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Lewis Whyld’s im­age of Con­corde’s fi­nal flight

A TV crew had taken all the seats in the chop­per, so my place would be stand­ing, strapped out on the skids

SO MUCH OF PHO­TOG­RA­PHY is about be­ing in the right place at the right time, and on this day it just so hap­pened that the right place was on the side of a he­li­copter at 3,000ft, un­able to feel my hands or face, and wait­ing for one of the world’s most iconic air­craft to pass be­low me.

I was 26, and I’d only been hired as a pho­tog­ra­pher by South West News Ser­vice a few months ear­lier. I saw on the of­fice cal­en­dar that Con­corde would be mak­ing its fi­nal flight at the end of Novem­ber, tak­ing off from Heathrow with 100 Bri­tish Air­ways pi­lots and cabin crew aboard, be­fore soar­ing over Bris­tol and land­ing at its fi­nal rest­ing place, the base of the for­mer Bri­tish Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion at Fil­ton, where it was built [and from where the first Bri­tish test flight was made in 1969].

I put my name down for the job. I was an avi­a­tion fan and keen to see Con­corde fly, but I was also ea­ger to make an im­pres­sion. That en­thu­si­asm landed me the last space in a he­li­copter hov­er­ing above the plane as it flew over the Clifton Sus­pen­sion Bridge. I say space, but there ac­tu­ally wasn’t one left. As the day neared, I heard that a TV crew had taken all the seats in the chop­per, so my place would be stand­ing, strapped out on the skids, ef­fec­tively perch­ing out­side. I had never done any­thing like that be­fore. To top it off, I was scared of fly­ing in those days, too.

I re­ceived some train­ing be­fore we took off, but I knew it would all be over so quickly that I had to keep my mind on what I needed to do, ig­nor­ing the fact it was so cold that I could barely ad­just my cam­era set­tings. The idea was to line up Bris­tol’s great­est en­gi­neer­ing tri­umphs from two dif­fer­ent cen­turies, Brunel’s sus­pen­sion bridge and Con­corde, but there were a lot of vari­ables. Would we be too far away? Would the plane on the dark cliffs be too much of a con­trast, lead­ing me to over­ex­pose Con­corde and cap­ture a blurry white ar­row?

In the he­li­copter, we waited in our cho­sen spot, and when Con­corde ap­proached I was so ex­cited I took 10 pic­tures in­stantly, then re­alised I had to wait for the bridge. This was be­fore cam­eras could shoot bursts of dozens or hun­dreds of shots in one go, so tim­ing was im­por­tant.

It passed un­der at 1,500ft, so I snapped and hoped. And it worked – al­though I didn’t I know it at the time. We landed at Fil­ton air­field and con­tin­ued to take pho­tos of Con­corde from the ground, but it was only when I was edit­ing my images in the press room that I re­alised I had some­thing spe­cial. Other pho­tog­ra­phers gath­ered be­hind my lap­top, their faces drop­ping as they said that mine would be the one pic­ture ev­ery pa­per would print. It’s a de­flat­ing feel­ing I know all too well now, but at the time I had no idea my pic­ture would have that ef­fect.

Most pa­pers did in­deed take my im­age for the next day’s cov­er­age, and poster-sized souvenir ver­sions were pro­duced too – one of which my mum bought. I look back now with pride. The ex­pe­ri­ence taught me a lot about tak­ing your chance, and it guided my ca­reer in a way. I went on to work in news pho­tog­ra­phy for a long time, but have come to be known for aerial and drone work.

As for Con­corde, it is now 50 years since the air­craft’s first flight, and it re­mains an as­ton­ish­ing en­gi­neer­ing achieve­ment. This fi­nal flight was a fit­ting end to its ser­vice, and I feel priv­i­leged to have been there to cap­ture it. And no, I’m not scared of fly­ing any more. — In­ter­view by Guy Kelly

Con­corde’s farewell flight over the Clifton Sus­pen­sion Bridge in Bris­tol, to Fil­ton, where it first flew in 1969

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