Just the ticket!
Bill Turner makes that trip of a lifetime on Concorde - just months before she goes! Pictures by the author unless stated otherwise.
With the dreaded announcement that Concorde was sadly going to be retired later this year, I managed to persuade my dear wife that we COULD afford to treat me to a ticket to New York (SST one-way, B747 return).
Check-in for BA001 was a very pampered affair - personal escort from the BA desk to private security bag-check, then 'fast-tracked' through the carry-on bag X-ray scan, then up to the British Airways T4 lounge. Excellent views across the ramp from the upper deck of the lounge revealed G-BOAC was to be our bird (visor up while parked), and the complimentary glass of champagne added to the 'special' atmosphere.
Every PA announcement regarding BA001 referred to the "Supersonic Service to New York", and when the boarding-call came there was a rustle of excitement among the assembled passengers - not just the 'enthusiasts' like me, but many of the VIPs as well!
the somewhat cramped nature of the passenger cabin became very apparent
- I'd been on the Duxford & Yeovilton prototypes, but even the smart
house-grey interior of the in-service version failed to add any impression
of spaciousness. The fully-booked seats were soon filled, then an on-time
push-back and engine start accomplished. On the long taxi from T4 out
to departure runway 27R, the Captain took the opportunity to brief us
on our departure, with detailed explanation on the design and use of the
unique (in civil airliners) 're-heat /afterburners'. You could tell from
the tone of his voice that he was very proud to be flying the world's
only supersonic airliner, and - like the BA lounge announcements - never
missed a chance to drop-in the line about this "British Airways Supersonic
Service to New York".
After 78 seconds of 'burner we settled into the climb westwards on 'dry power', and many of us waited impatiently to just get past Wales - then hit the magic figure of Mach 1...we didn't have long to wait! As Brawdy and St Davids passed our starboard wingtip, the acceleration began!
Captain Chris Norris announced that we'd require the extra thrust of afterburner to 'push' through the sound barrier, then went on to explain that once we'd burned-off enough fuel, we'd climb up to our cruise height of 56,000 ft. The power from just two at first, then all four powerplants going into reheat was noticeable in the cabin - not just from the very apparent noise-levels, but also from the mach-meter on the front bulkhead ticking over - from Mach 0.8 - up toward the special figure that signified we had broken the sound-barrier!
Anyone expecting a 'dramatic event' at Mach 1.0 would be quite disappointed - the transition to supersonic cruise was so smooth that we only knew how fast we were really going by the display on the wall in front of us...but comfortably breaking the sound barrier was only half the story...
had been under the impression that Concorde just climbed straight on up
to 60,000 ft, then stayed there all the way across the pond. But, I'd
failed to appreciate that the great weight of fuel on board was now protected
by extra-safe modified fuel-cells, and even though sophisticated modern
materials like Kevlar keep the added weight to a minimum, it's still a
significant factor. It was only after we'd burned-off much of the fuel
that the aircraft would became light enough to reach full speed/altitude.
Gradually (during dinner - of Fillet Beef, or Duck Confit, or Grilled Sea Bass) we watched the mach-meter tick over, steadily upwards - but seeming to slow agonisingly around Mach 1.9! Maybe this was IT? Maybe they were saving Mach 2 for the old girl's last days of service?
A glance outside revealed the darkness of the upper atmosphere, the curvature of the Earth, and minute shockwaves from every panel-line on the upper edge of the wing. And then - without any fanfare - 'Mach 2' appeared. 1,400mph - awesome! We were still at ONLY 54,000 ft, but it didn't matter - TWICE the speed of sound - a voice in my head reminded me that only military pilots (and astronauts) go faster!
We were two-thirds of the way to JFK, our dinner-trays had been collected, and people started to move and walk around the cabin. There was a general (Champagne-assisted) light-hearted party atmosphere in the air (literally!) - even the rich and posh VIPs were enjoying this flight! It seemed they KNEW their frequent-flyer air-miles would never be the same after this gorgeous bird is prematurely retired, and they were determined to enjoy one of its final few flights.
With much of the fuel burnt, we topped-out at 56,000 ft, but all too quickly we began our deceleration. As we throttled-back, it felt like airbrakes had been deployed! We were still doing Mach 1.5, but it felt like 200 knots! Time had passed so quickly, three hours had FLOWN by (pun intended)! Descending through 40,000 ft our speed dropped - almost 'gliding' - below Mach 1, and we encountered thick cloud on the gradual approach into JFK, spoiling the already limited view through the tiny windows. As we broke through the low clouds, more moist clouds of water vapour were sucked from the air, dramatically appearing and vanishing in seconds.
The airport perimeter of JFK soon flashed under the wing, the high angle of attack briefly floating the aircraft in 'ground effect', and then we thumped onto the runway. With a tremendous surge of power the quietness of our descent was replaced by the roar of maximum reverse thrust, and some serious braking brought us down to taxying speed. A spontaneous round of grateful applause was apt reward for our British Airways crew, not just for a safe flight and immaculate landing, but to our Concorde - a real piece of aviation history.
I waited for most of the business executives and the rich to leave the passenger cabin, staying as long as I dared in my somewhat 'compact' seat...but then I had to leave my G-BOAC, and I couldn't help stroking her fuselage as I left the aircraft. I just fail to comprehend how BA could contemplate retiring such an incredible aircraft.
to my Brother-in-Law Glenn for vidding the departure - and thanks to my
wonderful wife Debra for the ticket!