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Fun & Games with Harold

An account of Flight No. Ascot 1121 to Washington DC

One of the tasks of the VC10 in its service with the RAF has always been carrying various types of VIPs around the world. For this purpose the aircraft could be fitted with a special VIP suite if needed. In the account below a retired RAF pilot describes one of these flights during which unusual weather created a near-accident situation; had it not been for the VC10's superior performance characteristics, an accident would most certainly have ensued.

"Familiar yet at first unrecognisable, a muffled sound of constantly varying pitch slowly invaded my subconscious, with victory ere long to a vigorously plied hoover; so much for the "do not disturb" notice outside my hotel room door, but perchance illiteracy was a precondition of employment in the province of Ontario? Unwillingly permitting myself a slow, bleary awakening, I regarded without enthusiasm a dismal grey light struggling from behind the curtains----where was the expected sunshine? Switching on the radio, I was greeted by a needlessly cheerful voice giving the Ottawa area weather: "moderate snow turning to freezing rain, temperature 25-28F (approx. -2°C), followed later by further snow & falling temperatures". A quick glance outside confirmed this dismal synopsis, snow descending relentlessly from a leaden sky. My heart sank, for this was the last thing required on a top-line VIP trip - premier Harold Wilson plus assorted cabinet ministers - where accurate timekeeping was of prime importance. The previous day's flight had plainly been a false precedent, with its smooth crossing over the Pond and an easy arrival at Ottawa on a brilliantly clear, star-studded night; the only notable event being an oceanic clearance specifying a non-standard outbound routing via Tory Island, this no doubt a practical joke dreamed up by Shanwick ATCC (Air Traffic Control Centre; the Shanwick oceanic area was/is controlled jointly by Prestwick & Shannon centres) which had occasioned considerable mirth on the flight deck. However, not wanting any hysterics in the back end, the joke was not shared with the passengers and so Harold was left to enjoy his large cognac & jumbo cigar in peace.

Now it all fell to pieces. The PM and his party were due at Blair House (at that time, the White House was closed for renovation and Blair House was the temporary presidential residence) in the early evening, so departure was scheduled for 4.30pm; but a call to the airport weather service gave confirmation of the public forecast, with the period covering our departure straddled by a belt of freezing rain and the possibility of ice pellets (whatever they might be) thrown in for good measure. There was a slight chance that it might move quicker than expected, but not much, so we were confronted with a phenomenon that occurs infrequently but which shares with fog the ability to bring aviation to a complete halt.

File0005.jpg (60365 bytes)
The VIP fit that could be installed in a C Mk.1
Photo K. White

Our best hope was to avoid it by means of an early departure, or else Harold's chances of dining with Gerry Ford that night were slim indeed. The idea was short-lived; the Naval Attaché, our appointed contact at the High Commission, said this was out of the question due to prior engagements in Ottawa and requested my intentions. I replied that the first priority was to keep our aircraft under cover, and that my crew & I would proceed to the airport in early afternoon so that any necessary decisions might be made on the spot.

The snow eased as we boarded the cabs a few hours later, and our spirits rose briefly; very briefly in fact, for a fine rain soon commenced that froze instantly on contact. Maximum effort from wipers and defrosters were barely sufficient to keep windscreens clear, so that the journey became somewhat hazardous. On arrival the short walk to the Operations block was a battle with gravity not easily won, but I was glad to see our VC10 safely inside a hangar, its high tail clearing the roof by inches only. The forecaster gave little hope, but did indicate that a gap of an hour or so between cessation of the rain and onset of further snow in late afternoon would be our window of opportunity. Passing this on to the High Commission, I pointed out that precise timing of events was impossible, and so it was better that any waiting should be done at the airport rather than in town. This rather obvious fact was not well received, and a querulous voice at the other end of the phone enquired if conditions were really "that bad". Looking outside, I saw a crew bus vainly attempting to propel itself along the ramp's glazed surface, with distant snowploughs hard at work clearing the runway. Glumly I replied that, since conditions could hardly be worse, they could only get better----sometime.

As to the flight itself, there would be no problems once the weather cleared. Field conditions were expected to be fairly reasonable; the rain was falling onto fresh snow that was itself in the process of being ploughed clear, while beneath lay well-gritted, hard-packed snow. The one-hour flight plan called for relatively little fuel, and this together with our featherweight payload gave a gross weight some forty-five tons below max permissible; additionally, the low temperature would enhance performance and so further reduce the takeoff run required. En route weather was good, and the destination clear with only the possibility of a gusty surface wind to contend with; perhaps the odds were turning in our favour again, all we had to do was get out of Ottawa.

