Concorde at 50: What Flying Supersonic Was Really Like

Mar 2, 2019

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50 years to the day after its first flight on March 2, 1969, Concorde is a memory — the fastest passenger airplane that ever flew has been grounded since 2003. No amount of points and miles can get you on one: the last Concorde landed for good in 2003.

Among frequent flyers, there is a question that often pops up: Did you ever fly Concorde? (Don’t say the Concorde. Connoisseurs frown upon it.)

Those lucky enough to have flown on the supersonic jet know that, inside, it wasn’t all that glamorous, with small seats and a cramped cabin with tiny windows — but nobody really cared about that. Exceptional service and the chance to rub shoulders with celebrities between New York and Paris or London made up for that.

For pilots at Air France and British Airways, Concorde was the ultimate goal, the chance to command a machine faster than many fighter jets, able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in under three hours.

Here’s what pilots and passengers who flew it told us about their time with an airplane whose equal we may never see again.

“Like riding a thoroughbred”

Mike Bannister may well be the most famous Concorde pilot. He flew VC-10 long-haul jets with BOAC before becoming a British Airways Concorde first officer, then captain and instructor. He was chief pilot of the Concorde fleet at BA until it was grounded in 2003, and retired as vice president of BA’s short and medium-haul and Concorde operations.

“It was like riding a thoroughbred racehorse rather than a riding school hack, or driving a sports car rather than a truck,” he said. “It was so responsive, you could fly it with your fingertips.”

Flying Concorde was “very rewarding, because it operated so efficiently and effectively.  And it was rewarding to see Concorde customers very happy when they got off the airplane.”

Some of his most memorable flights, he noted, included “flying in formation with the RAF Red Arrows down the Mall in London for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002,” and participating in the Canadian International Air Show a number of times in the 1980s.

The Jubilee Fly past of 27 aircraft, including the Red Arrows and Concorde, fly above The Mall as part of the celebration to mark the Golden Jubilee of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. It was the largest formation flight over London since 1981. (Photo by Chris Ison - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Jubilee flypast of the Red Arrows aerobatic team and Concorde above The Mall in London (Photo by Chris Ison – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Before September 11, he and other pilots invited passengers to visit them on the flight deck and sometimes even join them for take-off and landing. Passengers were still welcomed after September 11, though only once the plane’s engines were turned off, after landing.

 One of his favorite passengers/visitors was the American golfer Tom Watson, whom he met just after Watson won the Open golf tournament in 1983: “He was absolutely charming. When he came up to see us, he brought his trophy and let us have photos holding it.”
Another favorite passenger was the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, whom Bannister, a ballet fan, was especially thrilled to see: “I took him to New York once.  He came up on the deck and we were chatting. He was watching me at work, while only the previous week I had seen him at work, dancing ‘Giselle’ at Covent Garden.”
Captain Mike Bannister talks to rock star Sting on a British Airways Concorde making its first commercial flight from London to New York after the aircraft were grounded following last July's crash near Paris. *The supersonic jet arrived at John F Kennedy Airport in New York ahead of schedule at 2.07pm (UK time), carrying 90 passengers including representatives from government, big business and the aviation industry. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Captain Bannister talks to rock star Sting on a British Airways Concorde making its first commercial flight from London to New York after the aircraft were grounded following the July 2000 crash near Paris. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Although Bannister, who retired from BA in 2004, said he “of course” misses flying the Concorde, he still has close ties to the aircraft:  He is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Brooklands Museum in Surrey,  site of a former aircraft factory, where one-third of every Concorde was built.  It today houses the largest Concorde spare parts collection in the world, as well as an entire aircraft.

“It was very emotional”

Béatrice Vialle was a first officer on Air France Concordes from 2001 to 2003; today she flies Boeing 777s for the carrier. 

On one of her earliest flights from Paris Charles de Gaulle to JFK, she actually had to land at Newark, because of fog. When the fog lifted, she flew the plane from New Jersey to New York, a trip that took all of 10 to 15 minutes. Because the plane at that point was not carrying any passengers or their belongings, it was, she said, “very light.  It was very fantastic to fly the plane when it was very empty, very interesting to do such a short flight.”

She also piloted Air France’s last Concorde flight arriving at CDG, a charter. “It was very emotional. A crowd had gathered around, right outside the runway, to say good-bye. We taxied slowly, as long as possible.”

