In 1976 I moved form Hertfordshire to Oxfordshire and went to school in a village called Burford. On the first day I was hanging around in the playground trying to look cool and not nervous because I had just been dumped in the middle of 1300 kids who I didn’t know when suddenly everyone stopped in their tracks and looked up to the sky.
I followed their gaze and what should be flying low over our heads but the amazing new supersonic passenger jet Concorde. I had seen pictures of it in the magazines and on TV but this time it seemed to be scrapping the treetops around my actual school playground! I thought I was hallucinating but so must all the other kids because they also were dumb struck with their mouths dropped open in awe.
Why was the most advanced, most expensive and most beautiful passenger jet in the world visiting my school? The fantastic jet disappeared over the horizon and all the kids went back to their games and/ or bullying sessions. It was like it never happened. Then for the next few weeks everyday at the same time during the school lunch break the same thing would happen – kids fighting – kids stop -Concorde flies over- kids resume beatings.
Anyway it turns out that they were carrying out test flights of the new supersonic jet at the nearby airfield at Fairfordbefore going into to full commercial service. We small group of undeserving kids had been privileged to a sneak peek of this incredible piece of technology.
Cut to 20 years later. I am now a film director and just finished my first film Con Air. Its no coincidence that I made a movie with an aeroplane as a central character. My passion for aeroplanes was probably born out of that first encounter with Concorde.
I am about to start prepping my next film and happen to be in London when the movie studio phones me in a panic. They inform me that a major Hollywood actor has read the script and is interested in taking the lead role but is about to go on holiday for a month and we need to close the deal “…like today!” The actor is in New York and the studio wants me to fly out to meet him ASAP. They looked into the fastest way to get me there and wondered if I would be ok taking Concorde? …….YES!
Needless to say the whole Concorde experience is amazing. It starts like this……
You enter the hushed British Airways Business lounge and show your big shiny ticket to the pleasant person behind the desk. Its was made stiff card in those days, it looks a bit like the golden ticket in “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” except its silver. Not sure if it was seeing the word “Concorde” or just the flash of reflected silver light across her face but she immediately becomes even more attentive.
I am ushered through the reasonably nice business lounge to a pair of large beach wood doors that have “FIRST CLASS” embossed on their satin finished surface. My escort opens the doors for me and sends me through where I am met by a male attendant not in a BA uniform but in a crisp suit. It must be like big hospitals where the doctors have to wear white coats but the more senior consultants wear suits and are called Mr. or Mrs. instead of Dr. This persons job is to maneuver passengers of the supersonic club through the “even nicer than the business class lounge” first class lounge. As we approach the end of the room it becomes obvious to the waiting first class passengers that me and my guide are headed somewhere special. One by one all the heads bob up from their books and newspapers, this is pre smartphone era. They all want to see who is headed for the large glass doors with the word “CONCORDE” etched in beautiful script across their frosted surface.
The glass doors slide automatically and silently apart and I am greeted by the ultimate of air travel service representatives. An extremely tall and immaculately uniformed woman in the style of a bygone flying era. It must be like in the police force. The Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police wears full uniform but many of the lower ranks do not.
My First Class escort seems unwilling or unable to cross the threshold from his area of influence to the Supersonic lounge so I now follow my third guide to an angular leather chair. I am served drinks and whatever food I desire on silver service platters but it’s the view that I am really interested in. The Concorde Lounge was specially designed with an entire wall of uninterrupted glass. Behind this glass British Airways cleverly parked the arrow shaped super jet. So close that it filled the whole window and you felt you could almost reach out and touch it. Sitting in that luxurious room all you could do was just stare and stare at that beautiful machine. That was the thing about Concorde no one could see it and not just stop and stare.
They knew they had the best looking plane on the planet and they made the most of it. When it was time to go the tall woman in the immaculate uniform came to each of us lucky people and almost whispered her question “would you like to board now?”. Steps lead straight from the lounge onto the tarmac and we were guided the short way to the steps of the jet. No claustrophobic closed in jetway for us. We got to look at the magnificence of Concorde until the very last moment.
Inside the plane it was all subtle tones of greyleather. Yes the seats were a little small, yes the ceiling was little low but we were about fly faster than a rifle bullet!
The first thing that’s different about this flight is the angle you take off. It is very steep. It felt more like the angle of a rocket than a plane, which of course adds to the thrill of the whole experience. On the bulkhead in front of me was the tachometer, the speedometer. It starts fairly modestly 100, 200, 300 miles per hour. It soon reaches 500 miles per hour which is the cruising speed of normal passenger jets. Then the captain comes on the speaker. I am sure he was chosen for the job as much for his cut glass English accent as his ability to fly this thing. The pilot warns us that he is about to turn on the after burners which will take us to supersonic speed. The effect of the afterburners is actually quite subtle, just a slight push from behind. However my eye is caught by the tachometer on the bulkhead in front of me. It starts to click over numbers at an ever increasing rate. 500, 600, 700mph…..It keeps on rising until it hits 1,334 miles per hour!
From the technical specs I devoured as a kid I know the jet’s fuselage has actually stretched 9 inches in length by now. We are cruising at an altitude of 60,000 feet instead of the usual 30,000 feet. The weirdest thing about this is that when I look out of the window instead of seeing blue sky above the clouds I see the black of space just above us.
The flight is ridiculously short, just over three hours to New York. It’s the closest thing to time travel you will ever experience. When the pilot turns off the after burners for landing its like we stop dead in mid air. 500 miles an hour now seems like not moving at all. We glide down into New York and out of the window I see hundreds of heads turn upwards to look at us. Passengers boarding planes, workers pulling luggage carts, refueling truck drivers, people in the car parks even pilots of other planes stop their pre flight checks of wings and tyres to look up. No one could ever not stop and stare when Concorde was around. I learned that first in the playground of my school all those years ago.
So that’s my Concorde story on it’s 40th Anniversary.
Oh yes the meeting with the big Hollywood actor. Well he decided not the take the role but I still got to make the movie which was called “The General’s Daughter” and most importantly I got to fly on CONCORDE!
Here’s me with the travel wallet they gave out to lucky passengers. I still use it to this day to carry my family’s passports whenever we fly. 20 years old and still going strong.