Thursday, February 10, 2011
Air France 1649A Starliner... F-BHBT... Over The Top To Tokyo
Photo at top is of Air France L-1049G F-BHBI and NOT L-1649A F-BHBT
I have always had an interest in navigating (Pre Electronic era) and flying over the pole, or "Over The Top". I found this interesting article written in the April 25, 1958 edition of Flight Global.
AIR FRANCE INAUGURATES ITS "ROUTE
POLAIRE" TO THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN
By RONALD BARKER J (" Flight " photographs by the Author
TIME and tide used to wait for no man. But whereas shipping
lines still are the servants of tide, ambitious airlines are playing
old Harry with time. Sometimes it has to slow down and
wait for man to catch up with it, and sometimes he cracks on at such
a pace that it has to take a short cut to keep up with him. However,
neither man nor time can really afford to give the other the slip
entirely, and would-be passengers over the polar routes have nothing
to worry about on this score. After all, if you divide your life into
lumps of 24 hours and calculate on your return home how many of
those you have spent on your voyage, you cannot get home on the
wrong day. And if you decide to remain in the East after crossing
the Date Line, the sudden change of an intangible date will not
affect your metabolism!
This jolly game was introduced last year, on a commercial scale,
by S.A.S. with their flight over the polar regions from Copenhagen
to Tokyo, via Anchorage in Alaska; now Air France, following
delivery of all their new fleet of long-range Super Constellation
L.I 649As, have been able to follow suit from Paris. Until B.O.A.C.
introduces its Comet 4s on the Far East route, this new Air France
service will be advertised as the fastest commercial link between
Europe and Japan.
With Air France you set off in evening darkness (if it's early
April) at about 7.30 p.m. (1930 G.M.T.), watch the following day's
sun rise twice and set once, and lose a day in the calendar before
arriving in Japan after about 30 hours' flying time: and, as the last
dawn had cracked for you some 13 hours earlier, it's somewhat
disturbing to find that you have reached Tokyo at 11.30 a.m.
On the April 10 inaugural flight from Paris a distinguished passenger
list included Air France's administrative president, M. Max
Hymans; M. Gaston Monnerville, President du Conseil de la
Republique, and other eminent French politicians. Journalists from
France, Britain, America, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium
also were on board.
Our small party from the U.K. was escorted to Paris via an Air
France Super G Constellation by David Bamford, public relations
officer of A.F.'s U.K. organization. His father has, of course, been
its general manager since the early 'thirties. At Orly there was an
informal send-off party before we were shepherded into F-BHBT
Frontenac, the latest and last of the company's fleet of ten L. 1649As.
This aircraft had, in fact, been collected from Burbank only about
a month previously by Commandant P. Wintersdorff, who captained
our crew on the second leg of the journey—that is, from
Anchorage in Alaska to Tokyo.
For this special flight the seating layout allowed everyone an
abundance of space. There were 32 "Sky-lounges" (jauteuilscouchettes,
the French call them) with retractable leg-rests arranged
in pairs either side of the gangway in the main cabin, between the
galley and the next bulkhead forward; 12 between that bulkhead
(which contains the two toilets) and the crew's quarters. Aft of the
galley were two double bunks topped by two singles, for the
V.V.I.P.S on board.
On the later commercial flights there will be 34 tourist seats, 12
first-class Sky-lounges and eight Pullman berths. As with Air
France Super Gs on other routes, the seats are trimmed in cloth of
Shocking Pink—perhaps geranium pink sounds a little kinder, for
it's a cheerful yet restful shade. Their sponge-rubber cushions and
squabs are very comfortably profiled. Carpeting and seat-backs are
in a sober grey, and the upper half of the cabin is trimmed in matt
plastic material with a grey-and-white canvas print. The curtains
are a gay, Picasso-like riot of pattern and colour.
There wasn't much fuss about getting our 70-ton liner airborne,
despite its 8,170 Imp. gallon fuel load—which gives it a full range
of over 6,000 miles. On take-off and for the first few minutes of the
subsequent climb, vivid pale-blue flame licked from the twin
exhaust-effluxes of the Wright Turbo-Compound R-3350 EA2s—
the lower outlets from the engine cylinders, the upper from the
triple exhaust turbines.
