Executive Travel & Sightseeing

Concorde

Forty years ago today Concorde took off on its first commercial flight. David Clensy looks back at the most famous aircraft to come out of Filton

Back in 1976, when Concorde first took off in the public’s imagination, there couldn’t have been many people who didn’t look at the cutting-edge supersonic aircraft and assume it was heralding a new future for air travel.

Four decades on to the day since Concorde made her maiden commercial flight on January 21, 1976, she has become the stuff of history – and nothing even similar has yet followed in her wake.

Back in 1976 Concorde was a sleek-winged vision of the future. For years the Concorde project had been discussed in whispers among the aero-engineering community of Filton, where much of the aircraft had been being developed since the 1960s.

But it only found its cult-like status among the British people following its official launch in 1976, when two Concordes departed simultaneously at 11:40am GMT from London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports – this being a joint Anglo-French project.

The BA plane, heading for Bahrain, went supersonic over the Mediterranean – meaning the 30 paying passengers and 70 VIPs onboard, including the Duke of Kent, found themselves touching down in Bahrain just two hours later – even with all the smoked salmon and champagne it must have seemed a disorientating experience.

One passenger stepping off the flight is reported to have said simply that the “normality” of supersonic flight was “just unbelievable”.

For the next quarter of a century, Concorde would represent the pinnacle of sophistication and engineering excellence.

An entire generation grew up with one eye fixed on the skies each time they heard a plane’s engine – just in case it was Concorde and they might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

Until its eventual retirement in 2003, its career was only clouded by the Paris crash of 2000, which resulted in the deaths of 100 passengers and nine crew members.

One man who knows the aircraft as well as anybody is Captain David Leney, pictured below, a former pilot and flight manager for BA’s Concorde Division, who spent more than 5,000 flying hours in the distinctive broken-nosed cockpit, proudly working as Concorde captain from 1977 to 1989.

The 80-year-old, who is currently recovering from a stroke, recalled working as a Concorde captain as a “real privilege”.

“I looked forward to going to work every single day while I worked on Concorde,” he said.

David, who lives in Surrey, was first chosen to pilot the world’s first supersonic passenger jet in 1977, just a year after its maiden flight.

“It was terribly exciting,” he said. “Previously I’d flown VC-10s, so sitting down in Concorde’s cockpit for the first time was a rather different experience from anything I had flown before.

“I can remember clearly the first time I took off in Concorde during the training program, and I couldn’t get over the amount of power that the plane had behind her.

“The best comparison I can give is that it would be like somebody who has only ever driven a Morris Minor sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari for the first time and experiencing the sense of power and acceleration.

“But once she was up in the air, for the majority of the time, it was like flying any other aeroplane. It was only when we went to supersonic that things became very different.”

The final Concorde touched down for the last time at Filton in 2003, following a successful Post campaign to bring the last Concorde to be built at Filton back to its spiritual home. Some 20,000 Bristolians lined the edge of the airfield to witness the great plane’s swan song.

At the controls for the world’s last Concorde landing was Captain Les Brodie.

“The flight was a lot more emotional than expected,” he said. “Even the weather came good for the landing, although it did start raining as soon as we were on the ground.”

Fellow Concorde pilot David Leney admitted he was sad to see the passenger aviation industry lose its only supersonic aircraft.

“It’s about the only time in the history of our civilisation when we have taken a technological step backwards,” he said.

In September 2015 it was revealed that an organisation called the Concorde Club had secured more than £160 million to return an aircraft to service.

Concorde Club president Paul James said: “The main obstacle to any Concorde project to date has been ‘Where’s the money?’ – a question we heard ad nauseam, until we found an investor. Now that money is no longer the problem it’s over to those who can help us make it happen.”

The organisation aims to buy the Concorde currently on display at Le Bourget airport. A tentative date of 2019 has been put forward for the first flight – 50 years after its maiden test flight.

Meanwhile, here in Bristol, work to create a new state-of-the-art £17.5 million museum for our own Concorde is gathering pace. It will be housed in a striking glass structure beside one of Filton’s most historic hangars.

From the moment you step into the historic First World War aircraft hangar housing the ticket desks and the main entrance of the Bristol Aerospace Centre, it will feel as if you are stepping inside a century of aviation history.

You will work your way around the engaging, interactive exhibitions in the restored 4,000 square metre hangar, surrounded by the historic aircraft that once made up the Bristol Aero Collection’s exhibit at Kemble.

You will have the chance to plough through a state-of-the-art archive, filled with countless items of interest to aviation enthusiasts and local historians, pass through the education suites, the conference centre and the inevitable souvenir shop and cafe.

Then you will step out on to the hallowed concrete of Filton Airfield, under the cover of a glass-domed new building, standing in stark contrast to the historic Grade II listed hangars, where once the Royal Flying Corps would receive aircraft from the manufacturers and sign them off before sending them to the trenches of Flanders.

Beneath the sleek 21st century canopy, Bristol’s own Concorde 216 will have enough space to stretch its wings.

Lloyd Burnell, executive director of the Bristol Aero Collection Trust, which has been at the heart of the museum project, said: “It’s been a long time coming so we’re determined to make this museum an international exemplar, and something of which Bristolians can be truly proud.

“Work has already started on site on the restoration work needed on the historic hangars. Work will start on the foundations for the new building in the next few months, then we will launch our big fundraising appeal later in 2016.

Concorde herself will come across the airfield at the end of the year, and the museum itself will still open its doors in 2017.”

‘Bristol Evening Post’

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