Coachlines - March 2020

20.03.20 Past Master Martin Payne

Concorde – a tribute to an iconic aircraft

On 50th anniversary of Concorde, writes Past Master Martin Payne, looking back, some might suggest that it all began with Barnes Wallis.

At the end of WW2, Barnes Wallis, who worked for Vickers Aviation at Brooklands, was already thinking about high speed and high altitude travel, as he developed the Stratosphere Chamber. Wallis knew demanding tests would be required to realise his ‘grand vision’ for efficient long-range air transport, capable of flying non-stop from the UK to Australia. He persuaded Vickers to design and build a high altitude and climatic test chamber, which became known as the Stratosphere Chamber. To simulate atmospheric conditions at 70,000 feet (21,000 metres), air was extracted from the Chamber by a number of vacuum pumps to reduce the pressure to 1/20th of that at sea level. The adjoining refrigeration plant cooled ammonia and methanol gases, which were then circulated through 16 heat exchangers, located at each corner of the four air ducts to cool the Chamber.

The Stratosphere Chamber was constructed in Barrow-in-Furness and transported to Brooklands where it was assembled. The Chamber assembly was finished in September 1947 and became operational almost immediately. Among the many tests carried out were altitude and climate tests on aircraft structural specimens such as the Vickers Viscount, VC10, Vanguard, de Havilland Sea Vixen and helicopters such as the Westland Wessex.

Other research and experimental establishments also made use of the Chamber’s capabilities, notably proof testing items such as naval guns, clear-vision windows, torpedo launchers, armoured vehicles, and airfield and marine radar. Barnes Wallis’s vision and forward thinking ultimately enabled Concorde to enter service.

Concorde first flew in 1969; prior to that, anyone visiting the Farnborough Air Show will have seen a number of experimental aircraft all designed as test beds and proofs of concept. The FD2 with its triangular wing shape, the TSR2 Bristol Olympus engines, which would eventually power Concorde into service. On 20th May 1927, Charles Lindberg took off from Long Island, heading east in the Spirit of St Louis and landed in Paris about 33 hours later, completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Almost exactly 47 years later, on 24th May 1976, two supersonic Concorde flights headed west at twice the speed of sound. One from Paris and the other from London, and both landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington within three minutes of each other. My father, Douglas A Payne, Director CAA, who was part of the government mission to persuade the Americans to allow Concorde into their airspace was there to witness the arrival.

Concorde takes off for the US

Concorde takes off for the US

Concorde had officially arrived in the US after much protest and heated debate. It was the dawn of a new age in passenger air travel as British Airways and Air France commenced regular supersonic transatlantic flights. The trip over the Atlantic was around three hours of flight time, barely enough to have a nice meal before you had to put everything away for landing. You could now have breakfast at home, lunch in Paris and be home in time for dinner with the family. But only 20 Concordes were built and after the tragic accident in Paris, the jet was doomed.

The two inbound flights and their arrivals at Dulles Airport was a big deal. Thousands of people gathered in anticipation, awaiting the arrival — back in the day when it was still cool to hang out at the airport observation deck. Souvenirs were being sold commemorating the day. It was not an easy road to get approval to fly Concorde into US aerospace. Not until Secretary of Transportation, William E. Coleman, Jr. gave official permission for four flights a day into Kennedy International in New York and Dulles on a 16-month trial basis.

It wasn’t all plane sailing. Getting federal approval was hard work; many wanted Concorde to be banned from US airspace entirely. There were some vocal opponents of this move in Congress as reported in the Washington Post on 5th February 1976.
One congressman was moved to declare: “Concorde will fail because it is an anachronism, and its failure will be recognized as such rather than attributed to an arbitrary and protectionist attitude of the US out of fear that our dominance of the world aeronautical manufacturing market is threatened.”

The trip over the Atlantic was around three hours of flight time

The trip over the Atlantic was around three hours of flight time

Concorde 216, made its first flight from Filton near Bristol, on 20th April 1979. It was painted white and registered as G-BFKX. Both it and the second last example (214, G-BFKW) were built with no customer order. It was hoped that either Singapore Airlines or British Caledonian would buy them, but this didn’t happen. Eventually a deal was agreed to sell it to British Airways, along with 214.
216 was re-registered as G-BOAF for sale to British Airways on 12th June 1980, and flown from Filton to Heathrow on delivery to British Airways the next day. It had made 10 flights up until its delivery flight.

G-BOAF made the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a commercial aircraft on a flight from New York to London on 1st January 1983 with a flying time of two hours, 56 minutes and 35 seconds. It held the record for five years, when another Concorde shaved one minute and 20 seconds off the time.

