Concorde: Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers on its Last Day

Although I'm now quite sad to say I only once saw Concorde in flight, it would be fairly hollow to lament its grounding in any serious way because my age was in single digits at the time. Concorde is a beautiful aircraft, though, and I hope we see another SST in my lifetime.

This node, however, is a perfect opportunity for some aviation geekery, if you'll allow. I hope to allow the professionals to speak for me.

Air Traffic Controllers get paid to tell pilots, most of whom get paid far more than them, what to do. And pilots have to do it. There is no cooler job in the world than throwing multiple aircraft around the sky. If you disagree with me, you are wrong.

* * * * *

The world of ATC communications is very structured under most circumstances. Phraseology is prescribed for every common situation, and many of the not-so-common ones:

"You are subject to a Court Order prohibiting your aircraft from leaving the United Kingdom, what are your intentions?"

...for instance.

Occasionally, pilots or controllers break the conventions for some reason. Sometimes the situation demands it, but sometimes one simply desires a modicum of levity. This is perhaps inevitable for people in positions that involve either large amounts of responsibility, dealing with the darker side of human existence, or both; to dwell is almost certainly a destructive influence, and making light of sombre or otherwise serious situations is a common coping mechanism.

Dr. Cox of Scrubs sums this up fairly well, as he explains doctors' widespread use of flippant and morbid humour:

"You see Dr. Wen in there? He's explaining to that family that something went wrong and that the patient died. He's gonna tell them what happened, he's gonna say he's sorry, and then he's going back to work. You think anybody else in that room is going back to work today?

"That is why we distance ourselves, that's why we make jokes. We don't do it because it's fun -- we do it so we can get by.


"And sometimes because it's fun.

"But mostly it's the 'getting by' thing."

The departures from standard pilot/controller conversations make interesting listening if you're so inclined, and frequently betray the abiding respect that both pilots and controllers generally reserve for, despite taking most available opportunities to gripe about, each other.

At least as many pilots and controllers as enthusiasts were sorry to see the last of Concorde. This is compellingly illustrated in the R\T exchanges between Concorde and its controllers during the aircrafts final flights, in which controllers and other pilots took time to wish Concorde and her crew well for retirement, and for Concorde pilots to thank those they worked with during its 27 years of commercial operations.

Some of these exchanges are transcribed below. Concorde in the transcripts is BAW002 or Speedbird 2, captained by Les Brodie and copiloted by British Airways chief Concorde pilot Mike Bannister. The exchanges are edited or truncated here and there for readability's sake, and I will interrupt with pertinent explanations of terms.

KJFK, USA; ~0700Z, 24th October, 2003;

Last Concorde passenger flight from KJFK to EGLL, aircraft registration G-BOAG

BAW002:     Kennedy Ground, good morning, for the last time, Speedbird Concorde 2, IFR,
            London Heathrow with Mike, requesting a Canarsie Climb.

KJFK:       Ah, Speedbird 2, I guess for the last time we can give you that Canarsie
            Climb: Speedbird 2 Heavy cleared to London Heathrow Airport; Kennedy 9
            Departure, Canarsie Climb, radar vectors SHIPP, then as filed, maintain 
            five thousand, expect flight level 290 ten minutes after, squawk 1136, and
            Mike is the ATIS.

"Kennedy 9 Departure" refers to a Standard Instrument Departure, or SID. These are published, standardised routes out of an airport which are referred to by ATC. They detail navigation aids, directions and altitude requirements, and any pertinent radio frequencies. Pilots have details of these routes on hand so ATC, when telling aircraft where to fly, can simply refer to the designation of the appropriate route - in this case, 'Kennedy 9' - instead of having to read out a lengthy route clearance on the radio.

The 'Canarsie Climb' is a flight profile specific to JFK airport, that takes aircraft towards the Canarsie VOR, a navigation aid situated near a neighbourhood of the same name. It is a climb-out path that was used by Concorde as part of the noise abatement restrictions it was required to comply with at JFK.

The following part of the clearance informs the crew that their aircraft will be vectored - that is, instructed by ATC which direction to fly - towards a reporting point named 'SHIPP', which is to the south east of JFK. Afterwards, the clearance has the aircraft continuing "as filed" on its filed route.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, Mike, 1136, thanks very much indeed... and if you could pass onto 
            your colleagues, er... two or three things. Firstly, in a perfect world, we'd
            like to be wheels rolling at 07:37 local, if we can get a clearance through 
            105 Alpha direct that'd be great, but more importantly if you pass onto all 
            your colleagues here, thanks for all the support and help you've given us over
            the years.

