Civil Aviation Articles

NOV 02 2010
Civil Aviation >> British Airways' 757s Bow Out

In July 1978 British Airways, then a nationalised company of course, made a case to Prime Minister James Callagahan and the Department for Trade and Industry for permission to open negotiations with Boeing for a new narrow-bodied aircraft to replace the Trident on short-haul routes around Europe - specifically with regard to the aircraft then dubbed the 7N7.

The 7N7 programme was borne out of Boeing's desire to improve the design of its most popular 727 variant, the -200 series. A stretched version of the existing design, to be known as the -300 series, was considered alongside the somewhat revolutionary 7N7 concept, which would explore advances in new materials and propulsion technologies.

The civil aviation industry was never really struck by the 727-300 but the 7N7 captured its imagination with promises of reduced weight, improved aerodynamic performance and consequent reduction in operating costs.

The 160-seater 7N7-100 was rapidly dropped after failing to receive any orders, but it was the 180-seat -200 variant which attracted British Airways and American-carrier Eastern Air Lines due to its reduced 'per seat' operating cost.

Like BA, British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce was also a nationalised organisation at the time, and, as such, Boeing offered the Callaghan administration the chance for Rolls-Royce to partner with Boeing on the project. For many this was perceived to be the clincher in so far as British Airways' orders for the type were concerned, with Callaghan keen to sell Rolls-Royce engines in sizeable numbers and Boeing desperate to secure a foreign customer for its new design.

Roy Watts, then deputy chairman of British Airways, is quoted as saying, "I don't think you'll find it written down anywhere. But if we'd tried to buy the 757 with Pratt & Whitney engines, we would have had a hell of a fight."

For a time a third British nationalised entity was also involved, that being British Aerospace, which was in discussions surrounding the construction of the wings for this latest Boeing creation, but ultimately BAe decided to partner with Airbus and its A310 programme instead.

For BA's own requirements the A310 was discounted early on (it was only available with American manufactured engines as much as anything else) and the only real contender alongside the 7N7 was the McDonnell Douglas ATMR (Advanced Technology - Medium Range) which never actually came to fruition.

On August 31st, 1978, the project known then as the Boeing 7N7 received its first official orders, with both British Airways and Eastern Air Lines announced as launch customers for the new Rolls-Royce RB211-535 powered jetliner.

Boeing promised BA that the aircraft would enter into service in time for the summer of 1983 and that they would have 19 airframes on strength before the end of 1985 when new noise regulations would force the grounding of the Trident 3. The order which was formally signed on 3rd March 1979 (some three weeks ahead of Eastern Air Lines' own order) was for 19 hulls, spares and engines at a cost of 300m and was the most expensive order ever placed by a UK airline at that time, rising to 400m by 1983 due to inflation.

Interestingly, at the time those first orders were confirmed, the 7N7 still sported the T-tail design of its forbear, the 727, albeit with under-wing engines, and it was a full year later - and after the 757 name had been formally adopted - that the more conventional tail layout was embraced.

With the excitement about the new aircraft came trepidation. Not that they were buying a white elephant, but of the potential public backlash for buying an American product. An internal BA PR memo uncovers a plan to take some of the sting out of the decision: "by mounting a co-ordinated publicity effort to coincide with the Boeing announcement of substantial new orders we will be able to make the maximum impression on staff and public towards acceptance of the 757 as an important development for civil aviation in the 1980s and onwards."

Having rolled off the production line at Boeing's Renton facility in Washington on January 13th, 1982, the 757 went on to make its first flight some five weeks later on February 19th.

Following a 1250 hour test flying programme and the pre-requisite testing and certification procedures, the first production aircraft was delivered to Eastern Air Lines on December 22nd, 1982, and entered commercial service on New Year's Day 1983.

The first aircraft to be delivered to British Airways was line number 10, G-BIKB, a Boeing 757-236 powered by Rolls-Royce RB211-535C engines, which was handed over on January 25th, 1983, with the type entering service with the company on February 9th. Roy Watts described the acquisition as, "the most important single purchase decision made by a British airline," in a special '757 Introduction to Service' issue of 'BA News'.

He continued, "So far as British Airways is concerned, we are wholly convinced that the 757 is the right aircraft for the work we want to do. The more the shape of European air travel changes, the more apparent it becomes that the 757 is the right sized aircraft for British Airways.

