Just over a month later it was the turn of the United Kingdom. On April 9 1969, a UK-built Concorde prototype, 002, piloted by test pilot Brian Trubshaw took off from the British Aircraft Corporation’s (BAC) site in Filton near Bristol for the short hop to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.
These were pivotal moments in aerospace history – realised through a commercial jet able to reach Mach 2.0 and cross the Atlantic in a little over three and a half hours. The supersonic airliner would set new levels of comfort and performance and at the time was the pinnacle of British aviation engineering expertise and the envy of the world. Over the next 10 years a total of 20 aircraft were built in France and the United Kingdom. Six of these aircraft were prototypes and development aircraft.
We’ve tracked down some former employees from BAC, one of BAE Systems’ predecessor companies, to hear how they were involved in this iconic aircraft project.
John Dickens is a former apprentice and flight test engineer at BAC and part of the first UK flight project team. He worked on the Concorde programme at Filton before joining the Tornado and Typhoon aircraft programmes at Warton, Lancashire until his retirement. Here he describes how he effectively gave test pilot Brian Trubshaw the go-ahead to start the first flight.
Hanging neatly in a corner of John Dickens’ wardrobe is a tie that, at first glance, looks much like any other.
But for former Flight Test Engineer John, it is a poignant reminder of a very special period in his aerospace career.
“It was a gift presented to me marking the fact that I had travelled supersonic – at twice the speed of sound,” he explains. “There are a lot of test pilots who don’t have that.”
John, who lives in Preston, Lancashire, initially joined BAC – a forerunner to the modern day BAE Systems – in 1964 as an 18-year-old engineering apprentice after initially considering an air force career but being drawn into the opportunities industry presented. Young and ambitious, he became part of the Flight Test team at the company’s site in Filton, where there was only one project he wanted to work on.
“When I came out of the apprenticeship programme in 1968 they asked me which department I wanted to join and, out of sheer bravado, I said Flight Test because Concorde was up and coming,” he says.
“I was in the take-off and landing performance team which, for civil aircraft, is very important.”
Fifty years on, John, now 72, remembers that first UK flight like it was yesterday. And so he should – he effectively launched it.
“For that first flight we were using a big format camera to capture the take-off,” he says. “The idea was that I would pan across and film it. The problem was that, because it was so big, the camera would only run for a short time – about one minute, so I have to sync the take-off with the camera running time to ensure I could capture it.
“The UK Chief Test Pilot, Brian Trubshaw, had to push the throttle to full power and I literally had (via radio communication) to say ‘3-2-1, go…’ when the camera was ready for the take off. It was my honour to do that.”
From those first flights continued a high-tempo, highly complex flight test programme designed to put Concorde through its paces ahead of its entry into service in 1976. For John that meant regular travel, to places like Spain, South Africa and Morocco, testing aircraft performance in different climates and conditions.
He always knew he was part of something special. But it was on one of those overseas trips in particular that he realised just how much this technological marvel had captured the public’s imagination.
“We did trials abroad in places like Madrid, Casablanca and Johannesburg and I went along. For a young lad in his early 20s it was great,” he says. “We did a trial in 1973 in Johannesburg which is 6,000 feet above sea level and very hot, so we went there to do performance measures. But Concorde had caught the public attention so much, it was difficult to get to the airport.”
One of John’s roles on the ground was to unload the test aircraft when it arrived. He was handed some Concorde-branded overalls to go and do the job.
“We were walking to the aircraft and were getting stopped by people who wanted autographs. I kept saying, ‘I’m not a pilot’, but they didn’t care. That was the mood at the time. Years ago when Concorde was flying, if you went to Heathrow for example and one took off, people would stop what they were doing to watch.”
The Concorde programme contains many echos of modern day BAE Systems. Its development and entry into service was the product of partnership – a forerunner to programmes like Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon, which today is the backbone of air forces across Europe and beyond.
Its capabilities and technologies, at that time, were at the forefront of what was possible. Today, BAE Systems continues to push the boundaries of design, development and innovation. Typhoon continues to integrate new technologies and capabilities as the UK drives capability towards development of a Future Combat Air System.
Whilst supersonic flight occupied the minds of engineers in the 1960s, one of today’s areas of focus is on the achievement of hypersonic flight - the ability to fly at exceptionally high speeds exceeding Mach 5. In 2015, BAE Systems and industry partners invested in Reaction Engines, which is developing the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). Further investment followed last year.
“We were working on the edge of technology at that time,” agrees John. “It was supersonic flight and, for a passenger aircraft, that was absolutely unbelievable. We were travelling twice the speed of sound with an unbelievably powerful engine and had reheat, which was unheard of in a civil aircraft. When Concorde went into service we ended up moving to Preston, which professionally, was a big plus because Warton was going from strength to strength with Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon. A lot of the skills were transferrable.
“Concorde was an absolutely beautiful aircraft. If someone said they had found a way to get it flying again, you would have a very long queue to be on it.”
Brian Weller joined BAC in 1972 at its Filton site and worked on the detailed electronic design of part of the Concorde Air Intake Control System, which was fitted to all production aircraft
Since the retirement of the Concorde fleet in 2003, BAE Systems has supported the upkeep of the remaining Concorde aircraft at a number of museums including Aerospace at Bristol and Brooklands in Weybrigde, Surrey.
Concorde in the UK remains synonymous with our BAC site at Filton which was responsible for final assembly of all the British Concordes. The Weybridge factory designed and made all the production forward and rear fuselages and fins for both British and French aircraft. However, sites at Preston, Warton and Samlesbury also played important roles. For example, some work transferred from Filton to Warton included design and engineering of part of the fuselage aft of the passenger cabin, plus the fin and two rudders together with their attachments. The parts designed were then to be made in prototype quantities by the Strand Road and Samlesbury factories and supplied to Filton.
Looking ahead, and through our collaboration with Reaction Engines, we are now working towards the development of hypersonic technology that could change how we think about travelling long distances again. In the same way that Concorde broke the boundaries of commercial flight, Reaction’s SABRE technology could break down boundaries between space travel and conventional flight.
The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, SABRE, uses ground breaking heat exchanger technology and is being developed by Reaction Engines as a new hybrid class of engine. The hybrid approach could allow vehicles to fly faster and more efficiently than traditional jets when in air breathing mode, up to Mach 5 (3,836 mph), or operate in rocket mode outside of the atmosphere, powering reusable space launch vehicles up to Mach 25 (19,180 mph).
This has the potential to completely change the game for air travel. Concorde cut the journey time from London to New York to under three and a half hours. With the SABRE engine, the journey time could be cut to 2 hours in air breathing mode or just 24 minutes in rocket mode!
Since our first investment in the company in 2015, BAE Systems’ people have been working alongside Reaction Engines, sharing expertise and knowledge to prepare for ground testing from 2020 as well as looking at wider applications for heat exchanger technology. We are excited to play a part in bringing hypersonic travel to life, and hope that this project will prove to be as inspirational as Concorde.