Category Archives: Transport

I’ve always been a hangar rat at heart

I’ve hung around small airfields, since I was just a lad,

A hangar rat, an air cadet, just aviation mad,

Sent solo in a sailplane, when I was just sixteen,

Soaring over English fields, a  quilt of gold and green.

The miracle of flight. Too young for a motorbike, but able to fly the Kirby Cadet Mk III

Sweeping out the hangars, polishing the props,

Cleaning all  their windshields, hanging round in ops,

Topping up the tanks and tyres, mowing taxiway and strip,

Befriending all the pilots, to see if I could blag a trip.

Gissa Flight Mate…

I worked hard at my day job, slaving nine till’ five,

Then pumping gas, and cleaning, to keep the dream alive,

When I wasn’t working, I was studying my craft,

Funny how quickly, the months and years flash past

Practicing the art and skill of landing a taildragger.

As I got older, I got bigger,  and the airfields did the same,

And I was thrilled to hang around, much bigger aeroplanes,

Still in operations, briefing crews and planning flights

Working out performance, a blur of days and nights.

Bit bigger that I was used to!

Then one day, the time arrived, when I had to say goodbye,

To the mighty ships that plied their trade, so high up in the sky,

I left the airport on that final day, without once looking back,

Already thinking of my former self, and could I get him back?

So I wandered up the airstrip as the sun climbed the clear blue sky,

Pulled my little airplane out, I prepared myself to fly,

Turning round, I saw him, overalls, broom and cap,

Young, fresh-faced, teenager, My replacement Hangar Rat

So I took him flying….

That light bulb moment – a guest appearance from an old friend

The first time I met Pookie was in Summer 1991.

Blimey – that’s 29 years ago!

I was enjoying a cuppa in the baggage loaders rest room, catching my breath after working a busy departure in the gate room upstairs. I was working as a Passenger Security Agent for American AIrlines – my first airline job.

Security would’nt have been my first choice of job – I was already a qualified pilot, and had passed all of my Flight Operations and Despatch exams, but nobody gets hired into a blue chip airline in Flight Ops. The only way in is either as a Check In Agent, a Baggage Loader, or a Security Agent.

I chose Security Agent.

The decision was a simple one. After PanAm 103 was brought down at Lockerbie just two and a half years previously, security was uppermost in everyone’s mind. American Airlines were using the profiling system at the time, similar to that used by El-Al.

I learnt behavioural psychology, how to question, how to conduct a proper body search (NOT how Hollywood imagines that it is done) and how to use a security X-Ray machine.

I just thought at the time, that this would be more interesting than seeing a procession of faces, all demanding an upgrade, or doing my back in hefting overloaded bags.

Working in Ops is considered a plum job, as it is remote from the passengers, is conducted in the dry, and is intellectually demanding.

I found an empty space at one of the grubby tables, and sat down to enjoy my brew.

I saw a dark blue silhouette lurch to a stop outside the building, blanking the sunlight streaming through the window, plunging the restroom into a gloom that matched it’s decor.

The door slammed open, and a bearded bloke in his forties appeared. Walking over, he dropped an overstuffed clipboard onto the table, saying “Mind if I join you”

“Help Yourself” I replied, watching as he swiftly made a coffee at the small sink.

Returning to the table, he proffered his hand, saying “I’m Bev, I’m doing the Royal Mail”

I must have looked a bit blank, because he laughed, and said “Mail Sacks – You know, letters for air mail”

I shook his hand, telling him I was in security.

We spent about half an hour exchaning our histories, and it came up in the conversation that we both flew. He had a share in a De Havilland Chipmunk down at Shoreham, and I flew Piper Warriors and Cessnas at Popham.

We went our spearate ways, and it wasn’t until another three years had passed that I ran into Pookie again.

I was the new boy in Flight Operations. Having returned from eighteen months working as Special Services Manager at Stansted, I had finally obtained a position in Ops.

There, sitting at the main control desk was Bev, quietly and efficiently running the entire ground operation at London Heathrow for the 14 daily flights.

I worked with Bev closely for the next three years, and came to love his gentle humour and his ability to produce fantastic caricatures of his colleagues.

Thanks Bev… This is the only one that you wont get sued for!

Once we had got to know each other, we flew together on many occassions, and in any number of different aircraft. I have shared the sky with him in the delightful Chipmunk, pulling gentle loops, rolls and stall turns over the timeless, grassy south downs.

The DHC-1 Chipmunk at Goodwood… A six-gallon per hour Spitfire.

We pottered up and down the south coast of England enjoying summer in a PZL Wilga (A delightful Polish cross between a combine harvester and an aircraft).

PZL- Wilga. A very interesting aeroplane…

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in a Piper Warrior, and did a low pass at the small grass strip in Sussex appropriately named Kittyhawk.

Kittyhawk – an Appropriate place to do a low pass on the 100th Anniversary of flight, December 17th 2003

We have fooled about in the Citabria, and been school kids in the Stolp Starduster Too. And what can be better than flying in a Bücker Jungmann with a friend, whilst another friend formates on you in a Stampe?

Ahh yes, The wonderful old Bücker Jungmann, A lovely old Fräulein of the skies…

Anyhow, getting back on track…

Pookie’s sense of fun has often been unleashed on his poor, unsuspecting colleagues.

Below is his account of an episode that amused us all back in Ops whilst he was on holiday one year..

