Slow to adopt flying aids proven in war, commercial aviation has scared away many customers, and still treats the rest like sheep

LESLIE ROBERTS April 15 1947


Slow to adopt flying aids proven in war, commercial aviation has scared away many customers, and still treats the rest like sheep

LESLIE ROBERTS April 15 1947



Slow to adopt flying aids proven in war, commercial aviation has scared away many customers, and still treats the rest like sheep


THE WEATHER at Dorval was definitely soupy. Sixteen people milled around the ticket counter, had their baggage weighed, then drifted to chairs in the concourse and assumed the half dead, half alive postures of waiting. The time for scheduled departure arrived and passed. Nothing happened. In what the armed services call due course, a voice announced on the loud speaker that a brief delay would occur in departure of the New York flight. People shuffled off to the `k~estaurant, drank coffee, thumbed newspapers and magazines. Others gazed dully at the weather. More than two hours passed before the 16 were loaded into a twin-engined aircraft, which ambled out to the end of a runway, revved its motors and took off into the muck.

For an hour the plane flew bumpily in dense mist which often hid the wing tips. Then it emerged on top of the weather and rode above solid cloud in brilliant sunshine. The “fasten safety belts” signal flicked off. In another half hour the first break in the cloud showed the Hudson below. Everybody began to feel fine. Journey’s end was just ahead. Even when the muck closed in again the cabin vibrated with the sense of anticipation which flows through ships, trains and airplanes when the end of the road is at hand.

At this point the stewardess stepped through the bulkhead from the cockpit and spoke to each passenger on her way aft. “We won’t be landing for more than an hour,” the young lady said. No explanation, just that.

The airliner flew figure-eight circuits. Every once in a while it would take off altitude and resume stooging around. After what felt like eternity the nose went steeply down, the aircraft broke through the ceiling and came over LaGuardia Field.

Such incidents happen so often on the airlines of North America that they have become routine to experienced travellers. Not so to the tyro, however, and the airlines still have to rely on tyros if they’re going to fill those seats again.

What had happened that morning? Not much of anything. First, LaGuardia had told Montreal it couldn’t receive the flight before a specified time, due to congestion following a weather shutdown. The liner didn’t take off until its captain knew he could get in at the other end, even though his landing might be delayed. Nobody told the cash customers this, however. The customers simply sat around and waited, the seasoned traveller, bored stiff and wishing he had stayed in bed, the newcomers growing more fidgety every minute about the delay, the weather and everything concerned with their projected adventure.

After take-off nobody told passengers, “We’ll be in cloud most of the way. It’s going to be bumpy, so you’ll have to wear your safety belts.” The inexperienced wondered what was going on and didn’t like it.

When the plane was “stacked” over New York, waiting its turn at the runway, nobody explained why. As a result several passengers landed tired and strained, when they might just as well have been relaxed. The old-timers who knew the score were equally unhappy, because they were three hours late. Yet it had been an uneventful flight. Most airlines apparently

Continued on page 59

Continued from page 22

think such matters are none of the passenger’s business. Which all adds up to poor passenger psychology.

Airline people will point out, of course, that when a train is late the conductor doesn’t walk up and down the cars soothing the customers. Nor does the captain issue hourly bulletins at sea. So why should you be told what goes on when you are flying? The answer is simple.

We are not living in the first generation of the railway and the steamship. People take trains and ships for granted because they have been riding in them since childhood. Nobody stays off the railroads in Canada when a wreck happens in California. Nobody in Montreal puts up his car because another motorist killed himself in Toronto yesterday. But to all but a minority of North Americans, air travel is still a novelty, approached in precisely the same manner in which early adventurers on the railroads viewed the transportation innovations of Victoria’s day.

What’s Meant by “Safe”?

Thus, when 23 air accidents occurred in a period of less than two months between Dec. 24, 1946, and Feb. 14, 1947, in various parts of the world, the North American airlines had only a small backlog of seasoned travellers who would continue to ride. The still inhibited tyro, who had made a couple of short air jumps, promptly decided that the best place for his feet was on the ground. As this is written his kind were still avoiding the ticket counters in droves. On the morning of the day this is written, this reporter shared a 21-place job from Ottawa to Montreal with two other passengers!

