Cockpit report: Avro RJ85 - ‘The last British jetliner’
PUBLISHED: 16:38 08 October 2020 | UPDATED: 16:50 08 October 2020
A flight in the UK’s most successful jetliner as it nears the end of its passenger carrying service (but lives on as a firefighting airtanker) | Words: Bob Davy Photos: via/by Keith Wilson
The aircraft that became Britain’s most successful jet airliner started out as a de Havilland design concept in the 1950s, before Hawker Siddeley took over the company in 1960.
The programme then stalled but later progressed as the Hawker Siddeley HS146 in the 1970s, took to the skies as the British Aerospace 146 in the ’80s and ended up as the Avro Regional Jet in the ’90s−talk about racking up some of the great names of British aviation!
Originally the concept was to ‘open up Africa’ to those travelling to the far reaches of the Commonwealth and what then remained of the British Empire, by offering a jet airliner service from major airports into regions and airfields with less than optimum runways and facilities, previously used only by propeller driven aircraft.
The four-engine configuration would give good short field performance and also allow the aeroplane to be ferried back to base with one engine unserviceable, where in the same circumstance a twin-engine or three-engine aircraft could find itself grounded down route.
In Hawker Siddeley’s hands the 146 was an unmatched design−even the Americans couldn’t compete. Although its rough field capability was retained to the end, the concept evolved into a super-quiet regional jet (on the outside maybe, but not necessarily inside) replacing aged turboprops and flying into difficult, noise-sensitive airports such as London City.
For a time the 146 was the only conventional jet flying into that airport, if ever ‘conventional’ was a word to describe the 146.
This article’s focus is on the final iteration of the 146, the Avro RJ85. The BAe 146 came in three lengths−the 100, 200 and 300 models. Likewise, the improved and renamed Avro RJ kept the three fuselage options, renaming them 70, 85 and 100.
For the Avro RJ, the numbers signify nominal passenger capacity in normal configuration, although actual number of seats varied in service. The RJ85 flown for this article has ninety passenger seats, two seats for the pilots−with a spare jump seat, two cabin crew seats at the front and three at the back.
Aircraft empty weight plus crew is 25,500kg, and maximum takeoff weight is 41,800kg, leaving 16,300kg for passengers and fuel. Maximum fuel is 9,362kg, in two wing tanks and a centre tank, the optional slipper tanks not being fitted.
Today’s calculations, however, need to take into account that we’re flying from London City, so our actual maximum takeoff weight is regulated. With 30° flap and a good headwind, we can lift 40,000kg off a 1,500 metre runway. We have eighty passengers weighing 7,600kg with their bags, meaning that we can’t lift full fuel but we could fly up to 1,500nm if required.
The first officer is programming the flight management computer so I will do the walkaround. I turn right out of the cockpit and through the forward passenger doorway down the external stairs. (This aircraft had internal air stairs from new but the operator removed them to save weight and servicing cost.)
I start at the nosewheels, admiring the sturdy gear leg as I go. For the tyres it’s a standard ‘cuts, creep and pressure’ inspection with the addition of checking the gear doors for integrity, then looking at the pitot and static ports, and condition of the radome.
Then we move on to the first of two hatches on the right side; the forward avionics bay. Turning the recessed handle through 180°, I push the door up on its top hinge, where it locks, and now I can stand in the aperture to look inside.
A little way back there’s another door, behind the forward cargo hold. This is the hydraulic bay and inspecting it is the same game. I make sure that both doors are secure, then I check the enormous main gear legs, their trailing links designed to soak up heavy landings and rough strip operations, and the gear doors attached to the legs.
After Concorde, this was only the second aircraft to be fitted with carbon brakes. Everything looks good there−plenty of meat left showing on the brake wear indicator pins. If there’s an old brake set on one side and a new one on the other, I’ll take note, because it will have a bearing on how I use them when taxying, or how I brake after landing on a very long runway.
