They raised their arms with excitement as the familiar droopy nose broke through the clouds, and there were tears aplenty as the British Airways service from New York landed on the north runway at 4.05pm.
The plane in question was Concorde, and it is 15 years today since it made its final flight, drawing to a close 34 years of supersonic travel. The final flight, piloted by Captain Mike Bannister, was the last of three Concordes to touch down in the space of four minutes in a carefully choreographed farewell. It was packed with the rich and famous, ranging from film star Joan Collins, broadcaster Sir David Frost and politician Tony Benn.
It is a day that was remembered with sadness by Jack Holmes, a 91-year-old retired aircraft engineer from Codsall who had worked on the project at Bolton Paul in Wolverhampton.
Concorde was not only a remarkable feat of engineering – it could get from Heathrow to New York in three-and-a-half hours, about the same time as the drive from Telford to the airport – it was also a shining example of how the old rivals of Britain and France could truly lead the world when they decided to work together.
“It was a sad day when they got rid of it,” says Mr Holmes, who watched it make its maiden flight at RAF Fairford in 1969.
“We were very proud of it, really proud. Technically it was brilliant, and we were very upset when it was retired.
“It could have carried on, it was still one of the safest planes in the world, but the market was no longer there, people weren’t prepared to pay for supersonic flight.
“It was flying half-empty towards the end.”
As you might expect from a partnership between Britain and France, it was not without its ups and downs. The most infamous moment followed a spat between British prime minister Harold Macmillan and his French counterpart Charles de Gaulle, which prompted Macmillan to Anglicise the name of the project in the UK, by dropping the ‘e’ from the end. The ‘e’ was later reinstated by Tony Benn, the minister responsible for overseeing the project in Harold Wilson’s government. Defending the move, Benn suggested the ‘e’ could also stand for Excellence, England, Europe and Entente (Cordiale) – prompting a letter from an angry Scotsman.
The decision to award the contract for the control systems to Boulton Paul was itself also mired in controversy. While the British company vastly undercut its French rival Dassault during the tendering process, the French continued to press for the more expensive Dassault estimate, prompting a 12-month stand-off. It was strongly rumoured that the reason for the French truculence was down to the fact that de Gaulle himself had promised the contract to Marcel Dassault, the head of the company.
Mr Holmes, who worked in the testing department at the works, recalls how some of the innovations which made the project possible were being pioneered as early as the 1940s.
“In 1948-49, Boulton Paul was working on a plane for research into power controls,” he says. “Some of the things we tested in that plane led to the controls that were used in Concorde itself.
“Controls were by hand in the early days of aircraft, but as the planes got faster and heavier, the use of mechanical controls was going out of favour, and Boulton Paul was responsible for the early days of power controls and ‘fly-by-wire’. This meant the controls were operated by hydraulic means.”
Nevertheless, adapting this technology for supersonic velocities was no mean feat. The mechanisms that operated the moving surfaces at these speeds were located in the hottest spots, meaning the hydraulic oils and rubber seals had to be adapted to withstand intense heat without failure.
The idea of supersonic travel was first mooted in the early 1950s by Arnold Hall of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and a committee to further the project held its first meeting in 1954. Early studies showed little promise – it was thought that huge wings and engines would be needed to generate the lift required, and the plan was put on the back-burner. But shortly after, the breakthrough came following studies by German-born aerodynamicists Johanna Weber and Dietrich Küchemann who found that the distinctive slim delta-shaped wings would provide sufficient lift.
In 1959, a study contract was awarded to Hawker Siddeley and Bristol Aeroplane Company for preliminary designs. At the same time, the French government was working on a similar project – it later emerged the British plans had been leaked to the French – and in 1962 it was agreed that the two countries would collaborate as a joint venture.
Two prototypes were produced, the British one making its maiden flight from Filton aerodrome near Bristol to RAF Fairford on April 9, 1969. Concorde entered service for scheduled flights on January 21, 1976, London–Bahrain and Paris–Rio de Janeiro (via Dakar) routes. It wasn’t welcome everywhere, though. It was initially banned from the US following protests about sonic boom – a problem that placed restrictions on where it could fly throughout its life.
The plane’s image was dented in 2000, when an Air France Paris-New York service crashed, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members, but it was another tragedy which really did for Concorde. The September 11 terror attack on the World Trade Centre led to a drop in demand for transatlantic travel, and at up to £6,000 a ticket, Concorde was always going to be vulnerable to rationalisation. British Airways admitted that had it not been for the post 9/11 drop in passenger numbers, Concorde would have another 25 years’ life left in it.
It is still possible to board Concorde though, at much less than £6,000 a head. It now takes centre stage at the Filton Air Museum in Bristol, which opened last year.
Have you been on Concorde? Do you have any special memories of the plane? If so, contact Mark Andrews on 01952 241491 or email [email protected]