"When we first ordered the 757, we saw it falling neatly into the slot between the smaller 737s in our fleet and our much larger TriStars. Each type seemed the right size for the market we envisaged, and we saw relatively little overlap.

"That is no longer the case. The stagnation - and in many cases the actual decline - in so many passenger markets is making the 757 an extremely attractive proposition on a number of shorthaul routes that two or three years ago we would have regarded as earmarked solely for an aircraft in the TriStar category.

"This has worked to our advantage, because it has meant we can now switch shorthaul TriStars from scheduled routes in Europe for which demand is now growing very slowly, to shorthaul charter operations for British Airtours, where demand is still high.

"That is exactly the kind of flexibility that we have always needed, and which the introduction of the 757 into our fleet will give us."

Earlier, in June 1982, two of BA's original order had been sold to Air Europe prior to delivery due to the economic downturn. This measure saved the airline almost 40m across 1983 and 1984 and was vital in helping the company's cashflow in those years, along with the sale of six recently delivered, long-range Lockheed TriStar -500 aircraft to the Royal Air Force - which still happen to be in service!

Of the two 757 aircraft sold, the airframe originally destined to become G-BIKE was delivered to its new owner as G-BKRM but would still see service with British Airways from 1984 to 1987 when leased back from Air Europe.

The fuel burn savings afforded by the 757 over its predecessor, the Trident 3, were vast and equated to 40% per person carried, or to put it another way, a 30% saving on an identical sector using the Trident 3, but with the added bonus of carrying 50 extra passengers! It really did represent a massive leap forward at the time and, to put it into some sort of context, it is considered unlikely that the brand new 787 will be able to offer a 20% reduction over the similarly sized 767-300.

At the same time that Boeing was developing the 7N7 the company also had another project on their design tables, the 7X7, which went on to become the 757's mid-size, wide-bodied brother, the 767. Just like the 7N7, the 7X7 was all about embracing technological advances and the two aircraft were designed to share common flightdecks and handling characteristics.

Indeed, such are the similarities between the two types that a short conversion course allows 757 rated pilots to fly the 767 and vice-versa, and this policy was adopted by BA in 1990 when they began taking deliveries of the 767. Pilots were actually grouped into a mixed 757/767 fleet and, around the turn of the millennium, was, in terms of pilots and hulls, BA's largest, with 53 757s and 28 767s on the books.

Nowadays, ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) is considered a 'must have' tick in the box for any medium to long-haul operator as it enables the holder to operate routes that are more than 60 minutes away from a suitable diversion airfield. The rules and requirements for both aircraft and crew are very stringent and BA's first introduction to ETOPS operations was with 757s ordered for its newly formed charter subsidiary Caledonian Airways (a rebranding of British Airtours to retain the Caledonian name, after British Caledonian (BCal) was absorbed into BA after the merger of the two airlines in 1988).

The experience gained from this introduction of the RB211-535E4 powered 757s with Caledonian Airways in 1989, allowed BA themselves to smoothly transition to ETOPS 767 operations when that type came online. Furthermore, when BA introduced the ETOPS 777 in 1995, all early pilots destined for the 777 were required to undergo a period of ETOPS flying on the 757/767 fleet first.

After committing to replacing the 757 fleet with the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, British Airways elected to sell the last four hulls from its early-mid 1990s' order before they'd been delivered, and this represented the beginning of the end so far as the British Airways association with the 757 is concerned, though the actual drawdown has been a protracted one spanning more than ten years all told.

G-BIKA was the first of the original batch of 757s ordered by British Airways to leave the fleet on the 19th of May 2000. It, like many that followed, underwent a special freighter conversion, becoming a 757-236(SF) in the process, before joining the ranks of DHL, either directly or under their European Air Transport banner.

Some of the more recent departures have gone or will go to Victorville, California, for storage pending freighter conversion for Federal Express, and very few have been retained as passenger aircraft. Indeed, take a trip to Heathrow today and you're unlikely to see much more than half a dozen different 757s during daylight hours. Two that have continued to ply their passenger flying trade, the aircraft formerly known as G-BPEJ and G-BPEK, are now operated by BA's wholly owned subsidiary, 'Open Skies', operating routes between mainland Europe and North America as a business-class-only airline.

