In 1978 the Sunday Express ran a series of articles about the life of a Test Pilot, written by Vickers Chief Test Pilot Jock Bryce. The fourth and final part recalls the weeks before the first flight of G-ARTA, during which the stress of being the first to fly such an expensive prototype slowly increased. With thanks to Paul Robinson who found and then transcribed this article.
My emotional crisis as I prepare to test the VC10
For a year after the loss of the first Valiant I must have been an impossible person to live with. I became a poor husband and an even poorer father. I had been in two extremely dangerous situations in the prototype Viscount, and one of my crew had been killed when we had to bail out of the first Valiant. That loss weighed heavily on me. Then, in the Second Valiant, I had another drama in which I nearly lost both airplane and crew. There would have been no chance to bail out. It was only our third flight in the prototype. Brian Trubshaw, then my deputy, had done very little flying in it and when we had finished our checks I let him take over.
“Would you mind if we flew over Headley?” he asked me. That was where he lived. “I’d like them to get a look at it”. “Sure,” I said, “help yourself.” So we flew fairly low over Headley and did a mild circuit of his home. “O.K.” I said after a time “I’ve got her.” And I thought I would do the same thing – take the plane over my home at Walton. It would do my wife a lot of good to see it flying. The kids, too, would be in the garden. But something made me change my mind. Perhaps I felt that the area around Walton was too built up; I don’t know. Anyway we went back to our home airfield at Wisley.
On the downwind leg as we came in to land, all four engines stopped. The flow-meters on the fuel-bowser that had filled our tanks before take-off had been wrongly calibrated, the prototype Valiant at that stage had no fuel gauges, and we had run out of fuel. As I was in the circuit I was able to glide in. Had I gone to Walton, as I very nearly did, we should have crashed within sight of my home. I began to feel things weren’t going my way. It was only a matter of time before I broke my neck. All the time I was keeping up a façade. I had to set an example to the other pilots, and to the crew who sit in the back and can’t see what’s happening. I had to ooze confidence in the Valiant. But keeping this up from eight in the morning until eight at night imposed a terrific strain. I daren’t drop my guard during the day, and I suppose that was why I snapped at my wife when I got home. I began to wonder how much more I could take. In the back of my mind was the thought that perhaps I should give up test flying.
My predecessors, men like Mutt Summers and his deputy George Lowdell, had been men of great moral courage. They must have been or they could never have coped. Were they perhaps my superiors as well as my predecessors? I had little doubt that they were. Was I only half the man I had thought I was? Should I get out now, before I made one horrible mess of something and killed myself and others, or perhaps simply got eased out of my job? It was one of those things that I knew I couldn’t discuss with anyone. I had to sort it out for myself. There was only one person in the world I could go to, and that was Jock Bryce.
It wasn’t a question of being afraid. I am often scared – I don’t want to fly with a test pilot who isn’t. If you’re not capable of being frightened then you can’t appreciate and evaluate the risks. You’ve got to be scared sometimes to get that heightened sense of perception that you need if you’re going to survive. The knowledge and understanding that one has of fear is as much a part of one’s safety equipment as one’s ejection seat. The emotional crisis that I went through now went deeper than that. It was a question of whether I had the guts to continue. I asked myself the question because I desperately wanted to know the answer, although I knew well enough that by myself I couldn’t provide it.
In the end, two things saved me: work, and comradeship. There was so much development flying to be done on the Viscount and the Valiant, and such a tremendous future emerging with the design of the first Vanguard and then the VC10, that I became too busy for morbid introspection. The Viscount was starting to sell, and the Valiant was developing into a wonderful military aeroplane. All this gave me the stimulus of success. And there were my colleagues at Wisley facing the same problems and quietly getting on with the job.
