Fifty years ago this month, the supersonic Concorde took off and changed aviation history. For the first time, civilians could fly at twice the speed of sound – Mach 2 or 2,469 kms/hr – faster than the Earth’s rotation, so fast they actually time-traveled: depart 6 pm and arrive 4.30 pm the same day.
Pilot John Hutchinson, after flying 70 types of aircraft, declared: “Nothing like a Concorde.”
Art met technology in the Concorde, a masterpiece of invention and innovation.
Once seen, never forgotten. Concorde takeoffs and landings were noisy to some, evoked awe in others: a stunningly beautiful bird-machine merging mind-numbing power with poetic grace. The Concorde was special.
The spectacular Concorde sonic boom (listen here) had governments restricting it from breaking the sound barrier over land.
“My brother and I loved watching Concorde from London fly over every day after school,” remembered Anna G from England’s Atlantic coast. “We heard the boom and we grabbed the binoculars. But it was always hard to spot because it was going so fast.”
This pictorial Golden Jubilee tribute is for Concorde fans like Anna and Sam Chui, for those who made, piloted, flew in the Concorde, for those who see in it the soaring spirit of human achievement and endeavor for excellence.
The Concorde was compared to a swan, a seagull, and so like a cosmic farewell, a seagull “accompanied” the final commercial Concorde flight on October 24, 2003. As Flight 002 approached London’s Heathrow airport “Jonathan Seagull” appeared in the same frame (above).
Check-in at Heathrow Terminal 4. Each passenger received a certificate as a Concorde flier – and inflight service that has become part of aviation legend.
Air France Concorde jets in their hangar at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport in January 2001.
In 1962, Britain and France collaborated to make the Concorde, putting aside their traditional rivalry. The French insisted the letter “e” be added to the “Concord,” and the name gained better balance with what was called the “French e.”
An era ends. Air France Flight 001 touched down at Charles De Gaulle Airport on May 3o, 2003, her last journey from New York.
British Airways and Air France retired the Concorde in 2003. Fewer passengers (New York-London return fare cost US$11,000 in current value), the aviation slump after 9/11, and high maintenance costs were the main reasons. But the alternate view is that the Concorde’s demise owed more to transatlantic politics than business logistics.
The Concorde lasted 27 years, one-third of civil aviation history, and was not a “failure” as widely perceived.
The farewell Concorde flight heads to London from New York.
Thousands await the final landing at Heathrow on October 24, 2003.
The Concorde drew crowds. Traffic stopped, people thronged airport fences, climbed towers, terraces, and trees. And she arrived: first the distant undercarriage lights, then the rising crescendo of her earth-shaking voice, and the majestic landing like a grand emissary of Indra, the king of gods and god of thunder.
Kiosk outside Heathrow airport on October 24, 2003.
The final seconds of the Concorde’s last commercial flight. Heathrow, London. Concorde regular Joan Collins said glumly after deplaning: “Civil aviation is going backwards.”
At JFK Airport (above), the first supersonic transatlantic flight from Paris to New York on October 19, 1977.
Mostly flying the transatlantic route, Concorde “commuters” left London at 8.30 am and reached New York for their day’s work. By evening they rocketed home in three hours across the Atlantic, compared to seven hours in 2019.
The Air France Concorde rests in a hangar at JFK airport, after her inaugural transatlantic flight.
Russia and the US attempted a Concorde equivalent. The Boeing 2027 full-scale mockup (above) of the American Supersonic Transport project, at the Boeing Center in Seattle, 1969. After spending a billion dollars the US Senate ended further funding, and Boeing 2027 died in 1971.
Captain Jean-Francois Michel, co-pilot Patrick Delangle and flight engineer Bernard Collette at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, before the final Concorde commercial flight to New York.
Captain Mike Bannister (above) holding the rubber liner to protect the Concorde fuel tanks – measures taken after July 2000 when an Air France Concorde caught fire during takeoff in Paris and crashed into an airport hotel, killing all 109 on board and four people on the ground. A tiny metal strip on the runway ripped the Concorde tire. A tire piece smashed into a fuel tank and caused the fatal fire.
Phoenix rising from the fire, after the Paris disaster. A Concorde takes off to New York on November 7, 2001 (above), 15 months after the fleet was grounded. Some called the grounding an overreaction.
A generation ahead of the “Goliaths,” Concorde “David” waits as a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330 lands at Heathrow on October 24, 2003. The 62-meter-long Concorde could seat only 90 to 120. But she ruled the skies. Concorde pilots said subsonic jets they saw flying 20,000ft below seemed to be “flying backwards” – the Concorde’s Mach 2 speed was nearly thrice that of modern airliners.
A flight attendant serves gourmet food aboard an Air France Concorde, April 1998. Michelin-star service 18 kilometers above sea level, with the temperature outside minus 70 degrees Celsius. A coin could be balanced on its edge on the food tray – so steady was the Concorde flying at 2,400 km/ hr, 60,000 ft high.
The last flight back home. The final journey to Filton airfield to begin a new life at the Aerospace Museum in Bristol. Britain’s Concorde first flew from Filton 50 years ago.
Optimists await the next supersonic airliner. Prospects include the Airbus hypersonic aircraft at Mach 4.5, four times the speed of sound. It could travel to Vancouver from Bangkok within four hours instead of 15.
Denver-based “Boom Supersonic” co-founder Blake Scholl with a design for a supersonic aircraft, “Baby Boom,” at London’s Farnborough Airshow on July 18, 2018.
Whether or not a successor arrives, the Concorde lives on with her legacy: go beyond fear, beyond “impossible,” beyond barriers.
Afterburners hurtling the Concorde beyond the sound barrier, the four Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus engines, the special wings – British Airways Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister explains the unique, unforgotten marvel of our times in this documentary (2002): Concorde – The World’s Greatest Airliner.