So far as BA mainline 757 operations go, the type has ventured as far east as Tel Aviv, Israel, but never outside of Europe. However, G-BPEC and G-BPEE did both operate in BA colours for British Airways Regional to New York's JFK and onward to Toronto and Boston from Birmingham and Glasgow. Additionally, BA mainline 757 crews did operate Caledonian Airways aircraft as far as Bangkok, Phuket and Vancouver.

Going into the last month of operations for the type with BA, just three aircraft remained: G-CPER, G-CPES and G-CPET, operating daily services to Malaga, Barcelona and twice daily services to Madrid and Vienna.

With the subsequent demise of joint launch airline, Eastern Air Lines, British Airways has operated the type for longer than anyone else. It was quite fitting then that British Airways should choose to mark the occasion of the type's withdrawal from service with a 'walk down Memory Lane' revisit of the Negus & Negus colour scheme, complete with "757" branding on the upper fuselage, near the tail, that all of the 757 aircraft had carried as part of their introductory publicity drive through to December 1984 when the Landor scheme was introduced.

Tim Byatt is a 757/767 Captain with the company and the painting of G-CPET as 'Stokesay Castle' was very much his idea. Tim was a BA cadet: "I started my training in 1989 via the BAe Flying College at Prestwick, like many of my generation, and have always loved the looks, lines and performance of the 757, but actually came to it rather late in Jan 2003.

"My first posting was to the 737-200s at Manchester (MAN), as they were being introduced there to replace the BAC 1-11, and I stayed there until I achieved my goal which was to fly the TriStar, joining the London-Gatwick based Caledonian TriStar fleet in 1996 on the last intake onto the aircraft.

"After being forced to leave there (the crew supply contract was terminated by BA, which needed its Flight Engineers back), I went onto the London-Heathrow (LHR) 747 Classic (-100/-200) fleet until leaving in November 2000 to gain my command on the 737 (-300/500 by then) back at MAN.

"Following the base closure after 9/11, I was transferred (as a captain) to the LHR 737-400 fleet for a year, before joining the 757/767 fleet in Jan 2003, where I have remained since, having completed nearly eight years here now - almost three times longer than my time on any other fleet."

When Tim's not flying he helps out at the BA Heritage Centre (which was at Hatton Cross, but has just reopened within BA's Waterside HQ), and it was through his connections there that he was able to amass so much information on the 757 fleet and help build the case for the "retro jet", determined as he was to see the 757 out in a little style.

"The 757 is the perfect mix of technology and tradition; rewarding to fly and packed with power. You can turn everything off, and you're back to the 1960s; no flight director, no auto-throttle, an instrument panel laid out in the classic "T-scan", and you can select a full compass rose for an HSI display (Horizontal Situation Indicator), yet she will Cat 3B autoland in 75m visibility with a zero decision height if needed.

"It's the aircraft that a generation of BA cadets went on to. Of my small course of seven cadets, five have flown the 757 as either first officer, captain, or both. It was the fleet of choice for everyone except the lucky few on the first Prestwick and Oxford courses who were offered the TriStar.

"I'd say she is the best looking subsonic aircraft BA currently has (seeing as we still own the Concordes!), and is easily up there with the VC-10 and TriStar."

As a spectator this abundance of power has not been lost on me either. Stood at the departure end at Heathrow, nothing seems to climb like the 757 does. It really does go up like a rocket.

"I took off with full power from LHR's runway 27R a few weeks ago and was airborne in seconds, looking down onto the new ATC tower's roof from upon high when passing abeam it, crossed the far end of the runway at about 2000ft altitude and the M25 about 3000ft. I think the ATC tower lost sight of us, we went up so quickly! A far cry from the Trident we replaced!"

It's not just getting airborne that she does quickly either. Aberdeen, with just 6,001ft of useable runway available and often pretty horrible weather conditions, is one of the more 'interesting' airports that Tim has regularly operated into during his BA career.

"Unlike on the 737, landing a 757 at Aberdeen is a 'non event' - you can even vacate the runway at the intersection! To help to put that into context, the 737 when full has an approach speed 10kts faster than a full 757, and the 737 only has four wheel brakes, unlike the eight on the four wheel bogie undercarriage of the 757; a combination which means that the 757 'stops on a sixpence'."

