Britannia Airways, the “BA of leisure carriers”

Gorgeous spring weather in England under lockdown has made me nostalgic for the classic years of the package tour to the sun. One airline stood out in the crowd as shorthand for quality, and that was Britannia Airways.

Britannia Airways was formed in 1961 as Euravia, to provide the airline component of package tours sold by Universal Sky Tours. It was based at Luton airport and started flying in May 1962 with a trio of second-hand piston-powered Lockheed Constellations, which less than a decade earlier had been the most prestigious airliner in the world, a graceful flagship for the likes of BOAC and TWA, but overtaken by the jet revolution. By 1964, Euravia were flying eight Connies as well as four Avro Yorks, lumbering war-era military transports. Britannia Airways was born that year, as Euravia re-equipped with another cast-off from the late propeller age, the Bristol Britannia, and changed their name to mark the occasion.

The 11 Britannias saw the airline through the remainder of the 1960s, as it was purchased by Lord Thompson, a newspaper magnate looking to diversify, and in arenas which would benefit the general public. Running a package tour operator for Brits to travel abroad, many for the first time ever, was a perfect match for his ambitions.

In 1968, Britannia made history by being the first airline in Europe to buy the Boeing 737- 200, receiving their first jet, G-AVRL, on June 28, despite significant government pressure to buy British (either the BAC-111 or the Trident).

In the early 1970s, Britannia got into the long haul business with a duo of Boeing 707-300Cs, which flew mostly transatlantic. In those days of tight regulation protecting state-owned national carriers, budget travelers flew on leisure airlines operating ‘affinity charters’ for travel clubs and other special interest groups (some of which were formed purely to get around these restrictions, with backdated membership cards to fictitious organisations given out on the day of travel). The 707s didn’t last long – early 1971 until spring 1973 – but by 1972 Britannia was Britain’s largest leisure airline, and by 1975 was operating a fleet of 13 737-200s to the sun.

The 1980s was a golden age for package holidays, and for Britannia, as they made history with a new Boeing once again by being the first European airline to operate the widebody 767. With Britain’s economy booming thanks to financial deregulation and the discovery of North Sea oil, Mediterranean holidays became affordable for every day families.

The skylines of resort coastlines in Spain, Greece, and Italy boomed, and every summer, the suburbs of Britain emptied as young singles and couples flew aboard to party, and families to find a slice of get-away-from-it-all paradise. Gatwick, Luton, and provincial airports thronged with leisure travelers clad in the neon fashion of the era, soundtracked with new Walkman person stereos.

It’s hard to imagine a world without the Persian Gulf mega-carriers but as recently as the 1990s, the UK to Australia market was dominated by British Airways, with multiple jumbos a day serving not only Sydney but also Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth; Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, who leveraged their strategic locations much as Emirates et al would in the decades that followed, or a number of European carriers who served Sydney and Melbourne, such as KLM, Olympic, Alitalia, UTA and plucky Austrian upstart Lauda Air. Britannia joined the Kangaroo Route in 1988 and started flying 767s to Australia via Sharjah and Singapore, serving one of the biggest VFR markets in the world – visiting friends and relatives.

The 1990s saw the advent of a more ambitious leisure clientele. The Med was no longer exotic, and British holidaymakers set their sights on the white sands and wafting palms of the Caribbean and Thailand. By 1997, a third of Britannia’s flying was long haul. To meet the expectations of their most demanding customers, Britannia introduced a premium cabin, of a quality similar to that offered by the best scheduled airlines in Europe, and was branded Royal Service.

Thanks to harmonisation of regulations made possible by closer European Union integration, Europe’s airline market was deregulated in the mid 1990s which gave rise to the Low Cost Carrier, the LCC, starting with easyJet in 1996. By the turn of the century and the advent of the internet, travelers were confident enough to book their own accommodation and figure out their own local logistics, and no longer needed a tour operator to make the arrangements. easyJet went from a pair of ex-GB Airways 737-200s to a pre-coronavirus fleet of over 300 A320 family Airbus aircraft, and Ryanair from a handful of Romanian-built BAC-111s to 280 Boeing 737-800s (and a sole -700 for pilot training), fleet sizes that dwarfed not only the likes of Britannia but the entire leisure fleets of 1980s western Europe combined.

