Flying Across the Pond
Thursday, July 13, 2017 at 4:21PM
Webmaster in Brooklands Museum, Vickers Vimy, air transportation, airline pilots, commercial flying, transatlantic flights

By David Brown

The Vickers Vimy crossed the Atlantic non-stop in 1919. Two huge four-blade fixed-pitch wooden propellers absorb the power of the engines. The propellers have metal leading edges to combat ero-sion which plagued the early flyers when flying in rain, hail or dust-storms. The Vimy is a big aircraft. The pilot had only muscle power to help him control the air-craft. Physical endurance was a factor on these pioneering long-duration flights (David Brown)In this fast-paced and rapidly evolving world, it is sobering to reflect on the rapid progress in air transportation. It has been less than a century since we first crossed the Atlantic by air. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to the Brooklands Museum near London. The first non-stop airborne crossing of the Atlantic (known to Brits and others as the Pond) was by Alcock and Brown in June 1919. They were competing for, and won, a Daily Mail prize of 10,000 pounds for the first aerial crossing within consecutive 72 hours.  The aircraft they chose was a modified Vickers Vimy, bomb racks removed and replaced by long-range fuel tanks. It was a large biplane of wood and fabric construction, powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines.  Alcock and Brown flew in 15 hours from St Johns, Newfoundland, to Clifden in County Galway, Ireland.

Fighting bad weather across the Atlantic, with limited navigational equipment (a compass and a sextant) Brown navigated them to Ireland. Their electrically-heated suits failed, but they prevailed. With their path barred by clouds, they climbed to 12,000 feet and battled on. They won the prize (presented to them by Winston Churchill) and were both subsequently knighted. Flying the Atlantic was a big deal in those days.

The Vickers Vimy in the museum at Brooklands was built as a flying replica in California in 1994, and actually undertook a number of re-enactments of those pioneering flights, including the Alcock and Brown flight from St Johns, Newfoundland, to Clifden in County Galway, Ireland. Adventurer Steve Fosset was the pilot on this transatlantic flight. Looking at the Vimy, I could only marvel at the audacity and courage involved in this flight. Much of my early flying career was done in open-cockpit biplanes in England, and I still remember the bone-chilling cold of cross-country flying. Yet I was only flying for an hour or two at a time. The cold and discomfort over an extended flight must have been extreme. Rain was another cause for concern. Even at 70 knots in an open cockpit, raindrops do sting. Back in 1919, aviation had only been going for less than two decades. There was not much experience of long-range flying. The 1919 flight was carried out without many of the navigational aids we take for granted even in our general aviation flying. Essentially Brown had a compass, sextant, airspeed and altimeter, and a chart. Steve Fosset’s flight in 2005 covered 1,622 miles and culminated in a safe landing at an Irish airport, unlike the crash-landing into an Irish bog which ended the 1919 flight.

Regular Transatlantic Flying

This is the Douglas C-118A (the photo is of the R-6D, the U.S. Navy version at the March AFB Museum in Southern California.) on which I flew across the Atlantic Eastbound for the first time. I watched the dawn break from the cockpit of a MATS C-118A heading eastbound over the Atlantic. (David Brown)Regular transatlantic flight evolved prior to and during WWII, with enclosed cockpits, passenger cabins and improved comfort. Pressurization was later introduced.  Four-engine piston-engine airliners predominated, of which a significant number were flying boats. By the end of hostilities, the flying boats were fading out of the picture, and both civil and military landplane transports were operating transatlantic services.

My first eastbound flight across the Atlantic was in 1962 aboard a piston-engine C-118A of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) of the U.S. Air Force. We took three legs and more than 14 hours of flying time from Andrews AFB in Washington DC to Rhein Main AFB in Germany via Prestwick in Scotland.  Fog forced us to circle over Harmon AFB in Newfoundland until visibility improved enough for us to land and refuel. We then flew overnight across the Atlantic. It was a long flight at 270mph and 17,000 feet. The highlight for me was that a chance meeting with our co-pilot in the aisle led to me visiting the cockpit. It was the early hours of the morning. Our Captain waved me into the empty co-pilots seat, where I was enthralled by the experience of the sights and sounds of this huge four-engine transport.  I was completely in awe at the bank of engine instruments filling the panel in front of me. The P&W R-2800 Double Wasp engines of 2400HP each were rumbling outside my side-window (it was a big step up from the single-engine Chipmunk I was then flying at weekends) and I was still happily sitting there as dawn broke and we flew into a multi-colored brightening sky.

