and cameras whirred and clicked in unison, she appeared to almost glide effortlessly across the threshold for a 'greaser' of a landing on runway 33, which was accompanied by a roar of approval from the crowds. Some people were cheering, some were waving madly, whilst others were even crying. Such was the affect of this very special visitor. I turned to my wife and straight away could see that tear in her eye. Was it due to the cold wind or the magic and emotion of the moment? I was fairly sure it was the latter, unless of course she had finally realised who she's married to!!

Concorde-style cabin crew. Pic by Gary ParsonsWhilst Concorde was helpfully doing a lap of honour around the taxiways, we decided that we might as well check in for our flight. So off we went to Terminal 2 and quickly found the queue for flight BA 9021 to London Heathrow. Looking at our fellow passengers in the queue, it was no surprise to see everyone performing an excellent impersonation of a Cheshire cat! With everyone just taking hand luggage, check-in was a fairly brief affair. Then, after passing through passport control and security, we were escorted to the VIP lounge. Hats off to British Airways, because from this point onwards we were treated like royalty.

Immediately upon arrival in the VIP lounge, a chilled glass of champagne was offered and gratefully received, (the first of many) along with an invitation to partake of a wide selection of sandwiches and other tasty nibbles and snacks. We had a whole three hours to while away before the flight, so we began to wonder if we would be able to take the pace, with so much champagne and food on offer. However, after deliberating this terrible dilemma for approximately three milliseconds, we came to the conclusion that it would be rude not to accept such fabulous hospitality. The diet was definitely on hold for the day. As we tucked in, a brief chat with one of the reporters from BBC Midlands Today secured our moment of TV fame. OK, so we were only on for two seconds during the lunchtime edition, but it was better than nothing.

Spot the Cheshire cat...pic by someone other than Andrew BatesAs the champagne continued to flow, we were all given the opportunity of meeting one of BA's senior Concorde pilots, Captain Les Brodie, who was to accompany us on our flight. Les was not scheduled for flying duties for that particular day, but had been nominated to sit in the jump seat behind the crew so that he could provide some commentary during the flight. He was certainly well qualified as commentator, he had been flying Concorde for fifteen years and had over 5,000 hours on type - that equates to roughly 800 return trips to New York! His last scheduled flight as pilot in command was the planned visit to Edinburgh during the last day of the supersonic tour of Great Britain.

After a lot of excited chatter amongst our fellow passengers, and even more drinking of champagne, all too soon our departure time was rapidly approaching. During our stay in the lounge, Concorde had been parked across the other side of the airfield, away from the terminal, so after passing through the gate, we were ushered to some airport coaches for the short journey over to the aircraft. By the time we arrived on the apron and alighted from the coach, it was around 16:00. Bathed in the late afternoon sunshine, she looked an absolute picture, and very generously, airport personnel did not rush people to board immediately. Everyone was allowed plenty of time to take as many photos as they wished. Better still, it was at this point that I realised that out of BA's fleet of seven Concordes, they had sent my favourite G-BOAC. Yes, I know they all look the same, but I've always had a soft spot for Alpha-Charlie, thanks to the historical connotation of the registration. Sad? Yes, I believe I am!

In the Midlands? Pic by Andrew BatesAfter taking photos from every conceivable angle, it was time to board those steps. The dream was now very close to reality. As we all boarded the plane, we were piped aboard by a lone Scottish piper - a nice touch. I paused just briefly at the top of the steps to savour the moment and also to look down at the shapely fuselage and wing. It was at this point I realised that I was smiling so much, my face was beginning to ache, and we hadn't even took off yet! Then, it was into the cabin to settle down for the flight of my life. We soon found our seats in row 18 and enjoyed sinking into that sumptuous blue leather. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of legroom considering the small size of the interior, the only real problem being the low height of the overhead lockers. These sometimes caught you out when standing up if you were fairly tall and sitting by the window. A minor problem very soon forgotten.

With everyone seated, it was not long before those mighty Olympus engines began to spool up. It was at this point that our pilot, Captain Andy Mills, gave us a quick flight briefing. After take-off, we would be heading Southwest towards Bristol and then onwards over the Channel, towards the Bay of Biscay to go supersonic. As the conditions were near perfect, he added that it was his intention to get us up to 60,000ft during the flight. Then Unless your name's Branson, of course. Pic by Gary Parsonsafter a wide circuit of the Bay, it would be back down to subsonic speed approaching the coast, with a view to landing at Heathrow after a flight time of approximately 1 hour 30 mins.

