The New York bound jet airliner was over the
Atlantic when the young man rose from his seat and eased through the narrow door
to the flight deck. A few minutes later passengers in the front cabin
heard singing - a familiar song by a voice they recognised:
"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away..." They lowered their papers and magazines to listen with broadening smiles as Paul McCartney, perched on the cockpit jump-seat, picked away at his guitar. Now that's what you call in-flight entertainment, the passengers thought. Only on Concorde!
The Beatle's impromptu concert, at 60,000ft and 1,350mph, happened in the relaxed days before 9/11 and locked flight-deck doors. It was one of those special interludes that made flying in Concorde a lifetime experience rather than just a journey.
For 25 years it was a pretty good club, the cabin of the world's most beautiful and most expensive airliner. A mere 9ft 6in wide, this was a special place where those with the wherewithal reassured themselves that they could travel the world higher, faster, more stylishly than the rest of us. The wine flowed, the menu was gourmet quality, the clientele had international glitz. Small wonder that its appeal was magnetic for the world's financiers, statesmen, captains of industry and pop stars.
It was 40 years ago only last month, March 2nd, 1969, that prototype 001, the Anglo-French forerunner of the West's first and only supersonic passenger fleet, took to the air for the first time at Toulouse in France. When Concorde entered commercial service seven years later, it opened an all too brief era of travel which, in terms of speed and status, has never been equalled - and certainly won't be in our lifetimes.
That was the heady age when celebrities, from the Beatles in their heyday to the Queen Mother on her 85th birthday, travelled at over Mach 2, sipping champagne 11 miles above Earth on the blue-black fringes of space. The memory lingers on with the Concorde Dining Society, an elite club of former Concorde captains, first officers and flight engineers - some retired, some still working on other aircraft - who meet at least twice a year to indulge in unashamed nostalgia and to discuss how, when and if air passengers will ever again be able to fly faster than the speed of sound.
The writer (of this article) attended the society's last gathering as a guest of Captain John Tye, one of its younger members at 51 and still working as a British Airways captain. It took place at Brooklands Museum, Weybridge, Surrey, home of a lovingly preserved Concorde (202, G-BBDG) in which visitors can re-live, albeit on the ground, the sounds and sensations of a real flight. The aircraft's profile is as burnished as ever, but the men who flew it are now greying at the temples. Five years after British Airways and Air France distributed their grounded birds to museums and heritage parks around the world, the members sat misty-eyed in its cabin, nursing personal memories of a supersonic past.
Only 20 Concordes were ever built: six for development purposes and fourteen to go into commercial service. Their delta wing shape and needle nose made them potent symbols of modern technology although, in truth, their engines were based on the old Vulcan bomber and their flight decks featured banks of dials owing more in appearance to the Battle of Britain era than the digital read-outs of today’s aircraft. Yet the sheer beauty of the airframe and the earth-shrinking power of the Olympus engines soon made Concorde an icon.
Captain Peter Duffey, now 83, recalls flying the then prime minister, James Callaghan, in a new Concorde to Puerto Rico for the G7 conference in 1976. Their arrival in San Juan was a media sensation, eclipsing that of French president Giscard d'Estaing, who followed in a Boeing 707. "He was seriously miffed," he recalls.
David Frost called Concorde his "time machine", since it enabled him to fly to New York to record a TV programme and return to London in time for supper. It was equally cherished by businessmen with US meetings to attend. Captain Tye remembers the actress Anna Friel flying on the aircraft to attend the London premiere of her film Rogue Trader without missing a night's stage appearance on Broadway. She invited Tye and his crew to see her show, Closer, in recognition of the achievement. In 1985, pop star Phil Collins did a similar double, flying in Concorde to perform at Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia on the same day.
The rich and famous and others able to raise the fare - First Class plus 20 per cent across the Atlantic, then £6,700 - are unlikely to forget the excitement of seeing the curve of the globe through Concorde's tiny passenger windows, of watching the sun rise in the west (caused by the aircraft exceeding the Earth's rotational speed on the UK - US route), of arriving earlier than they had departed and knowing they were "younger" by one-and-a-quarter hours as a result. The fuel consumption of Concorde was 5,638 gallons an hour, which was part of the reason for its demise.
Concorde crews were proud of their aircraft and did feel a little special, says former flight engineer Peter Finlay. They still do: after all, there have been more astronauts than people qualified to fly Concorde.
SAGA, March 2009
Thanks to Brian Johnstone for contributing this article