Flying Concorde out of Heathrow

The crew experience flying out London-Heathrow on a departure bound for New York-JFK

The British Airways Concorde G-BOAF stands on Gate 6 at Heathrow ready for loading at 10.15 on a dull January morning. The crew – Captain, First Officer and the Flight Engineer have already been on duty for about 1.5 hours preparing for departure of the daily flight BA001 to New York, they assemble at the operations office during this time. They would begin by reading the new flight notices – warnings of any changes that have not yet reached the manuals they all keep. They are not a permanent crew. Each trip, originating and ending at the base airfield, is flown by random bids by each of them for that month’s work. Most airlines feel that apart from the administrative difficulties involved in crewing up, the needs of airlines flying dictated crew members should be mixed up in this way. High levels of safety demand consistency – a crew which flies together permanently can be very good, or it can become slack and develop bad habits.

Speedbird 1, at its departure gate

Next the briefing and flight plan. The briefing consists of a study of navigational aids, radio communications and airfields along the routes; this is mostly about facilities that are temporarily off air, and about work at airports which may have closed off sections of runway and taxiways.

The airport meteorological office provides a folder of weather information for every flight. Each contains route forecast charts which would depict the pressure systems, winds, and temperatures, areas of possible turbulence and places where icing may be expected.

With the briefing completed the crew turn their attention to the flight plan, whose main purpose is to determine the amount of fuel required for this particular flight.  The routes over which the aircraft flies are predetermined, but they can vary enormously in nature, and the conditions are different from day to day. The routes to New York involve short subsonic segments at each ends of the flight where the aircraft is overland.  

On a typical flight, the fuel range is likely to be within the range of 75 to 95 tons, 95 tons is the maximum tank capacity, and there is sometimes room for further fuel. Occasionally, it is sensible to take some of it as there may by known delays at the destination airport, the weather could be of the sort that may close the airport for a short period or there may be a long line of aircraft at the take-off airport.

This planning process for each flight makes the crew thing in fine detail about the circumstances surrounding the coming flight, and allows them to prepare themselves mentally for all the likely variations. They would for example look into the case of what to do if an engine fails during the cruise; they are prepared so well for this type of failure that they could cope with it in their sleep, as they have practised so often. Concorde needs all four engines to maintain supersonic flight, if one engine should fail it would have to descend and fly subsonically. The problem with this type of flying is that Concorde becomes less efficient, and her range is reduced by a quarter. For most of the flight it would be possible, in this event to return to the departure airport or to continue to the destination, but within a section in the middle it is not. So ‘en route alternate’ airfields are studied and a small chart prepared, this would show exactly where Concorde can go from various points along the track. Some of the airfields that serve this role on the North American route are;

Shannon, Eire.

Santa Maria, Azores.

Gander, New-Foundland.

Halifax, Nova Scotia.

One further subject would be looked at during this stage: balance, or trim, of Concorde. The need to position the centre of gravity accurately for take-off, and to allow room in the trim tanks for fuel to be shifted during the flight to redistribute the weight, makes this a more complicated process than on most other aircraft. The fact that almost all the passengers sit in front of the centre of gravity means that allowance must be made for the possibility that some will not show for the flight. Fuel will be burned during the taxi, so at high loads that fuel is put in the rear trim tank, in order that, when it has been used, space is freed for transfer later on. This is a very interesting subject on Concorde (Please read more in Fuel Systems in the Technical section of this site),  the loading offices, in combination with the flight planners and crews, have developed the ability to make very fine judgments.

Concorde's flight crewBA001 Cabin crew

At this time the flight engineer would have left to perform his external and internal checks on the aircraft and to supervise the fuelling of Concorde.  The two pilots would now clip their copies of the flight plan to their flight boards, and set off to the aircraft, as they approach Concorde, she would look to them a little tail-heavy with the weight of the fuel already on board, she would be surrounded by vehicles full of bags, food and drink, and connected by umbilical cords to electrical power, air-conditioning and fuel trucks. As would be expected the flight crew are dedicated to flying just Concorde.The 6 cabin crew are split equally between the 40-seat front cabin and the 60 seat rear cabin. The cabin crew have their own briefing and know, among other things, which passengers have requested particular seats, who have asked for special meals, and whether there are any children or elderly passengers booked. They have also probably recognized the names of regular travellers, some of whom may be important businessmen or women, government ministers, diplomats or stars of the entertainment and sporting world. They will also know if any passengers have connections to make.

