"Speedboat 214 you're cleared for immediate takeoff," crackled over the headset from Boston's air traffic controller. While the engines revved, the captain swiveled quickly in his seat to face the co-pilot and flight engineer. Each raised his left thumb.
"We're off," responded Capt. Gerry Roche, pilot of British Airways Flight 214. The venerable Boeing 747-100 barreled down the slushy runway and lifted off, heading out over the Atlantic Ocean toward its destination: London.
Around the world, hundreds of other jetliners were already plowing through the sky, each one a thread in a vast net of air transportation. Tens of thousands of passengers were stuffing carry-on bags under the seats in front of them, placing their seat backs in the upright position, or waiting for the captain to turn off the seat-belt sign.
Airliners are the indispensable galleons of the modern age. Yet even frequent fliers often have little idea of the preparation and logistics that go into a flight - the airline world beyond the cabin. And it's that world on which the safety and security of millions of passengers depend.
A day spent with a British Airways 747-100 (the same aircraft model as TWA Flight 800, which exploded off Long Island, N.Y., six months ago) revealed much about the attention to detail needed to keep a machine made of 6 million parts in the air. Everyone involved with Speedboat 214, from the air traffic controllers, to the ground crew, to the pilots, appeared scrupulous and precise in their duties.
Yet the experience showed the problems that complexity can bring, as well - such as engine trouble serious enough to require the grounding of this plane.
Clydesdale of the skies
The 747 is considered the workhorse of the long-haul commercial passenger and cargo industry. Manufactured by the Seattle-based Boeing Company, the first 747 was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in December 1969. About 1,000 747s are in service today; 211 of the first series - the 100 - are still in use. The 747s have traveled a total of 19.5 billion miles and carried 1.4 billion passengers - one-fourth of the world's population.
"The 747s have been queen of the skies in terms of millions of flights," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation. "They are the workhorse of the industry; 4,000 hours per year is the typical utilization of the plane."
British Airways Flight 214 on Dec. 6 was a 747 tagged G-AWNG. It was purchased from Boeing on Sept. 8, 1971. The plane had flown 99,249 hours and made 20,502 landings. It had traveled approximately 30 million miles - a distance equal to flying to the moon and back 63 times.
This 747 is the same age as TWA Flight 800. Some critics say planes weren't designed to fly this long, but most experts believe that with regular inspections and maintenance, the planes can fly 30 years and more.
Moreover, says Mr. Matthews, British Air has one of the best safety records in the world. For one thing, BA makes extensive use of special recorders that document the experience of each flight. Plane speed, takeoff angle, altitude, and more are routinely analyzed by specialists to spot any pilot-training or equipment problems. Such close oversight is only now being adopted by some US airlines. British Air "is on the cutting edge of developing programs to head off accidents before they happen," Matthews says.
Pilots, passengers, and pallets of books
Boeing 747s are flown by a standard flight crew of three - captain, co-pilot, and flight engineer. The crew for BA Flight 214 arrived at Boston's Logan International Airport about 7 p.m., two hours before the plane departed. Captain Roche, First Officer Paul Bennett, and Engineer Officer Peter Jeffers hadn't been in the air for 24 hours, since landing in Boston a day earlier.
Surprisingly, they'd also never flown together before the London-to-Boston trip. British Air doesn't believe in long-standing crew teams. Each member of a crew is selected separately. That way, say airline employees, crew members don't become too accustomed to one another's work patterns. If they relaxed too much, they might miss some detail crucial to safety.
On this night, the crew's first job was to review the flight plan, which had been selected in London and faxed to Boston via British Air's operations center at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The center also faxed the latest charts of world weather and wind patterns.
Roche and Mr. Bennett used those, along with the manifest listing the number of passengers and cargo contents, to calculate the amount of fuel needed, takeoff speeds, taxi distances, and flap settings. They then entered the cockpit to load the flight plan data into the 747's three separate, redundant computer systems.
Flight engineer Jeffers, meanwhile, checked out the plane's exterior. Two hoses pumped fuel into the tanks in the left wing. A ground mechanic was already examining various fluid levels and the outside of the aircraft for any leaks or damage. Jeffers made a separate check, beaming his flashlight over the engines and beneath the fuel tanks in the wings. (The wing area is 5,600 square feet, large enough to hold 45 medium-size automobiles.) He shined his flashlight over the landing gear and the 18 tires, even giving a few of them a good kick.
Meanwhile, the flight's reason for existence - its cargo of freight and passengers - was pouring on board. Pallets and bins of freight and suitcases went in the front cargo bin. Loose luggage that arrived late and that of the first-class passengers were loaded in a back bin, where they could be taken off more quickly.
The ground crew loading the plane, as well as the flight crew, had to go through the same metal detectors and checks as passengers, according to Jose Luis Von Zuben, duty manager for BA.
Along with about 175 people, BA Flight 214 carried nearly 17 tons of, well, stuff. Cargo included textiles, computers, computer parts and software, fresh fish, one knitting machine, gaskets, three pallets of books, electronics, and electrical goods.
British Air handles booking its cargo in two ways, says Bob Giegerich, customer service manager at BA's cargo warehouse, located a few miles from the airport. It sets aside a certain amount of space on specific days for regular customers. Other cargo is booked in much the same way passengers book a ticket - at just about any time via a computerized system, depending on space available.
What's that glimmer on the wings?