Next, I’m checking the engines. Each one has huge cowlings which latch underneath for excellent access to the unit and its ancillary systems. If I stand on tiptoes, I can see the inner engine’s fan and can reach in to spin it by hand, to check that it’s not iced up or seized. Shorter pilots need a little box or step ladder to do this, although it’s easier for the outboard engines, which sit lower due to the anhedral wing.
(Why anhedral? High wing aircraft have excess roll stability and the anhedral reduces it to manageable levels−plus it puts the ‘RJ’s fuel panel under the right wing in range of the refueller. Nevertheless you still need a stepladder or steps up the back of the tanker to refuel an RJ.)
Carrying on around the back of the aircraft I peer into the aft cargo hold−like the front one, the door hinges from above and is sprung against its weight so that it can be operated by hand.
Water access on the left fuselage is also at human height, likewise the lavatories can be drained from access points on the underside, taking supreme care of course! So, all you need to service an RJ down route is a stepladder.
A landmark in British aviation
The UK civil aviation industry received a crippling blow when the pioneering Comet jetliner was grounded – one from which it never really recovered. Boeing managed to strangle sales of the revised Comet IV and the other great British hope, the VC10 with the 707. Just over fifty VC10s were sold versus nearly one thousand B707s.
The B737 later saw off the BAC-111, while even more damaging was the US-led smear campaign which obliterated Concorde sales after the failure of America’s own Boeing SST.
The 146, however, shone through, in fact selling just over ten percent more than the 350 aircraft that had been envisaged all the way back in the 1960s, and well past the 250 needed to break even. After Concorde, the 146 was the other jet airliner the Americans couldn’t build, and nor could they crush its sales.
After nearly twenty years of production, as 146 sales finally dwindled, many of the workers went on to help with the Airbus programme, so the legacy of British civil aviation continued. When in 2002 production ended, 387 BAe 146/Avro RJ had been built, making it Britain’s most successful jet airliner.
Back in the cockpit I check the first officer’s route on the flight management computer and work through the performance with her on our iPad app. The iPads are the only technology from this millennium−the second decade of it, to be precise.
Everything else is from the mid to late twentieth century−most of my mates’ kitplanes are better equipped than an RJ. That said the RJ is a Category IIIB aircraft able to autoland in 150m visibility and a decision height of fifty feet! Not bad from a design originating six decades ago.
One design feature of the series which persisted through successive UK aerospace companies was to use off-the-shelf components where possible, for ease of maintenance. For example the overhead electrical panel has elements from the Boeing 707/727/737 of the ’50s and ’60s.
The autopilot Mode Control Panel (MCP) on the coaming is also from the original 737. The RJ EFIS avionics upgrade of the primary flight display and navigation display consists of four simple CRT screens from the Boeing 737-300 of the 1980s.
Nav-wise, there’s much more information on the iPad JeppView app, except that individual operator approval has to be sought from the governing aeronautical body. And we don’t have it, so I never use it−honest.
That’s the name my Boeing 777 pilot friends have for the Avro RJ, because their APU is actually a modified RJ engine. I’m not jealous−my long-haul days are over and sure I’d like to fly a 777, but not for twelve hours at a time.
To fire up the main engines, I first start the little APU in the tail with the battery, bring its generator online, disconnect external power so that we can push back while starting, and run through the before-start checklist with the FO.
A revised loadsheet has arrived. But we’ve already let the steps go, so I simply unlatch the window and drop my arm down the side. The dispatcher can reach up and hand me the load sheet−you certainly can’t do that in a 777, unless the dispatcher has a very long pole. Rumour has it the window latching mechanism is derived from the Avro Vulcan (which sort of makes sense if you think about it) and also the Lancaster!
To get the engines running, I switch on the fuel pumps, energise the starter master, select the engine I wish to start, then push the start switch−all of this is on the overhead panel. On the centre instrument panel I see engine N2 spool up to 10%, oil pressure indicating, N1 rotating (the spool with the fan) and move the relevant throttle from cut off to ‘idle 2’. Fuel flow is okay, the EGT shows that the engine is lit, and finally the starter cuts off at around 40% N2.