BA001 Cabin crew

 At this point it would be about one hour before departure time to New York JFK. The crews are beginning their checks. The inertial navigation systems need to be started up and told where they are, maps and charts have to be selected, the speeds for take-off worked out, and the departure procedure studied. Each of the three crew checks a part of the instrument panels and set them up for the flight. Gradually the systems come to life, heads are down, arm reaching out to switches, gongs ringing, lights flashing as the warnings are checked. At about 30 minutes before departure the Captain will be briefing the crew for the take-off.

The crew are checking all their systems

Twenty minutes before departure, the fuelling is completed and the passengers are boarding Concorde, their coats having preceded them, on wheeled racks, to be put away in cupboards. The loadsheet arrives, and is checked carefully. This document, printed out from a computer, is the final summary of the weight and balance of the aircraft. By now the exact number of passengers and weight of baggage is known, as is their distribution. The computation ensures that the total weight of the aeroplane is within limits for take-off, and that the weight on landing will also be suitable. The centre of gravity is checked. The total fuel on board is confirmed, and the captain signs the loadsheet. The passengers now on board, the ramp coordinator makes his final report to the cockpit and leaves the aircraft, closing the door behind him.

“ ASI bugs and pitch index…”

“Checked”

Movable white markers on the air-speed indicators have now been set to take-off speeds, and pitch angle indices in the attitude instruments have been positioned at the calculated angle for climb-out

“Clock, engine and TLA bugs…”

“Checked”

There will be a power reduction at the predetermined time after the start of the take-off roll, to a calculated power setting. The clock-timer and throttle lever angle markers are now set up. During the take-off a monitoring system will watch the engine power. The minimum acceptable setting for take-off will be dialled into the instruments.

“Start clearance…”

The co-pilot call air-traffic control for permission to start the two centre engines

“London Ground, Speedbird Concorde 1 on stand Juliet Two for start-up?”

“Speedbird Concorde 1, clear to start. Call on 121.9 for pushback.”

A few final items of the before-start check list are gone through, and then number 3 engine begins to start wind-up.

Its now just three minutes to the scheduled departure of BA 001 from Heathrow to New York JFK.

Soon Concorde G-BOAF will be under her own power, the fight engineer starts the second engine, the captain now makes announcement to the passengers, by pressing a button on the over-head instrument panel, outlining, for the benefit of those who have never flown on Concorde before, what will happen on take-off. This is very necessary because the extraordinary power makes the whole of the take-off a rather more sporting affair than usual; some say it’s like being in a rocket as you are pushed back into your seat.

Concorde is pushed backwards by a tug into the centre of the tarmac at Heathrow.Once pushed back; the aircraft’s brakes are set to park while the remaining two engines, number 1 & 4 are now started. This is done to keep the noise level down to a tolerable level for the ground crews.

Concorde during push-back

Hydraulic power is now available from the engine driven pumps, so giving the crew the chance to exercise the elevons and rudder control surfaces. Another sequence of calls and responses from the check list prepares the aircraft for taxying. When all four engines are running, the ground engineer removes his intercom plug from the nose wheel and disconnects the tug. At this moment before Concorde is moved away, the nose and visor are lowered to the 5-degree position. You can hear a ‘clunk’ as the up-locks are released and another as the mechanism locks the nose down.

Taxying

The aircraft taxies to the runway threshold, sitting on the flight deck as the aircraft taxies; no one could mistake the motion for anything other than Concorde’s. The long narrow fuselage produces a springiness which can be felt as far back as the first few rows of the cabin seats. From the rear of the cabin, looking forward, the effect is quite obvious: you can seethe fuselage flex as the nose wheel runs over bumps. This flexibility is not weakness as an aircraft’s structural strength depends partly on its ability to take up shocks in this way.

Concorde during her taxi to the runway

At this point no more idle power is needed to keep Concorde moving along, in fact its more of a case of having to apply the brakes occasionally to prevent the aircraft from gathering speed. The steering is controlled through a small handle on the side panel. Due to the pilot being some 38 feet ahead of the nose wheel and 97 feet in the front of the main wheels, keeping Concorde to the centre of the taxiway at a junction can sometimes involve the flight deck travelling over the grass for part of the turn.