What is the low-down on air travel from the customer’s point of view? People want to know, “Is flying safe?”

Actually such a question is utter oversimplification. The definition of “safe” depends on the asker’s knowledge, or lack of it, and the word itself is obviously relative. But that doesn’t stop people asking it. To answer it the experts pull reams of statistics out of filing cabinets to prove that you are “safer” riding in an airliner at 8,000 feet than in your own automobile. They are right. But the public doesn’t believe them. The reason is that North Americans are accustomed to travel in automobiles, but have not come to similar acceptance of the airplane.

To reduce the question to what it means in the average potential air traveller’s mind—is the air safer than the railroads, than the automobile? The record is good. During the three years 1943-45, 2.8 people were killed in autortiobiles for every 100,000,000 passenger miles travelled, only two in crack-ups from the air.

The railways’ comparable figure, according to statistics of the American Association of Railroads, would be less than .2 fatalities per three-year period, one tenth that of the airlines. The railroaders point out that by travelling 100 miles a day by train the passenger would ride for 20,000 years before anything could be expected to happen to him. Despite all that evidence, you can produce figures until the tabulators collapse, and buy full pages in which to display the results, but if an airliner bumps into a California sierra tomorrow it will take another big bite of public away from the scheduled air routes in Canada. A psychiatrist could tell you why in a minute, even

though apparently the airlines can’t.

A discussion of safety factors divides into two brackets: those which exist now, because they govern the safety and efficiency of flight today, and those which will be added tomorrow—some of them beginning to reach the scheduled airlines and civilian airports now.

In general, present equipment is well known. To sum up quickly, the airliner’s cockpit panel is a maze of instruments which tell the pilot his height, reveal the slightest degree of turn, of up-tilt or down-tilt, instruments which keep him on an even keel when flying blindin mist or fog. Icing has been brought under control. The airliner flies a radio beam which is a point-to-point highway of sound across the sky. Its captain is in constant twoway voice contact with the ground, knows what other aircraft are around him and their altitudes and courses. Barring structural breakdowns and engine trouble, the air is an extremely safe place to be and letter-perfect maintenance, inspection and overhauls, carried out on rigid schedules, have virtually written off these problems. The high level of pilot discipline and training exacted by the scheduled operators is another extremely important factor, heavily underlined in Canada.

Weather which blacks out the ground, overcrowded air in congested metropolitan areas, and human error, are the enemies still to be licked. Can governments and airlines overcome them? If so, when?

Canada is in what may be termed a special position in respect to safeguards in general use today, and for special reasons. Last year Canadian commercial aircraft flew over a 34,000-mile web of domestic routes without a single accident to nearly 800,000 passengers. Trans-Canada flew 308,000 customers, a 69% increase over 1945, without incident, while its Atlantic service logged its 1,000th crossing without accident. As another winter-flying season ended the Canadian record was one passenger fatality for 76,500,000 regularly scheduled passenger miles flown. The last fatal accident in an airliner in Canada had occurred in 1942.

One of these special reasons is that our air is not crowded. So long as the field at, say, Toronto is not closed in by weather, no airliner captain lives with the haunting fear of fuel exhaustion because the control tower has him stacked up waiting his turn to land.

Canada Has Good Weather

A second is that we are not engaged in competitive flying between cities, a statement which is not to be construed as an argument against competitive enterprise, as such. South of the border you will often find three or four lines competing over the same route, plus independents bidding for charters and freight-carrying jobs. Final decision to fly or not to fly is the captain’s, but if one pilot decides to push on into inclement weather, 10 to one his competitors will follow him. The practice can make for unwarranted risks and you tan find plenty of American authorities to agree that commercial aviation will not add up to a sound competitive business so long as air highways are so few and so narrow.