Jets Across the Atlantic

This is a Boeing KC-135A at the March AFB museum. The C-135A in which I crossed the Atlantic westbound had the same thirsty and smoky jet engines, and was outfitted with cabin seats, but no cabin windows. There was no flight refu-eling equipment as it was a pure transport. (David BrownMy first westbound jet Atlantic crossing was in a U.S. Air Force C-135A of MATS (Military Air Transport Service) in the 1960s when I was fortunate enough to be selected for a visit to the U.S. as part of the International Air Cadet Exchange scheme. We flew from Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany to New York (Idlewild) in 8 hours and 45 minutes, a speedy trip for the day. We had originally been scheduled to fly on a piston-engine C-118 (Military DC-6) and the substitution of the jet was an unexpected bonus. However this jet was configured for carrying troops, had no windows in the cabin, and a temperamental air conditioning system prone to depositing water on the passengers below. An invitation to visit the cockpit was welcomed. I could relate to the navigator seated behind the pilots, with his paper charts on the navigation table. This had the original J-57 engines, which were very smoky and not very efficient. It took forever to get off the ground.  But it was fast, cruising around Mach .8 and we cruised above 30,000 feet. This was the way to go.

Supersonic Across the Pond

This 40 percent scale model Concorde greeted visitors to London Heathrow for years. I remember it gracing the round-about on the north side of Heathrow when my family relocated to California in 1979. It is now at the Brooklands Museum and is an impressive reminder that in the first fifty years of flight we had come a long way, from the 70 mph Vimy to the 1,400 mph Concorde. (David Brown)The next big step was the supersonic airliner, designed and built in the 1960s and 70s. The only successful one was the Concorde, although it was built with government support from France and the UK, and the economics, coupled with the adverse effects of the sonic bangs overland, and noisy engines, were such that only transatlantic flights were carried out regularly between Europe and the East coast of the USA.

It was designed to be a Mach 2 airliner, because that was the thermodynamic limit of the aluminum airframe. Concorde worked well, was popular and was in service for 27 years until its retirement in 2003. The U.S. tried to develop a Mach 3 airliner but it proved to have insurmountable problems at the time. Concordes were operated by British Airways and Air France and operated very successfully, although the economics of the operation were such that it never made a profit.

Even these days the Concorde performance is still impressive. The Concorde did the transatlantic trip from Paris or London to New York in 3.5 hours.  It cruised at Mach 2 and cruise-climbed from 45,000 to 60,000 feet with the changing speed and altitude figures displayed to the passengers in the cabin on a digital And here is the real thing. Concorde G-BDGG is on display at Brooklands and you can walk through the cabin. (David Brown)readout. Reheat was only used for takeoff and to get through the high-drag portion of the initial acceleration to supersonic speed. Above Mach 1.7 Concorde super-cruised without reheat. The Concorde project involved many players in the British and French aircraft industries. A vast number of design problems were solved including both low-speed and high-speed aerodynamics, powered controls, structural, thermodynamic and systems development.  Variable ramp inlets were developed and were used on other advanced designs. All Concordes were retired in 2003 after a fatal takeoff accident (initiated by FOD on the runway at Paris) and persistent unfavorable economics. The Air France and British Airways Concordes were all transferred to museums. So, transatlantic speeds, which had peaked at 1,400 mph with Concorde now dropped back to the 600 mph of the subsonic jet.

Current Transatlantic Operation

For over thirty years the Boeing 747 has been one of the leading transatlantic air-liners. I’ve crossed the pond in a variety of airliners over the years, but we have flown in the 747 the most, from the 747- 100 used by Pan American to this 747- 400 currently used by British Airways. It cruises at Mach .85 at around 33,000 feet. (David Brown)Meanwhile, the aviation industry had continued to improve efficiency of subsonic airliners. Boeing and Airbus airliners now predominate.

Over the years early Boeing 747s were replaced by Boeing 747-400s together with Boeing 777s and Airbus 340s. Within the last few years the Airbus A380 double-deck airliner has challenged the 747 and is an airliner I have flown in on a few occasions. Our latest eastbound Atlantic crossing was on a Lufthansa A380. It is certainly impressive to be on an airplane weighing more than 1 million pounds at takeoff, carrying 160 tons of fuel and 500 passengers. We also had around 60,000lbs of cargo in the lower holds. The A 380 has the latest avionics, self-monitoring maintenance, a paperless cockpit and a couple of laptops to enter data.  Cost is around $375 million per aircraft.

