I Was Fortunate to Have Worked the Concorde
This past week marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of a Concorde SST prototype. A technological marvel half a century ago, it still is one of aviation’s most important accomplishments. A while back I was an air traffic controller in Boston Center’s Area D, one of two Areas that routinely controlled Air France and British Airways Concorde flights. A few of us thought that it was a privilege to be able to control the Concordes, as they were rather unique. Here’s some history and a few of my recollections of the Concorde supersonic transports.
Aerospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation designed and built the supersonic transport (SST) after a long research and development period in the 1950s and 1960s. While American plans were robust and multiple corporations vied for the U.S. Government’s assignment of the production of an American design, that project was never funded, and environmental concerns about noise issues finally killed the program. The Soviet Union fielded the Tu-144 SST, but it never seemed to be successful either. Only the Concorde saw modest returns. Although it garnered over 100 early orders and options for construction, in the end only 20 airframes were manufactured, and six of these were test aircraft, never meant to be used in an airline configuration.
On March 2, 1969, the first flight of a prototype took place in France. Both the French and British aircraft companies had separate assembly lines for the jets. A month later, the first British prototype flew. Although plenty of orders were inked, the problems with sonic boom damage associated with supersonic speeds led many countries to disapprove supersonic flight over their lands and this, and a handful of other reasons, led to many cancellations. In the end, the two producing countries’ flagship airlines – Air France and British Airways – were joined briefly by Braniff International and Singapore Airlines as the only operators – the latter two as operating leased airframes, never owning them.
Ultimately, British Airways and Air France operated fourteen of the jets, and used them on only a few city-pairs. Air France operated between Paris/Charles de Gaulle and New York/JFK airports while I was controlling; British Airways flew between London/Heathrow and both New York/JFK and Washington/Dulles airports.
There have been long debates as to whether Concorde operations were profitable, as both the French and British governments wrote off huge development costs by the two companies. Fuel costs nudged upwards, maintenance and overhaul costs grew, profits sank, and ultimately, in 2003, the last flights of Concorde in airline services occurred. Air France’s final flight occurred in June, British Airways’ finale took place in October, but a ferry flight between New York City and Seattle, to deliver a jet to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, took place in early November – the final flight of a Concorde.
Here are a few of my observations and anecdotes about controlling the jets:
The Concordes had special call signs – British Airways’ was “Speedbird Concorde One” (or whatever their flight number was), and Air France’s “Air France Concorde One” (etc.) were notable call signs heard over on frequencies. It’s important to note that the “Speedbird” call sign was used by British Airways long before Concorde was operated!
Eastbound flights from JFK to London and Paris would initially climb to FL290 (29,000 feet MSL) and remain subsonic while travelling along the south shore of New York State’s Long Island. We’d clear the flights to climb at their discretion to the block FL550B590 (fifty-five to fifty-nine thousand feet) just southwest of Nantucket Island, and the pilots would accelerate – after the flight path avoided the island – (usually, but that’s another story) to supersonic speeds – Mach 2.0.
There is a large Warning Area airspace just south of Long Island too, and occasionally some Concordes took the southern route, flying overwater south of the W-105 airspace instead of north of it. I once watched an Air National Guard F-106 Delta Dart race the Concorde – the fighter was flying parallel inside the airspace while Concorde was outside… and the SST seemed to pull away easily. I’m not sure if the fighter was trying to race, or use its infrared tracking device on the SST’s four afterburning engines!
Scanned copy of an original ATC flight strip of a Speedbird Concorde 1 flight, note: M200 in the left-hand box means Mach 2.00 cruise speed, assigned altitude is a block between 45,000 and 60,000 feet!
Westbound flights destined for JFK from Europe would arrive in the block FL450B600; we’d reassign a block of FL520B600 to clear W-105 airspace that reached up to FL500. In some cases, the SSTs were still climbing westbound, as they burned off fuel and got lighter. At supersonic speeds, fuel was pumped between tanks to trim the jet, instead of using flight controls. We’d restrict the jet to stay above that Warning Area, then descend it to a lower altitude when clear of the area, then make a radar handoff and have the Concorde contact that New York Center sector. All in all, it took about ten minutes to cross our sector, a normal Boeing 747 would take some twenty or twenty five minutes.
The ground speed of the Concordes never seemed to vary much more than a few knots from the normal 1170 knots, if I remember right. At the altitudes they cruised at, they were normally well above the jet stream, and thus no headwinds. That also meant no tailwinds either…
There were still some issues with noise from the Concordes. My wife use to work in the FAA’s Eastern Regional Headquarters building in Jamaica, New York, and normal phone calls and conversations would cease for some seconds when the SST departed nearby, with all four jet engines in afterburner mode. She said that things would sometimes rattle around desk tops and windows would vibrate too. Some seasons (especially in summer it seemed), which brought temperature and humidity variables into play with the sonic booms, jets would delay their eastbound climbs a noticeable amount of miles east of Nantucket Island, so that the booms would definitely avoid the area.
The climb profiles for the jets were very important and were critical for fuel management. Once, another controller had to stop a Speedbird flight’s altitude at FL520B560 temporarily for traffic. Normally, Concordes were the only jets above 45,000 feet in altitude, but this day a U.S. Air Force U-2 was heading westbound to California from Europe at FL600 (we needed double the normal vertical separation at supersonic speeds, thus 4,000 feet was needed back then – before RVSM). The crew voiced their concerns that they couldn’t take any delays in climbing to FL550B590 as it might affect them enough as to possibly cause a diversion later in flight, but a few moments later, the pilot came back on the frequency, and quietly said that he saw the U-2 pass overhead! The eastbound climb was resumed quickly and the jet never really had to level off.
At cruise speeds, a Concorde would take about a hundred miles to slow down to subsonic speeds and do a 360 degree turn. We saw that happen once when thunderstorms closed down the New York City Area and we were told to hold the jet within our airspace due to traffic saturation downstream. Normally a subsonic jetliner would take about 40% of that space.
The Concordes that flew the scheduled trips hardly ever broke, but once, an eastbound flight had a problem with a balky afterburner which would have caused a fuel burn problem, so the jet returned to JFK at subsonic speeds. With a lot of fuel aboard, it needed to fly faster than routine arrivals to JFK too.
Another time we got a call from Moncton Centre (the Canadian enroute facility to our east) that detailed an emergency diversion of a Speedbird flight into Bangor Maine’s International Airport. The jet had a pair of issues as a result of a fuel pump failure. The crew had a lot of fuel aboard, but a good amount of it was trapped in an aft tank and couldn’t be pumped out. So they were they suddenly faced with much less fuel than planned for their trip to JFK. Bangor was their closest and quickest diversion runway. Compounding the issue was that the center of gravity (CG) was far aft with all of that fuel being trapped near the tail of the jet, and as fuel that was usable was being burned, the center of gravity was shifting further aft. The crew was in a race to land before the fuel load went aft of CG limits! As we heard in the Center later, they were some twenty minutes or so from having some very serious CG issues.
There were some perks about working the Concorde in your sector too… you could call traffic to some other commercial jetliners, and the crews would see the SST steak by, some ten to twenty-thousand feet overhead their jets… they’d thank us for pointing out the marvel. I wonder if they ever heard a sonic boom in the subsonic cockpit?
There are numerous Concordes preserved around the world, including three in the U. S.: at New York’s Intrepid Air and Space Museum, Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum near the Washington Dulles International Airport. Seeing is believing, and seeing a Concorde’s stylish lines even on the ground, evokes the sense of supreme speed and elegance.