Instantly recognisable, immediately eye-catching, unspeakably elegant, Concorde is simply the most iconic aircraft of all time. No passenger plane has captured peoples imagination as magnificently as Concorde.
The aircraft took to the skies on March 2, 1969. Despite orders from numerous airlines including Pan Am, Trans World Airlines and Lufthansa only 20 of these supersonic jets were ever built. Economic, environmental and political objections meant that just 14 entered commercial service – seven with British Airways (BA) and seven with Air France(AF).
For many years the aircraft was the pride of its respective operators fleets. Both British Airways and Air France introduced their own ‘Concorde Class’ where passengers were treated to unparalleled levels of service. From private airport lounges, exquisite onboard dining with carefully curated menus including foie-gras, caviar and lobster; to its own elite cabin crew – Concorde had it all.
Its space-age, pencil like fuselage meant its interior was incredibly snug for both passengers and crew. Split in to two cabins, the front sat forty passengers plus sixty in the rear and with a centre aisle just 16 inches wide, it was a real squeeze for crew carrying out the exquisite inflight service.
But what Concorde lacked in space it certainly made up for it in the passenger experience, heightened by the short travel time, refinements in comfort, top inflight amenities and the occasional sing-along with a famous music star.
The crew included six flight attendants, two pilots and a flight engineer and in the time it took for a crew member to fill up a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne, the jet and its lucky occupants, had already travelled 10 miles.
Sadly, as the saying goes ‘all good things must come to an end’. Despite Concordes unrivalled success, the sheer pride it instilled among the British and French and the glitz and glamour of its celebrity jet-set lifestyle the graceful bird could not fly on forever.
On July 25, 2000 Concorde suffered its first ever fatal crash in its 27 years of operations. All 109 crew and passengers onboard Air France flight 4590 were killed, as well as four people on the ground, after the jet hit debris on the runway during its take-off roll at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. The debris burst a tyre, punctured a fuel tank and the subsequent fire and engine failure resulted in the aircraft crashing in to a hotel two minutes after take off.
The accident dealt a devastating blow to an already ageing fleet. The events of 9/11 only exasperated the aircrafts precarious position at Air France and British Airways.
Concordes last flight departed from New York John F. Kennedy Airport for Heathrow on October 24, 2003. Air France had retired their fleet back in June. The final flight was full of celebrities, Joan Collins being one of them, who described the retirement as “a tragedy, honestly a tragedy”.
To see Concorde fly was to witness that rare, dynamic combination of pure elegance, mixed with the raw energy and power of supersonic flight. Flying on it as a passenger for those lucky ones that did was an experience never to be forgotten.
But what was it like to work on Concorde as Cabin Crew?
Julie Reynolds was one of the elite few that did. Her career at British Airways began in 1977 and, aged just 18 years and four days she became the youngest flight attendant in BA history.
Here she tells us what life was really like working on ‘The Conc’.
So tell us a little about your Concorde journey, how did it all begin?
Well, my Concorde journey started on High Street, Brentford when I saw Concorde fly overhead as I walked on my way to my grandparents’ house. I’d always had an interest in aeroplanes from an early age and watched them going in to Heathrow – but this was different. It looked different, sounded different and it made my back tingle. I remember thinking at the time – WOW! I was completely in awe of this beautiful, stunning aircraft. I didn’t have any thoughts at that moment about working on it, but I was just blown away by how impressive it was.
Many years later, after I’d been at British Airways for about 10 years, a friend of mine told me they were recruiting for the Concorde Fleet and said I should apply. After some encouragement from friends, I applied and got in! We had to apply in writing for the job, and then I was shortlisted for an interview. It was a little intimidating, but I kept going because I wanted it so much. A couple of weeks later I got a letter telling me I was in. I was absolutely delighted and soon realised how truly lucky I was. The rest is history, and when I look back on the job and the opportunity it gave me, I feel so proud and lucky to have served on the aircraft.
How long did you work on Concorde?
I was lucky enough to work on Concorde for eight years – from 1987 to 1995. Those of us who worked on Concorde worked on other aircraft as well. In my case, I worked on the 757, and the 737.
What was your training for Concorde like and how did it differ from other aircraft?
The conversion course was about a week long. The service at the time consisted of a hand-run bar with the meals delivered from a trolley, with another crew member following behind with the wines and Champagne. We had to learn a lot of things we weren’t accustomed to doing on other aircraft. We had to learn about the unique characteristics of Concorde, for example; the much shorter flight times across the Atlantic; the rapid acceleration and rate of climb, and generally being aware of the performance differences compared with other aircraft. We had to learn about managing the charter services, and training in the etiquette of addressing Royalty, VIPs and celebrities generally. Additionally, it was physically a very different aircraft – no other aircraft had wings that went almost from front to back for instance, so a lot of it was new, or different and had to be learned. It was all incredibly interesting and made the job so much more exciting from day one.
What was a regular day on Concorde like?
That was one of the best things about ‘The Conc’ – there was never a ‘regular day’! We reported an hour and a half before take-off, which is normal for most flights. The briefing, boarding and equipment checks were very similar to all the other aircraft. Typically there would be a lot of high profile customers on board so we would be briefed as to their special requirements on board.
Aside from the difference in service levels, how different was it to work on Concorde in comparison to other aircraft?