In 1959 came the Vanguard, a great aeroplane built to be the charabanc of the air, cutting out the frills, but doomed from the start by the rigid fare structure of the big airlines. The company lost millions on it. Then, in 1957, the preliminary design work began for the VC10, an aeroplane designed to compete with and supersede the Boeing 707. It held more passengers and needed much less room to take off and land. It was more economical to operate and gave a more comfortable ride to the passengers. There comes a time in every pre-flight history of every new aeroplane when a show of impatience by the test pilot can stimulate a greater sense of urgency. This certainly happened with the VC10.
From the drawing board to the day of the first flight, the interval on the VC10 was roughly four years. I had taken part in many of the design conferences, particularly on cockpit layout, for which I had responsibility and had visited the “cathedral” at Brooklands, the high hangar where the prototype was being built, frequently spending more and more time there as the aeroplane took shape. At an early stage I had put up a case to Sir George Edwards, the designer of the airplane ( he had been knighted five years previously), for flying the plane out of Brooklands, where there was only a very short runway 1,460 yards long. The original plan had been to transport the finished airplane by road to Wisley, where the runway was a little longer - although still fairly short – and take off from there, landing on some very long runway like Boscombe Down on Salisbury Plain, but this meant dismantling the airplane with considerable attendant delay. I made up a balance sheet, listing all the pros and cons, and I convinced Sir George that there were many advantages to my scheme. The most obvious one was convenience but uppermost in my mind was the tremendous publicity value of a successful first flight from so small a runway.
Weeks before the first flight a comprehensive programme of system functioning tests was being carried out in the hangar and an army of inspectors were going through a vast inspection schedule. Brian Trubshaw and I were continually simulating flight conditions trying to prepare ourselves for everything that could possibly happen in flight.
One thing I always refused to do was to move an airplane under its own power until I had a certificate in my pocket to say it was ready for flight. The reason was basic: if I started making practise runs down the runway and the brakes failed, instead of writing the airplane off at the end of the runway I could open up the throttles and attempt a take-off. If the plane didn’t fly then nothing was lost – it wouldn’t have flown anyway. So until I got that final certificate, everything was done in the hangar.
By the beginning of June the tension was beginning to mount. No one was sure when the airplane was going to be ready, whether it was going to be one week, two weeks or four. I started going into unobtrusive training. I refused invitations to go to town for a meal and a night-club. I cut down on my drinking and smoking. I went for more brisk walks than usual, and tried to get to bed early. But I was careful not to give anyone an inkling of this. I had to avoid giving the impression I was worried. But inevitably I did worry. I was responsible for the successful completion of four years’ work by hundreds of dedicated people, responsible perhaps for their jobs and for the company’s future. And in addition to all that I didn’t want to go and break my neck. All kinds of catastrophes flashed through my mind. What an anti-climax it would be to smash the airplane on its first flight. If that happened how would I ever face any of these people again?
Seven days a week the men were at it, completing the ground test schedule. I spent two or three hours a day with the chief inspector, sharing his problems. I chatted for hours with the chaps who were doing the work. There came a Saturday afternoon when I knew that soon the plane would be ready to fly. It would be a matter of days rather than weeks. I went home, cut the grass, pottered about the garden generally, sat down and tried to read, went and had a bath. I couldn’t relax. So back I went to the cathedral for an hour. Then home for a meal. I decided to have a break and take my wife to the cinema. Then I changed my mind – perhaps it would be better to stay in and watch television. But I couldn’t concentrate on the programme. The plane was so close to flying now that I couldn’t keep away from it. Down I went again to the cathedral and stayed there until eleven o’clock. Then home and to bed. I tried to read a book bit I couldn’t take it in. I was doing the take-off at Brooklands flying the plane trying to visualise what it would be like.
These chaps who’ve designed the plane, I thought – there’re bound to have got something wrong. What’s it going to be this time? Will it be the rudder, or the elevators? Will the ailerons be over-powerful? This was a real fear. Will the engine performance in this unusual position – at the rear of the plane – be satisfactory? Will the plane stall at too high a speed and drop out of the sky? What’s it going to be? I started to think of all the things that might go wrong; but I knew it was pointless. You think of 10 or 12 major things that might go wrong and you’ve got it all buttoned up. And then you fly it, it’s the thirteenth thing or the fourteenth thing and you’re not ready for it. It’s better to forget about individual faults and simply be ready for anything.