Once stabilised I expect to see−from top to bottom on the engine panel−‘two, four, five, one-point-five’. That’s 20% N1, 400°C EGT, 50% N2, and 150kg per hour of fuel flow. Then repeat same for the other three.
It sounds complicated written here but in practice it’s easy, and far less difficult than getting an old light aircraft engine going. For example you don’t change the procedure if the engine is hot or cold as you do with a piston engine, but there are a few other things to think about.
For instance a tailwind component and high ambient temperature can increase EGT during start, maybe even causing a ‘hot start’, in which case the throttle must be brought back to cut off and the engine motored then stopped and allowed to cool down for a prescribed time.
While starting we’ve been pushing back. Now the ground engineer asks me to set the parking brake: I depress the foot pedals, pull up the parking brake lever on the centre panel and check that there’s at least 2,500psi on the brake pressure gauges before asking for the tow to be disconnected. After start we switch off the start master, bring on line the generators, the hydraulic pumps, all the anti-icing and heaters, and select flaps 30°, calling for taxi.
There are many aircraft of which it is said “if you can taxi it you can fly it” and never was it more true than for the Avro RJ. All the weight is in the roof, the main gear track is narrow because it retracts into the fuselage and so the aircraft is unwieldy.
Plus the steering on the ground is via tillers looking like suitcase handles mounted on the cockpit walls: if you grab them at the top, the ergonomics of your shoulder, elbow and wrist joints will have you jerking the RJ across the taxiway and throwing the cabin crew into the passengers’ laps as they try and do their safety demo. Better to grasp it like the lid of a jar of pickled onions then gently lean on it in the direction of turn required. Like the unassisted steering of an old car, the tiller will gently give way and the aircraft make a smooth turn.
What about the brakes? If you plant your feet on the pedals and push, you will hear the dull thud of the cabin crew head-butting the cockpit door. Instead treat each brake pedal like the clutch pedal of a car (but the working in the opposite sense). Gently press on them until you find the brakes engaging and then lock your feet solid, ‘slipping the clutch’ if you like, and you can now steer and stop this unwieldy machine.
At the end of the runway at City I use full tiller to give me 70° of nosewheel steering and I pull up on the centre line without wasting any tarmac behind me. I do that by crossing the centre line at 90° until it’s under the front doors of the aircraft then go to full lock−it works every time.
The FO gets takeoff clearance, all the checks are complete, I call “takeoff, my controls” and stand up the throttles to spool the engines up to about fifty per cent power while holding the brakes.
The vast majority of Avro RJ airliners have reached the end of their useful lives, with around fifty aircraft already held in long-term storage. A few continue to operate with the RAF in the VIP rôle, while another small batch has found employment in the executive jet market where the cabin height is particularly appealing.
However, a number have found their way into a second and rather more dynamic occupation as airtankers, known as borate bombers after the retardant agent used in the early days of aerial firefighting.
So far, a small number of companies have used the RJ85 as a platform for this rôle. These include Neptune Aviation Services, who operate two RJ85 airtankers in Missoula, Montana; Minden Air, based at Minden, Nevada who are testing their first RJ85 air tanker conversion while in the process of converting a second aircraft; and Air Spray who operate from both Red Deer, Canada and Chico Airport, California. Air Spray began operating two former BAe 146 series 200 aircraft in their fleet in 2015.
However, the most successful user to date is the Conair Group Inc, based in Abbottsford, Canada, who at the time of going to press was in the process of converting their ninth RJ85 aircraft – a conversion process that now takes the company between just sixty and ninety days to complete.
