Life on the Trident Fleet

trident fleet

The Trident – seen here with another 1960s design, the Ilyushin Il-62 – was regarded as a sports car among contemporary airliners - Credit: BAE Systems/Keith Wilson

Ross McMillan looks back on happy, heady years of flying ‘the ultimate sports car’ among British jet airliners - The Trident

Exciting times; the great day had finally arrived. I reported to Heston Training Centre just North of Heathrow for my first day as a paid pilot on 2 September 1974. I had survived the twenty-month pilot training Course at Hamble, Southampton and nearly six months furlough, working as a cab driver in South London. 

In those days there were multi tiers of management in British Airways Short Haul (BASH) and on the first day we met Chief Pilot, London among several others, including Flight Manager, Number 5 Trident Flight. After the chalk-and-talk technical course−there was no computer aided learning−we took our exams and progressed to the ‘cardboard bomber’ flight control systems/autopilot trainer, and then the (reasonably advanced) simulator. 

The motion was primitive by today’s standards and a full-time operator sat behind a curtain in the back. We eventually attained Instrument Rating standard and passed the examination, but not before every one of us had to re-enact the fairly recent Staines crash tragedy involving the wing leading edge devices (see ‘Staines and the super stall’, p.64). 

trident fleet

Boost in the tail: the Trident became a four-engined airliner in 3B form (closest to the camera) being fitted with a RB 162-86 boost turbine at the base of the fin, just above the jetpipe of the centre main engine - Credit: BAE Systems/Keith Wilson

The Autoland automatic landing system syllabus, especially failures, had to be practised until it was perfect and second nature. There could be no doubts at twelve feet above the runway, wondering what to do in fog. The roller-map visual could alarm one first thing in the morning when the lights were switched on for the takeoff run, when a highly magnified, frightened spider suddenly appeared in front on the visual roller. 

Finally Base Training at Prestwick: this was circuit training and landings in the real aircraft for the first time. It was very exciting to get hold of the actual machine at last, tearing round the circuit at high speed−just under 200 knots−and dealing with fast divergence from the correct path. We had auto throttle for the first time, looking after a dialled-in speed.

This took a little practice, as if you were holding level flight and allowed the nose to drop the throttles would close−and do the opposite if you climbed. Asymmetric outer engine failure practice was quite easy with the engines in the tail and not on the wings but I was caught out with a central engine zero thrust, which of course needed no rudder input! If the weather was too bad to fly visits were organised to the local whisky distillery among other local attractions and we were there for at least five days, I think, in very civilised hotel accommodation.  

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The first time actually landing a large airliner was daunting at first with mixed results. A colleague managed to get all the sandwiches on the catering tray to fly around the flight deck on touchdown. The base training captains were all good teachers−one flew round the circuit with feet up, smoking a cigar, exuding bonhomie and confidence. 

trident fleet

Having started on the short-haul Trident, Ross McMillan ended his BA career as a long-haul captain flying Boeing 747-400s - Credit: : BAE Systems/Keith Wilson

Finally, after all the paperwork was complete and our licences ready−no dash down to CAA HQ at Gatwick then−we were ready, willing and able for line training out of Heathrow on scheduled services with passengers and crew in the back, but with a training captain to look after us in the left-hand seat. 

I reported for my first line training flight at the Queens Building crew room at Heathrow. In British Airways the Trident was a three-crew operation−captain, co-pilot and third-seat systems panel operator (another pilot). There was no flight engineer. On a normal flight the co-pilot and third-seat operator would swap seats at destination so that each would have his turn in the right-hand seat. A toss of a coin would usually decide which way.

After briefing in the crew room, the captain would often buy everyone a coffee upstairs. After a few minutes and a glance at his watch he would stand up and if a coffee had not been consumed, he would announce “Don’t rush it – leave it”. No time to stand around... 

Before starting P2 training in the right-hand seat, everyone had to clear the systems operator seat training, which took a few sectors. This involved preparing the vital data speed card for the speeds to continue with an engine failure, rotate and climb, which was passed forward to be clipped on the instrument panel. Checklists were recited while taxying.

