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Flying High

Supersonic Dream homepage

The Concorde fleet operated for over a quarter century, yet just 14 of the awe-inspiring supersonic passenger jets ever flew commercially. When compared to the more than 6,500 Boeing 737s operating around the world today, it is strikingly clear how relatively few people shared the rare privilege of taking a trip on a Concorde before her service ended in 2003. Nearly everyone who did, however, remembers Concorde fondly, perhaps no one more so than Captain Brian Calvert. Involved with Concorde since the 1960s, Calvert piloted it for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, and he wrote the book on it: Flying Concorde (Motorbooks International, 2002). Below, Calvert reminisces about the airplane he loved more than any other.

A thing of beauty

NOVA: What was so special about Concorde that made people proud of it?

Calvert: It was beautiful, and it was a wonderful piece of engineering. It embodied all the minute intricacies of watchmaking or clock making, but at a shipbuilding scale. It expanded and contracted. It flexed like a fly-fishing rod. It was extraordinary. It flew at Mach 2. But the principal thing was its beauty.

NOVA: What about your pride in the plane as a pilot?

Calvert: Flying Concorde involved a mixture of emotions. As an airplane it just felt right. You got an exhilarating feeling, which was very exciting. You almost wanted to be flying it and looking at it from the outside at the same time because you felt so grand in it. But it just had something special and ineffable about it, whether it was the power, the design, whatever. It was just terrific fun.

I remember the first time I ever saw that plane. It was a very cold day and very clear. I was sitting in a grandstand opposite the entrance to the closed hangar where the plane was housed. There was a French military band out front and it began to toot away. Then the hangar doors started to open and I saw this unbelievably beautiful shape emerge, tugged slowly by a vehicle in front. A pilot came out and pulled on a special pair of white gloves and climbed into the cockpit. There was no doubting at that moment that any pilot in the world would have wanted to fly Concorde and would have been exceedingly proud to do so.

NOVA: What did you feel the very first time you flew Concorde?

Calvert: I can remember it very clearly. It was off the east coast of Malaysia in the late 1960s, and we had just begun doing some trials to see why the airplane got very agitated when you operated it on a particular kind of runway. If you tried to take off on the runway at the Singapore airport as it was at the time, the tarmac had a kind of wavy shape to it, and as the airplane accelerated it actually flapped about in the air. By the time it got to take-off speed this flapping motion was getting to be rather bad news. So they filled the airplane up with fuel and had the test pilots check it out. I sat and watched them. During one of these flights when we were out over the sea someone said, "Well, I suppose you'd better go in and have a go." Just like that. Just off the cuff, casual. So I did. In the cockpit I immediately began discovering some of the plane's odder qualities.

NOVA: For example?

Calvert: Well, the pilot before me didn't leave me with quite enough power on, so I had to put power on to keep the speed up. This was one of Concorde's quirks. You had to put rather more power on to start with so as to buoy it up, because it was operating on what's called the back side of the drag, which would be a phrase understood only by private pilots but probably not by anyone else. What this essentially boils down to is that you had to be very careful not to let the speed get too slow, otherwise you had to do rather drastic things to get it back again—a scenario that's not fun to think about. This was the tenuous position I found myself in within my first few minutes flying the aircraft. It was always an adventure with Concorde.

“You’re traveling at 1,300 miles an hour and doing it all with two fingers.”

I also remember just getting into the cockpit and the feeling of being in there. Sitting down in the seat and looking out to the front, the nose and the visor were up at the time. There was a rather odd sort of greenhouse effect in the cockpit. It seemed as if you were looking out from inside a terrarium, and it was somewhat disorienting at first. It's hard to describe.

Smooth as silk

NOVA: Describe the feeling of liftoff from the perspective of the cockpit.

Calvert: You began to get the flavor on taxi out because as a pilot you were sitting 100 feet ahead or so of the main wheels. It had this odd tendency to bounce like a bobbing head as you were going out. Once you were lined up on the runway you put all the re-heats on, which gave extra power, you opened up the throttles, and away you went. There was a huge push from the back, and there was this incredible, rather rhythmic vibration. As you went, the non-flying pilot called out the accelerating speeds. At the appropriate moment you raised the nose. You raised it rather a long way, up to 21 degrees or thereabout. And then you were off. Incredible.

