First Flight on “November Alpha”

ABAP committee member Joel Kosminsky has written a book on his career with BOAC and subsequently British Airways.  The book still awaits publication but Joel has generously allowed us to publish the following chapter about his first ever flight on board a brand new 747-136.  It’s particularly poignant as BA has recently announced the withdrawal of its entire remaining 747 fleet, which has been a mainstay of the airline for so many years. Let’s look back to happier times with Joel’s article.

In September 1969, (writes Joel Kosminsky)  I joined BOAC by accident (a tale in itself) as a General Apprentice, the airline’s three-year management trainee scheme.  This was mostly showing us around the airline and all the great jobs we were unlikely to have.  For a London East End lad, still with a broad Cockney accent, whose boundaries were often defined by where London Transport’s buses ran, this was fabulous.  I spent two unforgettable months in the Control Centre at Hatton Cross, in transit through Reservations, Traffic, Cargo, Flight Operations, an outstation posting to Prestwick, and Marketing at Victoria Terminal.  While in Marketing, I learned about our classic ‘Earthshrinkers’ advertising campaign (another tale to share) but all that paled behind this…

Please excuse any technical inaccuracies – my 1970 awe may have let some misunderstandings gallop in.

Dancing with clouds

‘Steve’ Steven, Head of Control Centre, a decent bloke of happy memory, had a superb understanding of stroppy GAs.  He must have overheard me muttering that I’d been in BOAC over a year but hadn’t taken my first flight.  One afternoon, he called me over to his office, a desk behind one of the boards where we plotted the fleet movements.  “Are you doing anything on Saturday?”

Not an unusual question – Control was often short of staff due to leave or sickness, letting passing GAs be asked to cover work which couldn’t kill anyone.  I was free to tear off more messages from teleprinters – no money for these weekend extra hours, just time off in lieu.  “Can you be here at…”  Some awful early hour, but a ‘yes’ from me.

Steve’s next words floored me – “We’ve got a new 747 on a proving run.  Would you like to be on it?  I’ll take that gawp as a ‘yes’.  You’ll get lunch and a day to remember.”  Fifty years later, he is still right – I remember almost every moment.

On Saturday 14 November 1970, I was up early, washed and shaved, breakfasted and across London on my Honda 50, to work but released from uniform.  Up to Control, given a ticket (lovingly preserved, one of my most treasured BOAC souvenirs), after I’d signed my life away – if the plane crashed or if I was injured no claim on BOAC.  G-AWNA, ‘November Alpha’ sat gleaming outside Technical Block C, the new hangar built specially for 747s.  In land-person’s terms, the plane had little more than delivery miles on the clock from Boeing’s plant at Seattle.


G-AWNA at the eastern end of TBA –  Photo by courtesy of the British Airways Heritage Collection


Up the never-ending steps – no posh sheltered passenger gate, just a grubby flat-back lorry with an adjustable staircase.  Me and maybe twenty other staff, life and limbs signed away, with cameras and lunchboxes.  The grub was freshly made individual packs from Catering: proper sandwiches, salad, fresh fruit, soft drinks and other snacks.  To reach the stairs we had walked under the plane’s gigantic Pratt and Whitney engines, whose kit powered our planes until Rolls Royce could offer a power plant to lift these monsters.  I was already flying.

Into the plane, turning left into First Class.  Seats still had their plastic covers; paying passengers had never flown in this baby.  November Alpha smelled so different from other planes I had been on at Terminal Three’s aircraft stands while allocated to Traffic there.  Not of humanity, but of newness.  Of twenty-six million quid, then the going price of an ‘on-the-road’ 747.  We piled into where people would pay fortunes to travel, where the walls tapered inward to form the inside of the plane’s nose, and pairs of opulent seats gradually curved round to meet.

On the starboard side, the front-most seat was a single: row 1 seat J, which in service would become the most sought on our planes.  It would let famous people avoid being next to strangers – even in First Class hero worship and reflected glory lurked, but with posher accents and bigger wallets.  Business people who wanted to write papers, re-organise companies, plan take-overs, sack their best mates, also sat there as did government officials, desperate to stay anonymous.

Today, I was in First Class, sort of, 1J’s occupant, sampling the high life, only twenty feet off the ground.  Despite the million flown miles bet made a few months earlier with fellow GA Keith, I hadn’t yet drawn up a flight log.  Scraps of paper would start my flight records from today.

The tug pushed our plane back as we heard the big engines, each wide as a Trident’s fuselage, start up.  These bigger engines powering wide-bodied jets sounded very different as they began pumping; they whooshed with air being sucked in through the front end.  Engine 1, outermost port side started first as that also powered a compressor to generate on-board electricity and operate the air conditioning.  The ‘whoosh’ gave way to a small buzz: the most evocative sound, a swarm of bees approaching but never arriving.  Then engine 3, to balance out the gentle idling left hand thrust, 3 being the inboard starboard, nearest the fuselage on the right hand side.  Then engines two and finally four.  The swarms approached four times, as each engine reached a constant hum.  Later ‘high ratio by pass’ engine generations have lost these magic sounds; something has gone from flying without that ‘buzz’ telling passengers they’re on their way.  That start-up sequence no longer applies – two engines now start together then the other two – much quicker!

By now the crew had completed cockpit checks and all with four engines running, we needed Air Traffic Control clearance to cross the road, literally.  A through traffic route then sliced Hatton Cross in half, one of the world’s bigger level crossings.  The push-back tug separated from November Alpha with a small bump, letting us taxi into the airport under the plane’s considerable power.  Any individual engine of this type could alone fly a smaller, then conventional fully-loaded jet.

