3 Jan 2020

The first Kiwi flight of a Concorde

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 10:05 am on 3 January 2020

Back in 1986, close to 50,000 Aucklanders jostled for the opportunity to have their eardrums blown out by a British Airways Concorde.

The supersonic jet made a special trip to Auckland while circling the planet to mark Concorde's 10th birthday. Kenneth Irons was the man who made it happen.

Only 14 Concordes ever existed – how did one ending up visiting New Zealand? 

It came about after Kenneth Irons had the idea of getting a Concorde down to the Southern Hemisphere to view the April 1986 appearance of Halley's Comet.

At the time, he was a Palmerston North businessman and a "very amateurish astronomer".

As the comet's 75-yearly visit to our solar system approached, Kenneth decided the best way to glimpse it would be from the fastest method of transport then in existence – the Concorde.

He called British Airways' Auckland office but was ignored for six months: "They just thought 'who does this guy think he is? What chance has he got to pull it off?'"

Kenneth then "went over their heads" to the British Airways chartering division in London. At the time it was headed up by "an absolute character" who liked Kenneth's idea.

A couple of days later, two first-class tickets to London arrived in the mail.

It was a hugely complex process arranging the flight path and overfly rights for the Concorde visit, Kenneth says. 

All up, the venture cost him $1.75 million (in 1986 dollars).

Seats on the Concorde charter flight were charged at $10,500 each one-way Auckland to London, he says.

A left side view of an Air France Concorde supersonic passenger aircraft parked on the flight line during a stopover at the air station.

Photo: PH3 Caffaro

Kenneth assumed the people who'd buy them would be previous Concorde travellers or at least first-class travellers – but they had all sorts.

The first confirmed passenger was a Londoner named Leslie who'd spent her entire life working on an outdoor fruit barrow.

"She went into the travel agency and said 'I'd love to buy a ticket on that Concorde plane to New Zealand. It's been my life's dream to fly on that plane … I'm in, how much?'

Then she handed over the cash in a brown paper bag.

The most fascinating passenger, though, was then President of the British Astronomical Association Heather Couper, Kenneth says.

'Heather was about the most unlikely person – by looks, by personality, by demeanour – that you could possibly imagine would be the president of a fusty 100-year-old organisation. She was this effervescent, ebullient, arm-waving person... wonderful personality, full of beans, and absolutely made [the flight] in terms of how she beat up Halley's Comet.

'Then by the time they got to the middle of the Indian Ocean… it was this tiny wee dot in the sky. If you really looked closely you could see it was brighter than a star.'

When the Concorde arrived in Auckland, Kenneth was joined at the side of the runway by prime minister David Lange, Auckland mayor Cath Tizard and Minister of Tourism Mike Moore.

The pilot (Captain John Cook) flicked the afterburners on and nearly singed their eyebrows – four times – and used ten tonnes of fuel just flying over Auckland, Kenneth says.

Then there was the astounding noise: "it was very much noise pollution".

But those were different times, he says.

Kenneth is now CEO of Precision Farming, but still occasionally runs into Concorde passengers or people who were involved in the flight.

Looking back, he's most proud that the Concorde flight he made happen gave people who were on it one of the highlights of their lives.

Three Royal New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks escort a British Airways Concorde into New Zealand in April, 1986.

Three Royal New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks escort a British Airways Concorde into New Zealand in April, 1986. Photo: Air Force Museum of New Zealand

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Summer Times 2020/2021

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)