Conair are the largest airtanker operator in the world, having a fleet of around fifty fixed-wing, special mission aircraft, including Convair 580 Firecats, Douglas DC-6 and Lockheed Electra airtankers. Conair is the world’s most experienced firefighting operator and holds hundreds of supplemental type certificates (STCs) for modification of aircraft to aerial firefighting platforms, as well as multi-role configurations suitable for both passenger and cargo operations.
Before commencing the RJ85 conversion programme, Conair undertook a major evaluation of the aircraft, with pilots from both BAe Systems and their own pilots flying the type. While having four engines to maintain might have been seen by some as a hindrance, the overall reliability of the RJ85 is a major plus point, as is the aircraft’s excellent short-field performance, its low and high speed handling qualities, excellent manoeuvrability, and high rate of climb and turning performance. These make the RJ an ideal airtanker that could see service for the next twenty-five years in the role.
In contrast with some of the other firefighting conversion programmes, Conair took an innovative approach to the problem of placing the additional tanks required to carry the water or foam payload.
Some companies install tanks into the fuselage but Conair designed their airtanker with external composite tanks, in addition to a third tank fitted around the landing gear. This design feature allows the aircraft to maintain its internal climate control and pressurisation, as well as providing very high fluid rates for high coverage drops.
The tanks, which can be filled to capacity in just seven minutes, have a capacity of 11,355 litres (around 3,000 US gallons) weighing up to 12,250kg (27,000 lb). Interestingly, the RJ85 also has the ability to land with the retardant tanks filled to capacity.
The aircraft is capable of cruising at a TAS of 380kt while fully loaded, and can drop its payload at speeds as low as 120kt. Two RJ conversions made their début with the US Fire Service (USFS) in 2014 when the aircraft achieved a 99% response rate.
During their first season operating in the State of Victoria, Australia, the RJ85 maintained a 100% response reliability record, and has since seen action in Victoria, New South Wales, Southern Australia Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland.
Over the last ten years, CityJet has been one of the largest operators of the RJ85, many operated on behalf of other European airlines. The demand for this service has been gradually diminishing and recently the Covid-19 pandemic has further reduced it. All of the aircraft so far converted by Conair have been former CityJet airframes. - Keith Wilson
Then I push forward to somewhere near full power, push the TOGA (takeoff/go around) button in front of the throttles, take my hands off them and ask the FO to set thrust. She trims the throttles to make sure we have rated thrust and then we swap hands on the throttles again.
Acceleration is impressive−even at high weight−and very quickly she is calling “eighty knots, V1, rotate, V2”. As she calls V1 my right hand comes off the throttles, joining my left hand on the control wheel (try stopping after V1 and there would be a squeal of brakes followed by a big splash). The engine’s FADEC is doing all the work here to stop engine overspeed and EGT exceedance−95% and 632° C if you’re interested−so I can concentrate on flying the departure.
Normally I would now ask for the autopilot but since you’re along for the ride I’ll continue manually. The controls are firm but pliant at low speeds, pitch a little sensitive with flaps extended, and in roll you are moving servo tabs which then move the ailerons on your behalf−so you have to give them time. It’s nothing like the Airbus A320 that I used to fly. Not worse, just different. Like going from a Caterham 7 to a Cadillac.
At 1,000ft I ask the FO to select 210kt on the MCP, and the flight directors command me to reduce angle of attack so that the RJ can accelerate from the 140kt we have been climbing at. I ask for flap 24°, flap 18° then flap zero as we accelerate, then ask for climb power.
The FO selects this on the panel to the right of the engine gauges and once again the FADEC looks after the job. On a hot day the EGTs might go all the way up to maximum and will sit there at 613°C exactly−it’s quite something to watch. Sometimes, though, you have to pull a throttle back to stop it going over.
Ignore the EGT readings and there might be a call from the feds in around two weeks time, when they have done their data monitoring of the disk in the computer.
After the first turn of the departure we can speed up to 250kt. No power change required, just dial up the speed on the MCP and the flight director commands the change. I am trimming with my left thumb on the control stick and can also use the wheel on the centre console.
