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High fliers share Concorde memories

By Mark Andrews | Shrewsbury | Nostalgia | Published:

As a veteran of Shrewsbury Flower Show, Tom Hodgkins has a plethora of memories, but even so, this was special.

He was talking to Margaret Thrower, the daughter of television gardener Percy, when they heard a loud roar.

"Concorde flew over the show, it was very low, and you could see the engines and everything," says Mr Hodgkins, who lives in Stafford.

"It came straight over the main marquee, there were about 80,000 people there. It was an unbelievable machine."

Our recent feature marking 15 years since Concorde's last scheduled flight has sparked a flood of memories from readers, including Mr Hodgkins who was an exhibitor at the 1987 flower show, where Concorde – along with the flowers – was the star attraction.

It marked the centenary of the famous flower show, and it was the last one Percy was involved with, as he died the following March. But he was in no doubt that it had been the best ever. And Concorde, which also had the crowds flocking to Ironbridge to watch it soaring over the skies, was the icing on the cake.

British Airways scheduled two flights from Heathrow Airport, piloted by Capt David Lusher – who grew up in Shrewsbury and attended Priory Grammar School – for the occasion. After a 60-mile circle around the Scilly Isles, it began its descent over Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon, arriving over Birmingham at 3,000ft, before following the path of the M54. It passed the Wrekin at at 1,500ft, before making its appearance at Shrewsbury's Quarry park.

Ray Philpin, from Wrockwardine Wood, Telford, remembers how Concorde loomed large throughout his youth, living next to Filton Aerodrome in Bristol.

"I grew up with it, everyone in my family was involved at some stage," says the 72-year-old.

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One early memory was of a petrol station kept by his uncle at the end of the runway at Filton.

"I remember they engineered a Vulcan to test the engines (for Concorde), and because of the speeds it was travelling, they had to use a parachute to slow it down as it landed," he says.

"One day, when the deployed the parachute, it landed on the petrol station and caught one of the pumps, pulling it right out.

"After that they decided to move the petrol station."

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Mr Philpin's father Granville worked on Concorde while employed at Rolls-Royce. But despite a lifetime in working in the aeroplane industry, he never flew on a plane – until Ray decided to treat him to a flight on Concorde in the 1980s.

"It was the only time he ever flew," he says.

"In all the years he worked at Rolls-Royce, he never had a passport, and never learned to drive, he couldn't even fly from Edinburgh to Bristol because he didn't have the relevant identification."

He says it was a memorable experience for his father, who died to years ago at the age of 96.

"It was quite exciting for him," says Mr Philpin.

"It went from Heathrow over to the Bay of Biscay, and then on the way back to Heathrow he was able to look out of the window and see the Severn Bridge."

Also flying over the Bay of Biscay was Christine Purdy from Stafford, who made the trip in September 1989.

She says it had long been her ambition to fly on Concorde after she had seen it on the ground while driving through Bristol many years before, and finally got round to doing it shortly after her retirement.

Her husband John declined to join her on the trip though.

"He was a merchant seaman, and never set foot on a plane," she says.

Mrs Purdy, who is 92, says it was an unforgettable experience.

"It was like sitting in a Formula One car," says the retired secretary. "The seats came round you.

"It just seemed like you were floating in space, you couldn't hear the sound of the engines, either.

"Most of the people on the plane were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, so everybody was quite excited, and if you didn't know the person next to you when you got on the plane, you did by the time you got off."

Terry Herrington, from the village of Swindon, near Dudley, remembers flying from Heathrow to New York during Concorde's final days.

The former chief development engineer at Boulton Paul in Wolverhampton had been heavily involved in both the development and the testing of Concorde's controls.#

His trip, just three months before Concorde's last flight, was organised by his wife Rita and his daughters.

And he says finally getting the chance to board the plane he had done so much work to develop was a dream come true.

"I have flown on lots of planes, the DC10s, Tiger Moths, light aircraft and a lot of business planes, but there was really nothing to touch Concorde.

