The Malone Column
The Concorde story lives on in hearts and minds
Acouple of months ago I mentioned in this column a meeting of Concorde pilots at the home of the original Concorde test pilot, André Turcat, to which I was lucky enough to be invited. Some chaps in the flying club bar told me they were profoundly envious that I’d not only met M. Turcat but had spent the day in his house, and wanted to know more. So over a drink or two, not paid for by me, we had a long chinwag, and I basked in the reflected glory of a great aviator simply by virtue of having stood under his roof.
The meeting, in 2013, had been arranged by Les Brodie, who is the consummate flying man: Tiger Moth pilot, Cessna 150 instructor, Citation captain; he would rather fly than eat. Les was also the very last Concorde pilot in the world — he flew G-BOAF to Filton on 26 November 2003. And of course André Turcat was the first, having flown F-WTSS on its maiden flight from Toulouse on 2 March 1969. The first and last Concorde pilots met only once, and I took some photographs of them in André’s garden. André insisted that I get into the picture — he called his gardener to take my camera. So there’s Edgard Chillaud, Chief Concorde Pilot of Air France, then, leaning on his stick (he was 92 at the time) André Turcat, then Les Brodie, holding a model of Concorde… and then me. I was a little embarrassed. What right did I have to a place in that extraordinary pantheon? Well, you couldn’t say no, really… the photo’s on my office wall.
André lived in a beautiful secluded home near Aix-en-provence, with a wall of glass looking out over the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes. The house was full of stunning antiques, and one wall of his library was given over to a huge medieval tapestry of mythical beasts. André was a man of all the talents — a Professor of History of Art, and a renowned theologian. He’d flown with the Free French air force after 1943, and as a C-47 pilot during the Indochina War before being sent to EPNER, the French test pilots’ school. Les was particularly interested in André’s test flights in the extraordinary Nord 1500 Griffon, the ramjet-powered delta that achieved Mach 2 in the 1950s. What was it like to fly? Super-sensitive, André said. “We started by making some jumps, and I thought the control surfaces were inadequate. But then I saw that the movements were my fault, not the aircraft, so I had to learn not to fly it.” There was no simulator for the Griffon, but André said he’d gained some experience of deltawinged aircraft in England flying the Avro 707, the tailless delta test-bed for the Vulcan, on which he was checked out by Roly Falk. The Griffon prototype reached Mach 1.7 on its turbojet engine alone; the Griffon 2, with both turbojet and ramjet, flew in 1957, and André eventually reached Mach 2.19 in 1958.
There were many problems, he said, including airframe heating and instability of the ramjet. “I was unable to fly it above 60,000 feet because things like the ejector seat and the cockpit glass were not certified above that height. It was still climbing and accelerating at 0.2g, but I had to roll it over at 60,000 feet and come back down. We should have found a way to throttle the ramjet, but we did not. We had a project for a Mach 3 twin but it came to nothing. Mach 2 was too slow for the ramjet. We could have reached Mach 3 before the SR-71, but it was not to be.”
But of course, most of the time they talked about Concorde, and the Paris crash. Les had re-enacted the accident in the simulator dozens of times for the AAIB and the BEA, and there was no possible way the crew could have saved the day; from the instant the tyre was slashed by a piece of stray metal on the tarmac, the aircraft was doomed. Les said: “They faced an impossible situation. They dealt with what they knew, and did so very well, but fire was quickly destroying the aircraft. It took two minutes and forty seconds from the tyre bursting to the crash. The first minute was okay, but eventually the fire took out the hydraulics, the ailerons went to neutral and they were helpless.”
Although he’d already retired, André was consulted during the return to service programme, in which Edgard was heavily involved. “We went back to the drawing board, literally,” Edgard said. “Concorde was designed in the pre-computer era, so we worked off these massive blueprints pinned up on boards.” The Dunlop tyre, which had shattered on 57 occasions prior to Gonesse, was replaced by a Michelin made of a new compound that deformed only slightly on depressurisation and resisted disintegration. André said: “The tyre was always the talon d’achille of Concorde. The airworthiness authorities concluded that Concorde was responsible because of the weakness of the wing, but it was not right. It was not necessary to put the Kevlar lining in the fuel tanks once the Michelin tyre had been adopted, because the problem had been fixed.”
But the discussion was far from gloomy; most of their memories were happy ones, full of humour. Edgard once had an interesting encounter with a well-known French actress on the flight deck, which he later had to explain away to his wife. And this is (allegedly) a true story: Concorde was perpetually short of fuel, and thirsty — they’d put in an extra 3,000kg just for taxying at Heathrow. ATC would helpfully sneak them past queuing traffic to the threshold, sometimes to the chagrin of waiting subsonic crews. On one queuejumping occasion, Concorde was instructed to pull in behind number two at the hold, a Midland DC-9. “Is that the blue one?” they double-checked. Moments later a Qantas 747 was told to move up behind Concorde. Came a huffy Australian voice: “Is that the white one?”
All moves to resurrect Concorde have come to naught, but the vision lives on, with parties as diverse as NASA and the behemoths of Silicon Valley planning a supersonic future. André died in 2016 but, God willing, some of us may live to see it.
I basked in the reflected glory of a great aviator... Most of their memories were happy ones, full of humour