I know, I know, its not a warbird, I can’t even really argue my way into it being related to one, well it has Olympus’, like the Vulcan, that’s close enough for me.
All joking aside I wanted to reflect on another one of those days in aviation history I was lucky enough to be a part of, and that stays so clear in my mind 11 years on.
In the 1990s and early 2000s as I was growing up I switched and swapped my aviation “niche,” Warbirds one minute, then fast jets, then airliners, by 2003 I had pretty firmly put myself in the Warbirds corner. But then it was announced that a British icon would be retiring.
I was lucky I suppose, compared to those born in the last 10 years or so, in that I got to grow up in an era where not every airliner was basically the same, there was still a little flair amongst them all.
I guess it seems as ludicrous a thought now as it would have done in the 1960s to have an airliner with afterburners. But it happened, not only afterburning, but supersonic as well, London to New York in 3 hours. Try explaining that to anyone born in the last decade. Even in this modern age, where commercial space travel seems a real possibility, supersonic airliners seem like a mere pipe dream.
This simply shows how wonderfully and desperately ahead of its time Concorde was. Most of you of course know the story, built by both the French and English governments, Concorde first flew in 1969, with its sleek “paper aeroplane” looks and thundering engines it must have looked like something out of a children’s comic!
But it was a reality, an unbelievable one but a reality none-the-less. Six years later on the 21st January 1976, Concorde entered commercial service.
What then followed was 24 years of faultless service, performing record breaking passenger flights, round the world trips and performing at countless airshows. The fact that an airliner could become such a national icon seems ludicrous in today’s climate, but that was the case.
I remember as a young boy loving Concorde, having numerous models and toys of the type and always marveling at the prototype example kept at Duxford.
But all of Concorde’s success was sadly undone when an Air France example crashed on take off in 2000. Following a period of grounding the aircraft continued operations.
However following the 9/11 attacks, the air travel industry took a big hit and Concorde became less economically viable, the final blow was when Airbus withdrew maintenance support for the aircraft. As a result on the 15th April 2003, Air France and British Airways both announced that they would be retiring the Concorde fleet later that year.
The Air France Concordes were all retired by the end of June, leaving the British Airways fleet to continue on.
The final Commercial flights took place on the 24th October 2003, where three BA aircraft followed each other in sequence, to land at Heathrow. Following the retirement all that was left were the delivery flights of the aircraft to museums.
Over the years, through visits to Heathrow or at airshows I saw Concorde a number of times, one of my favourite memories of the type was seeing the Red Arrows lead Concorde over Buckingham Palace for the Queens Golden Jubilee, a very impressive and patriotic moment.
But the big Concorde moment for me was its final flight; having been up to Heathrow to catch one of the final commercial Concorde flights the previous month I had already seen a number of take-offs. It was decided that we would go and see the types final touchdown, which was to take place at Filton airfield, Bristol on the 26th November 2003.
I remember bing an avid reader of the Concorde forums that existed at the time, noting that a number of people were going to attempt to watch G-BOAF take off from heathrow and then race down to Bristol to try and see the landing as well. The aircraft perfomed a flight of around 3 hours, going down to the bay of Biscay, so there was just about enough time.
We went for the safer and easier option of getting to Bristol and waiting. I remember it very clearly as a bitterly cold and grey day, upon arrival we were treated to a flypast by the P-51 Mustang “Miss Helen,” which was a nice surprise.
Then came hours waiting in the rain and hail. Before too long though a familiar shape appeared overhead, it was Concorde. Performing a low level pass over our heads before heading out on the rest of its journey down to the Bay of Biscay, it was nice to get this preview of the main event that was to follow.
In the following break between appearances we were treated to another warbird surprise, this time in the shape of the Rolls-Royce MKXIX Spitifre, which gave a full display for the assembled masses.
Soon enough G-BOAF reappeared in the circuit at Filton, after performing a missed approach the aircraft came in for its final touchdown, being positioned, as we were at the furthest end of the runway, there was concern the aircraft may turn back before reaching us. These concerns were soon laid to rest however as the crew taxied down to the far end, turned the nose towards us, union jacks flying out of the cockpit windows.
With that, the era had ended, the crew turned around and taxied back up to the aircrafts final resting place. No longer would it be possible to get to New York in less that 6 or 7 hours and no longer could one travel at supersonic speeds in such comfort.
This of course feels like a huge step backwards, but considering the costs and concerns involved with air travel at the time, maybe it was just a step forward from a simpler time. I’m sure one day the idea of supersonic travel will be revisited and perhaps we will see a successor to Concorde’s crown, though I am not holding my breath.
With all the aircraft now well and truly cocooned in museums I consider myself lucky to have been among the crowds in Bristol that day to watch an iconic aircraft retire and a chapter in aviation history close.