David said, “Do you think you’re up to line operational standard Phil?” I wasn’t expecting that question. I should have been. I knew this to be my final trip under supervision and that it terminated with a Line Competency Check but I wasn’t expecting to be asked how I felt about my competency. In truth I hadn’t been thinking about it so was brought up with a jolt and was immediately transported to Leam Seor, in Thailand, to the temple there when the Head Monk asked, “When did your life begin?”
My first thought, the one that said ‘the day I was born,’ I pushed aside and a little smugly offered, “Nine months before my birth?”
The monk had nodded, as if to acknowledge my wisdom, then suggested, “Not when your parents met?” My turn to nod, to think a little more. “Or when your grandparents met?”
When did anything begin? Is there a need for a beginning? Can things just be and not be – no beginning; no end. Why did I wonder, I wondered, what brought me to this point? How came I to be walking out to Concorde G-BOAB on stand J2 at Heathrow Airport in June of my thirty-fifth year on the planet to be examined by my peer? Come to that when had I last examined myself – when had I stepped back and took a long hard look at from where I came and to whence I go?
It had been so much easier in the beginning – in the aviation beginning nineteen years ago when one of the men across the table from a nervous sixteen year old asked, “Why do you want to work on aeroplanes – you don’t seem to know much about them.
He was right – I didn’t. It wasn’t until Jim, the boy whose locker was next to mine, suggested aircraft engineering that I gave it a thought at all. He set me thinking then because it was clear at that point that I had little in the way of academic talent and the oily workshops in shipyards and railway terminals we engineering students were obliged to visit had no appeal at all.
“Well I like engineering Sir,” I replied to the man across the table, but it doesn’t seem to pay very well. An engineering apprentice earns about £2.16s a week Sir, but British European Airways is offering £4.10s. That’s a big difference.
He turned to his colleague, who had the barest trace of a smile on his face, then back to me. “Alright,” he said, “we’ll let you know,” and they did. They wrote two weeks later to say I could join as a Craft Apprentice at London Heathrow Airport starting 1st September 1960. I was so chuffed I showed the letter to my mum who was not so sure, it was a long way from home, and to my dad, who said he wished he’d had my opportunities. He had also said before this day, this aviation beginning day, that I didn’t seem to be doing anything at the technical college and that I should get a job. So maybe the beginning was there when John James Newman decided it was time his son started making contributions to the household budget.
The £4.10s didn’t go very far because digs cost £4 a week but, supplements and canteen vouchers from the airline, and the occasional postal order from my parents, made life pretty comfortable.
We were sixty, we national airlines engineering craft apprentices of 1960, many of whom rose past the hangars and workshops to senior management positions. Quite a few took up training opportunities to become flight engineers or pilots because only by transferring out of maintenance, out of engineering per se, could your income be raised significantly. Even so the senior management pilot earned significantly more than the equally senior flight engineering manager. Maybe the extra pay was compensation to the pilot for not being an engineer: not many are given that opportunity.
In reply to David, the Concorde Flight Manager, walking beside me as we approached the aircraft, I said, “I haven’t thought past completing the syllabus David. I’m not sure.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do an assessment today,” and we walked on.
Without further thought on the subject I immersed myself in the routines of inspecting the aircraft, the logs, the tyres, the mainplanes, fuselage, oleos, flying controls . . . eventually reaching the cockpit to set and check the circuit breakers and put all the knobs, levers, and switches in the right places then started the engines. Winding up those big old Rolls Royce Conway turbines was a busy period – straightening out the long shafts and firing the cans to bring them up through self sustaining speed to ground idle when we could initiate the systems and bring the aeroplane to life was critical because we were selling speed. We were selling supersonic transport up to 1,500 miles and hour so we could not delay at the gate. We couldn’t hang around while the flight engineer checked every engine, pump, generator, hydraulic, electric, and pneumatic system. It was go time – go, go, go, get the show on the road get the machine in the air time. So in a flurry of eyes and ears, arms and legs, fingers down checklists and communications – me with the ground engineers, the pilots with the tower, with departure control, on route clearance we orchestrated the launch of G-BOAB off the Heathrow runway and set course for the Adriatic.
