On November 26, 2003, rookie photographer Lewis Whyld took this snapshot of the Concorde on its final flight, over the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, western England. (Courtesy: SWNS)
On Nov. 26, 2003, the Concorde supersonic jet made its final flight as it returned to the airfield near Bristol in southwest England, where it has remained ever since.
When this marvel of modern engineering towered over Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge, a Victorian engineering landmark based on a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it created a poignant moment that was witnessed by enthusiastic crowds.
High in the sky, hanging from a helicopter and buffeted by icy winds, photographer Lewis Whyld managed to capture it with his camera: an image that has become the defining shot of the golden age of faster-than-sound travel.
Whyld, who now works as an aerial cameraman for CNN, reveals how he took one of the most spectacular airplane photos in history.
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The Photographer's Story
I remember someone yelling, "There it is, there is the plane!" I was so excited just looking at it, I took a picture right away, and then I thought, "Wait, I have to wait for the bridge to pass."
We were, I think, about 900 meters away, with the Concorde 457 meters below us. I was standing on the skid outside the helicopter, icy, with the downdraft of the rotors blowing over me. I couldn't feel my fingers, my toes, or my face.
It wasn't an easy shot. I had to lean out of the helicopter because of the angle we were flying. I was terrified. Terrified by the novelty of being in a helicopter for the second time in my life, terrified of messing up the job.
He was 25 years old. I had recently been hired by an agency called the South West News Service, which supplies images and reports from the South West of England to national UK and international media outlets. When the work on the Concorde came up, I just signed up.
The only thing my boss said to me was, "Don't mess it up."
900 meters in the air
Lewis Whyld in 2003, the year he photographed the Concorde. This photograph was taken on his first attempt at aerial photography. He was on a plane with his friend, who was learning to fly at the time. (Courtesy: Lewis Whyld)
Since we were in a helicopter, there were a lot of things that could go wrong. Trying to align everything in a three-dimensional space was a challenge. The chances of the plane flying over the bridge at exactly the angle we needed were slim.
And, of course, the plane moves very fast.
While nowadays you can burst your camera and get a selection of images, they used to be much slower. He only had one shot.
The plane was so white in the bright sunlight, against a dark background of foliage and the river, that the contrast was enormous. It would have been easy to overexpose the Concorde and get a white triangle with no detail.
Since the plane was traveling so fast and my focus point was so small, it would also have been very easy to focus something on the ground and leave the Concorde blurry.
And the helicopter was in constant motion. The pilot couldn't glide, we had to fly on circuits, something that had to do with keeping the helicopter in the air.
To balance these things, you have to reduce the aperture to have more depth of field, but that slows down the shutter speed, which means that the image can be blurry if you move the camera too fast. I had to do a lot of mental calculations and probably changed the camera settings 10 times before the Concorde arrived.
Capture the moment
Credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images
There was no trial and error. When I flew by, I had a chance to take the picture.
And then it was there, gliding in the sky below me.
I was standing on the skid of the helicopter and I leaned out of the air and took the picture, just as it passed in front of the bridge.
I didn't know the photo would be shaped the way it is, with the cliff face, bridge, and crowd framing the plane, against a relatively clean background and almost mirroring the shape of the wing.
Everyone loved the Concorde, so having that human element in the picture enhanced it a little more than if there was just an empty landscape behind it.
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After the flyby, we landed at Filton airfield, where Concorde had also landed. I took other photos of him being towed to his hangar while the pilot waved from the window.
Then I started editing my images to send to the office.
I remember people looking over my shoulder when I uploaded the photo of the bridge to my laptop. I didn't really know what I had at the time. I didn't know it was a special photo and that people were going to love it. I just thought, "job done."
Then people began to crowd behind me. Other photographers said, "Well, what's the point of us sending something, because that's the one everybody's going to use."
Then people started crowding behind me. Other photographers said, "Well, what's the point of us sending something, because that's the one everybody's going to use."
At the time, I had no idea that this would turn out to be true. It appeared in all the newspapers, of course they also used other photos, but that was definitely the main one.
Some produced it as a collector's poster. I managed to get my mother to gather the cards needed to send them. Some newspapers sent me bottles of champagne. I had never known anything like it.
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An enduring image
The image made an impression on aviation enthusiasts.
I've been contacted by some groups to ask if I can help get Concorde flying again. Ironically, I thought it would be better for my photo if it didn't take off again, as it wouldn't be the last flight.
But it's an amazing machine. I never had the chance to fly in it, and in fact, I've never been in it. I've only seen it from the outside, underneath me. That was the first and last time I saw her fly.
