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Concorde stories: Remembering the 'pocket rocket'

Concorde in flight Image copyright Getty Images

Concorde, perhaps the most iconic airliner in history, made its first commercial flight between London and New York 40 years ago today. Enjoying a journey that took a mere three hours, the rich and the rushed quaffed champagne and scoffed lobster while travelling at twice the speed of sound.

Fans of the aircraft included the Queen Mother who, after taking an earlier flight on Concorde, mentioned to Captain Jock Lowe that whenever she heard the plane approaching her Clarence House home in London, she would go out on to the balcony and wave.

He told her that from then on when he flew Concorde over central London he would flash the aircraft headlights in salute, which then became a tradition for all the Concorde captains.

Twenty of the birdlike planes with their distinctive droop-noses were built. Seven went to the then state-owned British Airways and seven to Air France. The remaining six were prototypes that never went into passenger service.

Here are some of the stories of Club Concorde members who were inspired and enthralled by their experiences of "the pocket rocket".

A meal in front of the Mach 2 notice board Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The first commercial Concorde flight was in January 1976, but US regulations meant North America did not have a service at all until May that year. The New York route was opened in November 1977 after a local ban on supersonic aircraft was overturned
Concorde passengers Image copyright Frank Barratt
Image caption British Airways flew 35 competition-winners on its first flight between London and New York, on 22 November 1977

Jazz band on board

On 31 March 1976 Captain John Eames was in command of Concorde G-BOAA in flight from London Heathrow to Bahrain. "Soon after accelerating to supersonic speed, the chief steward came on to the flight deck and informed me that among the passengers was a jazz band, complete with instruments. Moreover they wanted my permission to perform in the cabin.

"I was mildly surprised at this notion but decided that as the passenger load was quite small, 'why not?' They did play and, I learned later, made a recording of a tune that they had specially written called The Mach 2 March.

"Later, after we arrived in Bahrain, they came round to our hotel and gave a small performance in our hotel's crew party room. I then learned that our erstwhile passengers were The Temperance Seven.

"On a later visit to Bahrain their leader, whose name I have sadly forgotten, came to dinner at the crew hotel and gave me a recording that they had made and which included the aforesaid March, interspersed with my in-flight announcements."

Concorde captains with the Ryder Cup and Prince Charles and Princess Diana Image copyright Concorde Club
Image caption The Ryder Cup is flown home in 1995 by Captain Jock Lowe; Concorde Captain Dave Leney and his crew are introduced to the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana
A French model with styling inspired by Concorde Image copyright Keystone
Image caption The elegant aeroplane even inspired accessories and makeup

'The memories are precious'

As a teenager in London, Trish Dainton would often stop in her tracks and look up to the sky when hearing that instantly recognisable sound. "It was a regular sight but every time was like the first.

"Unknown to me at the time, in another part of London, another teenager would also look up in awe hoping to be on Concorde one day. Forward-fast a few years and our paths had crossed.

"In 1987, the young man - Steve Dainton - and I got engaged. We married in 1988 and made a promise that we would do something very special like travelling on Concorde for our 10th year as a married couple. We were so serious about it that we opened a 10-year joint endowment policy and paid into it every month.

"We were absolutely thrilled to find we had been allocated seats 1A and 1B. These are the seats at the very front of the plane and where the information board was.

"The in-flight service was immaculate, as would be expected. We were pleasantly surprised we could get to meet the captain and other members of the crew and take photos.

"The memories of that time are now even more precious. In 2011 aged just 49, Steve died from Huntington's disease he had inherited from his father. Although he did not have the gene formally diagnosed until seven years after our trip, when we married we knew that there was a risk we wouldn't be growing old together so it was imperative we did not put off things for too long.

"I will always cherish having been able to share living the dream with Steve by my side. I hope Concorde takes to the skies again one day to allow others to dream and to fulfil their dreams like we did."

Concorde flying over some snowy mountains Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Air France and British Airways each had seven Concorde planes
Concorde Image copyright Ian Waldie
Image caption Because of the time difference between New York and London, those flying to the US would arrive at an earlier hour than they left the UK

'Knocked off my stool'

The end of the runways at Heathrow all have public roads and footpaths near them. During the summer of 2003 Jetinder Sira often used to walk to these spots: "I would stand on my blue stool waiting for Concorde to take off.

"The idea was to stand on the stool near the end of the runway, peek over the perimeter fence and look down the runway.

"When I saw Concorde coming I got my camera and started taking photos. As she very rapidly flew over the fence and over my head, she formed a shockwave and this shockwave knocked me off my feet and off my stool. It was an awesome experience, it wasn't a one off, it happened on every single take-off.