The delights of the 1980s inclusive package tour, when flying was much less accessible to the average person, might seem a bit pedestrian compared to the free range possibilities of today, but whatever they lacked in variety or local authenticity, they made up for with a bit of innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm for a new world that was just getting started. There were plenty of other British airlines who played their role, but none as classy as Britannia Airways.

The story of the Dassault Mercure

France has a long history at the forefront of aviation, and scored a couple of big hits at the start of the jet age with the Sud Aviation Caravelle, a twin-engined short- and medium-haul airliner which sold 282 airframes (including 20 to United Airlines) between 1958 and 1972, as well as the Nord-262 propjet which sold a respectable 110 airframes. The Dassault Mercure should have been the next big thing, but despite being popular with pilots and passengers, became a cautionary tale and fascinating footnote.

Dassault Aviation’s history dated back to 1929 with impressive achievements in building military planes (most notably the Mirage jet fighter), as well as a prolific electronics division which produced radar, missile guidance, and avionics. Success with the Mystere-Falcon business jet led to the unfulfilled Mystere 30 project, a regional jet that would have seated up to 56 passengers. A 1965 market study revealed 3,250 city pairs in Europe and North America served by 210 airlines would require 1,500 short haul jetliners, and so it was decided to build a 150 seat airliner for what was obviously a huge market sector.

Dassault considered a range of configurations and settled on a Pratt & Whitney JT8D under each wing, superficially similar to the contemporary Boeing 737-200 although slightly bigger and heavier – the wingspan was two metres (seven feet) wider, the fuselage was four metres (14 feet) longer, and the empty weight was 2,160 kilograms (4,600 pounds) heavier. Dassault were world-renowned for their wing architecture and the new jetliner sported a sophisticated 25-degree wing sweep with leading edge slats and triple-slotted trailing edge flaps for safe low speed approaches, designed using state-of-the-art computer technology.

The name Mercure was chosen because, in the words of Marcel Dassault, “Intending to use the name of mythological god, I found only one who had wings on his helmet and ailerons on his feet.” A full-scale mock-up was displayed in June 1969 at the Paris Air Show, giving the world a glimpse of the new French jetliner.

Total start-up costs were estimated at a billion French Francs (equal to €1.138 billion today), with 56% of the investment underwritten by the French government, 14% by Dassault itself, and the remaining 30% by a European consortium of subcontractors looking a bit like an embryonic Airbus consortium – Fiat of Italy signed on to build the vertical stabiliser and rear fuselage, CASA of Spain the rest of the fuselage, SABCA of Belgium ailerons and spoilers, FW Emmen of Switzerland the engine nacelles, and Canadair across the Atlantic in Montreal contributed the engine pylons.

Three factories in France were designated to make components to keep up with planned production of five aircraft per month – Poitiers, Martignas (near Bordeaux) and Seclin (near Lille). Final assembly was to take place at Istres. Break-even was estimated at 200 airframes, and 300 by the end of 1979 was the goal. French domestic carrier Air Inter ordered ten aircraft and the programme was officially underway, with construction beginning on two prototypes at Dassault HQ at Bordeaux-Merignac.

However, despite the new airliner’s excellent pedigree and its manufacturer’s high hopes, storm clouds were already brewing on the horizon. The biggest difference between the Mercure and the Boeing 737-200 was range. While even the earliest incarnation of the baby Boeing could fly for 4,800 kilometres (2,992 miles), the Mercure was so carefully tailored to the needs of domestic-only Air Inter that it was crippled by a maximum range of only 2,000 kilometres (1,295 miles), and, with maximum payload, only 1,000 kilometres (621 miles). Admittedly, Europe is a small continent, and a radius of 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) around Frankfurt includes Madrid, Tallinn, Palermo and Shannon. But plenty of city pairs considered ‘short haul’ far exceed that, such as London to Athens (2,400 kilometres / 1,500 miles), Toronto to Miami (1,984 kilometres / 1,233 miles) or Sydney to Auckland (2,165 kilometres / 1,345 miles). Add in the lack of fuel available at some ports resulting in the need to tanker fuel for the flight home, and the Mercure simply wasn’t able to offer the flexibility airlines needed.

