How a Planespotting Day Turned Me Into a Concorde Pilot

May 1, 2019

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The Concorde anniversaries are many: We’ve just had the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Franco-British supersonic aircraft, for example. But for me, a former British Airways Concorde pilot, the most significant was Jan. 21, 1976, the day of the airplane’s first-ever commercial flights. That day BA operated from Heathrow to Bahrain, and simultaneously Air France flew from Paris to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar, Senegal.

On Jan. 20, I warned the boring, lifeless teachers at my London grammar school that I would not be in attendance the next day because I would be at Heathrow airport to witness what, to me, was the most significant event in commercial aviation history. I also informed my teacher father and, while he showed his displeasure at my losing hours of learning, he stopped short of forbidding me, probably realizing that it would be futile. For my part, I couldn’t comprehend why St. Clement Danes Grammar School wasn’t closed and everyone required to be at the airport.

Early next morning, school uniform on, sandwiches packed, father sulking, I headed off on the 40-minute bus ride filled with excitement and a rare hint of rebellion. Heathrow then had a rooftop viewing gallery, Queens Building, between terminals 1 and 2. At 14, I had become familiar with the observation deck, as I would often spend one, if not both, weekend days there. Planespotting was a thrill for a schoolboy who had never traveled abroad or flown in an aircraft and whose parents had little money.

Arriving at the airport, I was one of the earliest spectators and secured a front-row spot. As Concorde’s 11:40am departure for Bahrain grew closer, the viewing platform filled with young and old, TV crew and press. I was excited to hear from the commentator (yes, there was even a commentator!) that the BA Concorde departure in London was to be coordinated with the Air France Concorde in Paris to take off simultaneously.

With moments to go, the sun broke through the overcast sky just before the Concorde appeared, its nose lowered so that the pilots could see the taxiway and runway. As it taxied, thousands of airport workers lined its path, and there was a moment when the aircraft was showered with the sun’s rays, as if the universe were joining us in awe.

What some of the TV footage failed to capture is what happened next. As the BA Concorde was cleared to line up on the runway at Heathrow, the commentator informed us that the Air France Concorde was not yet ready. Many normal flights had by now taxied out and formed a long line, waiting their turn and appearing to pay homage to the event.

British Airways Aerospatiale BAC Concorde taking-off with afterburners blazing. (Photo by: aviation-images.com/UIG via Getty Images)
A British Airways Concorde taking off with afterburners blazing. (Photo by aviation-images.com/UIG via Getty Images)

Suddenly, both were ready. For the first time we experienced the trembling roar from the four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines. As Concorde gathered speed, passing us from left to right, we witnessed the flames from the four afterburners burning neat fuel in the exhaust for extra power. Within moments, the Concorde’s nose rose above the runway, but the main wheels remained on the ground as it gathered more speed. Then it was airborne, wheels raised, and we watched as the reheats were switched off and the flames disappeared, leaving a trail of black exhaust smoke blowing away in the wind. Concorde had started a remarkable 27-year career.

I arrived at school during lunch break the next day and found my schoolmates far more excited about the trouble I had gotten myself into than the event I had witnessed. My form teacher marched me into the headmaster’s office and both castigated me at length for truancy. But I realized that I had witnessed the beginning of supersonic travel despite them. Twenty years later, I completed my Concorde pilot training, and on June 5, 1997, I flew that very same plane for British Airways.

So how was it possible for an underachieving schoolboy to eventually fly the most complex aircraft in history? Well, there were several milestones, and people who inspired and aided me, but by age 19, I was the deputy chief flying instructor for the Metropolitan Police in London — and was on my way. I self-taught for the airline transport pilot license exams over the following few years, and got my first professional flying position as first officer with AirUK, flying the 44-seat Fokker F27 turboprop. After a stint at British Caledonian, another airline that’s no longer around, I joined BA in 1987, and in 1996 was thrilled to hear my bid to fly the Concorde had been successful. I flew supersonic as a Concorde first officer until the Air France crash and subsequent grounding of the fleet, in 2000. 

Rick Reynolds retired from British Airways as a Boeing 757 and 767 captain in 2010, and now lectures on the Concorde program onboard Cunard and Silversea ships worldwide.

Feature photo by David Parker / BWP Media / Getty Images.

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