Historic Aircraft Belong in the Air

Over several the high-profile last few years accidents involving historic aircraft have re-ignited the perennial debate over whether old aircraft should be allowed to fly and also carry passengers. Of course they should. An aeroplane in a museum is nothing more than a disparate collection of metal, fabric, rubber and plastic – it’s just a dead, dust-covered artefact, whereas an airworthy aircraft in its natural element is a living, breathing thing.

The Collings Foundation’s Boeing B-17 ‘Nine-O-Nine’. Tragically, this famous Flying Fortress was lost in an accident at Bradley Airport, Connecticut on October 2. The accident investigation is ongoing.
Jim Lawrence

In his seminal book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck observed that a boat can warp a man’s psyche, and how ‘the sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in his chest’. He also wrote that “a boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in man’s mind.” A classic aircraft has the same ef ect – but only when it is ‘alive’. Watch and, just as importantly, listen to a big radial or V-12 engine starting up, with the individual cylinders firing and stumbling and firing again. Smell the smoke curling out of the exhausts before being instantly shredded by the gale blasting back from the prop. Suddenly, it’s alive. It’s breathing in through the air intake and out of the exhaust; vital fluids and electrical pulses are coursing through its body and it’s shaking with suppressed energy. It’s an impossibly powerful animal. It may still be a machine but it’s much more than the sum of its parts and it has the power to inspire. Never forget that the pilots of tomorrow (and there’s already a huge shortage predicted) can only come from the children of today. Nevertheless, all accidents generate bad publicity and some, although not all, of these crashes could almost certainly have been avoided.

Indeed, 2018 was a particularly bad year for vintage airliners, for in just six tragic weeks that summer, a Lockheed 12 in Belgium, a Junkers Ju-52 in the Swiss Alps, a Douglas C-47 in Texas, a de Havilland Rapide in Canada and a Convair CV-340 in South Africa all came to grief. Although it is unlikely that a common thread links these accidents (some of the investigations are still ongoing, and if you’re looking for speculation you’ve bought the wrong magazine) it is irrefutable that every accident – as well as being a tragedy in its own right – has a knock-on ef ect. For example, in the wake of the Ju-52 crash in the Swiss Alps, Switzerland’s Federal Of ice for Civil Aviation (the BAZL) “re-evaluated the risks of passenger flights with classic planes”, and concluded, “commercial operations with historic aircraft no longer meet today’s safety requirements”.

This is the instrument panel of a Douglas DC-6. It could carry up to 90 passengers at around 280kts and has more than a dozen power control levers.

To my mind this is nonsense. Of course, an historic aircraft cannot meet today’s safety standards, yet although this fact may seem self-evident some regulators have utterly failed to grasp this salient point. Some years ago, a new set of European statutes came into force, known as EU-Ops. These rules were an amendment of European Parliament Regulation 3922/91 and were intended to implement EASA’s stated aims to achieve ‘harmonisation of technical requirements and administrative procedures in the field of civil aviation’.

Essentially, this meant that a 75-year-old Douglas Dakota would be treated as if it were new. Quite clearly, a C-47 and a 747 are very different beasts, yet under EU-Ops they both needed to be fitted with cockpit voice recorders, weather radar, an armoured and lockable flight deck door and pneumatic emergency escape slides. These modifications would have cost around £250,000 per aircraft, but the requirements were clearly nonsensical. Why would a DC-3 need weather radar? Such aircraft are flown purely for pleasure; if the weather’s bad the aircraft don’t fly. As for cockpit voice recorders, I suspect the ambient noise level produced by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps would render such things useless.

Sadly, the bureaucrats won – which is why you can’t fly in an Air Atlantique DC-3 anymore. Aircraft aside, it occurs to me that this sort of legislation could easily be the thin end of the wedge. Will it eventually be extended to classic cars and bikes? After all, an E-Type Jaguar MGB-GT doesn’t have traction control, ABS or airbags, yet fast cars on public roads certainly pose considerably more of a threat to unknowing third parties than a vintage aircraft. What about steam trains? Will the wonderful old engines operated by the Nene Valley and Bluebell railways soon have to meet the same standards as those of a brand-new Pendolino? It’s ridiculous!

This is the instrument panel of a Boeing 787. It can carry up to 440 passengers at around 488kts and has two power control levers.

