Flight of the Concorde

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JUST a few short years ago, Jersey was rattled twice daily by the sonic boom of the French Concorde arriving at or leaving from Paris.

While some of those on the ground disliked the noise of it, others delighted in the twice-daily reminder of the sleek supersonic aircraft overhead.

And on a clear day you could make out the distinctive delta-winged shape as she flew high over the Channel Islands towards her destination.

While no longer in service, the iconic airliner has fans the world over who are only too happy to use the excuse that it is now 40 years since the first of the airliners took to the skies.

A little closer to home, former Senator Pierre Horsfall was involved with the early design stages of the aircraft, while Jersey pilot Jeff Huson flew Concorde for more than eight years. Still a commercial pilot, Mr Huson spoke affectionately of Concorde.

‘It was just amazing, with an awesome amount of power. It was nothing like a conventional airliner.’

He said he’d met an RAF fighter pilot on one occasion. ‘He flew in his jet at 60,000 feet wearing a flying suit and helmet, we did it in our shirtsleeves,’ he said. ‘The technology was so far ahead of its time. Concorde flew faster than the military aircraft that were around then.’

As captain of the aircraft, Mr Huson met the great, the good – and the not-so-good. ‘I met Nixon, though he wasn’t president then, and Henry Kissinger, and a few film stars including Tom Cruise – and some Royals, including Princess Diana.’

And it was he who, on several occasions, among them the 50th anniversary of Jersey Airport, brought his aircraft home and flew, wheels down, just a few metres above the ground along the runway.

The Concorde project began in the 1960s and Pierre Horsfall was at the first meeting, between Britain’s Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC) and French airline Sud Aviation, to see whether it might be possible for the two companies to work together on the project.

‘I attended the first directors’ meeting,’ Mr Horsfall said. ‘I was called in because I speak French. Once the project was up and running I was technical assistant to Sir George Edwards, the overall project director, and my job was to ensure that he was fully briefed on every aspect.’

In November 1962 a draft treaty between the two countries was signed. (By this time both aviation companies had been merged into new ones, the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale.)

Mr Horsfall said: ‘There were technical differences of opinion between the two nations but everyone was keen to see it succeed – they were difficult times, but it was an incredible opportunity for a young man.

‘Even today, people regard Concorde as a beautiful piece of modern engineering, although the design technology was very old-fashioned.

There were no computers in the drawing office, every single component was hand drawn,’ he said. ‘But even now it holds its own as a piece of iconic engineering; Concorde’s design was very much ahead of its time.’

Two prototypes were built, one in Toulouse (designated 001) and the second at Filton, Bristol (002). 001, piloted by André Turcat, made her maiden flight in March 1969, and went supersonic on 1 October that year.

‘On her first flight she was followed by chase aircraft, they always do that to keep an eye on what’s happening when testing new aircraft,’ Mr Horsfall said. ‘One of the chase aircraft pilots radioed Turcat and said: “You have no idea how beautiful you look”. Of course, no one had seen Concorde flying before.’

Concorde’s first scheduled passenger flight was in January 1976 – and her last was in November 2003, when G-BOAF was flown home to Filton.

Despite years of flying life left, the fleet of supersonic airliners was grounded following the Paris crash in 2000 – not solely because of the crash but also because of events elsewhere – the 1973 oil crisis, the financial difficulties of many airlines, and environmental concerns. And when France pulled the plug, Britain followed because the company which built spare parts for the aircraft ceased to do so.

Concorde could fly again if the will – and sufficient money – were available, but it is unlikely.

Jeff Huson commented that most of us will not see another supersonic airliner in flight in our lifetimes.

• Picture: Concorde on one of its visits flying low over Jersey. Picture by Nigel Vibert

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