As the cabin crew commenced the safety briefing, it was noticeable that even the safety cards were immaculate. Not the normal well-worn examples usually found in the seat pocket. As we taxied towards the runway, looking out of the window it seemed as if the whole of Birmingham Airport had stopped to watch, with airfield personnel virtually lined up all along the main taxiway, conspicuous in their bright fluorescent jackets. Meanwhile, the carparks adjacent to the runway were still overflowing with spectators, many of whom were waving furiously. They looked almost as excited as we were. Then, slowly and precisely, we turned onto the runway. The moment I had dreamed of for so long had finally arrived. I turned to my wife and asked her to pinch me. She smiled at the corny, predictable joke, but pinched me anyway. I knew then that it was definitely not a dream.

G-BOAC rotates from Birmingham's runway on 20 October 2003. Picture by Damien Burke
Concorde Milestones - compiled by Geoff Stockle

Great Britain and France started working separately on a supersonic transport programmes in 1956, due to such commonality, they combined efforts in 1962.

First prototype rolled out in 1967.

002 takes off for the first time, 9 April 1969 - Pic courtesy Airbus via Damien Burke

Concorde 001 first flew on 2 March 1969 at Toulouse, the first British aircraft 002 taking aloft from Filton to Fairford on 9 April of the same year. It broke the sound barrier in the October.

BA's forerunner, BOAC, ordered 5 in 1972 and a year later 002 paid its first visit to the USA , however receiving widespread condemnation for its noise and pollution (or rather jealousy!)

20 Concordes were built, both countries flying 1 prototype and 1 pre-production aircraft each.

Concorde was subjected to 5,000 hours of testing, the most for any single aircraft. Several unique aircraft were built to investigate its handling characteristics such as the HP115 (slow speed) Fairey FD2 (high speed) BAC221- (rebuilt FD2 with arrow 'ogee' wing shape and drooping nose) and the Bristol 188 (stainless steel and kinetic effects). The Olympus engine was test flown in a Vulcan B1 and was to be used in the TSR2 strike aircraft.

Concorde entered commercial service on 21 January 1976, with flights to Bahrain and Rio. In May a Washington service was started from Heathrow. The New York service followed a year later. A service to Singapore began with G-BOAD painted in Singapore International Airlines scheme on one side. Continuous objections to supersonic overflights resulted in termination in 1980.

On 4 March 1976, 002 (G-BSST) was retired to the Science Museum, though based at RNAS Yeovilton museum.

Concorde 01 (G-AXDN) flew into the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford in August 1977.

BA received its 7th and final Concorde in 1980.

In 1985 Concorde flew from London to Sydney in 17 hours and 3 minutes. A year later a round the world trip is flown in 29 hours and 59 minutes covering 28,238 miles. The prestigious Landor (aka fag packet) colour scheme is introduced to a very regal looking G-BOAG in April.

The Heathrow to Barbados service begins in 1987, with Dallas added a year later.

Washington flights cease in 1994.

Fastest Atlantic crossing achieved on 7 Feb 1996 - 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

'Chatham' tail livery flag design introduced with mixed response in 1997. Part of the life expansion programme completed a year later.

£14m investment programme initiated in 2000. Concorde operations suspended following tragic loss of Air France F-BTSC at Gonesse, Paris on 25 July.

7 November, 2001 BA resumes service following an improvement programme to tyres, undercarriage and wing fuel cells.

4 June 2002 - Concorde's public swansong, flying with the Red Arrows to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

The rest as they say, is history…….

Since 1976 BA Concordes have flown some 50,000 flights, enduring some 140,000 flying hours, 100,000 of which have been supersonic, covering some 140 million miles. It has been said that the combined fleets have flown more supersonic hours than all the world's air forces combined!

With thanks to Roseanne Crossey at British Airways.

