It’s been 20 years since the last Concorde flight touched down at Heathrow, but even so long after being withdrawn from service, the iconic droop-nosed jet is still revered and celebrated by enthusiasts worldwide. Among them is Peter Comport, the aircraft engineer who was in charge of maintaining operational safety for BA’s prestigious Concorde fleet.

Here, Peter offers a glimpse into his high-flying working life – and reveals that despite the decades of glamorous globetrotting and clocking up millions of air miles, his favourite way of coming back down to earth was to spend family time on the Isle of Wight, at his in-laws’ home in Seaview.

Starting an engineering apprenticeship with the former BOAC in the 1970s was Peter’s first step into a career that literally launched him into the stratosphere.

By the time that daughter Fiona was born in 1983, he was a top British Airways engineer who was invited to become part of Concorde’s operational safety team.

A hugely prestigious and responsible role, it was also heavily pressured because, as he reflects “You couldn’t run an operation like that on anything less than 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year”.

Which meant Peter working a regular seven days on and four days off – and after a run of such long and intense flight testing shifts, the perfect antidote was to hop across the Solent for a few days of escape, along with wife Sally, daughter Fiona and later, their son Allister.

“My job was often very high pressure” says Peter, “so I’d look forward to jumping in the car and getting on the ferry or the hovercraft, knowing that you’d get off at the other end with that wonderful relaxed feeling of being back on the Island. When the children were little, we’d make the crossing at all times of the year – with welly boots and duffle coats in February and buckets and spades in summer”.

Sally had spent many of her own childhood holidays in Shanklin and her family link with the Island was cemented when her late parents Harold and Marie retired from North London to Seaview in the early 1980s. The house in Caws Avenue became a favourite retreat for the wider family and the scene of many happy holiday get-togethers over decades.

High profile

By the mid 1980s, Peter was in charge of Concorde’s entire safety operation, a role he performed for several years, and during which time he met with royalty, celebrities and sports stars who regularly used the supersonic, three-hour London-New York service, at a hefty ticket price of £8,000 – £10,000.

Concorde always had several celebrities on board. These ranged from musician Phil Collins, on the ‘Live Aid’ Dash from London to New York flights, to screen icons like Joan Collins as well as high-flying businessmen and aristocrats such as the Duke of Westminster.

What the rich and famous were buying with their Concorde flight was not just prestige – but also valuable time.

In fact Peter describes Concorde as a literal “time machine”. Its mind-boggling flying speed of 1,350 mph was one-and-a- half times the speed of a bullet and would get passengers from London to New York not just in style but minus the jetlag, in three hours. Many business fliers used it as a commuter service, hopping to New York for a business meeting, flying back to London the same day, and arriving home as fresh as a daisy.

Of course, as Peter wryly points out, that meant 100-seat Concorde “did use quite a bit of juice”: indeed, a regular Jumbo jet that could carry 400 passengers used the same amount as Concorde. But then, the high-paying Concorde passengers could zoom past a Jumbo and experience the brain-twisting phenomenon of seeing it flying backwards.

Among many other incredible facts about Concorde were that it actually grew in size by several inches when flying at twice the speed of sound.  

And the temperature of its skin reached just below the boiling point of water.  

“Just imagine how complex it was to keep passenger and crew comfortable when the aircraft skin is just 5 degrees below waters boiling point” says Peter.

Meanwhile, from the uber-comfort of the inside of the jet, passengers could see the earth’s curvature and watch the sun rise in the west.

“Concorde really did break the mould she was truly a one off exceptional piece of Aviation engineering, nothing else has come close to beating her in the history of flying”.

Ultimately, though, the world changed and, much to the disappointment of its fans, Concorde was withdrawn from service in 2003. Peter recalls seeing engineers ‘in tears’ over the decommissioning.

“There was a lot of debate about why it stopped and whether it could have carried on” he says, “but the truth was that Concorde lost a lot of its regular fliers on 9/11. You could say that the market was literally wiped out on that awful day”.

Shopping for jets

By the time the 13 operational Concordes and the four test aircraft were laid to rest (they now live on as museum exhibits around the world), Peter’s career had continued to climb. In the 1990s he went on to become BA’s Fleet Programme Manager, with responsibility for buying and selling multi million pounds worth of aircraft.

One of the projects he was tasked with was managing the exit and selling of the 747 fleet and then the purchase of the Airbus fleet. Another was his involvement in the design and development of the fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner.

During his years of buying and selling jets he recalls such quirky experiences as the time he delivered a jet to the Roswell air base in New Mexico – famous for its UFO incident in 1947.

As a Brit, he, would, of course have been termed an “alien” in the USA, which means he can dine out on the humorous tale of “I was the alien who flew into Roswell”.

During his 36 years with BA, Peter reckons he was responsible for buying around 70 aircraft at a cost of hundreds of millions of Dollars .

“A large chunk of what you now see in the sky, I’ve been involved with”.

During his time as BA’s engineering project manager, he was also responsible in the mid-1990s for a number of Royal flights – including state visits to India, South Africa and France – and a few PM state visits, which involved working with Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

Obviously Peter’s job meant that, as a family, they were privileged to be able to do much more than the average amount of travelling. One year, they managed to clock up half a million air miles as a family, and experienced everything from glaciers to deserts and rainforests.

Such regular and extensive travel has clearly shaped the lives of Peter’s son and daughter, with Allister now working as an independent aviation consultant and Fiona – who works in International marketing for a medical equipment manufacturer – routinely jetting off for work and pleasure.

Active retirement

Meanwhile Peter is fully retired, but this has freed up more time to devote to helping wildlife charities.

He qualified as a game ranger in the 1990s, learning how to track and capture animals, and now he is a volunteer researcher for Kenya’s Bongo Surveillance Project, which aims to protect the remaining threatened population of around 100 of these large African antelopes.

Currently he’s helping to compile the 2024 Book listing of the animals that have been found. “I fell into the work through meeting the wife of a BA colleague who is a fundraiser for the charity” Peter says. “And because I’m lucky enough to be able to jump on a plane and take my research to the field, it’s been a really rewarding way to spend some of my retirement time”.

For now, Peter’s wife Sally is reluctant to retire from her receptionist role at the John Lewis Country Club and Hotel, near the couple’s home in Cookham, Berkshire. She’s been with the company for over 30 years and loves being part of the JL “family”.

But despite such a hectic and travel-packed life, they both never tire of making that unique journey across the Solent, to the familiar peace and beauty of the Isle of Wight.

“For all our exotic travels, we’ve never experienced anything quite like the Isle of Wight” says Peter. “I can honestly say that Priory Bay or Seagrove Bay are just as good as any beach in the Caribbean”.