Thanks for all the laughs over the years Bev…

And as for the flying?

Well – that’s been a blast!

Good Friends, Beer, on an Airfield at Sunset… What could be better?

Over to you.

The following was written by Bev Pook, Pilot, Humourist, Motorcyclist, Bon Vivant and Good Friend.

Pookie – probably considering another practical joke, or wondering if he should bash out another quick caricature…

A Lightbulb On Vacation.

Back in the mid-nineties, I was working for American Airlines as a Flight Operations Agent, planning flights, briefing crews, and coordinating everything to ensure flights arrived and departed on time.

The flight operations room had few windows and was lit with harsh fluorescent lights, which are difficult to work with due to their flicker,  The flicker isn’t normally discernible unless you concentrate on your peripheral vision and it can then be sensed.

These lights are very good for office work as they cast little or no shadow, but if using a computer screen (which also flickers) they can cause sight problems as your iris struggles to cope with the flickering.

Enough of the technical details then.

Being heartily fed up with the eye-ache, I ferreted around for a solution, and during one very uneventful night shift, I found a battered old Angle Poise lamp which had been discarded into a dark and cluttered corner of an unused office.

What a find! My Eyeballs were finally happy!

Further investigating led me to a new bulb in a cupboard, and once wiped off with a cloth, the old lamp worked perfectly.

I placed it on the main Ops desk in and I would use it whenever I was positioned in that area. I found it particularly useful on night shifts when I worked alone and could turn off the fluorescents and enjoy a softer light emitted by an incandescent light bulb.

However, I found nobody else seemed to appreciate my light as when I returned on shift after a few days off, the lamp had been pushed back out of the way.

Just before I went on vacation the bulb blew, so I threw it away and departed for a fortnights tranquillity. No sooner had I returned from holiday, I was accosted by my work companions who accused me of taking the bulb on holiday.

Because of this, I decided that my next vacation would see me having some fun at their expense. This time I took the bulb out of the fitting and locked it away in my cabinet, leaving the office with the Angle Poise containing no light source.

After a long and boring flight, I eventually arrived in Muskogee Oklahoma and was met by my good friends, with whom I would be spending my vacation.

Over breakfast the next morning, I asked Terry if I could borrow one of their light bulbs, which was greeted by a strange look but I did get the light bulb.

I then started taking photos of the bulb and me on holiday. Each picture got more and more elaborate and set up to highlight (excuse the pun) that I had indeed this time taken the bulb with me.

Here are a few of those pictures.

I hope you enjoy my rather schoolboy humour.

light bulb 1
Me, the bulb and Elvis at the Muskogee Airshow. I caught him just as he was leaving…
light bulb 2
light bulb 3
The bulb playing a light-fingered bandit
light bulb 4
The bulb and I, about to go flying in a microlight
light bulb 6
Making light of wing walking

Sorry Bev, I would have published this as an “Illuminated” manuscript, but couldn’t find the correct keys.

Go Well…

radio failure, hot texas desert and bubblegum

The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.

Fort Worth Meacham – Also a Nuclear Bunker!

Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!

I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.

Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.

He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.

“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”

“I’m here” was his reply.

Situation normal then.

I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”

Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.

If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.

If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.

Easy right?

So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.

A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.

The truly iconic Bell 47 helicopter. Flying it is like being a one-armed soot juggler.

Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.

The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.

Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.

Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.

The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.

Looking across at me, he grinned.

“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”

“I have it” I responded.

I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.

The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.

I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.

“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”

I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.

“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.

After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.

Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.

He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”

I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.

Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.

He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.

Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.

Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.

Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.

However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…

I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.

Fort Worth-Meacham Airfield – Just west of Dallas, and right next to Carswell Air Force Base, Home of B-52 Bombers.

There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.

A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…

Maybe not.

A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.

A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.

My first flying logbook. I am now working on filling up my seventh…

It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.

After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.

Shiner Bock – the local brew of choice.

Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.

The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.

I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.

My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.

Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.

I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.

I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.

Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.

The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.

“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”

“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.

The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.

I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?

I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.

The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.

I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!

Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.

On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.

So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.

My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.

Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.

By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!

Or so I thought…

Cessna N714HH – An Honest Airplane that Looked After me on my FIrst Solo.

I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.

Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.

It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.

Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.

The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.

Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.

An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.

After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.

I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.

Not back then with so few hours.

So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.

The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.

Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.

“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”

Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.

Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.

My God! I had read about this, but never done it.

I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.

I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.

I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,

Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.

I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.

I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.

I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.

The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.

Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.

I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.

I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.

It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.

I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.

I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.

I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.

I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.

I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.

I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.

About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.

Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.

“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.

I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.

She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.

Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.

Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.

The Cessna 150 instrument panel.

Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.

I felt hugely foolish.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”

“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”

I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.

Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”

The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Fort Worth Meacham at night.

So, What did I learn?

I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.

Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.

Go Well…

The invisible cleaner

Stuffing my ear plugs in securely, I peered out of the open jetbridge as the Boeing 767 slowly turned onto the ramp, following the centreline precisely as it slowly advanced onto the stand.

I waved to the captain as he majestically coasted past me, and he nodded in return, still focusing on steering the jet to the correct position so that the jetbridge could be aligned around the aircraft door.

The howl of the engines died, and I caught a lungful of burnt kerosene as the engines spooled down; a smell as familiar to me after fifteen years of aviation as my own aftershave.

The beacon stopped flashing, the jetbridge was attached and it was now safe for me to open the aircraft door.