KJFK:       Speedbird 2, on behalf of the controllers in Kennedy Tower, and I particularly
            want to pass onto Captain Bannister, we hope you have a wonderful flight, and 
            over the years it's been a privilege and an honour to get to work you all every
            day in and out of JFK and you certainly will be missed. We hope you have a
            wonderful farewell flight, and er, godspeed, and we will be wishing you all
            the best as you fly over to London.

BAW002:     That's very kind, and thanks to all of you. I wouldn't want to name any but one,
            whom I understand has been with you right from the very first day we came -
            Samuel Cohen - so thanks to all of you.

KFJK:       Well, he will be talking to you when you're at the runway, and ground is 
	    point-nine* when you're ready to taxi, and enjoy your flight.

* Radio frequencies are, um, frequently given out just as the last digit when an airfield has several frequencies that all begin with the same digits. For example, if JFK had frequencies 118.8 and 118.9 for different parts of their ATC service, they would often just tell a pilot to contact “point-niner” or “point-eight,” depending. In the UK the 'point' would be spoken as 'decimal': “decimal niner.”

Aircraft 1: Any chance we can hold at Juliet*, behind Speedbird?

*“Juliet” is the name of a holding point. An airport's taxiways - concreted areas that aircraft use to move on the ground between various sections of the airport - are often punctuated by holding points: painted lines or signs at the side of the taxiway where aircraft may be instructed to wait at. They are used by controllers in the Tower to organise movement of ground traffic. Not unlike traffic/stop-lights.

Also note one of several aircraft asking to hold, undoubtedly so that they can watch Concorde's last take-off.

KFJK:       Um, well, Speedbird, like I told the last guy, is not departing for another 
            20-25 minutes or so, but if you wanna wait I could find someplace to put you.

UA1:        Aah, that's ok... gotta be the on-time machine here.

KFJK:       Yeah, right.

a few minutes later...

UA2:        So long Concorde, have a good flight.

BAW002:     Thankyou very much indeed, that's very kind of you.

UA2:        We're gonna miss you here at Kennedy.

BAW002:     We're going to miss coming to New York.

UA3:        Best wishes from Jet Blue.

BAW002:     Thankyou.

UA4:        ...and from the old cactus-bird!

KJFK:       Speedbird 2, Ground, I've only been here five years, which is not nearly as long
            as the next guy you're gonna talk to, but it's been a pleasure. Hold short of
            Juliet, he'll get you out right on that release time, monitor XXX.XX.

BAW002:     Speedbird Concorde 2, thanks very much, ground XXX.XX, I guess we know who we're
            gonna talk to, but everyone else here has been so helpful and supportive and we're
            very grateful for that, and we'll miss you.

KJFK:       Okay, g'day sir.

BAW002:	    Kennedy Tower, Speedbird Concorde 2 heavy* is with you, for the last time. We'd
            like to release brakes at about three-seven and fifty seconds.

KJFK:       Roger!

*'Heavy' refers to Concorde's vortex wake category. Flying aircraft leave a 'wake' of disturbed air that can disrupt the flight of aircraft following them; aircraft are categorised by their weights, since this disturbance is greater for larger and heavier aircraft, and affects the distances that aircraft may be spaced when following others. As an aide memoir, Tower and Approach controllers are required to suffix callsigns of aircraft in the 'Heavy' category with that word, and pilots of aircraft in that category are required to suffix their callsigns in the same way. See the node for more information.

EGF830:     Kennedy Tower, American Eagle 830.

JFK:        American Eagle 830, Kennedy Tower?

EGF380:     Yes sir, if Speedbird 2's on the radio, we just wanted to pass along a "best
            wishes" and "godspeed" and we're gonna miss you there. We just departed 
            La Guardia - wish we were over at Kennedy.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2 here: thanks for that, we're gonna miss you all.

JFK:        American 205, you'll follow the Concorde up at the next intersection.

JFK:        Speedbird 2 heavy, taxi into position and hold, caution, wake turbulence,
            departing Airbus.

BAW002:     Speedbird Concorde 2 heavy, position and hold, 31-left*.

*"31-left" is a runway designation. Runways at airports are named for the magnetic direction they face, rounded to the nearest ten degrees with the last digit removed. Therefore each runway is actually two - one designation 180 degrees away from the other. So runway 31L faces approximately 310 degrees, or northwest. The 'L' means there are two runways facing that direction, and that this is the left of the two; thus, there is also a runway 31R at JFK.

JFK:        Speedbird 2 Heavy, be advised I happen to have the good luck of being here and
            issuing the first landing clearance to the Concorde here at JFK back in '77. Just
            want to say it's been wonderful working with your aircraft and I wish good luck 
            to all the crews, and er, we're gonna miss you.