Even Air France, who were already planning ahead for a Caravelle replacement, balked at the Mercure. Plenty of other airlines were curious, most notably Belgian flag carrier Sabena, but in the end not a single other order materialised. Despite the tumbleweed rolling through the sales suite, it was decided to go ahead with producing Air Inter’s order under a complex agreement between the airline, Dassault, and the French government to defray the high cost of producing small runs of spare parts to sustain the operation of just ten aircraft.

It was joked that the lack of orders was a result of the aircraft itself not having the range to leave France – and no doubt, this lack of compatibility with the rest of the world’s airlines was the major obstacle to success. Additional factors were the 1973 oil crisis which raised operating costs and made airlines risk-averse. Devaluation of the US dollar made the export price of the Mercure unattractive, as well as the lack of global product support infrastructure that was offered by Boeing and Douglas.

The irony was, lack of range aside, the Mercure was a fabulous aircraft. Its military pedigree gave it fighter-like performance; on Air Inter’s shortest routes (known as Type A ‘minimum time’ trips), the profile was a high speed climb all the way up to 35,000 feet for a short cruise just a fraction under Mach 0.85 (380 knots equivalent airspeed) followed by a descent still at 380 knots all the way down, with 50% airbrakes extended at 6,000 feet and full airbrakes at 4,000 feet. Only at 1,100 feet and eight kilometres (5 miles) out was the speed reduced back to 210 knots, airbrakes retracted and flaps extended first to 3 degrees, then 12 and finally 25 degrees and gear down for landing. In fact with throttles closed and full airbrakes, the Mercure could descend at 14,000 feet per minute – two minutes from cruise to the ground. (In the 1980s, to manage increased traffic in terminal areas, France adopted the worldwide speed limit of 250 knots below 10,000 feet, and increased fuel costs resulted in slower cruise speeds; therefore some speed records between French city pairs set by Mercures will never be broken.)

The Mercure was the first airliner to have a Head Up Display (HUD) for pilots, which allowed take-offs with forward visibility (known as RVR – Runway Visual Range) as low as 100 metres (328 feet). Following on from the pioneering all-weather automatic landing systems developed by Air Inter for the Caravelle, the Mercure was capable of landing in Cat IIIa conditions, with a decision height eventually as low as 35 feet and an RVR of 125 metres (410 feet). The cockpit was fitted with two instruments that remain unique among civil transports: an Angle Of Attack (AOA) indicator used to illustrate lift generated by the wing, which allowed pilots to fly visual approach speeds accurate to within a single knot, and a G meter to avoid exceeding airframe structural limits (which were +2.5G and -1G).

The passenger cabin offered a spacious six-abreast configuration with enclosed overhead bins from day one, and innovative polarising windows instead of sliding window shades which passengers could lighten or darken by rotating a small button at the base of the window, just like on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner of today (albeit, due to high maintenance costs, the buttons were soon immobilised and windows left in the lightest position).

Mercure 01 F-WTCC was rolled out on April 4, 1971 and took to the air for the first time on May 28. The first production aircraft, designated as a Mercure 100A, followed on September 7 of the following year. The first true production aircraft intended for delivery to Air Inter first flew on July 19, 1973. Test flying took place mostly in France, with hot weather trials in Casablanca. Although the aircraft and its systems performed flawlessly in the test programme, a defect in the metallurgy of the upper wing surfaces resulted in discoloration known as “leopard spots” and this set the programme back by six months; certification by France’s DGAC regulatory body was granted on February 12, 1974, and the first ship was delivered to Air Inter on May 16. The full production variant was dubbed the Mercure 100.

Trial passenger service began ad hoc from Air Inter’s base at Paris Orly on June 4, with service to Lyons, Bordeaux and Toulouse; the first ‘official’ service took place on June 14 from Paris to Marseilles. The type appeared in the timetable for the first time in the winter 1974/1975 edition, with the abbreviation DAM being used to designate the type. Air Inter did virtually no international flying but Mercures were occasionally seen at London Gatwick, Shannon, Dublin, Ibiza, Malaga, Madrid and Palma on charter flights for sports teams or package tour operators transporting French holidaymakers to beaches. Air France wet-leased Mercures on a few occasions, notably in the late 1970s to fly schedules from Nice to Geneva.

