Supersonic: The enduring allure of Concorde

Britain's Concorde prototype being rolled out of its hangar in Bristol (Getty)
Britain's Concorde prototype being rolled out of its hangar in Bristol (Getty)
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SUPERSONIC passenger flight has been grounded for almost a decade, but for hundreds of thousands of museum visitors, and one in particular, 
Concorde will always hold a special place, writes Alastair Dalton

VERY few of its passengers were household names, first-time travellers on it took away everything they could lay their hands on, and baggage cost its weight in extra fuel. Of the 750,000 people who have visited Scotland’s Concorde since it went on show seven years ago, none but Jim O’Sullivan, its former general manager and chief engineer, will have had behind-the-scenes insights like these.

An Air France Concorde flight takes off with fire trailing from its engine. Picture: AFP

An Air France Concorde flight takes off with fire trailing from its engine. Picture: AFP

Once in charge of British Airways’ fleet of seven supersonic aircraft – including getting them back into the air after the Air France disaster in 2000 – O’Sullivan has stepped back on board Concorde for the first time since leaving BA a decade ago. He was their technical director from 1999 to 2002, and most recently he’s been chief executive of Edinburgh airport, a job he’s standing down from tomorrow, following the airport’s sale.

Before his departure, he took The Scotsman on a special tour of G-BOAA – the first BA Concorde to carry passengers – now housed at the Museum of Flight in East Lothian. From the moment he walked into Concorde’s hangar at East Fortune, O’Sullivan was a flood of memories, with an eye for every detail and an eagerness to scotch the myths about the aircraft. He immediately started asking about everything from the aircraft’s tyre pressures to its cleaning regime. “I have been here five minutes and I have already got the maintenance programme,” he joked.

O’Sullivan recalled how daunted he felt on taking charge of BA’s Concordes in 1996. Looking up at the rocket-shaped fuselage, he said he remembered thinking: ‘What have I done?’ “I was completely overwhelmed by the responsibility. Concorde was British Airways’ 

Climbing the aircraft steps to the cabin, he noted that speed was everything for the Concorde passenger, and that to reduce the plane’s weight and size, compromises had to be made: catering was limited by the very cramped galleys, the windows were less than a quarter the size of other aircraft, and the toilets had standard fittings, despite having upmarket toiletries. There were no in-flight films or videos and, he said, the music system was “far inferior” to other aircraft’s first-class cabins. This was partly because minimising weight was crucial, with every extra kilo requiring around a litre of extra fuel. However, luxuries weren’t actually required: “Most passengers would not have been interested in killing time – they were working. You would never have heard of most of the people who flew in Concorde, but they were some of the most powerful on the planet, like bankers and financiers. We very rarely had famous people.”

Water vapour condenses out of the air over the wings as Concorde takes off at Heathrow (Reuters)

Water vapour condenses out of the air over the wings as Concorde takes off at Heathrow (Reuters)

Among celebrities who did use Concorde, David Frost and Michael Winner were two of the most frequent flyers, the latter complaining on one occasion that the pasta wasn’t hot enough.

Travelling at twice the speed of sound more than compensated for Concorde’s relative privations, though. O’Sullivan remembered seeing the sun seem to rise in the west from a New York-bound Concorde as it hurtled towards the horizon at 1,350mph.

Concorde reached the Big Apple from London in three hours 15 minutes – nearly half the time taken by conventional planes. Flying so fast also had a unique effect – air friction on the outer surfaces meant the cabin became noticeably hotter by the end of the flight, with every surface, such as windows and panels, warm to the touch. Regular passengers were easy to spot when the cabin started off cold in winter, taking their coats off as they sat down because they knew what was in store.

O’Sullivan said those taking their first Concorde flight were equally conspicuous – making off with everything from menus to safety cards. In addition, everyone loved the gifts, which included silver photograph albums and Cross ballpoint pens: “Even on a full flight, every single passenger took the pens.”