Soon the flame faded to salmon pink as the mixture was weakened
and the engine speed cut, and thenceforth only a ring in the turbine
outlet glowed red in the night. Cruising initially at 240 knots and
about 9,000ft, we headed north over Belgium, then parallel with
the East Anglian coastline and east of the Shetlands.
We had been reassured beforehand about the emergency equipment
aboard—dinghies, tents, survival suits, plenty of concentrated
foods, transmitters, stoves, rockets and smoke generators, torches,
sun-glasses, and even a hunting-knife and a triple-bore rifle for
potting at polar bears. Now a bilingual steward demonstrated lifejacket
procedure; if we were dropped into the sea, we should be
both phosphorescent and shark-proof.
Engine and propeller noise is quite subdued in most parts of this
largest member of the Constellation family. The inboard motors
are farther outboard than on the smaller craft, to use an Irishism;
the huge, three-bladed props are geared down more, and there is
added sound-damping in the fuselage. Only in those parts of the
cabin nearest the blade-tips—in particular, the toilets, so that one
is not inclined to stay in them longer than is necessary—is the
noise and vibration at all oppressive.
Our senses had already accustomed themselves to the hum and
very slight movement of our temporary caravan when Air France
began to serve their evening delights for the table. First, a wide
choice of aperitifs; then, lubricated liberally with champagne and
table wines, came a Caviar de Beluga with a fresh tang of the sea,
cold turbot with salad, lamb chops with haricot verts, cheeses,
petits fours, ice-cream (just about as we crossed the Arctic Circle
N.E. of Iceland), fresh fruit, coffee and brandy. This light repast
finished at about 0030 G.M.T. on the 11th.
It should have put everyone soundly to sleep for many hours, yet
at 0220 G.M.T. I woke to see a bright and decorative sky to the
N.E.—all the spectral shades over a black and empty sea. Was this
a sunrise without a sun, or a sunset, or the aurora borealis? Or even
the champagne and just a dream? No one else seemed to know,
but I think it might have been Friday's sun trying to reach us from
somewhere around Siberia. At this time we were approaching the
east coast of Greenland, which we crossed (0320 G.M.T.) at Jonsbu
—about latitude 75 deg N. My special sunrise then disappeared.
The icy mass of Greenland was crossed, in darkness, diagonally
from Jonsbu and over Kennedy Straight to Fort Conger on Ellesmere
Island. Now Friday's sun began to rise, from the S.E. relative
to our aircraft, so that we were able to pick out the forbidding peaks
and glaciers of Grant Land in the twilight.
Navigators Station on the Connie
Between there and Barter Island on the mainland of Alaska there
was a leisurely breakfast in full daylight, and Bertrand d'Astorg,
who is a poet and author as well as being Air France's second string
in public relations, entertained the guests by donning a survival
suit and being dowsed with Perrier (see photograph) to celebrate
our Arctic crossing. Our cruising speed had risen steadily as the
aircraft became lighter and the flight plan in terms of progress and
fuel consumption had proved fully satisfactory.
We were now at 24,000ft and cruising at some 295 kt. Outside
our aluminium shell the air temperature was — 56 deg F (88 deg of
frost) but a ground temperature of +37 deg F was forecast at
Anchorage—with good weather and clear skies. We were told, too,
that our nearest approach to the Pole had been 870 km, at precisely
0638 G.M.T. After that we had started, of course, to drop
down the other side of the world.
On this route there is the same independence of a fixed course
as over the Atlantic. Depending upon the atmospheric pressure at
the Pole and consequent wind directions and strengths, some flights
may pass directly over it, whereas on other occasions it may be
skirted by over 1,000 miles. On the return route from Tokyo more
favourable winds prevail, and the flying time in this direction is
quoted as 27y hours in place of just under 30 for the outward trip
—both fabulous figures for an 8,420-mile flight when considered
in relation to the time it takes to cover that distance in a private car.
