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IFR conditions on the flight deck
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IFR conditions on the flight deck

Each airline pilot gets taught several things during flying training. Starting with basic VFR flying the programme moves on to flying on instruments, and as this progresses the pupil is expected to deal with more and more challenges. During the course of the training emergencies are introduced, in a simulated fashion of course, but each has to be treated as if it was real. Still, some things you cannot train for, one of which is the situation where a sudden experience turns out to be a real emergency. When that happens each crewmember finds out for himself whether it really is just like the training. In the two stories below, one flight is described from two different viewpoints. It shows that some things cannot be learned during flying training, but that flying training still creates a very important foundation on which to fall back in times of need.



Cabin Air Compressor Smoke, Super VC10 G-ASGC, 12 April 1966

IFR conditions is the term applied to weather which restricts an aircraft to operating with reference to its instruments rather than navigating visually using references outside. A low cloud ceiling and/or restricted visibility due to fog or haze will always be a factor that triggers these conditions. In this story it was the cabin air compressor on Super VC10 G-ASGC (now on display at Duxford) which caused the crew to find themselves in IFR conditions.


G-ASGC as she is preserved at Duxford today
Photo J. Hieminga

"I was a flight engineer officer with BOAC/BA and operated the Standard and Super VC10s from 1964 until 1975. We had one particular trip, which went from Heathrow to New York (JFK), 48hrs slip (layover to the Americans!), JFK Bermuda JFK, 24 hrs slip, JFK, Prestwick (PWK), Manchester, 24 hrs slip, Manchester, PWK, JFK, 24 hrs slip, and finally JFK to LHR. I always regarded this trip as ‘Going to Manchester the hard way!’

The four technical crew in those happy days consisted of a Captain, First officer, another First Officer/Navigator and the Flight Engineer Officer. Both First Officers were fully qualified to sit in the right hand seat and to navigate. We had done the JFK and Bermuda bit of the trip –were on our way to Manchester via Prestwick from New York when the entire aircraft very rapidly filled up with dense smoke.

We had departed JFK on G-ASGC for the overnight flight with the Manu-metric locks on the autopilot inoperative (‘B snagged’ to base). This meant that the Captain had to use the ‘Turn Knob’ on the Autopilot instead of using the ‘heading control knob’ (HDG) on the compass. We had just climbed through 18,000 feet (and changed the altimeters to 1013mb), were in a turn over Nantucket when I became aware of a strange smell rather like a hot electrical cable. I leaned out of my seat and opened the flight deck door to the galley and cabin and was amazed to see what appeared to be two walls of smoke coming together in the centre of the cabins. I called out the command “Crew on Oxygen”, and donned my mask and goggles.

The VC10 crew masks were a very neat small device with a nylon helmet and ‘Pull Tag’ attached. To don the mask, all that the crewmember needed to do was to pull on the tag (that in turn extended the nylon helmet), which dragged the mask from behind its clear plastic hinged flap prior to sliding the helmet over one’s head. The oxygen mask plastic hatch was hinged at the bottom and when the mask had been pulled from the stowage, the plastic front cover fell down over the radio/coms panel switches.


The 'Red Knob' is seen at the bottom right of this photo of the oxygen panel on G-ASGC.
Photo J. Hieminga

I then pulled the ‘Red Knob’ and deployed the passenger oxygen masks, known as the ‘Rubber Jungle’! Covering the passenger’s mouths with an oxygen mask keeps the passengers alive and cuts down on the hysterical noises that they tend to make during moments of terror!