Following the abject commercial failure of the Mercure 100, at the beginning of 1973 Dassault proposed the Mercure 200C, with seating for 140 passengers and a range of 2,200 kilometres (1,400 miles) in co-operation with Air France. The French government promised a loan of 200 million French Francs (slightly over €200 million in today’s money) to create the new variant, but Air France insisted on the uprated JT8D-117 engine instead of the basic JT8D-15. Accommodating the larger engine would cost an additional 80 million Francs, at which point the government, fed up with the troubled programme, insisted that Dassault pay half the cost of the new development. Weighed down by the failure of the Mercure 100, Dassault had no choice but to cancel the project.

A CFM International CFM56-powered Mercure 200 (no C suffix  this time) was proposed in 1975 as a machine that could be built under licence in the United States by Lockheed or Douglas. Concerns in France that the CFM56 would not be built slowed down negotiations, which then ended when Douglas stretched the DC-9 to create the DC-9-50.

The Mercure’s future didn’t quite end there. Air Inter actually added an eleventh Mercure 100 to their fleet in the early eighties; given the aircraft’s notoriously poor sales history this was greeted with faux(or perhaps genuine) amazement by the world’s aviation press (Flight International, usually sober and business-like for the most part, ran the story at the top of the first page of news for the week, complete with exclamation mark: “Air Inter Orders Another Mercure!”). The aircraft in question was the second prototype, F-WTMD, refurbished to airline standard, reregistered F-BTMD and delivered to the airline on September 15, 1983.

Air Inter pilots, many of whom had a military background, fell in love with the Mercure. (Nervous passengers, it must be said, were less excited by the aircraft’s capacity for high G acceleration and precipitous descents.) Although the aircraft was intended to be operated by a two-person crew, pressure from pilots unions resulted in the addition of a flight engineer. Although the Mercure did not have a specific panel for the officier mecanicien navigant, the role was a busy one, including the exterior pre-flight inspection (performed anti-clockwise, contrary to usual practice elsewhere in the world), cockpit preparation, reading of checklists, setting thrust levers for takeoff, climb and cruise, systems monitoring, and a third pair of eyes to oversee the operation and spot traffic.

The Mercure enjoyed a perfect safety record in its flying career. The only serious incident occurred to F-BTTJ on August 17, 1986 en route from Paris to Grenoble as IT623. The flight encountered a severe hailstorm, hammering the forward windscreens until they were completely opaque. Captain Roger Franchet diverted to Lyons-Satolas and landed by opening donning a set of smoke goggles and opened his side window and stuck his head out to see forward. No passengers were injured – although a flight attendant chipped a tooth on the PA microphone during the heavy turbulence in the eye of the storm.

After a 21 year working career, the last Mercure flights operated on April 29, 1995, after flying 360,815 hours carrying 44 million passengers on 430,916 flights – with 20,704 Cat IIIa autolands, 1,437 of them in actual low visibility Cat IIIa conditions. Average sectors flown per day per aircraft was eight, with an average flight time of 50 minutes.

As an aside, much of the technology as well as the concept of pan-European outsourcing created a template that led to the Airbus product line which today leads the world in producing civil airliners. The failure of the Mercure also contributed to the success of Airbus by demonstrating the need to create a platform that is flexible enough to cater to a wide range of different customer requirements. An expensive lesson, perhaps, but the versatility of the A320 is one of its greatest attributes, and didn’t come out of nowhere.

Seven Mercures are preserved to this day, six in France and one at the Technik Museum at Speyer in Germany, the highest percentage of any subsonic airliner of all time, reflecting its important role in aviation history and its popularity with the French public and aviation establishment.

A380 From the Cockpit: Learning to Fly a Behemoth

The Airbus A380 is the biggest airliner in the world and must surely represent the pinnacle of a pilot’s flying career? This was one of the questions I posed to Lufthansa’s two A380 chief training captains, Richard Lenz and Geert Pruess. “Absolutely!” they replied simultaneously, at the beginning of an exclusive interview I did with them for Aviation News magazine back in 2018.