Béatrice Vialle, la première femme à avoir piloté un Concorde, pose le 12 mai 2003 à l'aéroport de Roissy Charles de Gaulle, devant l'avion supersonique franco-britannique Concorde. Le dernier vol commercial du Concorde sous la bannière d'Air France, entre New York et Paris le 31 mai prochain, met fin au chapitre français de l'aventure supersonique civile et au règne d'un avion mythique qui a marqué l'histoire de l'aéronautique autant que l'esprit du public. Air France et British Airways, seuls groupes au monde à exploiter cet appareil, ont annoncé le 10 avril 2003 leur intention commune d'interrompre les vols du Concorde après vingt-sept années d'exploitation. (Photo by Jack GUEZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Béatrice Vialle posing with Concorde in May 2003, just weeks before Air France retired the planes (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

She, too, misses flying the supersonic aircraft. “It was a dream for me at pilot school. I didn’t think I could one day fly on the Concorde. I am very happy to have had these experiences. Few pilots have this fantastic experience on Concorde.”

“They came off the plane with a lot of energy”

Jennifer Coutts Clay — former controller of corporate identity for British Airways, overseeing all aspects of the carrier’s visual identity, including design of the Concorde interior and exterior, and currently an aviation consultant specializing in aircraft interiors — flew as a paying passenger a few times on both the British and French Concordes.

She remembers the 250-mile-per-hour speed at take-off, which she described as “feeling like you were going up like a rocket towards space.”

And because Concorde’s cabin altitude of about 5,500 feet was lower than normal aircraft, because of higher pressurization, she said passengers “did not suffer the normal amount of oxygen deprivation. They came off the plane with a lot of energy, always positive. It was something people loved about it.”

Sitting in front of Richard Branson

A retired, UK-based investment manager who flew Concorde some 30 times, all but once on BA, and who prefers not to be identified because he is still a customer of the airline, said that if you used the plane “effectively, the cost was much lower than anybody thought.”

This was true because he could fly to New York from London for a day to do business and did not need to stay overnight in a hotel.  And, he said, westbound, transatlantic subsonic flights were so short, “I could never get my sleep.”

On one flight he sat six rows in front of Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, who was once embroiled in a several-year-long legal battle with British Airways; BA admitted it had made improper attempts to undermine Virgin Atlantic and paid him and his airline almost $1 million in damages, as well as his court costs.

And on all flights the traveler collected gifts — including silver napkin rings and flasks, and items from Smythson of Bond Street, a British stationer — bestowed by the carriers on their high fare-paying passengers; he said his grandchildren inquire today about them.

Anniversary on Concorde

Paul Metselaar, chairman and chief executive of New York-based Ovation Travel Group, which specializes in corporate, leisure and group travel, took his first Concorde flight in May 1999 with his wife, Lisa, to begin a vacation in France celebrating their 15th anniversary.

“We sat down for an early morning flight, and there was an incredibly delicious Bordeaux, caviar and foie gras. We ate every single bit of it.  It was the beginning of an incredible vacation,” he recalled.

Passengers get a view that many people will never see again, Mach 2 registered on the in cabin flight details of Concorde, which had taken off from Heathrow, flew out over the Bay of Biscay and returned to London to land within minutes of the final scheduled Concorde flight from New York. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
A sight never to be seen again: the Mach meter in front of the first row of Concorde seats telling passengers they are flying at twice the speed of sound and far, far higher than any other civilian airplane (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Although he found the Concorde cabin “small” and “fairly confined,” he felt the amenities compensated for these conditions: “You felt you were already in Paris when you got on the plane, because of the service level, including at the lounge at JFK, on Air France.”

Concorde had only one class, by the way. All 100 seats, arranged 2-2, were the same and offered the same level of service.

“It was a great thing to get there before you left”

Jack Ezon, who today runs a luxury travel company called Embark in New York, took the Air France Concorde twice and the British one once in the early part of this century.

He found the experience “beautiful, glamorous and cool, especially the first time. It was extremely convenient, with a three-hour flight from Paris to New York. It was a great thing to get there before you left,” thanks to the six-hour time zone difference.

He also found that his fellow passengers were “all very sophisticated people. It was almost like flying with my clients on a G6,” the Gulfstream G650 business jet.

However, like the G6, he said the Concorde “did not have much personal space. One drawback was the tight cabin. In actuality, it had a glorified coach seat, or maybe premium economy. But it had beautiful food and beverage.”

But even without Concorde in the skies, there are still ways to travel very glamorously — if at much slower speeds.

Pointing to what he called a “more luxurious” inflight experience offered today by some carriers, Ezon suggested “there is something to be said in life about slowing down, even disconnecting.  Well-traveled people consistently say they look forward to long flights where they can completely disconnect and reconnect with themselves. Think of the Slow Food movement in transit.”

For more, check out Concorde at 50: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet and Concorde at 50: Where Are They Now?

Featured image by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
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