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When New York was three hours from London
Aviation News incorporating JETS Magazine

When New York was three hours from London

Posted Saturday, April 18, 2015   |   1987 views   |   Aviation & Transport   |   Comments (0) Bruce Hales-Dutton talks to former British Airways Concorde Captain Jock Lowe about the differences between flying the supersonic airliner and subsonic passenger jets

"...Three, two, one, now!”  On Captain Jock Lowe’s command the throttles are pushed forward and a stopwatch is started.  The aircraft surges down the runway. Acceleration increases as the afterburners light up.  “V1” decision speed.  The acceleration continues.  “Rotate”, the ram’s horn control column is pulled back.  The aircraft rears up at a 13? angle, its sharp nose jabbing at the sky.  “V2” safe climbing speed, then: "gear up."
 
The stopwatch ticks off 80 seconds.  Captain Lowe calls: “Three, two, one, noise.”  The afterburners are switched off and there’s a sudden hush.  The control column is eased forward to maintain momentum.  On the climb-out at 250kts (463km/h) the nose, drooped 5? for take-off, was raised together with the glass visor covering the windscreen.  “The noise halved at that point,” Lowe recalls.

Afterburners were just one of the differences between Concorde and sub-sonic airliners.  This and other aspects of flying Concorde remain vivid to Captain Jock Lowe, who believes he is British Airways’ most experienced Concorde pilot.  “I flew Concorde first in 1975 down at Fairford and then I was on it until I retired.  It’s my only claim to fame,” he laughs.  He’s being modest: as Manager Concorde, a post he held until retirement in 2001, Lowe is credited with putting the airline’s supersonic operations on to a sound financial footing.  Latterly, British Airways’ only scheduled Concorde service was from London Heathrow to New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport.  However, combined with other charter flights, this still enabled the aircraft to contribute in a positive financial way: “BA made a huge profit from Concorde,” he acknowledges.

Even so, Jock Lowe admits he’s never counted the number of Concorde flights he made: “I flew up to seven sectors a month for nearly 25 years.  That’s quite a lot of supersonic time.” But, he insists,“ it never ceased to be fun.”

TRAVELLING AT MACH 2
Yet it was the normality of travel at twice the speed of sound that struck many Concorde passengers.  On the inaugural service to Bahrain in 1976, one told British Aircraft Corporation Chairman Sir George Edwards that flying at Mach 2 felt no different.  Edwards is reputed to have replied: “Yes, that was the difficult bit.”

The highest ground speed Lowe ever reached on Concorde was 1,305kts (1,502mph) “with a tailwind.”

However, most Concorde passengers noted differences before they were airborne as soon as they arrived at the airport and sampled the dedicated check-in and lounge facilities.  And flight planning was more complex for the crews who had to start work half an hour earlier than their colleagues on other airliners.
Fuel capacity was the critical issue and this made the weather at the other end of the journey more critical than with sub-sonic aircraft.  Lowe told Aviation News: “Concorde used so much fuel when it was low and slow that you couldn’t hang around. 

“You had to plan ahead.  If you were at 50,000 or 60,000ft at Mach 2.0 and had an engine fail – and especially two, although we never did – your range was dramatically cut.  We had a special chart which continually showed us where we could get to on two and three engines in the event of failure.  You also had to know whether you were going to turn back or keep going.   If you sat and chatted about it for two or three minutes, you’d travelled another 60 miles.  That meant another 60 miles back plus the turn, which was 120 miles in diameter, so you covered a lot of miles while you were thinking about it.”

The most exciting element for both passengers and crew was the take-off.  “It was a busy time,” Lowe recalled, “but you did get that thrill with the power clicking in straight away.  Very soon after the throttles went forward the re-heats would come in.   The acceleration was terrific.  Even at heavy weights it was marvellous.  You didn’t see many passengers so blas? about it not to put their newspapers down on a Concorde take-off.”

For every 1,000ft (305m) in height attained the power went up 2%.  Describing a typical flight to New York, Lowe said: “You throttled right back and put the power on gradually until west of Reading before full power went on and you started to really climb.  Taking off to the east towards London we turned right at 100ft with 15? of bank until reaching a certain spot over Hounslow Common.  There we could put on some power and climb a bit faster.  We tried to put the aeroplane over the least populated areas.  In that respect we had our own routings.”  Routing over the Bristol Channel gave the earliest opportunity to speed up: “That meant we could put on the re-heats and go supersonic at the earliest moment,” Lowe recalled.  Over the North Atlantic the aircraft flew south of Ireland and took a great circle route which took it above the tracks allocated to subsonic aircraft.  The westbound Concorde track was designated Sierra Mike, the eastbound Sierra November.