As a Trident 3B pilot, I had to calculate the Maximum No Boost Engine Take Off Weight. If we were above this, the fourth engine−a small boost jet engine with very limited controls−had to be started for takeoff and initial climb. Sometimes there was a gross embarrassment when it refused to start. 
In the cruise it was time for fuel checks/tank transfers and weather reports as well as monitoring all the systems on the panel. I soon learned the key phrases. If the Captain was freezing cold, he would politely ask for “another log on the fire please” i.e. turn up the heating. 

P2 right-hand seat training required a step change in mental speed. Especially on a short sector like ‘a Paris’ I was told that I hadn’t hacked it until I could eat a first-class meal in flight and still not be rushed (actually not possible anyway). The way to speed up mentally was to not allow a single second to be wasted. Move on to next task instantly. 

BEA had long since used Monitored Approach Standard Operating Procedures and these were rigidly followed on the Trident. If it was the captain’s sector−say the outbound leg from London to a destination−he would hand over control before top of descent and P2 would fly the approach.

trident fleet

The Trident was fitted with British-pattern ‘ram’s horn’ control yokes. Here, the yellow token indicates triple autopilot serviceable, enabling Cat 3A landing. Panel features include weather radar (yellow screen marked with radial lines) centrally mounted Doppler moving map display (‘not that wonderful,’ says the author – and loading the cumbersome ‘toilet roll’ was a time-consuming task). - Credit: BAE Systems/Keith Wilson


To declare “I have control” required a positive input from the captain that he was happy with the visual reference to land and the aircraft was fully configured with gear down/land flap for landing, and checklist complete. In all-weather operations where there was low visibility, either with low cloud base or fog, this transfer would require a “Land” response from the captain when challenged by “Decide” at radalt decision height or altitude (Cat 1). Thus, a fail-safe procedure was assured, as P2 would initiate a go around/missed approach if not interrupted by “Land” from the captain or if he called “Go around” anyway. No split-second delay at decision height! When BEA and BOAC linked up into BA this procedure was eventually adopted on all aircraft types, making conversion courses simpler for all concerned. 

The Trident autopilot was a marvel. It was a mechanical box full of tiny springs, cogs, levers, wheels and pushrods between the two pilots in the centre console. The various selections−speed, rate of descent, altitude etc−required a small, circular white plug-type switch, a bit like a circuit breaker, to be pulled to engage them. Each selection would mechanically cancel the previous one. Not good news if you had slightly sweaty, nervous fingers. (These boxes were actually sent off to a clock/watch specialist for servicing.) 

The approach radio and navigation frequencies were selected by P3 in the third seat so a circular motion of his left hand over the nav boxes by P2 flying the approach meant “please select the Instrument Landing System frequencies on all three boxes”. If I wished to disconnect the autopilot and hand-fly the approach, a check with the captain usually brought a “by all means−fill your boots, old boy!” reply. 

There were a lot of clever innovations to streamline this high frequency flying. The written individual sector navigation logs for every route in the network were designed like rally driver’s maps, with diagrammatic depiction of the route with all the safety heights, distances, timings etc information on the side. Folding the paper revealed a diagram of the SIDs and STARs (Standard Instrument Departures and Standard Terminal Arrival Routes) with all the radio frequencies and information for the departures and arrivals. I used these on a few general aviation flights at the time−all this long before computer-generated navigation apps and their comprehensive plans.  

After a final check I was let loose on the non-training community on the line and learned my job properly. Later being transferred to the other Trident fleets−Trident 1s and 2s, and the 1E fleet−the whole European network was covered. In those days there was very little proper night flying or double destinations in a day. That all came later on other types. 

trident fleet

The mechanical autopilot control box can be seen on the right of the console, ahead of the leading edge droop and flap levers. Just visible is the mechanical stop (light coloured rectangle) fitted to prevent droop being retracted before flap - Credit: BAE Systems/Keith Wilson


At its height, the Trident fleet at Heathrow was very large: 67 aeroplanes with at least 1,206 pilots (assuming six crews per aircraft). We were divided up into six ‘flights’, each having a flight manager and Deputy. There were many airport standby pilots, as well as the internal UK services walk-on shuttle, standby crews all hanging around in the upstairs crew lounge in the Queens Building. They would either be playing cards or dining at the excellent subsidised white-tablecloth restaurant. It really was like a scene of Battle of Britain fighter pilots at dispersal, waiting for the bell to ring. 

