MIAMI– Whilst made famous by the transatlantic flights from London (LHR) to New York (JFK) and the handful of other charters the airline’s flag carrier used to operate, the British Airways (BA) Concorde made a number of trips to Rovaniemi (RVN) as a seasonal Christmas Charter.
The first BA Concorde charter to the official home of Santa Claus touched down onto the snow covered runway of Rovaniemi on Christmas Day, 1984. The arrival of this supersonic jet brought 97 people from the United Kingdom to Northern Finland for a festive 8 hour visit.
The flights, which were once just a mere dream, became a staple of the Concorde’s charter, operating every year from 1984 until 1999. The flights also, arguably, have helped the airline continue to operate Christmas Charters to Lapland to this day, however on the short-haul Airbus fleet from London Gatwick (LGW).
The risky decision to operate the Concorde Charter up to Rovaniemi in 1984 has arguably put it on the map and between 1984 and 2017, it has been estimated that 80,000 people from around the globe have traveled to Rovaniemi in December alone.
Rovaniemi Airport (RVN) is the third busiest airport in Finland after Helsinki (HEL) and Oulu (OUL). Along with Helsinki and Oulu, Rovaniemi is only one of three airports in Finland with jetways. The airport was built in 1940 with two grass surface runways and during the Continuation War served as an airbase and supply center for the German Luftwaffe.
The airport is located approximately six miles from Rovaniemi city center and less than two miles from Santa Claus Village and Santa Park.
The busiest period for the airport is by far the Christmas period. Operators from all around Europe now operate flights into Rovaniemi usually from the end of November through to January.
Outside of this period, the only regular scheduled flights to the airport are domestic Finnair (AY) flights from the country’s capital – Helsinki (HEL). General aviation and private pilots are served at the airport by the heated and fully enclosed hangar located near to the terminal complex.
The airport has one runway (03/21) and measures at approximately 9,850 feet according to the Finnish AIP service.
The idea for the Christmas Concorde charter originated from the founders of the UK tour operators Goodwood Travel following their decision to charter a Concorde in 1982 for the Monaco Grand Prix the year after.
Following the success of this “party” for Goodwood Travel, the decision was made by the directors at the time, Colin Mitchell and Jan Knott, to host a charter on Christmas Day to Lapland to meet Father Christmas after flying Concorde.
The next step for Goodwood was to present this idea to BA. Upon presenting the idea to the carrier, George Blundell-Pound (in charge of Concorde charters at the time) suggested that the flight should use Rovaniemi instead of the larger Helsinki. However, Rovaniemi was closed on Christmas Day and meant that the pair had a lot to do for this flight to take off.
However, following the departure of George Blundell-Pound from his role in charge of Concorde charters, his successor dropped a bombshell on Mitchell and Knott. He told them that the flight to Rovaniemi was completely out of the question as there was a lack of suitable equipment at the airport.
A solution was found when Goodwood suggested that since Helsinki was an acceptable alternative, that they could temporarily move the required equipment from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
This was initially deemed as too expensive at a total price of £2,500 at the time. This was merely another £25 to the already £800 cost for the tour. Goodwood accepted this price yet was however met with another call from British Airways telling them that this cannot be done as the airline remained ever cautious.
Colin Mitchell spoke to one of his friends in Helsinki to break the news that the airline have said it cannot be done only be told that a DC-10 landed at Rovaniemi only a few days before.
Armed with this new information, Mitchell once again called BA to be met with the reply that “If a DC-10 can land there, so can Concorde!”. After a long struggle, Goodwood Travel had now achieved what many people would deem as impossible. They had managed to convince one of the largest airlines in the world to fly its flagship into a small Finnish airbase for a ludicrous Christmas charter.
Putting Lapland on the Map
Following a visit to Rovaniemi with a captain and senior flight-engineer, Goodwood Travel managed to find a local tour operator that they felt they could trust with the borrowed ground equipment. The tour operator was described to be just as mad as Mitchell and Knott from Goodwood Travel.
The next challenge to overcome was finding a customer base that the tour would appeal too. It was felt that the company’s original customer base of motor sports fans would not be the most likely to book on a tour to go and see Father Christmas. The pair felt that they had to start national advertising yet were not confident in their ability to fund it following the cost of Concorde and the lack of spare cash for the company.
They approached the Finnish tourist board with their proposal. Fearing that the tourist board would not support their idea, they were surprised when they discovered that they were rewarded by the tourist board with a small advert in the Sunday Express provided that “you don’t tell Finnair!”.
That one Concorde flight to Rovaniemi on Christmas Day turned out to be a huge investment for Finland. The flight sold out and arguably put Rovaniemi on the map, seeing regular Christmas services to this day.
A Christmas Flight
Following the restrictions on Concorde’s ability to only fly subsonic over land, the routing of this flight took the aircraft out over the North Sea, supersonic to the North of Tromsø and then subsonic over land to Rovaniemi. The duration of the flight was two hours. Flying north, the sun would set only to be seen to rise again in the east.
The supersonic leg of the flight was just long enough for the passengers onboard to enjoy their champagne and brunch and also enough time to change into their cold weather gear ready for the artic temperatures upon landing.
The flight landed at approximately midday local time with the sun just on the horizon. The landing involved a low overpass of the airport before returning to land. The roads around the airport were packed with cars and avid spotters who had come to marvel at the Concorde’s first appearance at Lapland.
The return flight departed Rovaniemi at approximately eight o’clock in the evening local time. The pitch black sky was lit up by Concorde’s afterburners just long enough to enjoy the lack of noise abatement procedures as Concorde powered its way through “the last wilderness of Europe”.
Mitchell and Knott had completed the seemingly impossible. Following this one flight, a BA Concorde returned to Rovaniemi for the next 14 years until 1999.
That one flight on Christmas Day, 1984 turned what was just a small airport building with the odd domestic flight into something of a seasonal international hub and sees thousands of international visitors each year.
Featured image: Concorde in Lapland – Photo by Jill Martin