“Concorde” by Mike Bannister (published by Penguin Books)

Up on cloud nine at the border of space

Once and once only I saw it, way up over the London suburb of Bromley, probably heading to or from Heathrow and so not reaching Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. But still high enough to see the curvature of the Earth? Anyway, there it was – the unmistakable white delta wings of Concorde, the world’s most advanced, most exclusive passenger plane. Without a doubt, it was a thrill.
27. April 2024 5:37

Still, at the same time, it was way up there and I was way down here, reinforcing my feeling that Concorde was for the elite VIPs who were richer and more famous that I might ever be: business people, politicians, royalty and stars. A flight for the common bloke like me would mean digging into savings, or perhaps fluking a prize in a competition.

Difficult to share in, perhaps, but here is a fine book about it all. Mike Bannister became British Airway’s Chief Concorde Pilot in 1995, after becoming the youngest pilot on the Concorde fleet in 1977. Altogether he amassed more than 9200 flight hours, with some 6900 of them at supersonic speed. Here is his story, in and out of the cockpit behind the famous drooping nose, glimpsing the edge of space, faster than a rifle bullet at 23 miles a minute, faster than the Earth rotates and outpacing the Sun, thus in effect buying back time.

And Bannister confirms that throughout the plane’s lifetime, almost right up until when she was retired in 2003, the passenger profile was the same – 80 per cent business people, 10 per cent rich and famous, 5 per cent in sport, leisure and entertainment, and the remaining 5 per cent that “once-in-a-lifetime” demographic, the folks who couldn’t routinely afford to eat caviar and drink champagne on ice while shaving a few hours off a journey from A to B.

It was while holidaying with Mum and Dad on Bournemouth Beach on the south coast of England in summer 1956 that seven-year-old Mike would stare up at the shimmering silver specks of planes. He could already identify them all, the pre-jet Viscounts, Ambassadors and DC-3s bound for the Continent. It was then that he told his parents he wanted to be a pilot.

Eventually it came to be, and in 1967 he arrived at the College of Air Training Hamble, in Hampshire, that had been set up in 1960 as the exclusive training establishment for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways Corporation (BEA), the two airlines that eventually merged as British Airways in 1974.

It was at Hamble, while swatting for his final exams in the study room one evening, that his attention was caught by the black-and-white television on in the background. There was a newsflash about the maiden flight of the first UK-built Concorde, Concorde 002, taking place from Filton, near Bristol, five weeks after the debut flight of the French-built prototype. Captivated, he told himself that one day he too would fly that wonderful aircraft.

British Airways and Air France were the only two airlines to operate the the world’s first supersonic airliner, developed jointly, launched in 1962 and entered into service in January 1967, by which time the extraordinary plane had already cemented itself into aviation lore as an icon. And Bannister’s deep long-held dream could happen – he graduated from Hamble top of his course, in fact number one in the whole year’s 180 student intake.

From there he went on to BOAC’s Heathrow Training Centre at Cranebank. His book becomes very technical at times as he learns about the dangers of deep-stalls, “Dutch rolls” and another nasty phenomenon known as “Mach tuck”, but it remains very readable.

He tells of terrible crashes too, such as when a BOAC Boeing 707 on a round-the-world trip broke up  in mid-air over Mount Fuji, Japan, in March 1966 due to unusual meteorological conditions, killing all 124 on board.  Another BOAC Boeing 707 made an emergency landing at Heathrow after an engine failure in April 1968 with 127 people on board, five of whom died and 35 were injured in the subsequent fire. All 118 died in a crash at Staines in 1972.

After the cause of the Mount Fuji disaster was established, Bannister records that not a single airliner has been lost since to the same phenomenon – “a testament to the adage that the science of air crash investigation advances one crash at a time.  It is also a testament, sadly, to the fact that the whole science of air safety does too.”

An interesting aspect of his story is that he is among a new generation of would-be pilots preparing to handle a new breed of jets, such as the Boeing 707, Vickers VC10 and Hawker Siddeley Trident. These pilots are replacing the ex-military fliers who had drifted into civil aviation after World War II, and who tended to be fly-by-the-seats-of-the-pants types.

One of Bannister’s instructors was Geoff Morrell, who had been among the youngest Lancaster bomber pilots at the end of the war. Morrell gave him a white-knuckle experience, aiming at some cliffs then just clearing them at the very last moment. Also, Morrell took revenge on a pub landlord who had caused trouble, roaring low over the roof and shattering windows. You didn’t mess with these people, these god-like beings, Bannister comments.

He duly qualified to fly VC10s then was determined to pilot Concorde even though it meant a lot less pay, up to £10,000 a year because of fewer allowances, plus it took six months to retrain for the supersonic airliner rather than the normal two with conventional aircraft. And four of those months were residential at Filton, thus away from friends and family.

Finally, after thorough training, he qualified and flew what he passionately calls “the Beast”, albeit a unique and highly streamlined thoroughbred with its distinctive nose and resembling a giant white pterodactyl. Concorde was an altogether different kettle of fish, pushing almost every single boundary of aerospace innovation. Bannister details everything in full.

It was the most advanced and fastest airliner in the sky. The Americans gave up on plans to build their own supersonic passenger plane. The Soviet Union had its Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic airliner, dubbed “Concordski” by the British press because of its similar appearance, and it beat Concorde into the air by two months. But it was doomed after crashing at the 1973 Paris Airshow, killing all six crew and eight people on the ground.

Before the fuel crisis of 1973-74, the British Aircraft Corporation and Sud Aviation of France had 200-plus orders for Concorde. But this rosy future ended when all orders except British Airways’ and Air France’s were cancelled in favour of the new long-range, wide-body Boeing 747 that could carry up to 450 people almost anywhere compared with Concorde’s 100 passengers but only as far as the width of the Atlantic Ocean. British Airways and Air France had wanted to cancel too but the two governments made them continue to fly Concorde.

These were the days when the door to the flight deck was kept open, and the crew were under obligation to “extend all courtesies” to their leading-light passengers. There’s a good story about Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev visiting the flight deck, and US golfer Tom Watson was appreciative, but Princess Margaret was snooty (our word, not Bannister’s).

On July 25, 2000, Air France Flight 4590 slammed into a hotel on the edge of Gonesse town, 3 kilometres from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground.. It was the moment, effectively, that the vision of supersonic air travel died.

Air France immediately grounded Concordes. At British Airways, the choice was to continue as normal with stiff upper lip or halt operations indefinitely. Within the airline it was “love or hate” – with some who saw the plane as a huge drain on resources and here was an excuse to kill it, while Bannister and others backed the revolutionary airliner that had flown for 24 years largely without incident or interruption.

The author devotes much text to his search for what he suspects to be the truth behind the fatal crash, rather than the simpler French version blaming debris on the runway. Was the disaster actually caused by overloading of fuel and baggage? Mistakes by the crew? Eventually we know it doesn’t turn out well and Concorde can no longer be seen over Bromley or elsewhere but is a museum piece. Nonetheless, Bannister tells a gem of a tale, surely eclipsing other accounts.

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