A TRIBUTE TO MIKE LITHGOW

 

Back to Contents

 

A Debt Today’s Air Travellers Owe To Mike Lithgow.

 

By Jock Bryce - 23rd July 1978

 

This weekend, and every weekend over the summer, BAC 1-11 “bus stop jets” will be taking off from airports all over Britain bound for holiday destinations in Europe. None of the passengers will have a moment’s anxiety about the safety of the plane. Nor need they have. The 1-11 is one of the brilliant successes of British aviation. Yet a 1-11 did crash – and its test pilot and crew of six were killed. Their death was the price of safety for millions.


For many months, while I was still fully occupied with Brian Trubshaw on the VC-10 at our home base at Wisley, Mike Lithgow stood in for me as chief project pilot down at Hurn, where they were building the prototype BAC 1-11. Mike was a gentle giant of a man, an immaculate flyer, one of the two or three most experienced test pilots in Britain. He came from a flying family, his father having qualified as a pilot at Up Avon in 1913. He had joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 at the age of 19, and he had begun flying experimental aircraft in 1942. After the war he had set up a world air speed record in the Supermarine Swift, and had told his story of the pioneering high-speed flight in a book called Mach One. He had joined B.A.C. from Vickers-Supermarine on its formation in 1961.


It had been intended that I should do the first flight on the 1-11, but by this time Mike Lithgow had been working on the plane for 12 months, and I began to feel it might be unfair for me to take over. The cockpit layout had been his work, and although he continually kept me in the picture and asked my advice it was often little more than a gesture. Since he had done all the donkey work I began to feel rather embarrassed about the prospect of his having to play second fiddle. One day Mike rang me up “Sorry to worry you, but I want you to come down to Hurn to look at the mock up. I’m not sure if the high-pressure fuel cocks are in the right place.” Mike was just as well able to make this decision as I was, but he wanted to keep me up to date with progress, and this was one of his many ways to contributing to team spirit. In every organisation there are people who are keen to fight for power, or they take what advantage they can. Mike could have readily have taken advantage of my absorption with the VC-10. He could have easily said – why shouldn’t I do the first flight myself? What’s Jock Bryce done? Indeed, when I got down to Hurn I told him I thought he ought to do it. I would simply go along as his No. 2. "Not on your life,” said Mike. “I’ve never done a first flight in a big aeroplane. I’ll keep your seat warm for you, but you’ll fly it on the day and I’ll come along as your second pilot.” Whenever I went down to Hurn to discuss progress with Mike, we always had dinner at a local hotel and cracked a bottle of claret. That evening I told Mike how much I appreciated his attitude. “Look here, Jock,” he said, “whatever else you may think of me, I’m not a prima donna. So never apologise to me about this first flight. I’m delighted to be coming along with you.”

WHITE HOPE

The BAC 1-11, described as the “bus-stop jet” because of its suitability for short-haul work, was regarded at the white hope of British aviation. We already had orders for 60 of them, including 15 in America, and the plane hadn’t yet flown. We were way out in front of any rival, and the Douglas DC-9, a similar type of aircraft, was more than a year and a half behind us and more costly. When, in August 1963, it was announced that the first flight of the 1-11 was imminent, public interest was stimulated. The atmosphere at any airfield is always one of growing tension and excitement as the first flight draws near. Technicians are working all night under floodlights, the airfield never sleeps. But previously we had always operated from our own private airfield at Brooklands or Wisley. A first flight from a busy civil airport presented fresh problems. The morning newspapers of August 20 1963 carried the story that we intended to fly that day, and Hurn airport was besieged by holiday makers from nearby Christchurch, Boscombe and Bournemouth. Thousands of them crowded round the perimeter, among them many hundreds of schoolboys and the airport constabulary were over whelmed. The first time we went out to the plane we were besieged by the Press, and even the public could not be held back. At Weybridge, for the VC-10, every man in the factory had been allowed to leave his work to watch the take-off, and that had been nerve-racking enough but the idea of a first flight with an audience of thousands appalled me. We forced our way through a crowd reminiscent of a charity film premier in Leicester Square. People were slapping on the back and firing questions at us all the way. “What are you going to do, Jock?” We had no breath to answer as we ploughed our way through.