All Lufthansa pilots start on short-haul sectors, which since the retirement of the last of the airline’s Boeing 737s in 2016, means flying the Airbus A320 series. Given the high cost of training a pilot on new hardware, Lufthansa pilots change type only once as a co-pilot and once as a captain in their career. That transition usually involves graduating from short haul A320 fleet to the long haul fleet to fly either the Airbus A330/A340, the Boeing 747-400/-8i, or the Airbus A380.

The carrier’s A380 fleet comprises 14 aircraft (albeit at least half will not be reactivated after the Coronavirus shutdown), which requires a pool of appropriately 380 pilots. As most sectors are long haul, they are operated by a captain and two first officers, to allow rest periods during the flight; therefore, the A380 pilot group is made up of around one-third captains and two-thirds first officers.

Half of those first officers are ranked as Senior First Officers and are designated as the acting pilot-in-command (PIC) while the captain is in the bunk for crew rest. Even the most junior pilot is expected to be able to operate and land the aircraft solo in the event of crew incapacitation. Training for the rank of Senior First Officer includes additional duties.

One of the signature achievements of Airbus is a common cockpit across the entire product range and using fly-by-wire technology to artificially iron out differences to give similar handling characteristics. This means pilots of all Airbus airliners from the A318 to A380, which are considered different types with different type-ratings, can fly them using Crew Cross Qualification (CCQ). Only a Differences course is required for a pilot to transition to a new variant, which in some cases can be just three days.

Any pilot who has flown an Airbus before will find themselves at home in the A380 cockpit. Traditionally the first step in learning to fly a new type would be in a procedural trainer, which dispenses with motion and visuals as an unnecessary expense and enables students to focus on the location of switches and buttons and their function inside the cockpit, and to learn the procedures and flows. Furthermore, on more modern types, a large amount of time is spent learning to navigate the flight management system (FMS) computers and their complex network of menus and functions.

However, at Lufthansa, so many pilots transition from other Airbus variants that these stages are unnecessary and the carrier operates just one Thales full-motion six-axis A380 simulator, located at the airline’s wholly-owned training subsidiary in Frankfurt. The simulator is a Class D, ‘Zero Time’ machine, so-called because pilots are not required to fly any hours in the real aircraft to obtain a typerating and be ready to fly with passengers aboard in normal line operations.

The syllabus has been created in tandem with Airbus and the German aviation authorities. After the equivalent of five days of self-study, there are two to three days of classroom instruction, covering aircraft systems, performance and operations. This is followed by sessions in the high-pressure environment of the simulator.

Each session lasts four hours and a typical pilot will be in the sim for four sessions to learn the skills required for his/her Basic Type Training (BTT). Further training is then conducted for Advanced Type Training (ATT), followed by three sessions for Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT), which aims to recreate real-life airline operations. Finally, there is an additional session to complete the course and be signed off to Zero Flight Time Training (ZFTT) level.

Lenz and Pruess were full of praise for the realism of the simulator, saying they could not tell the difference between the sim and the real aircraft. Lenz said: “The evolution that has taken place with the development of aircraft has been mirrored in simulation technology. Handling, motion, systems replication and visuals are all state-of-the-art.”

Pilots without any Airbus experience have an extra classroom day and two extra sessions in the simulator, mostly to learn the Airbus philosophy. This includes the computerised attenuation of control inputs that will stop the aircraft from exceeding the flight envelope. This system offers protection if a pilot inadvertently stalls the aircraft or banks it beyond a certain roll rateangle.

The maximum take-off weight for the A380s Lufthansa operates is 575 tonnes (and 394 tonnes for landing),including 509 passengers and 22 cabin crew.However, this enormous weight cannot be sensed, even when hand-flying the aircraft. “The A380 is extremely precise and incredibly agile,” said Lenz. The gigantic control surfaces on the wings and tail and the highly evolved fly-by-wire technology mean the A380 moves like a much smaller aircraft, and its mass is never apparent through the controls. The enormous wing – oversized to be future-proof for a once-possible stretched variant of the aircraft – results in a low wing loading compared with smaller machines such as the A321. In turn, this ensures the type has favourable handling characteristics and a relatively sedate landing speed, which is actually slower than the 747.