The sheer intensity of the operation meant that everyone was in good practice and with the pilot numbers there was good mixing, so no one got too complacent from flying with the same people. As we said, you could be flying an Autoland in fog within a couple of hours of meeting a complete stranger and have complete faith in him. (I say ‘him’ because the first female BA pilot arrived in the 1980s.)  

In this era the authority gradient across the flight deck was much higher than in later years. Some captains, but not all, were real stars at relaxing us first officers on first meetings in the crew room. One shook hands and immediately made very personal witty inferences with a wide grin. There were those who very occasionally might be having an off day and CRM (Cockpit Resource Management−all about people skills for a safe operation outcome) didn’t exist in those days. I always remarked that by the time I became a captain I could easily be a UK ambassador with all the diplomatic skills I 
had acquired. 

Another innovation pioneered by the Trident was the Quick Access Flight Data Recorder−not the hard-wired crash ‘black box’ recorder−something that was not aboard most other airlines at this time. This was a very detailed tape recording of very many flight parameters. It was routinely monitored. An event triggered by a list of banned or highly frowned upon manoeuvres, such as late stabilised approach for landing or excessive rate of descent close to the ground or excessive bank angle, would result in an invitation to a meeting with management for ‘an interview without coffee’. During the Summer drought of 1976 when the banks of the Thames became exposed it was rumoured that lots of these tape boxes suddenly appeared next to Staines Bridge, where certain pilots had lobbed them into the river on the 
way home. 

There was a great spirit of comradeship on the Trident fleets and everyone got on very well. Most trips were a really pleasant day out. However, one captain in particular was called into the office one day and asked “Why is there a list here of first officers who refuse to fly with you?” He immediately grabbed the list and replied “I thought so, trouble-makers, the lot of them!” 

There was, and probably still is, a very strict rule that after a flight and at any other time you could not be seen consuming alcohol in uniform. However, an exception was the World Airways Club for air- and cabin crew in the Holiday Inn hotel north of Heathrow, just off the M4/Central Area junction. Many a happy evening after a flying day was had by all. To say that romances blossomed would be a gross understatement... 

Much later I was lucky enough to move on to the other BA fleets, both short haul and long haul. I learned the fundamental difference between the two: short haul is a job, basically back home most nights. Long haul however is a way of life, with its exciting travel, exotic worldwide destinations and longer trips. This more than compensated for the small penalty of attendant jet lag. There is a different pace on long haul with different challenges and environment. On my first proper long-haul flight to Mumbai, I had consumed my entire crew meal before crossing the English Channel. A disgusted frown from the left-hand seat was followed by “Well what are you going to do now then for the next six hours?” 

There were unique moments. Early morning departure from Milan bursting out of the usual fog in the Po valley climbing to cross the Alps. The blue Mediterranean Sea at low level before a Gibraltar or Malta arrival... It always was a fantastic, privileged job and I was lucky enough to do it. The Trident was the ultimate sports car of the time.

Trident fleet

Early Autoland trials in what was relatively good visibility by the system's ultimate Cat 3A standard (12ft DH & 200m RVR) - Credit: BAE Systems/Keith Wilson

Hawker Siddeley’s hot ship 
The Trident project originated in a specification issued by BEA in 1957, calling for an eighty-seat aircraft with a range of 1,000 miles, preferably with three engines, and as high a speed as possible. This would compete with the French Caravelle.

De Havilland’s DH 121 Mk 1 design was superseded by the Mk 2, which should have had a cruising speed of 585mph at 32,000ft with 98 passengers. On 12 February 1958 the Government insisted that BEA should negotiate with a consortium of de Havilland and Hawker Siddeley, which after much redesign and interference resulted in the aircraft emerging as the Hawker Siddeley Trident. 

