Barbara Harmer was the first qualified female pilot for legendary supersonic jet Concorde. Her journey from hairdresser to the cockpit of the world’s fastest airliner was testament to her extraordinary determination.
When she was just 15, Barbara Harmer decided to leave the convent school she was attending in the English seaside town of Bognor Regis. Yet to discover her passion of flying, she began a career as a apprentice hairdresser. But after five years, she realised she wanted more excitement in her life.
Harmer left hairdressing behind and went to work as a trainee air traffic controller at Gatwick Airport. She also began to take flying lessons and after five years, she obtained her private pilot’s licence. One bank loan and several years’ hard work later, she qualified as a commercial pilot aged 29.
The hard work didn’t stop there, though: it took no fewer than 100 applications before Harmer found her first pilot’s job. In 1984, she joined British Caledonian Airways, for whom she flew BAC One-Elevens for three years, before progressing to the long-haul McDonnell Douglas DC-10.
In 1987, British Caledonian merged with British Airways and five years later Harmer earned her place in the record books as the first woman chosen to undergo the intensive six-month conversion course for Concorde.
After successfully completing the course, Harmer became the first qualified female Concorde pilot and made her maiden supersonic flight from London to New York in 1993. Eight years later, Air France pilot Béatrice Vialle became the second of only two women to ever fly Concorde on regular scheduled services.
There’s nothing else like it in the world. Even pilots stop and stare. It has an aura about it.
Flying the legendary jet was a particular challenge. The aircraft used afterburners at take-off and to quickly gain altitude. After that, the afterburners were switched off to keep noise on the ground to a minimum. They were only switched on again at very high altitude to go supersonic and accelerate to the top speed of up to Mach 2.
During cruising without using the afterburners, the high speed left very little time for navigation. The final descent before touchdown had to be precisely timed, as Concorde’s delta wings had no flaps.
Between them, Barbara Harmer and Beatrice Vialle made 35 trips between Paris, London and New York. “There’s nothing else like it in the world,” she once said about Concorde. “Even pilots stop and stare. It has an aura about it."
But British Airways and Air France withdrew Concorde from service in 2003, leaving Harmer to fly long-haul flights for British Airways until the end of her active flying career. It was then she dedicated herself to her second passion – sailing.
Flying through the waves
It took no fewer than 100 applications before Harmer found her first pilot’s job.
She took part in international sailing events, won several races and had intended to take part in many more. However, Harmer succumbed to cancer in 2011, aged just 57.
Shortly after her death, her husband, Andrew Hewett, told British newspaper The Argus: “We will wait for a nice summer evening and scatter her ashes from a Tiger Moth plane flown by our friend Captain Les Brodie, who landed the last ever Concorde flight. We will distribute the ashes … into the sea at the foot of her garden. Barbara was a keen sailor and wanted to be spread over the ocean. This will combine her two great passions.”
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