The VSI is showing around 1,800fpm. This might sound like a lot but the airline boys and girls reading this will be laughing because modern airliners have far higher power to weight ratios. And most modern airliners are twin engined, which means far higher power to weight by design in comparison with a three or four-engined aircraft.
At 10,000ft we can accelerate to the optimum speed that the wing was designed for: 280kt IAS and then Mach 0.68 as we transition above 20,000ft. We can go a little faster but the red line is at Mach 0.72 so there’s not a lot more to be had. The RJ has a swept wing but it’s not swept by much, and its section is for lifting off from short runways rather than high speed cruising. Cruise altitude is up to 35,000ft and if I choose I can still hand fly the aircraft in comfort - albeit we would have to tell ATC, because we’re not as good as the autopilot.
The fuel flow in cruise is around 2,000kg per hour. That doesn’t sound like much for a jet airliner, until you consider that a Boeing 737-800 would have almost the same burn with twice as many passengers!
And that’s the main reason why there are fewer and fewer RJs in the sky. As it ages, it has become more and more of a niche aircraft, appealing less to large, high-cycle operators and more to wet lease and charter companies doing one-off flights, where a ton of fuel this way or that doesn’t matter much.
At the same time RJ has appealed more to VIP operations. Its cabin is twice the size of the largest executive jets and the fact that it can operate from rough runways has given it yet another market in the Middle East, flying in the desert from sand strips.
Landing in 400 metres
Back to the flight and it’s time to start the descent. I dial in the cleared altitude in the MCP, then use the vertical speed wheel to start descending at 1,000fpm. Once the aircraft is settled, I then use the ‘level change’ button, which closes the four throttles, the aircraft descending at around 2,500fpm and Mach 0.68, then 280kt.
It seems a fussy way to operate it, but the original ‘level change’ function was intended for emergency descent. If all I did was just punching that button from level flight, our cabin crew would now be stuck to the ceiling.
I plan the descent by multiplying our cruising height in thousands by three (for instance, from 30,000ft we need ninety track miles). I keep an eye on this and can adjust as necessary: if we get high I can expedite the descent , and if I get low I can add a bit of throttle to reduce the descent rate.
At 10,000ft we are slowed to 250kt by dialling in the speed on the MCP. For demonstration purposes I’ll fly the last bit by hand−I disconnect the autopilot with the button on the control column then ask the FO to dial 210kt on the MCP, following the flight director as it reduces the vertical speed to decelerate.
We are passing 7,000ft and twenty-one miles away from Runway 28 at Dublin, so are on profile. At ten miles I ask for 190kt and flap 18°, then 160kt. In the cabin you would hear the ‘flap hoot’ caused by air disturbance as the flaps run out on their rails. There is a big pitch change here, easily caught with electric trim but, if I wanted, I could go for three handfuls of trim on the wheel instead.
As the glide slope comes live I ask for gear down, then flap 24° and Vref plus 5kt, in this case around 125kt. Maximum landing weight is 38,555kg but we are well below that. The controls easily counter the light chop as we cross the coast, the FO reading out the landing checks and me concentrating on keeping ‘two whites, two reds’ on the VASIs, now that I can see the runway.
As the speed comes back I bring the throttles up to around fifty per cent power, spooling up in case we need the instantaneous response required for a go around.
At 100ft we pull the air brake lever to deploy the big clam shell surfaces at the back of the fuselage, the radar altimeter calls “fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten” as I now retard the throttles and start pulling the column back.
It’s a smooth touchdown, the spoilers deploying automatically and me pulling a little harder to counter the nose down tendency. A little touch on the brakes to check function (we have another two levels of redundancy if there’s a problem) and we roll out for 2,000m although in the past I have stopped with a 400m ground roll at max landing weight.
Those carbon brakes get more efficient the hotter they get, so I reduce the pressure on the pedals as we slow down. Hand across to the tiller, and we taxi in.
I hope you had a nice flight!