The Conversion Course

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?”

“It is.”

“This is Flight Engineering Training Manager Concorde. Are you still interested in a Concorde course.”


“It’s not for everyone.”

“I understand.”

“It’s a lot of work – not everyone finishes.”

“I know.”

“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.”

“I will.”

“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.


Last VC10 Trip



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 members: 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.

“Phil Newman.”

“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.”

“I wouldn’t go near that operation.” John turned his attention to the weather charts as he spoke. “Have you seen the wankers signing up for it. Stay away from that bunch. Pompous pricks.”

There it was: My colleagues-to-be were already damned by those of established opinion. It was a concern. I had worked with some of the core members of the shiny new Concorde fleet when they were attached to the VC10. Pompous was the correct description for some of them, and arrogant was a label you could attach to many, but I could handle that. Boarding schools and military officer training units seemed to engender arrogance and pomposity but it was easily overcome, and could be fun. I found myself looking forward to it.

Meanwhile there was a job to be done. This last VC10 trip involved a night flight to Paris, Charles DeGaulle airport, where we would pick up one hundred and forty passengers and fly them to Addis Ababa on the first leg of their journey to the Seychelles. Another crew would take over in Addis Ababa while we rested for twenty-four hours before a second flight came through, which we would fly on to the Seychelles. Once there we would enjoy three glorious days of sunshine and beaches before flying to Nairobi in Kenya, and, after a thirty-six hour rest, we would have the long, night, flight home to London. I hated long night flights. I hated that weak at the knees, grit in the eyeballs feeling of propping myself awake hour after hour in the rare, dry atmosphere of the VC10 flight deck. I hated the sun coming up over Europe blinding me with its raw light flashing off the windscreens. I hated looking down at the little mountain houses and imagining the comfortable, sleep warm, citizens of Italy and Austria, Switzerland and Belgium, filling their kitchens with smells of pungent coffee and warm bread. I envied them their comfortable routines, their regular circadian rhythms, night after comfortable night in the same bed, their clothes in the same drawers, their toothbrushes in the same glass. I envied them fresh water and fresh food, fresh milk, fresh eggs, fresh air . . . I was ready for change.

There were no passengers for the Paris sector as is was just the positioning leg of a charter operation, which simplified the procedure but created the need for ballast because the trim of the aircraft depended on carrying a load of some description. For this we placed additional fuel in the fuselage tank to simulate passengers and baggage. All went well until the load and balance sheet arrived and it became clear that the dispatcher did not understand the function of fuel when loaded as ballast, and had made a fundamental error in his calculations. John sent the balance sheet back with a sharp instruction not to bring it to him again until it was right. I could see the dispatcher was horrified at his mistake but looked confused all the same. After a short interval I found him in the empty passenger lounge puzzling over his calculations and trying to raise a colleague on the radio to help him.

“Can I take a look?” I said, reaching for his clipboard.

“You know how this works?”

“Sure. It’s much simpler than you think,” and made the basic corrections. “If you run a trim check from there you’ll find you need five thousand kilos of ballast, which is what we have.”

“Thanks,” he said, but still looked unsure.

I returned to the cockpit where John was holding forth about the shortcomings of the ground staff. “They don’t have to live with their mistakes,” he was saying.

“They just sign out at the end of the shift and go home to gardens and hot dinners. We have to live with their mistakes. We have to strap this thing on,” he paused to indicate he meant the aeroplane, “We have to strap this thing on our backs and drag it round the world carrying all their cock-ups with us. Where will that guy be at two o’clock in the morning when we are dragging this heap down over the Sahara Desert? Where will he be when we have to prop matchsticks under our eyelids to make an approach into Addis? In his bed with his soft warm wife, that’s where.” He turned from his audience, checked the information in his Inertial Navigation System, and continued in a lower mutter. “It just pisses me off. He only had one thing to do, and he got that wrong.”

The ground engineer offered me the fuel and technical logs to sign and I offered them up to John. “Would you like to check these Captain?”

“Not if you’ve signed them. You at least are coming with us.”

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.

