In-Depth: The Man Who Flew From NYC To London Faster Than Any Civilian In History, And The Watch That Marks His Trip
“The Concorde is great. It gives you three extra hours to find your luggage.” – Bob Hope
Pilot Leslie Scott’s watch had been sitting in a safety deposit box for many years. Now retired, he wears an Apple Watch, and for most of his career, including the record-breaking flight he’s known for, he wore a Seiko that he’s lost track of. But it’s this watch that means the most to him.
The battery was long dead, nary a character displayed on either of the two digital screens that characterize the Breitling Aerospace ref. 65062. Except this wasn’t any ordinary Breitling Aerospace. In place of the standard applied marker at 9 o’clock is an “M2” symbol, and at 3 o’clock, a side profile of the British Airways Concorde, a supersonic airliner known for traveling from New York to London in under three hours, less than half the time of any other contemporary airliner.
The “M2” insignia on the watch is a nod to the fact that the Concorde was able to cruise at Mach 2 across the Atlantic. That’s about 1,350 mph.
Much like the watch, the Concorde airframes have been sitting for a long time. The Concorde stopped flying in 2003, but even today, no modern civilian aircraft comes close to the level of speed the Concorde managed. The only two airlines to operate the aircraft, British Airways and Air France, decided to retire the entire fleet based on dwindling passenger numbers and rising costs. Additionally, the Concorde required an increasing level of maintenance and was the only airframe to require a flight engineer in order to fly, while every other airframe replaced this role with a computer. Twenty examples were built, and six of those were for testing and prototyping. Only 14 entered commercial service. Now they reside in museums around the world.
Leslie Scott was a British Airways captain on the Concorde from 1994 until his retirement in 2002. The Breitling Aerospace Concorde limited edition belongs to him. Jock Lowe, a former Concorde pilot turned commercial officer for the British Airways Concorde program, inked a deal with Breitling to create 100 examples of the Aerospace ref. 65062 with Concorde branding in the late ’90s that were offered to pilots and crew of the plane. Scott snatched one up to compliment his everyday watch, a Seiko he bought in his first year as a pilot with BOAC (which later merged with BEA to become British Airways) in Hong Kong.
That was 1968, and he remembers flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong at night and staring down one night from 35,000 feet at a series of flashes around Danang, Vietnam. It was an American-led bombing campaign lighting up the landscape. Since the United Kingdom wasn’t involved in this military action, it stuck out to him, but so did all the memories of being a pilot during the early jet-setting years. “We went to all the exotic destinations with a very exciting crew,” he said. “It was quite a time to be an airline pilot, and all that came with it.”
He started his career on the Vickers VC10, transferred to the 747 in ’74, then a stint on the BAC 1-11, and then eventually the Concorde in ’94. Since he was part of the Concorde’s crew, he was able to buy the Breitling.
Scott’s take on flying the Concorde as opposed to the subsonic airliners? “It’s still a machine we move through the air. It’s just faster. It forces you to think further ahead. You have to plan your life at more than twice the speed you were going at before.” But he certainly didn’t downplay how special the aircraft was, saying, “it really was like a race car. It hardly flew – like three hours a day – and spent a good deal of time in maintenance for every hour flown. Normal airliners are in the air for 10+ hours a day. It operated on the edge of its design. It was pushed to the limit every time it flew. And that was part of the attraction of the plane.”
The Breitling he bought was already incredibly special having been only offered to crew of the most exclusive airplane in the world, but upon buying the watch, Scott decided to have a date, February 7, 1996, and a time, “2:52:59” engraved on the clasp. The watch represented an entire career as a pilot for the United Kingdom’s premier airlines, but that inscription meant even more. It was the highlight of Scott’s entire 34 years in the sky.
Captain Scott was cruising at Mach 2 at an altitude of 60,000 feet in the stratosphere from Heathrow, London to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on February 6, 1996. During the route, he noticed something was slightly different about this routine service flight: An unusually strong headwind was slowing down the Concorde ever so slightly. There’s not much wind in the stratosphere to begin with, and when traveling at 1,350 mph, or roughly 23 miles a minute, it doesn’t have a drastic impact on the flight time. But this headwind was strong enough to plant an idea in Scott’s head: If it was strong enough to slow him down on the way to New York, would it be enough to speed up the return flight to London?
There was a small window of opportunity. Winds like that didn’t come often. The jet stream and all the nasty weather that can majorly impact regular flights exists in the troposphere, far below the altitude the Concorde soared at. Concorde flights were incredibly smooth for the most part. The only times atmospheric conditions could be felt were on take-off and landing.
The seed had been planted. If the winds would hold, he would try to set the record for the fastest civilian crossing on his flight back to London the following day. A tailwind like that would help, along with some crafty piloting. Captain Scott had a few tricks up his sleeve, and the first one started on the ground.
