Flying a jet airliner at 50 feet over the Atlantic

Caliopes
2 min readJun 20, 2019
Cliff of Mohur, County Clare, Western Ireland

In the late 1960’s flight simulators were in their infancy and didn’t accurately represent the flight characteristics of actual aircraft.

Extreme manoeuvres and emergency procedures required for pilot certification were practiced in a real aircraft which was flown far from densely populated areas.

BOAC based a 4-engine, 190 seat VC10 jet at Shannon in the west of Ireland for training purposes and the licencing exercises were performed high above the Atlantic Ocean.

The majority of Training Captains were ex-RAF war time pilots and my Training Captain had taken part in the famous “Dam-Buster” bombing raid over Germany in World War II. At the end of each training session he would descend to 50 feet above the Atlantic and relive his illustrious foray.

An excerpt from my book-”Dancing the skies and falling with style.”

We hurtled towards the immense, dull sepia sandstone cliffs towering above us, just visible in the spray between each frantic stroke of the windscreen wiper. The gusting wind blew across the ocean current below us, stirring the slate-grey sea into a frenzied chop, from which spray was flung high in the air. We were flying at 50ft above the Atlantic at our maximum speed of 280 knots directly towards the 700ft high foreboding Cliffs of Moher in a BOAC VC10 airliner. The noise from the slipstream was deafening, the air was turbulent, and the aircraft shuddered and shook. It was difficult to read the instruments, but the Flight Engineer called out the altitude from the radio altimeter.

“52 feet, 50 feet, 48 feet!” he squeaked.

The pitch of his voice on the intercom rose as our altitude decreased. If we had flown any lower, I’m sure he could have sung Castrato in an Italian opera.

The massive stratified rock face virtually filled the whole windscreen, casting us in its shadow. I could make out O’Brien’s Tower perched on the precipitous summit with flocks of seagulls circling and wheeling around it. Atlantic rollers crashed into the base of the cliffs in an explosion of spume.

In the seat beside me was a bemedaled, ex RAF ace who had flown on the famous ‘Dam Buster’ raid during the war. He sat ram-rod straight, hands firmly on the controls, staring intently ahead with a manic grin on his face.

Who was I to question him? A mere Cadet? I didn’t dare.

We were going to crash into the cliffs, but I said nothing.

My sphincter was going ‘half-crown, thrupenny bit, half-crown thrupenny bit’ as I closed my eyes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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