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What’s it like on the edge of space? The life of a Concorde pilot


Concorde was conceived in the 1950s, first flew in the 1960s and then took over 2.5million people to ‘the edge of space’ at twice the speed of sound for the rest of the 20th century. And into the 21st.

Designed and developed by a team of far sighted British and French engineers, Concorde was one of the greatest technical achievements of all time. There are even some at NASA who share that view. That first Concorde flight on 2nd March 1969 was viewed by millions around the world on small grainy black and white televisions. Why? Because colour ‘telly’ had only just been invented.

Before Concorde, humans had only managed to break through the ‘sound barrier’ in military or experimental test aircraft. Now here was an airliner that could not just get through the barrier, but carry on to twice the speed of sound with 100 passengers in shirt sleeves sipping the finest wines and champagnes and dining on the finest cuisine akin to that being served in the best restaurants over 11 miles below.

I was one of only 134 pilots to ever fly Concorde for British Airways in the whole 27 years that she was in service, a privilege beyond belief. Five times as many people have been into space.

My ‘day job’ was to leave Heathrow at 10.30 in the morning, fly at Mach 2, 1350mph, faster than the earth was rotating and deliver 100 passengers safely to New York, just over 3 hours later, at 09.30 in the morning. An hour before they’ve left!

You could see the curvature of the earth, the sky inky black above you and feel the window frames in the flight deck too hot to touch. The aircraft skin temperature up front reached 127deg centigrade. The aircraft grew 8 inches in flight as a result. It’s minus 60 outside.

The acceleration on take off was phenomenal and the ride in the cruise above all the world’s weather systems, as smooth as silk. The passengers felt nothing, apart from two nudges in their backs as the reheats kicked in, going through the sound barrier.

Supersonic commercial services commenced on 21st January 1976 with British Airways flying to Bahrain and Air France to Rio de Janeiro (via Dakar to refuel.) I was a schoolboy clinging to the chain link fence at Heathrow, along with thousands of others, watching in absolute amazement. If someone had bet me a million pounds standing there, that I’d end up flying that very aeroplane, I would have laughed and not taken the bet. But I did.

The following year flights commenced to the USA, Washington initially, and then New York. Barbados was another most successful route. Leaving Heathrow at 09.30 every Saturday, after breakfast, passengers could enjoy another exquisite breakfast in flight before landing in the early morning sunshine in the Caribbean at 08.30. Just in time for their 3rd breakfast of the day. Those on subsonic craft would arrive in time for a cocktail at sunset.

The training to become a Concorde pilot was the toughest training course in aviation. At six months long it was three times as long and complex than any other airliner. I nearly quit on day 1 when the instructor explained that “Concorde has 13 fuel tanks. And they’re numbered 1 to 11!”

Cabin crew were also ‘hand picked’ and had to be the finest BA had. 80% of passengers were business executives and flew regularly. Many were on first name terms with the crew who soon got used to their personal idiosyncrasies. 10% were people who were having a ‘trip of a lifetime’, perhaps celebrating a special wedding anniversary (Sir Michael Parkinson joined us on the flight deck for take off from New York having been there with his wife, Mary, on their 40th) or having saved up for years. The final 10% were the rich and famous, the pop stars and film actors. In the intimacy of the Concorde cabin, helped along perhaps by some of the finest champagne, they were all fun to be with. A few tales for another day perhaps?

A customer once said to me upon disembarking from his first Concorde flight, “That was all rather disappointing, a non-event going supersonic.” I said “That’s the whole point sir. That’s the clever bit.”

By John Tye

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