BAW002:     Well, we're very very grateful indeed for all your help, especially over such a
            long period. It's been great knowing you, and we're gonna miss you a lot.

JFK:        Thankyou!

JFK:        Okay, the time now is three-five, at your discretion you can roll to finally
            lift off at three-seven*. Wind: three-zero-zero at one-three; maintain four
            thousand, cleared for take-off.

*”three-seven” is the time. For most purposes in aviation, when quoting times it is not necessary to mention the hour so just the minutes after the hour are spoken. The full UTC time is given if there is any risk of confusing one hour with another.

BAW002:     Speedbird Concorde 2, cleared take-off 31L, we're cleared to roll to meet our
            departure time, we'll start the take-off roll at three-seven and fifty [seconds],
            and maintain four thousand.

AAL699:     Tower, American 699 heavy.

JFK:        Yes sir?

AAL699:     Any chance we can hold here at Bravo, or anywhere in this area if we're not
            blocking anybody?

JFK:        American 699, uh, cleared to transition over to Alpha and then you can hold on
            Alpha. Do you need any assistance?

AAL699:     Negative.

JFK:        OK.

AAL59:      Hey Ground, American 59 Heavy, can we hold here for a second so we can see 

JFK:        Yup.

AAL59:      Thanks.

(Concorde takes off)

JFK:        Speedbird 2 Heavy, contact New York departure, so long!

BAW002:	    Speedbird 2 to departure, good day Samuel, so long.

A Short Time Later - New York Approach

BAW002:     Center, Speedbird 2 is with you, for the last time.

NYT:        Speedbird Concorde 2 heavy, New York departure, good morning, radar contact, 
            climb and maintain one-three thousand.


NYT:        Speedbird Concorde 2 heavy, proceed direct to LINND, resume own navigation, 
            climb and maintain one-seven thousand.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, direct LINND, own nav, climb one-seven thousand.

NYT:        Speedbird Concorde 2, I was the first controller to give you the approach 
            clearance on the first flight into Kennedy, so I'd like to thank you and all 
            the crews that have worked the flight over the years for your professionalism,
            we'd like to wish you good luck as you soar towards the sunshine there to the 
            East, and we just do appreciate all the fine professionalism and hard work that
            you guys put in through the years, and it was a pleasure for us to serve you.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, we really appreciate that, thankyou very much indeed, we couldn't
            have done any of this without the support of all of our friends and colleagues
            in the USA, particularly in ATC in the USA; you've been so helpful and supportive,
            we really do appreciate it.

NYT:        Speedbird 2, thankyou for those words, and contact New York Centre XXX.X, cheerio.

BAW002:     XXX.X, Speedbird 2, have a nice day.

LATCC, London, UK, ~1530Z, 24th October, 2003

The last Concorde transatlantic flight was one of three special Concorde flights on this day, the aircraft's last in commercial service. The other two flights, by ships G-BOAE and G-BOAF, were return flights to Edinburgh and around the Bay of Biscay respectively, carrying VIP guests including several former Concorde flight crews. All three flights were timed to land sequentially back at Heathrow. This transcript is clipped from a heavily truncated recording, and comprises conversations with several controllers, again with Speedbird 2.

BAW002:     ...without all the help and support we've had from air traffic control across the
            UK and particularly LATCC, we couldn't have done all that's been done in the last
            27 years and we're very grateful.

LATCC:      Touche.


LATCC:      Speedbird 2, London, go.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, we're proceeding direct to Ockham*, which if we kept the speed up
            we'd get there at four-eight. Our company wants us to all land before the hour or
            after, and before the hour doesn't look achievable so after the hour looks better.

*”Ockham” is one of the hold facilities surrounding Heathrow airport. A 'hold' is a point, usually marked by a navigation aid of some kind, over which aircraft circle while waiting to be sequenced for landing. These are also commonly known as 'stacks'. Aircraft join the stack at the top, and leave from the base. As the aircraft at the bottom leaves the stack, those above it all descend by 1,000ft and thus gradually step down the stack until they reach and exit at the bottom.

Heathrow airport has four holding stacks, all marked by VORs, positioned roughly at the "corners" of the area surrounding the airport: Ockham, Bovingdon, Lambourne and Biggin.

LATCC:      The plan is, after Ockham, you'll be vectored over the top of Heathrow then a
            right-hand downwind* for a twenty-mile final*.

*'Downwind' and 'Final' are terms used at airfields and approach control units. Aircraft usually fly a circuit of sorts of an airfield before landing, depending which direction they approach it from. Since airfields almost always use the runway facing into the wind for take-offs and landings (so that aircraft can get airborne more easily, and can have a lower ground speed when landing), the portion of the circuit flown parallel to the runway will be in the same direction as the wind, and is called the 'downwind' leg. From there, the aircraft will eventually be turned onto a 'base' leg, which is perpendicular to the runway, then will be turned onto 'final', which simply refers to the portion of the approach that is flown towards the runway, hopefully ending with a successful touchdown.