After watching various TV programmes on the subject of Concorde, it was apparent that many passengers regarded the take-off as the most exhilarating part of the experience. They were not wrong. Captain Mills opened up the throttles, leading to an almost instantaneous rush of acceleration that pushed you back into the seat. Accompanied by an impressive roar, the combined engine thrust of 152,000lbs soon had us hurtling along the runway towards our take-off speed of 250mph. In next to no time at all, we were half way down the runway. A split second later, and it was 'rotate' and up into the blue yonder like a rocket. A collective cheer rang through the cabin as everyone broke into spontaneous applause. I would have joined in, but with a camera in one hand and a video camera in the other, it was a bit difficult. Next thing we heard was the commentary from Les Brodie: "Welcome to the Concorde experience, Ladies and Gentlemen. Just one minute and thirty seconds after commencing our take-off, we are now at 6,000ft." A touch more sprightly than your average airliner!

Gaining altitude all the time, we headed out to the Southwest, at the relatively sedate speed of 600mph. Having previously flown on many different airliners of all shapes and sizes, for me at least, looking out the window whilst sitting in row 18 was a novel experience in itself. Instead of a long, flexing wing to look at, with a great big turbofan slung underneath, the only visual reference within view was the leading edge of that gorgeous delta wing just before it blended with the fuselage. You could just about see the front of the wingtip if you were prepared to crane your neck through about 140º to get a glimpse through the tiny window.

Dinner is served! Pic by Andrew BatesAs I continued to gaze out the window, watching the cloudbase fall way below us, I realised the lovely smell of leather from the seats was being overpowered by another smell from the galley. Yes, it was food and drink time - again! Dinner turned out to be fresh salmon with all the trimmings, washed down with 1996 vintage Pol Roger pink champagne. Our Concorde experience was fast proving to be a gastronomic delight, as well as the aeronautical thrill of a lifetime.

Les Brodie's commentary then resumed as we tucked into our salmon. We were fast leaving the UK behind us, and it was time for Concorde to show us what she was really capable of. Passing through 45,000ft and still climbing, Captain Andy Mills plugged in the reheat that would push us through the sound barrier. As with most jetliners, there was no real feeling of speed, but as we accelerated up to Mach 1, there was a distinct sensation of extra power, almost a faint resonance, that you could feel through the airframe. It is difficult to describe this feeling exactly, but you could just discern a gentle push back into the seat as we accelerated ever faster. Everyone's eyes were glued to the display at the front of the cabin, which allowed passengers the luxury of keeping a constant check on speed, height and outside temperature. Then, with no fuss or drama, there followed a smooth transition from subsonic to supersonic flight. Mach 0.95 suddenly became Mach 1.0 and everyone was cheering again. We had joined the supersonic elite.

The sky is very blue at 60,000 ft - pic by Andrew BatesBy now there was now holding us back, as we continued to gain speed and altitude. Sipping a freshly topped up glass of champagne as we passed 52,000ft, we continued to watch the speed display in the cabin, almost transfixed as the Mach number relentlessly increased. Mach 1.4 came and went. Mach 1.6 was equally as brief. Mach 1.8, Mach 1.85, Mach 1.9, not long now. Bizarrely, I started thinking about the 'Star Trek' television series, when Captain Kirk asks Scotty to take the Enterprise up to maximum warp. I could still remember the scene as the helmsman gave Kirk a running commentary …."warp 8….warp 8.5……Warp 8.7………warp 8.8……" However, that was fiction, THIS was reality; Mach 1.9…….Mach 1.95………Mach 2.0! Watching the stewardess casually replenishing champagne glasses as if nothing had happened, it was still hard to comprehend. We were at 54,000ft and travelling at Mach 2. I just had to sit quietly for a moment to try to take it all in. After all those years of dreaming, here I was hurtling through the stratosphere at 1,350mph - faster than a rifle bullet. WOW!

Unfortunately, travelling at twice the speed of sound over the Bay of Biscay is not feasible for any long periods of time, as you tend to run out of Bay quite quickly! So, after 4 or 5 minutes Captain Mills began easing up on the throttles and the Mach numbers began to unwind. We eased down to a very respectable Mach 1.6 as we made a wide circuit of the Bay. However, despite the speed reduction, we were still gaining height. The captain had stated before we took off that it was his intention to get us up to 60,000ft during the flight, and it was obvious that he intended to keep his promise. Sure enough, a few minutes later we passed from 59,500ft up to 60,000ft. We were now travelling supersonically at over 11 miles above the Earth's surface - gulp! This was quite a sobering thought, until I quaffed another glass of champers, and immediately felt much better. Looking out the window you just knew you were a little higher than your average flight. The dark blue of the upper atmosphere and the curvature of the Earth is a sight I will never forget. Just briefly, I felt we were experiencing the view that would greet a U-2 pilot during a typical mission, something that I felt privileged to experience. Thank you Captain Mills.