When the crew showed up the next day, Scott knew the Gods had smiled upon him. The Flight Engineer, Rick Eades, was his personal friend, and the copilot, Tim Orchard, had a great relationship with officials on the London side. Luckily, J.F.K. was easy to work with, and they were used to the Concorde as it was the busiest supersonic airport in the world at the time. Two flights from British Airways and two flights from Air France would come in daily.
Before taking off, Orchard pleaded with ATC on the Heathrow side to clear the air of traffic for a clean approach. In addition, they requested to take the straightest line possible, known as a “great circle,” the shortest distance from point A to point B on a sphere. The only issue was that the Concorde had to stay 20 miles from the shore in order to mitigate the alarm caused by the double sonic boom from the Concorde going supersonic. It sounds like artillery shells going off in immediate succession. The nuisance of the sonic boom was one of the principal complaints from detractors of the legendary airplane.
The idea was to take off, go supersonic as quickly as possible, and decelerate as close as possible to Heathrow while holding the straightest line they were allowed to. If Scott were driving a car, he’d put the pedal to the floor, bring the car to the top speed and peg the needle, keep the wheel straight, then slam on the brakes as late as possible in order to come to a stop inches away from the next stop sign. The only thing is, even the fastest hypercars top out at around 231 mph – the Concorde went about six times as fast.
Clearance was granted to fly the straightest line possible, and that meant that some folks on Nantucket may have gotten mildly spooked by a double crack on February 7, 1996, but not to worry. Once they were out over the Atlantic they went supersonic and took full advantage of the tailwind, which was luckily still there.
The decision was made not to tell the passengers, as it would feel like business as usual to them anyway, and they didn’t want to alarm anyone. Additionally, the cabin service personnel were simply told that this was going to be a “quick” flight, so they should work with haste to maintain the incredibly high level of service that was customary on the Concorde. The three pilots were the only ones on board who knew that things looked good to make the fastest ever civilian crossing from NYC to London. The rest of the passengers and crew were none the wiser.
Approaching England is where Scott pulled out the tricks. Seasonal atmospheric conditions meant that the Concorde would have to go subsonic at different points in the winter and the summer to avoid the secondary boom from reaching the south coast of England. In the summer, it’s closer to shore, and in the winter it’s further away. When the Concorde is going supersonic, it’s constantly trying to punch through a “wall” of air that builds up in front of the airplane. That wall forms a cone, and when that cone hits the ground, people can hear the boom. But the cone doesn’t only travel downward, it goes upward as well. There’s a westerly drift that’s present in the mesosphere, which is right above the stratosphere, and a gentle wind up there actually pushed the sound of the boom out to the east, which would help Scott get away with decelerating a little later than normal.
There are “speed gates” that must be abided, and Scott certainly didn’t break any rules during this attempt, but what he did elect to do was to travel supersonic through the winter deceleration point, where they would normally decelerate, and decelerate to subsonic speeds just after the summer point, which was technically still within the acceptable operating limits. At exactly 30,000 feet, he activated thrust reverse on the inboard engines. This helped slow the plane dramatically at the same time as increasing the rate of descent to about 7,500 feet per minute. Standard airliners descend at about 3,000 feet per minute, in normal circumstances.
When they landed, Scott checked the flight time: 2 hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds.
They had just broken the record. Captain Scott told the 27 passengers on board the news over the intercom. To them, it was just a normal flight. Even experienced Concorde patrons wouldn’t have noticed the difference – until they got on the ground, that is, and checked the time.
After Scott set the record, pilots repeatedly tried to break it, but no one was able to. And now that the Concorde has been retired, they never will.
Scott recounted the tale of this record-breaking flight to me over coffee in New York at HODINKEE HQ. He’s not a die-hard watch guy, but he’s a hell of a pilot, so naturally, the inclination to appreciate fine engineering is there. Before our meeting, he hadn’t worn or even handled the Breitling in a very long time.
He didn’t wear this watch for the record-breaking flight – instead, he was wearing a Seiko – but later, he had it personalized with the inscription of the date and time that came to define his career. When Scott took it out of storage and brought it to the office, it occurred to me that the pilot, the watch and the plane were all in the same city where the historic flight originated.
At the end of Pier 86 in Manhattan’s West Side, a Concorde is on display with the tail number G-BOAD. It’s the same exact plane Leslie Scott flew for the record-breaking flight. Visitors can tour the cabin and the cockpit, and they can even sit in the same seats that Madonna and Elton John favored. I had the opportunity in 2011, and it only bolstered my love for the Concorde.
So I asked Scott if he ever felt nostalgic whenever he passed the plane on the West Side Highway. He said “No, I suppose I don’t think much about the past. I’m always moving forward.” He’s learning French and hitting the gym these days. But talking about the watch and recounting the tale of the fastest flight of the Concorde must have struck a certain chord.
When I asked him about his plans for the watch, he said he’d give it to his grandchildren one day, but during our conversation, he charted a new course. “You know what? It’s been in a box for years. I think I’m going to have to wear it again!” He’ll have to get it running again, of course. But that’s simple. It’s just a matter of swapping in a new battery.
If only it were that easy to get the Concorde running again.