Happily I could settle into the routine of keeping the cabin air comfortable, and controlling our speed through the air all the while keeping the engines synchronized each to the other. The need for engine synchronization stemmed from the fact that the four Rolls Royce engines were mounted in adjacent pairs on a common beam. If they were running at differing speeds a horrible, sawing, vibration was transmitted to the rear cabin by that, same, beam. It could be extremely unpleasant, driving some to irritability, and others to migraine, so we VC10 engineers kept the engines synced while we kept an eye on the cabin and flight deck humidity and temperatures, managed our fuel tanks, and checked our consumption every hour. It was the familiar, dull, work that had been my life for a long time but it was not without relief – it could be highlighted with periodic ventures into the galley for cups of tea not that I drank the stuff in the NAAFI, tea-and-wad, form beloved of ex-British Servicemen. I hated milky, sugar leaden tea. It seemed so oafish, so crass to grunge up that light, aromatic leaf with animal fat and sugar. I liked tea light, simple, preferably served in fine china, and later in the afternoon, when the work is done and a large chair available in which to enjoy it.

I felt I was very much a colonial Englishman: not at all the braces over the pullover type I was raised to be. My father, I think, was disappointed his big mug of tea, Fair Isle, V-neck, imagery did not adhere to me. He sneered sometimes at the company I kept; I never did ask my grandfather how he felt about his son, or the company he kept.

Somewhere over the Sudan, north of Khartoum, but south of Libya, I noted the ‘A’ system hydraulic contents were low. Later, maybe only half an hour later, it was notably lower still. I told John and offered the suggestion that I isolate the ‘A’ system spoilers to see if the leak was there. He agreed but changed his mind after ten minutes when the middle sections, the ones powered by the ‘A’ system, started to float up in the vacuum over the wings subjecting us to a light buffeting.

“That’s too noisy,” he said. “Passengers are trying to sleep, and we’ll burn more fuel.”

“We have plenty of fuel,” said Tim. “We have enough fuel to go to Nairobi if we want to.”

“It seems to have stopped the leak,” I said. “We don’t want to lose the system.”

“What do we lose that isn’t backed up by the ‘B’ system?” John asked.

“The nose wheel doors are the main problem. Generally they drop out of their airtight seals to the mechanical lock when they lose hydraulic pressure. That can be noisy.”



“What else?”

“Middle spoilers, and nosewheel steering but I can get that back with the ‘B’ system.”

“Let it leak then,” he said. “Let the passengers sleep as long as you can.”

So we did. It was a mistake – not just John’s mistake – it was also my mistake. I was a senior engineer officer in the national airline and I should not have allowed a green captain to pursue a course of action so full of potential for disaster. I no longer was the naïve young man mistakenly trying to train Elijah, the African would be mechanic in Mombasa, just so I could have my hearty breakfast in the odour free cool of the restaurant;

The Elijah incident had unfolded over a period of five weeks as the roster clerks seemed to have me locked into the Nairobi-Dar-Mombasa-Nairobi operation at least once a week and sometimes even three. Elijah always greeted me with a beetle nut grin and an enthusiastic, “Good morning Sah,” when I descended the service door steps to start the refuelling. “The engine oils are checked Sah,” I showed him how to do that two trips ago so he was hot to demonstrate his abilities. “Only number one is low. Shall I go for oil Sah. I do not have engine oil here Sah.”

I delayed my response until the refuelling was under way then escorted him to the inspection panel and peered in. “Do you have a rag.” He looked hard at me – confused. “A cloth – something to wipe the sight-glass.”

“Ooh, ooh, yes Sah. Yes, I will get it,” and he was off.

When he returned he barreled me aside and poked a red swab in through the panel. “There Sah,” he announced. “You can see better now Sah.”

He was right – I could clearly see the oil level which was less than full but better than half and did not warrant dropping the cowling, priming the oil gun and charging the gearbox – too many things could go wrong out there under the equatorial Sun with one inexperienced engineering hand and a departure time to meet.

“Shall I go for oil Sah? You will need the oil machine?”

“Thank you Elijah. That won’t be necessary. There’s plenty of oil and only a short flight to Nairobi but thank you. That was good – you checked carefully.” He didn’t appear disappointed as one might expect – he beamed, as if satisfied that he done well and he had. He had learned his new routine of checking the engine oil levels as soon as the engines ran down, correctly noting when things were not quite right, and reporting his observations. Good for him. I might have imagined it but I thought, when he next called up the wire to us, there was a little more confidence in his “Hello cockpeet. Are you ready for my checks now?” Did he feel a little closer to the operation? Would he be expounding on his growing importance in the Comet operations to his friends over a few glasses of pombe this evening?

