Something special in the AAir. by David Hamilton.
Those of you who are seasoned travellers will recognise this as the slogan of American Airlines, but this is not a story about American but about an aircraft type that American once operated, namely the Lockheed L-188 Electra. My story instead concerns a small cargo airline based in Linz, Austria that is named after its founder, the airline being Amerer Air.
Amerer Air have a small but hard working fleet of 2 Electras and 1 Fokker F-27, all in the cargo configuration and our story concerns the latest acquisition, Electra OE-ILB, msn. 1039. She was originally built in 1959 for Ansett of New Zealand and was delivered to them on 27th February 1959 as an L-188A, she remained in this role until July 1972 when she was converted to a dedicated freighter and remained in service with Ansett until 1984. From there she travelled to the U.S. and was used by TPI International as N-356Q and under lease to Air Bridge and later as Hunting Cargo where she was seen throughout Europe. Returning to JBQ Aviation in the U.S. in 1996 and purchased by The First Security Bank of America in October 1996, Amerer air then leased her and ferried her to Austria where she underwent a "Heavy" check and modification to European standards.
ILB was on a sub contract to T.N.T. on their week-nightly flight from Belfast to Birmingham and Liege in Belgium and then returning by the same routing. I had admired the Electras lines and enjoyed seeing her take off in the evening sun on many occasions, and enquired with my friend and colleague, Bob Bowyer, who was also the Engineer in charge of the Electra at Belfast, if there would be a possibility of a "Ride on the Jumpseat" some evening, before the contract came to an end. Enquiries were made and a provisional date of July 6th was arranged. Unfortunately I was working overseas and on my return on the sixth I had to get the Jumpseat on the 737 to Belfast as the normal A321 was tech, thus delaying our departure from LHR by almost 1hour. As we approached Belfast I could see the Electra on the taxiway waiting to line up as we landed, so scratch one flight much to my disappointment. Bob was consulted once again and another date of July 13th was arranged time as was running out as the contract finished on the 16th and the a/c would be positioning back to Austria.
I duly arrived on the 13th evening around 7.15 and loading had already begun, with completion expected around 7.30. I found Bob who introduced me to the crew for tonight who were Captain Josef Maierhoffer, Co- pilot Johannes Berger and Flight Engineer Marcus Musner. We then proceeded out to the aircraft and Josef gave me a run down of the flightdeck and procedures in case of an emergency. The flightdeck was as it would have appeared in the 60s except for the addition of a GPS navigation aid system, which was used to store the "waypoints" for the various sectors and provided bearing and distance to go information. I joined Marcus for the final walkround and then boarded the a/c as the door was closed. Marcus took the Flt engineers position and I was in the "Jump seat" to his left, which afforded a fine panoramic position of the flightdeck and forward through the windows. At 7.45 "Nitro Twelve Yankee" - our flight No NTR12Y called Aldergrove tower for start clearance, which was duly received, and with the pre-start checklist completed No. 4 starter was engaged. In less than a minute the Allison engine was stabilised at low speed with an Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT) of 660c. Nos. 3,1 and 2 were then started, taxi clearance was given and with No 1+4 engines "upshifted" to high speed we taxied to the hold for runway 25. At the hold for 25 the other 2 engines were upshifted and with clearance given we proceeded onto the runway, the power levers were advanced to give 2500HP per engine at 13,700 rpm and an EGT of 890C, the brakes were released and we quickly gathered speed and rotated at 19.57with Johannes handling the aircraft. With clearance to 11,000ft we turned left onto a heading of 180 degrees and climbed at a leisurely 1100ft per minute, with a fine view of Lough Neagh on the right side. Marcus constantly monitored the engine instruments and made fine adjustments to the power levers to keep each engine at the same power setting and the EGT's equal "across the board". The power levers were all matched and level with each other, a credit to Bob and his team with their setting up and "rigging" of the engine fuel and controls.