We crossed from the eastern side of Heathrow to the far end as that was the day’s take-off pattern.  I wanted to think the airport had paused to watch us – not many BOAC 747s then and our classy logo on the massive five floors tall tail would have reflected weak winter sun as we crossed the northern side of the airport.

We reached the Perry Oaks sewage farm, where Terminal Five is now, u-turning for take-off.  Our captain made brief announcements about strapping ourselves in or else, then applied thrust.

“This is it!”  I remember, just those three words.

I imagined two big hands in the cockpit, grasping the floor-based power levers, moving all four together, the captain’s right hand holding two and the First Officer’s left hand hauling on the other two.  Four engine swarms buzzed again, this time in real annoyance, louder and together.

November Alpha kicked at 10.40 GMT, flight BGF 4027 – BOAC training and special flights had separate numbering sequences – rolling toward the other end of two miles of tarmac, accelerating toward 120 miles an hour, take off speed in normal conditions.  What was normal now?  Faster and faster, details below blurring – I wasn’t looking at the sky.  Little bumps came from the undercarriage hiccupping over runway joints.  These became more frequent as the plane approached rotation speed, then stopped as the plane’s nose lifted.  The engines’ buzz went into descant, one hundred tons of monster lifted like a feather on a puff of wind.  The nose wheel swivelled up to lock in the bay below us, its doors closing as hydraulic rams sucked themselves dry.  Trailing-edge wing flaps cleaned up, retracting into their secret stash.  Clouds came down to meet us, the ground disappeared in a new colour of air.  For the first time, part of the sky was below me.

Above the grey-white mix, the rest of the sky was a blue I’d never seen.  The bees swarmed, then muted as the plane levelled out.  No-one else I knew, at home or in BOAC had been on a 747.  Both my grandfathers, one still alive, had been old enough to have known of man’s first acknowledged powered flight and one would have known the first moon landing.  But they had never done this.  The plane’s efficient shape was now providing lift, its engines pushing forward: lift plus thrust equals flight.  I was airborne.

The route was a test drive for November Alpha, but a joy-ride for me round the British Isles.  We had a planned touchdown at Prestwick (PIK), which despite worsening Atlantic weather was open.  Our plane danced with white irregular bubbles and billows of high-rise deceptively-placid cloud – inside those clouds were weather systems which could flatten anything.  We went higher to ride over the clouds, then after levelling out we were invited upstairs to the cockpit to see the new technology, the future.

Up the spiral stairs, to the upper deck First Class cabin, and the cockpit.  The upstairs passenger section was almost a small plane by itself, cosy and away from the bread and butter oiks below.  The bigger Economy cabins downstairs then had nine-across seating, laid out as twos beside starboard windows, banks of four in the middle and three more beside port windows.  Any Economy cabin sub-division could carry the load of a smaller plane, something between a regional jet like the BAC 1-11 up to the bigger Trident 3.  I knew we had empty seats on our VC10s and 707s – how would we fill 747s?  Not that I cared just then.

The cockpit was full of instruments, dials and switches – across pilots’ dashboards, the sloping ceiling and curved sides; uncountable gauges in neat rows and columns, mostly in basic black and white with some scary ones in deep red.  Most needles and digit counters were stable as we were in straight and level flight.  In front of each pilot was a summary set of dials and gauges, showing ground and air speed, height, the artificial horizon which indicated the plane’s attitude relative to the ground below and a thousand other things I didn’t know but which impressed like nothing I’d experienced before.

I wondered why no-one had a hand on the control columns, but too dumb-struck to ask.  Then someone mentioned ‘autopilot’.  747s had been born to fly themselves once airborne.  Before departure, the crew had punched in way-points to the plane’s inertial navigational system – three linked independent on-board computers.  As long as any two of the three agreed where the plane was, it flew on without any interference from its masters, even changing course by itself.

Impossible to hear the engines, over sixty feet away, below and behind.  Hardly a flight-related sound heard in that cockpit, other than crackling Air Traffic Control chatter through a plugged-in headset dangling over the Flight Engineer’s desk.  ‘Go on, listen in if you want…’  I didn’t need encouragement.  The sound of real-time controllers and pilots talking is like nothing else – clear crisp communication on a radio acoustic.  Every time I hear it my mind is on that first flight.  If this was what ‘work’ offered, yes please!  My previous ambition to drive red Routemaster buses for London Transport was vanishing fast.

The sky was clear and forever, next stop Jupiter.  Clouds passed by as we turned east from the Irish Sea, dipping and heading for PIK.  Then the weather turned – the airport never had fog but sea mist had rolled across the Ayrshire coast.  Back in our seats, we ploughed into lunch, having been told that PIK would be by-passed.  Our plane’s automatic landing equipment hadn’t been commissioned and visibility was too limited for a manual landing.  If we did land, November Alpha might not have take-off clearance until the mist rolled back, something not known to happen fast.

Our 747 returned to planned flight height, as we concentrated on lunch and wandering over this giant, taking photographs of everything.  Colour film was too expensive on a GA’s pay, so I was still on black-and-white, taking a lot of pictures.  The Chief 747 Pilot’s Office had a photo album of the fleet’s introduction; ‘Fluff’, the office secretary had said that any good pictures would be included; two of mine went in.

We looped across the middle of Scotland, down the East Coast of England then inland to the Heathrow approach pattern.  I have never been inside another plane so new, this was my ‘one-off’ of all time.

I landed about two hours after the plane did


G-AWNA about to cross Eastchurch Road, Hatton Cross, entering the BOAC maintenance base
Photo by courtesy of the British Airways Heritage Collection