Flying a TCA - Trans-Canada Air Lines Viscount Across the Atlantic
The Diary of a Viscount delivery flight from Hurn, England to Montreal, Canada
By Robert J Blackburn
Hurn, Bournemouth, Dorset, England, Wednesday, 9 March 1955, 1 pm - all is ready for the departure of 604 - or,
to give the aircraft her full title, Viscount type V.724 CF-TGL, first of her type to be built at Hurn. Ferry
604, our flight number, derives from Trans-Canada Air Lines practice of referring to aeroplanes by numbers rather
than letters. Their first, second and third Viscounts, built at Weybridge, Surrey, England and already delivered,
are 601, 602 and 603.
Preparing the Viscount for her transatlantic flight is, I find, only one aspect of the complicated process of
dispatching a new aircraft from factory to operator. The centre of all the activity is the pilots' office at Hurn,
presided over by Guy Morgan, the ex Supermarine pilot concerned with customer relations. Telephones ring constantly.
At frequent intervals a Heron or Dove arrives to unload pilots, passengers, documents and the latest news from
Wisley. Outside the office an assorted fleet of motor vehicles provides surface transport to all parts of the
sprawling Hurn works; within, a cheerful young Scotswoman miraculously combines secretarial efficiency with the
ability to produce cups of hot tea at all times.
Here I meet Bill Bird, TCA's contracts representative at Wisley, who has come to inspect and accept 604 on behalf
of his company and to check all the documents taken on the delivery flight or retained in England. The list is
formidable . . . acceptance certificate, Vickers approved certificate, aircraft receipt, certified paid invoice,
journey log book, flight manual, certificate of airworthiness, DOT form 2445, radio licence and inventory of
The proverbial fine-tooth-comb scrutiny of 604 finds no defect more serious than a dead battery for an emergency
light and a crinkle on one corner of the cabin floor-covering, so Bill takes a deep breath and signs away x
thousand dollars. Having accepted the aircraft he must now sign it back to Vickers-Armstrongs, for delivery
flights are the manufacturers' responsibility.
Officially, all of the seven people who embark in 604 are classed as crew-members, though two of us must admit to
supernumerary status. In command is Colin Allen, who joined Vickers' flight test staff from BEA - British European
Airways some three years ago. His co-pilot is Peter Marsh, a more recent recruit to Wisley and also ex BEA. There
are two navigator/radio-operators - Bill Bower and George Wood. Bill is yet a third ex BEA man, and George's
marked preference for comfortable, four-engined aircraft stems from some years of service in RAF Washington's. The
flight engineer is Bob Rampling, a veteran member of Vickers' aircrew staff with 2,800 test-flying hours in his
log-book. For Bob the transatlantic crossing is a new experience, but his colleagues have all participated in one
or other of previous Viscount deliveries. The supernumeraries are Willy Thomas, an electrical specialist on his
way to Winnipeg for liaison duties with TCA, and the writer.
We climb aboard the gleaming, silver-and-red aircraft, its flawless interior a reminder that 604 has flown not
quite 20 hours. The Darts are quickly started, and their kettle-whistle is the signal for a great deal of farewell
waving to 604 as she rolls majestically along the perimeter track. We reach the runway - and turn back, with a
faulty hydraulic-pressure gauge. Embarrassed, we disembark to smoke a disconsolate cigarette while the gauge is
rectified. An hour later we are really on our way - climbing at 180 kt indicated to join Airway Amber One at
The distance to Prestwick, Scotland, our first refuelling-point, is only 315 nautical miles, so it is not worth
going above 16,500ft. 604 reaches her cruising height in quarter of an hour to hum along in calm air at 280 kt.
Sunshine floods the cabin, empty but for four double chairs and a few packages, including personal luggage, a
ten-man life raft and minor spares for dispersal en route. The full seating for 40 passengers will not be fitted
until the aircraft reaches Canada, since the chairs used by TCA are of American manufacture.
Up front there is distinctly less room to spare. TCA's Viscounts are designed for two-crew operation, whereas we
shall have three or four hands on deck at all times. The left-hand seat will be occupied by either Colin or Peter,
who are flying alternate legs, with the duty radio operator on the right. Navigation is performed in the right-hand
freight compartment, situated immediately aft of the flight deck and temporarily equipped with a Loran scope, our
main aid to navigation on the over-ocean legs.
