Much as I love old war-birds, there’s something particularly beautiful about veteran airliners. Especially the big piston birds.
Air show visitors will soon regularly see - and hear - a Douglas DC-6 that has been working all its life. Sorry, all her life.
In the year that she’ll turn 50 - she has evidently decided - she’s still going to start a new career: “on stage” as a full-time show-girl. She’s one of Air Atlantique’s two DC-6s, G-APSA. The other – G-SIXC - will probably soon be up for sale, says the airline. In full flying condition, of course.
Back in 1993 I went up to Coventry Baginton on one of those jobs that reminds you work can be fun. I was going to find out why it made sense for an airline to use an obsolete aircraft as its chosen freighter. You can find the result of my research in our PDF archive here and here.
What I didn’t say in the article at the time was that I flew in G-SIXC on one of its regular runs to Brussels and back that night, with three pallets of freight for various shippers, one of which I recall was DHL.
Air Atlantique had stripped out everything non-essential. No autopilot, no pressurisation, no thermal/acoustic insulation in the freight hold.
I got the job of being the autopilot in the right hand seat for about 40min, droning happily through the blackness over the North Sea at FL60. “Confirm flight level 60?” The Clacton Sector controller at the London area control centre didn’t believe our request either.
Droning happily is one of the things I’m good at. The first love affair I had with an aeroplane was when I was doing my multi-engine training in the RAF. I was, fortunately, one of the last student pilots privileged to use the Vickers Varsity for this. Subsequently, pilots bound for “heavies” did the BAe Jetstream 31 course.
The Varsity was a short, fat aeroplane nicknamed “the Pig”. It was about the size of a DC-3, but it had a tricycle undercarriage instead of being a taildragger. There were no aesthetics to love, but the engines were another matter entirely. Two big Bristol Hercules radial piston engines. With sleeve valves. There’s a task for you. Find out what a sleeve valve is, then work out what kind of an engineering mind would come up with something as weird as that. But it works.
Big radial piston engines are the connection with my trip on G-SIXC. Unlike the Pig, the DC-6 is beautiful, but it was still her four Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radials that made me feel at home.
This sort of engine is not like a jet or turboprop – especially a modern one. You can demand anything of turbines and they rarely complain. But you have to set up a relationship with big piston engines. If the relationship you achieve has all the characteristics of a good marriage, you will rarely get any trouble. You coax them; you warm them up slowly before demanding anything of them; you treat them with respect and consideration; you listen carefully to what they have to tell you all the time.
And if you do all that, they reward you with that deep, steady drone that is as calming to the soul as a cat’s purr. There is a phenomenal satisfaction to be had from achieving a relationship like that. Like, I imagine, being a conductor who is getting the sound he dreams of by working with the orchestra he is leading.
During the turnaround at Brussels I did the walkaround with the flight engineer on the floodlit pan. I was savouring the smell of avgas when SIXC blessed me again. She anointed me with oil as I walked beneath the No 1 engine. I still have the shirt.
If you want to get a sense of this
kind of relationship, read Ernest K. Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter”. He flew lots
of types, but ended up on DC-4s, the forbear to the DC-6, flying them across the
American Airlines. It was just the story of his work, but it comes across like a
deeply absorbing adventure.
How different flying is today. It
may still be sexy, but your relationship with an A330 or 777 is more like a
marriage of convenience between two modern professionals. The sheer power and
the steep, surging climb away from the runway is great, but does it beat coaxing
a heavy, piston-powered beast into the air, with the feeling that Mr Bernoulli,
rather than thrust alone, is heaving you over the hedge?
Let’s hear it from those who know what they love best about flying.
What a lovely walk down memory lane! The new generation have no such luck. Reading Gann it is hard to see what place this kind of stick and rudder heroism could have in the modern world of fast turnarounds and standard operating procedures. But then, perhaps if more of us knew where we in this industry had come from we would have a clearer picture of where we should go. Thanks, Mr Leramount, for parting the clouds - however briefly - to give us this view from the golden age. And full marks to Air Atlantique for keeping the faith with this tremendous old bird.
More links of the KLM - Air Atlantique DC-6 here: