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The aircraft I didn’t want to fly

Flying the 'Iron Duck'

Alan de Tourtoulon was one of a select group of ex-BEA pilots to transfer to the British Airways Overseas Division (BAOD), which used to be BOAC before the merger. Although it wasn't his first choice, he enjoyed almost two years flying in the righthand seat of BA's VC10s. In the article below he explains how he ended up on the 'Iron Duck' which was the nickname for the VC10 in those days. It stems from the belief that the VC10 was built very solidly by Vickers, something that makes sense considering that Vickers was also a ship-building firm. For more stories from Alan you might want to visit his blog at this link. He has also written an autobiography about his years as a pilot which is available from Amazon, see the link in the sidebar below.

Alan de Tourtoulon's autobiography is available through Amazon. Click the image below to buy it.

"In 1969 I first flew on a VC10 from Tripoli in Libya. The previous year my Hamble course had been cancelled by the bean counters and I had decided to become a pilot by fair means or foul. This involved what is now termed a P2F pilot – a term for those who have no choice but to Pay to Fly. In my case it involved getting enough cash together to obtain a PPL and 100 hours in my log book then venture off to the Southern colonies to become a crop sprayer - where the life expectancy was six months.

I had flown to Tripoli on a Kingdom of Libya Caravelle the previous spring but the contract hadn’t worked, partly because of my age – 19 and even younger looks but also because the British manufacturing industry was hopeless. Eventually, through the secret policeman who accompanied me everywhere, my father and I had been offered a project of running a 150 hectare almond and olive plantation which had been seized from the Italians. So after parting with three weeks wages I was sitting on the tarmac watching the VC10’s crew taking refreshments at Tripoli’s airport restaurant. Obviously the life of a BOAC crew member was rather splendid.

Two weeks later Ghadaffi staged a coup d’état and our investment went down the pan.

The following year I started at Hamble but the bean counters struck again, a third of my course was chopped and direct entry into BOAC was stopped.

I was “fortunate” to be among one of the twelve who joined BEA directly after graduation. Within 7 months one of us had been killed in a flying accident and another was shortly to quit; both of which happened with the subsequent Hamble course.

During my period in BEA only one airline crashed more often and that was Aeroflot.

The Hawker Siddeley Trident that Alan flew for six years with BEA.
Photo Hawker Siddeley

In 1977 BAOD (British Airways Overseas Division) carried out an experiment to take 50 ex-BEA pilots directly into the righthand seat of their aircraft. The joint seniority list should have started with my course but the date was changed by two years which just happened to allow the BALPA negotiator to get onto the Jumbo.

By this time I had had enough of the management style and had decided to leave, but there was a culture which said that BOAC were a bunch of idiots.

Statistically this wasn’t the case so I decided to risk participating in the experiment expecting to get onto the 747. Such was the demand from my colleagues that I missed out on the 747 and 707 and got the Iron Duck.

At the time this was a great disappointment because if BAOD didn’t work out there was only a job in Gulf Air waiting for me.

I started my course in the autumn of 1977 expecting that BOAC’s procedures and paperwork would be similar to BEA’s – they weren’t by a long chalk – in virtually every sphere.

An example is the navigation logs. BEA’s were put together using Letraset which we often had to amend by hand. If we were given a rerouting then P3 would get the charts out to try and find where the hell it was. BOAC had an up to date computer printout and everyone followed the flight progress on charts as indeed KSSU did (KLM, SWISSAIR, SAS, UTA).

My first look-see flight was to New York just before Christmas. I checked in half an hour early to create a good impression and to my horror I was the last crew member to arrive. In BEA we had different standards – on time for a FO was 5 mins late; captains 15 mins; management half an hour and on shuttle back up around 40 mins late!

Super VC10 G-ASGD at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. A photo from the early days of North Atlantic VC10 operations.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives

My introduction was a disaster. We stayed in a separate hotel to the cabin crew and departing Kennedy the purser informed the captain that he had a passenger who wouldn’t survive the flight. Eventually we obtained the information from the passenger’s doctor that our pax wasn’t fit to fly but in spite of the interjection of the SFO, engineer, purser and station we left.

I was called to attempt resuscitation during initial climb but instead of dumping fuel and returning, which everyone including the doctor and nurse who had taken over from me were suggesting, we carried on to Prestwick where the passenger died three days later.

At this stage I thought that I had made a foolish error but fortunately this Hamster was an anomaly.

