Monthly Archives: February 2011

Concorde in the Vertical

When we lived in Leeds, our house was about half a mile from the main runway at Leeds/Bradford Airport (LBA). In the early- to mid-90’s, the airport – perhaps a couple of times a year or so – used to host a single Concorde aircraft for a weekend of pleasure flights.

You could pay a couple of hundred pounds for a short flight of 40 minutes or so, just up to the Lakes and back or similar, so that you could say you’d flown on Concorde. Or you could pay about five hundred quid for a short supersonic hop up the North Sea, so you could say you’d been supersonic.

Of course the presence of such a spectacular aircraft drew huge crowds to the normally fairly quiet observation point at the end of Runway 14, hoping for a free airshow. On take-off, the engines would be rapidly spooled up to full power – which was loud enough – but then they would light the afterburners and you just couldn’t hear yourself think. Absolutely spectacular. The beautiful aircraft would accelerate down the runway and then lift off into a pretty steep climb; with all that power, you could do that with a Concorde. Then once she’d gone you could just hear all the car alarms in the fields (the local farmers used to open up their fields and sell parking space to the Concorde watchers) protesting at their violation by the intense shockwaves from the afterburners.

concorde afterburner

Picture: Concorde taking off on afterburner

At the end of the weekend, she’d make her final departure, and the crowds would then disperse to their shrieking cars. Now, we locals knew better. For one thing, we didn’t have shrieking cars; we’d walked to the viewpoint. For another thing, we knew that it was usually the pilots’ habit to come back for one final pass, coming in from the north-west and usually making a slow pass along the airfield in that characteristic Concorde nose-high attitude with the nose drooped for better pilot view. The aircraft would be empty, of course, with no passengers aboard.

On one occasion, however – it may have been the last time they did a Concorde weekend at LBA, in fact – they did things just a little differently. On this occasion, it was an Air France aircraft and she had departed to the south-east and the crowds had dispersed as normal. We’d waited about ten to fifteen minutes for the customary ‘surprise’ return of the aircraft. And boy, was it worth it.

She came in from over the Chevin – you could see her, coming in nose-low and very, very fast – so you could tell that something different was going on. She crossed the end of the runway at about 150 feet, doing something like 600 knots – that’s about 690mph or 0.9 Mach – 90% of the speed of sound. You could tell she was at transonic speeds because you could actually see the shockwaves on the wings; the little feathers of cloud that show that parts of the airflow over the wings is already beginning to ‘bunch up’ and form pressure fronts, the really weird transonic aerodynamics that slower aircraft simply don’t have to cope with. The noise of course was a good bit behind the aircraft but was awesome when it came. But then came the most awesome part of all.

When he’d reached about half-way along the runway, the pilot lit the ‘burners again and hauled the aircraft right into the vertical. I’m not kidding; the aircraft was going straight up. Just like a jet fighter – but this was an airliner, remember! He sustained that climb until the aircraft was no longer visible from the ground. The only thing he didn’t do was to roll it around its axis….

That has to be one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen. I have never seen anything like  that before or since. And of course I shall never see the like again. I have looked on aviation sites all over the Internet to see if I can find if anyone else has ever reported such a thing, or better yet, got any pictures; but all in vain.

But still the memory of those indescribable few seconds of sheer awe and amazement makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. What an awesome aeroplane.

The Ghost Plane

That Blackbird story reminds me of an interesting story I was once told by my old friend Steve, who lived in Leeds at the time.

Steve was an avid airband radio listener. Living about a mile from Leeds/Bradford Airport in Yeadon, Steve used to hear all sorts of aviation radio traffic.

He’d get routine aerodrome and circuit traffic:

“Leeds Tower, Golf Alpha Romeo Oscar Charlie requesting taxi clearance for VFR departure to the north-west as booked, three p.o.b” “Oscar Charlie, taxi holding point Bravo for your checks” “Taxi hold Bravo, Oscar Charlie”

“Oscar Charlie, downwind touch-and-go” “Oscar Charlie, roger, report final” “Report final, Oscar Charlie”

Airliner traffic:

“Leeds Approach, Speedbird 7 en route Pole Hill, requesting weather”

Military traffic:

“Leeds Approach, Pirate One and Two, low level training sortie, two Jaguars from Coltishall en route Grassington for low-level practice, requesting radar information service”

And then there was this one. Brief, curt, clipped and in an American accent:

“Shadow 1, descending through Flight Level Eight Zero Zero”.

FL800, for those who are not aware of the terminology, is eighty thousand feet. In figures, it looks like this: 80,000ft. That’s a hell of a long way up – just over fifteen miles up in fact. Airliners generally fly no higher than about FL420 – 42,000ft. Concorde flew routinely at about FL520 – 52,000ft – with a ceiling (max altitude) of 60,000ft.

So, what was Shadow 1? Where had he been, to be descending through 80,000ft (which means he’d actually been up higher than that!) There can be little doubt that it was a US reconnaisance aircraft of some sort, most likely a Lockheed TR-1A


Lockheed TR-1A

or perhaps even the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird:


SR-71 Blackbird

…both of which routinely operated at that kind of altitude. There is really nothing else that it could have been. I guess Steve was lucky to have heard something like that transmitting on a non-encrypted frequency. But what a thought, it’s enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck…. “Descending through Flight Level Eight Zero Zero”.


Flight of the Blackbird

Here’s an excellent aviation anecdote from a member of a very select group of pilots…..

“One day, high above Arizona, we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A Bonanza [a slightly larger and faster light aircraft than a Cessna] soon made the same request. “One-twenty on the ground,” was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 [jet fighter] came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded.

“The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walt’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walt startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground. ’We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast”.



[For those who don’t know, this article is by a crewman in an SR-71 ‘Blackbird’; a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that could fly very, very fast and very, very high]