Meet the Surrey pilot who captained Concorde's last flight
- Credit: Mike Bannister
Former British Airways Concorde pilot, Mike Bannister from Staines, who captained the aircraft’s last commercial flight in 2003, reflects on a life spent travelling at twice the speed of sound – double sunsets, famous friends and round-the-world trips included. Words by Hazel Plush
Some 60,000 feet above the Earth, the sky begins to blacken and the curvature of our planet becomes clear. For many of us, it’s an altitude we’ll never reach in our lifetimes. Yet for more than 20 years, this stratospheric spot was Mike Bannister’s ‘office’. In the cockpit of Concorde, he flew higher than most pilots could ever dream of, and faster too: pushing the aircraft to Mach 2.04 – twice the speed of sound, clocking up a mile every 2.5 seconds.
‘You could almost feel that Concorde wanted to go quickly,’ he reminisces. ‘It was designed to be more efficient the faster it flew, and was packed with incredible technology – but it was more than that, it was an aeroplane with soul.’
In these days of no-frills flights, the idea of supersonic air travel sounds tantalisingly futuristic – yet the original Concorde designs were drawn in the 1950s and the aircraft made its first test flight in Britain on 9 April 1969, over half a century ago. Developed and manufactured under an Anglo-French treaty (‘Concorde’ means ‘unity’), the groundbreaking project has its roots firmly in Surrey: it was initially agreed at Brooklands aviation factory in Weybridge and, when manufacturing began, nearly a third of every Concorde was made at the world-leading plant. After an estimated spend of £150-£210 million (that’s about £940-£1,320 million in today’s money), Concorde finally entered commercial service in 1976, operated by British Airways and Air France. Just 20 were ever produced.
For a young Surrey-based pilot rising up through the ranks, the idea of flying this homegrown icon was irresistible.
‘I had been at pilot training school, aged 20, when Concorde took its first flight,’ says Mike. ‘I remember watching it on television: I’d just thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to fly Concorde.’
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When the opportunity finally arose, he had been flying for BOAC/British Airways for eight years, as a pilot and navigator on the Vickers VC10 aircraft. Due to Concorde’s complexity, its training programme took six months to complete – as opposed to two months for other airliners – but Mike graduated in 1977 as the youngest first officer on the fleet, aged just 28.
‘I still remember my first time at the controls: for someone who’d wanted to be a pilot since the age of seven, it was amazing,’ he says. ‘Compared with a regular passenger jet, flying Concorde was akin to driving a sports car rather than a truck, or riding a thoroughbred race horse rather than a riding-school hack. Even when we broke the sound barrier, it was so smooth; you could balance a pound coin on its edge while travelling faster than a bullet.’
Of course, zipping between Heathrow and New York’s JFK Airport in around three hours (compared to around eight hours in a subsonic flight) didn’t come cheap: in 1997, a return ticket cost well over £8,000, unattainable to all but the ultra-rich.
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‘With mostly corporate executives and famous celebrities on board, the cabin atmosphere was akin to an upmarket members’ club,’ recalls Mike. ‘Everybody knew each other, and lots of business deals were done in-flight. In those days, visitors were allowed in the cockpit, and I met so many wonderful people – from the golf champion Tom Watson to the legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Some of them even became my friends, like the journalist Sir David Frost, who was often on board several times a week.’
Alongside its famous LHR–JFK route, British Airways’ seven-strong Concorde fleet also flew between Heathrow and the likes of Washington DC, Bahrain and Barbados – but Mike also remembers the ‘fantastic’ one-off routes commissioned by private companies and wealthy individuals.
‘On some occasions, Concorde was chartered for a full trip around the world, an “air cruise" holiday, with passengers staying in six-star hotels in every destination,’ he says.
From 1977, Bannister flew the aircraft as first officer, before transferring to BA management in 1989. It proved a rewarding move, but in 1995 he received a second offer he couldn’t refuse: the job of chief pilot of BA’s Concorde fleet. In this role, at the helm of the supersonic operation, he flew as captain, back once again in the cockpit of the supersonic aircraft.
Even after all those years, the thrill of flying never dulled. ‘When we were crossing the Atlantic, we’d see the regular 747s far below – and because we were travelling at roughly twice their speed, they’d seem to be going backwards in the sky,’ says Mike. On evening flights to JFK, the crew and passengers would witness two sunsets because they were flying so quickly. ‘We’d take off from Heathrow at 7pm, after sunset, and hop across the Atlantic so fast that the sun would rise again for us. We’d land in New York in the daylight. Then, as you drove into the city to your hotel, you’d see the sun go down for the second time that day.’
Concorde’s ability to beat the world clock sparked its famous advertising tagline, 'Arrive Before You Leave’.
At the turn of the millennium, however, there was devastating news. In July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 – one of the French Concorde fleet – crashed on departure from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, killing all 109 people on board plus four others. Confidence in air travel was diminished by the 9/11 attacks the following year. British Airways withdrew Concorde on October 24, 2003, bringing the world’s only supersonic passenger service to a close.
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In charge of BA’s Concorde ‘farewell’ programme, Mike captained its final commercial flight from JFK to Heathrow (on 24 October 2003), in front of an audience of millions – shortly before he, too, retired as Concorde’s chief pilot and general manager of the airline’s short- and medium-haul operations. After a career on the move, he finally had a chance to sit still, which proved more tempting than perhaps expected: ‘My wife and I looked at relocating to Australia, Canada, South Africa… but we ended up simply moving from one side of Staines to the other. We love the river, the proximity of Heathrow and London – and we’d made great friends here over the years.’
Today, Mike ploughs his energy into various charitable concerns, including the PCC of the Parish of Staines, the governing board of two local schools, and Brooklands Museum Trust, where he serves as vice chairman.
‘Concorde became a reality because of the visions and dreams of the people who built it,' he explains. ‘So if I can do anything to help and inspire the next generation, I will. And I just know that supersonic flight will be a reality again in the future.’
You see, Concorde’s chief pilot may have settled in Surrey, but there’ll always be a piece of his heart up high above the clouds, speeding through the stratosphere faster than a bullet.
Good to know
You can take part in the Concorde Experience at Brooklands Museum for an extra £6 (adults)/£3 (children), to see inside the famous aircraft as part of a 25-minute tour. Open daily at set times. General admission from £18.10 (adults) and £10 (for those aged 6-16). brooklandsmuseum.com
An audio-visual celebration of Concorde is taking place in the Parish Hall of St Mary's Church in Sunbury on the evening of Saturday, May 7, 2022, to raise funds for a community defibrillator. Organised by the Reverend Andrew Downes, there will be two former Concorde pilots from the congregation, Mike Bannister and John Tye, in attendance, as well as food and drink inspired by destinations associated with the famous aircraft. stmarys-sunbury.org