Brian Wiklem might be the ultimate avgeek. He’s also a good friend of Avgeekery. Over the past decade, Brian has entertained us with a series of exclusive documentaries on the final passenger flight of the DC-10 along with the final year of the Goodyear blimp. For the past couple of years though, Brian has seemed to be relevantly quiet recently. In reality though, he’s spent the past four years working on a pretty amazing project. He’s building the ultimate guide to the BAe 146. Read our interview to learn more about this amazing project.
1.) Brian, it’s great to chat with you again. Last we talked, you had just wrapped up an awesome documentary about the final year of the Goodyear blimp. And you also first broke onto the scene with a DC-10 retirement video. Now you are back with a new project and this one is pretty big. Tell us more about your project to build the definitive history of the BAe 146.
I had written another book about a rare Italian sports car, the Cizeta V16T (aka Cizeta Moroder). It started in 2005 when I was friends with the creator, and after talking about one of the cars and the color (blue – a personal favorite), i asked if he had photos. So he let me go through his archives, and after all was said and done, I had so much content that a story needed to be told. It took nearly seven years (and quite a few phone calls with none other than Jay Leno), and I finally wrapped it up. I swore I’d never write another book again because of how labor intensive it is.
Fast forward to 2016, and I had bought out another BAe 146 collector (yes, there’s more than one!) collection. After going through all the boxes of photos and documents, I realized there was a story to tell. I love research, and pretty soon I had gone so far down the rabbit hole, it was clear there was a compelling story to tell. But I find most aircraft books “dry” – they tell you the basic history and technical aspects, but I feel most leave out the real story, the aspects that make aviation compelling. So I reached out far and wide, and spent lots of time not only talking to those that built and flew the aircraft, but those that sold it, maintained it, and tried to wrap all the crazy stories into a compelling history that sums up the aircraft quite well. I’m really happy that I managed to spend time with those who were with the 146 in the early days, including those that were reps for British Aerospace but stationed at the respective airlines (like PSA, AirCal, and more). I felt if I were going to write another book, it had to be intriguing, it had to tell a complete story, and it had to be comprehensive unlike all other books before it. Thankfully I had a half dozen “beta-readers” who read the early drafts, and the feedback shared the same summary: “I tried not to read it in one sitting, but it was so engrossing!” I hope the consensus from the finished product doesn’t change.
2.) We’re sure many readers are wondering,”Out of all of the unique aircraft, what made your heart settle on a 4 engined airliner that looks like a shrunken airlifter?”
There’s just something cool and unique about the 4-engine jet, especially a high wing regional jet. It was like watching a miniature C-17 coming into land. When you get past the jokes (e.g. “Bring another engine” or “the jet with 5-apu’s”) it’s a really fascinating aircraft, and all the behind the scenes stories bring to light how many times the project could have and should have been cancelled, not to mention all the corporate financial tom-foolery that nearly bankrupt British Aerospace as an entire company (not just the regional jet division). There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s excitement, and arguably to a degree, there’s a bad guy. All great story material.
3.) In your promotional materials, you mention that the BAe-146 was the most over engineered regional jet. What do you mean by that?
The aircraft was arguably over designed and overbuilt. To the point that it was a Swiss Army Knife that most airlines didn’t need. Sure it had steep approach, could land on unpaved fields, could get in and out of short airfields, and was super quiet. But most airlines just didn’t need that flexibility. When you look at the number of steep approach airports the aircraft excelled at, it was in the single digits. Only a couple of airlines used the unpaved field performance, and the insanity of a 4-engine regional jet just was overbuilt.
BAe sales literature really hyped the “if you lose an engine on take off, you lose 25%, not 50% like most aircraft,” but then the messaging in sales literature had the plane (and flight) carrying on to its destination with 3 engines even though practically every airline SOP would have the aircraft return to the airport immediately, not continue onto its destination. Mechanics of the 146 summed it up this way: The 146 needed daily attention, not a lot, but needed some attention and the aircraft would never break.
A Boeing or McDonnell Douglas plane on the other hand didn’t need tending to daily – however, when they went down, they went down ‘hard’. What really did the BAe in during the 1980s was BAe’s cavalier attitude with regards to airline service requests. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were required to turn around a response within 24 hours. With BAe, you’d be luck if you got a response in 3 months, there customer service was that bad – even when they had reps from BAe stationed at the airline like PSA.
