What is it about the Boeing 767 that meant she has always been seen as somewhat of an also ran within BA ? As the saying goes, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”.
I think her problem ironically was also her strength, in that she was a ‘jack of all trades’. Neither the flagship of a shorthaul airline or the pride of the longhaul fleet, or certainly not within British Airways at least. Yet she has been quite a trailblazer in her time. Therefore as we bid farewell to this rather understated but remarkable aeroplane, as she makes her final commercial flight to Larnaca and back as BA662/663 on Sunday 25th November 2018, let’s just look back and recognise the contribution she has made over nearly 29 years of sterling service, along with a scattering of personal recollections over my eleven years flying her.
The initial order, announced on the 11th August 1987, was as the shorthaul replacement for the then midlife -1 variant of the Lockheed TriStar, which had been ordered by BEA and entered service with the newly created BA on its European trunk routes back in 1974. The new hulls were for use on both the Super Shuttle and key European routes. At that point a future order in the ‘smaller’ longhaul aircraft category, to replace the longer ranged TriStar-200’s and newly inherited ex BCal DC-10’s was supposed to be a two horse race between the A340 and the MD-11. However such was the versatility and economics of the new B767-300ER that it didn’t take long for the initial order for 11 hulls and 15 options to be increased. Tellingly no A340’s or MD-11’s were ever ordered by British Airways in the end.
How the initial order for 11 B767-300ER’s was announced to staff via the internal BA News newspaper on 14th August 1987. The actual announcement was made at the Extraordinary General Meeting which had been called for shareholders to vote on the proposed merger of British Airways and British Caledonian Airways (BCal).
Much was made of the value of the Rolls-Royce engines, a hitherto unavailable airframe/engine combination, with BA’s order launching the RB211 option onto the B767. Unfortunately for Rolls-Royce the pairing wasn’t a big winner, with only 3 other hulls being delivered worldwide beyond the BA fleet. However, for BA, it made perfect sense. The brand new B747-400’s would have identical RB211-524G/H’s fitted, and the ability to pool the engines between the two large fleets had a significant advantage.
The marrying of the Rolls-Royce engine to the B767-300ER airframe was not though without its hiccups. The initial test phase at Seattle clearly had some sort of reverser cowling issue, and many of the early test flight photographs show a rather unsightly amount of paint wear to the rear of the engine cowling aft of the reverse thrust translating cowl. This was however minor compared to the issues discovered a short time after entry into service, where cracks were found in the engine pylons necessitating a rework of the pylon itself. For a short time after the cracks were discovered, in August 1990, the entire BA 767 fleet comprising at that stage 7 hulls, were grounded, and the temporary modifications, re-evalutation of the stresses, and final fix, took well over a year, but the lessons learnt spilled over onto the other manufacturer options available on the B767. It is easy to criticise, but aviation has an incredibly good inspection and reporting culture, and I’d consider the discovery of these pylon issues as a great example of the how this works in practice. Unlike a new car, there is no three year waiver from inspections or MOT’s !
The reporting of the BA 767 fleet grounding due to the discovery of engine pylon cracks, from Flight International on 29th August 1990.
Once these early problems with the pylon cracks had been resolved however the 767 was the first fleet to introduce ETOPs flying into BA. With the fleet able to piggyback on the experience of the sister Caledonian Airways B757 ETOPs operation that had commenced in 1990, the 767 started transatlantic flights in late 1991, initially utilising the 120 minute rule before having this extended to the full 180 mins rule time which the fleet then operated to throughout the rest of its longhaul operating life. The 767 fleet was then instrumental in helping the airline to launch ‘out of the box’ ETOPs operations on the B777 fleet in 1995, with all of the pilots converting onto the new 777 during the early period of establishing the fleet routing via the 767 fleet to gain ETOPs experience.
The impact of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the resulting Gulf War 1 meant a rather inauspicious start for some of the fleet and two of the brand new hulls were delivered straight into desert storage at Mojave for a good six months including G-BNWL. Ten years later and during the downturn following 9/11 and Gulf War 2 several other hulls also had spells in desert storage including this time G-BNWC.
Newspaper cutting from The Daily Telegraph highlighting two stored brand new BA B767s in Mojave – 12th June 1991 – from my collection of BA aviation articles.