Following the published procedure, I rapped hard on the door three times, and then checked through the porthole, waiting to see a thumbs up from the cabin attendant – the signal that the emergency evacualtion slide had been disarmed, and that there were no personnel standing near the door activation lever.

I saw Sherry-Ann one of the regulars smiling back through the porthole, giving me the signal, so I grasped the cold door release handle, pulling it upwards and away from the fuselage. The door moved gently inwards, and I then pushed the small switch inside the panel, and the door was electrically lifted up into a recess over the door aperture.

A colleague opens the B767-200 Passenger Door…

Pulling the PA Handset from its cradle by the cabin attendants jump seat, I smoothly announced

“Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to London’s Stansted Airport, where the local time is 1040. Please follow the yellow overhead signs to the arrivals hall. Will Mr. Dan Billings please make himself known to Special Services at the aircraft door.”

Stansted – my wonderful work environment.

When I took on the role of Special Services Manager in Spring 1992, AA had just opened up the route and my job at the time was to look after Commercially Important Passengers, and VIPs. This included not only stars of screen and stage, but singers, politicans, religious leaders, sports personalities and senior executives in commerce or industry.

Dan Billings was one of the first passengers out. His hat arrived first, a simply huge white Stetson, curled at the brim. The rest of him followed a little later, looking all the world like a walking advert for Levi Strauss clothing. Peering out from a sea of blue denim was a leathery tanned face, a bootlace tie dangling from his throat.

So, this was the world famous Dan Billings.

Proffering my hand, to welcome him, he silently shoved his small valise at me, and started to move off up the jetbridge. Surprised, it took me a second or so to react.

Catching him up, I asked “So, welcome to London Mr. Billings, did you have a good flight?”

“Yup”

“Do you have checked baggage?” I persisted

“Nope”

Ah. So Mr. Billings conserved his affability to use it on stage, in front of his fans, rather than waste it on an airport flunkey.

I didn’t mind; after doing this job for a few years, I had swiftly realised that it was nothing personal. I am sure it must be exhausting to be your screen or stage persona constantly.

“Do you have a car waiting Mr. Billings?” I enquired, reaching for my mobile radio.

“Nope”

“Oh” I said, “Do you need a cab?”

“Nope”

We stopped at the baggage carousel, and I looked him in the eye, determined this time to get more than a monsyllabic response.

“How are you getting to London Mr. Billings?”

“Train”

Heaving his bag off the carousel, He turned to me and shoved a gnarled hand at me.

“Thanks. Y’all have a nice day now”

With that, he abruptly turned, and walked swiftly out through customs, heading efficiently towards the coach and bus stops.

I sighed. I had enjoyed being the Special Services Manager for American Airlines at Stansted Airport in the UK. I had met a great number of influential people, and seen through a great deal of the Hollywood tinsel and glitter.

An internationally famous female singer spotted two children travelling unaccompanied on her flight, so she invited them up to first class, and looked after them all the way from Chicago. What a lovely lady.

A celebrated British songstress who wanted no fuss or recognition – and who gave up her seat in first class, unbidden, to an elderly lady who looked worn out. That never got reported in the media.

Members of a heavy rock band with a hell raising image, who were polite, helpful and courteous – nothing like how they are reported.

A famous comic who spoke to me as an equal, and was still, despite his age a true man of the people, yet so sadly misunderstood.

The all-male dancing group that cheered up the entire gate lounge by performing an impromptu routine, and then going round signing autographs for no reason other than they were trying to spread some happiness and maybe make a difference.

I had to deal with the mean and the downright nasty as well. I well remember the very senior British business man whom I upgraded to First Class who, once in his seat, was then incredibly rude and agressive to the young cabin crew member who was trying to offer him champagne.

Having witnessed this, I took my career in my hands, and confronted this arrogant bully. Leaning down close to him, I explained very bluntly that I could, and would have no hesitation in very quickly and efficiently putting him back in coach class, right next to the toilets where he belonged.

Having made the statement, I decided that if I were to go out, I would go out with a bang, so I added that I expected him to make a full apology to the young stewardess if he wanted to remain on board at all.

I stalked off the aircraft, telling the cabin attendant what I had done,

Just before pushback, I boarded again, and she told me that the passenger had offered her a sincere apology.

I closed the aircraft door, and the flight duly departed.

A few days later, I received a letter from the business man offering me a full apology for his boorish behaviour. Maybe a lesson learnt?

Despite the daily flight performing reasonably well, after just over a year of operating, the company had decided to cancel the Chicago – Stansted service.

I walked slowly back to my office and small special services lounge for the last time. I filed my reports, and then signed off the system, wishing my opposite numbers in Dallas and Chicago all the best.

I picked up my briefcase, and walked out slowly through arrivals, stopping on numerous occassions to say final goodbyes to my friends and colleagues; The girls who manned the small cafe just down from my office; The lads and lasses from the security checkpoints that littered my journey into and out of work.

They all wished me well, and told me they would miss us.

Once landside, I dropped by the general office, and said goodbye to the check in and gates staff, many of whom were in tears as their short careers had come to an end.

I walked out of Stansted, not looking back, wondering how things would be on Monday morning.

A Typical Cleaning Crew – Without their Cleaning Kits Which Normally Arrive on the High Lift on the other side of the aircraft.

