Max Kingsley-Jones/Coventry

On 17 October, Hunting Cargo Airlines retired its remaining Vickers "VC9" Merchantman (Vanguard) freighter when the last operational example was flown to the Brooklands Museum in Surrey, south-west of London, for preservation. This marked the end of a 20-year association with the four-engined turboprop for the East Midlands-based cargo carrier, which has now established itself as a major operator in Europe of jet-powered freight aircraft.

Hunting began its fleet-renewal programme in 1988, having operated the Merchantman since the mid-1970s, with the acquisition of the smaller Lockheed Electra. The US-built four- engined contemporary of the Merchantman appealed as it was in more plentiful supply than the Vickers aircraft, and maintenance is cheaper. Despite these good points, the Electra's payload capability, at around 15t, is lower than the 19t of the Merchantman.


Fleet expansion

By 1992, Hunting's fleet consisted of four Merchantmen and four Electras. The Merchantman fleet was gradually wound down, and in 1995 the carrier moved to jet-powered aircraft, with the acquisition of a Boeing 727-200 freighter. It now operates ten Stage 3-hushkitted examples, including four on behalf of TNT. Hunting's fleet also includes a leased Lockheed Martin Hercules, which is tasked with oil-spill contracts, but is also available for general-freight charters.

The airline's main business is the carriage of express packages. Around 60% of Hunting's flying is for DHL, which has its main European hub in Brussels, Belgium, and sub-hubs at Bergamo, Italy; Cologne, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark; East Midlands Airport; Nuremberg, Germany; and Vittoria, Italy. Much of the DHL work is undertaken on direct charters, under a contract to supply aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI). The carrier also operates some scheduled cargo flights.

In 1994, the Aviation division of Hunting, which also includes the airline-interiors business, reported an operating profit of ú2.3 million ($3.8 million), which represented a 30% improvement over 1994 (ú1.8 million). The company as a whole made a profit of ú38.1 million on a turnover of ú1.1 billion.

Although much loved by the crews, the Merchantman had to be phased out on cost grounds, explains Hunting Cargo's commercial manager Steve Guynan. "It was an excellent aircraft, but its retirement was simply a question of economics. Maintenance costs were horrendous - the [Rolls-Royce Tyne] engines, which were not desperately reliable, were costing around ú250,000 ($410,400) per overhaul, while the five-year airframe checks were also very expensive. We also faced a small and diminishing spares and skill pool on the type," he says.

The timing of the Merchantman 's phase-out worked perfectly. "We were down to our last four engines," says Guynan. "The aircraft's phase-out schedule was set for either the end of September, when the next major check was due, or when the next engine failure occurred."

The Brooklands Museum, which was to be the recipient of the last Merchantman when it was finally withdrawn, was obviously concerned that it might miss the opportunity to take delivery of the aircraft if it experienced a premature retirement because of an engine failure. "We knew that a three-engined landing on the museum's 500m (1,650ft) runway was out of the question," says the Museum, "so earlier this year we persuaded Hunting to pull an engine with one cycle remaining, as a redundancy plan. In the event it was not needed."

The 19t-payload capability of the Merchantman has not been directly replaced, but "-the combination of the smaller Electra and the larger 727-200, which has a 25t payload, is enabling Hunting to grow its business," explains Guynan. "For example, although the nightly Belfast-Brussels [via Coventry] flight, which was the Merchantman's last regular service, is now flown by an Electra, we will add a second flight from Belfast, operated by a 727, to the continent."

According to Guynan, the Electra is more economical overall than the Merchantman. "Obviously, the Merchantman's investment was written down, so direct comparisons [with the Electra] are not possible, but on an hourly cost basis, it was more expensive to operate."

Guynan says that, although he does not envisage the addition of more Electras, there is no timetable for the retirement of the type. "The aircraft is of failsafe design, and therefore has no real life limits. In theory, it could fly forever, given suitable investment," he says.

Hunting's future fleet strategy, says Guynan, will be driven by the express-parcel carriers: "We are continuously examining various aircraft types, and could add more Boeing 727s, or perhaps a widebodied type," he says. "We have an open-minded attitude and are always looking at opportunities-if someone approaches us with a proposal, we are always prepared to examine it."


Vanguard to Brussels

During its final months in service, the Vanguard (to use its original Vickers name) was employed primarily on Hunting's DHL contracts and charters feeding cargo from Northern Ireland and the UK mainland into package specialist's DHL Brussels hub. Every weekday evening, the Vanguard was tasked with a Belfast-Brussels round-trip, via Coventry.

Inbound from Belfast, Vanguard "Echo Papa" (G-APEP) arrived at Coventry at 21.35 on 20 September after its 1h flight. On board were 11t of cargo, and two experienced Vanguard pilots - Capt Peter Moore, Hunting's Merchantman fleet manager, and Capt David Smart.

The Echo Papa, bearing its original British European Airways (BEA) name "Superb", dominated the Reed Aviation apron. The Vanguard is large by turboprop airliner standards, occupying about the same area as a Boeing 727-100. By 23.45, the relatively light cargo uplift (8,600kg) for Brussels was loaded and secure, and the cargo door closed.

The Vanguard's vast flightdeck was a reminder of the days when dimensions were dictated by crew comfort rather than cabin volume. The flightdeck window arrangement has no fewer than 11 large panes of glass, which offer excellent all-round vision.

The aircraft was designed from the start for two-crew operation, and this was how Hunting operated it. "BEA flew the 'Guardsvan' [BEA's nickname for the Vanguard], with a third pilot for monitoring and checklist duties," said Moore. "We got rid of the third pilot, but kept the checklist, which is therefore rather complex for two-crew operations."

