Travel tales

On board Concorde: A tour of an aviation legend

British Airways Concorde plane

Engineering marvel, design icon, synonym for luxury – Concorde is the supersonic plane that made the world a smaller place. She was built as a joint project between Britain and France, and gets her name from the French word for harmony or union. Just 20 planes were built and 14 flew commercially, seven for British Airways and seven for Air France. For 26 years she brought the future to air travel, and even 10 years after she was retired, Concorde still captures the imagination of so many people.

You might not be able to fly Concorde any more, but you can still get on board at Manchester Airport, and for a lot less than the £3500 cost of a one-way flight to New York. Manchester is home to one of British Airways’ original Concorde fleet. And not just any one either, G-BOAC was BA’s first Concorde and the flagship of their fleet. After 22,260 flying hours she was retired in 2003 and spends her days in an exhibition hanger at Manchester Airport’s Runway Visitor Park, where you can take a tour on board.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

The Concorde hanger at Manchester Airport’s Runway Visitor Park

I’ve never been keen on flying, and every hour on board feels at least three times as long as one on the ground, so I can totally see the appeal of being able to travel from London to New York in three hours. There was a lot less turbulence too as Concorde flew at 60,000 feet, way above the clouds. That’s twice the height of commercial planes today and so high that passengers could see the curvature of the Earth.

Concorde’s top speed was Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, which would get you from Manchester to London in less than seven minutes. The quickest trip ever from London to New York was 2 hour 52 minutes, and there were also routes from London and Paris to Washington, Buenos Aires and Barbados. They had to travel mostly across water though because the noise from the sonic boom would disturb birds and animals. The town where I grew up in Herefordshire was under the flight path and you could hear the rumble of the boom as Concorde passed over Wales and out into the Atlantic.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

The stairs up the the Concorde cabin

The design is totally different from a normal aircraft, with the wheels much further back and that distinctive pointed nose. As we started the tour, the first thing I noticed was how small she is compared to today’s huge jets, and how far above the ground the cabin is. The wheels are on folding struts below the body rather than just under the fuselage so there’s a whole flight of stairs to climb when you get on board. And when you do it’s surprising how narrow the cabin is and how simple it looks. It’s quite dark too as the windows had to be smaller to withstand the pressure and heat – Concorde’s speed meant the exterior surfaces could get up to 90ºC despite the air temperature outside being -60ºC.

Compared to the luxury premium cabins on airlines now, Concorde looks pretty basic inside. On each side of the aisle there are two seats, which aren’t a lot wider than standard economy seats on a lot of airlines today. There are no flat beds, showers, cabin bars or fancy entertainment systems here – but with such a short flight time you wouldn’t really need them. You did get food and drink en route though, with proper cutlery and crockery and unlimited Champagne naturally.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

Inside the Concorde cabin

On board Concorde there are no separate classes, everyone is in first class. Though that doesn’t mean some seats aren’t better than others and some of the famous frequent flyers had their favourite spots on board. The Queen went for seat 1A as you’d expect, with a spare seat next to her and the Duke of Edinburgh across the aisle in 1D, which had extra legroom. Then just behind them you’d find Pavarotti and Michael Jackson who booked two seats each, Pavarotti so he could fit into them and Jackson so he could hide under a blanket for the whole journey and not speak to anyone.

As well as royalty, heads of state and celebrities, there were a lot of businessmen who used Concorde to commute across the Atlantic, one of which was her most frequent flyer Fred Finn, who got into the Guinness Books of Records with over 718 flights in the same seat, 9A. Just imagine the air miles he’d have racked up.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

The Concorde logo

There were only nine staff on board each Concorde, with six cabin crew and three on the flight deck. Up front the cockpit is tiny, with a bewildering array of switches and buttons. Technically, Concorde was revolutionary. It’s easy to forget that she was designed back in the 1970s, when Betamax videos and digital watches were the latest in technology. Features on board like carbon fibre brakes and computer-controlled air intakes became standard in the aviation industry. It was a unique plane to fly too and a great honour to be a pilot – there are more US astronauts than there are pilots who’ve flown Concorde.

Everything was designed to make it as streamlined and fast as possible. The extreme forces meant Concorde stretched 10 inches while flying, and the pilots could look back down the cabin and see it bending. Because the cockpit was so much further forward than the wheels, she had a totally different steering mechanism. The pointed nose made it difficult to see out, so it dropped down during takeoff and landing and she took of at such a steep angle a wheel had to be added to the tail so it didn’t hit the ground.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

The compact cockpit on board Concorde

After seeing her for myself and hearing about the skill that went into developing this amazing plane, I had to ask why isn’t she still flying today? And a lot of it comes down to money. Concorde was incredibly expensive to run as she used so much fuel, as well as costing £32 million to build back in 1974 (which would equate to something like £338 million today). The airlines needed to fill at least 60 of the 100 seats on each flight just to break even, but she had been making good profits up until the end of the 1990s.