NOVA: And once you were airborne what was it like to operate?

Calvert: It was a lovely thing to fly. It was very easy to fly both at low speed and high speed. At high speeds it was the most impressive because at Mach 2, the airplane was seemingly stationary, as if it was flying in a block of ice, and the curvature of the Earth was clearly visible. If you looked down at the clouds below you could see them turning as you went over them. If you disengaged the autopilot you could actually fly the airplane with two fingers—it was as easy as that. When you realized you were traveling at 1,300 miles an hour and doing it all with two fingers, it was pretty extraordinary.

NOVA: What did a passenger feel on takeoff?

Calvert: Even on the smoothest runway Concorde vibrated a lot on takeoff. If you sat in the way back of the cabin while the plane was taking off you could see that the entire 150-foot cabin was whipping up and down in the fishing-rod motion I described. The passengers didn't really notice this, but it did somewhat feel like you were riding a horse as it was taking off. After that, it was smooth as silk. But it was that first moment when it really flexed that was such a unique experience because no other aircraft did that. The cause of it was the long, thin fuselage. To fly supersonic you have to minimize the diameter of the object you're trying to push through the atmosphere. This thinness contributed to the fly-rod phenomenon.

NOVA: What were your favorite features of Concorde?

Calvert: The wing shape was the best part for me. From any angle you looked the wings you saw a different airplane, as if it was a modern art sculpture. And if you looked at the back end of Concorde there was another completely different picture. It appeared that there was no connection between all those different "airplanes," yet they all fit together to make this extremely impressive symbol of speed. And nobody's done it any better than that. Military aircraft couldn't match it, and they certainly couldn't do it while serving caviar and canapés to 100 passengers, that's for sure.

NOVA: What about its bizarre nose? Explain to people who might not understand why it had that oddly shaped nose.

Calvert: Well, first of all, it had a long nose because it needed to be reduced to its sharpest possible point in order to fly supersonically. It was from those points at the end of the nose that sonic booms radiated. In terms of the droop action of the nose, that's quite simple to explain. As a pilot, if you put your head in there and looked forward when the nose was up you couldn't see enough to land properly. In order to land, you had to get rid of that nose, so down it went. [To learn more about the plane's unique features, see Anatomy of Concorde.]

A shared experience

NOVA: Looking back over the years you were a pilot, who were the famous people and celebrities and so on that you flew?

Calvert: Princess Margaret, Henry Kissinger, and so many others I can't even think of how to list them.

NOVA: Were there any regulars that you remember?

Calvert: Oh yes, the famous British talk show host Sir David Frost. He used to appear, go straight to his seat, which was always the same, the second one back on the right-hand side. He'd cover himself up with a blanket and disappear into sleep. He would wake up on approach into Kennedy Airport in New York. I think during one period he was doing that once a week, which must have been fairly shattering on his system. But it goes to show how Concorde was such a help to people with certain careers and lifestyles, because if you're trying to keep that kind of schedule there's no way you could do it without Concorde. You need something that goes at high speed, and three and a half hours each way hardly affects you really. He obviously made great use of it.

NOVA: Did you speak to your passengers much?

Calvert: We all spoke to our passengers quite a lot because it was clear they were very interested in the aircraft. One of our pilots, in fact, was a bit of a specialist in educating the passengers. By the time they got off the plane they knew precisely how many rivets there were on the fuselage and all sorts of other esoteric pieces of information like that.

On one occasion I was route checking, as it's called; in other words I was observing the flight, walking through the cabin to make sure the crew was doing the right sorts of things. Shortly after we got up to Mach 2, I went back to use the men's room from the cockpit. As I went in the captain started off on his little speech on all the details of the airplane and so on. When I eventually came out of the men's room I noticed that he had abruptly stopped talking. All the people reading their Financial Times and London Times and New York Times and so on had all looked up at me with these strange expressions. They thought I was the one who had been talking to them over the speaker, and that I had been doing so from my perch in the toilet.