The following spring I flew up to Prestwick on the last Standard VC10 for base training having successfully completed the technical course after a lot of hard graft.

We had been treated exceptionally well – rather how I imagine gentlemen were in the “old days” and a complete contrast to my Trident conversion which had been similar to my first year of grammar school in Southend.

We had two base trainers who were also ex-Hamble. The first was Mike Riley, a small guy with a quiet demeanour and a great sense of humour. He was in the British aerobatic competition set and told us the story of Neil Williams having a wing fold up on the Zlin. Other notable stories which I found hard to believe were that he crashed whilst being trained on the BEA Vanguard when he was first out of Hamble; the second was that he had flown a few circuits in the Trident and had operated his own throttles. This was a strict No-No in BEA and generally thought to be beyond the average pilot’s ability.

We had a really enjoyable time and I gained a few pounds from a delicious local apple and cinnamon cake that was locally baked but I was also scared out of my wits by the “high fly” exercise that we were required to do. These had been stopped in BEA possibly due to nearly losing one in a deep stall. Two Tridents and one BAC 1-11 had already been lost and if one looked at the VC10 sideways on at the amount of hardware aft of the wing one got the opinion that there was an accident waiting to happen. The “Super” was aesthetically better with its 13ft stretch and if Vickers had gone as far as Douglas who had increased the length of the original DC 9 by 50ft (50%) we would have had the sexiest subsonic airliner in history.

G-ARVM became the dedicated trainer aircraft and was often found at Prestwick, although she is seen parked at Heathrow here.
Photo BOAC/British Airways PLC via K. Darling

The platform at Prestwick seen in 1976, this time with a Super VC10 present.
Photo G. Hall

Fortunately we didn’t have to do any stalling exercises but “just” Dutch Roll. This is a phenomenon in the upper atmosphere which just happens to be particularly nasty for any swept wing aircraft. We had another trainer with us who had been involved in saving a VC10 out of JFK when the cockpit was engulfed in smoke. He had climbed onto the central pedestal and pushed his face into the standby horizon. This feat would have been impossible on the Trident as the standby instruments were foolishly by the captain’s left knee.

The day started with Mike giving us a thorough briefing which included the information that the exercise would be limited to 30 degrees of bank as a trainee had put in the wrong input at 60 degrees which had nearly resulted in the loss of the aircraft. Climbing up over the Scotland Mike asked for a “box” of airspace to be allocated over the North Sea in case we got it wrong as he didn’t want the wreckage crashing upon some unfortunate Jocks. This might get you laughing but it was a wonderful laxative for me and judging by the number of loos in use for some of my colleagues as well – especially as Mike was a top aerobatic pilot et al.

I was in the second detail and was taken to the rear of the cabin to have a look at the massive T-tail gyrations through one of the 10’s periscopes. I have never seen a large metal structure oscillate so much in my life without failing – whilst fascinating and scary I didn’t want to give up my peeping scope because if it did fail I would be the one who would be breaking the news of our impending doom to the rest of the crew.

Eventually it was my go in the righthand seat and the exercise was easier than I had imagined. As I climbed out of the seat the airframe juddered, I looked down at the engine gauges and saw that an engine had failed.

My first line trip was with Phil Hogge and it was probably the first trip he had done with an ex flat earth society pilot. He gave me the second sector which landed in Colombo. Over the Indian Ocean I got to use the weather radar – the 10 had one each side whereas the Trident had one for the captain. I was obviously making a pig’s ear of it and he eventually said “Try looking out of the window Alan” – which I did and felt a complete idiot. When it came to descend I asked him for permission – I got three pairs of eyes staring at me in disbelief wanting to know why I was asking - “Because in BEA I always asked”. It was the same when I went to take the autopilot out. Clearly for all of us ex BEA pilots we had a lot to learn and a month later one of my mates overheard a conversation in Manchester about a movement started on the 707 to send the whole lot of us back.

A moody shot of a Super VC10 at Colombo, Sri Lanka in Februari 1978.
Photo G. Hall

The following day I took the steam train from Colombo fort station to the “hill capital” at Kandy (altitude 1889 metres) along with the regular first officer and the flight eng. Magically climbing through the cloud shrouded Jungle with a myriad of “halts” with small boys selling home cooked curries, chapattis and soft drinks. Returning to Colombo we were engulfed in the downpours of a tropical thunderstorm. The FO found a taxi, negotiated an exorbitant rate (how much!) and we piled into a Morris Minor. It was hot-wired, had only one headlight and the solitary windscreen wiper had a length of string attached to it. After rolling down our sleeves and buttoning our shirt collars against the malarial mosquitoes we set off. About a mile later we stopped at a garage, gave the cabbie an advance and bought a quart of petrol. The next day was a rest and a prep day for me before our flight to the Seychelles but it was not to be.

