Cockpit Chronicles: Hitching a ride to Kentucky in Concorde

Occasionally, when pilots are together, the subject eventually will come around to airplanes. Specifically, just what airplane we’d most like to fly.

While I have a rather long list that includes the Ford Tri-Motor and the Spitfire, solidly at the top of the heap lies Concorde. An airplane so special, you’re not even allowed to put ‘the’ in front of its name.

Since there was no possibility of ever flying this airplane at my airline, I knew I had to do the closest thing. Even though my wife and I were very recently hired at our respective airlines, we both agreed that we’d have to pay for a non-revenue (slang for employee reduced-rate) flight in Concorde before it was retired. This was in the mid ’90s and the one-way tickets were still a relatively steep $600 per employee.

At the time, my wife was a flight attendant for United, based in Newark. She was working in the aft galley when a gentleman came back for something. He happened to mention that he worked for British Airways at JFK as the director of Concorde charters.

My wife told him of our plans to purchase a pass on the airplane for a flight to London in the future, just for the experience.

“Don’t do that.” He said. “We have a charter flight from New York to Cincinnati in two weeks. Come along on then. No charge.”

He even extended the offer to the other flight attendants riding that day, but they all passed on the opportunity.

Two weeks later, Linda and I arrived at the Concorde lounge early enough to watch the inbound supersonic jet taxi to the gate. There was a tremendous amount of activity by the staff, with everyone even more frantic than what would be typical for agents eager to ‘turn-around’ an airplane quickly.

We soon discovered what was happening.Princess Diana was arriving on the airplane to sell some dresses for charity in New York. The Princess of Wales was escorted off the jet and down to a waiting car on the ramp, and unfortunately we never actually saw her. But soon afterward, our hero, the director of Concorde charters, came upstairs carrying a large plaque featuring the princess with a warm thank you message written on it given to him by Diana. Needless to say, he was beaming.

While waiting to board, I spotted the co-pilot in the lounge making his way to the gate. I approached him and mentioned that we’d be one of the 14 passengers that day to fly with him to Cincinnati. I explained that I was currently flying the 727 and showed him my ID, hoping that just maybe he would invite me up to the cockpit at some point.

“Let me check with the captain, maybe we can get you the jumpseat.” He said, taking my I.D. and license with him.

As we stepped on board the airplane I took a quick picture of my wife in front of the Concorde sign.

The co-pilot came back to where we were sitting and asked my wife if she would be upset if I rode in the jumpseat. I turned to her with my most buoyant look.

“No, not at all!” She said, as a flight attendant handed her a pre-departure champagne.

Concorde, just like many airplanes of the ’60s and ’70s had a cockpit where the major systems were operated by a flight engineer. At the time, I was an FE on the 727, so I was rather interested in this panel aboard Concorde.

The flight engineer panel on Concorde

The flight engineer showed me the jumpseat, but I was amazed that my perch was well behind the captain. It wouldn’t even be possible to see out the front from that far back, I thought.

As I began to sit down, the FE explained, “No, no, no. The seat slides up forward.”

Sure enough, in what had to be the most unusual cockpit seat, I found my place just behind the captain with the chair locked into place.

The cockpit jumpseat is tucked in just behind the captain seat.

We taxied out with the nose drooped down for better visibility looking forward. As we lined up on runway 31L at JFK, the co-pilot said that this was the lightest he’d ever flown the airplane.

In a scene reminiscent of the original Battlestar Galactica, we blasted down the runway and rotated far sooner than I expected.

The captain reached over and flipped a three inch switch under the glareshield that raised the nose. As the nose sealed into place, I was shocked to see just how bad the visibility was. It was like looking through two sides of a humid greenhouse. It seemed like the first pane of glass, in front of the pilots, was a full ten feet from the retracted windshield that maintained the smooth, needle like appearance of Concorde.

Jumpseating is usually just a method for pilots to get to and from work or where they needed to go. But that day, it was how I confirmed my supposition that the Concorde would be the ultimate airplane to fly.

Climbing through 10,000 feet, I couldn’t hold my enthusiasm any longer. “Guys, you don’t fly an airplane. You fly a rocket!” I gasped.

They explained that even on a lightly loaded airplane they still used ‘reheat’ or what us Yanks call ‘afterburners,’ which essentially injected fuel downstream of the turbine section of the engine for added thrust, producing a glow on the four Olympus engines that could be seen for miles.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t fly supersonic over the continental United States as sonic booms are generally considered annoying for groundlings. Still, flying at .95 Mach, or 95% of the speed of sound may have set a commercial speed record between New York and Cincinnati. (The CVG airport is actually located in northern Kentucky).

Interestingly, six years later the same airplane, G-BOAG, received special permission to fly supersonic over land to set a commercial speed record while flying from New York to Seattle on November 5th, 2003 for its last flight.

It’s fitting that today G-BOAG is now on display at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, since Seattle is where I met the exchange student while I was in high school who would later become my wife who landed me this rare experience.

If you have the chance, check out the museum. It’s a must see for any aviation geek.

Special thanks to the director at British Airways who made it all happen for us. I only wish I had remembered his name.

And thanks to Ruthann O’Connor for the photos.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.