The Vanguard's centre console is equipped with two sets of throttles, one for each pilot, straddling the single set of high-pressure (HP) fuel cocks. Using 28V DC electricity supplied from a ground power unit, the crew started the four Tyne 506/10 twin-spool turboprops, each rated at 3,760kW (5,050shp), in the sequence three-four-one-two.


Start-master activated

The starting drill was quite straightforward, with the crew simply selecting, on the overhead panel, the start-master switch to start and then switching the individual engine's start/relight switch to start momentarily, and then to relight. After 10s, with at least 2,500RPM showing on the HP turbine, the HP cock was opened. Fuel flow, oil pressure and light-up was then confirmed and, once 4,000 HP RPM was achieved, the start/relight switch was selected off. The process was then repeated for the other three engines. While on the ground, the Tynes used a "beta" control system, which provided increased thrust for taxiing by changing propeller pitch while the engine RPM (11,200 on the low-pressure (LP) turbine) remained constant.

Some of the original equipment necessary for the aircraft's earlier passenger-carrying days had been disabled, such as one of the two cabin-pressurisation superchargers, and the propeller synchrophasers. The aircraft was, however, overendowed with generators, explained Smart. "We've got electricity coming out of our ears,", he said, commenting on the fact that each engine was equipped with a 50kVA alternator, relics of the days when the aircraft carried up to 139 passengers on BEA's European network.

With "Hunting 462" cleared to depart, Smart disengaged the control locks and selected take-off power (15,250 LP RPM), checked that turbine gas temperature (TGT) did not exceed 635¹ C, and ensured that engine torque was more than 31 bar (450 lb/in2) - any less and the take-off would have been abandoned. With full power, the brakes were released, and the Vanguard began its charge down Coventry's single 1,615m runway 05/23. At around 118kt (220km/h), Moore rotated the nose and, with a positive rate-of-climb achieved, the undercarriage was retracted.

As an altitude of 400ft was achieved, with air speed increasing to 160kt, the flaps were selected from the T/O position (20í) to the climb setting (5í). Thrust was reduced to "max continuous" (13,500 LP RPM), and course set for our initial waypoint, COWLY, just to the south-east of Oxford.

At 1,500ft, the nose was lowered to achieve the flaps-up speed of 200kt, and once "cleaned-up", the Vanguard climbed at around 230kt with a rate-of-climb of 1,800ft/min (9.1m/s). Engine LP RPM was 12,500, while TGT was 600¹ C.

As we climbed towards our en route altitude of FL190 (19,000ft), we received clearance for a direct routing towards the Dover VOR navigation beacon, which cut the corner off our official airway routing.

Settled in the cruise, the Vanguard recorded an indicated air speed of 250kt, equivalent to a true air speed of 315kt. "This is slower than the cruising speed used during its passenger carrying days," remarked Moore, "but it still compares well to contemporary turboprops such as the Dornier 328."

Moore explained that the Vanguard also compared favourably in fuel-consumption terms. "During the cruise, we are burning around 600gal of fuel [2,725litres] per hour, while our consumption for the entire [1h] flight is some 700gal (3,178 litres)." This was similar to that of the Lockheed Electra, but the Vanguard was heavier and had the capability to carry more payload.

The flexibility offered by Vanguard's 19,000kg payload capability will be missed by Hunting. "One of the [cargo] Viscounts parked next to us at Coventry recently had a technical problem," recalled Smart, "and so we took his entire payload on top of our own, to Brussels. Not a problem - other than a few difficulties in removing the tail-support strut which we use when loading."


250KT descent

For the 250kt/1,800ft/min descent into Brussels, we routed via the Kosky and then the Bruno VOR beacons north of the airport. Air traffic control then provided vectors for a radar approach to Zaventem's runway 25R.

Speed was reduced to 200kt and the fowler-type flaps were moved to their first approach position, ie, the "take-off" setting. Before joining the glide slope, with the speed coming back to 175kt, the undercarriage was selected down, and moments later a "three-greens" indication confirmed that the gear was down and locked. The initial approach was flown at around 150kt, and as the descent on to the glideslope commenced, approach flap (32í) was called for, and speed further reduced to 140kt (ie, the threshold speed - Vat - + 20kt). Passing runway 25R's outer marker, land flap was deployed and speed came back to around 130kt. Moore was the handling-pilot, while Smart called the speeds and ran through the check list.

The Vanguard felt rocksteady as it drilled down the glideslope towards the neon glow of runway 25R, and speed was progressively reduced to the 120kt Vat. Following a brief, smooth round-out, the aircraft settled gently on to the tarmac, and the engines were brought into the ground beta mode. Reverse pitch was available, but not normally used by Hunting. At 60kt, Smart engaged the control locks.

The taxi to our stand followed a meandering path through the lines of Electra, Convair 580, Boeing 727, 757, and McDonnell Douglas DC-8 freighters which were parked on the DHL apron. The "follow-me" van guided us to a slot among a row of Hunting and Channel Express Electras, and we parked under the glare of the powerful floodlights which were illuminating the entire cargo ramp.

The local time was 02.00, but the activity on the apron suggested that this was the airport's busiest period of the day. On a typical night, some 250t of cargo goes through DHL's Brussels hub, on board some 25 aircraft.

There was a 2h stop-over at Brussels, with most of the activity in the Vanguard's cargo-bay seeming to occur in the first and final 5min. Soon, the world's last airworthy Vanguard was heading west again, and, after a brief 25min stop at Coventry to change cargo, the Echo Papa departed for Belfast, and was back on Irish soil by around 06.00. Ten days later the Vanguard had flown its last revenue service, and the crew was undergoing conversion to its successors, the Lockheed Electra and Boeing 727.

Source: Flight International