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How BALPA pilots saved the supersonic past

by Ian Frow Concorde Evaluation Team

Under the staircase in BALPA’s headquarters is a glass case containing a model of the pre-production Concorde G-AXDN. The accompanying plaque says: ‘Presented to the BALPA Concorde Evaluation Team with the compliments of the BAC Flight Crew 1976’.

This model might also be regarded as a discreet thank you for some rather important co-operation between BALPA and the British half of the consortium which designed and built Concorde. Now that Concorde is probably a museum piece the little story behind the model deserves an airing.

In the early sixties, BALPA had an ‘SST committee’ (supersonic transport), who looked at the several SST designs in general and plodded through many pages of the proposed standards.

Once Concorde had become an Anglo-French joint project, the SST committee evolved in turn to become the BALPA Concorde Evaluation Team (CET). Almost from its birth the CET had extremely good relations with the BAC flight operations team, and so was able to liaise with BAC and the flight test team and thus follow Concorde’s development from a surprisingly early stage.

As the project developed, BALPA’s involvement increased, and several of us visited Toulouse to fly the simulator. Once the aircraft had settled down into its test programme, there were opportunities for us to ‘ride along’ on some flights, and my log book says that I made my first right hand seat attempts at landing the real aircraft (G-AXDN the one that is at Duxford) on 5th November 1974.

Problems at JFK

Noise has always been Concorde’s problems, especially at New York Kennedy. The worst runway there was 31Left where the minimum noise routing involves all aircraft making a left turn very shortly after lift off to avoid the densely populated coastline. Concorde, with its high lift off and initial climb speeds, had a real problem because by the time it was initiating the turn at the generally accepted 300ft it was already over the shoreline.

The noise engineers said it wasn’t a problem, and that they would devise a procedure which initiates the turn as soon after lift off as possible, say 100ft. This spectacular manoeuvre was practiced on the aircraft by the Concorde test pilots, the management pilots from BA’s fledgling fleet and also David (Dai) Davies, Chief test pilot of what was then called the Air Registration Board (ARB).

“No problem” they all said, and this was duly communicated across the Atlantic to the Port of New York Authority (PONYA).

Lou Achitoff, Chief of the Aviation Technical Services Division of the PONYA was the technical man in the middle, and he decided that which ever way the decision went it would be based on technical grounds. Although he was impressed with the test results for the new 31L noise abatement procedure, he was concerned that there had been no input from the bog standard line pilots who would eventually be doing the flying on a daily basis. He approached Chuck Bassett for help and Chuck, well aware of BALPA’s close involvement with the Concorde project, contacted the CET.

So, in December 1974 I found myself sitting with Lou trying to decipher the technical details and graphical presentations of the JFK 31L noise manoeuvre. When asked for an opinion I had to say that it was all way outside any normal SOP for a commercial aircraft (and IFALPA had just published a policy specifying no noise abatement turns below 600ft). However, based on the CET’s collective simulator experience, I suggested the decision was not cut and dried; Concorde might just be the exception that proved the rule. Back at home, after all of Lou Achitoff’s information had been absorbed, the CET agreed.

Meeting the ‘Princes’ at Weybridge

We, the CET, attended a Concorde noise abatement briefing at BAC Weybridge after Christmas, where we were confronted with all the operational ‘princes’ of the Concorde project on the British side of the channel. The meeting gave a description of the proposed 31L JFK noise abatement gyrations. Dai Davies of the ARB explained that turns could be conducted below 500 feet, however having flown the 31L manoeuvre, he felt that an exception could be made for Concorde on account of its superb, precise handling and short wingspan.

The ‘princes’ of Concorde turned to the CET: “Can we assume that BALPA would happily endorse the procedure?” The CET replied decisions of such magnitude would have to be made by the National Executive of BALPA. We added that we guessed the NEC would require BALPA representatives to have substantial exposure to the procedure both in the simulator and on the aircraft. The reply from the ‘princes’ was less than enthusiastic.

The Wise Men of the NEC

The NEC was duly briefed on both the technical and the political aspects of the problem.  The politics were as interesting as the technicalities.  Like all too many Franco-British projects, all through the project one partner was enthusiastic whilst the other was talking about cancellation, and as the total bill increased so these vacillations became more frequent. By a quirk of timing when the CET was briefing the NEC there were suspicions that both the British and the French Governments had fallen out of love with Concorde.

The NEC were both calm and wise and merely echoed honest Lou Achitoff. The decision, they ruled, must be strictly technical and not influenced by the politicians bluster; the CET must have its simulator and aircraft time because the technical verdict lay with them. Three weeks later, three members of the CET were on their way to Toulouse.

In one day, the three of us flew nearly forty JFK 31L departures in the simulator, and every possible failure was thrown in and each trace was carefully analysed.

On 11th February 1975, John Cochrane, BAC Deputy Chief test pilot Concorde, sat in the right hand seat of Concorde pre-production aircraft 01 G-AXDN, whilst Senior First Officer Frow nervously contemplated his first take off in the left hand seat of any large commercial aircraft. The visibility was around 2500 metres and the cloud base a tad under 200ft. The fact that it all went very well says everything for the superb, precise, and stable instrument flying platform that was Concorde.

In all, BALPA was given access to G-AXDN for four full details and allowed to fly it on profiles of our own design, and a good proportion of CET members had the chance to enjoy the delights of the ‘airborne Lamborghini’. Those four BALPA details were amongst the last that G-AXDN would make before it went to Duxford. When it was all over, the members of the CET analysed our reactions, and after a thoughtful debate everyone concurred: Concorde was a special case. We made our recommendation to the NEC that, with a few small technical reservations, any competent line pilot could fly Concorde safely through the proposed JFK 31L noise abatement procedure

The NEC, cautious as ever, eventually issued a statement to the effect that BALPA was happy for the procedure to be used during the route proving trials, and providing they went well it could become an SOP. Perhaps the best testament to the BALPA NEC’s good judgement is the fact that, although Concorde has had its fair share of ‘incidents’ during its career, not one of them occurred during the noise abatement procedure on JFK 31L.

Bacon saved? Or just a myth?

So did the BALPA NEC hold the fate of the Concorde project in its hands for a few weeks in 1975?  It is highly unlikely that anyone will ever admit it.  However if the BALPA NEC had decreed that it considered the 31L noise abatement procedure at New York Kennedy was unsafe to be flown by line pilots,  the PONYA might very well have concurred and refused to licence it for 31L operations.

Now if Concorde was unable to use 31L for departure it would surely have made flights to New York by Concorde impractical (31L is very often the active runway). And if New York Kennedy became an impractical destination, would the whole Concorde operation have been a viable commercial proposition?  It is an amusing idea to speculate on.

Next time you visit BALPA HQ take a look at that lovely model bird in a glass case under the stairs – she has a tale to tell.