The 45th anniversary last week of Concorde’s inaugural flights in 1976 was also the occasion for revealing the inside story surrounding the mythical plane’s Portuguese connection.
In the 60s, when privileged passengers were discovering the age of jet travel, two countries had already teamed up to create what was to become, 14 years later, the world’s fastest ever commercial aircraft: Concorde.
While international media was focusing on president Biden’s investiture, the aviation community in the UK and France held a toast to commemorate another event, on January 21: the 45th anniversary of both British Airways’ and Air France’s inaugural supersonic flights.
The two airlines worked jointly to schedule take-offs of their respective maiden Concorde flights on January 21, 1976 at exactly the same time, thanks greatly to a specific communication setup between the two cockpits (Heathrow & CDG!), allowing the captains of the two planes to simulate a NASA-style countdown to take-off once on the runways. While BA’s flight was to Bahrain, AF chose Dakar and Rio.
Subsequently, Concorde’s network was slow to create, due to a 15-month battle in American courts involving both airlines and the builders of the plane to obtain authorisation for supersonic travel to what was to prove to be indisputably the most important destination in Concorde’s limited networks: New York.
The first flight to JFK finally took place on November 22, 1977. By 1976, BA had established its route to Bahrain, later extended to Singapore, whereas the French airline was flying on a regular once-weekly basis to a Portuguese destination…
On April 9, 1976, Air France inaugurated its route to Caracas, including a stopover in the Azores (Santa Maria) to refuel. Due to the plane’s limited flying range, equivalent to the east coast of USA (Washington & NY), the longer Rio and Caracas routes required refuelling stopovers. This entailed rehabilitating Santa Maria airport and, more specifically, upgrading from piston-engine ‘gasolina’ to A1 Jet fuel – just for Concorde!
Santa Maria airport was initially a US military base, so happens to boast a very long runway. After WWII, and during the years when Lockheed Constellations were in service, the airport served as a refuelling stopover for all transatlantic flights.
As Concorde required more runway than any other commercial jet, it too proved to be the ideal location for refuelling the plane on its route to and from Caracas.
However, climatic conditions at Santa Maria were such that approach and landing were sometimes hazardous, so much so that on one occasion, on May 29, 1976, captain André Duchange decided to skip the Azores, covering the 7780 km between Caracas and Paris in only 4h19, of which 3h37 at supersonic speed. In so doing, Duchange set the record for the longest non-stop supersonic flight. In comparison, a 747 AF flight from Caracas to Paris, with a stopover in Martinique, took 11h35!
Contrary to take-off in Paris or London where the plane had to remain at subsonic speed until reaching the ocean, Concorde dispensed with this intermediate phase when taking off from both Caracas and Santa Maria where the sonic bang only occurred over the Atlantic. Under full thrust all the way up to Mach 2.02, the plane would reach its cruising altitude of 58-60,000 feet in 16 minutes.
On the Paris-Sta Maria leg, one (sometimes two) ground mechanics, specifically trained for Concorde maintenance, would ‘deadhead’ as passengers, ready to intervene in the event of a technical hitch during the stopover. They would then spend the night there while waiting for the plane to return the next day on its homeward-bound trip. This was to prove to be a very bad decision…
During the six years the plane flew the Caracas route, only once did it experience a breakdown. On the return leg from Caracas to Sta Maria on October 10, 1981, due to a sudden hydraulic leak at cruising altitude, the Concorde had to nose-dive all the way down from 60,000 feet until it made an emergency landing in Guadeloupe.
Consequently, the two stranded mechanics in Sta Maria were unable to assist, and Air France had to send its Caracas-based mechanics on a chartered plane to repair the white bird, as it was termed by aficionados. Thereafter, it was decided that the deadheading mechanic(s) would remain with the crew and the plane throughout the trip. The incident was fully related in the French magazine Mach 2.02, published in October 2011 by the association A.P.C.O.S.