In the 20 years since 2003, I've taken other memorable photos, but you're always remembered for your greatest hits and I guess that will always be one of my "greatest hits."
It's partly because of the photo and partly because there wasn't another chance to take it. So no matter how good the photo is, it will always be the last photo of the Concorde. I was lucky it was good.
Now I'm pretty well known for shooting with drones. That was my first aerial image and since then, coincidentally, I've made a career out of doing aerial photography and using drones.
Even with technological advances, if we were to do that shot of the Concorde again, we'd have to use a helicopter. A drone would not be allowed to fly over the plane and take photos.
So we'd keep doing it the same way, but we'd have better cameras and I'd come back with a flurry of photos we could choose from, rather than just one.
In a way, I'm glad the technology was the way it was, because there's only one photo. Now we're a bit spoiled and having more than one version of an image can dilute its power.
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The Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the aircraft that was photographed by Whyld, is now on display at Aerospace Bristol. (Credit: Suzanne Plunkett/CNN)
Interestingly, while camera technology has advanced, airplane technology has not in many respects. Then you could get to New York in three and a half hours. Now we have bigger planes – like the A380 – but in terms of speed, the Concorde is still the pinnacle of aviation.
The photo represents the end of an era of aviation, and nothing has come to replace it, certainly nothing has captured the public's imagination like the Concorde. I think part of the reason the photo still resonates today is because of that enduring affection we all feel for that bygone era of travel.
There are always rumors that new supersonic jets are in the works, and I like to follow the news, but there's nothing concrete yet. I would love to see supersonic travel come back in a greener, more modern way, to shorten distances and make the world an easier place to navigate.
Also, it would be a sign of human ingenuity to see something like this in the skies again, which would be great from a geeky point of view. But while I'm vigilant, I haven't seen anything close to reality yet.
If I took the photo today, I would also have a much higher resolution camera, so I could take a wider photo that we could then crop to get different compositions. At that time I was using a relatively long lens and it's really the full frame that you see, it's the best way to get the highest possible resolution out of the photo.
Now we could afford to use a wider lens and still get a high-resolution image if we needed to zoom in later, but we didn't have that back then.
At the time, the general opinion was to take the shot with a wide angle and as close as possible to the plane. But that meant that the bridge would be tiny at the bottom and the same effect would not be achieved. I went for the long goal and only later, when I gained more experience, did I realize that it was quite risky. It means you're shooting in a tight space. That's how it was, everything fell into place, everything worked, but in general those things don't usually fit perfectly.
At that time I was very optimistic and confident, I knew what I wanted and I thought there was no reason why it wouldn't go well. I guess as time goes on you become more realistic. But I'd like to think that nowadays I'd still be taking risks and trying to take the ultimate shot, instead of playing it safe and getting something that people don't remember.
Twenty years later, there are postcards with my picture and posters, even a cross stitch. In the early years, people were giving me that kind of thing all the time. I think I have at least one puzzle at home. I was asked to do a limited edition.
With modern technology, in terms of editing, we could make a print of the photo better than ever before. We can't change the camera it was shot with, but we can change the way we edit it and the details we highlight.
I still have the digital negatives, so we can always go back to the raw file and take it to the digital darkroom, and then run it through the amazing modern technology we have today to extract details that we couldn't before.
There are methods to increase the resolution, take high-quality old photos, and get more detail, especially with AI. But I don't want to change the nature or reality of the photo. I don't want to manipulate it in any way.
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An Incredible Opportunity
Lewis Whyld in 2017, photographing in the Arctic for a CNN project highlighting the impact of global warming. (Courtesy: Lewis Whyld)
In hindsight, I was surprised that Concorde's last flight was this small hop from London to Bristol, but it was an opportunity for our photo agency to compete with international photojournalists from New York and London.
It was a fantastic opportunity to take a great picture of a story that wasn't really political, or terrible, or a disaster, or anything like that.
In a way, I'm glad that one of my most enduring images is of something festive, and not something depressing or a disaster, like all the hurricanes and typhoons I've been in, all the war zones and riots. There's something uplifting about the Concorde photo.
In the years since the last flight, I moved from Bristol to London. I worked for the UK Press Association and The Telegraph newspaper, before moving to CNN to film aerial footage, video and drone footage. I was part of the CNN team that covered the war in Ukraine and won an Emmy earlier this year.
Taking the Concorde was always the springboard for my career. That's where it all started. Later, people got to know my images and offered me a job. That moved my career forward.
I didn't expect it when I took the photo, but I'm grateful.