After crossing the waypoint at Lisburn (LISBO) we were instructed to change heading to 120 degrees and climb to 19,000ft which was our cruising altitude, then contact Scottish control for the crossing of the Irish Sea. At 20.14 we reached the cruise level of 19.000ft and cruised at a sedate and leisurely 220kts. Across the Isle of Man and towards Liverpool. On reaching the next waypoint at Wallasey turn onto 150 degrees and contact Manchester control. Manchester was contacted and we received vectors towards and around the west of Manchester Airport which was clearly visible out the Port side of the aircraft. At 20.33 we were passed over to Birmingham control who took us west of BHX towards Coventry and started the descent on initial contact, with a descent rate of 1100 fpm the power levers were retarded and the EGT showed 590c. Coventry could be clearly seen and BHX instructed us to turn left onto 150 degrees and descend to 4000ft, airfield pressure at BHX was 1010mb and this was selected on the altimeters, 19.38 call to descend to 2500ft then turn onto heading 060 degrees. 19.40 turn left onto 360 degrees, establish on the ILS for runway 33 and contact BHX tower on "118.3".
With Birmingham contacted and clearance to land obtained, the speed was reduced to 165kts and the landing gear was selected down along with landing flap setting. There was a slight crosswind from 250 degrees at 5 Kt. but this made little difference to the smooth touchdown at 20.44, after "backtracking" on the runway we taxied to our parking spot on the west cargo apron, adjacent to the old terminal building and the engines were shut down, flight time calculated at 47 minutes which was entered in the a/c log.
The crew door was opened followed by the cargo door to the rear of the a/c and the cargo, contained on pallets was quickly unloaded. I took the opportunity to join Marcus on his walkround checks and as it was a fine evening I also availed of the photo opportunity to get some shots of the a/c in the setting sun and also of the crew. The new cargo was quickly loaded and the a/c refuelled to 10.000Lb (4540Kgs) outbound fuel. Marcus took the opportunity to explain how the engines work on the Electra, as they are different from most turboprops, the Allison 503 engine has 2 speeds - low for on the ground and high for takeoff and flight. On the ground the engines are typically developing around 800hp and when they are "Upshifted" to high speed they develop up to 2500hp each!! There are 2 points where the engine could runaway and catch fire and that is on start and when they are upshifted. Marcus monitors these points very closely and it takes a trained eye to catch a runaway before the engine would catch fire as on upshift the engine speed goes from 3500 to 13500rpm in less than 2 seconds. Once in high speed the engines remain at this speed and the throttles then control the Horsepower by demanding more fuel to increase the output torque at the propeller, thus the "thrust" is governed by the horsepower of the engines. An Airstart starts the engines, as the starter motors are driven by compressed air at around 40psi. The No. 4 engine is always started first as it has a 2 speed electrical generator that works on either high or low speed of that engine, all the others will only supply when the engine is upshifted to high power. With no.4 started the Airstart can be removed along with the Ground power unit and the engine upshifted to provide bleed air to start the other 3 engines. One thing to note about the Allisons is that they are extremely quiet both at idle and at take off power, something surprising, considering they are an "old " engine of the same era as the Rolls Royce Dart, which always seems to be a very noisy engine, especially at idle. It has been commented that the Dart is the only engine to make more noise at idle than when at full take off power!! Armed with my new knowledge we boarded ILB for the next leg of the trip to Liege in Belgium.