"The name 'Stokesay Castle' was chosen purely because it is a beautiful little fortified castle not that far from where I live in Shropshire, and I approached English Heritage myself about getting permission to use the name when I was trying to generate a case for the 'retro livery'.

"Tradition has it that you don't reuse an aircraft name on a similar aircraft type, so we didn't want to use 'Dover Castle' etc as G-BIKA had been retired from BA and the company didn't want another hull carrying the same name. That said, this convention was broken - presumably accidentally - with the dry leased 757s in the mid 1980s when G-BKRM from Air Europe in 1984-87 carried the same name 'Braemar Castle' as G-DRJC leased from Monarch in 1988-89."

It's nice to think that in these rather financially uncertain times that British Airways has still been able to look beyond the cold, hard cost of a repaint to remember its heritage, and Tim is firmly of the belief that it's been money well spent.

"It's not often you see scores of passengers taking photos of a 757, but 'Stokesay Castle' has been a real attraction for those getting on and off her over the last three weeks.

"One thing that might be of interest regarding our retro jet is she is the only genuine retro jet in the world, and that is one of the reasons she looks so smart. Although a number of other airlines have aircraft in retro liveries, as far as we can tell, and I've done quite a bit of research on the internet looking, all other airlines have put an old livery on a modern airliner, but that particular aircraft type never wore their 'retro' livery. For example the Air France retro jet has a 1940s' livery on a modern Airbus A320.

"Our retro jet 'Stokesay Castle' is the only one in the world to have a genuine livery and aircraft type match, and I think that's one of the reasons she has been so popular, because she looks and is genuine (OK, the engines are 535E4s, not the original 535Cs, but they are painted correctly)."

Indeed, I don't think you can put a value on that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with reminders of the past, and BA has certainly benefited from lots of positive PR since 'Stokesay Castle' was rolled out of the paint shop.

For the record the 757s of British Airways have sported three main liveries during their time in service: Negus & Negus (from introduction through to 1984), as displayed on the retro-jet, the Landor scheme (1984-1997) and finally the Utopia scheme (1997-present), paired with 27 different 'World' tails, before Chatham Historic Dockyard became the standard.

Speaking to me ahead of his final two days of flights on the type, Tim was in reflective mood: "For the last few weeks I've been hoping Friday wouldn't come, as that's my last 757 flight - the late Barcelona. I was planned to operate the special enthusiasts' charter to MAN on the 6th November which I was really looking forward to, and would have been a real privilege to have flown, but unfortunately the charterer cancelled it last week, so it's all over on Friday for me.

"I still remember my first 757 flights very well, although it was all over very quickly, LHR-BRU (Brussels); 1 hour 4 minutes 'chock to chock'. Over two days I did LHR-BRU-LHR-MAN for a night-stop, then MAN-LHR-CDG (Paris-Charles de Gaulle) -LHR. The training department thought that was quite funny, I think! At least I was converting from the 737, so was used to short sectors!

"I've managed to knock up about 4000hrs on the 757 (plus another couple of thousand on the 767) over the last eight years and plenty of sectors, so I've had a good spell.

"I am really going to miss her, both as an aircraft and for the variety she provided. One day you could have been taking a light weight (78 ton) 757 on a short hop to Vienna, and the next a heavy (180 ton) 767 to Hyderabad. The 767 fleet will still have huge long and short haul variety (and operating weights), but the extra aircraft type added just that little bit extra to the fleet and I'll miss it hugely.

"I could transfer onto the 747-400 or 777, but I think I'll stay put on the 767 for the foreseeable future. I like old technology!"

Saturday, 30th October, saw 'Stokesay Castle' tour some of her, and the rest of the 757 fleet's old haunts, operating the famous 'Shuttle' flights between London and their destination cities within the UK. First up was Manchester where a sizeable crowd was on hand to bid the aircraft farewell. Glasgow was next before the curtain finally came down on British Airways 757 operations with the final sector being Heathrow-Edinburgh-Heathrow.

And so, with that, more than 27 years of operations drew to a close, with in excess of one million sectors flown by the type. What happens next for the retro-jet?

"'Stokesay Castle' will sit over in the BA Engineering base in full view of the A30, for about a year in full retro livery, before being stripped of titles and handed over to Fed Ex for freighter conversion in late 2011/early 2012. She will be parked next to Concorde G-BOAB, also recently moved to put her more in public view than when she was parked in the Concorde engine run bay."

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