In this photo a BA Airbus A380 leads a line of airliners to the head of runway 27R at London Heathrow. From the operating point of view the A380 makes airport operations more efficient, as it replaces two or three of the smaller airliners. From the passengers’ point of view the A380 gives the impression of greater cabin space, although choice of the upper deck/lower deck seats is a matter of personal preference.

Flying Present Day Across the Pond

The Boeing 787-9 is the latest addition to the Virgin Atlantic Fleet and was our mount for our latest Atlantic crossing. The 787 represents the latest generation of airliners. The -9 is a stretched version of the 787 Dreamliner which first flew as the 787-8. The chevroned trailing edge of engine cowlings reduces engine noise. (David Brown)The latest airliner we have experienced on our transatlantic flying is the Boeing 787. This is operated by Virgin Atlantic out of Heathrow non-stop to Los Angeles. These are my impressions of the flight:

We have three pilots to share the flying duties and around 10 cabin staff to pamper us on our upcoming flight. As we settle into our seats, I am impressed by the seat pitch (I have ample room to stretch my legs out) and the ambience of the cabin.  Large oval-shaped windows can be darkened by the touch of a button (no balky window shades to struggle with here).

All systems on the 787 are the latest technology. Electrical actuators are used for all flight systems.  Pressurization improvements give us a cabin altitude of only 6,000 feet even at our max 38,000 feet cruise. Increased efficiency of the turbofan engines gives a 20 percent reduced fuel burn compared with earlier jets. The fuselage and wings are largely composite to save The Boeing 787-9 is the latest addition to the Virgin Atlantic Fleet and was our mount for our latest Atlantic crossing. The 787 represents the latest generation of airliners. The -9 is a stretched version of the 787 Dreamliner which first flew as the 787-8. The chevroned trailing edge of engine cowlings reRedesigned interior lighting, larger win-dows and larger seat pitches make for an enhanced passenger experience. Over -head lockers are improved. (David Brown)duces engine noise.weight and increase aerodynamic efficiency.

After a lengthy taxi from Terminal 3, we join the line of airliners waiting to take off on Runway 27R. Procedures are just the same as general aviation or business jet operations, and the flight crew goes through their control checks before we are ready to depart. Spoilers and flaps extend and retract. Then we turn onto the runway and takeoff. We are on autopilot and our track from waypoint to waypoint is smooth and accurate.

Over the North Atlantic ATC uses several parallel tracks to separate traffic. We are served complimentary drinks, enjoy the scenery and at a touch of a button I can darken my window to keep out the glare of the sun.

We cross over the Greenland ice cap, then the Davis Strait and fly over Baffin Island, Hudson Bay and Churchill before entering U.S. Airspace heading south over Washington state. As fuel is burned we step up to 36,000 feet, then a few hours later 38,000 feet, to follow the most efficient profile.

 We are served two excellent meals, enjoy complimentary drinks and have time to enjoy a couple of films. We are not exactly roughing it.

Our descent starts around Fresno over California and we land at Los Angeles (LAX) after 11 hours of flying, landing on Runway 24R just before sunset.  All perfectly routine.

Where do we go from here?

This proposed supersonic airliner from Boom Technologies makes use of the advanced technologies available to design teams today. Economics and busi-ness models will be of paramount impor-tance. Boom will be flying a proof-of-concept aircraft in the near future.(Boom Technologies)So here we are in the 21st century and since Concorde retired, we are seemingly stuck in a subsonic time warp, flying around Mach 0.85.. Is this the way it is always going to be?

Not exactly.

The technology certainly exists for us to go much faster than our present subsonic speed. We have been there before, up to Mach 3 with the SR-71 and XB-70 military aircraft, designed more than 50 years ago.  Now in 2017, our airliner technology is vastly improved over that of the Concorde, which was designed in the 1960s. Can we produce an aircraft that can cross the Atlantic supersonically, perform longer flights, and do it relatively economically? The answer to this is yes, as advances in structures, propulsion and systems can push us along. It’s certainly a closer reach than colonizing Mars.

Take for example the Boom Technologies 50-seat jet designed for Mach 2.2. This is already one of several competitors with designs on the drawing board. Present regulations prohibit civil aircraft from going supersonic over land, but shaping the airframe can go some way to reducing the boom, and a Northrop /DARPA project some years ago proved that this approach works. A number of innovative teams working for a range of companies are working the problems.

Whichever way this goes, I’m looking forward to transatlantic crossings of just over three hours, and maybe eventually commuting between Los Angeles and London in half the present time. It should be an exciting ride.





Article originally appeared on In Flight USA (
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