It was 0550. I sat across the desk from Jim Shortling. He smiled wanly at me, saying “I know its not much, but at least you keep your management pay and grade”

I knew that I had been offered a lifeline – but it didnt reduce the feeling of abandonment. Not one other single department had offered help. The other managers with whom I worked at Stansted had all been found alternative management roles in passenger services – either at Heathrow or at the corporate head office in Hounslow.

So here I was, sitting in the dismal office of the aircraft cleaning department. Oh, the irony.

On Friday last week, I was rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and influential, and on Monday, I was rubbing shoulders with the lowly paid, souls with no influence over their future.

I had two choices. I could either accept it, and get on with it, or leave.

So, in the words of one of my more camp US based colleagues, I would have to “Suck it up Cupcake!”

Having managed people before, I was told that I would run a cleaning team, which consisted of a a crew of ten. Additionally, I would be trained to drive a ten tonne truck, fitted with a high lift body.

A typical High Lift truck.

I soon became adept at weaving my truck in and out of the congested stands and service roads around Terminal 3.

I came to know two things within a few days of completing my training.

I swiftly realised that my team were a truly ecclectic group. Sukhi was an educated young sikh, with a degree in mathematics. Well-read and urbane, I really used to enjoy my daily conversations with him.

Hard work – with less than an hour to fully clean, re-stock and cater a Boeing 767

Bizarre in its own way – working my way down the aisle with Sukhi, between the seats, cleaning up rubbish, and servicing seat pockets whilst discussing anti-matter drives and the paradox of time travel.

It was only my team that made life bearable – being confronted with the debris that passengers dump when they leave their aircraft sometimes made the bile rise in my throat – used syringes left in seatback pockets. Used condoms dumped in the same place. Rubbish of all kinds just thoughtlessly left for the invisible ones to pick up.

Just Another Day at Work…

Suk became my right hand man. Once he discovered my love of Indian food, he invited me to his local gymkhana where I was the only non-indian present. I was made hugely welcome and met many members of his family, and sampled the wonderfully spicy home cooked foods provided. Thank you Suk!

Pete, an ex Warrant Officer in the UK Special Forces, came out of the military with PTSD, and fell by chance into working for an airline. Previously a passenger services agent, he frequently (and bluntly) defended the weaker members of staff against bullying from their supervisors. This made him unpopular with the junior management in the terminal, so he was redeployed to aircraft cleaning. A few months prior to this, he was totally responsible for the welfare of up to 120 soldiers.

I doubt that any of his managers knew this, or even bothered to find out.

Harri, a middle aged Indian lady, with a degree in sociology, had been unable to get into an airline in any other capacity, so despite the costs of childcare, and the hardship of her daily commute by bus and underground, she still pitched up every day, and worked hard for the duration of the shift.

Jill, who had been widowed a year previously, and wanted a job that involved no thinking. I was convinced that she was finishing off un-used spirits from discarded minature bottles, as by about 1200 she normally had a glassy look, and emanated a faint odour of polo mints. She toughed it out though. Sometimes she would shyly joke with me as we cleaned the galleys, or serviced the toilets.

Then there were Phil and Bugsy. Both late teenagers, they were only doing the job as it was easy money, and gave them time to work on their music careers.

What do all of these people have in common?

Well, despite their qualifications, experience, knowledge and skills, they had all, like me, unwittingly assumed a cloak of invisibility.

It was an interesting exercise for me, as I was only on temprary attachment in the department, awaiting a suitable vacancy elsewhere in the company.

Having served two years in the terminals before being promoted, I had worked with most of the ground staff at one time or another.

I learned about people. Many of those that professed they were my friends, and who would have sat with me in the canteen, and chatted during work, now looked through me when they saw me disembarking from an aircraft, carrying bags of rubbish, covered in sweat and dust.

To them , I had become invisible, sinking into the uderclass and detritus of forgotten people who perform more fundamental and mundane tasks,

Others still greeted me warmly, and shook my hand, regardless of my appearance. Some would find the time to sit with me, and share a cigarette. These were the people for whom I have great respect. Some of them I am still in touch with. You know who you are.

In due course, I was redeployed, and spent the rest of my aviation career working in various parts of Flight Operations.

Over the years, I have been promoted, and moved into several different organisations, and was shocked to see that despite their claimed intellectual or cultural work ethics their cleaners were still all invisible.

Some years ago, I was walking down a corridor at work with a senior manager. We passed several cleaners, all of whom I greeted by name, and all of whom greeted me in the same way.

My senior colleague asked me “Why do you keep talking to the cleaners?”

I was, in common parlance, gobsmacked. This was a senior and ostensibly well-educated man, who was questioning whether I should acknowledge a fellow human being.

I responded by saying that if he had to ask the question, then he wouldnt have understood the answer. I heard that he has happily retired now, and is probably being an ignorant git on his own time.

Subsequently I have always remembered the feelings of being invisible.

I still know the names of all of the cleaners with whom I work, and still greet them by name.

It doesn’t take much to stop people becoming invisible.

The invisible cleaner. You only notice them when they are not there…

Go Well…

Beer, Bikes and Burritos – a Ride Out to Southern California’s Most Famous Biker Bar at Cooks Corner

What on earth possesses a man, evidently in his late fifties to wear a tassled baseball cap back to front, and wear a ripped tee shirt bearing the legend “Red Rider – Death Machine”  My mind is definitely boggled. He arrived by pick up truck rather than a hog, so I was a little confused as to why a Ford Ranger could be regarded as a Death Machine.

