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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October, 2003, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Concorde: You asked a pilot

Concorde pilot Peter Benn answered your questions.

  • Transcript


    Concorde will make its final commercial flight on Friday, after more than three decades of luxury travel.

    Concorde first took to the skies in 1969 and more than 2.5 million passengers have flown supersonically on British Airways' Concorde since she entered commercial service in 1976.

    But the horrific crash near Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in 2000 saw passenger numbers fall and the aircraft no longer makes a profit.

    Air France flew its last Concorde on 31 May, now it is the turn of the British Airways' Concorde to bow out of operation.

    Thousands of people are expected to flock to Heathrow airport on Friday to watch the final flight.

    What was it like to fly Concorde? Were Air France and British Airways right to take the aircraft out of service? Was the project always doomed to failure? Can Concorde ever be replaced?



    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum, I'm Andrew Simmons. Today Concorde is carrying passengers from New York to London for the very last time. After the crash in Paris three years ago, ticket sales have fallen and other factors have affected this supersonic aircraft. We're told she no longer is commercially viable. So Concorde is to retire. Environmental campaigners are delighted. But for many passengers, admirers, air crew alike, this is a very sad and nostalgic day.

    Amongst those mourning loss of a majestic friend will be Concorde pilot, Peter Benn. He's joining us from Heathrow and he's going to answer your questions. As you can imagine Peter, we've had hundreds of e-mails in. We're going to try and get through as many as possible, so we can't linger to too long on them. Welcome - what a fantastic sight behind you.


    Peter Benn:

    It's an amazing aeroplane.


    Newshost:

    Before we go any further, we'd like to know something about yourself, it that's ok. We've an e-mail that's just come in from Hamish Walker, Croydon, UK: When did you last personally take the controls of Concorde?


    Peter Benn:

    I last flew yesterday in the aircraft behind me - Alpha Charlie - we went down to Cardiff for the day and came back. So fantastic day out - great fun.


    Newshost:

    Tell us something about how it feels to fly a plane like that. Tracy Barber, Surrey wants to know: How did you feel at the end of your first flight in charge of Concorde?


    Peter Benn:

    I think everyone who flies Concorde, at the end of their first flight is just overwhelmed and elated by it. When we first fly it, it's very lightweight. The performance is absolutely staggering. It's terrific fun and the best day in your aviation career - there's no doubt about that. We're all as happy as Larry after that.


    Newshost:

    Mike Townsend, Indonesia asks: Is the Concorde a difficult aircraft to fly? Is it different flying a supersonic plane compared to a subsonic plane?


    Peter Benn:

    I wouldn't say it's difficult, I'd certainly say it's different - it's a challenge because it goes, by definition, so quickly. But it's tremendous fun to do and we're very well taught what we're meant to do. So not a problem to actually get to grips with it - it's just a question of practice and good teaching from all the people who went before us and taught us how to do it.


    Newshost:

    Now you fly at the speed of a rifle bullet and there's much been written and said about Concorde, such as it was machine designed by a committee yet so beautiful that it still turns heads wherever it flies. Nick Thompson from Brighton, just sent an e-mail in: What, from a pilot's point of view, is the most magical aspect of flying Concorde compared to other commercial aircraft?


    Peter Benn:

    I think the fact that you can get up to - as we did yesterday, twice in one day - to the inner edge of space - to 60,000 feet, 11 miles up in the sky and fly at that incredible speed. As you said yourself it's the speed of a rifle bullet and to be able to do that out of London, round Lands End, back of Guernsey and Jersey and then into Cardiff, as we did, and then do that again with another group of a hundred passengers, it's quite an extraordinary thing for an airliner to do. And to do it wearing the clothes I'm wearing now, not a spacesuit, not the sort of gear a fighter pilot would wear - it's a phenomenal achievement and a beautiful thing as well and it will stand for all time as a stunning piece of design.


    Newshost:

    You could outrun a military aircraft can't you?


    Peter Benn:

    Yes we can, yes. We're a very capable bit of kit.


    Newshost:

    Mark Webb, Ireland: Do you think that it is possible to develop a more environmentally friendly supersonic passenger aircraft?


