It blows my mind that the Concorde was capable of flying at Mach 2. If you do the maths - that's over 600 metres per SECOND. Insane!
Captain Mike Bannister was the Chief Pilot for the British Airways Concorde Fleet. He has amassed almost 10,000 hours flying the Concorde, and he captained the final ever Concorde flight from New York to London in 2003. I was lucky enough to interview him via email over the weekend - this is what he had to say:
1. Was there anything unique about the selection process for recruiting Concorde pilots?
Straight teeth and a crooked smile!! Seriously though – no. The aircraft was designed to be flown by ‘Ordinary Airline Pilots’. Having said that, there was an element of selection of particular types – i.e. those who enjoyed ‘flying aircraft’ more so than ‘seeing the world’. If top of your list was ‘seeing the World’ then the 747 or 777 were better bets, not Concorde. But, if you still got a huge thrill from pure ‘Handling the Beast’, then Concorde was for you.
There was a bidding process amongst pilots and flight Engineers with about 30 applications for every available place.
2. What was the most challenging aspect about flying the Concorde?
Crew & Personal Capacity. It wasn’t a ‘difficult’ aircraft. It was a ‘complex and different’ aircraft. Effectively it was 4 aircraft in one, A high one, a low one, a fast one and a slow one. You had more than twice as much to do in less than half the time. At Mach 2, you have to ‘be well ahead of the aircraft’.
3. What was the Concorde like to fly overall?
Handling characteristics changed dramatically between high and low speeds. It’s lift was aerodynamically different from a conventional aircraft, which meant that it didn’t fly well at low speeds. This was especially important in the approach and landing phase where you would maintain 190 knots to 800 feet, then reduce power to achieve 167 knots by 500 feet and fly that to touchdown.
At high speeds Concorde was very sensitive – but satisfying. At Mach 2, if you pitched up just 5°, then you’d ‘Zoom Climb’ at over 10,000 feet per minute. You could always fly Concorde with your fingertips – through take off, climb, acceleration, supersonic flight, descent, deceleration and landing. I did on one trip from New York to London when the autopilots were ‘playing up’, and I flew the whole thing with just my fingertips.
Acceleration within the cockpit was dramatic – especially at low weights. We always used full power and afterburner for take off, just to get ‘up and away’ in order to minimise our noise footprint. At a ‘training take off weight’ of 120 tonnes you are still using the same engine power as at the maximum takeoff weight of 185 tonnes.
Brake release to airborne at 220 knots was typically achieved in less that 20 seconds!
4. Did Concorde pilots train for any emergencies that would be unique to the Concorde?
Absolutely. The training course was 6 months compared to just 2 months for a conventional aircraft. 2 months in school learning the nuts and bolts. 2 months on the simulator and base flying learning to handle the aircraft. Then 2 months ‘on the line’ learning to operate the aircraft.
There were 14 Emergency Checklists that we had to know, and be able to action, from memory. The Emergency Checklist had around 152 pages and 95 separate drills.
Nose failure to droop had two emergency checklists – it’s standby hydraulic lowering, or its freefall lowering (It never happened ‘for real’ though!).
5. What was the highest altitude and speed you flew?
62,748 feet on an Air Test.
I was also the UK’s Chief Concorde Airworthiness Test Pilot. My maximum speeds were Mach 2.04 (which was the maximum speed allowed by the flight manual), and 1292 knots ground speed whilst sitting in the Jet Stream from New York to London. We ‘Flew The Pond’ (JFK to LHR) in just 2 hrs 54 minutes and 35 seconds on that day
6. Who was the most famous person you flew?
Lots of them. Most members of the UK Royal Family and several members of other ones. Prime Ministers, Cabinet Members, Sports Stars, Pop Stars, Business Leaders and the ‘Rich and Famous’ to name but a few. Concorde was known for offering discretion, so I won't go into any more detail!
7. Did you fly any other commercial aircraft after the Concorde? If so, how did you find the transition?
No - after the Concorde I moved into management at British Airways. I do still fly the original British Airways Concorde Simulator now at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, UK though! And it flies better than ever
8. What was your most memorable Concorde flight?
I have three in particular:
- My first ever Concorde take off
- Flying with the Red Arrows down the Mall in London for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and, of course,
- The last ever scheduled Concorde flight on 24th October 2003.
All different but all are life long memories.
9. Do you have a particular Concorde story that you always tell/are asked to tell at parties?
Operationally there are so many stories. Perhaps just relating what it was like to:
- Fly on the edge of Space where the sky got darker and you could see the curvature of the Earth
- Fly faster than a rifle bullet at 2172 km/h - or 36 km/minute - or over 600 metres per second!!
- Flying so quickly that the aircraft heated and expanded by up to 8 inches in length
- Fly faster than the Earth rotates so we could see the Sun rise in the West
- Watch subsonic aircraft below us appear to fly backwards at over 1126km/h.
- Fly to New York and back in one day - and still be home in time for dinner!