In the few seconds that it had taken me to put on my mask and goggles the flight deck had filled with dense smoke. I could not see the engineer’s panel in front of me. Meanwhile the Captain had dis-engaged the Autopilot and extended the speed brakes. I was trying to carry out the drill and find the two starboard cabin air blower control switches and the R/H air spill valve in order to dump the fight deck air supply. This meant feeling the joints on the engineer’s panel, sliding my fingers around and identifying the switches by feel. It is surprising how many little bumps and lumps there are – some of them are very hot with the light bulbs underneath them. Meanwhile through the smoke a voice shouted, “We are through ten thousand feet at six thousand feet a minute”. – “A minute and forty seconds thought I” as the overspeed warning horn sounded. I felt quite a lot of ‘G’ and a few seconds later the slow speed stick shaker started to vibrate. This happened a few times. We couldn’t talk to each other because the plastic oxygen hatches were covering the Mask/Mike change over selector switches and all we could feel was the smooth surface of the plastic. By around this time I had managed to dump the air supply to the flight deck and the smoke started to clear a bit. The pilot/navigator (‘Ginger’) was face down on the throttle pedestal with his nose on the standby horizon, flying the aircraft with his left hand! The Captain couldn’t get close enough to see his instruments! I could just see the airspeed indicator on the engineer’s panel so I pumped the engines for 300 knots. The autopilot would not re-engage because the turn knob was still over. We had no idea whether we were on fire or what! As the smoke cleared a bit more I could see a red glow on my panel. Close inspection (and a bit of squinting!) showed that the fire warning lights fwd freight, rear freight, fwd outflow, rear outflow were all on. About this time the First Officer managed to change to mask mike and called a Mayday to JFK. “What’s the nature of your problem Speedbird 538?” he asked. “We are IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) in the flight deck” (said Phil) – “nicely put, thought I”! About this time I decided that if I could thin the air out (and thus the smoke) a bit more we might be able to see better. Every one was on oxygen so no one should get hurt. I cranked open the manual pressurisation valve and wound the cabin altitude up to several thousand feet. I can’t be sure that this did the trick but gradually we could start to see our instrument panels. We landed back at JFK some 10 tons over weight. We had been airborne 1 hour and 10 minutes. The station manager took us to the first class lounge and gave us a beer whilst we did the paperwork. One of the stewardesses told us that she had found an obviously male passenger clutching himself and an oxygen mask whilst standing up in the toilet! We all had a good laugh about that. Got his priorities right – oxygen first!


This is what the visibility on the flight deck of G-ASGC should have been like on that day in 1966! (Photo taken at Duxford in 2010.)
Photo J. Hieminga

We found out afterwards that the number 4 cabin air compressor had pumped its oil into the air supply and that this had been the cause of our smoke. The hot electrical insulation smell had been the rotors in the number 4 cabin air compressor rubbing against the nylon housing. On the VC10 the R/H air compressors feed the passenger air vents and flight deck and the L/H compressors feed the pax cabin.

We operated to Manchester the next evening. When we got to the Grand Hotel – there was another crew waiting to take over our trip. Next morning the Captain and I deadheaded to LHR where the ‘inquisition’ awaited us. The first question that I was asked was “At what time did you press the event marker?” (On the flight recorder tape). Anyway they couldn’t pin any thing on us so we all got a commendation for not killing any passengers!"


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Spiral dive in IFR conditions?

The story above has been on this site for several years now. Below is another view (or lack thereof) of this same flight, written by the F/O. It highlights several aspects; how quickly things can go wrong; how under stress each individual can perceive the same event differently; and how important the basic flight training at Hamble was, especially the limited panel recoveries from unusual attitudes. The author is convinced that it was this training that helped him react rationally in 'GC’. Over the years flight training for airline pilots has changed a lot, both in a positive sense and a negative sense if you ask me. With the development of modern fly-by-wire airliners the necessity of including aerobatic manoeuvres in this training has diminished in the eyes of the regulators and the financial controllers at the flight schools. Unfortunately we have since seen some sad accidents where lack of basic flying skills and overreliance on automation (or a lack of understanding of this automation) has led to loss of life. We are now seeing a renewed interest in training for these eventualities under the acronym UPRT, or Upset Prevention and Recovery Training. Just Google this term to find various outfits offering training in this new and exciting area, which is nothing other than the same basic aerobatic and unusual attitude training that was standard in the early 60s. So let's read on and learn from this firsthand account why old methods deserve to be dusted off. If only we could bring back Chipmunks too...

