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