If you wish, surely you should be allowed to pay for a pleasure flight in a vintage aircraft? It will undoubtedly entail a degree of risk – to you. It is patently obvious that the hazard to third parties is negligible. If you accept this, surely that is your prerogative. It should be up to you to determine if you are prepared to accept the risks of riding in a vintage machine, be it a flying machine, or the Flying Scotsman. Many people say that if you want to stay safe, stay in bed, and yet statistically a bed is where most people die.

Furthermore, the risk you accept is informed. You will be only too aware that the machine you’re about to fly in is quite old, (although it will almost certainly be impeccably maintained and flown by extremely good pilots). Remember some of these machines are worth millions, so you can be sure that there is no skimping on maintenance. Many years ago, a very wise old aviator, who had flown combat in two wars and could not only fly just about anything, but also the crate it came in, gave me some excellent advice. He simply said: “Just remember this Dave, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. And if it ain’t fixed, don’t fly it!” The operators of vintage aircraft follow the same creed. If it ain’t fixed, it doesn’t fly.

Some of you may be wondering on what I base my observations about flying vintage aircraft. Well, in the course of my flying career I have been privileged to fly dozens of historic aircraft, from a 1925 Cirrus Moth to a Hawker Hunter T.8, and including such rarities as the Fieseler Storch, Bücker Jungmeister and Buhl Bull Pup. However, the tragic crash of the Collings Foundation’s B-17 ‘Nine-Oh-Nine’ at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut on October 2, 2019, affected me personally.

People want to see historic aircraft fly, and not just at airshows. This is the Goodwood Revival.

Final Fateful Flight

I had flown that Flying Fortress as its co-pilot, alongside its captain Mac McCauley. Mac was also the captain on ‘Nine-Oh-Nine’s final, fateful flight. He was an extremely good pilot and the most experienced B-17 pilot in the world, with more than 7,000 hours in Fortresses. Yes, you read that correctly, not 7,000 hours’ total flight time, but 7,000 hours in Fortresses. He was a tremendously competent, confident B-17 pilot, and the warbird world is lessened by his passing. Mac flew ‘Nine-Oh-Nine’ for the Collings Foundation for many years its ‘Wings of Freedom’ tour around America, enthralling, enchanting and educating tens of thousands all over the US.

He loved that aircraft, and loved letting people see it and fly in it. Through the auspices of the Tour’s then Chief Pilot Jim Harley, I was lucky enough to fly several of the Foundation’s iconic aircraft, including its B-17, B-24, B-25 and P-51C. Every (and I mean every) place we ever landed the reception was invariably the same. There was always a large crowd, that came to see some living history, and as we taxied in you could see proud grandfathers holding their children’s hands as the historic aircraft rolled onto the ramp with their mighty engines grumbling and rumbling.

One by one the huge propellers would slow to a stop, and ‘granpaw’ would point excitedly at the B-17’s ball turret, waist gun, or cockpit and you just knew he was saying “that’s where your great-grandad sat” or “your great-grandmother helped build those, when she lived in Seattle”. And always, there’d be one or two elderly gentlemen wearing battered A-2 flying jackets, standing slightly away from the crowd. Weighed down by years but full of memories, you could see the pride – and sometimes sadness – in their faces as they were helped towards the waiting warbirds. I’ve never forgotten watching one old guy being lifted out of his wheelchair and then saluting as we rolled past. I know what he saw, but what did he see? A piece of history or a piece of his story?

One thing I did know was that as our Fortress rumbled sedately over Florida later that morning the skies above Winter Haven were a lot more peaceful than they would’ve been 75 years ago above Wilhelmshaven. It’s desperately important that people still see these aircraft and remember the sacrifices made, for as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Memorial to Flying

So, if we agree that old aeroplanes must fly, the next logical question is how should they be flown? The answer is “with respect”. When Pete Kosogorin and I ferried the BAE Heritage Flight’s Avro 19 from Farnborough to its Old Warden base after the 2018 Farnborough Air Show we had everything in our favour; perfect weather, a giant runway, the weight well below MAUW and two experienced aviators in an aircraft designed to be flown ‘single pilot’, yet we still briefed the take-of fully. Not just speeds and power settings, but systems aspects, such as which engine drove the single hydraulic pump and which engine was the ‘critical’ one.

Only when an aircraft is in flight is it in its natural element.

