Flying IS the sport of kings. Guiding 500 passengers and manipulating $400m worth of the highest technology through congested airspace to the other side of the planet is a privilege that few experience.
I’ve just returned from a great flight over the weekend from Sydney to Los Angeles. I took the photo above yesterday morning as the sun rose behind my aircraft, slowly lowering the Earth’s shadow in front of us like a curtain lowers in a theatre, whilst a kaleidoscope of blue, green and orange Torch rays illuminated the higher level cirrus clouds. It does not get more beautiful than this!
Whilst pondering this majestic Torched beauty, I reflected on how much aviation has changed the world over the last 100 years. Many of our passengers had flown from Sydney to Los Angeles for the weekend – for a party. One hundred years ago this trip by ship would have taken months and cost a year’s average income. Fifty years ago this trip would have taken a week in vomit infused propellor aircraft that flew slowly at low altitudes whilst bumping along (without radar) trying to dodge thunderstorms. Today the return flight takes just one day in comfort – flying above the clouds and weather with not even enough time for the passengers to sample all the wines and watch all the premier inflight movies!
We have become accustomed to jet travel. The industry’s remarkable safety and on-time performance provides such confidence that few travellers appreciate the risks when flying as fast as a bullet 75% into space. Sure, a few tech heads still marvel at how the 569 tonne A380 ever manages to lift off from the shorter Los Angeles runway (24 left) with a tailwind whilst observing the lighter jumbos using the longer (25 left) runway. For the majority though, we expect the velvet ride that comes from the A380’s fly-by-wire “dance of the ailerons and rudders” and the quiet (72 decibel) cabin noise as the new standard.
Aviation Torches have been burning for 110 years. The Olympic Torch of fire symbolises the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus. So the Torch Relay displays superiority, power and pride. Such is the case for aviation that has connected, converged and flattened the world last century just as dramatically as the steam train connected countries in the 1800s and the internet connects everyone today.
Pilots, engineers and entrepreneurs carried multiple aviation Torches. Only 66 years elapsed between the first flight of the Wright Flier to the first man landing on the moon. When one Torch Relay closes, another starts somewhere else.
What were our great Torch Relays? What Torches are we relaying today? And what Relays lies ahead?
Sydney – Los Angeles – Friday 10 January 2013
This photo was taken last Saturday as we winged our way from Sydney to Los Angeles. We approached the Californian coastline from the west, overflying Ventura and Santa Barbara. The cockpit is setup with Autopilot 2 and “Heading” mode engaged, banking the A380 right (currently passing the heading of 035 degrees) onto our selected heading of 075 degrees to follow the coast southwards towards Santa Monica.
The A380 normally banks at a rate of less than two degrees per second. Our vestibular systems cannot sense roll rates below two degrees per second, so our passengers are oblivious to us turning and banking the A380 along the approach path – indeed they perceive that we are flying straight.
Geoff Sheppard is flying. Geoff has been a life long friend since our earliest days in the RAAF that stretch back to 1975.
Two pilots in the front seats, two relief pilots monitoring us from behind, steering more than 500 passengers and cabin crew back down to Earth, covered by a couple of billion dollars of insurance.
Geoff’s selected a descent rate (vertical speed) of 800 feet per minute as we descended though 18,200 feet on our way down to 16,000 feet. We have slowed to an indicated airspeed of 310 knots (574 kmph) and a ground speed of 398 knots (736 kmph).
We are passing through the USA transition level where we change the three altimeters’ setting from a “STD” or “standard atmosphere” pressure setting of 1013 hectopascals (29.925 inches of mercury) to the area pressure setting of 30.13 inches of mercury. I have already set “30.13” on my altimeter setting on my mode control panel, Geoff’s hand is rising to change his altimeter from “STD” to 30.13. My hand is about to change the standby altimeter setting from “STD” to 30.13.
It was a team effort; Geoff was flying and I was supporting his commands, actioning checklists, and making all the radio calls. Only operational comments passed between us, there was a level command gradient where everyone is expected to speak up if they have concerns. There was no room for ego. It was busy but great fun.