Polar flight and its relationship to the earth's rotation and the
sun is most probably less obscure to most of my readers than it is
to me—and many of my fellow-passengers. To put matters in their
simplest terms (I think) the sun can be considered as rushing round
the Equator at about 1,000 m.p.h. in a clockwise direction viewed
from the North Pole. Thus from Paris to Tokyo one is being
chased by it. and from Tokyo to Paris one is rotating in the opposite
direction to meet it. On the westward journey, the higher the
latitude, the slower one has to go to keep up with the sun; so at
the Pole itself one wouldn't have to move at all—except to keep
Initially from Paris we had, as it were, spent our time climbing
up to high latitudes without making much impression westwards
or longitudinally. During this period the sun was overtaking us
rapidly; but once we had reached northern regions of the globe
where its horizontal periphery is much reduced, we were progressing
quicker than the sun.
Thus it was that our breakfast sun before Alaska disappeared
again at around 0800 G.M.T. after only about three hours, and we
re-entered the same night that we had so recently left. This was
deeply disappointing, since we were thus deprived of a sight of
Alaska's mighty mountain ranges, including the North American
continent's highest peak—Mount McKinley (20,269ft). Just before
midday G.M.T. Commandant Carmeille (who completed A.F.'s
first proving flight over this route last January) throttled back, and
we lost height gradually in increasingly bumpy conditions, for
touch-down soon after midday at 1237 G.M.T.—still just in
This was fair enough for the Anchorites, for their local time was
only 0237. Nevertheless, the whole city seemed to be there to welcome
us, with words, music, food and drink. There were three
combo bands taking turns to play the Marseillaise, the Alaska territorial
Anthem: ". . . Alaska's flag—to Alaskans dear, The single
flag of a last frontier." We were only disappointed that there was
no Eskimo band to play us phoqne-sangs on their sealskin guitars.
All had been arranged by the Chamber of Commerce Red Carpet
Committee, and if one can make a friend in two hours, here was
Colonel Don Graham, deputy commander of the U.S.A.F. 10th
Air Division, told us something about flying activity and conditions
in the district, military, private and corporate; and about the hard
but rewarding country around there. The latest winner of the Fur
Rendezvous Queen Contest helped to entertain the guests, and a
monster stuffed timber wolf to frighten them. Whilst we were
there an S.A.S. DC-7C on its polar path flew in, refuelled and was
quickly away—routine stuff these days. A spectacular dawn, which
had begun to glow behind the range of snow-covered Chugach
mountains, provided a superb backcloth to our function. Just
before we left, a local resident, one Eugene C. Smith, smuggled me
into the control tower to enjoy a view of his home-town and surroundings.
We looked over to Hood Lake, where ten per cent of
the U.S.-registered floatplanes are kept. Hood Lake is joined to
another by a canal, which gives an adequate take-off run for heavily
laden craft. In fact, over 800 lightplanes of one sort and another
are registered in the area—it claims to be the Small Plane Capital
of the World.
Even this brief introduction to Anchorage whetted the appetite
for more—especially as there was no snow around, and there had
been only three wet days in the last sixty. Take-off was at
1527 G.M.T., and we were to remain in daylight, with the sun
chasing us until that evening in Japan—20 hours or so of daylight
in April. Our complete crew had changed at Anchorage (we had
clapped the retiring members a friendly thank-you) to await Frontenac's
return on the following Sunday (Japanese time), and we
were now in the charge of Commandant P. Wintersdorff, with
over 13,250 flying hours' experience logged.
Time now began to go really haywire. For instance, our last meal
(breakfast) had been at 0830 G.M.T. and, apart from a bite or two
during the reception at Anchorage International, we were not fed
again for 12 hours, towards the end of which the charming and
constantly attentive Air France stewardesses (one of whom was
Japanese in each crew) were embarrassed to hear our entrails
rattling in protest. The meal, when it came, was termed dejeuner/
diner—aperitif, tinned salmon and salad, braised chicken with
mushrooms, cheese and an orange—plus an endless flood of champagne
and/or wine. Meanwhile our friends at Anchorage were
probably enjoying a late breakfast.
We had passed over the tundra and ice-bound lakes of Alaska at
about 1650 G.M.T., but for a while the white, mountainous outline
of the north-west corner remained in view. Then we were alone
over the Bering Sea, roughly following the line of the Aleutian
Islands, and our next glimpse of land would be Japan, many hours
At 1940 there was some excitement when the inboard port propeller
feathered—rumours of overheating, surmise about the pointof-
no-return. About 25 minutes later Crndt. Wintersdorff restarted
it, and it gave us no further anxiety. I went forward for a word
with him a little later, and asked why he had stopped this engine.
