It’s a familiar scene from a nostalgic age: vintage suitcases stacked one atop the other, one at a nonchalant angle to symbolise our dreams of travelling the world.
What makes these suitcases different are the seats just above: separated by the thinnest of metal layers and topped with thin carpet and studded lights.
This isn’t art; it’s a slice through the fuselage of a commercial passenger plane.
And the fragility of this reality forces me to stop, inhale, and stare.
I’m standing in hangar one of Aerospace Bristol, my littlest travel companion scurrying ahead of me.
The place opened in 2017 and given my love of all things travel, not to mention half my family working within the aviation industry, I’d been itching to get in and have a look around.
Its location doesn’t make much sense for tourists, around seven miles out of town, but in aviation terms, it makes sense to be close to Filton airfield.
It’s celebrated for hosting Concorde’s final landing, but, as hangar one explains, Filton itself has been heavily involved in aviation since the pre-War days of 1910.
We walk and toddle past biplanes, a Harrier jump jet and other impressive-looking pieces of kit. Despite my days spent studying Double Maths, I feel ever so slightly out of my depth.
Baby lab is undeterred, thrilling in the freedom of a flat floor with safe boundaries. The sheer size of the exhibits also spares everyone the “don’t touch” routine and her little toddling feet dance with a freedom that mirrors mankind’s desire to take to the skies in the first place.
For me, though, with an eye on the time, I’m here to meet Concorde.
Duty propels me to try my best with the rest but my eyes flicker back and forth, back and forth. I’m furtively seeking the sleek white wings of the fastest commercial airliner in the world.
Until I see the suitcases.
It’s a brilliantly simple idea: cut through a plane, show people what it’s like.
It’s at once familiar – and at the same time, very, very strange.
It’s so… gaspingly thin and insubstantial. And those aren’t the kind of words you want to hear when it comes to matters like airport safety.
I must have sat on seats like that, trodden over the carpet and fumbled around with the safety briefing on a plane like this hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Knowing, yet never knowing, how little separated me from the wing, the luggage, and, well, the hard surface of the ground.
At sea level. Never mind at thirty thousand feet in the sky.
Ach, well. It’s not going to stop me now. Air travel is the safest form of travel.
Right? Rinse and repeat in my head. Air travel is the safest form of travel… The safest form of travel…
And then it’s time.
We walk across the tarmac in the golden winter sun, the Top Gun theme tune blazing through, ahem, my mind.
Boarding tickets checked, we are ushered through the doors.
And there she is.
Simply there. Tall, proud, sleek, long, white and quite, quite beautiful.
I’m not usually one to coo over cold machinery but the story of Concorde is one to melt a robot’s icy heart.
As a turbojet powered supersonic passenger airliner, Concorde made a splash in the history books (even though you wouldn’t have heard it until after it had gone.)
It was one of only two supersonic passenger planes ever developed (the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 was the other one) with a maximum airspeed of more than twice the speed of sound. That’s Mach 2.04 or 1,354 mph or 2,180 km/h depending on your currency of choice.
Yet the human element of the story is just as captivating.
Concorde was a twin endeavour between two nations with centuries upon centuries of strife. The name itself signifies harmony, friendship and partnership, although ironically the language used became an obstacle in its own right.
This joint endeavour between the UK and France produced the first ever supersonic passenger flight in 1969, picking up customers in 1976 and continuing to whizz folk about the earth until its final flight, which landed here in Filton, in 2003.
And how did I hear about most of these facts?
Through a rather impressive sound and light show played on the side of Concorde herself.
The rest of the museum indulges in both the fashion and the fame of Concorde.
Celebrity photos, cabin crew uniforms and champagne bottles catalogue her jet set life but the highlight comes from stepping aboard the plane herself.
It’s narrower inside than I would have imagined, the cockpit crammed with dials, switches and sliders like the shelves of an old-fashioned sweet shop.
Along with a pilot and co-pilot, Concorde required a full time Flight Engineer to enable the plane to fly. As shocking as this sounds now, this, of course, was how most planes used to fly. There was just too much information for one person to keep track of during a flight.
Today, though, autopilot is just a way of life instead of just a phrase and the very thought of flying without it seems outdated.
In fact, that’s perhaps the most surprising thing of all, to see how material from the early naughties already looks primed to be in a museum.
Not that any of this deep thinking troubles baby Lab? She just merrily toddles on.
At the tender age of 15 months, she has already been on board Concorde, even if it’s one that will never fly.
To her, planes will always have autopilot and for all I know by the time she reaches my age, Concorde will seem more like Bristol’s other engineering masterpiece, the SS Great Britain. A relic from a far forgotten age.
For her, perhaps supersonic flight will be the norm, or perhaps an entirely new way of getting around will have by then have been found.
She will look upon that cross section of the plane as I did the berths on the ship and wonder just how people managed to put up with the cramped conditions in order to get from A to B.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Right here, right now, we’re in the presence of Concorde, surrounded by volunteers who love her.
Goodbye Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the last Concorde to be built and the last to fly.
I love the spirit of exploration, design and friendship that you embodied and it’s been my absolute pleasure to be able to visit and get to know you.
Until the next invention,
It’s easiest to get here by car, either as a quick detour from the M4 or as part of a city break in Bristol. The pretty, gritty, hilly city of Bristol is a great place for a weekend break, with many different flavours, and I WILL write up more about that soon. So check back for more tips.
Aerospace Bristol is very accessible, with ramps and lifts and a cafe half way through the museum for refreshments and a rest. However, it does involve a fair amount of walking through hangar one. To see Concorde only would involve less time on your feet.
Tickets can be booked online for “speedy boarding,” although you can drop in as well.
Aerospace Bristol is open 7 days a week, including Bank Holidays, except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.*
From 26 February 2018: 10am – 5pm
Last entry: 4pm (one hour before closing)
***ALWAYS CHECK THE UP TO DATE INFORMATION ON VISITING AEROSPACE BRISTOL HERE BEFORE TRAVELLING ***
Disclosure – I visited Aerospace Bristol using a media pass, which allows complimentary entry for review purposes. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like and chose my own itinerary.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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