The Jet Era - airliners - UK Airfield Guide

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The Jet Era - airliners

It appears that after WW2 British designers were the first in the world to appreciate how jet powered airliners could transform air travel. And indeed, even during the latter stages of WW2 some design teams were already embarking on projects. 

In his fabulous book The Big Book of Flight, Rowland White tells us about the first 'jet powered' airliner flight from London to Paris in November 1946. But it was only partially jet powered. It was an Avro Lancastrian with two of its piston engines replaced with Rolls-Royce Nene jet engines. The two piston engines being feathered once it got going.

The first proper jet airliner that I have discovered was the experimental version of the Vickers Viking, also powered by two Rolls-Royce Nene jet engines. In July 1948 that flew from London to Paris in 34 minutes averaging 394mph.

In the summer of 1949 de Havilland stunned the world when the apparently fabulous DH106 Comet 1 first took to the air. Such a sorry story - fatally flawed from the start. For two basic reasons. The de Havilland company had no tradition of building metal aircraft, so their designers barely understood the basics, let alone through sheer arrogance, (I was told by somebody employed at HATFIELD), ignoring the basics of constructing pressure vessels which had been determined by engineers of steam engines some two hundred years before.

It wasn't long before they suffered catastrophic failures at high altitude, and the BOAC fleet was grounded. On the back of this, the Vickers V.1000 project, expected to fly in 1955, was also stifled. And that design could well have succeeded - Vickers then knew how to build very strong metal aircraft.   

Looking back, from 2019 when this article was written, virtually all the parameters of viable airliner design had been explored by the mid 1970s. And resulted in one basic concept - very conventional with mainly two or four engines underslung below the wings. And so similar that only an expert eye can differentiate one from another by and large.

The exceptions of course are most of the short-haul regional jets, which just like the majority of executive jets, have their engines mounted on the rear of the fuselage.   

By and large the travelling public could not care less, and have no idea or interest in exactly what type of aircraft they are flying in. Which I suppose really is a success story. Having no more interest than in which company built the bus, coach or train or taxi they are travelling in.

Would it be fair to say that the de Havilland Comet and especially the Vickers Viscount, (first flight July 1948), put the wind up the American aircraft industry? The Viscount of course having basically a jet engine driving propellers - whereas the Americans were still wedded to piston engines for all airliners. Boeing it would appear were the first U.S. company to take this on board and heavily relying on their knowledge and expertise in creating the B-47 jet bomber, used this to create the Boeing 707 which is quite rightly credited with revolutionising jet long-range travel in the public domain. With the Douglas company hard on their heels with their DC-8.

The first example of what became the 707 was the Model 367-80, commonly referred as the 'Dash 80' and that first flew in July 1954, five years after the Comet 1. The first 'proper' 707 first flew in December 1957. 

It is probably mostly forgotten about today that those early American jet engines, powering the 707 and DC-8, were very unreliable. I seem to recall some BOAC 707s carrying a spare engine in a pod slung under the wing. Even so, the trend was irreversible, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 would dominate long haul travel from the late 1950s and into the 1970s.

Possibly also mostly forgotten is that the Boeing 367-80 was barrel-rolled on a demonstration flight in 1955 with invited guests on board by Boeings test pilot Tex Johnston, for which he was severely reprimanded. It did not compromise safety, and indeed every jet airliner can be safely barrel-rolled, including an Airbus A380 as it is a 1G manouevre. It also appears that a Douglas DC-8 flew through the sound-barrier in a shallow dive - the only airliner to do so until Concorde.   

Two years before, in France, the fabulous Sud Aviation Caravelle made its first flight in May 1955. A short to medium range jet airliner it was revolutionary in having engines mounted on the rear of the fuselage, and rear 'air-stairs' installed in the rear fuselage. A feature, if I remember correctly, the Boeing 727 also copied - at least in some versions. 

Also largely ignored today is the Tupolev Tu-104. Derived from a bomber design, and first flying in June 1955, it appears it entered service in 1956. Therefore beating all the western types in the short to medium class - and yes, they did fly into the west. I well remember them landing at LONDON AIRPORT with their glass 'bomber' noses.

de Havilland did eventually evolve the Comet into a very good aeroplane. In fact the Comet 4 was operating across the Atlantic a few months before the Boeing 707 entered service. But once the Boeing 707, shortly followed by the Douglas DC-8, (which first flew in May 1958), started in service, the BOAC Comet 4 was doomed. 