The rain abated slowly to a drizzle that finally ceased altogether. With the forecaster assuring me that this was my chance, I ordered our aircraft out of the hangar and filed for a 5.30pm departure, only an hour late. Our bus trundled slowly behind the VC10 as it was towed to the terminal, we sitting quietly pleased at the improved conditions whilst studiously ignoring the persistence of a dull, heavy overcast. The first few flakes of snow got the same treatment, but the onset of a heavy fall was quite another ball game. This was pure disaster; our bird had spent hours in a warm, protected environment, so that the snow melted immediately on contact with a metal skin that was itself rapidly cooling to ambient temperature. The net result was that the snow soon became tenaciously adhering ice, and thus I was faced with the very situation we had tried to avoid. Cursing the weather office and all its minions, I returned to their cosy sanctum in hope of redress; but to no avail, the inevitable shift change had taken place and the new guru not only failed to offer an apology, but cheerfully promised "plenty more snow and fallin' temperatures with it".

K4 ZD230 seen iced up at Halifax, Canada in 1998
Photo A. Townshend

"Our aircraft must be de-iced now" I told the operations officer. "Easier said than done" he replied, "there is only one truck and the airlines get first call because they pay their bills". Unfortunately this was only too true; worldwide, the RAF had an appalling reputation for laggardly settlement of accounts, and I recalled the dreadful but true tale of a crew that had to pass the hat round at some foreign field in order to pay the fuel bill, the Service's credit rating being what it was. Fuming inwardly, I realised that further delay was nevertheless inevitable; there could be no question of attempting departure as things stood, for aerofoil surfaces coated with frozen deposits would fail to provide adequate lift and/or control, added to which there was a genuine risk of lumps breaking off and entering the rear-mounted engines with disastrous consequences. With some lack of conviction the officer promised to do his best, but the deepening gloom matched my mood. Going outside I found the cabin ready, catering supplies on board and all preflight checks complete, the only want being that essential de-icing truck. Dejectedly returning to the terminal I found no sign of our VIP's & their party, instead being greeted by the Base Commander enquiring if "there were problems", in the resolution of which he (thankfully) offered his assistance.

Thus reassured I gazed hopefully through the murk towards the civil terminal, where the means of salvation could be distantly perceived performing its act on a DC9, after which it did the same for a B707 and then vanished. Maybe gone for good I thought morosely, but it was in fact taking on more fluid and before long its headlights loomed through the swirling snow. A minute or so later and long lances were sending clouds of spray over wings, tail and body, and the moment was nigh for passenger boarding only there weren't any. Now well overdue, word soon came that they had got lost and entered the airfield on the far side beyond the runway. How their escort had accomplished this feat on home territory was not explained; what mattered was that the runway was now busy with departures of previously delayed traffic, and that they would need an escort equipped with air band radio in order to cross. Inevitably, such a facility was in short supply.

With de-icing completed I became apprehensive over further delay, for the treatment's effect would diminish in fairly short order in the conditions prevailing; fluid evaporation and runoff would soon lead to a repeat accumulation of snow & ice. A further fifteen minutes and still no passengers, so I trudged outside to make another inspection; already snow was once more settling on the wings, and an area of ice adhering obstinately to the left wing root resisted my perilous attempts to kick it off from the top of the steps. It was clear that we needed the de-icing truck's services once more, and at this well-chosen moment the passengers finally arrived. Trying to remain invisible I followed them inside, where I informed the Base Commander that we now required a further visit from the noddy truck. After what seemed an age it reappeared and once again doused the VC10 in spray; then a swift inspection to ensure that the job was properly done, followed by a quick check with flight deck & cabin. All well----had been so for hours as I knew fine anyway----so, passing the word for our customers I scrambled into my seat and completed the pre-start checks .

File0002.jpg (49271 bytes)
XV104, the aircraft involved in the incident described here

Mercifully there was no delay in obtaining our clearance: "Ascot 1121 cleared as filed, call ground control when ready for taxy". Firing up the engines without further ado, and with a farewell wave to the dim, muffled shapes below, I commenced taxying gingerly through the clouds of fine snow stirred up by our movement off the gate. It was not easy to negotiate the two rather sharp uphill turns onto the parallel taxyway; rutted ice lay beneath the fresh snow and the nosewheels graunched and slid as I moved the steering handle to keep us pointing in the right direction. Seconds later the bogies distantly bumped over the same ruts as we gained the taxyway, its blue marker lights stretching into the distance. Cautious progress along the slippery surface brought us at last to the runway: "Ascot 1121 cleared for takeoff wind 300 @ 10, left turn out, when airborne contact departure control squawking 2231". Gently swinging onto the threshold, I called for full power as we lined up----no messing about with factored thrust in these conditions.