"Comparing it to a 747, a 380 or a modern passenger jet is like comparing a coach to a high-powered sports car.

"The whole experience, from arrival at the dedicated Concorde check-in, to our arrival in New York was fantastic.

"The acceleration you feel, and the angle at which the aircraft takes off is almost like flying in a fighter jet."

"To me it was a dream come true, and for my wife Rita, the realisation of her secret plan to give me this experience after all the work and long hours I had spent on the project."

Alan Beckett, from Cannock, has vivid memories of a supersonic flight to Reykjavik in 1996, not least discovering that he and the chief steward shared a mutual friend.

While waiting for his turn to enter the cockpit, the chief steward asked his wife Beryl where they were from, and she told him Cannock.

"After having our photograph taken we regained our seats, and he came over to us again, and asked if I knew the Cannock Conservative Club," he says.

"I told him I'd been a member for 40 years and it was close to where we lived, and then he astounded me when he said 'I don't suppose you know Laurie Wooliscroft?'

"I'd known Laurie for years. I couldn't believe it, we were 10 miles in the air, flying at the speed of sound, and he asks me that.

"He disappeared to the back of the plane, and came back with three posh Concorde bags, with a bottle of champagne in each, one for Laurie, one for a friend of his, Ted Segar, and a bottle for me. What kindness.

"It turned out he was from Dudley, and had been to the club a couple of times. Laurie had an active career in the RAF, I don't know if that was anything to do with it.

Mr Beckett, 84, says his flight on Concorde, at the start of a cruise to see the Northern Lights, was a truly amazing experience that he would never forget.

"As we got to Reykjavik the pilot flew low over the QE2, and that was beautiful.

"I remember we met this couple from Ireland who were very proud that they had celebrated New Year in Dublin and then went to celebrate it again in New York."

Patricia Bell from West Bromwich went on Concorde in June 1988 with her husband Frank, having won the trip in a prize draw.

"It was amazing really, it took off like a rocket," she recalls.

"It actually pushed you back in your seat. We reached 58,000ft, and when you looked out of those little round windows it was so blue, you could see the curvature of the earth.

"It took us over the Bay of Biscay, we had a champagne meal, and we then took part in the air show at Bournemouth."

One of her most vivid memories was how the plane seemed to defy the laws of gravity as it ascended at a near-vertical angle.

"It went up like a rocket so that people could take pictures of the after-burners, but I had a glass of champagne and I didn't spill any of it."

Mrs Bell, now 64, also went to Birmingham airport to witness the last Concorde flight from there, and said it was a sad day when the aircraft was retired.

Sue Adams also went on Concorde at the start of a cruise, flying from Heathrow to New York in 1983.

She remembers having to pay £3,000 for the cost of the flight in 1983, but said it was worth every penny.

"The experience of Concorde was particularly special, I'm glad I did it," she says.

Mrs Adams says she has flown all over the world while serving as a nurse in the RAF, but there is nothing to compare with the supersonic experience.

"You have a mach counter that tells you when you reach the speed of sound, and then it goes to Mach 2 when you reach twice the speed of sound," says the 61-year-old from the Kingston Hill area of Stafford.

"You have a push in the middle of your back as you go from Mach 1 to Mach 2.

"They gave chocolate and champagne to the ladies, and brandy and cigars to the gentlemen."

Rose North, from the Sedgley area of Dudley, booked a trip with her husband John in 1990 to mark their 30th wedding anniversary.

They paid £400 for a trip from Heathrow to Birmingham, but got an added surprise when they arrived.

"We went to a reception at the Sheraton Hotel at Heathrow, which was lovely, but the flight was delayed by about eight hours," she recalls.

"Because of the delay, they took us over the Bay of Biscay for a treat, it was well worth the delay.

"They took us up to Mach 2, it was beautiful, the speed you were travelling and you didn't feel a thing."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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