The Life And Times of Boeing 707-338C A20-627, nee VH-EAG.


 

Prior to being transferred to the RAAF register in March 1979 as A20-627 this Boeing 707-338C flew in Qantas livery as VH-EAG. She clocked up a lot of history in her 40 year life after leaving the production line in April 1968, originally going on to the Qantas register as 'City of  Hobart'.

Planning Notice XP.098/68 dated 9 May 1968 covered its delivery flight under the command of Captain Fred Fox. On the 11 June 1968, with Dave Harden in command she was the first Boeing 707 to land at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport, operating a series of local promotional flights before the Terminal was even commissioned.

She flew her first commercial service on the 23 June 1968 when she departed Sydney at 0800 for Brisbane, Auckland and return to Sydney.

VH-EAG was renamed 'Alice Springs' in February 1974, and later that year operated two Cyclone Tracey relief flights with 271 and 226 evacuees on board respectively. Not bad for a Boeing 707 when it was normally configured to seat 20 First Class and 120 Economy Class passengers!

VH-EAG operated the last Qantas Boeing 707-338C service through Brisbane as QF 95/96 flying Sydney - Brisbane - Port Moresby - Brisbane - Sydney on 2 February 1979. It also flew an Antarctica Scenic Flight from Adelaide to Adelaide later the same month, before being utilised by the airline to operated its final Boeing 707 service to Christchurch in March 1979.

On 25 March 1979 with Captain Phil Oakley as Pilot-In-Command and Geoff Molloy on board she operated the last Qantas scheduled Boeing 707 service. Fittingly it would be to Auckland, which hosted her maiden scheduled service on 23 June 1968. Wearing the special titles “Last flight, March 1979. Over 300 million miles by the Qantas B707 Fleet” written on the fuselage above the cheat line this was the only acknowledgement given to this historic flight.

The following day a special 'enthusiasts flight' was carried out from Sydney and this was supposed to have been her last flight with the company. However an additional 'emergency' flight was carried out on 26 March 1979 when she operated Qantas Flight 16 Sydney - Melbourne carrying 104 passengers that had been stranded in Sydney due to an Air Traffic Controller's strike. The return flight to Sydney as QF16P had 4 passengers on board, also casualties of the ATC strike. They were British Airways staff!

Four days later she was removed from the Qantas Register having completed 14,498 landings. Happily the same number of take-offs had also been recorded.

VH-EAG acquired a transitional livery on her transfer to the RAAF as A20-627. This involved the removal of the Qantas titles and the repainting of the aircraft's fin and rudder into an all-red livery. The Royal Australian Air Force roundels were applied to the forward fuselage before the aircraft was deployed for RAAF pilot training duties.

This aircraft and three other ex Qantas airframes that were acquired by the RAAF were later converted to dual role tanker/transports by Israeli Aircraft Industries and Hawker de Havilland.

I last flew on VH-EAG, from Learmonth to Pearce in 1999, on the flight deck with about 150 thirsty members of the Pilbara Regiment keeping the cabin crew busy in the all Economy cabin. She’d been fitted with rear looking CCTV cameras, mounted under the fuselage on the centreline, and this provided an unusual view of the takeoff. It was a Sunday and Pearce Tower and Approach were unmanned.

Based on the forecast supplied at Learmonth the crew had set up for a left handed circuit at Pearce with a final approach towards the north for Runway 36R.

We were setting up to join what we thought was the downwind leg of the circuit, probably about 5nm north west of the airfield, at about 3000 feet when the crew noticed that the smoke from a couple of scrub fires in the area indicated a pretty strong contrary wind to that which had been forecast.

The crew decided to attempt an approach on the reciprocal runway from their present position and there was about 5 minutes of purposeful activity as checklists were completed, the aircraft slowed, flaps and gear extended and the mandatory radio broadcasts made advising of the change of plan. After a pretty steep approach we landed without incident.

 

As the RAAF Boeing 707s and I approached our 'use by' dates, whenever one was scheduled through Pearce, I'd excuse myself on some pretext or another, take a ground to air radio, borrow a company car and head for the upwind threshold.

I would let the Tower staff know where I'd be and the would advise the crew when clearing the aircraft to land. I would park about 70m away from the runway centreline, just off the runway strip and wait.

There was never a problem spotting the airplane. The purple/brown smudge was always a giveaway, even at 10 nm. She seemed to arrive with a rush, accompanied by the usual high pitched compressor noise, and even on a trailing throttle, the noise was appalling.

Now and again a gloved hand would wave quickly through the captain's window and then she'd be gone, pitching up in the flare, rudder flicking as the pilot corrected the drift, and there'd be the usual puff of blue smoke as the main gear touched the runway.