From the touchline...#2 - Pics by Geoff Stockle
G-BOAC returns to Birmingham
Past the terminal for the last time
Thumbs up from Captain Les Brodie

After nearly an hour in the air, we had circuited the Bay of Biscay and we were approaching the UK again. As we lost height, so of course the speed began to reduce. Mach 1.6 became Mach 1.4. Then we were at Mach 1.2. Regrettably, our supersonic experience was fast drawing to a close. Mach 1.0 became Mach 0.95, and we quickly passed back into a subsonic flight regime. This was just as well because we were fast approaching the Isle of Wight, and I'm sure that sonic booms would not have been welcomed in Cowes, or anywhere else for that matter. Then, we were over Southampton and settling in for our approach pattern into Heathrow.

All too soon the last drop of champagne had been drunk, glasses and trays had been collected, and we were all safely strapped into our seats in preparation for landing. For the first time since take-off, we were back amongst the clouds, then breaking through, we had the grand vista of Greater London below as we began our final approach. As the airport boundary flashed past the window, it was evident that Concorde's landing speed of about 185mph is a little bit quicker than your average landing. Then the unmistakable sound of main wheels contacting with the tarmac, followed by a few seconds pause as she straightened up sufficiently for the nose wheel to touch down, such was the angle of attack. Despite the speed, the whole approach into Heathrow had seemed like a graceful glide, but once we were down, the serenity of the event was rudely interrupted by the terrific roar of the engines going into reverse thrust. Although I was expecting them, their efficiency still caught me out, and I found myself pressing my nose ever closer to the seat in front of me. This was not the time and the place to develop a leather fetish!

Sun sets for Concorde. Pic by Andrew BatesAs we slowed to taxi speed on the runway, I looked at my watch. We had been airborne for 1 hour and 20 minutes. It had been eighty minutes of exhilarating pleasure, and a dream had been fulfilled. As we turned off the runway and began to taxi to our parking slot, I sat there hoping the journey would never end. I wanted Captain Mills to do a perpetual lap of honour around Heathrow. Looking out the window, airport workers at various locations had stopped to watch. You would have thought that anyone working at Heathrow would have become quite used to seeing this delectable delta, but obviously that Concorde charm is irresistible, no matter how many times you've seen it.

Five minutes later and we were parked at the arrival gate. The captain cut the power, and our trusty Olympus quartet began to wind down. As I continued to gaze out the window, watching the sunset over Heathrow, how apt I thought, that with only four days to go, the sun was beginning to set on Concorde's career. Looking back into the cabin, the speed and height display panel had been changed to the message: 'Thank you for flying Concorde'. Believe me, there was no need to thank me, I think it should be the other way round. THANK YOU British Airways. We sat in our seats for as long as we dared, not wishing to move. We just wanted squeeze in as many extra seconds as possible into our Concorde experience. Finally, and reluctantly, we prised ourselves out of the sumptuous leather, and shuffled ever slowly to the exit, clutching our souvenir certificates detailing our flight. We were not the last to leave, but there were only a handful of equally reluctant passengers behind us.

Pic by Andrew BatesInside the arrivals area, we could still see our beloved Alpha- Charlie, parked next to one of her stablemates. I pressed myself against the glass to gaze at her one last time. In the fading twilight you could still see the graceful curves of her design. She might be getting on a bit, but still she looks every inch the futuristic speed machine her designers intended. All the adjectives came flooding into my mind again. Graceful. Elegant. Beautiful. Then the incredulity set in. How could BA ever consider retiring such a magnificent aircraft? Why, were they retiring her before her time? Then I had to remind myself. If the decision hadn't been taken now, it would have been sooner or later. Concorde regrettably cannot fly forever, and I'm sure it was a decision that was not taken lightly by the executives at BA. Besides, I would not have experienced it for myself without the subsequent farewell tour.

