When I first learned to fly all those years ago, I recall there were a number of things that my old instructor told me that have stuck in my mind to this day. He had learnt to fly the hard way, as a Spitfire pilot toward the end of WW2; 10 hours and you were solo. But he was no fool. The Golden Rules he called them: Aviate, navigate and communicate. He said, “If you remember these three skills, you will never go wrong.” He would say, “Always know where you are. Know what airports are ahead, to your sides and behind you, and how you can best get to one of these if you have trouble”. He never did define “trouble.” My RAF instructors would expand on this by adding the rule “Always fly the plane! Too many aircraft have been unnecessarily lost by pilots who were distracted by minor cockpit issues.”
“Heathrow Ground, Speedbird 117, ready for push- back and start-up”
“Ground, 117, push-back and start-up approved, to face west, call when ready for taxi”
“Ground, Roger, face west, will call ready for taxi, Speedbird 117.”
Twenty years had gone by since I joined the RAF. After flight school, I had graduated to multi-engined aircraft with Beechcraft B-350 twins, and then on to 10 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton, driving Lockheed L-1011s and Vickers VC10s.
Time served on long haul runs to RAF Akotiri in Cyprus, RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, and the dog-leg approach into RAF Gibraltar became standard fare for this young flight lieutenant. Sandy Forbes, an Aberdeen Scot, my senior partner (and pilot-in-command) on many of these flights, would also impart his individual brand of Celtic wisdom to me during this time. “Flying” he mused, “Is 99% sheer boredom and routine and 1% sheer terror.” He then added, “And it’s how you handle that 1% that measures your worth as a pilot.” I never forgot those words. Here I am today, flying with British Airways, captain and pilot in command of a Boeing 747-400, about to depart London on a 7 hour morning flight to JFK international airport in New York with 421 souls on board. Walk-around is done, pre-flight checks are done. Flight plan lodged and we are ready to go.
“Ground, Speedbird 117, request taxi to the active.”
“Ground, 117, taxi to runway 09L via B, H, A and A13.”
“Ground, taxi to 09L via B, H, A and A13, Speedbird 117”
Power up, taxi to the active, and again the voices of the past haunt me as their words of wisdom come to mind. I hear Sandy telling me, “There are old pilots, and bold pilots; but there are no old, bold pilots.” “Angus,” he would say, “Aircraft fly by the interaction of the physical forces of lift, thrust, drag and gravity – and the only constant is gravity!”
“Speedbird 117, Heathrow Ground, contact tower on 118.50.”
“Tower on 118.50, 117; Good day.”
Power down, come to complete stop behind the runway stop line at A13. There is a QANTAS Airbus A380 on approach 10 miles out, so we are going to be here for a while. Switch the radio to 118.50. This should be a bread-and-butter flight to JFK, no problem. “There is no substitute for training and experience,” Sandy would say.
“Heathrow Tower, Speedbird 117 with you, hold point A13 for 09L”
“117, Tower, hold your position, A380 on approach, 10 miles out.”
“Heathrow Tower, hold for the A380, Speedbird 117”
What a great machine is the A380, a large and graceful aircraft – a real jumbo jumbo. Here it comes – fully established, full flaps, gear down. Touch down, speed brakes deployed, thrust reversers howling as the aircraft runs away down the runway.” Now that is sweet!”
“Heathrow Tower, Speedbird 117, position and hold”
“Position and hold, Speedbird 117.”
Pete and I will now move our 744 onto the runway and hold our position. We will need to hold for a few minutes until the air turbulence created by the Airbus dissipates. Time for final checks; flaps set, engines, fuel, RTO set. Pete and I look at each other, “Ready to go?” I ask; “Ready as I’ll ever be!” he smiles.
“Tower, Speedbird 117, runway 09L, winds 100 at 6 knots, clear for take-off!”
“Tower, winds 100 at 6, 09L, clear for take-off, 117”
We both grasp the throttles, releasing the brake; we move the throttles fully forward. The aircraft responds, surging forward down the runway. Eighty, one hundred, one-twenty miles an hour. One-forty.
“V1”; decision speed.
“V2”, safety take-off speed.
Pull back on the yolk, and the nose comes up and our jumbo climbs into air. The four Rolls-Royce RB-211 engines are screaming in unison and pulling this 800,000lb aircraft off the ground and into the heavens. You’ve got to love physics! Gear up, positive rate of climb, flaps in, autopilot engaged.
“Tower, Speedbird 117, contact London Control on 128.125”
“London Control, 128.125, Speedbird 117, Good day”
Radio channel change to 128.125.
“London Control, Speedbird 117 with you, passing 3,000 for FL340, Compton 3G departure, squawking 2102.”
“Speedbird 117, identified, climb and maintain FL340, continue on planned route”
“Climb maintain FL340, planned route, Speedbird 117”
Thirty minutes later we are well on our way to our cruising altitude of 34,000 feet and passing over the Irish coast. All looks good, aircraft operating well, everything within normal range.
Time to relax a little and grab a coffee from the cabin crew.
WHUMPH!! A muffled shudder passes through the fuselage. Number four engine surges and then spools down, a glance out of the cockpit window reveals that number 4 engine is on fire with sparks shooting out behind it. My mind races. Cut fuel to the engine, extinguish the fire, check all other engines operating within normal parameters. Fly the aircraft…..
Aviate, navigate, communicate.
“Shannon Control, Speedbird 117, pan, pan, pan. Number 4 engine fire, now extinguished and shut down, request vectors for Dublin”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem…..”
We will not be going to New York today!