In the beginning there was a phone call: a short interrogation to establish the mind-set. Mine went like this: “Hello.”
“Hello. Is that Phil Newman?”
“This is Flight Engineering Training Manager Concorde. Are you still interested in a Concorde course.”
“It’s not for everyone.”
“It’s a lot of work – not everyone finishes.”
“You sure you want to go ahead.”
“When’s your next trip?”
“Where are you going?”
“You probably want to go then.”
“Come to my office when you get back. You’ll need to collect books.”
“Have a nice trip. Good luck when you come back.”
“Thank you.” I wanted to doff my hat and call him Sir I was so pleased but, there had been trouble from the outset, the fleet management had changed hands more than once and the course failure rate was high. The first designated Flight Training Manager failed to finish the course and several, subsequent, management candidates would not accept the company’s terms. This probably amounted to there being no financial compensation for the development work, or for the loss of flying duty pay that normally makes a significant contribution to our income. All of which suggested that the man who called me was not the first choice for the job, leaving room for speculation as to the nature of the compromises made. Add to that one third of the previous flight engineer candidates had failed to qualify, as had half of the captains. All the first offices had made it through and some were appointed to train those to follow which clearly defined the need to screen the candidates.
As I laid the phone in its cradle I reflected that my VC10 time was probably over which was going to take a little adjusting because the Vickers VC10 had been a part of my life for twelve years. I had attended maintenance courses on the beast, earned maintenance licenses in the hangar to certify it fit for flight, completed operations courses so I could act as a crew member when I was with East African Airways in Nairobi, and I completed another set of operational and maintenance courses with the British Overseas Airways Corporation in London. In short I could fix her and operate her and had a number of certificates to attest to the fact; I liked to think I knew every nut, bolt, amp and volt, and how they all worked in concert. To suddenly wrench myself from her was a big change: certainly I was going to miss her. Already I doubted that the new beast, the Concorde beast, could hold anything akin the affinity I developed to the VC10. Still, there was this one last trip, and if I needed a lasting memory of her it was all about to unfold.
That evening, still ruminating on things to come, I walked into the crew briefing centre and found the pilots on my last VC10 trip pouring over flight plans and weather charts. I didn’t remember meeting any of them before, which was not unusual given that there were two thousand three hundred pilots in the airline, besides the four hundred and seventy flight engineers and twelve thousand seven hundred cabin crew. It was not at all surprising that I should have served eight years on the VC10 fleet and not know any of tonight’s crew but, there was one name on the cabin crew list that rang a faint, distant, bell – would she remember me?
I hovered, un-noticed, near the briefing desk. Each of the junior pilots keen to appear keen; all were hogging the desk and the paperwork like the poor, humble, and incredibly earnest, Dickensian students they had long been trained to emulate. Eventually there was a gap, someone looked up and I took the opportunity to introduce myself.
“Hi, I’m Brian.” A senior co-pilot offered a firm hand.
Then the first officer, “Tim, hello.”
The captain, “John. Nice to meet you. Were you held up?’
“Sorry, I had a call from Big Bill.”
“Oops, not in trouble I hope.”
“Not yet, but I might be. New Concorde course starting – did I want to go.”
We flew the short flight to Paris in a somewhat disconnected fashion: It was not that it was anymore difficult than what we were used to but it clearly needed a different set of routines. We were used to preparing for a long flight, conducting our base pre-flight checks meticulously, studying the immediate departure procedures for the current airport, and focusing on the logs, charts, and maps required for a long distance flight. This was an extremely short flight that would take twenty minutes or less, and required some familiarity with the destination airport, and a good knowledge of the arrival procedures. No sooner were we clear of the London Terminal Area when we entered that of Paris, and were required to follow procedures we had yet to study. Tim was a brick. Sitting in the supernumerary seat behind the two operating pilots he was able to set navigation beacons and turn up maps and charts to help the other two. I concentrated on running the checklists, hoping to spot anything we had missed in the break from our familiar routines.
Strangers all to Charles DeGaulle Airport, three of us were anxiously scanning charts to locate our assigned parking bay while John taxied the aeroplane in the dark. Tim found it, and pointed it out to John, who clearly did not have a grip on his position on the field. He began a discussion as to what was where as he continued through the maze of purple, red, and green lights. As a result we missed the entrance to our parking area, Alpha Two, and had to go right around the outer perimeter taxiway for some fifteen minutes before we saw the signs again. When we eventually entered the parking bay there was no one to meet us. Radio calls to British European Airways, the handling company for this flight, revealed that they had forgotten about this, one of, charter coming through so late at night which caused John to all but changed colour as he extolled the inadequacies of BEA, all those short haul wankers, who had no idea what flying a heavy, long range aircraft was about. I used to work for BEA, and understood that they had literally hundreds of flights, each with short turn around times, in their day-to-day operations and were slick, and efficient, but I could see how an odd-ball flight such as ours would be lost in their system.
When we eventually left Paris, one hour and twenty-six minutes behind schedule, with a full load of passengers and all the fuel we could carry, we were already tired. Before us lay nine hours of long haul work that would take us across the Mediterranean to the deserts of North Africa, and on to The Blue Nile and The Ethiopian Highlands where Addis Ababa sits in the shadow of Ras Dashan Terara. Brian was flying the aeroplane while John, carrying out the co-pilot duties, handled the communications and short range navigation. Tim was preparing his charts and tables for the long range navigation when he would shoot distant stars through a periscope sextant that went out through a hole in the cockpit roof. Running those sight lines to compensate for the speed of a jet plane was complex, and time consuming, and would certainly have been beyond my abilities in the middle of such a long night.