On no other passenger aircraft could you look out of the window and see the curvature of the Earth.
No other passenger aircraft could take you, routinely, to 55,000ft. But if it felt like it, it could take you to 60,000ft.
On no other passenger aircraft could you feel that magnificent, almost frightening kick-in-the-back acceleration down the runway as you took off.
What other aircraft could drop you in to JFK New York – an hour before you left London Heathrow?
No other passenger aircraft could ‘chase the sun’.
Only Concorde used afterburners on takeoff…
And still, after all these years, no other aircraft you have worked on would give you the gift and the thrill of constantly being asked what life was like working on Concorde.
From royalty to rock stars, tell us a little about your Concorde passengers.
There were so many wonderful people who travelled with us but they didn’t have to be celebrities to be a favourite of ours. We had so much fun and joy from all sorts of people who just shared our love of The Rocket. Our Round the World trip was an absolute blast from start to finish, and the passengers weren’t celebrities, they were everyday people who were perhaps celebrating their retirement or just enjoyed throwing all the money they had on a bucket list bash on Concorde!
Every cabin crew will tell you that we get all types of passengers on all flights – it’s part of the job. But you just put into action your five star training. The customer service we deliver on board is what defines us in the job. It’s part of the challenge of the job – but also what makes customers come back. Call me old fashioned, but it’s this principle, this mantra that I work with still, and encourage my teams to do the same.
What is your favourite memory of your time on Concorde?
My head is full of happy memories from my Concorde years, but probably the best of all was my ‘Round The World’ trip I did in 1990 on G-BOAC. I was part of this trip for just over two weeks, sharing the experience with an absolutely fabulous crew who made the whole journey so unforgettable. We started at London Gatwick, and we passengered to Dallas, Fort Worth. We had a few days there before we picked up the aircraft and our passengers for the trip. We flew from Dallas to Las Vegas to re-fuel, then flew from Vegas to Honolulu. We spent a few days in Honolulu, then on to Fiji for another fuel stop, then on to Sydney. We spent a few days in Sydney where we were included in some events with the passengers – including a Champagne Reception at The Sydney Opera House, followed by taking a very special seat to watch the play; The Importance of Being Ernest. We flew from Sydney to Bali for a quick fuel stop, then off to Hong Kong. After that, we handed the aeroplane and our passengers over to another crew who continued the trip onto India and Africa. We then passengered home to London Heathrow where, two weeks later, we met with Alpha Charlie and our passengers again to take them on their final leg of their tour back to the USA.
What made this trip such a fabulous memory was that it was such great fun; we built wonderful relationships with the crew and the passengers; we saw some fabulous places, including the Sydney Opera House and the Taronga Zoo; the South Fork Ranch in Dallas (from the TV series, ‘Dallas’ of course!); we went on a junk boat trip all around Hong Kong, and we were all given those beautiful ‘Leis’ by the people of Honolulu! We had such a fabulous time, but it also made G-BOAC, ‘Alpha Charlie’ my favourite Concorde – so you can understand how delighted I was to learn that, although saddened by the retirement of the fleet, she would be based at Manchester Airport – less than 4 miles away from my home!
What was/is your favourite aircraft to work on during your time at BA?
Well, obviously my love of Concorde is unrivalled, but a close second and my current favourite is the 747: The Queen of The Skies. From a logistical viewpoint, she is the best aircraft to work on. Loads of space and room to work in, everything is very intuitive and straightforward to operate. From a softer, more spiritual perspective, she is just such a beautiful, magnificent aeroplane to look at and be with. She has her own personality that gives you the feeling that she is capable, in control and can handle any situation. It was on a 747 trip that made me fill with tears of joy, when I was taking off for the first time on my return to BA after a break of several years to bring up my youngest children.
What do you miss the most about The Concorde Years?
For me personally, the exclusivity, the individuality, and the real buzz of flying on such a spectacular aircraft, and working with crew who were all enthusiasts.
Most of the charter flights we did would be scheduled to include going supersonic at some point, so even on a ‘Round The Bay’ trip (LHR-LHR via the Bay of Biscay) we would reach supersonic speeds. These were incredible flights where we’d give the passengers Champagne, a meal, a visit into the flight deck and a certificate signed by the flight crew, commemorating their flight and going supersonic – all in about an hour and a half!
But I still love flying – travel is so much more accessible now for everyone, a lot of the mystique has been taken away. The seats back then weren’t half as comfy as they are now, and you’d only get the choice of chicken or beef for dinner – no veggie option.
Concorde was the gold standard of aviation. It’s her 50th Anniversary this year and I’m looking forward to meeting Alpha Charlie again, on the 2nd March at Manchester Airport.
It’s a great year this year, as it’s also British Airways’ 100th birthday. I’m so glad and proud that I’m still flying and here to celebrate it. I was the youngest cabin crew member to join British Airways, and the airline, Concorde and me, all have ‘significant’ birthdays this year.
Looks like I’ve got another excuse to be pouring Champagne – but this time into my own glass! Cheers!
Cheers indeed Julie! I would just like to say a MASSIVE thank you to Julie who took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to do this interview for us. I really am truly grateful to you for giving us an insight in to this incredible aircraft.
I must also thank Julie’s husband Chris and also Anya from the British Airways press office, whose help with this has been invaluable!
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