NO CONCERN

I carried out the procedure as I had with the VC-10, accelerating down the runway to 100 knots to assess the steering and brakes and check that the rudder and elevators were biting. Each time we had to wait for the brakes to cool off. As I taxied back after the second run I saw a private car attempting to cross the perimeter track in front of me. I stepped on the brakes, afraid of a collision that would perhaps damage the plane and very probably kill the car driver, but the driver himself, showing no concern, stopped his car right in my path. He then got out, checked his light meter, focused his camera, and took a picture. He then got back in his car and drove off. We were delayed by thunderstorms, as well as by crowds and intrepid photographers, and by the time we were ready for our third and final run – the run at the end of which I intended to get airborne – it was early evening and there was not enough daylight left for a full test programme. Mike Lithgow and I were on getting jaded, and I was on the point of suggesting that we pack up for the day. “Look,” I said to our managing director, Sir George Edwards, “I’m not going to blow my top about these crowds, or let it upset me, but why don’t we announce that we’re going to fly the plane at 12 o’clock tomorrow and then nip down here early in the morning and fly it at 7?” “I know how you feel,” said Sir George, “and the company owes you an apology. We’d better get hold of Gardner.” That was Charles Gardner, head of B.A.C. public relations. I told him my suggestion, and he reacted strongly. “You can’t do that, Jock – not to the press boys. Our name would stink in Fleet Street. You mustn’t fool them like that.”

PSYCHOLOGY

So we left the office and again made our way to the plane. This time we walked through the back of the hangar and approached the plane through a thicket, avoiding the bulk of the crowd. We crossed the perimeter track and entered the plane. Just before I sat in the left-hand seat I told the engineers to take away my parachute and bring me a cushion. This habit of mine of not wearing a parachute on a first flight was a part of the mystique that had been handed to me by the legendary Mutt Summers, my predecessor as chief test pilot with Vickers-Armstrong – in brief the psychology was that wearing a parachute might lead to a premature bale-out and the avoidable loss of a prototype. I had never done a first flight with Mike Lithgow, and this was something I had never discussed with him. “My dear Jock, what are you doing?” “It’s a fad of mine,” I said “I never wear a parachute on a first flight. But I expect everyone else to. Don’t you take the slightest notice of me.” When we went through our checks we found we had brake trouble on the starboard side. This caused further delay, but at last, at 19.44, with Mike pushing open the throttles and shouting the speeds, we accelerated down the runway. There was a huge rainbow at the end of the runway, and we took off straight into it. So the omens looked good.
In the previous weeks, building up to this moment, we had played a lot of kitty pontoon after dinner in our hotel. We played for what we called brown jobs, green jobs and blue jobs – 10/-, £1 and £5 notes. The ten-shilling note was still in circulation at that time. I don’t usually gamble, but some nights I would lose a few pounds, others I might win a few pounds.

LAST PENNY

Arthur Summers, the director in charge at Hurn (no relation to Mutt) had a saying when he thought he had an unbeatable hand – “I’ll go the pot”. Now, after we had been flying for about 20 minutes and had done the entire test we intended to do that evening, I called up on the company frequency and asked for Summers. “Mr. Summers,” I said, “I’ll go the pot.” That was what I thought of the BAC 1-11. I would put my last penny on her. But my broad Scots accent caused a misunderstanding and they thought I said “I’m going to abort.” There was panic for a moment or two until I explained what I meant. We came in and landed safely just before the light began to fail, and at nine o’clock, when we were on our way to the mess at Hurn for a celebration, Charles Gardner intercepted us. “I’ve got all these people in the Press tent,” he said “and they won’t leave until you’ve given them an interview.” Having been plagued by the Press and their photographers since seven o’clock that morning, I was in no mood to give interviews and I said no. “Do me a favour,” said Gardner, “just come in for 10 minutes, they’re only doing their job, and they’ve had a tough day too.” Mike and I stood on the platform and they threw questions at us. “Why didn’t you pull the undercarriage up?” asked someone. The answer was that we never did on the first flight in case it gave us trouble, and I was just about to say this when Mike went one better. “Too many Press people about,” he said, “Bloody thing might not come down again.” At the end of the questioning, much to our surprise and pleasure, the hard bitten Press boys gave us a round of applause. We walked down to the B.A.C. cocktail party with our feet hardly touching the ground. A fortnight later we flew the 1-11 to Wisley, and then we began our long and exhaustive test programme. I did the first two or three flights, and then Mike and I took turns as first and second pilots, both of us flying on every occasion. The aeroplanes characteristics gave us such confidence that after flying less than 50 hours we allowed several airline pilots to come and get the feel of it. Ten weeks after the first flight of the 1-11, on flight 47, we began the stalling programme, probing the handling characteristics at the point of stall and establishing the precise stalling speeds at various centres of gravity. One of the first things I had done on Flight No. 2 had been to pull the plane back near the stall, to check whether I had the take-off and landing speeds approximately right, but at that stage one wouldn’t think of going beyond that. Now we had reached the logical stage in the test programme at which these extreme characteristics had to be explored. When one takes off in a conventional aeroplane one accelerates down the runway until one has sufficient airflow over the wings to make the lift exceed the total weight. The airplane will then fly. Stalling the aeroplane is the reverse process – one allows the plane to decelerate until it falls to a speed at which the lift is less than the weight. The plane than stalls and then drops its nose building up speed again until it un-stalls of its own accord.

