PTT, Dave Unwin
Vintage airliners, old problems in operating them properly
It has not been a good year for vintage airliners. Over six tragic weeks, a Lockheed 12 in Belgium, a Junkers Ju-52 in the Swiss Alps, a Douglas C-47 in Texas, a de Havilland Rapide in Canada and a Convair CV-340 in South Africa all came to grief. Although it is unlikely that a common thread links these accidents (all the investigations are on-going, and if you’re looking for speculation you’ve bought the wrong magazine) but, unsurprisingly, these incidents re-ignited the perennial debate regarding whether old aircraft should fly.
Of course they should! An aeroplane in a museum is nothing more than an artefact, whereas an airworthy aircraft in its natural element is a living, breathing thing. It may still be a machine but it’s much more than the sum of its parts, and it has the power to inspire. Never forget that the pilots of tomorrow (and there’s already a huge shortage predicted) can only come from the children of today. So, if we agree that old aeroplanes must fly, the next logical question is “how should they be flown?”
I was thinking about this the day after Pete Kosogorin and I had ferried the BAE Heritage Flight’s Avro 19 from Farnborough to its Old Warden base. We had practically everything in our favourperfect weather, a giant runway, all-up weight well below maximum and two experienced aviators in an aircraft designed to be flown ‘single pilot’, yet we still briefed the takeoff fully. Not just speeds and power settings, but systems aspects, such as which engine drove the single hydraulic pump, and which engine was the ‘critical’ one.
To operate old aircraft safely you obviously need skill, but also knowledge and wisdom – and many skilled pilots have died because they lacked either knowledge or wisdom. The difference? Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, whereas wisdom is knowing not to use one in a fruit salad. With regard to operating an Avro 19, knowledge is being aware that the only hydraulic pump is on the port engine, while wisdom is understanding that, should the port engine fail before the undercarriage is retracted and Vyse attained, landing straight ahead is the only optioneven if the other engine is working well. This may seem counter-intuitive to pilots who’ve only flown modern twin-jets (even if an engine fails while they’re still on the ground, if speed is past V1 they’re going flying) but in something like an Anson, it’s the only way. If you get complacent, the second engine is only there to take you to the scene of the accident. In fact, complacency is another big killer, and many a 20,000hour airline captain or steely-eyed fighter pilot has been humbled−or worse−by a 65hp Cub, when they forgot that a Cub is still a small bear.
Veteran pilots often look back at ‘the good old days’ when aircraft were simple, but people frequently forget that simple devices are generally harder to operate−or at least operate well. It is self-evident that a GPS is a complicated device that is simple to use, whereas an ADF is a simple device that is complicated to use. For example, if you were flying an early jet and wanted to know how far you were from an NDB, you’d put the ADF needle on the wingtip, time (in seconds) how long it took for a bearing change of ten degrees and then multiply that by the Mach number to give you the miles from the radio beacon. With a GPS, you just read distance (down to a tenth of a mile) off the screen.
The same thing applies to controls. A Piper Apache has four seats and ten power condition levers, whereas a Boeing 777 can have almost 400 seats, and only two power condition levers! Even sailplanes aren’t exempt from this curious inverse law of complexity and difficulty. Consider the Slingsby T.31 and its sportier descendant, the T.65. I’ve flown both, and while the 31 was designed to be soloed by youths after two to three hours’ instruction, the 65 is a very different beast. It can carry 88kg of water ballast, has seventeen different flap positions and a retractable undercarriage. Even the tailwheel retracts! One sailplane sounds very simple, the other quite complicated, yet if you put a high-time T.65 pilot in a T.31 it could quite possibly end in tears.
So, to return to our original question of “how should historic aircraft be flown?” I believe you need knowledge and wisdom, skill, mechanical empathyand the right attitude, for vintage aircraft must be flown with respect. Currency can be difficult, but it will always be king. Finally, aviators, enthusiasts and the general public all need to understand one simple yet irrefutable point. The propositions that ‘historic machines must fly’ but in a ‘no risk environment’, are mutually exclusive.
Vintage aircraft must be flown with respect