    Peter Benn:

    I know that in the future there's going to be another Concorde or a successor. It needs to perhaps not put the sonic boom down on the ground, if it's possible to avoid that. And yes, I think, in the future technology will provide a more environmentally friendly medium.


    Newshost:

    Charles White, Poland asks: What does one hear aboard a supersonic aircraft during and after breaking the sound barrier?


    Peter Benn:

    You don't actually hear anything on board. All we see is the pressure wave moving down the aeroplane - it gives an indication on the instruments. And that's what we see of Mach 1. But we don't hear the sonic boom or anything like that. That's rather like the wake of ship - it's behind us.


    Newshost:

    Those passengers on board, sitting back in their leather seats and watching that Mach 1 speedo in front - what do they see, what do they feel?


    Peter Benn:

    They see the cabin display which shows the aircraft's altitude, groundspeed and Mach number which is the relationship to speed of sound. They see the indicator go through the figure 1 and then they know they've gone supersonic.


    Newshost:

    Pretty small in there isn't it?


    Peter Benn:

    Well yes, but if you're going to carry people to the edge of space at the speed of sound, it has to be pretty compact. But it's big enough to be comfortable for the time you're there.


    Newshost:

    Paul, Berkshire asks: I have marvelled at Concorde for much of my lifetime. Is the decision by BA yet another nail in the coffin in Britain's greatness and should more have been done to save this majestic lady?


    Peter Benn:

    It's a beautiful aeroplane and I think you can honestly say, after these last few weeks, it's the people's aeroplane. Thousands of people have come to see us and we really appreciate that support. As to the reasons for stopping flying and so on, I think that's more of a corporate issue than mine, but nevertheless it stands as a fantastic achievement by both the designers and the operators of the aeroplane down the years. It's been a huge privilege to fly it, I'm so very, very lucky to have been one of that group of people who were able to do it.


    Newshost:

    I appreciate there's a corporate aspect to this. But can just relax a little on the issue because we've had absolutely hundreds of questions similar to the one I'm going to read now. Maurice Anthony Rose, Ontario, Canada asks: For the good of British pride, and English culture, should Virgin Air or another airline, be allowed to purchase a British taxpayer-built, British Airways Concorde, in order to keep Concorde flying?

    I realise this is politically and commercially involved but just take away your BA uniform if you can and just relax for a moment. How would you answer that question?


    Peter Benn:

    I think that for it to carry on flying it would need the full cooperation of Airbus industry and that is an issue that is not something I'm fully aware of the ins and outs of that. Without them and their wholehearted support, it would be very difficult for any operator to carry on. But certainly as a minimum that would be needed would be the entire engineering resource that sustained this aeroplane for the last 27 years with British Airways and whoever wanted to go on would need to take that on as well.

    I don't think it's an issue sadly, much though many of us in our hearts wish that it would be. But above it does take Airbus to support it. Were they to do that wholeheartedly, this incredible Anglo-French project that we're all so proud of, then things would look very different. But it is at root cause, something for them to answer to not us.


    Newshost:

    Maybe we should hear from them at some point today. But on this issue, do you not think effectively - aside from the appalling tragedy of the Concorde crash - it isn't as simple as the crash causing the end of Concorde is it? It's about corporate business going lower down with their expenses and air travel and going for Club Class rather than Concorde. It's more of commercial downturn in air travel of the supersonic variety isn't it Peter?


    Peter Benn:

    These are very hard times, there's no question of that. It's perhaps the most difficult era that commercial aviation has faced since the war. It's very, very hard in the face of that to run that kind of operation that we have when corporate spending is under so much pressure, as we're told. So I think those factors that you have just talked about have a big bearing on us and you can't ignore that.


    Newshost:

    We may have just answered this effectively but Tariq Hasan, US asks: Why has just one crash changed the feasibility of this aircraft when its record is still better than a lot of other passenger aircrafts in the world?


    Peter Benn:

    I think we have answered that. I don't think the crash has anything to do with the feasibility of Concorde now. All those issues were comprehensively and totally resolved and were that not to be so, we'd never have flown it again. The reasons for carrying on or not have to be a commercial decision at a level in British Airways way above mine and indeed they reflect the pretty hard times we live in now. So that's the core of it. It's nothing to do with the tragedy.