To operate old aircraft safely you obviously need skill, but also knowledge and wisdom – and many skilled pilots have died because they lacked either knowledge or wisdom. The difference is that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, whereas wisdom is knowing not to use one in a fruit salad. When operating an Avro 19, knowledge is knowing that the only hydraulic pump is on the port engine, while wisdom is understanding that – should the port engine fail before the undercarriage is retracted and Vyse attained – landing straight ahead is the only option, even if the other engine is working well. This may seem counter-intuitive to pilots who’ve only flown modern twin-jets (even if an engine fails while they’re still on the ground, if the speed is past V1 they’re going flying), but in something like an Anson, it’s the only way. If you get complacent, the second engine is only there to take you to the scene of the accident. In fact, complacency is another big killer, and many a 20,000-hour airline captain or steely-eyed fighter pilot has been humbled – or worse – by a 65hp Piper Cub, when they forgot that a Cub is still a small bear.

Veteran pilots often look back at ‘the good old days’ when aircraft were simple, but people often forget that simple devices are often harder to operate – or at least operate well. It is self-evident that a GPS is a complicated device that is simple to use, whereas an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) is a simple device that is complicated to use. For example, if you were flying an early jet and wanted to know how far you were from an NDB, you’d put the ADF’s needle on the wingtip, time (in seconds) how long it took for a bearing change of ten degrees and then multiply that by the Mach number to give you the miles from the radio beacon. With a GPS, you just read distance (down to a tenth of a mile) on the screen. Aircraft are the same. A Piper Apache has four seats and ten power condition levers, whereas a Boeing 777 can have almost 400 seats, and only two power condition levers.

The Collings Foundation’s ‘Wings of Freedom’ tour – a B-17, B-24, B-25 and P-51.
Collings Foundation

Currency is King

Even sailplanes aren’t exempt from what I call ‘Inverse Law of Complexity and Difficulty’. Consider the Slingsby T.31 and its sportier descendant, the T.65. I’ve flown both, and while the 31 was designed to be soloed by children (literally, the ATC operated over a hundred as the Cadet Mk.III, and routinely sent cadets solo at 16 after two to three hours’ instruction), the 65 is a very different beast. It can carry more than 100kgs of water ballast, has 17 different flap positions and a retractable undercarriage. Even the tailwheel retracts. One sailplane sounds very simple, the other quite complicated, yet if you put a high time 65 pilot in a 31 it could quite possibly end in tears.

So, to return to our original question of “how should historic aircraft be flown?” I believe you need knowledge and wisdom, skill, mechanical empathy and the right attitude, for vintage aircraft must be flown with respect. Currency can be difficult, but it will always be king. Another important point is there’s actually a lot to be said for mature machines. Sometimes I get to fly beautifully restored vintage aircraft that are in better condition now than when they were new. Conversely, when I’m tasked to test a prototype, I sit a little straighter in my seat. A very wise pilot once said to me “never fly the ‘A’ model of anything”, but in my line of work it’s impossible to follow his advice. He had a point but, if a machine is older than you, most of the bugs have probably been ironed out. So, if you’re ever at an air show and someone asks: “Are those old aeroplanes safe?”, just smile and say: “Of course they are – how do you think they got to be so old?”. Because old does not mean unsafe and, interestingly, when vintage aircraft fly regularly they become more reliable. If a metal component was designed to, for example, revolve then it should revolve regularly – otherwise it will get rusty. The same is true of pilots. The more they fly, the better they fly.

Finally, aviators, enthusiasts and the general public all need to understand one simple yet irrefutable point. The propositions that ‘historic machines must fly’ but in a ‘no risk environment’, are mutually exclusive.

About Dave

Air International’s new columnist Dave Unwin has been flying for 35 years, and has around 5,500 hours in over 300 different types, ranging from antique gliders and vintage biplanes via seaplanes, skiplanes and sailplanes to modern turboprops and jet fighters. He holds American and British licences, flies single and multi-engine land planes and single-engine seaplanes and has an Instrument Rating for all three categories. As well as being the Flight Test Editor for Pilot magazine and the Editor of GASCo Flight Safety magazine he is a keen sporting pilot and holds an FAI Silver C, is a BGA Basic Instructor and a Class Rating Instructor for Sailplane Towing. He owns a Jodel D9, tows and instructs at the Buckminster Gliding Club and is an active member of the Vintage Glider Group at Saltby Airfield. With this column Dave intends to amuse and entertain, inform and provoke, discuss and debate – and would love your feedback.