Flying Concorde was “truly magic”
It was the most iconic aircraft ever made and remains the only Western-made commercial aircraft able to fly faster than the speed of sound. While its Soviet-made counterpart, the Tupolev Tu-144, could also break the sound barrier, it never attained Concorde‘s status, perhaps due to its short-lived service or because it was hidden behind an iron curtain.
In its day, Concorde epitomised glamour. Celebrities clamoured to secure a spot on the supersonic plane, and images of famous actors, musicians, sportspeople,and politicians flying around the world helped to cement its place in history.
“I can tell you that in three letters, PFM. Pure f*****g magic.” These are the words of Tony Yule, a former First Officer of Concorde, describing what it was like to fly the aircraft in an exclusive interview with AeroTime News.
“Who wouldn’t want to fly a Concorde? Every time we set up the end of Heathrow, ready to take off, I knew that there will be a thousand pairs of eyes out there, looking at the nose of the aircraft and saying, I wish I was in that seat. But then came the reality, which was London to New York and back, and to Washington and back.”
Trials and tribulations
It may have seemed glamorous, but behind the glitz and glamor of transporting celebrities across the Atlantic, the job had its challenges. And, according to Yule, ”the money was not great”.
“We weren't messing around because the airplane had to be flown precisely. We had maps that showed us where we could go if we had an engine failure. And, if we had two of our engines fail, where we could go. The bottom line was,if at any point in the flight from London to New York you lost an engine, you were not going to New York. You could not fly Concorde across the Atlantic below the speed of sound. We didn‘t have the fuel for it.“
He added: “When you get to your destination, you have not got time to hold. Because holding [an aircraft above its intended destination prior to getting landing approval] sometimes in New York or in London, you can be held up for up to 40 minutes. With Concorde, if you did not get in, one holding and that is it. You are gone. You must go somewhere.“
In the air
Due to its unique design, Concorde did not behave like a normal aircraft. This also posed specific challenges for the pilots.
“When you are traveling at that speed and you have got the air rushing over the wings, if you change the altitude by half a degree, just one half of degree, the rate of climb or descent will be about 1,500 feet a minute,” Yule explained. “That is how precisely how you had to fly the airplane.”
Nevertheless, flying Concorde was “magic”. A senior first officer for six years, Yule says that “it was a really incredible experience“.
He recalls how he described flying the plane to Amy, his granddaughter.
”I said, Amy, I am going to be a politician and answer your question with a question. I said, what is your favorite day of the year? She replied, my birthday. Why? Well, everything for me on that day is great.I said, well, when I every time I fly, especially on the Concorde, it is like having a birthday every day. So, anytime that I fly it is a birthday. It is a privilege to be sitting there in charge of one or 1,000 people, it does not make any difference and responsibilities are just the same. And that's it.”
Not an easy journey
Of course, not everybody could be a Concorde pilot. With cockpit seats in high demand and a difficult training course to complete, the chances of actually qualifying were fairly minimal.
“I don‘t think I really knew about it [Concorde] until I joined British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which was the forerunner to British Airways. [Today] the company runs a system based on seniority. Previously, it ran on the letters of the alphabet.”
When your last name is Yule, “you were always last when it came to joining courses”.
Then, in 1973, the company decided that it would start picking out people for courses based on their date of birth. “I was already 33-34, so I was at the top of the list”.
He continued: “British Airways ran a seniority-based system. In simple terms, the airline would push out a publication to all the pilots saying that this is our fleet trend for the next year or a year following. Those who want to make a bid to fly a particular type of aircraft, they can do so.“
The training for Concorde was not easy - the first courses for captains to fly the supersonic jet had a failure rate of around 50%. And a few first officers dropped out.