“It’s the end of a great era in aviation.”

The passengers' actions on Concorde in general were quite amusing in a way because everybody wanted it to be thought that he or she was a regular Concorde traveler. In other words it didn't do to wander about the plane with your mouth open saying "Ooooh" and "Ahhhh." That would prove that you weren't a regular passenger, and it would show a certain amount of weakness to be impressed if your regular lifestyle was equally polished. Sometimes people exaggerated this detached approach. They opened their very expensive briefcase to get the paper out and start reading as soon as they sat down and would ostensibly be too absorbed to even notice this amazing aircraft they were occupying. But I would always notice their heads popping up and looking around, because you couldn't help yourself. And every passenger wanted to take in what was going on up on the flight deck. That was fascinating to them. We all blissfully left the flight deck doors open because that's the way the passengers liked it.

End of an era

NOVA: Can you recall how you felt when you heard about the crash in France?

Calvert: I remember I felt about all the emotions that you can think of really. Sadness mostly. I had always realized that Concorde's existence depended on immaculate results. And an immaculate result, as far as I'm concerned, means no loss of life during the aircraft's period of use. I was dreadfully sorry and sad that that happened. Of course, it was more terrible for the people who were the relatives and friends and loved ones of the passengers and crew.

NOVA: What's your feeling about it having ended now?

Calvert: I'm very sad about it, and I think everybody that was involved with the aircraft feels similarly sad. It's the end of a great era in aviation. Everybody I talk to doesn't see why Concorde flights shouldn't have gone on. Theoretically, the airplane was designed for 24,000 cycles. That's 24,000 takeoffs and landings and supersonic flights. It did about 8,000. So in theory the airplane could have gone on for another 50 years. In reality, though, the supply of spare parts and the maintenance of the airplane cost a lot and are quite difficult because all the components are special one-offs; nothing like them exists. And the technology was aging. But the real deciding factor was not so much the technology of the airplane but its commercial viability. When it began losing money, especially after 9/11, it had to stop. Everyone involved knew this from the beginning—that if it couldn't turn a profit it had to stop.

NOVA: Do you think we'll ever see another commercial supersonic aircraft?

Calvert: Possibly, but I wouldn't put any money on it. It is arguable that there have been several times in the history of aviation, which has only just come up to 100 years recently, that the design of an aircraft pursues a certain goal and once enough energy and money and effort has been put into that goal, then there are still major hurdles to get over to change anything fundamental in the total architecture of our commercial airplane options. But we'll see. [To read more about the possibilities for supersonic commercial aircraft in the future, see Shock Treatment.]

NOVA: Do you think Concorde was a he or a she?

Calvert: She.

NOVA: And you loved her?

Calvert: Isn't that obvious? Yes, she was a fine thing.

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Brian Calvert

Brian Calvert piloted the Concorde on several of its inaugural flights during its entry into service with British Airways. He has had an enduring personal connection to the aircraft ever since.

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Red carpet

The Concorde's special silhouette, big noise, and air of luxury captured the popular imagination for over 25 years.

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Concorde cockpit

The aircraft's flight deck, Calvert says, was an endless source of fascination for its passengers. Its windows gave him the feeling he was piloting the plane from within a greenhouse.

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Concorde belly

Concorde's long, thin fuselage was a key to its supersonic abilities. Calvert says its spindly shape also allowed it to flex like a fly-fishing rod, one of its most unique aerodynamic qualities.

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Concorde in flight

Concorde's cruising altitude was the highest for a civilian aircraft at 60,000 feet. From way up there, Calvert says, you could see the curvature of the Earth as you flew over it.

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Supersonic Dream
Shock Treatment

Shock Treatment
Can engineers silence the sonic boom?

Flying High

Flying High
Brian Calvert reminisces about piloting Concorde.

Anatomy of Concorde

Anatomy of Concorde
Examine a detailed cross section of the plane.

Innovative Aircraft

Innovative Aircraft
See planes, including Concorde, that broke the mold.

Interview conducted in 2003 at Brian Calvert's home by Amir Amirani, producer of "Supersonic Dream," and edited by Lexi Krock, associate editor of NOVA online

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