    Newshost:

    Martin, UK asks: Do you think that a US company, such as Boeing, will be quick to seize the initiative to fill the gap in supersonic travel which Concorde has now left?


    Peter Benn:

    I think we hope for a successor to Concorde. I personally don't see one on the drawing board as yet - I don't think anyone does. But it would be a strange day in history for the world to go backwards. Now that Concorde is coming to, what appears to be, its retirement, I can't believe that a manufacturer won't pick up that challenge and do something to carry the dream of supersonic passenger flight forward. Whether it be Boeing, Airbus or one of the leading consortia, who knows. But I think it will be unlikely that that will be left fallow, as it were.


    Newshost:

    Robert Warner, Scotland ask: How many Concorde aircrafts were there in service before the decision to cease operation, and what will happen to them now? Will they be available for the public to see in flight museums for example?

    Gino Sabatino, England asks: As one of the best pieces of engineering that this country has ever produced, will BA keep her flying for air shows and fly-pasts?


    Peter Benn:

    We had seven aircraft and we brought five back into service. Of those five, the future is yet to be announced by British Airways - that's for another day. Today is to celebrate the achievement of having in service for 27 years and the incredible efforts and dedication of the people who designed, built and flew her. As to the future and what happens next - I think that's really something that's going to be announced by BA in due course but not today.


    Newshost:

    Neil Murray, Sutton, UK asks: Would you like to see a Concorde or two, kept and maintained by the RAF as an emergency high-speed transport.

    Good question that - it happened with the VC10.


    Peter Benn:

    I don't see any sign of the RAF wanting to operate Concorde. I don't think it fits in with what they do and I think it would be probably hard to justify taxpayers' money being spent on that. But that's a question for them.


    Newshost:

    You wouldn't like to see the Queen and perhaps even Tony Blair flying on one then?


    Peter Benn:

    Oh, we'd love see it flying - that would be the most wonderful thing if it could carry on. But there are very big issues behind that which are beyond my level to deal with.


    Newshost:

    Charles, Canada asks: Did you ever have any close calls while flying this jet? Was it ever necessary to make an emergency landing?


    Peter Benn:

    No. In my career - it wasn't a very long one - I started flying in 1999 and finished yesterday on the aircraft behind me. No I never had any major issue at all. Minor technical things that we resolved, but nothing like that.


    Newshost:

    Kat, New York, USA asks: The Concorde pilot, co-pilot and navigator I met after my flights were grinning ear to ear. To me, subsonic feels like a donkey cart after Concorde. How are you going to fill the emotional void of not flying supersonic anymore?


    Peter Benn:

    That's a very good question. I think that everybody who has been involved in Concorde has loved it so much that you've really got to take something from that and apply it to some other area of your life so that it doesn't become just a rather empty memory. You've got to carry forward that dedication and so on that got us where we were and the excitement of flying that aeroplane and take it into another part of your life and I'm sure everybody will. And I know British Airways will carry forward the spirit of Concorde in what it does in the future - I've no doubt about that.


    Newshost:

    Greg Handley, Wales: How great a sensation do you experience at takeoff?

    It's always quite a sight seeing those delta wings take off. What sort of a sensation is it?


    Peter Benn:

    It's outstanding. It's like flying a fighter, especially the flights we're doing at the moment where the aircrafts relatively lightweight at takeoff. The acceleration is phenomenal and the sense of pure power is fantastic.


    Newshost:

    Gareth, Cheshire: What are you going to do now? What could possibly top Concorde?


    Peter Benn:

    For me personally I get my command course now on the Jumbo Jet. It's a huge responsibility and a very big challenge. So I'm looking forward to that and getting on with the future.


    Newshost:

    But if you don't mind me saying, it's a bit like driving a taxi compared with the sports car behind you, isn't it?


    Peter Benn:

    Well it's a pretty responsible job!


    Newshost:

    Don't get me wrong. But do you feel there's a prestige involved in flying something like Concorde? People must marvel at what you do.