Birmingham tower was called for start clearance at 21.34 and clearance was given, the ground crew signalled to provide maximum pressure from the Airstart, and at 21.35 No.4 engine starter was engaged, a few seconds later the start was aborted as the Airstart had failed to provide sufficient pressure. The Servisair groundcrew were contacted and a new unit was sent for which arrived at 21.53. Once again we called for start and at 21.56 we had a successful start on the No.4 engine. By 22.00 all the engines were stable and we called for taxi clearance, we taxied to the hold for runway 33 and had to wait on landing traffic before "lining up". A KLM Uk Fokker 100 followed by a Sabena 146 landed and then we were cleared for take off. Lining up on the "Piano keys" the brakes were applied and the throttles advanced to take off power, the brakes released and once again we were off, this time with Josef doing the flying. Rotation occurred at 115 Kt. @22.06 and after an initial climb rate of 1800ft/min and landing gear retraction at 800ft, speed was maintained at 180kts and the climb rate reduced to 1100ft/min, followed by a right turn onto heading 180 degrees, and climb to 4000ft. At 22.10 Birmingham control cleared us to 14000ft and instructed us to contact London control, which we duly did.
London control advised us to climb to our cruise altitude of 19000ft; climb rate was adjusted to 1200ft/min with an airspeed of 200kts. London gave various heading changes but we maintained our height and arrived over central London at 22.26. then turned easterly onto a heading of 101 for beacon KOK, out along the Thames estuary and across the English Channel towards Belgium. Johan pointed out that although an autopilot was fitted, it was "u/s" at the moment as it was oscillating in pitch, a common problem on older autopilots caused by lack of a rate feedback signal in the pitch channel of the autopilot, so the aircraft had to be flown manually for all the sectors. At 22.39 we contacted Brussels control and were instructed to change heading for beacon GSY on 122 degrees. At 22.50 the descent was initialised and a descent rate of 800 ft/min at 240kts to 11000ft. The throttles were retarded to give 1500Hp and descent rate increased to 1200ft/min with an airspeed of 270kts. 22.58 and Brussels control instructed a descent to 8000ft and change heading to 072 for Liege, and contact Liege on 129.57. With Liege contacted we reported our position and gave our speed as 250kts @ 9000ft with descent approved to 6000, turning to 050 then at 23.06 to 030 we levelled off at 6000ft and throttled back to give 900hp on each engine.
Liege gave further successive headings of 340-280 and 260 degrees to put us on an intersection with the runway Instrument Landing System (ILS) and we were cleared to land on runway 23. With Localiser capture the approach checks were carried out and gear and flaps selected. Josef greased the Electra onto the runway at 23.21, giving a flight time of 1hour 22mins. We arrived on stand 46 and the engines were shut down. Marcus once again was first off to carry out a quick walkround check of the a/c, a few quick photos of the a/c then off to the TNT crew centre for "dinner" and a rest as we had 2 hours before our return journeys.
Liege is a small but extremely busy airport, especially at night. The only evidence of passenger traffic was a 737-300 of Virgin Express parked outside what can only be described as a "small" lounge, along with a handful of G.A. aircraft. When we arrived there were around 5 TNT 146s and 3 TNT 727s with an A.300 freighter of Channel Express, I would assume that there are around 50 stands available for the aircraft. The TNT crewroom was an extensive area and as the night progressed became quite full. There were crews from England, Spain, Germany, Iceland, Greece, Ireland, France and Belgium. The outward weather and our destination weather were checked on a monitor directly linked to the met centre, for up to the minute information. We then progressed to the canteen in the basement of the building and sampled the culinary delights of the Belgians - potato, vegetables and veal steak, followed by a pudding or fruit. This was charged by means of a "smart card" to the Amerer Air account. After an unhurried dinner we retired to the coffee lounge in the main area of the facility, where T.V. and coffee facilities awaited our use. As usual the late night telly was for insomniacs so I took the opportunity to discuss the flying careers of the crew before catching "forty winks".
Josef informed me that he was previously a medical instrument Service Engineer before learning to fly, he joined Amerer in 1996 and flew the F-27 before moving on to the Electra in February of this year. Johan originally started his flying career in 1992 as a student Pilot with Austrian Airlines, but the course was repeatedly put on hold throughout the training so he did not qualify until 1998, which was quite frustrating, after qualifying there were no jobs at Austrian so he joined Amerer in Aug' 98 and has been on the Electra ever since.
