In Manchester Airport’s Aviation Viewing Park sits Concorde G-BOAC, known as ‘Alpha Charlie’. It is an engineering marvel; a feat of Anglo-French avionic brilliance that could cross the Atlantic in under three hours. Yet since 2003, it and the other 19 Concordes once in service have become tourist exhibits leased to airports and museums by British Airways and Air France.
No two Concordes of the twenty ever built are the same and for those who love them, they are totemic machines whose absence from the skies is sorely missed. Alpha Charlie is even more different than the others for one reason -- it has secret visitors trying to awaken it from its slumber.
Back in 2003, BA had wanted to render all Concordes inoperable, and ordered the Concorde fleet engineers retiring with Alpha Charlie to drain the hydraulic fluid and uninstall its black box (a key electronic component logging all flight data.) The engineers, loving their iconic plane so much, secretly did neither.
In 2011, an eccentric group of ex-Concorde and current British Airways engineers calling themselves Heritage Concorde Tech (HCT) visited Concorde to see if they could fix Alpha Charlie’s windscreen that had been damaged over 2 years before, allegedly by a disgruntled Viewing Park employee. HCT’s inspection of the aircraft showed them she was in a lot better condition than anyone realised. According to the group’s head engineer Ricky Bastin, HCT then proposed a daring plan to Manchester Airport, one that he claims they agreed to. It was to be called Project Flagship and carried out without the knowledge of the aircraft owners BA.
The HCT engineers realised that not only could they remove the windscreen, in the process they would be able to get the famous Concorde nose to move. Project Flagship’s aim was to power up an aircraft everyone had thought was dead and lower the famous Concorde nose cone to salute the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
Commencing early 2011, spending their own money and working in secret, clocking round trips of 300-400 miles up to Manchester, the HCT team set to work. By March, Bastin had checked the systems fully and thought that with external power they would be able to get many if not most of the systems working again.
The team first powered up the aircraft in March 2011. Bastin explains the excitement: “The first go-around, about 10% of the systems didn’t work. But you have to think of the aircraft as a body. If you’d been in a coma since 2003 you’d be slow to come to life. As things warmed up more and more systems started working and we found only a handful were inoperable and nothing that couldn’t be fixed.” Bastin claims the Museum was happy to see Project Flagship continued, as it offered the possibility of supervised ‘power days’ where the aircraft systems and displays were switched on for public visits.
By late summer it seemed the hydraulics were almost finished. Ricky Bastin claims a press event was being planned for the end of October 2011 where HCT and Manchester Airport would invite the media and BA representatives to Alpha Charlie and unveil the re-powered aircraft. Then for some unknown reason, on August 31st, a Health and Safety team arrived, sent by the Manchester Airport authorities. It declared the work on Alpha Charlie to be in breach of health and safety and an uninsurable risk to the public. Project Flagship was scuttled so close to shore, and HCT were banned from returning.
Manchester Airport’s head spokesman Russell Craig denies that Manchester Airport were ever aware of Project Flagship and says: “the most well-maintained, serviceable aircraft have problems, it’s not something we and BA wanted to risk with issues of public health and safety and insurance. Power ups would mean tours would become impossible. Getting the nose-cone moving was an aspiration rather than a likely outcome.”
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