A third—and this will amaze many climate-conscious Canadians—is that our winter weather is considerably better for flying than its counterpart over huge areas of the United States, where what is commonly termed pea soup drifts among the treetops and erases the ground from visibility much

Continued on page 62

Continued from page 59

oftener than is the case north of the 49th parallel.

Canadian ground maintenance and inspection, and the excellence of crew training and discipline, have been extolled as the best in the world, although yardsticks of comparison are not easily come by. The extreme caution with which Canadian scheduled lines fly, irritating though it can be to the man in a hurry, is something else to add to the dossier of safety.

Giving the Pilot a Break

Next come such questions as: What are the new scientific devices destined to increase the efficiency and safety of flight? When will they be available? When we get them will they make flying weatherproof and foolproof? Shall we then be able to book passage knowing that planes will leave on time, arrive on time and operate with the same degree of regularity as the railways?

First comes the item of controlled blind landings, for the most urgent problem is to get planes out of the air when the ceiling falls onto the ground, and so keep airports open day in and out. Two excellent devices are now in restricted use in the United States. Canadian fields are currently busy with installation of the more widely favored of these.

One, called the Instrument Landing System (ILS), is simply a slanting radio beam which leads the pilot down to the edge of the runway a few feet above its surface, where he levels off and lands visually. The other is a radar device known as Ground Controlled Approach (GCA). It reverses ILS, in that the pilot’s landing is made for him by experts on the ground, not by him from the cockpit. The approach of the aircraft as it dips toward the runway is shown as a pin point of light on a radar screen and the expert “ashore” simply tells the captain what to do and when.

A considerable controversy has raged apropos the two systems. The airline captains want the Instrument Landing System, and no part of the idea of having their landings made for them by jokers sitting at desks. United States Army and Navy pilots, however, are solid for GCA. The Navy says it has saved 469 aircraft which would have been unable to make normal landings because of zero visibility. The sailors add that they never have to shut down their airports any more. The Army talks even bigger. It says that in a 15-month period 2,847 landings were made with GCA in weather conditions which would have been hopeless without radar control.

Perhaps the answer to the debate lies in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommendation that ILS be adopted “for all international airports as soon as possible and not later than Jan. 1, 1951.” The ICAO lawgivers added a rider to the effect that GCA could well be used to supplement ILS, which may be the ultimate answer. Meanwhile ILS has the edge in civil operations. The airline pilots won their battle.

Installations already have been made on 35 civilian fields in the United States and 75 more are on the way. So far as Canada is concerned several of our big city airports were in the installat ion stage when this was writ ten. II^S was “in” at Montreal’s Dorval and experimental landings were being made. Equipment had either been delivered, or was on order for, the Toronto area, for Winnipeg and for fields in the Maritimes. The down-east dromes will probably be the first to go operational, because of coastal fog problems in

domestic flying and to provide transatlantic aircraft with “open” fields, no matter what the seaboard weather. GCA is not contemplated in Canada at this time.

The experts are also tinkering studiously with what is best described as radar traffic control for the air. When perfected it will enable the aerial traffic cop in the control tower to see every plane within a 20to 30-mile radius of his runways, at whatever altitude it is flying. Impulses sent into the air give back a “ping” when they encounter an “object” and the ping of sound is converted (let’s not get in too deep here) into a moving pin point of light on an illuminated screen. So far as civilian airfields are concerned this device is still in the blueprint stage. When it leaves the drafting table it may be a means to clearing away a considerable part of the remaining congestion problem, which leads to “stacking” over busy fields.

The obverse side of the coin is the air-borne radar which sends out impulses from the plane and records obstructions in its path. If it can be perfected this device could stop people bumping into mountains, but airline experts thus far have not been impressed by performance. Reflections on the pilot’s screen were not sufficiently bright to be useful in daylight and the beams were cluttered by pings kicking back from the surface objects. Experiments continue.

In the field of radar Canada has been, and is, among the leaders and National Research Council is carrying on major experiments at its field station near Ottawa. Recently a radar tower was installed for Trans-Canada at Stevenson Field in Winnipeg as a first step toward widespread use.