Prestwick, March 9th, 4.30 pm we reach Prestwick an hr after take-off, to be welcomed by TCA's station manager,
John Gilmore, who sees that 604's tanks are replenished with JP-4 and her galley loaded with ready-prepared meals
and fresh coffee for the crew. The met office gives us a reasonable forecast for Keflavik, Iceland, and as we
cannot force on to Bluie West, Greenland before daybreak there is time for dinner at the airport hotel before
We begin the 743 nautical miles stage to Keflavik at 6.22 p.m. Once again the air is smooth at our cruising height
- 24,000ft - and 604 is performing beautifully. Contrary to normal airline practice, TCA's advertising modestly
credits the Viscount 724 with a cruising speed of 322 mph, whereas George's calculations show that we have a true
airspeed, at normal cruising rpm (13,600), of 286 kt - 329 mph. But we are not going to set any records on this
leg, since a 60 kt beam wind is swinging round into a 50 kt component "on the nose". Loran provides us with all
the fixes we need, and London comes through on HF with the latest weather at Keflavik.
Half-way through our flight Aurora Borealis brings the sky to life; we are passing beneath an arch of dancing,
shimmering lemon-coloured light. The vision has faded when we reach our reporting point at Lax, 68 nautical miles
from Keflavik. There are scattered clouds 2,000ft above our destination, but visibility is 10-15 miles. We make a
visual approach and touch down on the 10,000ft plus runway 3 hrs after leaving Prestwick. 604 taxies to dispersal
through a maze of coloured lights and we step out on to wet tarmac. The night air is surprisingly mild: Iceland
proves to be several degrees warmer than Southern England. We enter the terminal, gasping slightly in its oven-like
atmosphere. Can this be Iceland? My doubts are dispelled by a notice reading: "Aircrews—have you reported your
Keflavik, March 14th, 12 noon GMT our fifth day in Iceland. Each morning we have risen early, eager to set off for
Greenland, only to be forced back into frustrated boredom by a gloomy shake of the weatherman's head. The entire
operation hinges on weather at Bluie West One. Flying direct to Goose Bay, Newfoundland 1,315 nautical miles from
Keflavik by great circle route, would be out of the question for medium-range aircraft such as our Viscount without
the guarantee of (a) headwinds of not more than 30 kt or so, and (b) "wide open" conditions at Goose; a diversion
to the nearest alternate (Sept-Îles/Seven Islands, Canada 286 nautical miles from Goose Bay) plus an hour's holding
would be stretching 604's endurance too far. This is a situation which underlines the difference between
theoretical still-air range and practical stage-length. One begins to realize why nobody has yet produced an
airliner capable of safe, regular operation from London to New York non-stop.
604 is not the only aircraft pinned to the apron at Keflavik by the strong winds and weather which have persisted
for the past five days. Two Yorks, notwithstanding their 12-hour endurance and 2,500 mile range, have also been
tied up here. True, one set out for Goose Bay on Saturday night, but it turned back when, off Greenland, headwinds
cut its ground-speed to about 100 kt.
Meanwhile 604's captain has been seeking permission to re-route the flight, if necessary, via Bluie West Eight,
otherwise Sondre Stromfjord, the U.S.A.F. base on the north-west coast of Greenland, which has better weather and
approaches than Bluie West One. Signals have flashed between Keflavik, London, Washington and Montreal and
diplomatic wheels have been set in motion. Authority is needed not only to land at Bluie West Eight but also to
uplift USAF fuel on the strength of a Shell credit card; "cash down" is the normal rule. So far as Bluie West One
is concerned we already hold such authority, but we think some days will elapse before the concession can be
extended to cover Bluie West Eight also. (Later we are to learn that permission arrives an hour after our departure
Over the past two or three days we have heard reports of heavy snow-falls at Bluie West One and the prospect of an
early move seemed remote when, yesterday morning, F/L Fred Diamont, who controls RCAF Sabre movements through
Keflavik, received a teleprinter signal forecasting that the airfield would be snowbound until Thursday or Friday
next. This morning, however, we learned with surprised pleasure that Bluie's runway is usable (though it offers
only "fair" braking conditions) and that good weather is forecast there for most of the day.
George and Bill, our navigators, have prepared their umpteenth flight plan since 604's arrival at Keflavik and now
the moment of departure is near. Navigationally, the Iceland-Greenland leg is the most difficult stage of the
journey. Loran coverage is poor in these latitudes and headwinds are likely to be both' strong and unpredictable.
Flight planning has been considerably simplified by the performance and consumption calculations worked out in
advance of transatlantic Viscount delivery flights by Vickers' analysts at Weybridge. The accuracy of these
figures, which were closely checked on the first two deliveries, may now be taken for granted.