Marcus is also an Austrian Airlines ex. Employee and is currently in the Austrian army as an Engineer on the Bell 212. Helicopter, but works freelance as flight engineer on the Electra in his spare time. Everyone enjoys working with the L-188 and it appeared to me to be an easy aircraft to fly. Johan explained that she could be difficult to handle in high winds and that crosswind landings are especially difficult, but generally she is a good aircraft to fly.
After a short nap we were off again. Josef had checked the weather and finalised the flightplan so we proceeded back to the a/c. The ramp was now full of cargo a/c and a few passenger 737s that carry mail and small packages at night. Our load of 8.5 pallets giving 15 tonnes payload was in the final stages of loading, Marcus completed a detailed walkround while Josef and Johan completed the cockpit preparations and selected the correct flightplan on the GPS. At 02.00 we called Liege for start up approval on "Nitro 12 Lima" which was the flight No. for the return journeys, with clearance approved the mighty Allisons were once again started and at 02.07 we taxied for the hold of runway 23L. Lining up on the runway at 02.12 we were airborne less than 1 minute later with a 12-degree pitch angle and a rate of climb of 1200Ft/min. We contacted Brussels control and were directed onto a heading of 303 degrees to the "BUB" beacon then a slight change of course to 301 degrees and "COA", climbing out to a cruising altitude of 18000Ft which we reached at 02.34.
After reaching "COA" we routed direct to Honniley on a heading of 292 degrees and crossed over the English coast at Southend and passing to the East of Stansted, all clearly visible on the clear night that we had for flying. At 03.11 we contacted Birmingham control who instructed a descent to 8000ft, followed a few minutes later with clearance to 5000ft. and then 2000ft with handover to BHX tower. We reported that we were on a 6-mile final and BHX advised that the landing conditions were good visibility with 7kt wind at 240 degrees, almost a headwind on runway 23L. With clearance to land we touched down at 03.24 and taxied to the same stand as we had used earlier in the night. Flight time calculated at 1 hour and 11 minutes.
Again a quick turnaround thanks to the Servisair handlers and time for a coffee for the crew. By 04.10 we were set to start engines and at 04.15 we taxied for runway 23L once again. 04.20 seen us airborne and as we passed through 2000ft, instructed to call Manchester control, who gave clearance to climb to 18.000ft on a heading of 330 degrees. At 04.26 change of heading to 315 degrees to take us direct to the Isle of Man. Handing over to Scottish control at 04.47, 5 minutes later we were instructed to descend to 12.000ft and at this time of the morning the sun was starting to rise. As is the norm for the Irish sea there was a thick "fluffy" blanket of cloud but as the sun came closer to the horizon the cloud went a beautiful range of yellow through red to purple and was really beyond description. A great chance for a once in a lifetime shot out of the cabin window with the sunrise through the propellers, especially on this classic airliner. At 04.52 we received clearance to 4000ft and turned onto 312 degrees to intersect the "BEL". At 05.04 we turned onto 300 degrees and passed over Belfast Lough, then onto 280 degrees to intersect the Localiser for Belfast Aldergrove. BFS was contacted 6 miles out and we were cleared to land on runway 25, with windspeed of 10kts from 250degrees - straight down the nose. Once again another beautiful touchdown at 05.10 and on stand with engines shut down at 05.15. flight time of 50 minutes. Bob was there to meet the a/c and ensure that there were no technical problems, as usual with this great classic she behaved impeccably and performed her duties perfectly.
I would like to thank Bob for getting me the Jumpseat and also Josef, Johannes and Marcus for taking me along with them, also all at Amerer operations for arranging the Jumpseat and allowing me this insight into their smooth running operation. Thanks must also go to Mr J Roach and the staff of Air Letter/Turboprop Airliner production list for use of their publications in the history of ILB throughout her life and also to ILB for taking me on a trip of a lifetime, may your props keep turning for many more years!!!