The compressors' whine changed to a deep hum as ninety thousand pounds' worth of thrust forced me back into the seat's embrace, our four Rolls Royce engines powering us up the runway with remorselessly increasing acceleration; individual flakes of snow merged into white streaks, the distantly converging lights raced by ever-faster, and the airspeed needle wound rapidly round its dial. At the co-pilot's call of "rotate" I raised the nose to an increasingly steep angle to maintain initial climb speed, the runway lights fell away, nosewheels thudded home and in no time at all Ascot 1121 was swallowed up by the miasmic overcast. The ice warning light flickered briefly as we eased into a climbing turn southwards, the rushing air outside becoming increasingly intrusive as acceleration continued (normal climb speed was 290 knots indicated, changing to Mach .84 with altitude), and with the VSI indicating upwards of 4,000 fpm it was not long before we broke out into a clear starlit sky. Welcome cups of coffee appeared, with sounds of activity from the front galley indicating that our passengers required more substantial refreshment; were they worried that the Blair House cookie might have gone home in disgust before they finally arrived?

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Another view of the VIP seating
Photo K. White

The brief run down to Washington was uneventful, the vile Great Lakes weather left far behind soon after passing Syracuse. Six miles up, a panorama of upper New York State and Eastern Pennsylvania spread before us, the myriad lights of towns large and small sparkling haphazardly in all directions. The distant glow of Manhattan slid by to the east, and as it did so New York Centre cleared us to begin our descent for arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. Situated south-east of the city, this is the preferred Washington destination for VIP movements; offering not only better security than Dulles International, it is also considerably closer to the city centre. I contemplated our final approach during the drift-down, the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service) giving sky clear, temperature an unbelievable 72F (22°C), and a strong gusty wind dead across the single runway with arrivals to the south. This at least was good news, for it would save time by a direct approach and an ensuing short taxy distance.

Briefing the crew accordingly I ran quickly through the ILS procedure, including the missed approach sequence. Things seemed to be going our way at last I thought, though I could have done without a cross wind right on company limits and felt vague unease about that ridiculous temperature - it was midwinter, after all - but now the city lay off to our left and the lights of Andrews Field were distantly discernible. Washington Approach passed a vector to the ILS, then signed off: "Ascot 1121, descend to 3,000ft and contact Andrews Approach, Goodnight".

My unease continued as we levelled off, for I noticed that the suburbs beneath us appeared to slide sideways as we passed overhead; evidently the wind at our 3,000ft altitude was unusually strong, yet there was no turbulence whatever. The navigator passed a Doppler drift value that I would have considered absurd had I not the evidence of my own eyes, and the tower came up with a revised surface wind that was now outside limits. I sensed an atmosphere of gloom; surely, after all that had gone before we would not now have to divert to Dulles? True, it offered an into-wind runway (more or less), but I could foresee tomorrow's British tabloids: "RAF incompetence, Harold at wrong airport etc etc", while it was probably best not even to think of possible passenger comments.

So, following the horizon director bars I lined up on the ILS; or better to say, that was my intention. What actually happened was that we settled level but displaced about two hundred yards left of centreline, the flight director giving an on course indication; another new experience for the day, apparently the drift was outside flight system limits. Resignedly I considered the situation; the tower was passing frequent wind updates, all indicating a strong westerly flow with rapid but erratic minor changes, so that there was a possibility that we might be presented with a lull at the crucial moment. Advising accordingly, I continued the approach; the glide slope bar moved down its vertical scale, DME crosschecked OK, further flap lowered with thrust and attitude adjusted to give the correct speed and descent rate, and we started down the last few miles to our arrival----or so I thought. However, my disquiet increased as the approach continued, for drift was such that the distant runway was seen through the clear vision panel rather than the windscreen proper. Moreover, we flying through completely calm air, nary a ripple never mind the bump & thump normal in such conditions, and my unease shaded into something close to fear.

We continued our smooth downward progress and then, passing the 1500 ft. level, all hell broke loose. It was as if we had flown into a wall, with an instantaneous change from relative equanimity to sheer terror as the aircraft was racked and shaken by the most severe, sharp-edged turbulence I had ever experienced. Repeatedly we were forced violently into our seats and then against the straps, the instrument panel vibrated into an unreadable blur and, most frightening of all, the airspeed fell off to an alarmingly exiguous value This triggered the stall warning system, causing the control wheel to shake and hammer noisily in my hands, while crockery crashed distantly in the front galley to the accompaniment of a string of oaths. Calling for max continuous thrust I reached my hand toward the throttles, gratefully watching the speed recover as we quit that murderously disturbed air and were thus able to re-continue the approach as before. There was now some slight turbulence and the horrific drift was marginally less, indeed the latest wind was now just within limits. The point was near when I must make the final decision as to whether or not to land, only a short distance to go now.

