Tuesday, December 29, 2009
FLYING A VICKERS VISCOUNT ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
FERRY FLIGHT 604
THE DIARY OF A VISCOUNT DELIVERY FLIGHT TO MONTREAL
MARCH 9, 1955
Below is an interesting look at a ferry flight across the Atlantic by a Viscount 724 written by Robert J. Blackburn.
HURN, Wednesday, March 9th, 1 p.m. All is ready for
the departure of 604—or, to give the aircraft her full
title, Viscount Type 724 CF-TGL, first of her type
to be built at Hum. Ferry 604, our flight number, derives
from Trans-Canada Air Lines' practice of referring to aeroplanes
by numbers rather than letters. Their first, second
and third Viscounts, built at Weybridge and already delivered,
are 601, 602 and 603.
Preparing the Viscount for her transatlantic flight is, I find,
only one aspect of the complicated process of dispatching a new
aircraft from factory to operator. The centre of all the activity
is the pilots' office at Hum, presided over by Guy Morgan, the ex-
Supermarine pilot concerned with customer relations. Telephones
ring constantly. At frequent intervals a Heron or Dove arrives
to unload pilots, passengers, documents and the latest news from
Wisley. Outside the office an assorted fleet of motor vehicles
provides surface transport to all parts of the sprawling Hum
works; within, a cheerful young Scotswoman miraculously combines
secretarial efficiency with the ability to produce cups of
hot tea at all times.
Here I meet Bill Bird, T.C.A.'s contracts representative at
Wisley, who has come to inspect and accept 604 on behalf of
his company and to check all the documents taken on the delivery
flight or retained in England. The list is formidable . . . acceptance
certificate, Vickers approved certificate, aircraft receipt, certified
paid invoice, journey log book, flight manual, certificate
of airworthiness, D.O.T. Form 2445, radio licence and inventory
The proverbial fine-tooth-comb scrutiny of 604 finds no defect
more serious than a dead battery for an emergency light and a
crinkle on one corner of the cabin floor-covering, so Bill takes
a deep breath and signs away x thousand dollars. Having accepted
the aircraft he must now sign it back to Vickers-Armstrongs, for
delivery flights are the manufacturers' responsibility.
Officially, all of the seven people who embark in 604 are classed
as crew-members, though two of us must admit to supernumerary
status. In command is Colin Allen, who joined Vickers' flight test
staff from B.E.A. some three years ago. His co-pilot is Peter
Marsh, a more recent recruit to Wisley and also ex-B.E.A. There
are two navigator/radio-operators—Bill Bower and George Wood.
Bill is yet a third ex-B.E.A. man, and George's marked preference
for comfortable, four-engined aircraft stems from some years of
service in R.A.F. Washingtons. The flight engineer is Bob
Rampling, a veteran member of Vickers' aircrew staff with 2,800
test-flying hours in his log-book. For Bob the transatlantic crossing
is a new experience, but his colleagues have all participated
in one or other of previous Viscount deliveries. The super-
numeraries are Willy Thomas, an electrical specialist on his way
to Winnipeg for liaison duties with T.C.A., and the writer.
We climb aboard the gleaming, silver-and-red aircraft, its
flawless interior a reminder that 604 has flown not quite 20 hours.
The Darts are quickly started, and their kettle-whistle is the
signal for a great deal of farewell waving to 604 as she rolls
majestically along the perimeter track. We reach the runway
—and turn back, with a faulty hydraulic-pressure gauge.
Embarrassed, we disembark to smoke a disconsolate cigarette
while the gauge is rectified. An hour later we are really on our
way—climbing at 180 kt indicated to join Airway Amber One
The distance to Prestwick, our first refuelling-point, is only
315 nautical miles, so it is not worth going above 16,500ft. 604
reaches her cruising height in quarter of an hour to hum along
in calm air at 280 kt. Sunshine floods the cabin, empty but for
four double chairs and a few packages, including personal luggage,
a ten-man life raft and minor spares for dispersal en route.
The full seating for 40 passengers will not be fitted until the
aircraft reaches Canada, since the chairs used by T.C.A. are of
Up front there is distinctly less room to spare. T.C.A.'s
Viscounts are designed for two-crew operation, whereas we shall
have three or four hands on deck at all times. The left-hand
seat will be occupied by either Colin or Peter, who are flying
alternate legs, with the duty radio operator on the right. Navigation
is performed in the right-hand freight compartment, situated
immediately aft of the flight deck and temporarily equipped with
a Loran scope, our main aid to navigation on the over-ocean legs.