“It is not that the first officers were better,“ Yule said. “You have to imagine the cockpit of Concorde. You have your captain on the left, co-pilot on the right and the flight engineer behind you. When you are dealing with an emergency or an incident and you’re using the checklist, you are looking at the other pilot and you are watching the operation. If you are the pilot in the right seat on Concorde, you cannot see what the engineer is doing, so the captain would see across and also see what the engineer was doing, which made it much more difficult.”
When Yule put in a bid to fly the Concorde, he did not expect much. After all, he was still fairly new to the company.
“What they did was, they looked to see if you had any history. So any history of failures on simulators and things like that and they sort of quietly moved your name aside. Anyway, I got on the course and the rest of history.”
What followed was a six-month course, including six weeks spent in ground school. It was intense. At the end of each week, they had detailed exams filled with hundreds of questions. “It was basically chalk and talk – chalk on the blackboard and talk in the simulator that was behind a little door in the classroom.
“The instructors said, listen, let us go into the simulator, and I will show you. So, for example, if it was fuel flow, transferring fuel from here to here, you just go in, stand around the panel and he would move it. You now had a visual of what was happening and from what he was just saying – absolutely brilliant.”
Yule recalls that the group of students were all staying in a hotel. “You would go away during the weekends and come back down again. Sometimes I did not even drive back because I wanted to stay and study. At lunchtime, we always ate with the boys. The food was great and we all put on weight.“
Nevertheless, it was a stressful process because everyone training knew that the failure rate was high.
Following ground school, the young pilots-to-be began their simulator work. Each session lasted six to seven hours: a one-hour briefing, four hours in the simulator with a break for coffee, and a two-hour debrief following the simulated flights.
“I seem to have spent most of my time at 60,000 feet dealing with a pressurization failure and engine failures, and how to how to get Concorde down to 41,000 feet where the passengers could breathe normally with an oxygen mask,” said Yule. “So having done that, then you would have you go to London do your paperwork and things, and then you go and do the flying.” That was not the end of it, as they still had to do their practical exam and complete landings with the aircraft.
“With a modern aircraft, you probably do three or four landings. With Concorde, we had to do 35 landings. You can imagine the expense that was. So it was another month of getting to know the aircraft at Prestwick [Glasgow Prestwick Airport (PIK)] or Shannon [Shannon Airport (SNN)], that is where we did all of our flying.”
There was more to come. According to Yule, six-line trips were awaiting with management from British Airways present in order to assess the pilot‘s abilities. “Then you get your 007 badge, your license to kill. That’s basically the six months of the course. I did a BAC One-Eleven course previously that was six weeks. There’s quite a difference.“
Highs and lows
With the profile and prestige that came with flying Concorde, officers became celebrities themselves.
“You are put on a pedestal. I used to do talks on cruise ships and when the advertisement says that there is going to be a talk about Concorde, the theaters automatically filled up. So, you are already put on a pedestal and you do not want to stay on the pedestal. Because that makes you a bit of an ass. So, whether it was an introduction or a pre-flight talk, you make it personal. On a flight, they were my passengers. They were my crew. Of course, they were not really but you want them to know that you are a real human being. So, when I am making my talks, in all my introduction on the cruise ships and things like that, I start off on the pedestal. Then, I suddenly cut the pedestal away. I crash down, I get a laugh and like a comedian, I need a laugh.”
He continued: “I mean, it was a totally different way of life. You know, I think maybe it did get to me at some particular point. Because you begin to believe in yourself a bit too much. I think I lost my head in the clouds a little bit. It did cause me some personal issues.”
However, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. “People always asked me, hey, what is PFM? But it was truly, truly magic. I could not wish for a better life.“
While Concorde is firmly in the past, what about the future? Is there hope for a supersonic future?
“I believe [there is a future] there. If they can shorten the flights and at the right cost, all will be good. They just have to find a way to reduce carbon emissions.”
Tony Yule was a Concorde senior first officer between 1987 and 1993. In retirement, he runs a service called Concorde Speakers – organizing talks of several former cockpit members of the aircraft at various events.
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