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50 Years of Concorde

20 May 2011

The title “Prestige Lecture” proved to be especially apt for Mike Bannister’s memorable and inspirational presentation on Concorde. Backed by a superb AV display of video clips, still photos and explanatory graphics he held the audience enthralled for almost two hours with his detailed inside story of Concorde from its conception through to its final flights. He began by emphasizing the local origins of the Concorde project 50 years ago in a joint meeting at Brooklands between Vickers and their French rivals Aerospatiale. Both companies had been working on plans for a supersonic airliner but, daunted by the huge technical issues this created, came to an agreement to share their work on development and manufacture.

Responsibility for developing the engines and fly-by-wire controls went to Vickers and for the airframe to Aerospatiale. Manufacturing would be split between several sites in England, France and Scotland, with one third of each aircraft being constructed at Brooklands and final assembly taking place in Toulouse. The collaboration proceeded unexpectedly well and the first prototype made its inaugural flight from Filton in1969 when test pilot Brian Trubshaw extended a high speed trialrun into a full take-off, to the ecstatic delight of the French observers and an appreciative “well done” from the British air traffic controller.

Issues arose in finding enough funding get commercial operations started, but this was initially provided by the British and French governments and later made the responsibility of the operating airlines, British Airways and Air France, Design modifications to meet the exacting requirements for a certificate of airworthiness took several years such that the first production aircraft flew in 1969 and it was not until 1973 that commercial flights began, at first to destinations including Washington DC, New York and Bahrain.

As chief Concorde pilot for British Airways over many years, Mike had often reflected on the magical appeal the aircraft had had, and still has, for so many people. Was it the elegance of its shape – dictated to some extent by the need to keep the wings inside the conical shock wave generated by the aircraft nose at supersonic speeds? Was it the ultra-fast speed,- faster than a rifle bullet or a Typhoon fighter, faster than the earth’s rotation, such that you arrived at your westbound destination at a clock time earlier than you had set off? Or that you could cross the Atlantic in about 3 hours? Was it the ingenuity of the technology: the computer-controlled ducted baffles to slow the incoming supersonic air to a speed the Olympus engines could handle; the droop snoot nose that let the pilot see the runway at the steeply angled attitude of the aircraft at take-off and landing; the fore and aft pumping of fuel as ballast when at high speed the centre of lift moved out of alignment with the centre of gravity; the special aluminium alloy that could cope with the deep low temperatures at 60,000 feet and the air-friction-generated temperatures of over 100◦C; the expansion joints to cope with the six inch temperature-generated expansion and contraction of the fuselage (which meant that a window seat at ground level could be out of line with its window in flight, or that the expansible joint near the flight deck allowed an unwitting crew member to be encouraged to put his hat into it during flight, only to find the hat irremovably squashed when he tried to reclaim it after landing))? Was it clever details like the telescopic support posts to let the retracted undercarriage fit into the available space in the wings? Was it the glamorous image generated by the A-list celebrity passengers (although these were a minority – for most of the aircraft’s life 80% of the users were business people)? Or was it the champagne and gourmet service that made a flight like a special trip to the Ritz?

Mike had concluded that what really had made Concorde special was its people, from its gifted designers and builders, through welcoming booking and check-in staff and skilled maintenance engineers, to the dedicated flight and cabin crew who made every flight a pleasure. Common to them all was great pride and satisfaction at being part of such a magical enterprise.

It was now 8 years since the last commercial flight. Mike felt that it was not the Air France fatal accident that ended commercial operations, but rather the huge associated operating costs which had made even such entrepreneurs as Richard Branson hesitate to take them on. Mike had been an expert witness in the trial to apportion blame for the Air France accident where he had heard evidence that the doomed plane had been on fire before being hit by the stray lump of metal often blamed as the cause. With most of the surviving Concordes now static in museums he saw little prospect of a Vulcan-style revival for future flights.

Mike ended by paying tribute to the skilled visionaries who had conceived the Concorde project all of 50 years ago. He was optimistic that today’s young people from such venues as our host location of Halliford School were already working towards the big ideas that will come to successful fruition over the next 50 years.

© 2011 Karen Sutton