"I joined BOAC in October 1962 straight from Hamble and was immediately immersed in the complexities of a navigation course on Britannia 312s. I continued navigating Britannias until February ‘64 when I was transferred, again as a navigator, first to 707s and then to VC10s, before completing my VC10 pilot conversion course in December of that same year.

On VC10s and 707s, until the advent of INS, all co-pilots were dual qualified as pilots and navigators, alternating sector by sector between the nav table and the right hand seat. Despite my initial misgivings I enjoyed navigation. It was very satisfying, as the young sprog on the crew, to be the only one who really knew where we were, working out PNRs and drawing howgozit graphs to show the fuel trend and thus where we could get to. The Britannia was a little short on range and nearly every west bound Atlantic crossing was a re-clearance operation when flying to New York – it was often necessary to nominate Boston as destination with New York as alternate. It was then the navigator's job, prior to reaching 50W, to work out whether we had sufficient fuel to make New York (IDL in those days) or stop to refuel. Either way, he had to do a hand-done flight plan using graphs and tables – if continuing, to show New York could be reached OK or, if stopping, calculating the fuel uplift required for the onward flight from Gander or Goose Bay to destination. It was a busy half hour, after which one could retire to the crew bunk for several hours sleep.

Hamsters, being an entirely new species, were treated with some suspicion by the established fraternity. For example, it took us some time to obtain unrestricted landing cards allowing us to do take-offs and landings with line captains rather than only with supervisory and training captains. The effect of this long apprenticeship was to give us a sound appreciation of the tactics of long range operations but relatively short on handling experience. But I digress.

It was on 12 April 1966, less than two years after my pilot conversion course, when an event occurred in Super VC10 G-ASGC (now preserved at Duxford), which remains to this day indelibly stamped on my memory. It is fair to say it shaped my whole attitude to aviation, as I will explain.

We were rostered for the standard trip LHR-JFK (2 nights off), Bermuda shuttle (night off), JFK-PWK-MAN (night off), MAN-PWK-JFK (night off), JFK-LHR. The crew consisted of the captain, an ex-RAF wartime bomber pilot; the senior first officer, ex-RAF national service and short service commission; the flight engineer, an ex-Royal Navy aircraft maintenance engineer, and myself – the junior first officer – and six cabin crew. I had navigated the outbound Atlantic sector and was due to operate as the non-handling pilot on the return leg.


Times Square in 1965, with BOAC Super VC10 advertising at top left.
Photo J. Ferris


A Super VC10 at John F. Kennedy Airport, which was still often referred to as Idlewild.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives

On our first night in New York, and this is eerie, I was discussing flying experiences with the S/F/O in a bar, saying I was still wet behind the years. He described several close shaves, including an incident in a Hunter when he had suffered a bird strike at very low level. It had broken through the canopy, knocking him out. He came to, to find the aircraft climbing and, surprisingly, still under control. He was much cut around the face and head and had found it difficult to land back at base. At some stage during the conversation, I clearly remember saying I had never had any kind of emergency or anything frightening happen to me in an aircraft and one part of me hoped one day it would, just so I would know how I would react and whether I could cope. As events turned out…….well, talk about tempting fate! I am not superstitious but I never ever said such foolish things again.

Next evening we made a normal max weight take-off from 31L, turning out over Jamaica Bay and climbing to altitude as we headed off towards Newfoundland and the Atlantic. The night was reasonably clear, dry and without any significant weather problems. At some stage during the climb, we started to smell a hot burning smell that seemed slightly electrical, but none of us could really put our finger on it. The S/F/O went back to see if the stewardess had burnt the first class hot towels, a not unusual occurrence as they used to be warmed in the galley oven and sometimes forgotten – but that was not the cause. The smell became slightly stronger and the flight engineer went back to check the galley because it really did smell electrical. We also looked around the cockpit – but there was nothing amiss.

