An article whose punchline I am reluctant to divulge so early in the game: Or, A speedy DC used by CP

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The Douglas DC-8 jetliner of Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia, known as Empress of Montreal. Anon., “Empress of Montreal DC-8 First CPA Jet Visitor.” The Gazette, 6 December 1961, 17.

True or false, my reading friend, the Franco-British Aérospatiale / British Aircraft Concorde was the first airliner to break the sound barrier.

The answer to that ToF is… False. Yes, false. The Concorde was not even the second airliner to break the sound barrier. Nay. That honour belonged / belongs to a Tupolev Tu-144, which did the deed in June 1969. A Concorde broke the sound barrier in October of that same year. I kid you not.

This being said (typed?), yours truly is all but certain that you had to twig to the possibility that the photograph you saw 35 seconds ago was not there by accident. Good for you.

One could argue that our pontification of the week began in May 1958 with the first flight of the Douglas DC-8 jetliner, an aircraft derived from an unsuccessful entry in a 1954 jet-powered aerial refuelling aircraft competition launched by the United States Air Force (USAF) – a competition won in 1955 by… Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. And no, Boeing Airplane Company did not win. It already had a proof-of-concept aircraft flying, however, which neither of its rivals had. As a result, the USAF ordered a number of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers to fulfil its needs until the Lockheed Aircraft design could be put in service. As things turned out, the USAF concluded that it made little sense to pay for the development of a second aerial refuelling aircraft if the Stratotanker fulfilled its needs.

All this to say (type?) that the Lockheed Aircraft aerial refuelling aircraft was never built. An airliner derived from it was not built either.

Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated, on the other hand, decided to proceed with the development of an airliner derivative of its aerial refuelling aircraft, and…

You have a question, my reading friend? Yes, aerial refuelling was / is a thing, a military thing actually. An aircraft in need of fuel simply needs to move into position behind a tanker aircraft. A device, either a flexible hose or a rigid tube, is unreeled or lowered. The pilot of the aircraft in need of fuel brings said aircraft to the hose, or else the operator aboard the tanker aircraft brings said tube to the aircraft in need of fuel. That fuel starts to flow. Tadaa. And yes, aerial refuelling requires a lot of training, but back to the DC-8.

As was said (typed?) above, the first DC-8 flew in May 1958. The new machine proved so trouble free and easy to fly that it got its certification in August 1959. The DC-8 went into service the following month. The Boeing Model 707 jetliner, a cousin of the Stratotanker, on the other hand, had gone into service in October 1958, after a much longer development period.

As the weeks and months went by, an increasing number of American and foreign airlines nonetheless chose the Model 707 rather than the DC-8 – a situation which troubled the good people at Douglas aircraft. The DC-8 needed a bit of a boost to improve its long-term prospects.

And yes, Canada’s national carrier, Trans-Canada Air Lines, today’s privatised Air Canada Incorporated, a firm mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2017, operated close to 45 DC-8s between 1960 and 1994, but back to our story.

It so happened that, during the DC-8’s flight testing program, the chief pilot of Douglas Aircraft got pretty close to the speed of sound at high altitude (about 1 030 kilometres/hour versus about 1 060 kilometres/hour / about 640 miles/hour versus about 660 miles/hour) without encountering any real problem. By 1961, William Marshall “Bill” Magruder began to wonder if it might actually be possible to go through the sound barrier, something that no airliner in the world had ever achieved, or even tried. Something that would make the news in a big way. Something that could improve the long-term prospects of the DC-8.

When he submitted this idea to the big wigs at Douglas Aircraft, Magruder may have urged them to give their blessing quickly, for fear that a Boeing Airplane test pilot break the sound barrier in a Model 707.

And so it was that a select crew, them few, them happy few, them band of brothers, if I may paraphrase Henry V in the more or less eponymous 1599 play by William Shakespeare, The Cronicle History of Henry the fift / The Life of Henry the Fifth, took off on 21 August 1961. That crew consisted of Magruder as well as

- Paul H. Patten, co-pilot,

- Joseph Tomich, flight engineer, and

- Richard H. Edwards, test flight engineer.

Even though it still carried its American registration, the DC-8 they flew carried the colours and markings of the air carrier it would be delivered to, Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia.

One presumes that the management of that airline was aware of what was being attempted.

It is worth noting that high lift devices mounted on the wings of the DC-8 had gotten dinged the day before the flight was made. As a result, Magruder had to take off with his flaps retracted, normally a big no-no because the aircraft would be all but uncontrollable if it lost an engine on takeoff. Magruder made the call to fly anyway, and the rest of the crew nodded in agreement.

In any event, Magruder and his crew flew to Edwards Air Force Base, a USAF base in California, to make their attempt to break the sound barrier. Two supersonic jet fighters of the USAF accompanied them as the DC-8, which carried no passenger or luggage and enough fuel for only 30 or so minutes of flight, climbed to about 15 850 metres (about 52 000 feet) – way above its cruising altitude and higher than any other airliner had flown before. Magruder and his crew had never seen a sky so dark.

The jet fighters in question were a North American F-100 Super Sabre and a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the latter a type present in the astonishing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

It has been suggested that the pilot of the Starfighter was none other than Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, a Second World War fighter ace and the first human being to break the sound barrier, in October 1947.

The expression human being was / is crucial here, as human-made objects had broken the sound barrier centuries before. Objects known as bullets and shells. Objects used for what appears to be a common human occupation, war, but I digress.