At some future date, distant or near, what is called the Omnidirectional Range will probably replace, or supplement, the existing radio beams in domestic flying. Its first use will be to give further relief to congestion in the approaches to metropolitan fields by widening out the beam highways and opening the entire air in areas into which aircraft are flying from several directions simultaneously.

As to what may become a complementary instrument, TCA and National Research have developed a radar gadget, known as the Air-borne Dis-

tance Indicator, which throws impulses from the cockpit to a ground station and converts the time of their return to the aircraft into a measurement of distance. The first of these is now in experimental use in a TCA Lancaster. According to experts combination of the Indicator and the Omnidirectional Range will enable pilots to approach airports from any direction with accurate knowledge of their position at all times.

Loran, originally a wartime code name, is an instrument carried in the aircraft, which receives impulses from several ground stations simultaneously and accurately plots bearings to give the navigator an accurate “fix” on his position. It is used by Trans-Canada and others on the Atlantic service.

These are by no means all of the new instruments, gadgets and devices which are either coming into use, or are in the experimental stage. Another is something called FIDO, a fog dispersal system which was used operationally in Britain during the last two years of the war. It consists of fuel jets bordering a runway, capable of burning off fog to a height of 600 feet. In its original form FIDO is said to have cost the RAF $9,000 per landing. Postwar experimentation with new jets and cheap fuels is reported to have cut this figure to the amazing mark of $45. All manner of new ideas are drifting around in the fertile minds of the scientists and getting doodled onto scratch pads. We are just entering the gate to what may be called the scientific air age.

Human Factor Remains

Seventeen of the 23 fatal air accidents which happened in various parts of the world between Christmas Eve, 1946, and Feb. 14, 1947, were in blind weather. They resulted from aircraft wandering off course, flying too low in mountainous country, or running out of fuel while searching for open airdromes. Under these conditions the human factor is bound to enter into the picture —and 70% of flying accidents can be charged off to human error, a majority of them the result of serious miscalculation or mistake under the urgent pressure of exhausted fuel and invisible runways. Obviously, then, blind-landing equipment will take the pressure off

Continued on page 64

Continued from page 62

the pilot and the risk of error« in judgment should largely disappear.

Fallibility will remain, of course. It was built into the human personality thousands of years ago and science cannot exorcise it. Every once in a while a railway switchman will forget to throw a lever and a freight will pile into the rear of a standing passenger train. Ships will wander out of buoyed channels and pile up on rocks. The safety deportment of t he North American motorist is a constant threat, not only to himself and his passengers, but to the innocent bystander. The airmen hold no mortage on a trait which has been distributed among all of us, no matter what juggernauts we drive.

Nowhere on earth will you find as high a percentage of responsible people as in the cockpits of commercial aircraft and the control towers of our airports. The statement is equally true of the shops where aircraft are serviced, inspected and overhauled. But the people charged with educating North America to a new medium of movement do not share this sense of responsibility and its accompanying intelligent approach. The truth is they were not prepared for the surge of traffic which came their way as soon as wartime priorities were lifted. South of the

border the convenience of the customer has been considered in approximately the same degree as on the subway to Brooklyn at the rush hour. In Canada it was considerably better, but they still kept you kicking around when you might have been in a Pullman car, which is no way to make friends of busy people.

The siren-songsters waxed lyrical about the safety of the air. Copy writers lured the citizen with pep talks about luxury and speed, but as soon as he paid for his ticket the minions started kicking him around. The airlines were going to move North America out of its lower berth and into the air, but fast, this while airliners were completing little more than 50% of their scheduled flights on time, some not at all.

When the overgrown boy scouts of ballyhoo achieve the maturity of their railroading brethren, when they begin to teach confidence in flying precisely as it must be taught to a child who is learning to swim, people will begin to realize that the air is a swell place to ride. That means starting again from taw. When the service rendered after the ticket is sold lives up to the color pages which create the sale, the public will come back to the airlines, not before. fy