In 2000 there was a major accident when debris from a punctured tyre ruptured the fuel tank on one of the Air France Concordes and killed everyone on board. All the other Concordes were immediately grounded for checks and repairs, but while they were out of service 9/11 decimated the airline industry and Concorde never recovered. After a farewell tour around the world, BA and Air France both decommissioned their whole Concorde fleets in 2003 and the world got a bit bigger again.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

Switches and buttons in the cockpit

So what happened to Concorde? As well as the one in Manchester, the other BA planes are on display around the world, in museums in Edinburgh, Weybridge, New York, Seattle and Barbados, as well as one at Heathrow Airport. There’s also another at Filton in Bristol, the airfield where the BA Concordes all made their maiden flight and where a new Bristol Aerospace Centre is planned to display her.

But could Concorde ever fly again? She’s still unique – no current plane, even military jets, can go as fast for such a distance. BA still owns the planes but says they’d cost too much to get back to flight-ready condition and a lot of the technology is out of date now. But she still has her fans who’d like to see her back in the skies, from Richard Branson to the Save Concorde pressure group. So who knows, one day it might be possible to take off on Concorde again, but until then you can still get a taste of life on board an icon.

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

Concorde at Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

The details

The Runway Visitor Park is located at Manchester Airport. A 40-minute Concorde Classic Tour costs £13.50 and there are also 90-minute technical tours for £21.50, as well as combined Concorde and Nimrod tours and a Champagne tour. Tickets are released about three months ahead and it’s a good idea to book ahead – tours usually run on Fridays to Mondays.

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Touring Concorde at Manchester Airport, a taste of life on board this unique supersonic plane – engineering marvel, design icon and synonym for luxury.

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  • Reply
    January 6, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    2 hours 52? That is amazing and wouldn’t get you out of Europe on a normal plane! Did they say what the average attendance was of the 100? Hope it returns one day…

    • Reply
      January 7, 2015 at 11:36 am

      I don’t think it was full very often – especially in the early and later years – though from the number of celebs that bought two seats so they didn’t have to sit by anyone it might have looked a lot emptier than it was!

  • Reply
    January 7, 2015 at 3:17 am

    Amazing… there’s a Concorde on the USS Midway (?!) that’s based in New York but they charge extra on top of the museum entry to go onboard.

    By god, it would have been amazing to fly on one of these… I’m flying LHR -> New York tomorrow and wish the flight could be just under 3hrs! Haha.

    • Reply
      January 7, 2015 at 11:39 am

      Yes the one at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is one of the BA Concordes. It would be so great to be able to get to New York in three hours now, seems unlikely it’ll happen again though as the airlines have realised it makes more money to fly the rich passengers in first class on a normal plane instead!

  • Reply
    January 7, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Less than 3 hours from London to New York?! WOW, where do I sign up? 😀 It’s interesting seeing the cockpit with all those little buttons. I wouldn’t have resisted the urge to press one, haha!

    • Reply
      January 7, 2015 at 11:40 am

      So many buttons, it must have been quite a job to remember what they all do! The speed would’ve been perfect for a quick weekend in New York, though maybe not the price!

  • Reply
    Rob Weir
    January 7, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Would have loved to fly on it – it came to New Zealand a few times and of course established record travel times when coming out here.

    • Reply
      January 7, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Me too. It broke so many records – even did a whole circumnavigation of the globe in just under 30 hours, just amazing.

  • Reply
    Shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    January 7, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    This is a fascinating read! I was always fascinated by it as a child and teenager, always hoping to fly it one day, though the incident in 2000 is very sad. I wonder if it will ever take off again but I’d never even thought about where the aircraft must be now so really enjoyed this read 🙂

    • Reply
      January 8, 2015 at 11:33 am

      I would have loved to have flown on Concorde too – the speed and lack of turbulence sold me, though I might have needed some serious saving! It’s great that they have all been preserved though and are scattered across the world so lots of people can see them.

  • Reply
    Stacey @ One Trip at a Time
    January 8, 2015 at 4:40 am

    It is a pretty amazing plane and would be so neat if it actually flew again. There is also one that you can go inside at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, UK. And they are really small inside but like you said, who needs lie flat seats when you’re only on the flight less than 3 hours!

    • Reply
      January 8, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Yes you don’t need all those extra frills when it’s such a short journey! There are a couple more pre-production planes in the UK that never flew commercially but you can still take a tour around them – the one at Duxford as you say and there’s also one at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton. So plenty of Concordes to visit!