An important part of flight planning is the selection of our cruising altitude. In still air it is always
desirable to fly at 24,000ft or above, except on very short stages, but we must take into account the possibility
of extreme disparity between the headwind components expected at high and medium levels respectively. To assist
them in making this decision, 604's navigators have been provided with a graph showing the ground nautical miles
flown per pound of fuel for any likely combination of headwind component and cruising height.
In the event of inability to land at Bluie West One, due to bad weather or some unforeseen factor, our alternate
will be Keflavik. It is necessary, therefore, to fix a critical point on the route at which sufficient fuel will
remain for an about-turn to Keflavik plus 2,000 lb for an hour's holding on our return. This critical point is
little short of our destination - provided that the decision to return is made before 604 begins her descent. Our
intention is to leave Bluie West One as soon as possible after refuelling, taking full advantage of the fair
weather while it lasts. The two Yorks have already set off for Goose Bay, naming Bluie as their alternate.
We take leave of Binnie Thorvaldson, TCA's station manager at Keflavik, and F/L Diamont - two people who have
done much to ease the burden of our enforced stay within the confines of this bleak airport - and thankfully
climb aboard 604. At 12.58 she is airborne, to climb swiftly through the thin overcast into the cold, clear
blueness which is the Viscount's element.
Navigation has its problems during the first part of the journey; our only fix is obtained from a single Loran
line crossed with back bearing from Keflavik range. We are unable to contact weather-ship Alpha, whose station
lies half-way between Iceland and Greenland. At the mid-point, however, George has established the wind at 24,090ft
as 105 kt from 260 degrees instead of the forecast 100 kt from 200 degrees. The Viscount alters course accordingly
and now communications begin to improve. Bill makes contact with London and Keflavik on HF and obtains the latest
forecast for Goose Bay; Loran is working nicely and we are relaying position reports for the two Yorks.
Greenland is visible 50 miles away and our position is easily pin-pointed as we cross the east coast and make for
Simiutak radio-range station. There is scarcely a cloud in the sky, so we would have no difficulty in letting
down over the mountains (which hem in Bluie West) instead of descending over the range and approaching via one of
the tortuous fjords which are the only means of entry in marginal weather conditions. But study of such terrain in
fine weather may pay dividends on future occasions so we descend to 1,000ft at Simiutak for a normal procedure
approach. 604 weaves her way above the deep blue water of the fjord towards the unseen runway ahead, great white
and brown masses of snow-covered rock mirrored in her gleaming wings. A thump and a rumble beneath her cabin floor
as the wheels snap into the airstream. One more gentle turn and the runway appears beyond the crust of ice which
fringes the end of the fjord.
Powdery snow and frozen slush prove a better landing surface than one would expect, and 604 rolls almost to a
standstill within half the runway's length. The flight from Keflavik, 804 nautical miles away via the fjord, has
taken 4 hr 12 min; headwinds, plus the let-down procedure, have subtracted a good deal from our cruising speed of
286 kt. We disembark in brilliant sunshine and snow glare and make for the weatherman's office, pausing only to pay
the $10 56c landing fee. Our flight-planning is well under way as the Yorks arrive at Bluie, having received ill
reports of Goose weather.
Bluie West One, March 14th, 7.20 pm GMT airborne for Goose Bay. The flight plan names Sept-Îles/Seven Islands as
our destination, but an improved forecast of 5,000ft cloud-base and 5-8 miles visibility at Goose allows us to
proceed as originally planned. Now the navigators can relax - Loran fixes all the way to the airways entry point at
Caplin, then along the range to Goose; HF contact with Goose, Gander, Shannon and London; cruising speed 280 kt at
16,000ft. A 70 kt headwind swings to 70 on the beam, slackening to 25 kt.
At dusk, the first faint glimpse of Labrador through milky cloud - a television-screen picture of straight roads
and patches of colourless forest against grey snow. Headwinds considered 604 reaches Goose in good time - 672
nautical miles in 3 hr 3 min.
Goose Bay, March 14th, 11.29 GMT 604 soars into the clear night air in a flurry of fine snow, which lies thick and
dry on the runway. Airways control has restricted us to 16,000ft on this 716 nautical mile last leg; perhaps the
RCAF's night fighters are at exercise. The headwind has dropped to 20 kt, and the air is smooth. Despite their
long duty day, 604's crew show no signs of fatigue, and one blesses the Dart turboprops which have carried us so
far in such comfort. Paradoxically, flying has been the least strenuous part of our journey. Patterns of gleaming
lights confirm the instruments' messages as we identify one radio range after another en route to Montreal.
Touch-down is at 2.18 am GMT on Tuesday, March 15th. We re-set our watches and it is Monday again.