Thursday, 23 October 2003 was a typically chilly, damp, late autumn evening at London’s Heathrow airport. The type of evening to send people home from work to the warmth and quiet of an evening in front of their televisions.
On that night, however, the airport’s perimeter fence was lined with more than 1,000 onlookers clutching cameras, binoculars and in many cases the hands of their young children, all there to witness a melancholy piece of aviation history.
At 19:20 their wait was rewarded, as a roar announced the departure for New York JFK of the final westbound flight of fare-paying passengers on board a British Airways Concorde.
For the last time, the blowtorch exhausts of four Olympus 593 engines in full reheat speared through the darkness as the supersonic airliner rotated and climbed out to the west.
The public turnout was symptomatic of the affection felt for the aircraft. A commercial failure, it had nevertheless captured the imagination of millions. As a loss-leader for British Airways and Air France, it had burnished the carriers’ reputations as the only two Western operators of a supersonic airliner.
The following day, 24 October, was one long farewell – emotional exchanges between ATC and the aircraft’s crew on departure from JFK, commemorative flights to Edinburgh and over the Atlantic and continuous live TV coverage as the three ogival deltas formed an airborne procession low over London and into Heathrow for the last time.
As many onlookers noted, it was one of the few moments in history when aviation demonstrably went into reverse: overnight, transatlantic flight times doubled from Concorde’s daily 3h sprint across The Pond.
The downbeat nature of the aircraft’s retirement was in stark contrast to the sense of optimism felt when the first prototype BAC/Sud-Aviation Concorde took to the air in Toulouse 34 years previously. There, too, live television covered the event. The project’s gestation had long since broken every initial cost estimate, but the sense of occasion on the day of the first flight – 2 March, 1969 – was palpable.
As air appeared between the runway and the aircraft’s wheels for the first time, BBC commentator Raymond Baxter – himself a former Spitfire pilot – exclaimed simply: “She flies!” Considering the aircraft’s technological complexity, the first flight was just one year later than the original target – a delay that some airframers today would accept gratefully, given the problems experienced by more recent designs.
Concorde was destined to live its life in the spotlight. The first landings in New York by British Airways and Air France in 1977 were, like the aircraft’s departure from service, choreographed to the minute so the two national carriers could have a joint publicity-fest.
Whenever mishaps occurred, the glare of publicity became particularly intense. A series of incidents where sections of the rudder detached invariably made the front pages, while similar incidents on subsonic airliners would probably not have made it beyond specialist publications such as Flight International.
And, when the tragedy of 25 July 2000 left 113 dead after an Air France Concorde caught fire on take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle and crashed a few kilometres away at Gonesse, near Le Bourget, the media focus became so intense that the aircraft had to be withdrawn from service for more than a year, to allow safety modifications to be made.
It never really recovered. Throughout its service life Concorde was probably the only aircraft that, without fail, turned heads every time it took off. Admittedly, this was partly due to the thunderclap roar of the four reheated Olympus penetrating the triple glazing of most airline terminals, and people reflexively turning to see what on Earth was creating the din. But the aircraft’s indubitably elegant lines held the eye long after the roar of its engines had ceased assaulting the ears.
A decade after its retirement, there remains no sign of a successor on the horizon.