During the taxi, another 30 checks are made; these are mostly carried out by the flight engineer. Fuel is now being pumped forward from the rear trim tank for use before take off, and the passengers may hear the whine of the electrical pumps running. They may also notice the reverse thrust being test briefly.

Departure clearance is received and the sleek Concorde now turns on to Runway 28R, the northern of the two parallel runways whose take-off direction is 277 degrees Magnetic. The route will be a Standard Instrument Departure (SID) towards Brecon, the ‘Brecon One Foxtrot’. This means a climb-out straight ahead, until picking up a track of 263 degrees from the radio beacon just north of the airfield, then flying that track until seven miles from the same beacon, where a right turn is required on the track of 275 degrees to Woodley, near Reading. Woodley must be crossed at or above 4000feet altitude, and clearance to climb is restricted to 6000feet for the time being. Speed must be no more than 250 knots (290mph), and a radio frequency of 132.8 mHz will be used by the departure controller after take-off. We will be superimposing on this our anti-noise procedure, which will involve cutting back the power at one minute and eleven seconds after the start of the roll, and re-applying it gradually between 5000 and 8000 feet on the climb.

The track that Speedbird Concorde 1 must take after take-off

Concorde is now at the holding point, where she will await her turn to go. The aircraft is now properly balanced and the flight engineer would have moved his seat forward having set his systems up to take care of them. When cleared, Concorde moves onto the runway and lines up. Concorde Speedbird 1 is ready to go as soon as the control tower gives the word.

  “Speedbird Concorde 1, cleared for take-off.”

  “Speedbird 1 rolling.”

The take-off

“Three, two, one now.”

The two pilot’s clock-timers, which will count down to zero at the cut back, are started as the throttles go fully forward. Concorde sets off down the runway, Concorde take-off down the runway with full afterburners.

Concorde take-off with full afterburners

“Airspeed building”

The after burners begin to come in, speeding up the acceleration. Out of the corner of the eye, the green lights are seen to come on as the engines get enough air to develop full power and the after-burners light up.

  “100 knots”

“Power checked”

A little work on the rudder pedal keeps Concorde straight as she is starting to move fast.

“ V1.”

V1 – is the decision speed, which is 165 knots on this take off.

“Rotate”

A fairly sharp initial turn backwards movement of the stick gets the nose moving upwards. Eased off a little, this turns into a gentle rotation up to the preset pitch angle of 13.5 degrees. This rotation should take between 5 and 6 seconds. At an angle of 10 degrees and a speed of 205 knots the wheels leave the ground. Reaching 13.5 degrees, the aircraft is held there while the speed builds up.

“V2”

221 knots – a safe flying speed, even if an engine failed

“240 knot”

“Positive Climb”

Concorde take-off

Speed is rapidly building up towards the required 250 knots, so a gentle pitch up is started, to about 18 degrees, to contain it

“Three, two, one, noise”

Cut back time. The afterburners are switched off, and the throttles brought crisply back to their new setting. Anticipating the cut back, the pitch angle is reduced to about 12 degrees. At 250 knots, Concorde is now climbing at about 1000 feet per minute as she passes over the houses closest to the airport. The height is about 2000 feet.

As soon as that altitude is reached, and with clearance from the departure controller, the crew begin to speed Concorde up. From 5000 feet the power starts to go on. Further clearance is given to climb. By 8000feet, a little to the west of Reading, Concorde is at full power again and getting close to her proper climb-speed of 400 knots. The nose and visor have been raised, and Concorde is climbing at about 3000 feet per minute, cleared now to 28000 feet. The autopilot will now be engaged and instructed to take Concorde to the cleared altitude at climb speed. The autothrottles are primed, ready to take power off when we she reaches her cruise height. The INS is now in charge of navigation, taking the aircraft to the next pre-programmed way-points: Lyneham in Wiltshire next, then to the acceleration point in the Bristol Channel.

Concorde G-BOAF departing Heathrow

Take-off for the crew is a period of concentrated activity for the crew, making sure the anti-noise procedure and the SID are done correctly. Now the crew will relax more, take time to think more generally, and wonder how the passengers are, they may at this point turn off the seat-belt sign, which is controlled by a switch on the overhead instrument panel on the captains side. The will also now check to see if their oceanic clearance is confirmed. The next stage, once they have the clearance is the acceleration to the supersonic cruise.

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