At this point I have to confess to not actually having much contact with the B767 within BA in its early years. In fact, I even gave it the cold shoulder. Like many, I was very impressed by its size, and as a cadet pilot under training at Prestwick in Ayrshire, was delighted to get to see one of the very early hulls at close hand, when one of the delivery flights from Seattle stopped off at Prestwick so we could take a peek. Back then it was the largest twin engined aircraft in existence and the BA version had the most powerful engines fitted. However I never flew on one in its early days, and even failed to meet the minimum age criteria to apply for the new Mid-fleet cabin-crew recruitment programme, during my enforced stand-down during Gulf War 1. I did however have a quick shorthaul flightdeck jumpseat familiarisation flight from LHR to FRA and back in the autumn of 2002 as part of my initial induction course which I clearly remember. Then when I did started flying and joined British Airways Regional (BAR) at Manchester, after just six months on the line, flying the B737-200, I was, along with all my course contemporaries, offered the opportunity to transfer to the new BAR 767 fleet, for which BA were struggling to fill the internal pilot vacancies and we as a group just met the minimum experience requirement to join this small longhaul fleet. Given the option was to give up flying 30 or so sectors a month to some of the busiest hubs in Europe, plus a varied weekend charter programme, in exchange for some ‘heavy metal’ regional 767 flying from MAN, GLA and BHX to just JFK, plus the 5 times a week MAN-LAX service, I decided to declined the offer, and stayed put on the B737 !
Consequently it was some time before I was to fly on a BA 767 again. As was regrettably too often the case, when the opportunity to open new routes presented themselves, the obvious hull to utilise was one not currently at Heathrow. Therefore, despite making good progress, the relatively new MAN-LAX service was dropped to allow a 767 hull to transfer south and be utilised from LHR for the newly acquired passenger rights on the Levant routes to Beirut, Damascus and Amman. So it was only then, that I took my first real flight as a passenger on a BA 767, flying to Beirut in 1995, to visit Lebanon, a country that had always interested me. As it turned out, the country so captured my imagination that I rebooked my return flight, as BA were only offering a twice weekly Beirut flight at that time, and I returned a few days later than originally planned on a British Mediterranean (BMed) A320, when they were a newly formed independent carrier, this being prior to them becoming a BA franchise operator. So my tally of sectors aboard our 767 fleet totalled just three for the first 13 years of the fleets existence.
The next 11 years of course were to see a few more, as I completed the short ‘differences course’ at the end of my conversion into the B757, enabling me to operate all of the aircraft within the combined BA 757/767 fleet. I will always remember the day of my first flight at the controls of the 767, not for the experience, as enjoyable as it was, or for the destination, to Geneva and back, as spectacular as that flight always is, but for something far more tragic. As I was driving away from Heathrow, having completed my first two landing on type, the news broke of the loss on reentry of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The date therefore, as confirmed in my logbook, was Saturday 1st February 2003.
Soon afterwards I completed my ETOPs training with a trip under supervision to Baltimore, a route the 767 was ideally suited for, allowing this alternative gateway to the U.S. capital to be served on a daily basis. Although I had flown over parts of the BA longhaul network for 5 years as a first officer, I didn’t have the extensive longhaul experience of many of my contemporaries, and my first longhaul sector, having been released ‘to the line’ therefore was something that I both enjoyed and found challenging, as it was to Entebbe, probably the most performance limiting destination at that time on the BA 767 network. Although the fleet was also flying to Bogota, in Colombia, that was flown as a shuttle from Caracas and despite the airfield’s very high elevation and surrounding terrain, the aircraft was not too close to its performance limits. Entebbe though, sitting at 3782ft amsl, on the shores of Lake Victoria under a blazing equatorial sun, was very much at the edge of the B767’s performance envelope for a non-stop fully leaden flight to Heathrow. It was airfields like this and neighbouring Nairobi that the VC10 had been designed, for BOAC. BA had always operated 4 engined aircraft from Entebbe until the DC-10 was placed on the route in the mid 1990’s and despite the lack of terrain at either end of R/W 17/35, performance and birdstrike risks always made for a sharpened pencil performance calculation. The introduction of a twin engined aircraft onto the route only exacerbated the issue and it was a frequent balancing act to match the freight onload, much of it perishable vegetable exports, with the ever increasing outside air temperature and therefore reducing RTOW (on the day maximum takeoff weight), as the morning departure raced against this rising temperature to depart with all of this cargo. Both runway directions had pros and cons. Did you take the often wet downhill runway, accelerating to near tyre limiting speeds towards the ever looming Lake Victoria, with what seemed like an impossibly high V1 decision speed, or the lumbering uphill roll that was at least pointing towards London but what seemed like a far slower rate of acceleration ? Often the performance off either direction was similar, with air conditioning packs switched off, and (at that point) unusual ‘green pages’ of performance figures extracting every last bit of weight out of the wing with ‘Increased V2’ speeds. The final decision over which direction to depart though was often based on what came down to the simplest of observations – put simply, which way were the flags on the top of the terminal building blowing ! I still don’t think I have operated as close to the edge of an airliner’s performance limits as those departures out of Entebbe. What an introduction to longhaul flying as a skipper, and a destination I continued to enjoy until leaving the B767 fleet in 2014, not long before the Entebbe BA063/062 service was suspended, as the longhaul 767 fleet numbers started to reduce as part of the final rundown of the fleet.