BAW002:	    Right now we're estimating Ockham now at fifty and thirty seconds, and we're happy
            with whatever plans you and your colleagues want to make to reach that touchdown
            window for the three aircraft.

LATCC:      Okay Speedbird 2, yup, that's all in hand for the three of you, descend now flight
            level nine-zero. Just for your information, Concorde Alpha Fox is presently
            holding at Ockham and is just inbound to the beacon, they'll be a thousand feet
            beneath you.

BAW002:	    Speedbird 2, understood.

LATCC:	    Speedbird 2, contact Heathrow Director now, frequency XXX.XX and welcome home for
            the last time.

BAW002:     XXX.XX Speedbird 2, thanks very much indeed for all your help and your colleagues'
            help over all the years, we couldn't have done it without you.

LATCC:      Okay, bye-bye now.

BAW002:     Bye.

Heathrow Director, LATCC, London, UK, ~1550Z, 24th October 2003

BAW002:     Good afternoon, for the last time, Speedbird Concorde 2 is out of one-zero-zero
            descending nine-zero to Ockham.

HD:         Speedbird 2, roger, enter the hold, but there's only going to be a very very short

BAW002:     Okay, enter the hold, and any idea how long the delay's going to be so we can
            fine-tune our planning?

HD:         Probably just one orbit to the right.

BAW002:     OK.

a few minutes later...

HD:         Speedbird 2, you're going to pass right overhead West Drayton.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, I'm very pleased, wish we could see you but we've just gone right
            through a cloud!

HD:         (laughing) Understood.

HD:         Speedbird 2, they've all rushed out to the door now to look at you over the top.

BAW002:     Now, don't you go!

HD:         (laughing) Not going just yet.


HD:         Speedbird 2, there's only meant to be me and you on this frequency, but I'm sure
            there's a lot, lot more people listening to what's going on at the moment. Would
            you like to say something to them on the R/T? It's all over to you.

BAW002:     If there are, then it's an opportunity to say thankyou to everyone in the UK that
            supported Concorde over all the years. We realise that Concorde has been a very
            popular aircraft, an icon of the 20th and 21st century, and she's been successful
            and popular because of the support of the general public - particularly those
            who've taken their time to come out and watch her as she's taken off and landed 
            during the last six months and we're very privileged and proud to be part of 
            the British Airways team that's flying Concorde today.

HD:         Speedbird 2, that's wonderful, for the last and final time contact radar XXX.XX

BAW002:     Radar, XXX.XX, thanks for all your help as well.

HD:         Bye.

Tower, EGLL, UK ~1608Z, 24th October, 2003

BAW002:     Tower, Speedbird 2 with you, glidepath intercepted.

HT:         Speedbird 2, good afternoon, continue approach on 27-right, still number two,
            number one's on a one mile final. Traffic information: police helicopter
            operating on the right hand side of the runway, will remain north at all times.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, that's copied, continuing approach.


HT:         Speedbird 2, for the last time, you're cleared to land on 27-right, the wind
            is 350 degrees at eight knots.

BAW002:     Speedbird 2, cleared to land.

(Concorde lands)

HT:         Speedbird 2, left turn at the first taxiway, we've all enjoyed you over the years
            at ATC, best wishes from us all, contact ground, frequency XXX.XX, bye-bye.

BAW002:     Likewise, thanks a lot, bye.

(now on ground movement frequency - GMC)

BAW002:     Speedbird 2's with you.

GMC:        Hello Speedbird 2, position straight ahead behind the company aircraft for the

BAW002:     Speedbird 2.

The three aircraft then taxied around Heathrow for the next 45 minutes before disembarking the passengers.

G-BOAE, the first in the three-ship convoy, was retired to Bridgetown, Barbados on November 17th.

G-BOAG, the ship that flew the last transatlantic flight, flew back to New York on November 3rd en-route to its retirement berth at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. This final leg was flown on November 5th, casually breaking a record flying supersonically over northern Canada on the way.

G-BOAF, the last Concorde ever to be built, and the last ever to fly, landed at Filton Airfield (where it was built) at 13:00 on November 26th. This aircraft is the focus of a group of volunteers who are campaigning for it to be returned to flight. While technically possible, the cost of such an effort is estimated by the former manager of BA's Concorde fleet at £10-15 million. Airbus ending their maintenance support for the aircraft prior to its 2003 retirement means it is realistically impossible for any Concorde to ever fly again.