Unless there is something I don’t know…

I was sitting at a beer-stained table at Cooks Corner, a well-known biker’s bar in Orange County, California.  Sitting in front of me was a large pitcher of ice cold beer.  The hubbub of conversation was frequently overwhelmed with the booming thunder of a large capacity Harley Davidson arriving, or the bellow of one accelerating hard up East Santiago Canyon Road, heading for Silverado or the Limestone Canyon National Park

Cook’s Corner, Trabuco Canyon, Laguna Hills, California

Just behind me, a simple stage had been set up under an awning upon which was a drum kit, three guitars and a keyboard. As it was a warm and sunny lunchtime, the place was filling up fast. I have never seen so many tattoos, leather waistcoats and goatee beards….and that was just the women!

Plenty of seating and near to the stage!

The atmosphere, for a busy biker bar was relaxed and friendly, with everybody up for a good time. And the hubbub of happy conversation bubbled around the place. 

As the advance guard, I had located a table capable of seating the eight people in our party, which was already occupied by a middle aged couple. Evidently, the man hadn’t been stroked by the happy stick, and neither had his wife, who bore an expression suggesting that she had just been engaged in sucking on a particularly obnoxious substance, such as a skunk dung.  

“Are these seats taken?” I asked.  The man stared at me vacuously, giving a shrug, so I assumed that his inability to articulate was due to him being profoundly happy for our extrovert and vociferous group to join him.

I plonked myself down, and inspected my fellow diners more closely. Both in their late forties, they had obviously embraced the West Coast Urban Designer Biker culture. He was wearing a gloss black leather peaked cap, which I imagined he borrowed, or maybe stole from one of the more flamboyant members of The Village People, and wore what looked like a Swarovski diamanté encrusted crucifix around his neck.  Large? I imagine it probably weighed in the region of about a kilo!

His red leather waistcoat was adorned with patches proclaiming his membership of an absurd number of biker clubs, but the biggest patch of all was for The Laguna Hills Motorcycle club.  He also had a patch with a screaming skull embroidered upon it.  In other respects, from his sallow complexion to his soft, pudgy hands, he hardly looked like a biker.  I expect that in reality he was a suburban architect, or ran a firm of accountants.

But then, I am a biker, and I’m a sixty year old balding flight instructor… Go figure!

Tangmere Aviation Museum, with the Triumph Tropy

His wife fared not much better and was also wearing the obligatory black leather cap, although, her’s was of a style favoured by Donny Osmond in the early 1970s.  Her waistcoat was tasselled and covered in biker patches.  

In the ten minutes or so that I sat there waiting for the rest of my group, they never said a single word to each other, and totally ignored me.

When my friends finally arrived after parking their bikes, they spotted me snd descended on the table in a happy chattering gaggle, with three or four conversations taking place simultaneously. I could hear Giuseppe’s strident voice loudly discussing something in Italian, with Francesca, his partner. 

The rest of the group were talking animatedly about motorcycles, aeroplanes, beer and women. 

The beer-stained menu was hastily passed around, and as we were all hungry, we wasted no time in placing our order at the bar. As it was fairly early, the service was relatively quick and our food order arrived quickly. 

A sudden silence descended on the table as we dived in on burgers, fries, beers, and burritos.  Our inadvertent companions, the odd couple, stonily sat there, still not talking, and looking disapprovingly at our group, who were clearly getting noisier in direct proportion to the food and beer that was consumed.

Seeing that my friend’s glasses were almost emptied, I wandered into the bar, and ordered a further two pitchers of ice cold Budweiser, and two Cadillac Margaritas. The cheerful young woman behind the bar smiled at me, saying how much she loved my accent, and then asked me which part of Australia I was from. I replied, dryly saying that I came from a suburb of Sydney called Earls Court. 

Cooks Corner Biker Bar

Taking my proffered cash, she told me she would bring the beers out to our table.

Must have been my smooth-talking antipodean charm!

We finished eating, and I must say, that for a so-called “Biker Bar” the food was superb, well cooked, and full of flavour. The servings were generous, and fantastic value for money.

What a fantastic place. Everyone I met there was friendly, (although I can’t speak for our table companions, as they didnt say a word) and we were made to feel very welcome, by both the bar staff and our fellow bikers.

Everyone was there for one reason – to share good food, cold beers, great bikes and fun memories.

The linguistically-challenged bar girl came to our table, clearing plates. She was really lovely, and simply exuded happy friendliness, exchanging banter and flirting with the customers as she glided effortlessly between the tables. We left her a very generous tip.

It’s a shame I had no Aussie Dollars though…

We all relaxed now, full of lunch and beer and happy to stay in the shade as the temperature continued to rise whilst the sun crawled up the blue fabric of the sky. More and more bikes arrived, with many of the riders wearing nothing more than shorts, tee-shirts and flip flops. Many of the girls riding pillion wore bikinis and little else.

During a quieter period – Just wait until it gets busy!

I shuddered to think of what would happen to them should they have a spill out on the highway.

I glanced at our group.

All in our fifties and sixties, we had all experienced coming off in the past and so were wearing slightly more appropriate wear, and everyone had a leather jacket, gloves, jeans and boots. Not quite what I would wear on the miserable roads of Blighty – back home I would be wearing an armoured leather jacket, armoured leather trousers, armoured boots and armoured leather gloves.