Despite the fact that the seats were all first class, O’Sullivan recalled there was a real snobbery among passengers about being in the front half rather than the rear, beyond the centrally-located toilets. Because passengers only used the aircraft’s front door – the middle one was just for maintenance – they did not want to cross the Atlantic in three-and-a-quarter hours only to have to wait another 15 minutes to disembark: “There was a definite disappointment to be in the back, like being the wrong side of a curtain screening off club class.”

O’Sullivan said the seat everyone wanted was 1A in the front row – especially on the 10:30am Heathrow-New York route, whose flight number was BA001. Lucky occupants included the Queen and former BA chairman Lord King. However, there was no row 13 – as much because of European as American superstition, O’Sullivan reckons.

While Concorde’s speed warmed the passengers, the friction of air flowing over the wings also caused the airframe to expand by 23cm (9 inches) during flight, and its steel and copper wiring had to be hung loose, like overhead wires on railway tracks rather than fixed to the fuselage because they expanded and stretched at different rates.

The aircraft’s “Concorde white” paint was also the brightest in the BA fleet, for maximum heat and light reflection, and the airline’s blue and red logo had to be much smaller than on other aircraft.

O’Sullivan said seeing Concorde again had prompted both a sense of history and a sense of sadness – “This aircraft gets into your heart and soul” – and noted that despite the fact it was grounded nine years ago, the plane still has widespread appeal, even to children not born when it last flew. “Everyone flies, so it feels like supersonic travel should be just within reach.” He recalled how a visiting Nasa space engineer once joked: “It’s really good, Jim, but how do you get it vertical?”

For the forseeable future, though, O’Sullivan believes such aircraft will remain in museums, awaiting a technological breakthrough that will make it feasible again to fly so fast. Concorde used as much fuel taxiing to the end of a runway as a Ryanair-size Boeing 737 flying from London to Amsterdam. O’Sullivan said: “Like other forms of transport, there was a focus on speed, then it settled down to a more sensible level. Any new technology is likely to be targeted at climate change rather than speed. There is also the problem of crowded skies and airports, just like the speed of cars being kept down by congestion. In the very long term, supersonic travel has a future, but we need a dramatic change in technology and aerodynamics.”

On 25 July, 2000, a Concorde, Air France Flight 4590, caught fire after take-off and crashed into a hotel, killing 113 people, including four on the ground. O’Sullivan led the team modifying the rest of the Concorde fleets so they would be allowed to fly again, but knew the writing was on the wall for the project. Concorde – which had already had its life extended – had only a limited remaining life, and would have been retired by 2010 at the latest anyway. Its flying days were significantly shortened by the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September, 2001, which compounded the loss of customers during the fleet being grounded. For example, the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, one of Concorde’s biggest customers, lost two-thirds of its 960 New York staff in the Twin Towers collapse.

O’Sullivan said: “There was a gradual realisation that Concorde would have no successor. It was at the edge of inventiveness at the time – 1950s and 60s technology, with no microprocessors.” This meant that everything had to be monitored and controlled manually.

In the cockpit – in which O’Sullivan travelled dozens of times to chat to the air crew – he gestured at the flight engineer’s seat to emphasise the point: “He had to work like a one-arm wallpaper hanger – having to continually manually adjust the aircraft systems, like pumping fuel backwards and forwards to maintain the centre of gravity.”


20 Concordes were built: seven for British Airways, seven for Air France, and the rest were prototypes.

100 seats, all first class

62 metres (203ft) from nose to tail

18km cruising height (60,000ft)

605 metres per second, a top speed just over twice the speed of sound (1,354mph)

1976 First passenger flight, from London to Bahrain, made by G-BOAA (now at Museum of Flight)

2003 Last flight of Concorde

£6,636 Standard return fare from London-New York

10 times the maintenence cost of other aircraft, with a 200-strong engineering staff.

30 landings between tyre replacement, compared to a jumbo jet’s 200.