Click on the photo for more detail.
We offered a few passengers a visit to our cockpit at the end of the flight for a tour of the “glass cockpit” and systems. Our guests love experiencing “our world” – you can see it in their eyes below.
Don’t be afraid to ask to visit the flight deck after you fly with us. It’s our privilege and pleasure to meet you and show you our “office”.
We’ve learned a lot in the last 110 years
Air travel has become so commonplace that the public often forgets just how much the industry as achieved in just 110 years since Wilbur and Orville Wright wheeled out their “flying bicycle” in 1903.
Few travellers comprehend the advances in jet travel that have evolved over the past 61 years since the Comet made its first commercial pressurised high speed, high altitude jet flight. This was a multiple sector passage from London to Johannesburg (South Africa). I interviewed Captain Phil Brentnall who was the captain on board that first flight that hopped from London Airport over the Alps to Rome then Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, Livingstone then Johannesburg. 60,000 spectators amassed to welcome Phil landing at Johannesburg. Click here to see a video about this flight
The Comet cruised at the new extraordinary height of 40,000 feet. At this high altitude, the cold air caused the pitot heaters to fail and the fuel to freeze. The aircraft stalled or went supersonic if not handled smoothly in the thin air. Engine failures were common.
The 10th January 2014 marked sixty years since the third Comet I passenger jet aircraft exploded (airborne). It had just taken off and was climbing through 26,000′ over Elba (Italy). 29 passengers and 6 crew killed and all Comets were grounded shortly afterwards.
It was the last straw. Of 19 Comet I aircraft built, 8 crashed. Phil lost seven friends. The Comet’s Certificate of Airworthiness was revoked.
The Comets’ accidents marked the first time that detailed aviation accident investigations were carried out. It also provided the impetus for Australia’s David Warren to invent the Black Box (flight data recorder). (See Eve Coggan’s video about David Warren, and Eve’s interview with me) The cause of the aircraft losses was traced to sharp (square) corners in the fuselage windows and antenna mounts, that concentrated stresses into smaller areas until fractures occurred.
The Jet Age was with us and aviation would never be the same again.
The damage to the Comet’s reputation was irreparable. The Comet IV surfaced five years later with the design flaws corrected, but by this time the “Torch” of high altitude, high speed jet travel that the Comet I had dropped, was picked up and carried to victory by Boeing with their B707 and McDonnell Douglas with their DC8.
Boeing and McDonnell Douglas can thank the Comet for paving the way for discoveries about high performance jet flight that we take for granted today. Stall warning systems were invented, takeoff and high altitude performance refined, and the manufacturers learned to never cut square windows into aircraft fuselages.
These discoveries resulted in advancements that later became enshrined in the world’s newer “Certification” standards. This is why the test pilots say that certification rules were “written in blood”.
I thought of “Torch Relays” as I observed the spectacular Torched pin sharp technicolour sunrise that morning. A few more Torch Relays came to mind;
- Wright Brothers and first flight 110 years ago,
- Captain Phil Brentnall’s first Comet flight from London to Johannesburg 61 years ago,
- Neil Armstrong on the moon 44 years ago
- Sully Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” (five years ago today!), and
- Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space venture this year. (3rd supersonic flight on 10 Jan 2013)
The bold will inherit the Earth. Life is not a dress rehearsal; it is short and unpredictable. Just like every spectacular sunrise, regard each day is a gift: seize it and treat it as though it is one of your last, as you only live it once and you cannot guarantee that there will be more.
Technology waits for no-one. When De Havilland dropped the Comet’s Torch (for commercial high speed, high altitude jet flight), Boeing and McDonnell Douglas picked it up and the rest is history.
We are currently in a technological quiet period before a storm, with phenomenal research about to deliver remarkable advances in energy, genetics, artificial intelligence, automation (mechatronics), unmanned vehicles and air travel.