Once at about 15 850 metres (about 52 000 feet), Magruder lowered the nose of the DC-8 which began to dive toward the Earth. He pushed on the control stick with a pressure of more than 20 kilogrammes (50 or so pounds), the idea being that the aircraft would come out of its dive if that pressure was reduced.

A few seconds into its dive, the DC-8 vibrated for a brief moment. It reached a speed of about 1 075 kilometres/hour (about 668 miles/hour) at about 12 525 metres (about 41 100 feet). For the first time ever, an airliner had breached the sound barrier. The DC-8 flew faster than sound for 16 seconds.

When Magruder reduced the pressure he was exerting on the control stick, the DC-8 did not come out of its dive. With plenty of space below him, he calmly kept at it. The DC-8 came out of its dive at an altitude of about 10 650 metres (about 35 000 feet). The entire dive had lasted 30 or so seconds.

For some reason or other, the altitude and speed records realised by Magruder and his crew could not be officialised. This being said (typed?), they were understandably given a hero’s welcome upon their return. The vice president and general manager of Douglas Aircraft, Jackson R. McGowen, met the 5 men at the executive lunch room, which none of them had seen before, and bought them lunch. Magruder and his crew also received a $ 1 000 bonus – about $ 9 175 in 2021 currency. American currency of course.

The management of Douglas Aircraft understandably mentioned the August 1961 flight in various advertisements. It seemingly sent memorabilia carried on board to a number of important people.

In recognition of his outstanding professional accomplishment in the conduct of flight testing, Magruder received the recently created (1958) Iven C. Kincheloe Award.

Iven Carl “Kinch” Kincheloe, Junior, was an American aeronautical engineer, fighter pilot and test pilot who had died in July 1958, during a test flight.

Canadian Pacific Airlines received the record setting DC-8, the 4th of its 13 DC-8 actually, known as the Empress of Montreal, in November 1961. Would you believe that this aircraft made the first non stop commercial flight between North America and Japan, between Vancouver and Tokyo in this case, in late November 1961?

Renamed Empress of Buenos Aires at some point in its uneventful career, the DC-8 was taken out of service in March 1980 due to high maintenance and fuel costs. By then, its owner was known as CP Air Limited. This historically significant aircraft was scrapped near Miami, Florida, in May 1981. Pity.

I wish I could say (type?) that the supersonic flight of the DC-8 flown by Magruder and his crew really improved the long-term prospects of this superb machine. Sadly, while 555 or so DC-8s were built between 1958 and 1972, 725 or so Model 707s were built between 1957 and 1979. Another group of 130 or so military derivatives of this aircraft came into service over the years. The Canadian Armed Forces, for example, flew 5 Boeing CC-137s transport and aerial refuelling aircraft between 1970 and 1995.

Ironically, President Richard Milhouse “Tricky Dick” Nixon selected Magruder as the third head of the United States Department of Transportation’s embattled supersonic airliner program in the spring of 1970. The United States Congress decided to pull the plug on said program in March 1971, and this long before the 2 prototypes of the Boeing Model 2707 were completed – a decision which aroused great anger within the aerospace and air transport industries of the United States, as well as in the trade press. The Concorde and its European manufacturers, it was said, would grab all the orders from the so-called Western countries, its Soviet rival, the Tupolev Tu-144, winning all the orders from the countries of the Soviet bloc. Magruder was not amused.

If you must know, Nixon was mentioned in May and June 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, but I digress.

The aforementioned American fears turned out to be unfounded. In fact, all but two air carriers, Société Air France Société anonyme and British Airways, cancelled their options, which totalled 65 or so Concordes. These decisions aroused great anger within the aerospace and air transport industries of France and the United Kingdom, as well as in the trade press of the 2 countries.

And no, the oil crisis which exploded on the world stage in October 1973 had nothing to do with these cancellations. American airlines, for example, were in all likelihood worried that the potential / unavoidable environmental damage (noise pollution over land, depletion of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, etc.) that defenders of the Model 2707 had had to face would reduce the freedom to action of the Concorde.

In any event, the cancellation of the Model 2707 led Boeing Airplane to lay off more than 60 000 people. From then on, the management all but decided to bet the house on the Model 747, which turned out to be one of the best airliners of all times.

If I may be permitted a comment that many aviation enthusiasts may find profoundly offensive / subversive, it is fortunate that the supersonic airliner has remained marginal in the history of air travel. With the damage we have caused and are causing to our environment being already alarming, yes, yes, alarming, our good old Earth did not need supersonic heavy metal in its skies. Would you believe that Homo sapiens means wise man in Latin? The mind boggles.

Does one really need to cross a continent or ocean to go on vacation? The climate of our one and only lifeboat, good old planet Earth, is going to hell in a hand basket and we demand the right to play the violin. A comment made in July 2006 by the Anglican bishop of London, England, Richard John Carew Chartres, was / is quite interesting in that regard: “Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin.” A sentence found that year by yours truly on the website of Atmosfair, a German environmental group, was / is equally interesting: “The best thing for the climate is not to fly at all.”

And do not get me started on space colonies on the Moon, Mars or Koozebane (Hello, Kermit!), or in orbit around the Earth.

Dare I say (type?) that it is time for members of our non-wise species, mainly white male members of our species, to break their addiction to techno-fetichism?

On this cheerful note, I bid you farewell and hope to “see” you soon. Try not bring about the collapse of our extraordinary planetary lifeboat’s ecosystem as you go about your daily life, humm.


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Rénald Fortier