UNPLEASANT

Airline pilots don’t have to do this, but test pilots do, because the entire performance of the airplane – take-off, landing and manoeuvring speeds – are a function of the stall speed. They also have to find out whether the aeroplane has any unpleasant or vicious tendencies near the stall. I flew the plane on Flight 47; Mike flew it on Flight 48. Between us we about 18 stalls, flap up, flaps down, power on, power off. Having found out something about the stalling characteristics we then had to check the speeds against some outside measurements – our own speed indicators were apt to be affected by local turbulence. This was done on Flight 48 by trailing instruments behind the plane. We were careful not to reduce speed any further than on Flight 47 in case the aircraft misbehaved: we didn’t want to wrap these instruments round the airframe. The next flight - No. 49 – was the only flight I hadn’t gone on up to that time. I had never seen the   1-11 fly. I was anxious to do so, and I felt in any case it was time we gave one of our other test pilots a ride in the second pilot’s seat. It was part of our plan to build up a project team of the 1-11 pilots, since we were not just starting with a single prototype, as so often in the past; we were starting with a production line and treating the first four or five finished aircraft as prototypes. Otherwise there would have been too long a gap between prototype and production line The obvious choice to take my place was Dickie Rymer, ex-RAF and chief training captain with British European Airways before joining BAC; Dickie had done all the ground work with Mike Lithgow while I was preoccupied with the VC-10. On Monday October 21, 1963 Mike and I carried out Flights 50, 51 and 52, sharing the flying each time. We had now done more than 40 stalls on the type, and we were moving the centre of gravity on each flight, so as to get a complete record throughout the centre of gravity range. For flight 53, which we were to fly on Tuesday the 22nd, the centre of gravity was moved further aft.

BITTER BLOW

On that Monday, October 21, Sir George Edwards had returned from a trip to Canada with disturbing news. He had gone there to negotiate the sale of BAC 1-11’s to Trans-Canada Airlines, company with whom we had had a close association for some years. They had previously bought the Viscount and the Vanguard, and we had been convinced that the 1-11 fitted their requirements and they would buy that as well. It was a bitter blow to Sir George to find when he got to Canada that T.C.A. had turned against the 1-11 and were ordering the American DC-9. He came back determined to find out where we’d gone wrong. Tuesday morning was the time of our weekly test flight conference. The airplane would not be ready until later that morning, and I sitting at the conference table in the design office with Mike Lithgow, Dickie Rymer and the rest of the flight crews assigned to the 1-11, telling Basil Stevenson, the chief designer, and his staff of our experience on the stall programme in the previous week and outlining our plans up to the following Monday. We had a full and exacting week ahead of us. While we were talking however Sir George was organising a meeting of his department heads for  a post-mortem on why we had lost the T.C.A. order, to see if there was anyway of pulling it out of the fire. At about 9.30 we got a message that Stevenson and Bryce were wanted in his office at 10.30. With most people I would have excused myself and explained I was flying later that morning, but not with the Managing Director. Mike Lithgow would fly the plane, with Dickie Rymer as second pilot. It would be only the second flight I had missed. At about 10.15 Basil Stevenson nodded to me and we left them to it in the design office and headed for the main building, “Have a good trip Mike,” I said as I left. “Don’t pull the stick too far.” It was not meant as any kind of warning – it was just one of those things one says. The meeting in Sir George’s office was a high-powered one dealing mostly with technical progress, and there was not much I could contribute to it. It lasted the rest of the morning. Soon after it started I heard the 1-11 take off. At about 12.15 a secretary came in and whispered to me that there was a phone call for me from Wisley; Brian Trubshaw wanted to speak to me. No one interrupted an Edwards meeting unless they had to. So I knew it must be something important. But I had no premonitions whatever as I picked up the phone. “You’d better get across here quickly,” said Brian, “I think we’ve lost the 1-11.” I went back into Sir George’s office and told him what Brian had said, parrot-fashion. My brain hadn’t yet properly absorbed it. I left without waiting for a reply. I reached my office at Wisley at 12.30. Brian, then chief test pilot at Weybridge, was sitting there with one or two others and the phones were buzzing. They’d had two reports, one from a Boscombe Down test pilot, and the other from a Farnborough test pilot. One had seen the 1-11 go in; the other had seen it on fire on the ground. Neither witness had seen any of the crew get out. Boscombe Down had sent a helicopter, and as I arrived the pilot’s report was coming through. It was the 1-11 all right. It was in a field near Chicklade, south of Warminster. The clamour of the telephones intensified. Fleet Street were asking for information. All I could think of was that we had to tell those seven girls, the wives of the crew, before they heard it on the one o’clock news. But what could we tell them, since we had no definite news of the crew? I knew we couldn’t telephone them – we would have to go and see them. I arranged for each of the wives to have an individual visitor and meanwhile, I pressed for further information on the casualties. I had had no more when I heard the crash announced on the one o’clock news.