Many Torches of fire, power, superiority and pride lie ahead of us, ready to be grasped and relayed. The opportunities are boundless. Some of the torches are our dreams that many will turn into reality.
Two industry leaders summarised opportunities in the aviation industry at the CAPA Conference in Amsterdam last December 2013:
- “I think this is the most exciting time in the history of aviation”. (Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG (owner of British Airways))
- “It’s a world that is changing, business models have to change to either adapt otherwise they will not survive but if you do adapt and align then the opportunities are endless”. (Tim Clark, CEO of Emirates)
The Torches of opportunity are lying on the ground. Someone has to pick them up and run with them. They’ll have to have a fierce will, intrepid spirit and a distance runner. The Wright Brothers did it, Phil Brentnall did it, Neil Armstrong did it. Sully Sullenberger did it. Now it’s your turn.
You might even be able to see your Torch. Are you ready to it pick up and run with it?
Phil Brentnall has just died at age 98.
Phil flew RAF bombers in WW2 with one tour completed. He was an instructor captain with BOAC and BA on Comet 1, DC7c,707, and 747.
Phil finished his career as General Manager, Training for British Airways.
I flew the Comet 1 for 2 years (1952-1954. The Ghost engines did not fail. They were very reliable. The pitot tubes did not freeze. The fuel did freeze though, and thus the need for fuel heating was discovered.
There were other problems, hydraulic, navigation, no weather radar, etc.
Peter I am very sad to hear of Phil Brentnall’s passing.
Phil’s son Stewart introduced me to Phil. In 2015 I visited Phil at his UK home for a day-long interview for my Big Jets book. I still have the recording. I wrote about the interview here.
Hugh Dibley worked under Phil’s command for over twenty years.
I visited Phil in September 2003 at his house, and have chatted occasionally since – over matters such as the lack of Vmu on the Comet 1 and fuel freezing on the 777 when he was surprised, thinking it should have been resolved after their experience on the Comet 1!
True to form that he wouldn’t want to talk about the war, when I mentioned this at lunch as there were many horrifying TV documentaries being shown at the time his brief response was “We all did it.”
From our all too short discussions about the Comet 1 operation it seems slightly similar to the introduction of the A320 – CBs having to be held in on the Comet 1 and repeatedly tripped on the A320 to reboot computers!
As you say, trailblazing stuff – thanks to the likes of Phil that difficulties were resolved? (I may be wrong but I think at one stage the Comet 1 was operated 3 crew with the FO leaping out his seat to take astro fixes in the cruise. Seemed a little too courageous? The 150 kt jets were probably unknown/unforecast and navigation could be more of an art than a science – considering whether the forecast wind was wrong or if you had cocked up your astro calculations!)
It might be worthwhile talking about his flying on earlier types – When an FO on a York flying into Marseilles Phil tells that the ex Imperial Airways captain appeared to leaving full flap selection unduly late so at 300ft he suggests full flap? “No!” then a few seconds late “Full Flap.” During taxi in “A Senior captain does not forget to ask for full flap.”
Phil said he never forgot that – no doubt why he continued to be supportive of us young FOs on the 707 in the early years of its operation – writing to encourage captains to give us landings, making sure that FOs were competent so they could be good monitors of captains, during system failures on the simulator to give control to the FO so they/captains could manage the flight better, etc.
And it worked – during our 707/747 operations we had no accidents attributed to crew error, and a significant number were operating into areas such as Africa with minimal aids/ATC/Met info etc.
Phil Brentnall was the epitome of a highly competent, self effacing and true gentleman, who always commanded my total respect.
Phil received many awards during his career and undoubtedly made a major contribution to flight safety which in the 1960s and 1970s helped BOAC to be one of the safest comparable airlines worldwide.
Phil’s mind was keen to the end. I last spoke to Phil in March 2017 when he was as alert as ever and gave his theory about the loss of the missing Malaysian MH370 Boeing 777 which he had passed on to the AAIB.