The A380’s main gear has 20 wheels on four trucks – inners have six wheels each, outers have four each – which spreads the weight and the energy needed to decelerate. Therefore, despite the weight and resultant momentum after touchdown, the A380 can stop on quite short runways, so Lufthansa crew are able to accept arrivals on the shortest runways at Houston Intercontinental (9,000ft/2,743m) and Los Angeles International (8,926ft/2,721m).

A system called Brake To Vacate controls the autobrakes after touchdown. It is programmed ahead of time with the taxiway turnoff that is desired, and will then apply smooth and uniform braking to bring the aircraft down to walking pace by the time it reaches that exit. This gives passengers a gentle end to their flight without the need for sudden high-energy braking. It also reduces brake temperatures and cooling times, which can mean a shorter turnaround.

Ground handling and other operational aspects of a large aircraft like the A380 comprise a sizeable chunk of the training programme. First, the large number of passengers aboard increases the chance a flight will require a medical diversion. Therefore, the importance of communications between the cabin and the flight deck, and between the aircraft and medical professionals on the ground, are emphasised.

This is important for a number of reasons – a medical diversion is expensive in terms of extra fuel and handling fees and also disruptive to operations as it means a late arrival at the final destination with inconvenienced passengers. At worst, it can result in a stranded aircraft and the need for hundreds of hotel rooms for passengers and aircrew. The A380 has specific issues with diversions. Aircraft are categorised according to their ground-handling requirements. The A380 is in a category shared only with the 747, known as Code F, characterised by a wingspan of more than 196ft 8in (60m) and a span between the outer main gear wheels of over 45ft 11in (14m). While gradually increasing, the number of Code F airfields globally is still limited. Lower-category airfields can accept an A380 in a true emergency, but important elements of the ground operation may be missing, such as taxiway width, parking space, de-icing capability, fuel availability, and steps high enough to reach the A380’s doors. In some cases, the size of the A380, especially its wingspan, means the presence of an A380 might close the airport.

With these factors in mind, a diversion has to be carefully planned in partnership with the team back in Frankfurt and, depending on the severity of the emergency, the diversion airfield has to be chosen with extreme care. The scale of the A380 operation, therefore, makes the captain not just a handling pilot but also a manager. 

The job of a Type Rating Instructor (TRI) is to train a pilots in the simulator and on the aircraft. A training sortie in a real A380 is required to qualify as a TRI. The A380 is flown to an airfield to perform circuits and touch-and-go landings. Additionally, an extra pilot rides in the observer’s jump-seat to monitor the overall operation of the flight. A quiet airfield is required for circuit training so as not to obstruct regular traffic due to the size of the A380. Airports that have been used for A380 training are Leipzig/Halle and Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden, the choice depending on weather and airfield activity on the day. Five circuits are usually required to release a TRI to the line. The fledgling TRI usually flies from the right (co-pilot) seat with either Lenz or Pruess in the left (captain’s) seat. This is because once a TRI is qualified, they will fly in the right-hand seat when reviewing a potential captain (command conversion normally requires 12 linesectors with a TRI in the right seat).

Lufthansa’s A380s fly to fewer destinations than any other type in the fleet (Beijing, Delhi, Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/JFK, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore, all non-stop from the airline’s Frankfurt base). One could assume this lack of variety would deter pilots from wanting to join the fleet. On the contrary, pilots are queuing up to do so, and the destinations, while relatively limited compared with the range of places A330s or 747s fly, are all attractive. The carrying capacity of the A380 means new routes are not easily changed, and seats are sold up to a year in advance. This gives stability to a pilot’s roster and helps achieve a favourable work-life balance.

So, what advice would Lufthansa’s two chief training captains offer a pilot about to start training on the A380? “Don’t try to compare. At the end of the day, it’s just an aeroplane. Fly it as you would any other. The flight instruments are still the same; no matter how advanced the technology may be behind the panel, or how big the aeroplane is behind you. Pitch and power equals performance, and take care of the speed.” 

That normal flight rules apply to such a monumental aircraft might be its designers’ and engineers’ greatest achievement.