The aircraft flew so high it was above the jet stream.  “Occasionally you’d get the odd executive jet in the high forties and, I assume although we never saw one, the odd Blackbird and U-2 spy ’plane.  It was just really us,” said Lowe.

Concorde provided luxury seating for 100 passengers sitting in two pairs of seats each side of the central aisle.  The windows were considerably smaller than on subsonic aircraft as required by the safety regulators.

By the time Concordes were operating regular trans-Atlantic flights passengers had become accustomed to flying on wide-bodied airliners.  Yet Concorde’s cabin was no wider than that of a BAC One-Eleven, although, for a flight of just over three hours it was hardly an issue.  “By the time we’d taken off and extinguished the seat belt signs we were starting the meals service,” Lowe said.  

Famous Passengers
As for the passengers, the crews got to meet many famous people.  Lowe remembers: “We flew the Queen a number of times as well as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Richard Nixon.  We also flew the US and British Ryder Cup golf teams as well as other famous sports personalities.” Boxing legend Mohammed Ali, though, turned out to be a nervous passenger.  “When he went back to his seat after visiting the flight deck,” says Lowe, “he wrote a verse which he said was the fastest poem he’d ever written.  We met all these people and had a brief chat with them, which was another wonderful part of t
Stewardess Gerry Kay said: “It didn’t matter to me who they were. As far as I was concerned everybody was a first class passenger and deserved to be treated as such.” For the cabin crew Concorde was exciting but, she recalled, it was very hard work. “The trolleys were very heavy because of all the china. Working at high altitude meant you were punishing your body. Concorde flew nose-up so you had to push the trolleys uphill to prevent them from rolling backwards.”

By the time the meal was finished a New York-bound aircraft would be passing Newfoundland and it was time for passengers to visit the flight deck.

Concorde descents started earlier than those of subsonic aircraft because of the need to reduce speed well before reaching the coast. “We had two descents,” Lowe said. “We had the descent from supersonic height down to subsonic and then the normal one down to the ground.” Even with the nose lowered to 12.5° for landing, which happened below 270kts (500km/h), Concorde was still much faster than other aircraft. “We used to fly at a minimum of about 250kts if we possibly could, only slowing down to 190 for the approach. We’d keep at 190kts to 800ft where we came down to the threshold speed, which we’d achieve by 500ft. Again, there was a bit of planning that had to go into that descent. Air traffic controllers on both sides of the Atlantic quite quickly got used to what we preferred to do and would fit us into the traffic.

“If we slowed right down, to say, 160kts the aircraft would buffet if you tried to fly level at that speed and we’d be using a tremendous amount of fuel. We didn’t like doing that if we could possibly avoid it and having a delta wing, Concorde was totally unstable so you had to fly it all the way down. The engineer had to call out the height: 50, 40, 30, 20ft. But our rates of descent were that much higher so you had to prepare for the flare. That’s no different to all large commercial aeroplanes, of course, but we were coming down a bit faster.”

The angle of attack was also higher at 11°. A 3° glide slope increased that to 14° in an aircraft without flaps. “On touchdown we were nearly 40ft above the ground so you lost some of the normal perspectives on landing,” Lowe explained.

Go-arounds were not uncommon and pilots practised them in the simulator. Lowe says they were easier with Concorde than with subsonic aircraft because at that stage of the fl ight most of the fuel had been burned off, giving the aircraft a sprightly power-to-weight ratio to ease the job of getting airborne again if necessary. The highly effective carbon-fibre brakes also gave pilots additional confidence in the event of a rejected take-off.

The preferential treatment for Concorde passengers ended once the aircraft was back on the ground. For all their status they didn’t reach the terminal any quicker than subsonic passengers. “On the ground we were in with everybody else,” Lowe reflected.

Some passengers would be met by their personal executive jets that had been sent on ahead earlier in the morning while their owners enjoyed a relaxing three hours on Concorde. “When we got to Kennedy there’d be as many as six executive jets waiting to pick up passengers,” said Lowe.

Concorde passengers and crew were, he believes, members of an exclusive club, the supersonic club. And that meant something. “There was a degree of camaraderie,” he added.

Over the years Concorde passengers have received a variety of souvenirs of their flight, including silk ties, scarves and pens inscribed with the signature wing planform. Most treasured, though, was usually the certifi cate signed by the captain. Concorde memorabilia is now considered valuable.

People used to run their businesses in a particular way to fi t in with Concorde flight schedules. They’re still travelling, of course, but as Jock Lowe adds

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