I could go on to illustrate Phil’s charming personality/turns of phrase but …
Phil died last Wednesday 4th October 2017 from a heart attack aged 98. His wife passed in 2012. Phil’s daughter lives in the UK, and his son Stewart in Australia.
Phil’s many friends from BOAC (now BA) will also be feeling sad. In great sorrow …..
Farewell Phil – you leave behind an empty seat – Rich
Hi Richard, Thank you for taking the trouble to talk to me at Adelaide airport on wednesday 8th Jan it was a real privilege for me especially as I had just finished reading QF32
Regards and best wishes to you and your family
Thanks for taking us “up front” to share your view.
I’m looking forward to my second trip on an A380 on 2nd March (Melbourne – Dubai) and thinking of bring my copy of QF32 in case you’re flying this leg so I can get it signed.
Thanks again Richard
An interesting blog as usual and a brilliant image of the torch rays.
I’m intrigued how you got the photo of the sunrise behind the aircraft, unless of course you did a 360 so the pax could enjoy the spectacle?
Hans I was very frustrated. The sun rose in the 7pm position behind us. There was lots of cloud (water & ice) to refract the light so the technicolour sunrise was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. However the sunrise was at such an acute angle to the aircraft that cameras could not be positioned backwards to catch the scene.
So my image is of the technicolour sunrise spilling over our aircraft and lighting the way in front.
Nature at it’s most glorious and best.
I am glad that you share my fascination with nature-physics.
Excellent blog Richard.
Keep them coming.
I sent a copy of your QF32 book to a friend in Vancouver. I told him how great it was and added that international travel from Australia may be determined by the pilot who is flying your plane and not necessarily the type of plane or airline.
Safe new year. Phil
Richard, Great story but there is a typo in the text. It was the DC8 and the 707 that took up the challenge after Comet 1 not the DC9 which was later and short haul.
That is an inspiring piece for young hopefuls, keep up the good and interesting writing.
I finally managed to fly in a 380 to London (Qantas of course) and it is every bit as impressive as you claim. My Dad (ex wartime and later 747 check captain) would be amazed at the development had he lived longer to see it.
Cheers and happy flying
Thank you for your correction. You are of course correct – thank you for correcting me!
Kind Regards Rich
Thanks for all your e-mail updates they are always enjoyable.
Loved your book on QF32.
I’ve yet to fly on the Airbus 380, hopefully either later this year or early next year from SYD-LAX service. (I’ve still got my 25 yrs service trip to use from Qantas)
Thanks, Richard for the imagery and the inspiration!
Please pick me to visit the cockpit when I am next a passenger on your A380!
Thanks for sharing more great photos and another fascinating blog.
As another Canberra resident, I am doing whatever I can to publicise Eve’s petition for naming our Canberra Airport after Dr David Warren. I remember working with the ATSB when the French nuclear submarines were searching the Atlantic for Air France 447 and its A330 black boxes, and the insightful findings when they were eventually found and analysed.
I hope your presentation at the Royal Aeronautical Society in Cambridge was well received in November.
My presentation in Sydney and the discussion generated focus more on the Asiana crash rather than QF32.
I also note that Channel 9 is planning to screen a TV TeleMovie this year called: “Mayday Mayday: The Story of QF32”. I guess we can expect and grimace through a bit TV land re-writing the facts starting with the title. I remember “Heroes Mountain” , the TeleMovie made about the Thredbo landslide and grimacing for some of my friends, who were no longer with us to complain about how they were mis-portrayed.
Look on the positive side, if the budget permits it, Channel 9 might have to cast Hugh Jackman to get a tall enough actor to portray you.
Thanks and cheers, Chris
It is good to see another Caribou Cat next to you flying.
As one older pilot said to me one day, I may be old but I did not get old by being stupid.
I wonder if you and Geoff still have the raincoats from the Caribou’s?
Mervin C Reed
What a great read mate.
I’m sitting at the southernmost tip (almost) of Western Australia thinking that it was this time last year I was on the A380 SYD-LAX!
What a blast!!