File0001.jpg (42038 bytes)
XV104 taking off from Wisley on a day without windshear

The decision was made for me when we hit another zone of savagely disturbed air about two miles from touchdown, and again we were pressed rapidly up & down by "g " forces of elemental ferocity; the airspeed fell off the clock once more, the stall warning repeated its urgent, hideous racket and one wing dropped sharply. Delineated by our landing lights, a busy four-lane highway swept beneath the nose and I received a most distinct feeling that control of the aircraft, the situation, everything, was slipping from my grasp. Picking the wing up, I shoved the throttles forward while simultaneously yelling for full power, but the other wing dropped ominously in its turn as the engineer responded to my call; again taking remedial action, I attempted not to become locked into that cycle of aileron over-correction so easily achieved with the VC10's excessively sensitive lateral control. Mercifully the massive thrust from our four Conway engines powered us out of the mouth of disaster by sheer brute force and, watching the airspeed recover once more, I gave silent thanks to Rolls-Royce for our deliverance. Climbing away, we levelled off at the missed approach altitude where a stunned silence was broken by the tower requesting our intentions. Telling them to stand by I checked with the cabin supervisor, to be reassured that all was as well as could be expected----no need as yet to break out the smelling salts.

On being asked to obtain the latest Dulles weather the tower offered a precision radar approach for landing to the north, sugaring the pill by quoting a wind value that fell within company limits if only by a minuscule margin. Accepting with a proviso that frequent wind updates were passed on the way down, we circled under the controller's guidance and lined up once more on the distant runway; not so bad this time, the drift angle merely very considerable as opposed to the previous near-impossible. Starting down the slope I mentally added a larger than normal increment to the bugged threshold speed; this time it was a rough ride all the way, but thankfully with none of that appalling, bone-crunching turbulence of minutes before. Nearing decision height our lights picked out the runway surface, conveying an impression that the wind was stronger than the stated value; were we being lured into another trap? Flaring for landing as the ground came closer yet, I called for idle power and pushed full right rudder to align us with the runway, simultaneously applying full left aileron and then easing the control column gently forward; indeed we were right on the limit. The bogies kissed softly, nosewheels following as spoilers were deployed and full reverse thrust applied. A feeling of profound relief swept over me, but it nevertheless remained necessary to hold full rudder and aileron almost to the end of the runway. As we slowed, I found that my right leg had the shakes; this I ascribed to the effort of sustained pushing on the rudder pedal, but it could equally well have been down to fright.

Very little was said as we taxied to the ramp. One of the officers deputed to greet us enquired if we had experienced "problems"; I muttered something about windshear and the absurdity of 70-degree temperatures in January, but in truth our sole object at that moment was to get round some stiff drinks as soon as possible-----any delay in achieving this goal was most unwelcome.

Comfortably ensconced in a nearby Holiday Inn soon after, I contemplated the day's events with the aid of a powerful gin & tonic, the rest of the crew sitting around similarly engrossed. A unanimous consensus prevailed that it had been a day to remember, if hardly one to repeat; none of us had ever before experienced such a mix of weather in one day, let alone that quite terrifying culmination at its end, and there was an air of unspoken gratitude that we had survived a potential catastrophe. Someone produced the unconsumed VIP catering supplies; soon canapes various, large quantities of smoked salmon and assorted cold viands were washed down with copious draughts of fine wines, so that an atmosphere of slight tension was soon transformed into one of relaxed, semi-alcoholic nirvana.

The following day however, the story would break in the UK and telephone lines burn with pettifogging enquiries from our Upavon HQ, while in the more distant future lay our return home to an unplanned, near-midnight arrival at Gatwick due to a sudden fogging-out of our original destination. This would cause further brass-level froth, but thankfully lay unknown in the future; for now, I was glad enough to end the day with a prolonged and blissful bath. Later I would become the target for some puerile, semi-humourous abuse: "saved Harold's life, eh?" and suchlike, but for me it remains an unpaid debt to Providence that we had experienced a very close call indeed, yet lived to tell of it.

Months later, I was informed that we had encountered a phenomenon not unknown in that area of the US, a cold front without visible weather. Certainly, it had been a gin-clear night and next morning the temperature was close to freezing. The USAF authorities subsequently held an internal inquiry into the incident, and censured the Andrews weather/operations staffs for their failure to warn us of the possibly hazardous conditions to be expected in such circumstances. However, even had such a warning been issued I doubt we would have been in any way prepared for what actually transpired as it was so far outside our collective experience. To this day I remain convinced that our survival was due entirely to the VC10's superior thrust-weight ratio as compared with other contemporary airliners. Not long afterwards, following a spate of windshear-induced accidents, equipment capable of detecting this potentially lethal condition was developed and subsequently installed at many major airports."

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