The Secrets Course
On the first day of the Flight Engineer Concorde Conversion Course we were late because the bus was late to the hotel. The driver, it turned out, was not sure of his way either to the hotel, or to the British Aerospace factory in Filton, Bristol. It brought the wrath of the Customer Training Manager upon us because the course was tight – very tight with every second accounted in the curriculum. In fairness the angry manager didn’t know the reason for our tardiness when he delivered our reprimand, and subsequently apologized, but as he did I saw a hint of recognition. He and I had been here before – twelve years before when he had been ready with a reprimand because he thought I was a company apprentice not, as I was, an employee of the much valued customer East African Airways. As he looked over the faces of we chosen four for the next course in supersonic commercial transport he also recognised two of us who had attended his courses as employees of Vickers Armstrong before it became British Aircraft Corporation and subsequently British Aerospace Systems. They were fairly strong academics as was another – a peer from apprentice days when he proved many times over that his memory far outstripped mine. Statistics to date said one of us, possibly two, would fail to complete the course and given the company in which I found myself I couldn’t help but feel the pressure.
For the next two and half weeks we listened and watched the demonstrations, visited the simulations, walked the production floor, and crammed every evening. In between the instructors tested us with questions each morning and gave us boxes to tick on Fridays. It all went along at a cracking pace with no time to do anymore than remember; certainly there was no time for rumination, cogitation, comparison, or analysis – it was a case of there it is, remember it.
We did at least have aircraft to visit as there were two machines still under construction in an adjacent building so we could look inside, see how the wheels went up and where the pipes and cables ran – get to feel the insides. That previous formal course on maintenance of the SVC10 was conducted at what now seems a leisurely pace. We had time to discuss hydraulic, electrical, and pneumatic systems – think them over, look for weaknesses although our first physical encounter with the SVC10 was a white chalk line on the floor.
That class of East African Airways engineers I’d joined in September of 1966 left
the slides and maintenance manuals in the classroom on the first afternoon and walked down to the assembly shop where a middle age man in white overalls and a black and white check cap bent to draw a line on the floor. He did it authoritatively, and with some panache I thought for we were, in those few moments with soft autumn sunlight filtering through the roof vents, witnessing the laying of the keel of the last of the line of SVC10s. Designed and built to serve the Old Empire routes where it is generally hot, the airfields high, and the runways short, she was a high performance airliner with four Roll Royce Conway engines mounted on a huge beam under a mighty flying tailplane. The Conway Engine, it is worth noting, was a new, high by-pass, engine at the peak of development when Concorde’s old Olympus engine had been up and running on the Vulcan Bomber for ten years or more. This solitary fact demonstrates the British Government’s attitude toward Concorde – no new engine; no new materials. The Olympus origins could be traced back to 1947 when the V-Bomber force was being initiated to replace the Lancasters, Lincolns, Wellingtons . . . with high speed, swept wing, jet powered Victors, Valiants, Vulcans . . . Brave new fleets borne of the pride of Victory in Europe and in the people who made it happen. The voices of the bean counters were low, dim lights, to those of the bright new front runners of modern aircraft for the Royal Air Force in those years of hope in a new world – in pride of being British. In the thirty years that separated these leading aviation projects attitudes had changed. Accountants brushed past engineers’ ideas with dull grey concepts of numbers balancing numbers, with in matching out, with money, money, money before all else we had to guard the money – our money, the nation’s money.
Concorde though, came about despite the bean counters. It came about because the Russians went into space and because the Americans went to the moon. Neither group was counting the money and nor should they. Money is a tool – a convenient way to measure values in order to make trade easier. It was never meant to hamper us; it wasn’t set up to build temples of worship wherein money managers would be revered, prayed to, pleaded with in order that life might continue but it has. By the time Europe, Britain and France, looked skyward for a little national pride the bankers were in full control of our national policies. There was just enough drive, ambition, and out and out determination to push Concorde through but it was conditional – it had to be done with a thirty year old engine and no material development and, on top of all the mean minded management, the national airline had to be forced to operate her. Thirty years after the Empire’s Airline arose from the ashes of WWII national pride was nowhere to be seen in the boardrooms of national airlines.
Over the ensuing weeks we visited the SVC10 assembly shop almost daily to watch the last of the line grow as the pieces came from the factories around the country to be bolted, riveted, or welded into place. We were there for seven weeks – long enough to see an aircraft emerging, but a long way from a coat or two of paint and the wheels being fitted. In contrast, around eight years later we, a VC10 operating crew, watched a Lockheed 1011 roll out of the Palmdale assembly shop in California and into the adjacent paint shop. That happened every five days. Every five days a three hundred and fifty seat airliner rolled out of the paint shop and onto the runway. Then it flew away. That is quite a progression so imagine the disappointment to enter the British Aerospace assembly shop at Bristol, Filton, in 1978, to find oneself effectively back in 1966 looking, once more, at the last of the Concordes rising up from lines on the floor. We had a developed, tested, in-service, supersonic dream machine but we were still working in the garden shed. We Brits have a talent for that kind of behaviour. You could find it in the Information Technology world when our best brains were recruited by Silicon Valley companies in California, and if ever you visited the Rolls Royce development centres in Britain you’d find yourself in a series of sheds crammed at the end of rows of Victorian tenement houses. In California, in Palo Alto and Palmdale, the facilities were airy, spacious, purpose built celebrations of the dreams they were creating and the people who were creating them. In Britain we were hiding our achievements behind suburban back gardens.
Concorde, we learned in those initial three weeks, had been fourteen years in development which was not just expensive, it was a limitation. It meant the line had been drawn under the proven technology available fourteen years before production began. In consequence we had a brand new airliner that was, in technological terms, twenty years old.
The pace eased a little when we went across the Filton runway to a Rolls Royce Training Centre to learn about the Olympus engine – a low by-pass, twin spool gas turbine that first ran in 1950. There had been many variants, and numerous developments, over the years but the core of the one we were looking at, the 593B, had been in service for many years in the Vulcan bomber. Any hopes for new technology were dashed there, in those sheds across from the Filton runway. Given the restrictions of government the old Olympus with its high jet exit velocity, and ability to fit into the slender profile necessary for a supersonic airliner was the best available. A sophisticated intake system was required to limit the speed of the incoming air in supersonic flight, and a thrust augmentation system was needed to accelerate through the high drag, transonic, regions but the development of these systems rested, primarily, with SNECMA, the French propulsion experts, and was entirely successful in that they effectively doubled the thrust available for supersonic cruise.
For our part we flight engineers learned where to find the filters and magnetic plugs, how to isolate the reversers, and some, by no means all, of the procedures for removal and installation of the power plant. The instructors finished off the week there with a set of boxes to tick and we were on our w