I'd return to the office to good natured jokes about ancient airframes and Ops Managers, and for a while all was well with the world.

She and her three ex Qantas sisters and the two non Qantas aircraft (ex Saudi Arabian) were much loved old airplanes when the last was finally retired, pending delivery of the new MRTT based on the A330 platform.

The last 707, the one thousand and eleventh including variants, rolled off the Renton production line in 1991 after a production run of about 35 years.

In 1952 Bill Allen, then Boeing's CEO, 'bet the farm' on the aircraft's commercial and military appeal, going into production with a very skinny order book. The 367-80 prototype, so named to throw Douglas off the scent, and later simply referred to as the 'Dash 80' and now housed an the Smithsonian Institute, first flew in 1954, with Boeing's test pilot Tex Johnson in command.

Johnson, who preferred 'Tex' to his birth name Alvin for obvious reasons. He used to buy a new pair of hand tooled leather boots at the beginning of each new airplan's test flying program, and so it was with the 'Dash 80'.

On the 7 August 1955 Bill Allen was hosting a party of Airline CEOs, all identified as prospective customers, on the corporate boat on Lake Washington, while they watched the power boat races and waited for the Dash 80 to fly past.

Johnson approached the lake at about 400 feet AGL and around 400 knots. On the water Allen beamed at his guests.

Level with the boat the aircraft suddenly pitched steeply nose up as Johnson began the first of two unauthorised barrel rolls. History doesn't record Bill Allen's comments at the time, nor the content of his interview with Johnson the following day, although Johnson in his commentary on the grainy old video footage infers that Allen was more philosophical than others have suggested.

 

Johnson sounds and looks like Jimmy Stewart, and the video's worth a look too, on YouTube  at  

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ra_khhzuFlE

 

In an interesting corollary to this story, test pilot John Cashman who flew the bugs out of the Boeing 777 was told by the then Boeing CEO, just prior his first flight in the type 'No barrel rolls …'

The only other large commercial aircraft known to have been barrel rolled was the Concorde, many times, during its test program.

Johnson maintained throughout, that the barrel roll as distinct from an aileron roll, had allowed him to keep the airplane in positive G conditions throughout the manoeuvre, and there was never any question of interrupting the fuel delivery to the engines. A gutsy call!

The test flying program was uneventful apart from an incident where all the main landing gear brakes failed causing the aircraft to leave the runway on one occasion, and another where the port landing gear collapsed.

I've been a 707 “groupie” for a long time. I suppose it's part nostalgia and part a simple admiration for a marvellous machine.

Like many of you I had my first Qantas flight on the type, and the 707 was the innocent victim of my first (manual) loadsheet and trimchart. It was also the first aircraft I loaded without grown-up supervision.

I had a couple of sessions as the second pilot, in the right hand seat of the RAAF's full motion Boeing 707 simulator which didn't help either.

The 707, and I suppose the Douglas DC-8 too, went into service without any power boost to the elevators and ailerons, that is, the effort you put in from the flight deck translated directly to the output at the other end of the control linkages.

Only the rudder had assisted controls, for the yaw damper I expect. The stick loads were very, very heavy and you learnt pretty quickly to toggle the trim back and forward to ease the strain. I'm amazed that the crews didn't have forearms like Popeye.

The type, with its 35 degree wing sweep also introduced crews to the problems of “Dutch Roll” that beset the test aircraft before the installation of the yaw damper.

The spectre of Dutch Roll stalked all pilots making the transition from straight winged aircraft, like the Constellation, and all the “Commercials” from the Douglas stable, to the 35 degree wing sweep on the 707.

During a Braniff pre-acceptance flight, the crew deliberately disabled the yaw damper to demonstrate Dutch Roll to several junior pilots.

The trainee pilots' corrective actions quickly exacerbated the incipient roll, to the point where 3 engines were torn off the wing, and the brand new airplane crash landed in a riverbed north of Seattle, killing four of the eight crew.

Tex Johnson in his autobiography describes another incident, where he was 'paxing' on a commercial flight, and where the crew didn't seem to be able to the correct a persistent tendency for the aircraft to slip into a Dutch roll.

After several passengers became airsick he asked to be allowed access to the cockpit where he found the crew unable to understand let alone correct the stability problem. The Captain at this point was too airsick to stay in the cockpit.

Johnson, suspecting that the yaw damper had been rigged incorrectly, uncoupled the Autopilot and with a couple of control inputs returned the aircraft to normal flight.

