It's 40 years since Concorde made its first commercial flight, from London to Bahrain. Here we look back at the day it came to Bournemouth

CONCORDE was one of the most glamorous possible ways to travel – the favoured transport of celebrities and diplomats.

The supersonic airliner was also a triumph of British and French engineering, crossing the Atlantic in half the time of other planes.

So in retrospect, it is hardly surprising that thousands turned out to see a Concorde and its famous drooping nose cone land in Dorset in 1996 to mark the extension of the airport’s runway.

Stephen Bath, then joint managing director of Bath Travel, was responsible for organising Concorde’s charter flight to Bournemouth.

He remembers how the idea started with his father, Peter Bath, calling him into his office. Peter asked whether Stephen realised that once work was finished to lengthen Bournemouth’s runway to 2,211 metres, it would be big enough to land Concorde. Peter saw it as an opportunity to offer a unique pleasure trip.

“We got Concorde for £60,000 to hop down to Bournemouth,” Stephen Bath said.

“To raise the money to make this pay and make it the focus of Bournemouth Airport’s extended runaway party on April 21, we took 100 people to Heathrow by coach and charged them £199 to fly subsonic on Concorde for 20 minutes.”

Concorde arrived from Heathrow that day to enormous crowds, with 25,000 people in the general area. “The tailbacks went down the Spur Road six miles to Bournemouth town centre,” Mr Bath said.

There were around 5,000 people allowed on the ground at the airport to see the plane. Another 100 had paid £600 to leave Bournemouth by Concorde that afternoon. They flew supersonic at Mach 2 (around 1,522mph) over the Atlantic and enjoyed a champagne lunch before landing at Heathrow and taking a coach back to Bournemouth.

Mr Bath recently retold the story of Concorde’s Bournemouth visits to 90 people at a Conservative party fundraiser at the Christchurch Harbour Hotel. Also present were former British Airways’ charter manager Graham Butler, former Concorde services manager Alan Pook, former Concorde stewardess Mandy Luckman, former Palmair European captain Owen Wright and Peter Bath’s widow Liz.

Stephen Bath said of the first Concorde visit: “I had a falling out with my father over whether to do it again. He said no, I said ‘Yes, I know I can sell this. We can make it really big.’ “We flew later that year to Paris and then we flew over Nice, Monte Carlo, Venice, Tenerife and Lanzarote.”

Passengers would fly out to these destinations via the 737 that belonged to Bath Travel’s tour operator Palmair, enjoying several days in the sun before returning via Concorde.

Eventually, 4,400 people were to fly on 44 flights organised by Bath Travel.

One thing Bournemouth could not offer was the chance to take off for America. While its runway was long enough for Concorde to land, it was not long enough for it to take off with a full tank of fuel, which at 95 tonnes doubled the weight of the aircraft.

Instead, Stephen Bath negotiated permission to use Boscombe Down, the military airfield at Salisbury Plain. Check-in facilities were established in the nearby pub. The Bath Travel passengers flew to New York by Concorde and came back on the QE2.

Concorde had been in the news ever since work on it in the 1960s, with both governments heavily subsidising the development.

It was, said Stephen Bath, “the ultimate example of pride in British engineering”.

It could cross the Atlantic in three hours and 10 minutes, taking advantage of the time difference so that passengers could leave London at 11am and arrive in New York at 10am local time. Famous frequent flyers included David Frost and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

“The catering was incredible,” said Stephen Bath.

“One thing about Concorde charters was that British Airways insisted that anybody stepping on Concorde had the full Henry Kissinger service.”

He remembers the breakfast menu starting with champagne, with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries with clotted cream as a starter, accompanied by white wine. There followed steak, bacon and sausage with red wine, before a third course of cheese and cognac.

Bath Travel might have been able to charge much more for its excursions if anyone had been aware that the days of Concorde were numbered.

In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed just after takeoff from Charles De Gaulle Airport. A metallic strip which had fallen from another aircraft had caused a tyre to explode, with a piece of rubber hitting the fuel tank and starting a fire.

Bath Travel, which had been speaking to Air France about Concorde trips on the day of the crash, had three more charter flights “booked solid”, Stephen Bath remembered.

Although the aircraft were modified and put back into service, British Airways never again released any of its seven Concordes for charter flights.

In 2003, with the airline industry in a slump following the September 11 attacks, British Airways and Air France both announced the end of Concorde services.

Efforts by Richard Branson to buy the fleet came to nothing and Concorde remained grounded.

Stephen Bath remains proud of bringing the planes to Bournemouth.

“During the years of our charters we saw every single one of the seven at Bournemouth Airport,” he said.


• The story of the supersonic airliner

THE British and French governments signed an agreement to develop Concorde in November 1962.

Britain believed the collaboration would help win it admittance to the European Common Market.

Both countries produced prototypes, with Britain’s – 002 – built by the British Aircraft Corporation in Bristol.

The first test flight was in March 1969 and the first passenger flight in January 1976. The first fare-paying trip to New York was in 1977.

Among the early crew was Nadia Scotford, from Bournemouth. In December 1977, the 28-year-old air hostess told the Echo how she had worked on board for 18 months.

“It’s totally different from working on any other aircraft,” she said.

“It is a lot smaller than others used on long runs, and yet the service has to be the very best.

“The standard of the food and wines we carry for the possible 100 passengers is absolutely tip-top and you find yourself having to work at supersonic pace.”

An appearance by one of British Airways’ Concordes was a highlight of Bournemouth Air Pageant in July 1982, with Echo readers able to book seats on a charter flight.

The supersonic aircraft cruised at 1,336mph. Fourteen of them were built.