Soon, we were again being escorted by BA personnel, through passport control, and out to the fleet of luxury coaches waiting to take us back to Birmingham. Even more food and drink awaited us on the coach, but this time without champagne. Good job really, because we had certainly drunk more than enough by this stage. I subsequently spent the whole journey reliving our flight over and over in my mind.

The next day at work, and I was forced to relive our experience again and again and again. I had only told a handful of colleagues prior to the flight, but by the time I returned it seemed that not only did everyone know about it, but they all wanted to hear about it as well. It seemed that although people were naturally envious, they were genuinely proud that they knew someone who had flown on Concorde. Worse was to follow, as some colleagues would then insist on telling the story to any visitors they could get their hands on. Customers, suppliers, sales reps, lorry drivers, anyone really. Then they would virtually drag the poor unsuspecting individual down to my office and gleefully point me out. "See Andrew over there, he flew on Concorde yesterday." A bit embarrassing really, but such is the attraction of Concorde, I became a minor celebrity for a day or two.

Far from the madding crowd - the scene at Heathrow on 24 October. Pic by Garry LakinThen of course, the dreaded day arrived; Friday 24 October. Like countless fans around the country, it was with a heavy heart that I watched the live TV coverage of the final three Concorde flights touching down for the last time at Heathrow. I'm not ashamed to say I had a lump in my throat as that last delta swirl signified the end of supersonic passenger travel and retirement of a national treasure. I'm just so pleased that in that final week of operations, I was able to fulfil an almost lifelong ambition and that we were able to play a very small part in a closing chapter of aviation history. It was a flying experience like no other, and one I will never forget.

With grateful thanks to Captain Andy Mills and all his crew for the flying experience of a lifetime, and of course to British Airways and all their staff, both at Birmingham and Heathrow, for their warm welcome and generous hospitality, plus of course, a special thank you to my wife Mandy, without whose efforts, my dream would have remained unfulfilled.

G-BOAC lands - for the very last time. Pic by Gary Parsons

Concorde 204 G-BOAC is set to become a prized tool to educate and inspire the engineers of tomorrow. The aircraft, the flagship of the British fleet, will be used to train students studying aeronautics and aviation engineering at North-West universities and colleges.

Manchester Airport's Airfield General Manager Peter Hampson, who spearheaded the marathon six-month bidding process, said Concorde's arrival was a major coup for the region. "Concorde is one of Britain's most brilliant technological achievements and having the aircraft based here will undoubtedly make Manchester one of the best training grounds in the UK for the engineers of tomorrow."
The Airport is investing more than £500,000 to house and permanently display the aircraft at its Aviation Viewing Park. But Airport bosses say takings at the park, ranked as the North-West's sixth most popular visitor attraction, will recoup the outlay in three years as annual visitor figures are estimated to go up from 242,363 in 2003 to 288,500 following Concorde's arrival.
Work to extend the replica runway at the Aviation Viewing Park will begin almost immediately and companies are being invited to tender for the job of building and fitting out a hangar and educational facility.
The Airport intends to provide a year-round exhibition for Concorde - an outdoor display is expected to be unveiled by Easter, which will run until November 2004. Concorde will then be displayed under cover for the winter. The exhibitions will also be used for corporate events and special open days. Manchester Airport Managing Director, John Spooner, said the aircraft would be a major tourist attraction in its own right. "Concorde's arrival is not only fantastic news for the thousands of aviation enthusiasts who visit our viewing park each year, but is great news for the region as a whole.
"Given Concorde's unique appeal in aviation history and Manchester's status as a centre of science and technology, it is fitting that one of the fleet has a permanent final home here at the Airport. It's the catch of the century."
Manchester's enthusiasm for Concorde was evident for all to see as Peter Hampson, Airfield General Manager (right), received the log book for G-BOAC from Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister. Picture by Gary Parsons.

New homes

Within days of Concorde's retirement, speculation regarding the possibility of one example remaining airworthy for publicity purposes was soon dispelled following a press release from British Airways. Following a technical feasibility study, headed by Captain Mike Bannister, Concorde chief pilot, a statement from BA's chief executive Rod Eddington was issued as follows: "A detailed study with Airbus has regrettably led us both to conclude that it would not be possible. The technical and financial challenges of keeping Concorde airworthy are absolutely Heathrow, 24 October - the extent of the 'security' measures. Pic by Garry Lakinprohibitive. Airbus has told us that they are unable to support such a project, whether it be for British Airways or anyone else. While there is no prospect of operating an aircraft for flypasts or airshows, in the future Concorde will be accessible to the public with the majority of aircraft located in the UK."