DREADED

By 1.15 I had received the confirmation I dreaded – that all seven of the crew had been killed. When I rang Sir George Edwards I only got one sentence from him. “Never mind the plane,” he said, “look after those girls.” By five o’clock, after one of the most distressing afternoons of my life, I was called to Sir George’s office. There I found Lord Portal, chairman of B.A.C. Here it comes I thought, the question I can’t answer: How was it that we’d lost the pricelessly important prototype? At these times one cannot avoid a sense of guilt, a feeling that because of some personal inadequacy one is going to be on the mat. “This is very bad luck Bryce.” “Yes, Sir.” "Have a seat.” He pulled out a sheet of foolscap paper. Now would come the questions. But they weren’t the ones I was expecting. The chairman was not at all interested in details of the crash, not at this stage. He wanted me to tell him all I knew about Mike Lithgow, Dickie Rymer, and the technical crew. When it came to the crew, my knowledge was sketchy and I couldn’t answer in much detail. I was told to get someone who could. This was the attitude right through the company. It wasn’t until every urgent task that could be taken for the families had been envisaged and accomplished that the interest in why the airplane had crashed was allowed to take over. The crash recorder had meanwhile been recovered and it was analysed the following afternoon. It gave us 90 per cent of the story. Mike had gone into the stall in exactly the same way as we had done in all our 40-odd stalls together. He had begun at a speed one and one third times the stalling speed and then decelerated at one knot per second until the “G” meter, the instrument that records the amount of lift being generated by the airflow over the wings, read 1. The lift was then equal to the weight. At this point, just before the G-break, the 1-11 was docile. Now, as he eased the stick back, and pulled the nose up still further, Mike was noting dozens of facets of the airplanes performance, assessing such things a natural buffet, engine performance, system malfunctioning, and the effectiveness of the flying controls – whether it was necessary to apply more rudder than expected, how much elevator he was using, how effective were the ailerons.

PLAGUED

Most these reactions can be estimated in the wind tunnel on the ground, but it simply isn’t possible to be precisely certain about them all. That’s what test pilots are for. Soon the moment would come when the lift would no longer support the airplane’s weight. Gravity would then take over. At this point the airplane sinks, the nose pitches down, and it picks up speed and unstalls with the minimum of action by the pilot. On the previous flight I had been plagued at this point by wing drop; before the point was reached at which the nose would sink, I had dropped a wing. For this flight, an additional control which was fitted to operate a pair of spoiler or air brakes on the wings had been altered slightly to give a sharper lateral control. Thus Mike was able to cope with this wing drop and bring the plane further back into the stall than ever before. The 1-11 was now flying below at stalling speed, tilted at 25 degrees above the horizontal – nose up – with 16,000 feet below it in which to recover from any loss of control that might result from the stall. And as Mike further reduced the speed, the lift decreased until the airplane began to sink rapidly. It did not pitch forward on its nose, as had been expected, but continued to sink in its stalling attitude, nose tilted slightly upwards, falling steeply out of the sky. Perhaps for two seconds Mike must have paused puzzled but not yet alarmed, his senses fully alerted, noting in his mind the exact situation so that he would be able to describe it fully and contribute intelligently to the subsequent analysis on the ground.