On Sunday morning I went back to the cathedral. Once again I’d convinced myself that there was no engineering reason why the plane should not fly. A few weeks earlier people had been trying to persuade me to accept various minor concessions to get the airplane into the air more quickly. Now it seemed to me that the ground testing was in danger of becoming an end in itself. If we went on like this the VC10 would never fly. I spoke to Wally Chapman, the VC10 production manager. “When are you going to give me the airplane?”
“It’s difficult to say. We’ve still got some trouble with the undercarriage. And there’s a snag on the starboard aileron power unit. Those are the main things. There are lots of smaller snags too.” I could see that he didn’t want to be pinned down. “ You must give me a firm date,” I told him. “ I shall have to warn Boscombe Down so that we’re clear to use their long runway. I’ve got to make arrangements with London Airport so that I can land there in an emergency, and I’ve got to warn flight operations so that they can clear the area.” I didn’t really have to do any of these things right away, but it was the only way I could hope to pin them down. Wally Chapman avoided giving me a definite answer and I went and had a cup of tea with the chaps working in the hangar. Each man could only speak for his own job but most of them said they would be ready by Wednesday or Thursday. Some said the following Monday or Tuesday. I made up my mind to fly the VC10 on Friday.
Friday was always a good day. It was the end of the week and if I could fly the plane on Friday we’d all have our first week-end off for many months. I had a meeting with Jack Heap, the chief inspector, the man who would be putting the final signature on the last page of the schedule declaring that the airplane was airworthy. “ Jack, ” I said. “ I’m telling you something. I’m going to fly this airplane on Friday whether it’s ready or not.” He roared with laughter. I spent the rest of that Monday infiltrating my story that the VC10 was going to fly on the Friday. People began to believe it. Soon my story was coming back to me. “ Hello Jock, I hear you’re getting it on Friday. ” By Wednesday & Thursday the whole of the Vickers staff at Weybridge believed implicitly that the airplane would fly on the Friday.
When I went down to the cathedral that Thursday evening the army of men who had been working on the plane in the previous month had been reduced to three; the chief airframe man, the chief electrical man and the man who was going to sign the airplane out as a flying machine. They were having a first look round to find the odd spanner that had been dropped in among the controls and been forgotten, the mislaid hat, the lost glove. In all other respects the plane was ready to fly. While they did their final inspection no one else was allowed on board, not even the pilot. That gave me the evening off so I drove round to the golf course, which was near enough to my home for my black Labrador Joe to set off across country when he saw me leave and beat me, panting furiously, to the first tee, (He was trained not to step on to the greens.)
But on this occasion I wasn’t playing golf. Keeping Joe to heel, I switched my mind off from all other problems and walked around the first nine holes quietly flying a VC10. For the thousandth time I went through the check list, rehearsed every emergency action I could take and got the feel of the plane in my mind all over again. And as I did so only one thing worried me. Flying the plane out of Brooklands had been my idea. If anything went wrong on take-off it would be my fault. One of the things that Brian Trubshaw and I had studied minutely with the design staff had been the take-off and landing distances and speeds. I knew the distance ought to be 500 yards, and I had a thick yellow band painted across the runway at that point. If I wasn’t airborne by then, either there was something wrong with the acceleration or there was something wrong with the plane. I had a second line painted across the runway at the point beyond which I could no longer stop the plane without damaging it.
I went down to the cathedral at eleven o’clock that night for a last look at the plane. Then I went to bed. Next morning Brian called at my home and we had breakfast together. I got the usual peck from my wife, and then we drove to the airfield. The VC10 had been wheeled out of the hangar. The door in the fuselage was open but there was a rope stretched across it. Jack Heap was standing inside. I walked up the steps, “Can I come in?” “Sure thing, Jock” The plane was immaculate, shining like a limousine in a Piccadilly showroom. I asked if I could show it to Sir George Edwards. “I’m sorry, Jock. You’re going to fly this aeroplane and I’m signing it out to you, I can’t let anyone on board bar the crew.” “The way you have turned out this airplane,” I said, “is marvellous. Sir George ought to see it.” The skill and precision of the draughtsmen and engineers had been matched by the attention lavished upon the cabin and cockpit interior, while externally each rivet and plate was burnished silver. Sir George after all carried the overall project responsibility, and I went back down the steps and found him. The chief inspector nodded his acquiescence as I took him aboard.