As was the American Convair 880, (first flight January 1959), and the later Convair 990 Coronado. Fabulous performers, we loved watching the Swissair examples taking-off at L.A.P., but they could not compete on long haul. 

One version of the Comet 4 was the Comet 4B - a short to medium haul version, and a few were sold abroad. The main user was BEA (British European Airways) and an uncle of mine, Capt. 'Tommy' Gibbs, was very thankful of the Comets incredibly clean aerodynamic design when three engines failed after taking-off from an airport in Switzerland, (Zurich I think?), after slush ingestion. He managed to safely land on the one remaining engine.

This resulted in, again I believe, in the BEA Comet 4Bs being fitted with mudguards? The only example?

Without any doubt the star performer in this era was the British Vickers VC-10 which first flew in June 1962. Its performance was in a class of its own, and flew, according to its pilots like a jet fighter. Nothing else could compete, and yet commercially it was a complete failure. It could operate out of high altitude airports around the world where the American designs could not. And, despite the fact that it was the only airliner to have flown faster from London to New York than Concorde, it still failed to attract many orders from abroad.

Then again, by this time the British aviation industry, and the indeed country itself, was viewed as being a lost cause - not worth investing in. Which it was, the trade unions being completely dedicated to decimating all major industries, coal mines and the docks with endless  'industrial action', and therefore rendering all their members unemployed. Which tactics, bizarre though it seems today, their members totally supported by and large. Why?

Here again it appears that the British manufacturers were well up to the task. The Hawker Siddeley Trident, originally a de Havilland design, first flew in January 1962. It was a revolutionary concept having three fail-safe systems installed and, if these failed, a turbine generator could be lowered to maintain power to essential systems.

It is said that all the data for this design was given, free of charge, to the Americans. And, a much simplified version was the Boeing 727 which first flew in February 1963. The Trident sold 177, the Boeing 727 1,832. When BEA sold off their Tridents several operators dispensed with the complex systems, and the type continued in operation for many years.

Once I had gained my PPL my uncle Capt. 'Tommy' Gibbs told me several stories - which very few people could have been aware of. One was how the Trident, which he ended up flying for BEA, suffered terribly in the winter with 'morning sickness'. BEA refused to install heaters and dehumidifiers when the Tridents were parked overnight, and on the first flight of the day the flight deck was illuminated with warning lights. Crews soon learnt to ignore these, going back to basics, and as the aircraft warmed up they all went off. If they hadn't adopted this approach, the BEA Trident fleet would have been pretty much grounded during the winter months.

The BAC One-Eleven first flew in August 1963 and really was a winner in so many ways. Able to take-off from semi-prepared strips around the world. And, as many of its aircrews claimed, was by far the most efficient means of converting pound notes into noise. The similarly configured Douglas DC-9 first flew in February 1965.

Yet again the British lost out. The British Aircraft Corporation sold 244 BAC One-Elevens. Douglas sold 976 DC-9s, and after being merged with MacDonnell, the revised MD-80 sold 1,192 and the lengthened MD-90 116.

However, by far the biggest winner in this class was the Boeing 737 which first flew in April 1967. Evolved almost beyond recognition, but still retaining the '737 look' in 2019 some 10,560 or so had been built. It is such a shame that in 2019 the latest version, the 737 'Max' was grounded in what appears scandalous circumstances when an untested, uncertified, and totally superfluous so-called 'safety aid' to prevent the aircraft stalling after take-off was installed. It was a heavily flawed solution to a problem that didn't exist!

As a result 346 people died. Will the people responsible be held to account and prosecuted? I doubt it. This said, it does appear that merging Boeing with MacDonnell-Douglas was a huge mistake, and the price is now being paid.   

Incredible though it might now seem today, the first Boeing 747 first flew in February 1969. It was an incredible act of faith and foresight. Boeing was gambling everything and racked up immense debts to get this project under way. 

It appears that initially Boeing were working on a design for a huge military transport, hence the flight deck being mounted above the fuselage. There are several versions of the story, but it does seem that Juan Trippe of Pan Am had asked Joe Sulter of Boeing if they could design an aircraft with double the passenger carrying capacity of the Boeing 707. The legend is, that with both men reaching the end of their professional careers, they decided that a truly magnificent airliner would 'top-out' their contribution to airline history. If Boeing could build it, Pan Am would order it.