I guess that our climate, and the dreadfully congested roads mean that you have to dress like a mediaeval knight to withstand the risks.

My attention was caught by a group of pasty-faced youths in ripped jeans who were picking up guitars and obviously tuning up with a view to playing, and with unspoken agreement we all decided that now was the time to leave, whilst we still had the benefit of functional hearing.

So, having chilled for about three hours, we decided that a gentle meander through the canyons and passes in the Laguna Hills was in order, so we suited up, and rode back to Coto de Caza via the back roads,  enjoying the warm wind on our faces, as we swooped along the almost empty highways that run through the valleys of the Laguna Hills.

Returning to my friend’s house, we all peeled off our leathers, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking, drinking and watching the sun dip slowly in the west, drowning in the waters off Laguna Beach.

California sunset, from the terrace in Coto De Caza

A good ending to a great day out.

Go Well! 

Biker Down!

Black ribbons of tarmac, shimmering heat,

Rolling green pastures, tall golden wheat,

The hum of the engine, the smell of warm oil,

Hot wind in my face, and I’m starting to boil,

Road curving ahead, sweeping round in a loop,

Ahead are four Harleys, all part of my group,

In my mirrors, two bikers, both riding too fast,

Engines screaming like banshees, – hurtling past,

They pass our Harleys, disappear from my view,

And I slowly catch up with the rest of my crew,

Traffic still flowing,  in fast, disciplined lanes,

Cars in the distance like passenger trains,

Tail lights now flaring, deep cherry red, glowing,

I squeeze on the brakes, traffic rapidly slowing,

Come to a stop, cars bumper to bumper,

So I don’t overheat, I turn off the old thumper,

Sitting and waiting, No longer plain sailing,

On the hard shoulder, the sirens are wailing,

For an age we just sit there, then comes the chopper,

It looks very bad, someone’s come a real cropper

Cars up ahead, now starting to drive,

Engines starting, bikers starting to ride,

Slowly passing the accident site,

Viewing the debris that once was a bike,

Ride on,…. Ride on, hide your tears with a frown,

Spare a prayer for the departed, 

The biker who’s down………

Mark Charlwood 2017©️

Ride Safe – Shiny side UP, Greasy side DOWN!

Abandoned – and on the Verge of Falling Apart…

On December the second last year, I left home to endure my pre dawn commute. Driving down the lane, I noticed a black Mini car parked on the grass verge outside my neighbours’ house. As I passed it, I could see that it wasn’t in bad condition, and assumed that it belonged to a visitor.

Thinking about this later, I realised that if it were one of Jim’s visitors, then they would have parked in his large forecourt, off the road, rather than untidily parked on the grass.

I continued to wonder what the true situation was, and made a mental note to chat with Jim at the weekend.

Happily, and by coincidence, my Brother and Sister in law (of Tread the Globe fame) visited during the week, and Chris wanted to test fly his new drone, in preparation of it being used on their epic Round the World journey. During his test flights, he captured a nice image of the car parked in the lane, and that photo, shown below, was dated 5th December 2019.

The Mini Car parked on the grass – Drone photo courtesy of Chris Fisher of Tread the Globe

On Saturday morning, I spotted Jim, my neighbour, so wandered down to have a chat to him.

I asked him about the Mini car, and he told me that it was abandoned, and that he had checked with DVLA and the vehicle was untaxed, and he therefore assumed that it had been either abandoned or stolen. He had called the local council, and had reported this so that they could organise for it to be collected and disposed of.

To date the vehicle is still sitting there on the grass, and as each week passes it is subjected to further vandalism and damage; both door mirrors smashed off, and the rear wiper ripped away. It now looks very sad, and is slowly decomposing in the wind and rain.

Abandoned and un-loved. Wing Mirrors smashed, and under threat of further vandalism

Abandoned vehicles are a much bigger problem than I had imagined.

It appears that UK Councils spent almost a million pounds to remove the 32,000 abandoned vehicles from Britain’s highways and byways in the 2016/2017 fiscal year.

It’s alarming to find that there has been a 577% increase in the dumping of cars and vans in a four year period (2012-201).

A Freedom of Information request lodged with Britain’s 436 local authorities revealed that across the nation, 31,812 vehicles were removed and disposed of.

It is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Refuse Disposal (Amenities) Act of 1978 to abandon a vehicle, and carries a maximum penalty of £2,500 and/or three months imprisonment.

This doesn’t seem to deter people from dumping, and the revenues raised from fines levied (when the owners may be traced) amount to £115,610 – which comes nowhere near the costs.

The authorities costs may be even higher if the abandoned car needs to be scrapped, and the shortfall in funds have to be recovered from local residents from taxation.

It seems that the highest number of reported and removed vehicles are in the South East, probably because this region is densely populated with both people and cars.

Motor insurance comparison website, Confused.com conducted some research, and this seems to suggest that the high costs associated with recovering and repairing a car have become unaffordable for some, with 23% of respondents claiming that this is the reason for dumping a vehicle. 30% of respondents dumped their car because it had broken down, and they could not afford to have it towed to a garage for repair.

7% said that they could no longer afford to run a vehicle at all.

The statistics also seem to suggest that 16% of drives who abandoned their cars did so for an average of three weeks, which suggests that these drivers are basically honest, and returned to recover the car when they could afford to do so.