Prestwick, March 9th, 4.30 p.m. We reach Prestwick H hr
after take-off, to be welcomed by T.C.A.'s station manager, John
Gilmore, who sees that 604's tanks are replenished with JP-4
and her galley loaded with ready-prepared meals and fresh coffee
for the crew. The met. office gives us a reasonable forecast for
Keflavik, and as we cannot force on to Bluie West before daybreak
there is time for dinner at the airport hotel before take-off.
We begin the 743 n.m. stage to Keflavik at 6.22 p.m. Once again
the air is smooth at our cruising height—24,000ft—and 604 is
performing beautifully. Contrary to normal airline practice,
T.C.A.'s advertising modestly credits the Viscount 724 with a
cruising speed of 322 m.p.h., whereas George's calculations show
that we have a true airspeed, at normal cruising r.p.m. (13,600),
of 286 kt—329 m.p.h. But we are not going to set any records
on this leg, since a 60 kt beam wind is swinging round into a
50 kt component "on the nose." Loran provides us with all the
fixes we need, and London comes through on HF with the latest
weather at Keflavik. Half-way through our flight Aurora Borealis
brings the sky to life; we are passing beneath an arch of dancing,
shimmering lemon-colored light. The vision has faded when
we reach our reporting point at Lax, 68 n.m. from Keflavik.
There are scattered clouds 2,000ft above our destination, but visibility
is 10-15 miles. We make a visual approach and touch down
on the 10,000ft-plus runway 3j hr after leaving Prestwick. 604
taxies to dispersal through a maze of colored lights and we step
out on to wet tarmac. The night air is surprisingly mild: Iceland
proves to be several degrees warmer than Southern England.
We enter the terminal, gasping slightly in its oven-like atmosphere.
Can this be Iceland? My doubts are dispelled by a notice
reading: "Aircrews—have you reported your iceberg today?"
Keflavik, March 14th, 12 noon G.M.T. Our fifth day in Iceland.
Each morning we have risen early, eager to set off for
Greenland, only to be forced back into frustrated boredom by a
gloomy shake of the weatherman's head. The entire operation
hinges on weather at Bluie West One. Flying direct to Goose
Bay, 1,315 nautical miles from Keflavik by great circle route,
would be out of the question for medium-range aircraft such as
our Viscount without the guarantee of (a) headwinds of not more
than 30 kt or so and (b) "wide open" conditions at Goose; a
diversion to the nearest alternate (Seven Islands, 286 n.m. from
Goose) plus an hour's holding would be stretching 604's endur-
ance too far. This is a situation which underlines the difference
between theoretical still-air range and practical stage-length. One
begins to realize why nobody has yet produced an airliner capable
of safe, regular operation from London to New York non-stop.
604 is not the only aircraft pinned to the apron at Keflavik by
the strong winds and weather which have persisted for the past
five days. Two Yorks, notwithstanding their 12-hour endurance
and 2,500-mile range, have also been tied up here. True, one set
out for Goose on Saturday night, but it turned back when, off
Greenland, headwinds cut its ground-speed to about 100 kt.
Meanwhile 604's captain has been seeking permission to reroute
the flight, if necessary, via Bluie West Eight, otherwise
Sondre Stromfjord, the U.S.A.F. base on the north-west coast of
Greenland, which has better weather and approaches than B.W.I.
Signals have flashed between Keflavik, London, Washington and
Montreal and diplomatic wheels have been set in motion.
Authority is needed not only to land at B.W.8 but also to uplift
U.S.A.F. fuel on the strength of a Shell credit card; "cash down"
is the normal rule. So far as B.W.I is concerned we already hold
such authority, but we think some days will elapse before the
concession can be extended to cover B.W.8 also. (Later we are to
learn that permission arrives an hour after our departure from
Over the past two or three days we have heard reports of heavy
snow-falls at B.W.I and the prospect of an early move seemed
remote when, yesterday morning, F/L. Fred Diamont, who controls
R.C.A.F. Sabre movements through Keflavik, received a
teleprinter signal forecasting that the airfield would be snowbound
until Thursday or Friday next. This morning, however, we
learned with surprised pleasure that Bluie's runway is usable
(though it offers only "fair" braking conditions) and that good
weather is forecast there for most of the day.
George and Bill, our navigators, have prepared their umpteenth
flight plan since 604's arrival at Keflavik and now the moment of
departure is near. Navigationally, the Iceland-Greenland leg is
the most difficult stage of the journey. Loran coverage is poor in
these latitudes and headwinds are likely to be both' strong and unpredictable.
Flight planning has been considerably simplified by
the performance and consumption calculations worked out in
advance of transatlantic Viscount delivery flights by Vickers'
analysts at Weybridge. The accuracy of these figures, which were
closely checked on the first two deliveries, may now be taken for
An important part of flight planning is the selection of our
cruising altitude. In still air it is always desirable to fly at 24,000ft
or above, except on very short stages, but we must take into account
the possibility of extreme disparity between the headwind components
expected at high and medium levels respectively. To
assist them in making this decision, 604's navigators have been
provided with a graph showing the ground nautical miles flown
per pound of fuel for any likely combination of headwind component
and cruising height.
