Mach 2 without leaving the ground
They taped up the windows in our local pub when Concorde first flew in the late Sixties. The mysterious sonic boom was the subject of fevered speculation and lurid newspaper graphics. Would it smash the nearby greenhouses of Efford horticultural research station, or split the sails of yachts in The Solent, or even burst our eardrums? Every car backfire or distant thunderclap would have us staring fearfully into menacing skies. Was that “The Boom”?
I missed Concorde’s first commercial flight in 1976, but not the controversy. Even the gallic “e” at the end of its name. “For Excellency, England, Europe and Entente,” said Tony Benn, diplomatically adding “and Ecosse,” when confronted by an irate Scotsman. Cost overruns, perfidious French partners, those pitiless Gerald Scarfe cartoons of Ted Heath with the aeroplane’s famous dipping nose; was Concorde a source of national pride or a lame duck?
But being lucky enough to fly in Concorde 30 years later, I simply fell in love with this dart-like machine, which becomes more extraordinary the more you learn.
Top speed 1,354mph, flying on the edge of space, with the earth’s curvature clearly visible. So fast that air friction would heat its hiduminium (high-duty aluminium alloy) skin and the aircraft would grow by six inches. The pilots could push the flight engineer’s cap into the gap between the bulkhead and his instrument panel – by the time they landed, the airframe had shrunk and the cap was stuck fast. The floor fizzed with energy as the reheat was engaged on the four Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus turbojets. Over the Atlantic, I accepted a glass of London Pride from the air hostess and looked out of the tiny window. “This is the only place you can have a pint at Mach 2 without a g-suit and an oxygen mask,” said the grinning captain during his cabin walkabout.
He didn’t say how cramped his flight deck was. Or how his feet struggled through the gap twixt seat and instrument console. How the claustrophobic design was straight out of military jets, nor how afterburner switches would tear your nails as you tugged them while Concorde champed against its brakes at the end of the runway.
I know this now, though, because I am sitting in Concorde’s captain’s seat, nursing bruised fingers as my co-pilot chants the litany of pre-flight checks. “Landing lights are on, transponder to talk to air traffic control is set, wheel light for overheated brakes is not illuminated, master warning has no lights on, take-off monitors are on and OK, pitch index set to 17.5 degrees, radar is on…”
Co-pilot? That’ll be Captain Mike Bannister, chief Concorde pilot and owner of the sauciest laugh that ever escaped a man with gold braid on his sleeves. It was Capt Bannister who piloted Concorde at 300ft up The Mall in formation with the Red Arrows in 2002 for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. “I could see Her Majesty standing on the balcony,” he says, “it was astoundingly emotional.”
We are in the Concorde simulator, part of Brooklands
London calling: Mike Bannister gives Andrew English his instructions as they “fly” Concorde over the capital in the supersonic aircraft’s actual simulator that is now based at Brooklands
Final approach: Concorde last flew for real in November 2003