If anyone doubts the contribution these old Boeings made to commercial and military aviation as we know it today, then the book called 'Wide Body - The Making Of The 747' by Clive Irving is worth a read.

It acknowledges the pioneering role of the Boeing 707 in introducing into civil aircraft many of the widgets we take for granted today - podded engines, plug doors, yaw dampers, variable incidence horizontal stabilizers and Kreuger flaps are just a few that spring to mind.

They rightly deserve to be included with the Wright Flyer and the Douglas DC-3 as artefacts that changed our world.

It is very sad to see an aircraft being scrapped. Something that probably took about six weeks and a lot of love to build, later serving two masters well for about 35 years can be reduced to aluminium confetti in 60 minutes, but such is the fate that befell A20-627 at Richmond Air Force Base, west of Sydney.  

This article was originally written for my children and a few interested friends. The Historical Aircraft Restoration Society, (HARS) also re-produced this article in their magazine, Phoenix.

 

Postscript.

While researching another piece on the why and how of Qantas weighing its airplanes, a process (the research, not the weighing) I have to say, facilitated by periodic infusions of red wine, I realised that A20-627 nee VH-EAG had made her mark in other ways. In fact on the floor of Hangar 131 in January 1992!

Airplanes by their nature have more than their fair share of ups and downs.

During a pretty significant 'down' VH-EAG or more to the point 'A20-627' as she was at the time, was very badly damaged and resulted in a change of career path for one of those involved.

In January 1992 she was nearing the completion of a lengthy overhaul which was part of the Maintenance Contract that Qantas had with the RAAF at the time. She was in Hangar 131, one of the early Qantas Hangars, directly opposite Departure Lounge / Aerobridge 7 at Terminal 3 - the Qantas Domestic Terminal.

The last couple of tasks required to complete the overhaul involved 'jacking' up the old lady to carry out a series of undercarriage retraction tests and also while 'airborne', to weigh her.

Watching a large plane's undercarriage being 'cycled' at close quarters is very impressive.

The doors that enclose the landing gear don’t just open, they slam open to allow several tonnes of exotic alloy strut, actuators, rubber and hydraulic fluid to swing out and down into their locked position.

Then the gear doors slam closed again to cover the now empty wheel bay. I've lived in flats with less room than a Boeing 707 wheel bay!

With undercarriage extended her wheels would have been about 2m off the hangar floor and the process takes place with a soundtrack supplied by the high pitched whine of very powerful hydraulic pumps.

She was enclosed in a form fitting gantry that fitted quite cosily around her fuselage forward of her wings and also enveloped her fuselage, aft of the wing roots.

The over-wing gantries had been removed to allow her to be lifted, and the gantries around her vertical stabiliser had been retracted.

Before the 'jacking' can start, high tensile alloy sockets are bolted to 'hard points' under each wing on the fuselage side near the cockpit, and the opposite side of the fuselage side near the empennage.

'Ball' fittings at the end of each of the jack rams fit snugly into these sockets and minimise the risk of 70 tonnes of airplane sliding off. Some of the cabin and galley doors had been left open.

The elevation and lowering of an artefact weighing in at around 70 tonnes, needs quite a lot of co-ordination to ensure the loads are perpendicular to the struts on the jacks. On this day however, something went badly, dangerously and very expensively wrong.

Somehow the jack supporting the right hand wing was retracted faster than the three other jacks. In particular it was the tail jack which lagged to the point where the loads were no longer perpendicular to the jacks. The tail jack was thus loaded up beyond its maximum rated value, causing it to fail.

The 'socket' fittings at the nose and tail sheared off the fuselage, allowing both jack heads to penetrate the fuselage, as did the right wing  jack when it slipped out of its fitting.

When the dust settled the airplane was being supported largely by the left hand wing jack and the Number 4 engine (the outboard engine on the right wing) which was resting on its fitted gantry.

The left hand jack remained in its socket, leaving the left wing grotesquely high. Where the falling fuselage came into contact with the gantry it was scored and dented. The rear passenger door was ripped from its hinges.

The noise must still fuel the nightmares of those involved. And the silence when all had come to rest.

Dust, shaken from the hangar walls and roof, settled slowly around the wounded bird while the startled birds that invariably roost in hangar roofs took flight.

It was very, very fortunate that no-one was hurt.

Egos and careers probably took a few on the chin but the outcome could have been far more serious.

The inquiry found that that the jacks had fallen out of 'synch', and in particular the jack at the airplane's tail, which was in the care of an apprentice Aircraft Maintenance Engineer. As he was low man on the totem that day, he carried the can.

I wonder what endorsements Qantas put on his Certificate of Service?

 

John McHarg. Baldivis, June 2012.