Updated: Aug 19, 2020
The Boeing Stratocruiser was the queen of the skies over the Atlantic. It was advertised and hailed as the epitome of luxury in air travel and, indeed, looking back, it has never been seriously rivalled. There was a pleasant and intimate horseshoe bar in the lower lobe for travellers to refresh themselves before having a sumptuous dinner, and sleeping bunks were available to cross the wastes of the Atlantic in the best possible position; the horizontal.
In what would otherwise have been the sharp end, but was in fact blunt and bulbous, the flight deck was a commodious affair like a greenhouse, housing a full complement of captain and crew. There were two pilots, later to become three when the flight-time regulations came into force, two flight engineers to cater for the complexities of the four Pratt and Whitney power units, each driving a massive Hamilton Standard four-bladed hollow propeller, a specialist navigator and a radio officer. The very best of the Company’s chief stewards and stewardesses catered for the passengers, themselves very often people of importance and influence shuttling on business or pleasure between the old world and the new.
The truth of the matter, however, was that the aeroplane lacked the range necessary to make the west-bound crossing against the prevailing winds and, only on very rare occasions with unusual weather patterns, could the crossing be made direct without recourse to a refuelling stop. So it became a matter of careful planning and tactics; each flight being unique and having to be tackled rather in the manner of a man swinging from a trapeze. This was the graphic description supplied to me by the chief training captain. ‘Don’t let go of one bar’, he cautioned, ‘until the next is within your grasp lest you should fall in the middle without the benefit of any kind of safety net’. The great circle track, the shortest distance between two points between London and New York, passes close to Gander in Newfoundland. There at Gander, built for the wartime North Atlantic aircraft ferry, lay the keystone of the operation.
The first leg was to get from London to Gander against the headwinds with sufficient reserves of fuel to cater for navigational contingencies en route and the likelihood of adverse weather in the maritime states on arrival. That done, the flight down the eastern seaboard to New York was fairly routine. Were that not possible at the planning stage, one further step remained, to fly to Shannon in Ireland to refuel and thus shorten the distance, albeit only slightly. Some further juggling with the figures might then be possible, using a high degree of judgement and weather lore, to accept a reduction in reserves and the closest possible alternate airfield to Gander. Now we get to the trapeze analogy. When the flight lumbered off from Shannon, climbing slowly along the estuary to bid farewell to land at the Kilkee marker, its destination at this stage was the critical point on the crossing where it was just as quick to continue to Gander as to return to Shannon. The next destination was the point of no return. By then a firm decision, whether to proceed or not, had to be made. Meanwhile, it was hoped that the radio officer had gleaned sufficient information of the revised weather forecasts for the maritime states and, more importantly, recorded all or some of the actual reports. The navigator had the position and times at each 10 degrees of longitude plotted and an exact knowledge of the all-important wind component experienced so far. The fuel used and that remaining completed the picture upon which a decision had to be made. Here it was that a knowledge of the route and its weather patterns, coupled with the ability and confidence to make decisions, came together. All of this I now had to learn.
When winds or weather precluded such a flight, there was one further major alternative route, via Keflavik in Iceland and thence across Greenland to Goose Bay in Labrador and so to New York. Up there, near the Arctic Circle there were other difficulties to be assessed and dealt with. There was no alternative airfield to Keflavik and the weather there is notoriously fickle. To be prudent, the flight had to carry sufficient fuel to return to Prestwick in Scotland should this become necessary, with Keflavik out in adverse weather. The aircraft could carry such a large reserve of fuel only at the cost of landing overweight on arrival which was not permitted. So the reserve fuel had to be restricted to a point about an hour’s flight time short of Keflavik and a decision made at or before that point as to go on or not. Once committed, the flight droned on to Iceland, From there, bearing away towards Greenland’s icy mountains, Goose Bay was well within range, with Gander and the other maritime airports as alternatives and, apart from the navigational and communication difficulties inherent in the route, another safe crossing could be achieved.
In all this there were many compensating advantages and rewards. The long winter nights brought forth the northern lights in glorious display. ‘Or like the Borealis race , That flit ere you can point the place’, said Burns. In the summer, flying in the eerie twilight, with the sun barely below the northern horizon, I thought of another Scotsman, David Livingstone: ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. Dominie Grant may have been pleased to know that his efforts to instill some knowledge of such people could sharpen my appreciation.
