Goodbye, Concorde

Phil appeared round the door with the hugest microphone in his hand.

No euphemism intended. This microphone was one of those with a comprehensive Jackson Five Afro. It’s about a foot long.

We had a project this evening: Phil had a presentation for work and he had asked if I would read out some stuff posing as a customer. No problem, I said, and Phil dug out the equipment he had used as a radio reporter in preparation.

But the moment he appeared round the door with the microphone our daughter let out a surprise remark.

“Oh!,” she said, “that’s the microphone we used to say goodbye to Concorde!”

We gaped.

She was just three years old when the event she was recalling actually happened.

Concorde: the miracle of supersonic flight, creator of many a sonic boom, a marvellous piece of European engineering which could never quite earn its voluptuous keep.

As children we knew it well. Concorde would come over the house, having taken off at nearby Heathrow bound for New York, at about 11am each day. We took it for granted as children will: but my Nana would sit out in the garden, equipped with a cup of tea and a biscuit, at 10:45, ready to watch it pass overhead.

The name means harmony: it represented a rare union between French and English governments, a marrying of the British supreme engineering instinct and the French effortless style. The story goes that the harmony didn’t last long: Tony Benn recalls that after Charles De Gaulle offended Harold Macmillan the British prime minister ordered the French ‘e’ on the end of the planes name removed.

It stuck, though.Benn brought the ‘e’ back. The consortium between the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale bagged more than 100 orders from top airlines across the world.

The crash of the Russian equivalent, the Tupolev Tu-144, at a major air show dented the global love affair with all things supersonic, though. Cancellations flooded in, and eventually just the French and the British flew Concorde commercially.

With its first flight in 1976, it continued in service, astounding its passengers, for 27 years.

Until the day my husband took a microphone up to the attic windows of our third floor, trailing a little girl who didn’t know what Concorde was; but knew that whatever madcap scheme her father was hatching, it was bound to be exciting.

For this was Daddy, The Historian. He had watched, as a child, the shenanigans surrounding the creation of this great white beauty of the skies. He had celebrated its first flight. He had watched it excel over the years.

A photographer friend of his had an air hostess wife who worked for British Airways, and got cheap flights as a result. The two of them travelled out on a subsonic flight together for a long weekend in New York. She returned as part of a Concorde flight crew; he used a conventional plane to return to their house on the outskirts of London.

He got up early and left her, asleep in bed in the hotel in New York. He took a taxi from the hotel to JFK. His plane took off on time, and he landed in Heathrow without delay. He took the short tube ride from Heathrow to his house in the suburbs.

He put his key in the lock of his house: and opened the door to find his wife, doing the washing up in the kitchen.

Phil garnered stories like this, and more. He watched with dismay the plane’s one and only crash a few months before Maddie was born. And he saw the writing on the wall for this princess of the skies.

He stood a chair by the skylight so that his three-year old toddler, still in baby ringlets, could spot Concorde as it took one of its last flights. It was just a few days before the final one on November 26th, 2003. “Concorde is going to stop flying over soon, Maddie” he told her. “So we’re coming up to say goodbye to Concorde.”

And he switched on the recorder.

It was a beautiful clear night; the sun had just set. The two of them were in the huge attic room with one skylight that faces east, one west. And within a few minutes, right on time, the great white miracle appeared from the east.

The sound was always deafening: it started a low rumble and built, as it had always done, to a deafening roar. If you listen to the recording, you can hear a silvery little voice shouting: “Goodbye, Concorde!” They ran from the east window to the west window and almost as if it were saluting, the plane banked slightly over the house and then soared off on one of its last journeys across the ocean.

Goodbye, Concorde.


42 thoughts on “Goodbye, Concorde

  1. How fantastic that she remembers! Everyone has a little place in their heart for the awe and majesty of Concorde I think, even if, like me, it was never part of their life

  2. A wonderful post and what a great memory for Maddie. I never flew the Concorde, but, always wanted to; it was just so majestic. I guess I was really shocked when I learned that it was going to be phased out. Such a shame.

    1. I know: it was never very good with money, though… millions simply seemed to slip through its fingers. Every time I make that London to New York journey I shall begrudge the extra hours, though.

  3. When I was a kid, Concorde flew over our house during a test flight out of the Filton works in Bristol. The old cas cooker in the kitchen expired as this magnificnet beast rattled our little terraced home to pieces. Fell in love with it there and then (although we had salad for dinner that night).
    Fond memories. Thanks Kate.

    1. Everyone has their favourite Concorde story, don’t they, Jim? I love that. I can well believe that rumble tested your little house- and your cooker- to its limits. Lovely story, even if it did end in salad for you all…

  4. Aw, what a lovely moment and how amazing that Maddie remembered! Even down in the south west we could hear the Concorde rumble at times. It’s funny how things change and go out of our lives. 🙂

    1. I think it sonic-boomed over Polzeath, one of our favourite Cornish surfing beaches, if I remember rightly – that was the moment it was supposed to go through the sound barrier. Or maybe that’s just an old wives tale.

  5. Please tell Maddie that I am glad to meet another person who remembers things from practical baby-hood. Maybe that is the best sign that she will be a writer.

    I just booked a very long flight last night, wishing there were a thing like the Concorde to take me there. Such a shame they let it die.

  6. Oh what a wonderful tribute to a bygone era. And there’s something about the way Concorde looks in that picture… I don’t know… it carries expression somehow, one could imagine loving it, like a favourite pet or a Wookie sort of thing… (am I crazy?) 😀

  7. What a wonderfully foresighted experience Phil gave to Maddie! If she remembers it now I presume she will retain some level of the experience and be a part of the history! I can only imagine the thrill of daily hearing the rumble and roar of that powerful jet. I wonder if you don’t take after your Nana a bit? You also savor small experiences and make them powerful in meaning…I’m sure supersonic jet travel was a marvel to her! I enjoyed recalling a bit of its history, details I’ve not remembered! Debra

  8. That’s so cool that Phil knows how to wield such a massive “microphone” . . . complete with a Jackson Five Afro! 😉

    And rather amazing that bidding adieu to the departing Concorde made such an impression on Maddie. Phil must have imbued his love of the bird to his little chick-a-dee!

  9. Phil makes me jump for joy. I really appreciate knowing there’s someone who’ll do totally silly things for no reason when it is least needed.

    Except, I know that Phil is full of enthusiasm. To not do it would be letting life down.

    Charge on, Phil. Don’t let the world stop you for any reason. One day someone is going to be over the moon because someone has an actual soundtrack of the last Concord(e) flight!

  10. Such a beautiful bird and, rooted in America’s heartland, I never had a chance to see her. I got goosebumps and tears reading about her roaring over your house. I’m one of those who would have been outside every morning to watch her pass.

  11. Flying the Concorde was a dream I had when I was a young teen. I had dreams of fame and fortune and elegant global travel… ah well.

    I love that Maddie remembered the goodbye event. Love.

  12. I used to get inbound Concorde’s over my back garden. One of the last two passed over on the final day and I followed them in on the air-traffic frequencies til they touched down. Concorde wasn’t the noisiest aircraft over our house though. That distinction is jointly held by the British Airways BAC 1-11’s and the Bell 222 Helicopter that the Met Police used to patrol our area with – though, in fairness, the plodcopter was always somewhat lower 😉 Great memories Kate 🙂

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