  • Reply
    January 8, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    This is fab! I didn’t realise you could go inside the Concorde still. I’ve seen one in the Air & Space museum in DC but you couldn’t go in. My son who is an aviation fan would love to tour the inside. He’s only 8 and one of his regrets (yes he has regrets at 8?!) is that he was born too young to have flown on the Concorde. Not that we could have afforded it anyway.

    • Reply
      January 9, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      That’s so great that your son loves Concorde even though he was born after it stopped flying! I was just reading yesterday that there are a couple of companies trying to develop new supersonic passenger aircraft so who knows there may be a new 21st century Concorde equivalent for him to fly on (better get saving!).

  • Reply
    January 19, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Rarely do I wish I was older but when it comes to this beauty I really wish I was!! I’m just pleased I’ve flown upstairs on a 747, that’ll have to do, and she’s a beauty too!!

    • Reply
      January 21, 2015 at 12:06 pm

      As I can’t fly on Concorde then upstairs on a 747 might be my next one to aim for!

  • Reply
    January 21, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    What an incredible story! It’s sad that circumstance and world events grounded the Concorde. Maybe something like this will come along again in the future.

    • Reply
      January 24, 2015 at 5:50 pm

      It is really sad as it was such an amazing plane, both in terms of the technology and the experience. There are a couple of companies trying to develop supersonic planes now so who knows maybe there’ll be the chance again?

  • Reply
    March 21, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Of course the crash in 2000 was tragic, but what really irked me was the fact that after 31 flawless years, without a single incident, the world’s safest plane was suddenly grounded and labelled dangerous.

    • Reply
      March 23, 2015 at 10:11 am

      Yes it was quite an extreme reaction, especially as the 2000 crash was such a freak accident – such a shame that a run of bad timing meant it was never able to fly again.

  • Reply
    February 6, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Every time I visit home I wish there was an (affordable) Concorde-like place I could take – 3 hours would be a dream!

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 10:28 pm

      That would be amazing (though I suspect scarily expensive unfortunately!).

    • Reply
      Fred Finn
      February 7, 2017 at 4:21 am

      Lucy a great article about Concorde I am delighted to be mentioned.
      However it should be noted that it was not a freak accident but complete negligence on behalf of the pilots. The plane was 5 tons overweight, the pilot took off with the wind and almost came into contact with the presidents 747 that had just landed. A bolt was missing from the wheels which caused the aircraft to sway down the runway so negligence on part of engineering as the aircraft had just been in for maintenance, and then they could have shut down the engine that was on fire it would have burnt out with wind force quickly, however the shut down another engine then it was the end.
      This was not the reason Concorde stopped flying the main reason and you can find in Google the betrayal of Concorde by airbus and air France to take Concorde out of the Skies. I miss this most beautiful of aircraft to fly in. Very comfortable, no so called jet lag. Great crews, and comfortable contoured seats with surprisingly amount of leg room. Super food all made this the way to go.
      This is Fred Finn the most travelled person in Concorde. Hope you enjoy my comments

      • Lucy
        February 7, 2017 at 9:44 am

        Hi Fred, thanks so much for commenting – and for all the extra background details, such a fascinating story behind Concorde. It’s great to hear from someone who’s been there and flown on her, I’d have loved to have tried it myself!

      • Fred Finn
        February 7, 2017 at 11:31 am

        Your most welcome

  • Reply
    November 15, 2019 at 11:14 am

    Lucy, sorry to correct you, but there never was a scheduled Concorde route to Buenos Aires. British Airways never served South America with it, and Air France only served Rio de Janeiro (refueling in Dakar — the inaugural route, as the U.S. still banned the plane back then) and later Caracas (refueling on Santa Maria island in the Azores). Both routes lasted only a few years, but I had the chance of seeing a Concorde landing in Rio once — it was beautiful, it looked like an eagle about to catch prey on the ground. The inaugural commercial flights were synchronised: the BA Concorde took off from London to Bahrain (the only BA Concorde route at first) at the exact same time the AF one took off from Paris to Rio; this was televised and viewers could see both planes taking off on a split screen — which was itself a novelty back then. Later the London-Bahrain route was extended to Singapore for a short while. The London-Barbados route came later, but it soon was flown only on eventual charters. The only long-lasting Concorde routes were from London and Paris to Washington and New York, but especially the latter took some years to be established, as politics, lobbying and environmentalists banned the plane from JFK through court action and demonstrations for quite a long while. The Washington route was sometimes problematic when the eastward jet stream was too strong, making westbound Concordes burn too much fuel and forcing an unscheduled refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland.

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