With parts made in Warton, this is how Concorde first took flight 50 years ago

For more than 30 years, it generated an excitement and feeling of awe like no other aircraft.

By Emma Harris
Thursday, 28th February 2019, 3:02 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th February 2019, 4:02 pm
Aerospatiale BAC Concorde G-AXDN taking off.
Pic courtesy of BAE Systems
Aerospatiale BAC Concorde G-AXDN taking off. Pic courtesy of BAE Systems

It is regarded by many as an aviation icon and engineering marvel.

And Saturday marks 50 years since Concorde made its first ever flight. Concorde 001, built by Aerospatiale (formerly SUD Aviation) at Toulouse, made a test flight from Toulouse – piloted by André Turcat, on March 2, 1969.

The UK test flight – involving the UK-built Concorde 002 – came just over a month later, on April 9, 1969, from BAC (BAE’s earlier incarnation – British Aircraft Corporation) Filton to RAF Fairford, in Gloucestershire.

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Rear fuselage of the first Concorde prototype built in British Aircraft Corporations Preston Works being installed on the general assembly jig

The origins of the project date back to the early 1950s when Sir Arnold Hall, Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), asked noted Welsh aeronautical engineer Morien Morgan to form a committee to study the potential of supersonic transport (SST).

In February 1965, construction of two prototypes finally began – with Concorde 001 being built by Aerospatiale in France, and Concorde 002 was built by BAC at Filton.

After the test flights, it went supersonic on October 1 that year.

Several hundred BAC workers – including in Warton – had been involved in the early design work of rear fuselage components, and prototype 002 also made a low-level fly-past over Warton airfield and Preston.

Concorde 002 second prototype, seen here at the moment of take-off from RAF Fairford, its flight test base. Pic courtesy BAE Systems

John Dickens, from Ingol, Preston, started his career with BAC working on Concorde as an 18-year-old – based at Filton.

Now 72, and retired, he also worked on some of BAE’s biggest projects – the Typhoon, the Tornado and the Jaguar.

His father had been in the RAF and John had become an air cadet, but felt engineering with BAC was a more attractive career option.

“I joined BAC as an apprentice in 1964, and came out 1968-69 and they asked me which department I wanted to work in.

Test pilot Brian Trubshaw (left) and his co-pilot John Cochrane pictured in the cockpit of the Concorde 002 aircraft as they prepare to take off for the first time, at RAF Filton, Bristol, April 1969. (Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“I knew Concorde was on the cards and I liked the sound of the flight testing department, although I didn’t expect to get it.

“But I did and started working in the flight test department and the Concorde project.

“My role was to monitor the take-off and landing performance. Obviously the take off and landing of the aircraft is very important – A: To make sure it can do both safely and B: to know how long the runway needs to be for a supersonic aircraft.”

On the first UK flight, on April 9, 1969, piloted by Brian Trubshaw, John had a major part to play.

Test pilot Brian Trubshaw (centre), with his co-pilot John Cochrane (right) and his French counterpart Andre Turcat (behind, right), speaking at a press conference following his successful first flight of the Concorde 02 airliner, at RAF Filton, England, April 9 1969. (Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“We had to use a big format camera, to film the take-off, for measurements and safety.

“The downfall was the camera was only able to run for a short time, so you had to synchronise the take-off with starting the camera running.

“Brian, the pilot, and I were in radio contact and I was operating that camera that day.

“To synchronise the camera with the take off, I gave him the countdown... 3-2-1 and he took off.”

John’s job took him all over the world – as before Concorde could be taken into commercial service, the landings and take-offs had to be tested repeatedly, including in different climates and at different altitudes.

It saw John travel as far afield as Madrid, Casablanca and Johannesburg.

The Concorde 001 makes its first public appearance in Toulouse, France, December 11, 1967. Pictured are test pilots Andre Turcat (left) and Brian Trubshaw. (Photo by Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Getty Images)

“We were working with cutting-edge technology at that time. A supersonic passenger aircraft was absolutely unbelievable. It was a supersonic aircraft, it was new and would behave differently, it wasn’t your average 707.

“And landing and take-off would be different in different climates, in higher temperatures or at higher altitude.”

Such was Concorde’s iconic status, that when John and the testing team were in Johannesburg and wearing their Concorde overalls as they walked through the airport, they were mobbed by members of the public asking for their autographs.

“I said I wasn’t one of the pilots, I was only an engineer, and they said it didn’t matter, they still wanted my autograph. That was the buzz it created, that’s how people reacted.”

He flew down to Casablanca for the tests there on board Concorde itself.

“Flying at 60,000ft, over the Mediterranean, Spain and Gibraltar looked so tiny.

“Travelling at twice the speed of sound, when you reach Mach 2, you can’t really tell. You feel more force on take-off than a regular jet and there is the reheat of the engines, but they had to display it in the cabin when it reached Mach 2, as people wouldn’t know otherwise.”

After nearly seven years of testing, development, route proving and an extensive sales programme, scheduled flights began on January 21, 1976 on the London to Bahrain and Paris to Rio (via Dakar) routes.

Concorde would regularly operate at over twice the speed of sound, at Mach 2.04 (1,354mph or 2,180km/h at cruise altitude).

Over time, the aircraft became profitable when it found a customer base willing to pay for flights, on what was for most of its career, the fastest commercial aircraft in the world.

It had a flight time from London to New York of less than three-and-a-half hours, compared to eight hours on a commercial jet.

John said: “All good things come to an end and in 1976, Concorde went into service. I decided to stay with BAE because they had been good to me.

“I moved to Warton with BAE, and over the years worked on the Jaguar, Typhoon and Tornado.

“A lot of the skills were transferable, and it was nice to move up here, we liked it so much we stayed here.”

Concorde was retired in 2003 due to a general downturn in the commercial aviation industry and after the type’s only crash in Paris in 2000. Added to this, the remaining in-service aircraft faced multi-million pound overhauls for which the airlines could not prove a financially-viable business case.

John said: “I was very sad to see it go. The aeroplanes are designed to last for 20 to 30 years and Concorde exceeded that.

“It’s a beautiful aircraft and it used to stop people in their tracks.”

Aerospatiale picture shows the Concorde 001 prototype landing in a stop barriere during a test flight in Toulouse, in August 1968. Concorde 001 will make its first test flight from Toulouse on March 2, 1969 and first go supersonic on October 1, before the beginning of its commercial flights in 1976. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)