Naturally there are a percentage of drivers who dump their cars because they can’t afford to pay the VED, or the insurance, and a small percentage who have stolen a car to get somewhere, and dump it when they have finished using it.

Some abandoned cars may have been used to commit crimes, and these too will be dumped at tax payers expense.

But back to my situation

It is now 28th February. 88 days since Jim reported the Mini outside his house.

I wonder how long it will take the local authority come out and move it?

Answers on a postcard…

UPDATED 02 MARCH 2020

I spotted this sign during a trip to some of the local shops…

I dont know whether to laugh or cry… Or maybe cry with laughter!

A bit of an empty threat really. They havent been able to remove an untaxed, probably uninsured vandalised vehicle from the lane in which I live after more than ninety days, so signs threatening removal after 48 hours seem somewhat ambitious.

Go Well…

Stars in their skies

Earlier today, I posted an article featuring James Stewart, the movie actor.

During my research, I came across the account of Harrison Ford who crash-landed his vintage aeroplane whilst taking off from Santa Monica airport on the 5 March 2015.

Harrison Ford’s Vinatge Ryan trainer after crashing after takeoff from Santa Monica Airport, California

Now, I have always had a lot of admiration for Harrison Ford, and as a fellow pilot, I feel a lot of sympathy, as I know how easy it is for a situation to develop, and rapidly get out of control.

Mister Ford is a keen pilot, and holds both single engine and twin engine licences, together with a helicopter licence.  He owns a number of aircraft, and is in love with flying to the extent that – in his words “I will fly up the coast for a cheeseburger” – and I don’t know any fellow pilots who have not done this…

As an aviation enthusiast (anorak) I love any films related to flight, flying, or aeroplanes.  My film collection is littered with films such as Top Gun (which must be the seminal aviation movie for the 80s) Air America, The Great Waldo Pepper, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and the Flight of the Phoenix.

I decided that it would be interesting to see how many other Hollywood stars who appeared in such movies actually had piloting experience.

There are one or two well-known high-profile pilots, such as John Travolta, who owns a number of aircraft, and has a home on an air park in Florida.  Up until recently he owned and operated a Boeing 707 bearing Qantas livery, which he used to fly as a goodwill ambassador for Qantas. He has recently donated this aircraft to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society, which is part of the Australian Aviation Museum in Illawarra, Australia, just outside of Sydney.

John Travolta, a lifelong active pilot

His nearby neighbour in California, one Clint Eastwood has been a qualified helicopter pilot for over thirty years, as well as being a keen environmentalist.

Fellow actor and songwriter, Kris Kristofferson was also a helicopter pilot, having been taught by the U.S. military, and serving in Germany.  Leaving the army in 1965, he became a commercial helicopter pilot, serving oil platforms in Southern Louisiana for three years before making it big in the music industry, and then more latterly, the movies

A VERY young Kris Kristoffrsen

The diminutive Tom Cruise, who played the lead role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the film Top Gun is a pilot in real life as well.  Having qualified in Canada, he owns a P51 Mustang, and a Pitts   Special. Not content with just flying aircraft, he also likes to jump out of them, and is a keen parachutist. This, in my opinion, makes him a certifiable lunatic – but, hey, each to his own.

Morgan Freeman also flies, and holds a Private licence.  He too has experienced the thrill and freedom that flying offers.  As a younger man he was an aircraft engineer in the USAF, and had aspirations of being a fighter pilot. I think he made the right choice, because as a successful movie star he can afford to fly whatever he likes….

The late, great James Stewart was a full Colonel in the USAF, and flew many combat missions during the Second World War, and was a highly decorated pilot.  He also appeared in the famous film The Flight of the Phoenix, and appeared in the starring role in the biopic of Charles Lindbergh. However, his wartime experiences affected him profoundly, and he was averse to appearing in war films.

Now, let’s move on to Star Trek.  Stark Trek epitomises the pinnacle of what aviation could become;  flying in what is effectively four dimensions.  The cast of this show is positively filled with an abundance of pilots.

James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer “Scottie” flew during the Second World War as a liaison pilot, flying Taylorcraft Auster single engine aircraft, liaising with Canadian Artillery units. He was a natural and exuberant pilot, and was apparently reprimanded for slaloming his aircraft between telegraph poles in around Salisbury Plain, whilst operating from RAF Andover.

Creator and director of the Star Trek franchise, Gene Rodenberry was a bomber pilot during the Second World War, flying B17 Flying Fortresses in the Pacific theatre.  He flew 89 combat missions, and was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Medal, and the Air Medal. He retired from the USAF holding the rank of Captain.

Subsequently, he went on to work for Pan American, flying Lockheed Constellations.  Strangely, he left his aviation connections behind and before creating the series, he enrolled as a police officer in the LAPD.

Gene Rodenberry stands in front of a Lockheed COnstellation.

Michael Dorn, (Lieutenant Worf) is an accomplished and experienced pilot too. – and has owned a number of classic American ex-military jets, including a T33 trainer, and F86 Sabre, and a Sabreliner.  He is also very privileged to have flown with both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds.

Kurt Russell, joins the ranks of celebrity aviators.  The star of films such as Backdraught, and Vanilla Sky, and long-time partner to Goldie Hawn holds a private licence for both single and multi-engine aeroplanes.  He is also heavily involved in the aviation charity Wings of Hope.