In June 1987 I flew on Concorde from JFK landing at Heathrow some 3½ hours later. I had been on a Bank of England investigative tour of Silicon Valley in California determining the computer network infrastructure most appropriate for the Bank.

On 1st April 1989 G-BOAF left Heathrow on a circumnavigation of the world. By the time it returned, it had covered 38,343 miles.
During a flight from Christchurch in New Zealand to Sydney in Australia on 12th April 1989, G-BOAF lost part of its upper rudder. This was the first occurrence of rudder separation failure on a Concorde. Although a bang was heard while climbing through 44,000 feet (at Mach 1.8), there was no noticeable effect on the flight characteristics, and the crew only found out when the controller at Sydney mentioned it to them when they were taxiing in. New rudders were fitted to the fleet after the same incident occurred on other Concorde.

G-BOAF was the first British Airways Concorde to receive a new £1 million cabin upgrade in May 1993, which included new leather seats.

On 10th June 1997, G-BOAF was the first British Airways Concorde to be painted in the airline’s ‘Chatham Dockyard’ livery. This was one of the ‘Utopia’ schemes, a series of ethnic designs from around the world painted on the tails of BA aircraft. All Concordes received the ‘Chatham Dockyard’ livery, which included a stylised section of a Union flag. In 2001, the ethnic designs were replaced by the Chatham Dockyard livery across the entire BA fleet. As 216 was the first in this livery, it featured prominently in publicity material at the time.

On 25th July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed shortly after taking off from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The cause of the accident was attributed to a small metal panel, which had dropped from the previous aircraft to use the runway. This caused a tyre to burst, sending rubber fragments in all directions. One fragment caused the under-wing skin to rupture, which led to a fuel leak. An electrical spark in the wheel well ignited the fuel, and the flames were sucked into the engines. Both engines on one side suffered a flame-out, and the aircraft could not achieve enough height and crashed. Within hours, Air France grounded its fleet of Concordes. As a mark of respect, British Airways cancelled their evening Heathrow-New York and return flights.

In January 2001 a series of modifications were developed, each one dealing with a specific area in the chain of events that led to the Paris crash. G-BOAF was chosen as the development aircraft for these fixes. Non-zero growth tyres were fitted to prevent tyre disintegration, the fuel tanks were lined with Kevlar, to prevent rupturing and electrics in the wheel well were insulated. At the same time, an Olympus engine was tested and proved to cope with a fuel leak after the liners were fitted.

Prior to the accident, British Airways had been planning a complete cabin refurbishment. New seats, carpets and upholstery were included in the work to get Concorde back in the air. The seats were considerably lighter, offsetting the increase in weight from the fuel tank linings.

By 19th June 2001, modifications to G-BOAF were complete, and the aircraft was rolled out of the hangar at Heathrow. After a series of system checks, 216 made a taxi test around Heathrow on 9th July.

On 17th July 2001, G-BOAF took off from Heathrow, the first British Concorde to fly after the grounding 11 months earlier. After a short flight, it landed at RAF Brize Norton, where it remained for three days of ground-based tests.

On 11th September 2001 G-BOAF made the first operational assessment flight for the return to service. With a cabin full of BA staff, it flew to the Bay of Biscay to fly supersonic. When 216 landed back at Heathrow, the passengers and crew learned of the terrorist attack under way in the US. This single event caused a sharp downturn in the airline market, which eventually led to the withdrawal of the Concorde fleet two years later.

On 22nd October 2001, 216 made its last operational assessment flight to New York before the resumption of commercial flights. This was the first Concorde flight to the US since the grounding.

Concorde returned to commercial service on 7th November 2001, when British Airways and Air France resumed flights to New York. To coincide with this, G-BOAF flew Prime Minister Tony Blair from London to Andrews Air Force Base to meet President George W. Bush. G-BOAF flew the first service to Barbados since the grounding on 1st December 2001. Up until the withdrawal in 2003, Barbados and New York were the only scheduled destinations for BA Concorde.

Concorde on its final journey

Concorde on its final journey

Concorde Alpha Foxtrot G-BOAF flew into Filton on 26 November 2003, the last Concorde to be built and the last to fly. On 7th February 2017, Concorde Alpha Foxtrot made her final journey across Filton airfield. The complex move was conducted with the greatest care by engineers from British Airways and Airbus, who towed the iconic aircraft across the airfield and up a ramp to a new purpose-built hangar, at Aerospace Bristol.

Aerospace Bristol opened its doors to the public on 17th October 2017, with Concorde Alpha Foxtrot as the centerpiece showcase.

Will we ever see the like again?

Copyright – Newatlas .com
Other photographs MD Payne