An hour later with our checks done we moved the VC10 for the first time under its own steam. We cantered it along the main runway checking nose-wheel steering and the brakes. Then we went back to the start of the runway again, opened the throttles and accelerated to 100 knots, with Brian shouting the speeds. The moment we reached 100 knots and I had established that the rudders were biting, Brian cut the throttles and gave me full reverse and I stood on the brakes. We came to a halt near the end of the runway. Then we had a two-hour delay while the brakes cooled.
The news that the VC10 might fly that day had travelled. The chairman of B.O.A.C. had been invited, also Freddie Laker, then managing director of British United Airways, and there were many other V.V.I.P.’s plus hundreds of Vickers employees. We had an early lunch and then went through the whole routine again, accelerating down the runway, reaching 105 knots this time. I pulled the stick back to make sure the elevators would bite and would rotate about its main wheels, which were a long way behind me under the middle of the fuselage. The nose came up and a moment later I was sitting about 80 feet above the ground. Trubshaw closed the throttles and I pushed the stick forward. The undercarriage ran so smoothly that for a moment we all thought we had actually taken off. Then we decelerated again and waited another couple of hours for the brakes to cool.
The sky was overcast now, a misty sultry summer’s day, dulled by a growing anti-cyclonic gloom. While the brakes were cooling I sent one of my pilots off to check the weather between Brooklands and Boscombe Down. He reported that the visibility was four miles and the cloud base about 4,000 feet. During this waiting period I was leaning on the bonnet of a Bentley with Lord Portal, chairman of BAC, Sir George Edwards and Brian Trubshaw, when Sir George asked me what I was planning to do this time. I wasn’t too happy about the weather, but I knew this had to be the day. “ I’m going to hop on this plane,” I said, “ and I’m going to fly it. The visibility isn’t perfect for a first flight, but it might be worse tomorrow. There’s one proviso – if Trubshaw’s got any objection to flying with me today, we won’t go.” “ I’m prepared to fly with you” said Brian.
We boarded the plane again and slammed the door. For the third time that day we went through the long prototype check list. We had first got into the airplane at eight o’clock that morning. It was now twenty to five. When we had finished our checks we sat for a moment at the end of the runway. I had a full crew of technicians with me, essential with so much instrumentation behind me, and I called up three chaps in the back one by one, beginning with Roy Holland. Roy was one of the men who had bailed out of the Valiant with me. On that occasion he had finished up in a tree. “Roy, give me one good reason why we shouldn’t fly this plane.” “I can’t give you a reason.”
One by one they all came back with the same answer. I called up the airfield control. “ Am I clear for take-off?” Boscombe Down had been alerted. All flying south of London Airport had been re-routed and the circuit was clear. I had also warned Wisley, who were acting as the main air traffic control for our test. I wanted to land at Wisley, but had been discouraged from attempting it. “Here we go.”
I reached in front of me for the four throttle levers to push them forward and as I did so they dissolved momentarily in my vision and were replaced by something else, eight figures with a pound sign in front of them. £17,000,000. Someone had told me that had been the cost of getting the VC10 to this point in its career. For four years the men of Vickers-Armstrong had worked on this plane. For four years it had carried the company’s main hopes for the future. The fruits of this gigantic effort and genius had now been surrendered to my hands.