Action man Steve McQueen was also a very keen aviator. Having had a very dismal and fractured childhood, Steve developed a love for motor racing, fast cars and motorcycles.  He owned a collection of both, and performed a lot of his own stunts.  He is particularly renowned for the motorcycle chase sequence in The Great Escape, and for the high speed car chase in the film Bullit. 

It must be a hand-eye coordination thing, because he also fell in love with aviation. 

Or it could possibly be because his natural father was a stunt pilot with a Barnstormer Flying Circus!

Steve owned and flew a 1945 Boeing Stearman biplane, a Piper J-3 Cub, and a very rare Pitcairn PA-8 which was used by the U.S. ace Eddie Rickenbacker when he flew for the U.S. postal service.

George Peppard of “The A Team” fame was a talented pilot, and flew most of the aerial sequences in the film “The Blue Max” in which he starred as a German Air Force pilot.   He also piloted his own Lear jet, which he used for commuting.

Jack Pallance, was selected by the USAF for pilot training, but a serious aircraft crash, which severely burned his face prevented him from flying thereafter. 

It’s also important not to forget the ladies in aviation.

Angelina Jolie is a qualified private pilot and flies a Cirrus SR-22. The model Giesele Bundchen has gained her wings, as has the British TV personality Carol Vorderman. 

Angelina Jolie climbs aboard…

Hilary Swank who, coincidentally, played the part of Amelia Earhart has also got a licence.

Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart

It’s not just the movie and TV personalities that have been gripped by the thrill of flying.

Country Singer Alan Jackson has a private licence for both single engine and twins, and ex Van Halen rocker Dave Lee Roth has a helicopter licence.

Gary Numan, the Techno-Pop icon of the 1970s and front man of Tubeway Army is passionate about flying.  He qualified as a pilot and operated a North American Harvard for 15 years on the UK Airshow circuit.

Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of heavy rock group Iron Maiden is also a flier.  However, his enthusiasm took him one stage further than most of his contemporaries, who are, in the main, private pilots. 

He decided that he would gain his commercial licence, and in fact flew for the now defunct UK based airline Astraeus, flying Boeing 757/767 types. He now owns an aviation company based at St Athan in Wales.

Probably the most famous musician with a licence is John Denver.  During a musical career that spanned a couple of decades, he too fell in love with flying.  Taught to fly by his Father, a record breaking USAF officer (who flew a B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber) he also owned and operated many different aeroplanes, including a Learjet, a Christen Eagle aerobatic biplane, and a pair of Cessna 210 utility planes. 

Many of Johns songs were about aviation or space travel.

John died too early in an air accident, when flying  his recently acquired Rutan Long EZ which crashed on a Californian beach, killing him instantly.

So, next time you watch a film, and think that the actor or actress is a “Lovey” and a soft shrinking violet, you may be doing them a great dis-service. Not only may they be doing a good percentage of their own stunts, but they may be better qualified than you are!

Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.

The BMW Myth… Busted?

It was a long day at work, delivering two flight training sessions. I was in no real hurry, as the weather was a bit miserable, with wet roads, and poor visibility. It was just as well, as the A3 southbound was moving at a sedate 40 mph up the hill through the fifty limit at Guildford.

I spotted the headlights first, weaving crazily in and out of the traffic, and then rapidly accelerating up the nearside lane as I was overtaking a slower van. The white car swerved out in front of me, cutting into my lane with scant inches to spare.

I was ready for this and was already braking, my sixth sense warning me of the potential accident heading my way.

As the car rocketed past me, I sighed as I glimpsed the badge on the boot lid.

Yes, just as I thought, it was another appallingly driven BMW.

I watched the car continue to weave in and out of the traffic, crossing lanes with no apparent understanding of risk. The frequent illumination of brake lights was not accompanied by any appearance of functioning indicators.

Par for the course?

I drove home without further incident, wondering if there was any statistical evidence to support the urban legend that all BMW drivers were aggressive and inconsiderate.

So, I sat down and started researching this to see what I could find.

It didn’t take long to discover that GoCompare, the insurance comparison website had conducted an analysis of their customer database, and had some interesting results.

Un-surprisingly, the urban legend was true!

It appears that more than 17.1% of BMW 4 series drivers have at least one conviction, which is about twice the average rate for all other BMW models!  A staggering 21% of 4 series drivers have also made an at-fault claim on their insurance.

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Further checking revealed that Audi A5 drivers are also up there in the top ten for convictions and at-fault claims, along with Mercedes C220 and E220 pilots, closely followed by Jaguar and Landrover owners.

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This all seems to tie in with my own un-scientific perceptions, honed as they are with a 450 mile  weekly commute.

Interestingly, Admiral Insurance has also analysed the data returned from their telematics systems – the Little Black Box fitted into the boot that monitors driving behaviour. It seems that drivers of Audis, Mercedes and Landrovers are again flagging up as the worst drivers in the UK.

But there is good news. Drivers of smaller, lower-powered cars such as Vauxhall Agilas, Hyundai i10s, and Nissan Micras are least likely to have been convicted of an offence, but they are also less likely to have made at-fault claims.

Maybe the lack of a big, tough metal box to sit in, a less commanding road position, and dare I say it, a low performance engine makes them less attractive to those with a more competitive and thrusting driving style?

These are facts released by insurance companies, and whilst they do seem to reinforce the image that motorists owning German-built cars are bad drivers, they don’t explain why drivers with poorer driving records seem to be attracted to such vehicles.

I guess I will have to dig for some more facts…

Until then – drive safely!