Celebrating the Ground Gripper’s big five-oh

Half a century ago today at a small airfield north of London, de Havilland launched its best and final attempt to recover the lead it lost a decade earlier with the disastrous crashes of its pioneering Comet jet airliners.

trident 50th crew for web.jpgAt 12:14 on 9 January 1962 DH chief test pilot John Cunningham flew the first DH121 Trident G-ARPA off the runway at Hatfield for a 1h 21 min maiden flight. G-ARPA’s control yoke, as well as a piece of its airframe that incorporates that historic registration, is preserved at the excellent Heathrow Trident Collection in Feltham, Middlesex (pictured below).

The little trijet, with its novel “S-duct” central engine installation, would go on to influence a generation of narrowbody and widebody three-holers, the most significant of which of course was Boeing’s 727.

G-ARPA-2_Heathrow Trident Collection.JPGHistory now records that despite its innovations in configuration and technology (it pioneered Autoland systems), the Trident was a commercial flop. DH and successor Hawker Siddeley built just 117 Tridents while Boeing sold an eye-watering 1,831 727s. Why was it a flop? Because DH spent too much time listening to its launch customer – BEA – and tailored the design around that airline’s requirements. This cardinal sin has ever since sat as a stark reminder to airframers about the perils of allowing one customer to have too much design influence.

But sales aside, the Trident always proved a huge hit with the pilots – most of who worked for BEA and successor British Airways which flew more than 70 of the trijets.

Three of them got together last Saturday at Farnborough’s FAST museum to mark the 50th anniversary and to reminisce in the beautifully preserved cockpit of Trident 3B G-AWZI which is owned by Trident enthusiast Andrew Lee.

Capts Chris Wood, Dave Warren and John Rankin (pictured top, left to right) had between them more than three decades of Trident flying experience and fondly remember the “Gripper” – so called because of its less than sparkling take-off performance.

“The Trident was an awesome machine to fly,” recalls Capt Rankin. “It was the best handling airliner I ever flew with superb control, agility and rock solid stability. Roll rates of 30o/s and smooth as silk right up to its Mach 0.96 max speed. The Boeings I’ve flown felt like the designer drove a Cadillac. The Trident felt like a finely tuned sports car.”

So here’s to Cunningham, ah de Havilland and the Trident – and what might have been…

Click below to read Flight International’s report on the first flight:



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