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Volunteer Stories - Ken Wilbraham

01 May 2021

We are back with another of our Volunteer Stories. This time we have Volunteer Ken Wilbraham, who has written about his experience of watching Concorde’s last flight from Heathrow, accompanied by photos from Captain Mike Bannister from inside Concorde's cockpit on this final flight.

The rain relentlessly skewered down as we tip-toed along the M25 with thousands of other vehicles, under the ever-darkening, cloud-laden sky, heading for Heathrow Airport.

‘Any sign of aircraft yet?’ Clare, my daughter, eyed me rather mysteriously as visibility was little more than 100 metres and getting worse by the mile.

It was key to our viewing plans to know which way aircraft were taking off, in order to position ourselves as close as possible to photograph Concorde.

Today, the last one to fly was heading to its final resting place, Filton Airfield, near Bristol.

A very fitting event as it had been where this wonderfully elegant swept-back jet plane, that had graced our skies for well over a quarter of a century ago, was conceived and partially constructed.

Now she was being confined to the scrap heap. Sent there largely because the Americans didn’t like what they saw, being light years behind with their commercial rival. They placed barriers at every conceivable corner and finally, a mere handful were built and operated by only two airlines in the UK and France. Commercial viability had been thrown out of the window and we only saw this majestic swan-like creature in our skies courtesy of the British taxpayer.

As we pulled off the M25, watery light was squeezing itself out from under the low clouds to the west. Things were beginning to look up, the rain finally easing. I pulled into the first empty lay-by on the perimeter road.

‘I shouldn’t park there if I was you. Police will move you on’, shouted a guy hanging around his car.

‘Nice greeting,’ I thought,

‘We’re OK ‘cos we are on the grass. But you are on the yellow-hatched bit and the police don’t like that.’

‘And you’ll ruin it for the rest of us. We’ll all get the push.’

Smartly getting back into the car I headed for a wide bit of grass some 200 metres away on the other side of the road.

My appetite was whetted by a regular stream of Jumbo jets heaving themselves skywards, their engines gulping in vast quantities of air and spewing out high speed swirling gases. Even my 22-year-old daughter, couldn’t help but be impressed as the slender wings flexed skywards as the full impact of hundreds of passengers, aircraft and thousands of gallons of fuel were lifted lazily off the ground.

By now the whole sky was blue. Someone up there must have known this was indeed a very special moment.

‘She rolling. Yeh just started,’ a bloke, standing on the top of his car’s roof, blurted out to all and sundry.

Laden down with cameras, binoculars and short-wave radio he was totally oblivious of the new shape the roof of his car was taking on as he became more animated.

‘She’s on her way.’

‘Switch on Clare.’ She was already ahead of me as the camcorder was raised to her eye and trained above the distant fencing.

I faffed around with my SLR camera, not quite as organised as I had planned, but ready when Concorde, already airborne and like a small black triangle, rapidly rose above the fencing into the sky.

Then the full force of this supersonic brute really hit us. The four Olympus engines, complete with reheat, operating at close to maximum, sent a mind-numbing vibration through our bodies.

Unpleasant and yet again, not unpleasant, as the pain quickly turned into joy as Concorde cleaved her way impressively onward and upward, the black trails of unburnt fuel lingering in the blue sky long after she had gone.

‘Well, that’s it. End of yet another era.’

An elderly lady nearby wiped away tears.

Life seems to be a series of ‘era ends nowadays’, I thought.

Clare ran her footage back. She’d done a good job but regretted not seeing the plane in the flesh rather than through an eyepiece.

Soon we were on our way home.

And then on seeing a sign for Staines and Egham on the M25, I quickly altered plans and turned to Clare, ‘I’ll show you where I lived before I married your mother. Where I spent my last years of bachelor-hood.’

The house, then a flat-roofed, damp hovel, had obviously had a serious make-over and now looked reasonably smart. But there was little that the current occupants could do about the mainline railway 5 metres away from one side and a busy road the same distance from the other.

We parked the car and headed for the Red Lion, one of my regular watering holes. To repay her for tolerant support on this special day, we indulged in a goodly helping of fish and chips. By now any thoughts of Concorde had been pushed to the back of our minds as I reminisced about life before marriage.  That seemed to be at least as interesting to my daughter as the demise of the Queen of the Skies.

View of a runway framed by aircraft cockpit
View from inside the cockpit of farmland below
Aerial view of Clifton Suspension bridge
View from inside the cockpit coming in to land on a runway