A joint Anglo-French project, Concorde first took to the skies on 2 March 1969 and was immediately hailed as the harbinger of a new era in air travel:
Its sleek form and distinctive drooping nose cone immediately distinguished it from its peers, and it incorporated a wealth of envelope-pushing technology. That included the paint: the speeds that Concorde attained in flight were so high that the aircraft actually stretched – up to 25 cm (10 in) – necessitating the development of a paint that would both allow such an extension and accommodate high temperatures.
Concorde began commercial flight operations on 21 January 1976, with Flight BA300 from London Heathrow, UK, to Bahrain, piloted by Captain Norman Todd. The aircraft enjoyed a cruising speed of 1,350 mph (2,172 km/h), or Mach 2 – more than twice the speed of sound. That’s faster than the rate at which the Earth rotates, and – like Superman – faster than a speeding bullet. Unsurprisingly, Concorde halved the travel times achieved by its competitors.
In 2003, after nearly 50,000 flights and having carried around 2.5 million passengers, the supersonic marvel was officially retired. Captain Mike Bannister commanded its last flight (BA2) from New York JFK, USA, to London Heathrow, UK on 24 October 2003. The plane had simply proved too expensive to maintain and only 20 Concordes were ever built; of those, only 14 actually entered service. Moreover, the crash of Air Concorde Flight 4590 in 2000 had undermined the public’s faith in the aircraft – although this was the aircraft’s only crash – while general confidence in air travel took a huge blow with the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.
But on 7 February 1996, this modern engineering marvel enjoyed a moment of record-breaking history. For that day, Captain Leslie Scott, Senior First Officer Tim Orchard and Senior Engineering Officer Rick Eades flew British Airways Concorde G-BOAD between New York City, USA, and London, UK, in a world-beating time of 2 hr 52 min 59 sec. The plane covered the 6,035 km (3,750 miles) at an astonishing average speed of 2,010 km/h (1,250 mph).
Quite a bit of thought had to go into breaking this record. For optimum upper-air temperature, and ‘low level’ wind velocity, February was deemed the best month to make the attempt. Scott, Orchard and Eades knew they could take advantage of the ‘jet stream’ – the narrow band of westerly winds that blow 9–16 km (5.5–10 mi) above the Earth’s surface – on ascent and descent. And it would be important to accelerate to Mach 2 quickly after take-off, and decelerate at the other end as late as possible. Moreover, Orchard would have to liaise, off the record, with US and UK air traffic control (ATC) personnel in order to minimise any hold-ups at take-off or landing. And, of course, to record the departure and arrival times precisely.
The trio made the decision not to tell the hundred-or-so passengers, or even the five-person cabin crew, about the record attempt – just in case they were unsuccessful. And, of course, they weren’t going to risk the safety of anyone on board just to set a new world record. If anything went wrong, for whatever reason, they would abandon the attempt.
In the event, everything went just about as smoothly as it could have. Well, nearly. Approaching Heathrow, the Concorde G-BOAD would be landing facing east; unfortunately, all the other air traffic using that particular runway would be landing facing west. For obvious reasons, ATC at Heathrow was uneasy about the Concorde landing in the opposite direction to all other aircraft – unless they could be sure that they were actually going to break the world record! Messrs Scott, Orchard and Eades assured them that they would. They were true to their word.
On landing, the cabin crew were told that they had unsuspectingly been part of a successful world record attempt. Then the crew broke the news to the delighted passengers.
And if you’re ever in New York, you can visit this record-breaking Concorde at the city’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum:
Step into the cockpit and you’ll notice that a flight engineer’s hat is still jammed tight between two panels. It was shoved there when the plane was in flight, and had reached supersonic speed, making the aircraft stretch and creating enough space for the hat to be pushed in. It’s not likely to be released any time soon…