Mach 2 with­out leav­ing the ground

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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