    Peter Benn:

    Yes the aeroplane itself is an incredibly special thing. That's the star of the show - as it should be. It's an unparalleled technical achievement, a fantastic piece of co-operation between France and ourselves and it will stand as that for all time. That's the special thing rather than any individuals who are involved with it. We'll all just very lucky to be brought in to do this and to achieve this milestone in our personal careers.


    Newshost:

    Max Vesey, United Kingdom: Is piloting Concorde the pinnacle of your career as a pilot or has there been a more poignant moment?


    Peter Benn:

    No this is definitely the pinnacle of my aviation career to date. I've been just very lucky to be part of this fantastic group of people who've done this.


    Newshost:

    Zoe Walter, UK and Ray Allen both ask: What will you miss most about flying Concorde? What will be your most treasured memory?


    Peter Benn:

    Most treasured memory - probably flying up the west coast of Barbados. When we come in there, we fly down the west coast at 1,500 feet and it's a fantastic sight to see. And also just looking up at the sky at 60,000 feet, the colours are just something I've never seen anywhere else in the world. The shade of blue on inner edge of space is quite something to see, I'll always remember that.


    Newshost:

    Can you describe what it's like in the cockpit? The nosecone is behind you now, that's up isn't it and there's an extra visor that comes down. Do things get hot or cold outside? What physically is going on as you're travelling faster than a rifle bullet?


    Peter Benn:

    As you see it now is how the aircraft would be at Mach 2, with the nose and visor up. Air at that speed has a sort of density equivalent to hardwood, so the aircraft is heated up. It's like banging a nail into a piece of wood for over two hours - so there's very great frictional heating and the aircraft has a very powerful cooling system to deal with that. What we see is the dark blue of inner space as you look upwards and the clouds way, way beneath you. It's an amazing sensation to be there.


    Newshost:

    Jason Copper, UK asks: Do you think that even if another technological breakthrough is made in air travel, any aircraft of the future will rival the impact and emotion of Concorde?


    Peter Benn:

    I don't think so because Concorde was a first and because of that it will always be, by definition, unique. If there is another supersonic aeroplane it will be a fantastic achievement. But it won't be the first supersonic civil airliner. Concorde will always have that accolade and I don't think a replacement would have the same emotional impact as Concorde has had?


    Newshost:

    Mohammed, Iran: Can Concorde ever be replaced?


    Peter Benn:

    Yes, I think Concorde can be replaced. As has been said by several people today, there's no sign of something in the immediate future but it would be an amazing world if we went backwards. I can't see that happening.


    Newshost:

    Gerda Bartsch, Scotland : What will Concorde's legacy be, what has supersonic flight given us?


    Peter Benn:

    Supersonic flight has given us basically the Airbus industry project which has given world dominance in airliner manufacturer to Europe. That's a pretty big legacy for Concorde to leave. And it's given us also a belief in ourselves I think as to what you can achieve if you try hard enough.


    Newshost:

    Can I also just ask you now, a question from myself before you go away. How will things pan out for the rest of the day? There are thousands of people descending on Heathrow today to see the last of Concorde. What happens to the plane behind you? What's the agenda now?


    Peter Benn:

    There's going to be an event in the British Airways hangar behind us where the aircraft has been maintained for 27 years to celebrate what's been achieved in service. It's an incredible record and that should be properly marked and it's going to be. The aircraft that come into land - the historic triple landing - will be round to the hangar behind us here and they'll be various presentations and events associated with that.


    Newshost:

    And Captain Mike Bannister is on board the last flight from New York?


    Peter Benn:

    That's right. Captain Bannister is flying the last 002 and he will be coming to make a speech I believe.


    Newshost:

    A few tears perhaps by the end of the day? Do you feel a bit emotional about it?


    Peter Benn:

    Of course. It's a huge event in all of our lives. Anybody involved in the aeroplane at any level cares about it very deeply. It's bound to be an emotional day because of that - how could it not be. But it's a celebration as well - it has to be.


    Newshost:

    Peter Benn, thank you very much for joining us and thank you for dealing with all of those question. I'm afraid there were many more we couldn't read out. The very best of luck to you with your career.

    Thank you for watching and for your questions. Goodbye




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