During this period of time, and as from November 1977 when Air France resumed cabin staff recruitment following a three-year interruption, more women were recruited than men. In sharp contrast, flight decks in general continued, nevertheless, to remain a strictly masculine environment.
By the mid-80s, most of the older generation of AF and BA (postwar) pilots including Concorde captains, had retired, thereby contributing to breaking the discriminating barrier that had prevented women from applying to become pilots until as late as 1980.
An interesting milestone, therefore, in the history of Concorde is when Barbara Harmer became the first woman to fly the plane as a BA first officer on March 25, 1993. As concerns AF, Béatrice Vialle became the second woman to fly as first officer on September 11, 2001. Nowadays, it is no longer uncommon to see lady pilots in the right seat or even the left seat of a cockpit.
When one considers that even present-day commercial jets fly no faster than 900 kph, Concorde’s technology proved to the world that a plane carrying 100 passengers (plus a crew of nine) could not only break the sound barrier (Mach 1), but also be able to cruise at between Mach 2.02 and Mach 2.04, the equivalent of 2168 kph, at an altitude of 18,288 metres.
The two prototype planes alone took seven years to build and develop – from 1962 until March 2, 1969 when the first test flight took place at Toulouse Blagnac. A further seven years of intensive test-flying were undertaken before Concorde was finally certified to fly.
Three other serious contenders seeking to be first in the race to build a supersonic passenger plane were Boeing, Lockheed and Tupolev. Lockheed was the first to drop out, and in 1971 US Congress obliged Boeing to ditch their B-2707 project. Unfortunately for Tupolev, their Tu-144 prototype crashed dramatically during its first appearance at the Le Bourget airshow in 1973. Although Tu-144s were later used (1979-1983) essentially for freight and postal services inside Russia, Concorde ended up being the only plane to transport passengers at supersonic speed.
As regards Concorde, both airlines had to perform ‘route-proving’ flights (or ‘vols d’endurance’) during the year 1975, the last step before Concorde was finally granted type certification for commercial flights.
These flights targeted routes and airports in both airlines’ planned networks, and involved transporting invited VIP passengers to cities like Rio and Bahrain with their own Concorde mechanics on hand there in order to simulate real-life conditions in-flight as well as regards ground maintenance.
On one particular route-proving BA flight, the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to the cockpit. Listening attentively to the captain informing him that the plane had just reached an altitude of 59,000 feet, the Archbishop quipped: “Never before have I come this close to God.” Doubtlessly, he would have noticed that – at an altitude a third higher than any Airbus or Boeing – the horizon is unmistakably curved. Whether or not the flight engineer told him the plane had stretched by 25cm, due to the friction generated at Mach 2.02, was never reported on though.
Altogether, a total 20 Concordes were built, 10 by Aérospatiale and 10 by BAC (British Aircraft Corporation). Each of the two airlines received seven planes. The remaining six comprised the two prototypes and four pre-production planes. Today, 16 can be viewed or visited in museums. And one is also on display at CDG airport.
Douglas Hallawell is an ex-Air France Concorde crew-member who was also selected for the final two flights to Sta Maria/Caracas and Rio de Janeiro in March 1982.
The only British subject to fly on the plane for AF in the 80s, Douglas was born and raised in Brazil, then educated at boarding school in the UK before settling in Paris in 1972. Until moving to the Algarve in 2019 with Katherine, his ex-stewardess wife, he was a regular contributor of classic car motoring articles, namely to MOG magazine and Octane in the UK, as well as to La Vie de l’Auto in France. Towards the end of this flying career with AF, he became involved in cabin crew recruitment and teaching computer software at AF’s headquarters at CDG. As a member of the French association A.P.C.O.S. (Association des Professionnels du Concorde et du Supersonique), Douglas has also written three articles on Concorde in internal magazine Mach 2.02.
By Douglas Hallawell
Photos: Douglas Hallawell