Times Online in the UK reported an incident yesterday detailing an occurrence that saw a fast taxi demonstration of a 75-tonne Victor bomber turn into an unintentional takeoff after confusion reigned in the cockpit between the two unlicenced crew. The incident took place at the Cold War Jets Open Day at the Bruntingthorpe airfield, just south of Leicester.
I thought this incident sounded familiar and – sure enough – the incident wasn’t at all recent. FlightGlobal reported the story back on the 5th of May just two days after the incident actually occurred. It wasn’t until I re-read the Times article that I noticed that it was in fact a retrospective piece as the 70-year-old ‘pilot’ relived his experience. Perhaps it’s a recent YouTube video that has given the occurrence a renewed life.
FlightGlobal reports that Bruntingthorpe’s Cold War Jets event involves fast taxiing of several vintage aircraft including the de Havilland Comet, English Electric Lightning and Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer. On this occasion, however, Bob Prothero, a retired RAF group captain from Portsmouth, was on the flight deck with an engineer as his co-pilot. As the aircraft accelerated, Mr Prothero instructed the co-pilot to slow the aircraft, but instead he increased the throttle — and then froze. The aircraft became airbourne to a height of about 20 or 30 feet, drifted to the left of the runway centerline and then seemed to touch down a few seconds later on a grass area before maneuvering back onto the runway.
The Civil Aviation Authority has said that although they’re aware of the incident they won’t be conducting a formal inquiry since the Victor Bomber is not on the civil aircraft register.
The Times quotes Mr Prothero as saying, “I was shouting at the co-pilot to pull the throttle back. I saw the nose rise into the air. I thought, ‘Oh God here we go, how are we going to get out of this one?’.”
I’m amazed that unlicenced (or grossly uncurrent) pilots would be permitted to operate such powerful machinery so close to a takeoff speed. Becoming airborne during such a demonstration is just one of countless concerns during such a procedure. Any takeoff is fraught with a range of potential ground related emergencies. What about engine failures and the associated asymmetric control? What about engine or aircraft fires that requires quick recall items? What sort of pre-flight briefing took place to address the array of potential issues? How capable and current, or even able were the crew to deal with any of the countless takeoff concerns? If the crew were unfortunate enough to encounter some sort of emergency, they likely didn’t have any crew resource management training or standard operating procedures to assist them.
Mr Prothero’s remark about ‘shouting’ to his engineer copilot lends itself to the argument that appropriate music to accompany the incident might be the Benny Hill theme song. Who was in command of the aircraft? Why didn’t Mr Prothero retard the power levers himself instead of just shouting commands to his frozen counterpart?
Just because the aircraft isn’t on the civil register doesn’t remove the operators from giving due consideration to safety. Hopefully this incident gives the aircraft’s administrating authority reason to reevaluate their operating methodology.