Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
The aviation industry has developed the art of staging events to unveil its new products to ever greater heights of sophistication and showmanship. The old, simple ritual of ‘open the hangar doors and wheel out the prototype’ has been replaced by indoor ceremonies involving subdued lighting, dry ice clouds, strobe lights, loud music and the inevitable PR hype. Yes, I’ve been to a few — but I’ve also enjoyed several lower-key events completely devoid of razzmatazz, particularly when they mark the end of an era rather than the beginning.
One such occasion was on 25 September 1981, when a small, early-morning press call was arranged at Heathrow to mark the final scheduled flight from the airport by a propliner. DC-6B OH-KDA — a swing-tail conversion carried out by Sabena Engineering — of the Finnish carrier Kar-Air flew a three-days-a-week cargo schedule from Helsinki to Heathrow, arriving overnight and departing soon after 07.00. That day, a heavy shower of rain had fallen, but then the sun came out. Against dark skies, this produced perfect ‘Kodachrome weather’. We watched the aircraft being loaded, we saw it start engines and taxi out and we waved — in some cases literally — as it took off. In the event, the DC-6B flew the schedule one more time on 27 September, but that really was the end of an era.
”A heavy shower of rain had fallen, but then the sun came out. Against dark skies, this produced perfect ‘Kodachrome weather’ “
I was also at Calshot, the old RAF station on Southampton Water, on 6 July 1993, when Short Sunderland G-BJHS made what was surely the last launch of a flying boat from a seaplane ramp in the UK. This aircraft, owned by Edward Hulton, had been operated for some years on the British civil register but flew rarely and was eventually put up for sale. Kermit Weeks purchased it in February 1993 following the complete failure of any British bid to get its act together, and engineer Peter Smith and a small team spent five months at Calshot preparing it for a trans-Atlantic delivery flight. Kermit, whose Weeks Air Museum in Miami had been virtually destroyed by Hurricane Andrew the previous year, came over to the UK to fly it across the Atlantic. He was — and surely still is — a larger-than-life character, and I remember his posing at the entry door to the Sunderland wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, ‘Andrew: 25 Billion Dollar Blow Job’. That might be considered humorous, but there was a strange feeling of emptiness after the aircraft had descended the ramp into the water and taxied out to sea, stars and stripes flying jauntily from the upper fuselage, surely never to return to British shores.
Celebrations are sometimes arranged to mark the retirement of a military aircraft type, provided it has suitable significance. In the case of the Handley Page Victor, whose career as a tanker (K1, then K2) was longer than in its intended bomber role, just such a press facility was held at RAF Marham in September 1993. A Hercules C3 was used as a photo-ship and the 30 or so pressmen on board were rotated to the netted rear door to take their turn with a camera, the customary discipline between photographers being observed. There were some great opportunities to shoot the three Victors flying in formation alongside but, for me, the photo that said it all was of a No 55 Squadron K2 on its landing roll, coming to a final stop at the end of Marham’s runway 06 with its massive braking ‘chute billowing behind it.