Pushing memories of the magnificent Elijah aside that busy night over North Africa we watched and waited as the ‘A’ system hydraulic fluid seeped away. Some thought was given to the merits of topping it up with the spare cans stowed behind the rear toilets but it made sense only if we could arrive with the system intact. If we used all the fluid, including the spare, there might not be enough to continue after the transit of Addis Ababa. Better to wait, I decided, until we were on the ground so some fluid was available to pour into the system for a departure. Given the choice I would have let the spoilers float. As a second choice I would have depressurized the leaking system before it ran dry thus avoiding risk of damage to the pumps and contamination of the filters. There was a spares pack in the rear freight hold which surely contained filters and more fluid, but I doubted there would be pumps.

“We are close to running out of fluid captain,” I said. “It might be worth pre-empting – save the pumps and all.”

John checked his navigation equipment, ran a distance to Addis Ababa check, and said, “Na, leave it leak. It’s only four hundred miles to run.”

It was not long before the low level, then the low pressure, warnings came up. I carried out the appropriate drill which involved isolating the pumps so they at least had enough fluid in them to maintain a re-circulatory flow, but the system was now lost for the rest of the flight. It took only a minute before the red nose gear door light came on and a loud roaring sound filled the cockpit.

“Shit, that is noisy,” said John. “Is it alright.”

“Perhaps we should slow to undercarriage lowering speed,” I suggested. “I’d hate to have the doors rip off.”

He turned to think about it. Tim checked the performance manual to find the best altitude for a speed below two hundred and fifty knots. I did a fuel check for our current altitude, and another for twenty five thousand feet.

We descended to twenty-four thousand feet and cruised at two hundred and forty knots. It was still noisy, but comparatively safe. Should the mechanical lock fail and the nose wheel doors fly open it would only increase the noise level. If we flew higher and faster the air loads might be too much for the structure around the doors. I hate to think of what would happen if the nose wheel doors flew off. Most things leaving the nose wheel area at high speed found their way back to the engine intakes at the other end of the aeroplane. During wet take offs in the early VC10 days we suffered engine flame outs because the water spraying off the nose wheel tyres flew straight back into the intakes, putting out the fire in the combustion chambers. Special tyres were developed with chines on the outside to deflect the water away from the air flowing into the engines. This, according to the manufactures, worked well, but it did not stop most crews selecting the engine igniters to on during wet conditions.

Fuel consumption at twenty-four thousand feet was higher, much higher than it would have been at thirty-five thousand feet, where we usually spent our time, but we had enough to reach our destination, hold for a while if necessary, and divert to an alternate airfield should the need arise. My time was spent on more frequent fuel checks, reviewing the procedures to be adopted should we suffer further system losses, and what to expect when the flaps, and the flying tailplane, were run on the ‘B’ system hydraulics only.


The VC10 had only two hydraulic systems because each of the flying surfaces had its own, independent Powered Flying Control Unit that depended only on electrical supplies. It was an excellent system that allowed us to control the aeroplane safely even when all hydraulics were lost. The Concorde was not so forgiving; a Concorde without hydraulic power was not controllable. It would be a crash waiting to happen.

We met headwinds at twenty-four thousand feet that slowed us, making us even later into Addis Ababa, and burnt deep into our fuel reserves. The flight became a long, noisy, grind through the African night made more uncomfortable by the light buffeting we were receiving from the winds. Each locked in our own little world we all wished this flight would end soon; it was not the way the aeroplane was designed to be operated, and the noise was adding heavily to our increasing fatigue. Conversations became shorter, until they existed only where absolutely necessary, as we each must have switched off – absented ourselves from the noisy cockpit and the growing concern that we were adding to a deteriorating situation.

Finally we started our descent towards the mountains and high tableland of Northern Ethiopia. Concentrating on the changing safety heights, and the careful attention our altimeters demanded in such high terrain, we were very much absorbed in the close monitoring the descent profile when we heard a voice, the American voice of an Ethiopian Airlines’ pilot, call, “Ethiopian one five eight is going around.”

Going around? The aircraft ahead of us was going around? Suddenly we were aware of bad weather in Addis Ababa. There was a thunderstorm over the airport and no one in our cockpit was aware of it until that moment. What had we all been doing? Sitting in the grinding noise of the undercarriage doors, checking our fuel, calculating our headwinds, but not looking where we were going. We had our thumbs up our bums.

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