It was there, just south of Venice, that the Adriatic Sea popped up on the radar so we could run on with the checklist to start moving the fuel, changing the trim, waking her up from the sub-sonic cruise to poke her sharp nose at the atmosphere, turn up the wick in the cans, light the exhausts and burn, burn, burn – compressing the air before us so the engines can rejoice in our transition into supersonic flight, to find Mach 2.0 and there to cruise, to super-cruise, ten miles above the planet where the air was super-cold and super-thin. We could stay there, in our super-sonic heaven roaring south beside the eastern coast of Italy to the Mediterranean Sea and then to slow, to drop the pressure wave, and tiptoe at only seven hundred miles an hour over Lebanon, Jordan, and the great deserts of Saudi Arabia. Gently, quietly, we dropped over the sea to Bahrain, taxied her in and shut her down, excitement over, for a quiet night, cool shower, dinner and rest.
In the elevator of the Bahrain Hilton I asked David if he had any comments. “No,” he said. “You’re certainly up to Line Check standard. I’ll do one tomorrow.
In the hotel dining room that evening I was able to sit alone, quietly, away from the traffic at the bar as there were no other crewmembers to be seen – no one I knew to wave, beckon, chatter about women and planes and taxes and rotten governments. Perhaps there was a party somewhere – in a room, at the British Club, in the villa of one of the princes who liked to have a party on hand where he could be sure of finding white women if the fancy should take him. Whatever the reason for the quiet dining room it suited my mood. David’s question at the outset, and his comments later, left me ruminating – even when busy with the aircraft on the way there my mind kept flicking back to find a starting point. There were marker points aplenty. The first to jump out was in Dar-es-Salaam, East Africa, a little before 7am with the Sun bursting up over the Indian Ocean when the number three engine failed to start. It didn’t turn. The Captain hit the start button again; the co-pilot reselected; I checked the electric supply from the ground. Nothing. Nothing happened and I knew why. The cable loom running through the engine bay, behind the fire shield, was burned through. I knew this because four years before in the British European Airways maintenance hangars overhauling Comet 4B aircraft I’d been detailed to clean and repair each of these looms in each of the engine bays on more than one occasion. It was a dirty job, up on a ladder, involving spraying noxious cleaning fluids inside the narrow engine bay, and therefore best suited to a keen, bright eyed, apprentice building experience for his first maintenance license.
In Dar-es-Salaam that morning I told the Captain about the burnt wiring loom and suggested we delay the flight for a couple of hours while I organise a repair crew.
“No,” he said resolutely, “that’s maintenance work. You are my flight engineer. I need you to operate the aircraft not oversee repair work. Nairobi can send out a team.” He hopped out of his seat and headed off to the flight office to telephone home and decide on the best plan. When he returned he told the co-pilot and myself to prepare for a three-engine flight to Nairobi. “They’ll send another aeroplane for the passengers.”
The co-pilot busied himself with charts and tables for a three-engine take-off then asked me to look up the three-engine cruise tables. “We don’t need to fly on three-engines,” I said. “Just to take-off. Once we have some airspeed the number three engine will be turning fast enough to light it up. We can fly home on four engines or come back here and pick up the passengers.”
The two pilots looked at each other. I knew what was coming. “Can we refuel with an engine running?”
I shook my head. “We’re already overweight for a landing back here even without the passengers.”
“We can’t take-off with the bags on board if the passengers are not,” declared the co-pilot. “That’s against the law.”
“It would help to take the bags off. We could probably get authorization for a modest overweight landing,” I ventured.
The baggage handlers said they would not load bags with an engine running so we left them on board. The Captain didn’t seek permission for an overweight landing. He just took-off on three engines and, after we lit the forth, he turned down wind to position the aircraft and land gently, with the barest use of the wheel brakes. The passengers scurried aboard and we were away again with all engines running. It was a happy ending story in which a twenty-four year old ex-apprentice learned a bit about war-time pilots and a lot about himself.