The following day I learnt our aircraft had been broken.

BOAC was divided into three fleets as far as cabin crew were concerned. The money fleet – 747s; the posh, short haul fleet – Concorde and “minis” – which was 707s and VC10s. Our network was to the outposts of the Empire with one or two services per week. The mini crews were “happy families”, less money but a smaller friendly group whose trips were aptly called “The Magical Mystery Tour” and unlike anything I was to experience in my long haul carrier ever again.

Our aircraft was being flown down by one of my course mates. Unlike me – prefab – Southend – grammar school - Hamble; Chris was posh- ex public school, university, Oxford air training school and “Trident 3s!” He was politically savvy and KNEW that when you used the weather radar you should look out as well. This he did and during descent spotted a “rocket” cloud. A rocket cloud looks like the tail of an Atlas rocket as it soars into space. It is small but has an astronomical rate of climb and is very short lived. Chris’s training captain decided that routing around it was for woosies which was rather stupid in hindsight and the aircraft arrived on terra firma with significant internal damage to aircraft, passengers and cabin crew alike. The aircraft needed a severe turbulence check which is fairly simple as long as you have a cherry picker to examine the monstrous T-tail. The nearest was in Bombay and after a day it was decided to find a ship that could bring it to Sri Lanka which looked like marooning us for a good week – in many respects. Two days later Phil had managed to get the aircraft reversed up to the terminal building (don’t ask me how – elephants?); a couple of wooden ladders were tied together, a brave engineer inspected the Spitfire sized appendage and gave it a clean bill of health.

Super VC10 G-ASGJ taking off.
Photo collection J. Hieminga

The following day we upped anchor on our way to Hong Kong with Phil flying and yours truly assisting. Communication on trans-oceanic routes was by upper sideband HF. At times it was rubbish and there were HOURS when we were without any contact with ATC. On this trip I spent nearly an hour trying to contact Delhi? across the Bay of Bengal. Phil told me to give up as it was interfering with my monitoring duties (and destroying the hearing in my right ear) and Tony, the FO, asked if he might continue. 20 mins later he got two way comms and we were ordered to descend immediately. A couple of minutes later we crossed at right angles a TWA 747 at our previous cruise level – a very luck escape.

My training lasted longer than my course mates after messing up a side step manoeuvre between visits to the crew toilet having picked up salmonella in Karachi. I spent a wonderful year flying the old routes. I was qualified in part 1 – which meant pilot in command and many of the captains expected me to make ALL of the operational decisions. These included declaring an emergency when we thought the aircraft was going to break up – strangely the symptoms were like a Dutch roll. This turned out to be a roll damper runaway – two 737s were lost a decade later to the same problem. Another was delaying departure for the best part of an hour for 5 tonnes of mangoes – an exotic fruit in those days. Embarrassingly, I circulated amongst the passengers apologising but they knew the importance of the trade with our ex colonies. My trips were the nearest a worker would ever get to doing “The Grand Tour”.

Sadly it was decided to retire the VC10 and I was told that I would be sent back to BEA – so I resigned and went to Swissair. My last trip I arose before dawn, took a taxi to the pyramids and after a lot of baksheesh climbed a pyramid to watch the sun rise.

View from the top of an Egyptian pyramid at sunrise.
Photo A. de Tourtoulon

And after climbing back down.
Photo A. de Tourtoulon

Three years later I nearly flew the Sultan of Oman’s personal VC10 but having visited Dubai and not being impressed I turned the job down. I visited Oman three years ago, stayed in a palace on the beach and spotted a couple of his VC10s on the tarmac. With a lump in my throat I wondered what could have been.

Certainly the Iron Duck was the highlight of my career even though I only flew righthand seat.

Mike went on to train on Concorde – discovered that they didn’t understand the aerodynamics so he changed the philosophies (one got very close to destroying itself near my cottage in Cold Ash in the 70s). I occasionally ask him advice on paragliders which we both risk our lives flying."

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