Back in the cockpit, the pilot checked the navigational instruments in front of him, while the flight engineer went through a series of instrument checks on the right-hand wall that contains hydraulic and fuel gauges and electrical panels. Each worked from a short list on a laminated card. Then, munching on roast beef subs, they double-checked each other's work.
While they worked, the ground mechanic entered the cockpit and told Jeffers he had detected a slight amount of ice on the wings. The temperature was just above freezing, but he wanted the flight engineer to take a look. Jeffers decided to order the wings to be deiced.
During the wait for the deicing truck, a flight attendant asked Jeffers to check the door. She wasn't sure it had closed properly. Some sponge material that lines the doorway got caught in the top of the door, Jeffers said as he returned to the cockpit, and he was able to fix it.
The ground engineer returned to the cockpit, this time to report that one of the air-conditioning units wasn't working properly. Jeffers was able to bleed some air off the No. 3 engine and get the air working again.
With everything taken care of, the plane contacted the control tower for clearance to depart. Roche taxied slowly to the runway for the departure, commenting on the types of planes he passed, like a young man calling out brands of cars.
After a Delta Tristar answered the tower's clearance to depart with a "We'll see ya," Flight 214 taxied into position at 9:15 p.m., about one hour late.
The takeoff was smooth and fast - or at least seemed that way. The bright lights of the runway disappeared within seconds. As Flight 214 rose through the clouds, everything went totally black. About 10 minutes after takeoff, the old plane popped through the cloud cover at about 7,000 feet. Suddenly the stars appeared, with the Big Dipper perfectly framed in the left window.
The flight's first leg went north from Boston over Bangor, Maine. Then Roche headed the plane toward an imaginary traffic circle in the sky, a coordinate off the coast of Newfoundland called COLOR.
Airplanes fly in quadrants that are 60 miles wide and at specific elevations. Planes within the quadrants must be separated by 10 minutes. Eventually Flight 214 rose up to a quadrant at its cruising altitude: 37,000 feet. As it sped along at Mach 0.81, or about 80 percent of the speed of sound, it trailed Delta Flight 393, which checked in regularly and relayed back reports on air conditions.
Early on, the Delta plane radioed that it had run into several minutes of turbulence. Sure enough, Flight 214 hit the same patch shortly afterward. Roche explained that such bumps can be caused by air masses of different temperatures colliding. A disparity of 1 degree centigrade is all it takes to disrupt an airliner's ride.
As the plane sped eastward over the Atlantic, the crew was fully occupied in monitoring the cockpit's 1,000 gauges and switches. Nor are those the plane's only systems that provide data relevant to operation and safety: 747s are equipped with both weather radar and a ground warning proximity system, which will alert the pilot if he or she is flying too low for approaching terrain.
All three crew members remained alert but relaxed, and they checked and rechecked the gauges. To this point in the flight, they'd noticed only one disturbing thing: a slight airframe vibration on takeoff from Boston.
A giant rotary at 30,000 feet
The first hint of landfall came with a radio transmission. Halfway over the Atlantic, the flight crew checked in with the air traffic control center at Shandwick, Ireland. These ATC operators are something of a welcoming committee for an entire continent, handling incoming aircraft across much of northern Europe.
But as the sun rose and the flight neared London touchdown, controllers at Heathrow airport took over. Their first order? Go into a holding pattern.
Flight 214 circled the city three times, gradually decreasing altitude. The view of London's historic sites was spectacular - but so was the sight of other circling airliners nearby. In such heavy traffic, the crew relied on both air traffic control and the cockpit's own Traffic Avoidance Collision System (TCAS), on-board radar that displays on a monitor all other planes in the area. TCAS signals a warning when other planes are too close or when planes may be on a collision course.
Finally, Heathrow tower cleared Flight 214 to land. As the sun rose, the plane descended and passed over Windsor Castle on the Thames. Disconcertingly, as the pilots pulled back on the throttle, a light marked GEAR came on, accompanied by a shrieking warning signal. Roche, however, said not to worry. The signal goes off automatically when 747s throttle back without their landing gear deployed.
Moments later the gear came down, and an electronic voice in the cockpit called out the altitudes: 1,000 feet, 100 feet, 50 feet, 30 feet, 10 feet. Smooth landing.
But there was that vibration again.
On the ground in London, the 747 was due for a routine, daily ramp check before it flew back across the Atlantic to New York. During this inspection, the maintenance crew checks hydraulic fluid levels and oil levels in the four engines and the auxiliary power unit. They check the cargo holds and the plane's exterior for damage. They check the brakes for wear, the tire pressure, and the condition of the landing gear. They walk around the plane looking for fuel leaks, cracks, problems with exterior lights. Inside, the maintenance staff checks the crew and passenger oxygen, and the voice and flight-data recorders.
As it turned out, this plane wasn't going back to the United States - at least not right away.
The maintenance crew discovered the No. 3 engine's fan casing was cracked and worn, which caused the vibration. They grounded the plane and towed it to BA's Tech 6 (a hangar dubbed the "cathedral" on the opposite side of the airport) for a case change.
Jack Crowther, BA's London manager for the JTD9 engine - the Pratt and Whitney engine on the 747 - says this type of incident doesn't occur often. But it has happened in the past often enough for Boeing to issue a service letter in 1992 to 747 owners, warning them of the potential problem and telling them how to address it.
The case was changed, and at 1:06 p.m. G-AWNG was declared serviceable. It departed for Cairo at 4:15 p.m., leaving this reporter to take another of BA's trusty chariots - a different 747-100 - back across the ocean to Boston. Mercifully, the food was good and the trip was uneventful.