"No other plane, not even the 'overweight' Boeing 747 (which was twice the size of Concorde) could ever knock me off my feet, but Concorde did."

A retired BA Concorde was sailed up the Hudson River in New York to be exhibited at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A retired BA Concorde was sailed up the Hudson River in New York to be exhibited at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum
Cleaners inside Concorde Image copyright Ron Moran
Image caption Cleaners go over the inside of Concorde at its development site in Filton, near Bristol

Champagne apology

Stephen Gay flew Concorde twice, both times from London to New York, in the early 1980s: "On the second flight, one of the flight attendants spilled some of the lunch offering on my trousers while she was serving me. Needless to say she was most embarrassed and apologised profusely.

"As I disembarked at JFK, she met me at the door and handled me two bottles of French champagne and stated her hope that they would offset the cost of dry-cleaning my suit, to which I replied with understatement: 'Yes, that would just about cover it.'

"A class act on her part and that of BA."

High fliers view the eclipse in 1999 during a flight in Concorde at 55,000 feet over the Atlantic, while (right) flight crew show a special Concorde postage stamp Image copyright PA
Image caption High fliers view the eclipse in 1999 during a flight in Concorde at 55,000 feet over the Atlantic, while (right) flight crew show a special Concorde postage stamp
Captain Mike Bannister poses next to the captain's chair with members of the flight crew at the viewing of memorabilia from the recently retired British Airways' Concorde to be auctioned at the Olympia Conference Centre on December 1, 2003 in London. Image copyright Bruno Vincent
Image caption Captain Mike Bannister poses next to the captain's chair with members of the flight crew, at a viewing of memorabilia to be auctioned

'Jeeez'

Doug Newton, who was based in the Concorde Flight Test Department at Fairford, recalls: "During the flight-testing days we flew down to Casablanca for a day out when we were asked by another snail plane who we were and what we were doing.

"Our answer: 'We are at 600mph, accelerating; 50,000ft climbing; mate - this is Concorde over and out.'

"'Jeeez' was the only reply!

"So Concorde 202 - G - BBDG sped on with some wry grins in the cockpit. All in a day's work!

"Still very proud of our aircraft and what we did to get it into airline service. I was in fact on the delivery flight from Fairford to Heathrow in January 1976 of the very first Concorde for BA."

A fan films Concorde at Heathrow Airport Image copyright Graeme Robertson
The Queen on Concorde Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Queen on Concorde with Michael Heseltine

'Floods of tears'

"I booked a trip for my husband's 30th birthday as a surprise," says Jan Ward. "It was one of the best experiences of our lives and we had an amazing weekend.

"The day they did the final Concorde landings, we were on our way to Devon. It must have been the only time that we were grateful for being in a traffic jam. Our Audi had a television in it, and, as we were stationary, we were able to watch them come in from their final flight.

"It made me so emotional. I was in floods of tears. It was lucky that I wasn't driving."

Concorde Image copyright Sion Touhig
Concorde having a wash Image copyright Ian Waldie
Image caption The British Airways Concorde is prepared for its final flight in 2003

'Lifted from our seats'

Neil Kemsley says he was one of the lucky people given a free flight on Concorde as part of a promotion.

"We boarded at Gatwick and then landed at Heathrow.

"This flight was passengers-only and no baggage, and the captain was very aware of the fact that the aircraft would be a lot lighter than usual and was out to impress us all on the performance. When we were all seated he requested that we all ensure that our seatbelts were securely fastened.

"We taxied to the end of the runway. We took off like a bullet out of a gun, climbing nearly vertical. When we had reached some amazing altitude he took the power off and we lifted out of our seats.

"What a fantastic experience."

Concorde Image copyright Bruno Vincent
Image caption Concorde was instantly recognisable because of its birdlike shape and dropped nose

Missed opportunity

Dennis Williams, who lived in Woking until 1986, said: "Concorde was a familiar sight and sound overhead our house.

"When we moved to Herefordshire, we exchanged Concorde for low-flying military jets, which appeared to be much noisier.

"Nearing my 60th birthday, my wife thought that she would surprise me by booking a champagne Concorde flight.

"She then realised that a hefty withdrawal from our joint bank account would attract suspicion, so she had to confide her plans with me.

"I was overjoyed at such a wonderful birthday present, but decided that I would rather wait until I retired at 65 and take the trip then.

"Sad to say, as history relates, before I reached retirement, Concorde was withdrawn from service and I never flew in her."

Flag-wavers looking at Concorde Image copyright Graeme Robertson

Words by Bethan Bell.

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