NO RESPONSE

It was some sort of phenomenon, something he had never experienced before, and he gave himself those two seconds to muster all the symptoms and file them in his brain. During that tiny space of elapsed time the plane fell over 300 feet. That meant a rate of descent of 10,000 feet per minute. It was time to take recovery action. He pushed the stick forward, but there was no response. He pulled up the flaps and banked the airplane steeply, first the starboard, then to port, then to starboard again, pushing all the time on the elevators. The nose tilted, forward very slightly, but the airplane still continued to fall at a steep angle, virtually straight out of the sky. The angle at which the airplane was descending meant that the mainplane was acting as a wind-breaker shielding and blanketing the tailplane and starving it of airflow, so the elevators had nothing to bite into but disturbed, turbulent air. For 30 seconds Mike struggled with the controls trying to yaw the airplane violently, manoeuvring it into a position from which recovery might be possible. But rudder and ailerons were of no avail, he could still get no response from the elevators, and the airplane continued to drop at the same steep angle. There was enough airflow coming up under the tailplane from the downward velocity to blow the elevators fully up and keep them there. The airplane was locked in a stable stall. They were below 10,000 feet now, but there could be no question of abandoning the airplane until all possibilities of recovery had been explored. There was one more chance – the application of full power. For the next 15 seconds Mike held the throttles wide open. The only result was a rapid pitch up of the nose, causing him eventually to pull off the power. All the engine power available couldn’t do more than reduce the rate of descent. It could never effect recovery – the drag would remain greater than the thrust. When something goes irrevocably wrong in a prototype airplane you can’t just jump out of the thing immediately. You have to stay there at least long enough to be able to give coherent account of the situation you are abandoning. In the stalling attitude, the BAC 1-11’s “T-Tail” – a design in which the tailplane and the elevators are right on top of the vertical fin – had helped to create an aerodynamic phenomenon which Mike didn’t understand, which no pilot in the world, at that particular moment in man’s knowledge of flight, could have understood fully. By the time he realised that he was a prisoner of a lethal situation, one over which he as the pilot could exert no influence, it was too late to do anything about it, and too late to get out. Mike and his crew hit the ground from 16,000 feet in 90 seconds. Even if the situation had been a known one, easy to recognise, there would have been little enough time to get out But test pilots in any case tend to hang on too long. Pete Lawrence, testing the Javelin, baled out so low that he was killed. Spud Murphy, in the Victor, didn’t get out until he was down to less than 300 feet. This is the dedication to test flying. You can’t work on an airplane for four years, pilot it on its maiden flight, and see it taking shape on the production line, without having some depth of feeling for it, not as an inanimate thing but as an achievement of men’s minds, the minds of the men you work with. That’s why test pilots tend to hang on too long. The BAC 1-11, as a civilian aircraft, had no ejector seats. Two emergency means of escape had been provided, but by the time Mike and his crew realised their situation it was too late to use them successfully. The explosive bolts in the forward escape exit had been fired, but no-one got out. With the benefit of experience, a tragic experience that had cost 7 lives, we went to work on redesigning the 1-11 to eliminate its defects. First there was a thorough investigation; all the wind tunnel work was gone through again, models were built and launched from helicopters in various flying attitudes and everything was done to make sure we had a stepping stone between the theory of wind tunnel work and the practise of flight. The leading-edge of the wing was modified, causing the wing root to stall more fully, ensuring that when we repeated the stall tests the airplane would develop a pronounced nose-drop. The original elevators were discarded and a new powered system designed. We did over a thousand stalls on the modified plane, and today the stalling characteristics of the 1-11 are as good, as or better than any other passenger aircraft in the world. As he steps aboard a 1-11 for his holiday flight to the sunshine today’s air traveller can be confident that he is flying in a completely safe and reliable aircraft. That is how he benefits from the dedication of men like Mike Lithgow and his crew. Commercial consideration might have been better served by keeping the fresh knowledge we had gained through Mike Lithgow’s death to ourselves. Human considerations demanded otherwise. One of the first things Sir George Edwards did when he knew the facts was to send Ken Lawson, our chief aerodynamicist, to America with Brian Trubshaw, to show the three companies working on similar types of design – Douglas with their DC-9, Boeing with their 727, Lockheed with their C-141 – all that we had discovered from the accident recorder and from our subsequent wind tunnel work, and what we were doing to eliminate the fault. This undoubtedly saved the loss of further lives.

FORBIDDEN

Two months later almost to the day, I flew the second 1-11 for the first time. There was no question yet of repeating the stall manoeuvres - indeed I was expressly forbidden to do so. We knew where the fault was, but we hadn’t yet corrected it. We tried to discourage any melodrama about the rebirth; that we felt, would have been in the worst possible taste. It was just a professional job of work, and I tried to approach it as such. The press and the public were kept away from the airfield, and we got down to the business of getting the airplane right and making it a success. That was the best tribute we could pay to the men who died. Inevitably news of the flight leaked out and when I landed I was asked to speak to the Press. I refused, and told the P.R.O. to play it off the cuff. The result was a report saying: “We’re back in business”. It wasn’t a bad summing up, but in fact I had said nothing. I had been thinking of Mike, Dickie Rymer and the rest of the crew, and I couldn’t have found anything to say if I’d tried.

 

THE END

 

Back to Contents