I clearly remember switching off the aileron upset at 24,000ft, so I know we were just above that altitude when it happened. Suddenly, from all around, from under the instrument panel, from above my head, from behind my seat, thick white smoke poured out, completely blocking all visibility. Someone shouted, “Get on oxygen” but I really can’t remember, nor can I remember even putting my oxygen mask on, but I must have because I remember fiddling around with the plastic flap down by my right leg where the mask was kept, trying to find the mask/boom switch. Then the autopilot come out. I remember the aural warning and the captain shouting we were on fire and must make an emergency descent and depressurise. At this stage, visibility in the cockpit was down to six inches – I do not exaggerate.

Someone shouted he thought it would be a good idea to kill the radio master switches, I remember thinking what a good idea, and the captain said, “Yes, do it”. BIG MISTAKE. We were all ex-Britannias, and on Britannia 312s the radios were in the back of the flight deck and the smoke drill involved switching off the master switches. I cannot remember what else (if anything) was switched off by this action on the Britannia, but on the VC10 the radios were in the radio bay below the floor where they couldn’t make smoke in the cockpit – AND – in addition to switching off the radios, these switches also switched off the main flight instruments (Horizon, Compass and Altimeter).

Everything was happening very fast, I have no idea of the timescales. The next things I was aware of were the high speed warning horn going off and the captain shouting he could not see his flight instruments. Whether the sequence was in that order or whether he shouted before the radio master switches were switched off, or whether it was all at the same time I will never know. What I do know is that I put my chin on the top of the control column and pressed my forehead hard against the coaming and could just see the horizon and the other instruments – but only one at a time as I moved my head around. The sight of the warning flags on the horizon, the compass and the altimeter I can still see to this day but I did not associate them with having switched off the radio master switches. But what really chilled me was the altimeter stuck at 18,000ft (the point at which it had been switched off), and the VSI pointer on the stops at over 6000ft/min down. I remember thinking there is going to be a bloody great bang in a moment and then thinking you can’t just sit there – you have to do something. I shouted I could see my instruments and started to fly the aircraft too.


The co-pilot's side of a Super VC10 flight deck that was only visible at close range during this event.
Image copyright BOAC/British Airways PLC

And that was when good Hamble training kicked in – the many sessions in Chipmunks we endured under the hood practicing recovery from ‘unusual attitudes’ on limited panel. Well, perhaps I owe my life to them. This training was done as follows. The student wore blue tinted goggles while the cockpit canopy was fitted with amber screens. This arrangement meant the student could see clearly the flight instruments and everything within the cockpit but was prevented from seeing outside. The gyroscopic flight instruments of those days (the artificial horizon and directional gyro) unfortunately toppled when most needed during any form of extreme manoeuvre. The instructor would carry out some aerobatics, in the middle of which he would hand over control to the student and require him to return the aircraft to straight and level flight. If done with cunning the student might be convinced he was the right way up when in fact he was upside down (or vice versa) when asked to take control. The result usually was loss of control followed by a spiral dive from which recovery could be made by careful use of only the turn and slip, VSI and ASI.


One of the Chipmunks that was used at the College of Air Training at Hamble, seen here without the screens in the cockpit at Plymouth in 1967.
Photo C. England

And this was the situation that faced us in our VC10. I could see the airspeed needle somewhere on the right hand side of the ASI, I could see the VSI needle on the stops down, and I could see the turn and slip (I think it must have been showing a hard left turn because in my memory all I can remember is turning the control wheel to the right) and realising we were in a spiral dive. I shouted, “I have it, I can see my instruments” but I doubt very much the captain relinquished control, so I suppose we both flew it out. I knew I first had to get the turn needle into the centre, and only then pull back until the VSI started to ease back to a normal reading, and very carefully to check the airspeed so as not to overdo it. I don’t remember the high speed warning horn stopping, but it must have. Gradually the smoke began to clear and I became aware of the S/F/O lying across the centre console and that we were climbing gently. He said later he had had his head up against the standby horizon so he could call out the attitude, but I was totally unaware of that. He also told me the ‘G’ forces had pinned him there but, again, I don’t remember any ‘G’ forces.