The first Trident flew in January 1962, becoming the first tri jet in history - but the Boeing 727 beat it into service by a few weeks. This very similar aircraft was not compromised by BEA down-sizing the passenger capacity which resulted in far greater sales for the B727. In fact well over 1,000  B727s were sold, whereas total sales of the Trident were 117. This was a great shame for the British aircraft industry that should not have happened. 

The Trident sales consisted of: 
Trident 1 C - 24, all to BEA. Initial version with 3 x Rolls-Royce RB 163/1 Mk 505/5 Spey turbofans with 9,850 lb static thrust. Seating for up to 103 passengers. 

Trident 1 E - 15.  Probably nearest to the original design. Uprated Rolls-Royce RB 163. 25 Mk 511-5 Spey turbofans with 11,400 lb static thrust. The two sold to BKS (later North East) were 139 passenger configuration and were absorbed into BA Short Haul later. 

Trident 2 E - 50. Fifteen to BEA.   Greater range – 2,000nm and capacity – 115 passengers and All Up Weight ( AUW) to 144,000 lb. 

Trident 3B - 26, all to BEA     Passenger accommodation increased to 157-177.  Small RB  162-86 extra boost engine for takeoff/initial climb only, installed in tail. Not possible to start in flight. 

Trident Super 3B - 2. To CAAC in China. 

The first 1 C entered service in BEA in 1964 and by 1989 all had been retired.  The last Trident flew in China in 1997. 

The Trident was a hot ship. Max Cruise Speed Mach  .91/525 knots at 36,000 feet.  This was reduced after the fuel crisis in the early 1070s for economy. The Trident also had an amazing rate of descent if required – 320kt indicated with full speed brake and gear down, and 10,000rpm reverse thrust. This was alright at high altitude but not lower down.  The rules were modified after a few scares and passengers hanging forward in their seat belts too much.. 

The greatest technical innovation was the Autoland capability in foggy/low cloud weather conditions which was a world leader. Expensive inconvenient weather diversions could now be avoided. The Trident offered Category 3A Autoland with a 12ft Decision Height on the radio altimeter and 200m RVR (Runway Visual Range). Until this time all precision Instrument Landing System approaches were limited to Category 1 - not less than usually 200ft on the servo altimeter and 600m RVR. Autoland had to take place with limits below Category 2 - 100ft radalt and 400m RVR - but with a raft of requirements a manual landing could take place in Cat 2 conditions.  

On low visibility Take Offs there were peripheral vision ‘barbers poles’ which streamed left or right to keep you on the runway centreline. These were connected to the Instrument Landing System horizontal radio guidance – the localiser. 

Staines and the ‘super stall’ 
Having three engines at the back meant that the horizontal stabiliser had to be at the top of the rudder instead of below it. This was fine and has been used on many aircraft since then. On the Trident there was an important problem with this. If the aircraft was in a high nose-up attitude at low speed in the stall, the horizontal stabiliser would be in the disturbed airflow off the wings and therefore ineffective.

Recovery would not be possible by pushing on the control column and the aircraft could enter the so-called unrecoverable ‘super stall’. The answer was to have a speed/angle of attack sensor which triggered a full pitch down on the column by pneumatic pressure, preceded by an artificial stick shake at speed/attitude approaching the stall.  There also had to be a way of disabling this system if it inadvertently activated (something Boeing might have noted in the 21st century - Ed). The stick push caused a sixty-degree nose down and was only released when airspeed had recovered sufficiently. 

Actually, this is exactly what happened in the Trident 1C ‘Papa India’ crash at Staines on 18 June 1972 during a Standard Instrument Departure from Heathrow to Brussels.  One crew member retracted the wing leading edge droop [a feature designed to increase lift/reduce stalling speed] in error well below the 225 – 250 knot gateway speed for retraction. He probably thought he was retracting the flaps. The stick-push activated in the continuing climb and pushed the nose down sixty degrees. It then released and the aircraft pitched up, following the auto pilot trimmed position.

This whole sequence happened a second time and, in each dive and recovery, the speed was actually slowly increasing. Unfortunately, on the third activation someone pulled the emergency deactivation ‘tiger’s tail’ lever (it was painted yellow and black) to vent the system to atmosphere. The next stall was no longer protected so the aircraft ‘super stalled’ and crashed.