A blank ‘Vital Data Card’ used to calculate the maximum available take off weight (RTOW), speeds and take off power settings for each departure runway on the day, using data extracted from the Performance Manual, and the reverse side, which was used to record the various ‘minima’ comprising decision heights and visibility requirements for each approach.
Of course the BA 767 fleet has been in ‘fleet rundown’ for longer than it was ever growing. The first hull, G-BNWB, was delivered in Feb 1990, and the final of the 28 hulls eventually ordered, G-BZHC, arrived from Seattle in June 1998, just over 8 years after the first. A mere 2 years later and with over capacity in the airline, a decision was taken to reduce the fleet by 7 hulls in summer 2000, and these hulls, which I was never to fly, found themselves a new life serving in a Rolls-Royce sub-fleet with Qantas until their eventual retirement around 5 years ago. The fleet numbered 21 hulls when I joined it but even that seemed as though it might soon decline further and rapidly, as BA were actively engaged in a campaign to sell the entire remaining 767 fleet to the RAF to meet its future tanker requirement needs, and ironically, as a replacement for many ex BA VC10s and TriStars which were considered to be nearing the end of their life with the Royal Air Force. The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme was eventually won of course by the A330, and AirTanker was borne with new, rather than second hand hulls, so the BA 767 fleet soldiered on for yes, another fifteen years !
The fleet was operated with a variety of cabin configuration. The shorthaul layout seated initially a maximum of 247 passengers although the flexible Club Europe converter seats would bring this total down significantly and sometimes the premium European cabin went well back as far as Door 3 on a busy business route. For longhaul they were mostly configured in a three class layout with a First Class cabin, cradle Club World seats and a popular 2-3-2 World Traveller cabin. The two seats outside of the aisle remained a very popular choice for couples travelling together right until the end of the B767’s longhaul flying days just a couple of years ago. In time the new flat-bed First Class seats were added. For the sole remaining regional flying longhaul 767, serving the ever popular daily Manchester – New York JFK route, it was configured with just two classes, and no First Class cabin. Therefore the a/c selected for this cabin configuration would invariably spend all its time ploughing this route, except for its monthly engineering visit to Heathrow where a swap would always try to be implemented by placing it, and its temporary replacement 3-class hull on the Manchester shuttle route. Invariably something always seemed to go wrong with this pairing but passengers had a nice surprise when they boarded a 30 minute shuttle flight to be greeted with First Class and Club World seats if they had a low seat row number and disappointment if they were seated ‘down the back’, despite actually having more legroom than on any standard shuttle aircraft they might normally have boarded.
On the left the original longhaul cabin layout from the Summer 1992 BA timetable and on the right the slightly altered longhaul configuration with the additional First class seat and one pair of Club World seats removed, from the Summer 1994 BA timetable. Note how the longhaul fleet number has continued to climb between the two issues, two years apart.
The various BA 767 cabin layouts in use in summer 2000, with the single Manchester – New York hull shown on the far left.
In late 2005 a decision was made to extensively update the longhaul 767’s cabins and introduce World Traveller Plus. Detailed studies were carried out, but in the end it was decided the available floor area was insufficient to allow a profitable 4-class mix of seats, so the decision was made to remove the First Class cabin from all of the longhaul 767 fleet and install a 3 class configuration with the latest lie flat Club World seats. For a period the 767s had the same produce on board as all of the other BA longhaul fleets. Along with this upgrade, the regional cabin configuration was dropped so the MAN-JFK route had the same product as all of the LHR hulls. This halved the positioning sectors between MAN and LHR and whichever aircraft went up to Manchester would now stay there for the month before being swapped over every 28 days. Also at this time four previously shorthaul configured hulls were upgraded to ETOPs standard and had their cabins changed to the new 3-class configuration. This changed the ratio to 14 longhaul and 7 shorthaul aircraft, and was particularly welcomed by the pilots for not only did it bring an increase in longhaul destinations, it also triggered an automatic pay rise, as our pay was linked to the ratio of longhaul to shorthaul hulls within the combined B757/767 fleet !