The satisfaction of contending with the elements and taking part in deploying the skills and knowledge necessary so to do, brought its own rewards. There was a lot of adverse weather to contend with. The aeroplane is sensitive to icing and, although sufficiently equipped with anti-icing gear, it had its limitations. Nightly there were Atlantic depressions and fronts to be crossed. If the aeroplane was allowed to accumulate ice in any quantity, its performance was reduced and the airspeed began to decay rapidly. A lower and warmer layer had to be sought before the equipment became overtaxed and the engines, although set at maximum power and guzzling precious fuel, were defeated by the falling airspeed. After instructing the radio officer to advise air traffic control of departure from the assigned level and, if necessary to declare force majeure, the autopilot had to be disengaged and height traded for speed until either a warmer level was found or the conditions were left behind in the onward flight. The whirling Hamilton Standard propellers would signal our departure from icing conditions by shedding their ice in chunks, which struck against the ice plates on the fuselage. If the captain had chosen this time to take to the bunk and rest a while during the crossing, nothing could be guaranteed to bring him back to the flight deck so quickly as the sound of ice upon ice plates.
In this different world of the North Atlantic that I had entered, there were other differences too. The captains were mostly the most senior and experienced of the Company’s pilots, having gravitated there as of right and not merely because of the extra pay and allowances that the route attracted, though no doubt, these were a factor. They were known as the Atlantic barons. No description I can think of could be more apt. They behaved much as I imagine the barons of old had done, secure in their position and authority and demanding allegiance to themselves. The range of human eccentricity and individuality is very wide and, regretfully, the job was beginning to demand a uniformity of operational procedures and thought that was alien to them. It is tempting to tell of the legends that grew up about them, but I must resist lest they be misunderstood, and content myself with recording that I learnt a great deal from them. Not all of it could be applied either by reason of my own shortcomings or of the changes at work in our affairs, but at least I was privileged to have known what real aircraft commanders were like in the heyday of the breed.
The co-pilots had to cultivate their own skills and attributes. It was unusual, and indeed rare, for them to be given take-offs or landings to do, and we tended to worry about this in case the lack of practice eroded our judgement and skills. We were expected to play our part in looking after the ship during the long and often tedious crossing, whilst the captain saved himself for the difficult decisions and the landings. We had to acquire and maintain the highest possible standard of instrument flying and procedural work to bring the aeroplane down to the limits set for landing, so that when the approach or runway lights appeared through the murk, all the dials were behaving, the aeroplane was tracking the centre line, the speed and rate of descent were right on the button and everything was set for the landing.
One further accomplishment was required. The spread of the airways and their attendant reporting points, coupled with the immense growth of traffic in North America was putting stress upon the air traffic control system. The authorities were slow in developing and deploying equipment to keep abreast of these changes. It had become necessary, to avoid error and to separate the traffic, for every air traffic clearance to detail each and every airway and reporting point en route, along with each and every flight level, and pass this clearance to the aircraft over the air for the co-pilot to record and read back. Air traffic control frequencies became increasingly congested. During busy periods the controller had to recourse to giving the clearances in the gaps, stringing together without pause clearances for several aircraft waiting in line. Each aeroplane, then, in turn, choosing his time, read back his clearance. Read it back word for word, without altering the sequence or omitting anything so that the controller could more easily cross check it. This otherwise simple and relatively undemanding task was raised almost to an art form and demanded immense concentration and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the airways and air traffic control procedures. Every co-pilot strove to attain the highest standard of professionalism, as every call and reply had an audience of waiting and listening critics, each ready with a caustic witticism to greet any goof.
It was helpful also to develop a rhythm and manner of speech which the North American ear could identify and understand. To read straight back in a plummy English accent was guaranteed to throw the controller right out and necessitate no end of ‘say again’ and repetition. We developed for this, what was called a mid-Atlantic accent that attracted derision from our colleagues in the UK and in Europe, where they had no need or understanding of this strategy. The straight navigators played a huge and vital part in the North Atlantic operation. Their main navigational aid was a radio broadcasting system known as Loran (long-range navigation). It required skilful interpretation in obtaining position lines, and hence fixes, particularly at dawn and dusk, and when sunspot activity played a hand in distorting the signals.
I have already been at pains to try to explain that navigation is nothing without aids to enable the navigator to fix his position. It was here where the air marshalls failed, in the period between the wars, to equip their bomber forces to find their way, or science failed to devise such systems, that led to the early failures of the bomber offensive.
The chain of Loran stations covering most of the Atlantic, made navigation possible. Radio signals travel further at night than by day, and this forced the night crossing upon us and made daytime crossings difficult. In consequence, we were operating into the Maritime airports in the early morning and dawn periods when the fogs and poor visibility, which afflict Newfoundland with its Labrador current, are at their worst.
The navigators became very skilled in their interpretation of Atlantic weather systems and acquired an unsurpassed knowledge of the winds aloft and of the jet streams that exist there. This knowledge and experience was invaluable to the captains and, when at length my turn came, I was content to draw heavily upon it.