The Flight Engineer's workstation on G-ASGC.
Photo J. Hieminga

At some stage the radio master switches were switched back on and I became aware of ATC calling us. My first words on the R/T were, “We’re full of smoke and can’t see a bloody thing.” As things gradually returned to normal I realised we were climbing (somewhere around 20,000ft) and heading west, in the opposite direction. How low we went or how fast we went, I have no idea. Neither could we find out later; it was before the days of Cockpit Voice Recorders and there was only a very rudimentary Flight Data Recorder.

The captain asked for an immediate return and that we would land overweight without dumping fuel as we were convinced there was a fire somewhere on board. ATC were excellent, they had cleared all the other traffic off the frequency, they asked about the nature of the problem, and I remember saying we were full of smoke and thought we were on fire. They gave us vectors to 31L which were exactly right – neither too rushed nor too long. I felt so grateful to that controller. The approach and landing was normal, but at a suitably faster speed. We stopped with lots of runway to spare and were immediately surrounded by fire engines. The captain must have asked them about signs of fire, but I cannot remember any details other than it was decided to taxi in without evacuating the passengers.

When on stand, the local manager and ground engineer piled onto the flight deck and there were a lot of other people around, but I do not remember much. Instead, I concentrated on finishing the shut-down checks, probably taking refuge in this normal activity. The passengers were offloaded, one was a priest who made a sign of the cross and blessed us; another was a man on his first flight who said he would never fly again – I don’t blame him.

I remember someone giving us a bottle of whisky saying we might need it, and we all got off and went back to the hotel doing all the usual things one does after a flight but in a kind of blur. That night we sunk several bottles in the hotel!

Next morning I went for a walk in Central Park and have never seen the world looking so beautiful before or since.

The following day we operated the normal schedule to Manchester where the captain and flight engineer left to go down to London to explain the incident while we continued the rest of the trip itinerary with a new captain and engineer. I think we all behaved and flew normally for the rest of that trip; it wasn’t until I got home that I let go. I wasn’t given any time off and neither did I ask for it. Of course, the rumours started flying round the fleet and, at slips down route, I heard people talking about it, not knowing that I had been one of the crew. They had some hard things to say about what we had done. It hurt, because I knew we had made some dreadful mistakes, so I didn’t let on.

The subsequent engineering investigation found that an oil seal in the Godfrey blower (an engine driven compressor providing air to the cabin pressurisation system, the VC10 did not use engine bleed air) had failed so that all the gearbox oil had leaked into the compressor itself, been vaporised, and pumped straight into the cabin. Fortunately it was non-toxic and non-irritating, otherwise I don’t think we would have regained control. The flight operations investigation found that we had done a good job. BUT I knew in my heart we had not deserved it, we had made too many mistakes, and it was that which upset me and drove me on.

On the plus side, I had discovered I could act rationally when in extremis, and that I found comforting. On the minus side, I knew we had done lots of things wrong; it took me quite some time to regain my confidence, not because I had been frightened (which I had been) but because I knew I did not know enough about flying in general and my aircraft in particular. I vowed never to be found wanting again, perhaps I even became a little obsessive. I read avidly, I read manuals, I asked questions of instructors, I tried to find out as much as I could about flying – I wanted to know the derivation of everything. And it was that which probably led me to become first a navigation instructor and then a training co-pilot, eventually leading to a whole career in training and management. I hope, too, that I gained a little humility and put it to good use helping others.

Many years later, here on this site, I came across the flight engineer’s account of this same incident. (see above)

It is interesting to see our different perceptions. I was totally unaware that the S/F/O had tried to fly the aircraft too and that the stick shaker had operated. I was also unaware that the flight engineer had ‘pumped the throttles’ or that he had seen all the hold fire warning lights on. But I am glad he had the same difficulty with the wretched flap over the mask/boom switch.

As for who really flew it out of the spiral dive, it could have been any one of us, or all four – who knows?"

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