A lot of people fool themselves right the way through their lives. Maybe test pilots do the same thing. But when you get to the beginning of the runway with a brand new prototype airplane worth a fortune strapped to your back, depending on your nerve and your skill, you are facing the test pilot’s moment of truth. Either you think and behave like a test pilot and fly the thing, or you taxi back to the hangar and own up to being a fraud. I blinked, and the vision disappeared, and my hand closed on the throttle levers and pushed them forward. Bryce, I said, you mustn’t make a mess of this. I opened the throttle fully and we surged down the runway.
Trubshaw, watching the indicators, was calling out the speeds. I was looking straight ahead. The nose-wheel steering was keeping central on the runway. At 90 knots I eased the stick back and the plane rotated on the axis of its main wheels. I had to keep my mind on this rapidly increasing speed, bring the rudder in to play for steering, and watch out for the approach of the yellow marker. The plane was supposed to unstick at 130 knots. “125 knots.” I could see the yellow marker swooping towards me and I gave the control column the tiniest tweak and we were airborne 30 yards sooner than had been calculated. The whole plane was coming alive in my hands.
For the first few seconds I held her at fairly low level, relishing the sensation that my hands were somehow pumping life into this inanimate thing. Then I climbed away. The rate of climb was sensational, and I pulled off the power rapidly, but we climbed to a much greater altitude than I had anticipated. In 50 seconds we were at 4,000 feet, the height of the cloud base, and immediately afterwards I found myself in cloud. With less than a minute’s experience of flying the VC10 I didn’t care for this at all, so I pulled off more power and got down below the cloud. To reach a height of 4,000 feet on a first flight would have been unheard of in Mutt Summers day, but now we had a programme of absolute essentials to check, and we had to get the plane into a proper landing configuration, getting the right flap settings and speed.
When we had completed our essential checks I decided to simulate a landing at 3,500 feet. If the airplane behaved sensibly at that height it would do the same near the ground. If I got my sums wrong at this height I could try again but at ground level I would be committed. Everything went perfectly however, and I was ready for the landing. I was heading west for Boscombe Down and on this misty evening, with the sun getting lower but still trying to break through, visibility towards the west was very poor. I called up Wisley: - “I’m going to turn round and head east, to get the sun out of my eyes.” Visibility improved at once. An idea that had lain at the back of my mind and that I had almost discarded now reasserted itself. Why not land at Wisley?
All the experts had warned me that Wisley was too short for a safe landing, anyway for a first flight. But they had felt the same about Brooklands for the take-off. I’d done all the checks on the landing configuration and I had been confident that Wisley would be no problem. After flying the plane, and simulating a landing, I was sure of it. The runway at Wisley was only 2,200 yards but I knew, from our familiarisation runs at Brooklands, that I could stop the VC10 well inside that distance.
I was excited at the prospect. What wonderful publicity it would be, what confidence it would show in the plane’s ability to operate from short runways. And there was another reason for my excitement – a more personal one. If I could get into Wisley, it would save me the trouble of getting back from the middle of Salisbury Plain to the hostelry on the A3 where by tradition a Vickers first flight was always celebrated. I didn’t want to miss a minute of that.
We had a “chase” plane with us, checking our speeds. My calculated landing speed was 116 knots, but it was vitally important that the airspeed indicated by my instruments should be correct. If I was actually going faster than the instruments indicated I might overrun the runway. I throttled back to 116 knots and got the chase plane pilot to fly alongside. He too got 116 knots indicated. I accelerated to 120 knots and decelerated to 110 knots. Again he got the same figures. I was ready to attempt a landing at Wisley.
I did a low circuit of Wisley at 500 feet and told them I was coming in. They showed no surprise. Perhaps they had known all along that I might try it. Brian Trubshaw, sitting next to me, knew what I was up to but I didn’t tell the chaps in the back. Everything worked perfectly and I put down an absolute daisy-cutter. Then I switched on the intercom. “ I’d like to thank you all,” I said, “ for the tremendous help you’ve been to me in the last 20 months and especially in the last 20 minutes.” It was an emotional moment.
Then the three chaps in the back looked out at what they thought was Boscombe Down. “You rotten bastard “ they said, “ we’re at Wisley!”
We were the first to arrive for the party.