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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.