The rest as they say, "is history". Once proven the worlds major airlines queued up to place orders. By 2019 some 1,550 had been built.

The Americans came up with two more wide-body designs with less capacity, to fill a market between the smaller jet airliners and the 747. These were the Douglas DC-10 which first flew August 1970, and the Lockheed Tri-Star in November 1970. Both had three engines mounted at the rear of the fuselage. And, by this time, the American airliner building industry dominated the airlines in most of the world.

I suppose that at least a mention of this must be made? Right from the start the project was a 'no-hoper'. It is now quite incredible to think that these projects stood the remotest chance of being commercially viable. The UK and France poured huge amounts of cash into this utterly futile project, as did the Soviet Union.

The Americans, typically, thought they could go one step further, despite being advised from Europe that this was impossible. And it was of course.

And yet, even today, so many people still harbour fond feelings for the Concorde - but why? It was an utter failure in every respect as an airliner.

But, even today, having walked around and into four Concordes at Yeovilton, Duxford, Sinsheim in Germany and Toulouse in France, (the musuem at Toulouse has two!), it cannot be denied that simply as an aeroplane - it really is a classic. A superb example of what human ingenuity can achieve.  

When the Airbus A.300 first flew in October 1972, I suspect nobody, including those working for Airbus, had any idea about how their designs would take on the might of the American domination of the airliner market. But they have. 

The first example of the Airbus A.320 Series first flew in February 1987. Since then it has slowly eroded U.S. domination, as have larger Airbus types taking on the Boeing 767 and 777 markets.

The final example to take on the dominance of the 747 was of course the Airbus A.380. Taking mass travel to yet another level.

At the lower end, the short haul market has seen other companies offering very attractive jet airliners, such as Canadair (Bombadier) and Embraer in Brazil.

Nobody is set to design an aircraft to supersede the Boeing 747 and Airbus A.380. And for a very good reason. As smaller twin-engine airliners develop, becoming capable of longer range sectors, they can deliver people much nearer to, or exactly to where they want to go. Dispensing to some extent with the need for the hassle and often long waits involved with transitting via major hub airports.

It is of course, very much 'a work in progress' in 2019, but the trends are clearly obvious. The development of regional airports, typically using old and large defunct military bases, (or sharing such facilities), is clearly the way forward. Across the world.

The case often made regarding the degree of pollution regarding airline travel is, to quite a large extent, utter bunkum. Take for example the myth concerning the crowded skies across Europe. I have driven across huges swathes of western Europe on a clear day, and not seen a single aeroplane of any kind. No con-trails, just clear blue skies. The problem being, by and large, that airliner traffic is condensed into 'airways' for the convenience of Air Traffic Control, and naturally as a result, some can become congested.

If for example you compare the emissions from a cruise liner, becoming increasingly popular for holidays, to a 747 or A380 carrying hundreds of passengers around the world, the amount of fuel consumed per mile is miniscule. But when have you heard of throngs of environmental activists blockading ports to prevent dozens of coaches from cruise ships going on tours?

Or, for that matter, insisting that tens of thousands of centrally heated/air conditioned hotels, office blocks etc should be shut down. Oh, and don't forget hospitals.
Road use and trains contribute much more. Grouped together for example the amount of trucks and vans used to maintain the railways, and to deliver various supplies, food, confectionary, newspapers etc, to stations, comprise one of the largest road transport fleets in the U.K. Clearly though, the latter vehicles usually make other deliveries. Airports have the same problem of course.

Let alone industry. But, rarely if ever mentioned is that modern more 'efficent' central heating systems put out three to four amounts of noxious gases than the older types. Or for that matter, a well maintained deisel car is no more polluting than a petrol powered type. Plus of course, nothing even remotely on the horizon is in view to replace the deisel powered truck which the majority of people throughout the world depend on to keep them alive - delivering almost everything.   

I am not trying to belittle these by and large well meaning people. Far from it, environmental pollution is a massive problem - as is over-population - a co-related subject. The idea that we can go back to the kind of social entities we had two thousand years ago, is a fantasy. I suppose, without any doubt (?), that advanced technologies are the answer. So why is so little effort and money, in the greater scheme of things, being expended to sort this out?

Unfortunately, if anybody cares to examine the advance of humanity over the last ten thousand years especially, it does not give cause to be hopeful.



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