4.) The BAe 146 also preceded the downfall of the UK’s commercial aviation manufacturing industry. How big of a role did the -146 play in this major industry shift?
The 146 was looked down upon across the board. Because the resurrection of the 146 programme from Hawker Siddeley to the conglomerate that became British Aerospace, there was politics at play, and there was a sizeable chunk of the industry that felt the BAC One-Eleven successor (the Two-Eleven) should have been the aircraft that the company moved forward with.
When Airbus has established itself with the A320, it viewed the Avro RJ (and the 2-engine successors that were regularly discussed) as a competitive aircraft even though BAe was building wings for Airbus, and of course lets not forget Fokker lodged lots of complaints with the EU over the 146. BAE Regional Jets through the years from the mid-80s through the early 90s had looked for ways to get out of building aircraft and focus on being a supplier instead. It’s a simple question, but a very long story (hence the book).
5.) This book took 4 years of research to complete and then publish. Give me a hint of why your attention to detail and passion for the jet make this book unique.
I feel like 4 years wasn’t enough. Every day I am still learning something new about it. But I’ll say this: I didn’t spend 100% of my time focusing on BAe’s story only, but focusing on why airlines bought and operated the aircraft. I spent a lot of time talking to BAe Customer Service reps (many who left BAe to work for the airlines they were stationed at), not to mention the heads of airlines at the time (some of which run airlines today). It’s the deep dive into the stories of the airlines that make the book so fascinating. Most don’t know that PSA who was initially the largest customer (replaced by Mesaba/Northwest in 1997) of the 146 was at a crossroads in 1983: Buy the Boeing 757 (or Airbus A310 or McDonnell Douglas MD-90 which was different than the MD-90 we know today) and go big, or to go in a completely different direction and go with a smaller aircraft.
PSA actually became more successful and gained far more market share because the BAe 146 allowed them to move into new airports, some of which never had jet service until the 146. Another example is the battle at SNA (John Wayne Airport) between home based airline AirCal and PSA who was moving into their turf. SNA was slot controlled due to noise and airport capacity with the county (and Newport Beach to the south who was very vocal and anti-jet) AirCal had just bought the Boeing 737-300, but could only fly out of SNA with 100 passengers because of payload restrictions due to noise abatement. PSA came in with the 146, and it was so quiet, PSA ushered in a problem for the county: The 146 technically was so quiet, it qualified for unrestricted movements. Technically, the slots allotted weren’t an issue any more. But SNA stepped in because they couldn’t let PSA run as many flights as they wanted. Again, it’s a long story (covered in the book), but Boeing and AirCal didn’t take PSA and the 146 sitting down and developed the take-off that exists to this day with a power reduction of N2 to avoid triggering noise sensors.
Then there’s the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) I filed to the FBI to unlock the tragic murder inflight of PSA 1771. I got nearly 400 pages back from the FBI, and some of the details are both fascinating, scary, and diabolical of what happened. The one aspect that came to light reading the CVR was how re-enactments are not totally correct on TV broadcast (they “Hollywood” the event up a bit). I have way more research than could fit in the book.
I could go on and on, but I valued the time I spent with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s personal pilot, Graham Laurie who was instrumental in helping connect the dots with the royal flight, and his friend who ran the initial evaluation of the 146 for the Royal Air Force using two aircraft (ZE700 and ZE701) for two years before they were traded in and two new build BAe 146-100s were purchased for the Royal Family (32nd Squadron).
I even reached out to the Royal Family, of which Prince Philip and Prince Charles responded with information including Prince Philip’s 146 conversion training log.
6.) We also heard that you have a special edition of the book with a cover made out of real BAe 146 skin. Is that true?
Partially. The special edition comes with a nice storage case, a Blu-Ray disc with nearly 7 hours of BAe films like handover/delivery ceremonies, promotional films, and air tanker tests. It also comes with a USB thumb drive with over 200 marketing brochures, newsletters and more. Finally, the special edition is limited to 400 copies, and it comes with a serial number plate featuring the number of an actual airframe, and this plate is made from the skin of a retired BAe 146.
7.) Ok that sounds awesome. If I’m interested in reading your book or contributing to your mission of telling this unique aviation story, how do I get my hands on it?
Why the Kickstarter of course!