Consequent to this statement, the retirement homes for all seven Concordes was then also announced at the same time. Three have gone to overseas locations, comprising of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York, and Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados. Meanwhile, the lucky recipients in the UK are the Museum of Flight at East Fortune, Airbus UK at Filton, Manchester Airport, and of course Heathrow Airport. Ironically, the first Concorde to depart was our very own G-BOAC, which took off for the last time on Friday 31 October, What price British pride? Pic by Garry Lakinbound for Manchester Airport. No doubt she will be the much-cherished centrepiece of the new museum being established there (see sidebar). We're quite sure the good folks in the museum will give her plenty of TLC, which pleases us no end, as to us, she's one very special lady, with whom we hope to get reacquainted real soon. The last ever Concorde flight was on 26 November, with the delivery of G-BOAF to Filton - a last supersonic dash around the Bay of Biscay signified the end of nearly three decades of faster-than-sound air travel.

G-BOAC gets a traditional welcome. Pic by Gary ParsonsGary Parsons reports from Manchester Airport as the first Concorde is officially retired

Andrew may have realised his dream, but for me, and many others, the opportunity is now gone - possibly for good. The nearest I got to an operational Concorde was eleven days later, when I was also able to remarkably sit in row 18 of G-BOAC, as she sat on the Manchester parking apron, her engines ticking as they slowly cooled in the midday murk. It was a moving occasion - the retirement of the first of the seven British Airways Concordes. Her leather seats seemed still brand new, the waft of Connolly's best imbibing an air of opulence that I had only experienced once before, when I had the opportunity to sit in Air Berlin's thirties-style DC-3 at Coventry.

The final touchdown - pics by Damien Burke
Pic by Damien Burke

G-BOAF touches down at Filton Airport, Bristol at 13:05 on 26 November 2003 - one of the saddest moments in the entire history of British Aviation. The end of an era, an icon, a dream...


Finally at rest
Pic by Damien Burke
Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister hands G-BOAF's log-book to HRH Prince Andrew who received it on behalf of the people of Bristol

So, she is being rapidly dispersed to museums, three overseas and four in the UK. At least most will be cared for in the future, but none will be Final moments. Pic by Gary Parsonsallowed to turn its engines in anger. The way BA insisted a study was being undertaken to look into the viability of keeping one flying could be criticised as being cynical, as the decision to abandon the idea was conveniently announced the week after the mass publicity of the final commercial flights - it didn't take a genius to know what the result was going to be. Rumours of a French conspiracy abound, but there's no doubt it was for commercial reasons the retirement decision was made, and one that would stand up to hard scrutiny. But, it would seem the intangible benefit Concorde brings to the nation as a symbol of our ingenuity and technological prowess has been ignored - cold-blooded accountancy has killed it off.

British Airways totally misjudged the mood of the nation. Where was the big send-off we were promised? Where did its proposed airshow attendances disappear to? Why let it go with a whimper, rather than a grand celebration open to the public? The Heathrow debacle was embarrassing, with the authorities telling people to stay away on 24 October, the day of its last commercial flights. A token gesture was made at the last minute with a 1,000-seat grandstand, but this was outside the fence without any real access. Plastic sheeting blocked the view for many, specially erected for the occasion. The reaction of those that made the journey to Heathrow despite the warnings, and that of those that ventured to Not your average plane spotter - it meant something to everyone. Pic by Garry LakinBirmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh that final week show just what this aeroplane meant to them - fathers, mothers and children who would not normally look at another aircraft with more than passing interest. More should have been done - the moment has now gone, forever.

It is simply a tragedy for the nation - Concorde captured the hearts and minds of the nation at large, not just the aviation enthusiast. It was something to aspire to - who else has said, "When I win the lottery, I'll fly on Concorde". Sure, it was a rich man's toy, but it was something to take pride in. The Americans couldn't achieve it, and the Russians couldn't make it work. It was a proud symbol of British (and grudgingly French) achievement, despite the odds and in a time before computerisation. The end of Concorde is also an end of a nation's dreams and aspirations.


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