For more than 25 years, Concorde was the world’s only successful supersonic airliner. Flying faster than the rotation of the earth, it could cross the Atlantic in less than three hours, with passengers arriving at JFK before they left Heathrow.
Now, 20 years after its final ever flight from Heathrow to Filton on 26 November 2003, the world is looking back at the history of one of aviation’s great engineering and technical marvels.
Ady Dolan, Heathrow Controller, joined NATS in 1999 and saw Concorde fly for four years. He reflects on what it was like to control the supersonic jetliner…
Since the retirement of Concorde, no other aircraft has attracted such interest, despite the subsequent introduction of technologically advanced types that can carry more people ever greater distances, using less fuel than ever before.
There was a time each day when Heathrow would come to a standstill to watch and listen to a very special aircraft, almost as if someone had pressed the pause button on the frantic pace of life at the airport.
Those working in the NATS control tower at Heathrow had the best seats in the house, and were treated to the Concorde airshow every day. The process started with a call from the aircraft, always situated on Stand V14, to Clearance Delivery. A special clearance had to be obtained from our colleagues in the London Area Terminal Control Centre (LATCC), which included details of the supersonic route to be followed across the Atlantic.
Other aircraft would ask ATC for a short hold before departure, so that they could also watch it take-off. Airside vehicles would park up and watch it depart in style. It was quite an attention grabber!
Unlike today’s modern and highly fuel efficient airliners, Concorde was quite a thirsty aircraft, so Ground Movement Control had to plan ahead to ensure that Concorde was incorporated into the complicated taxi system with minimum delay. Once, following a standard go-around procedure, we received a kind thank you note from the Concorde pilot alongside a fuel receipt for the extra fuel they had to use. I remember it being around £5,000!
Concorde, call sign Speedbird One, presented the Departures Controller with a challenge due to its spectacular acceleration. Following the same Compton Standard Instrument Departure as its subsonic counterparts, Concorde could potentially catch preceding aircraft which had departed ahead of it. Conversely, a 747 on the same route could be launched immediately after Concorde, safe in the knowledge that it could never catch up.
The evening return of Concorde sometimes meant an approach to one of Heathrow’s easterly runways. An enduring memory of Concorde is watching its famous delta wing shape on approach, silhouetted against the sunset.
British Airways Concorde operations ended in October 2003, marking the end of three decades of supersonic travel. On Friday 24 October, three Concorde flights landed within five minutes of each other, watched by thousands of onlookers, at Heathrow Airport – a day I’ll never forget.
Not least because we were saying goodbye to the most impressive aircraft I’d ever seen (and still haven’t – the latest generation of airliners are incredible, but in terms of aesthetics they don’t really come close) but also because our colleagues at Heathrow Approach vectored the aircraft overhead West Drayton, the former location of LATCC, so our controllers could say goodbye to it.
The final week of Concorde was an emotional time. Not only was it the last flight for the aircraft, but in the days leading up to the very final flights, it was the final Concorde flights for many of the crews. We had built really good relationships with Concorde crews over the years as they regularly visited us in the control tower– it was all about understanding the challenge of our roles.
The triple arrival was covered around the world that day, and I was live on BBC News from the control tower, which had never been done before! I had to speak to Concorde on a special frequency, catching Concorde as it crossed the North Devon coastline during its descent. In the footage (which you can watch below) what you can’t see is me struggling to get through to the aircraft with only seconds before going live. Thankfully it connected right as we went on air and I could talk to the flight engineer on board. A very memorable day!
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