In the event of inability to land at Bluie West One, due to bad
weather or some unforeseen factor, our alternate will be Keflavik.
It is necessary, therefore, to fix a critical point on the route at
which sufficient fuel will remain for an about-turn to Keflavik
plus 2,000 lb for an hour's holding on our return. This critical
point is little short of our destination—provided that the decision
to return is made before 604 begins her descent.
Our intention is to leave B.W.I as soon as possible after refuelling,
taking full advantage of the fair weather while it lasts. The
two Yorks have already set off for Goose Bay, naming Bluie as
We take leave of Binnie Thorvaldson, T.C.A.'s station manager
at Keflavik, and F/L, Diamont—two people who have done much
to ease the burden of our enforced stay within the confines of this
bleak airport—and thankfully climb aboard 604. At 12.58 she is
airborne, to climb swiftly through the thin overcast into the cold,
clear blueness which is the Viscount's element. Navigation has
its problems during the first part of the journey; our only fix is
obtained from a single Loran line crossed with back bearing from
Keflavik range. We are unable to contact weather-ship Alpha,
whose station lies half-way between Iceland and Greenland. At
the mid-point, however, George has established the wind at
24,090ft as 105 kt from 260 degrees instead of the forecast 100 kt
from 200 degrees. The Viscount alters course accordingly and
now communications begin to improve. Bill makes contact with
London and Keflavik on H.F. and obtains the latest forecast for
Goose Bay; Loran is working nicely and we are relaying position
reports for the two Yorks. Greenland is visible 50 miles away
and our position is easily pin-pointed as we cross the east coast
and make for Simiutak radio-range station. There is scarcely a
cloud in the sky, so we would have no difficulty in letting down
over the mountains (which hem in Bluie West) instead of descending
over the range and approaching via one of the tortuous fjords
which are the only means of entry in marginal weather conditions.
But study of such terrain in fine weather may pay dividends on
future occasions so we descend to 1,000ft at Simiutak for a normal
procedure approach. 604 weaves her way above the deep blue
water of the fjord towards the unseen runway ahead, great white
and brown masses of snow-covered rock mirrored in her gleaming
wings. A thump and a rumble beneath her cabin floor as the
wheels snap into the airstream. One more gentle turn and the
runway appears beyond the crust of ice which fringes the end of
Powdery snow and frozen slush prove a better landing surface
than one would expect, and 604 rolls almost to a standstill within
half the runway's length. The flight from Keflavik, 804 n.m.
away via the fjord, has taken 4 hr 12 min; headwinds, plus the
let-down procedure, have subtracted a good deal from our cruising
speed of 286 kt. We disembark in brilliant sunshine and snowglare
and make for the weatherman's office, pausing only to pay
the $10 56c landing fee. Our flight-planning is well under way
as the Yorks arrive at Bluie, having received ill reports of Goose
Bluie West One, March 14th, 7.20 p.m. G.M.T. Airborne for
Goose Bay. The flight plan names Seven Islands as our destination,
but an improved forecast of 5,000ft cloud-base and 5-8 miles
visibility at Goose allows u? to proceed as originally planned.
Now the navigators can relax—Loran fixes all the way to the
airways entry point at Caplin, then along the range to Goose;
H.F. contact with Goose, Gander, Shannon and London;.cruising
speed 280 kt at 16,000ft. A 70 kt headwind swings to 70 on the
beam, slackening to 25 kt.
At dusk, the first faint glimpse of Labrador through mkty
cloud—a television-screen picture of straight roads and patches
of colourless forest against grey snow. Headwinds considered,
604 reaches Goose in good time—672 n.m. in 3 hr 3 min.
Goose Bay, March 14th, 11.29 G.M.T. 604 soars into the
clear night air in a flurry of fine snow, which lies thick and dry on
the runway. Airways control have restricted us to 16,000ft on
this 716 n.m. last leg; perhaps the R.C.A.F.'s night fighters are
at exercise. The headwind has dropped to 20 kt, and the air
is smooth. Despite their long duty day, 604's crew show no
signs of fatigue, and one blesses the Dart turboprops which
have carried us so far in such comfort. Paradoxically, flying has
been the least strenuous part of our journey. Patterns of gleaming
lights confirm the instruments' messages as we identify one radio
range after another en route to Montreal. Touch-down is at
2.18 a.m. G.M.T. on Tuesday, March 15th. We re-set our watches
and it is Monday again.