Apparently a warning light had flashed, and he had taken the step
as a precaution, although rightly suspecting a faulty signal switch
—it was still signalling whilst I was in the cockpit with him.
He was making frequent reference to his weather radar, the
scanner of which has a 40- to 50-mile range and enables the pilot
to foresee and avoid storm centres. Our altitude at this time was
14,000ft, and we were running a little slower into a medium headwind.
Speaking with Francois Le Noan, the navigator, I learnt
that two navigators have been carried on the first leg to Anchorage,
but that only one is required on the briefer and less hazardous
Anchorage - Tokyo stretch. Although the magnetic compass is
useless in the polar region, it is apparently usable during the last
three hours before the Anchorage refuelling stop on the outward
run, and for the whole of the Anchorage - Tokyo section.
There are, however, six or seven hours during which a Bendix
polar-path gyro compass is supplemented by several other aids.
Incidentally, although two gyro compasses are carried in case of
the failure of one, these instruments are considered sufficiently
accurate for readings to be taken only from the one. A polarized
sky light compass can plot the position of the sun during the arctic
months of twilight, when it is well below the horizon and neither
stars for astral navigation nor land are visible. In addition, there ;
are plenty of radio signalling stations adjacent to the route; unfortunately,
cosmic disturbances at these high latitudes cause much '•
interference at certain times of the year.
All in all, the non-technical passenger will be satisfied to learn
that every known navigational instrument, to cope with all the
known quantities likely to be encountered on this route, is included
in Air France's equipment. He will be more interested to hear
whether the long hours spent sitting in a very comfortable and
well-furnished aeroplane are fun, or a bore. Certainly the shorter
hops of the longer India route provide more distractions; it all ;
depends on whether time or pleasure is the more important, and
whether he is worried by a multiplicity of landings and take-offs.
In summer much more could be seen of the fascinating and little-.,
known polar regions, and the brave Alaskan scenery. I would
always choose to repeat my own experience, by taking one route on
the outward journey and returning by the other. ;
During the Anchorage - Tokyo stretch, the tedium of flying for
hours above cloud and sea was inescapable, but it would have
helped to sleep as much as possible, to compensate for the •
increasingly tricky time factor. On entering the area of the Pacific
Ocean at the south-western extremity of the Aleutians, one crosses ,
the Date Line, and it becomes tomorrow. After the unexpected
dallying in Anchorage, our arrival time in Tokyo was now expected .'
to be lunchtime (1325 on Saturday, Japanese time). At Greenwich
it was then 0425 on the same day, whereas at Anchorage it was
still Friday, and only 1825 at that. So our last meal on board was
a meaty affair—with, of course, champagne.
Our approach to Tokyo was marred by an overcast at 2,500ft, .
so that we could see little of the land until we had almost arrived i
there. The International Airport, which is becoming increasingly '.;
busy, is soon to have a new and much longer runway parallel to :
the present main S.E./N.W. strip of 9,600ft. About 1 l,000-12,000ft ;.
is suggested for the new one, but to accommodate it the island on "
which it stands will have to be enlarged into Tokyo bay at several ";•
Already on terra ftrma when we landed—and stealing much of
our thunder—were two Tu-104s, which had brought in the Lenin- '
grad Symphony Orchestra a little while before us. Nevertheless,
there was a fine welcome, formalities were brief and casual again,
and Air France had certainly done us proud in every possible way.
We had enjoyed on board the Frontenac the skill as a raconteur
—albeit somewhat cynical—of the French writer and journalist,
Paul Mousset. This was his twenty-second visit to Japan, and
everyone on board the aircraft was presented with a copy of his
newest book on that country. Among his truisms about Tokyo was
his comment about the native taxi-driver: if you see his arm
waving about outside the window, it means only one sure thing
—that the window is open.
My hotel bedroom is number 280. Adjacent to it on one side is
number 278, but on the other they progress along the passage in
this order: 282, 281, 285, 283, 279. To cap it all, one local Sunday
paper, on the morning after we had landed in Tokyo, reported that
our arrival had taken place on Sunday afternoon. I must have
Aircraft F-BHBT was broken up at Orly in August 1967.