The upgrade of the four previous shorthaul hulls once again showed the versatility of the fleet. Although the cabins had different layouts, all 28 767s delivered to BA were of the same standard, and all were capable of operating 180 minute ETOPs flights once their individual modification and inspection regime was brought up to the latest ETOPs requirement level. This offered the ability to flex the respective long and shorthaul fleet sizes to meet the overall fleet plans of the airline. There was really only one significant difference between any of the 28 hulls, and that was that the first four hulls, Whiskey Alpha to Whiskey Delta were not fitted with a fuel jettison facility. Of the four aircraft upgraded in 2006, two of those selected for the upgrade were WC & WD, which raised some interesting operational issues should one need to return to land quickly after departure. Of course the only occasion I ever had needed to utilise the centre tank fuel jettison facility, on a medical diversion into Keflavik, you guessed it, I was on board one of these two hulls, Whiskey Delta. I believe they call this Murphy’s Law. It’s amazing just how uncomfortable and noisy it is flying with the gear down and speedbrake extended as you race towards your diversion airport juggling the fuel burn against the maximum landing weight whilst getting the passenger on the ground within a reasonable time frame. Of course we would have landed overweight if needed, but by judging the three we managed to land just below the maximum landing weight, thus saving an overweight landing inspection and crucially, the time this would have taken, which meant we were able to continue on to Calgary, our destination, having offloaded our sick passenger, without running out of available crew duty hours.
One small but significant part of the 767’s operational history was it was chosen as the fleet to succeed the TriStar for use on official State Visits by HM The Queen, and had a special cabin layout and suite for use, which would be specially fitted for these flights. Chartered by the Government, these carefully planned trips often took the 767 far from its regular route network. One particularly notable visit was undertaken by G-BNWR in April 1999 to South Korea, and as part of this trip Whiskey Romeo was rolled out in the full Chatham Historic Dockyard Union Flag tail livery, and thus became the first subsonic aircraft of the BA fleet to wear what would be adopted as the new corporate livery as the ‘Utopia’ World Images project was dropped, in favour of a more uniform branding. One could say where the 767 leads, the rest of the BA fleet follows !
Whiskey Romeo in South Korea in April 1999 where she was the first aircraft in the subsonic fleet to wear the Chatham Historic Dockyard livery that was specially applied for the Queen’s State Visit. Photograph from the BA Heritage Centre.
The 767 had extremely good range and was limited not so much by its fuel capacity but in fact by the limits of industrial and legal crew hours, for the aircraft were not fitted with dedicated crew rest bunks. It’s longest sector times whilst in service were the Manchester to Los Angeles and Hyderabad to Heathrow flights. In fact the HYD-LHR service was only able to operate on the 767 in the summer season as the average stronger winter headwinds pushed the flightime beyond what could be scheduled without the accompanying rest facilities. Despite this restriction, and the slightly slower normal cruising speed of Mach 0.80, compared to other longhaul aircraft, it nevertheless was scheduled on some long sectors from London, which included Caracas, Lusaka, Seattle and Vancouver over the years. Probably the most unusual destination I flew a 767 into though was the Seychelles, where for a short period of time before the route was dropped in 2004, it was operated as a shuttle from Nairobi by the fleet. It certainly was an interesting place to fly into and my one and only flying visit was not unfortunately timed to benefit from those clear blue Indian Ocean skies. The weather was decidedly marginal, with a strong gusty crosswind and a local operator’s 767 was already making a precautionary return after dumping fuel, having experienced a tailscrape on departure in the challenging conditions. Certainly not ideal, but we were fortunate in being able to squeeze on enough fuel to allow us to land just below maximum landing weight whilst still retaining enough diversion fuel to make it back to Dar es Salaam, one of our regular scheduled destinations and a lot more appealing than holding overhead with just 2 hours worth of ‘island reserve’ fuel and no alternate within reach. Certainly one of those days at work I will always remember.