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200 over and out! Episode one

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Photo : Keith Bradshaw
P-51 Crazy Horse at Columbus Ohio for the gathering of Mustangs and Legends.

I had a dream that one day I would fly in a Spitfire. That dream has now come true thanks to a deal with the ‘domestic management’ to bring to an end a lifetime of flying on different aeroplanes. To complete the quest of 200 different types, the last one had to be epic and it was. In a Spitfire at last!  This is the story of that dream and a few memorable happenings along the way. Originally planned to be one article, it soon became apparent during research (memory jogging) that there are so many stories that I have been asked to run it as a short series.

If you are sitting comfortably we will begin with episode one.

Where did this all start? When I was a child, my family often holidayed on the East coast at resorts in and around Yarmouth.  In 1962, mum, dad, me and my little brother climbed into the car and set off on our annual journey from West London, past the disused airfield at Duxford and onwards to the coast for our two weeks in the sun and chilly North Sea winds. When we did the same trip in 1968, Duxford was alive with Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Heinkels  as the airfield had been brought back to life for the filming of The Battle of Britain. 

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Photo; Keith Bradshaw
Anyone who holidayed on the East coast in the 1960s will remember the Whirlwinds clattering up and down the beaches.

Always having had an interest in planes as we lived under the Northolt airfield flightpath, I was constantly looking out for the yellow Air Sea Rescue Whirlwind helicopters that buzzed up and down the beach along with two small single-engine Austers, flying trips over the sands for tourists. My dad noticed my interest in these planes and one day, instead of driving us to the beach, we headed to North Denes airfield where to the unbridled joy of an eight-year old we were to go FLYING !

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Photo: Richard Goring
The Auster in which I went flying for the first time in 1962 from North Denes airfield

My dad trained as a navigator during the war, so he had flown before, but for the rest of us it was to be our first time.  My mum was not impressed. At first she decided not to go but at the last moment she said, “If it crashes I’m not going to be left on my own,” picked up my baby brother, put him on her lap and strapped in. Wow!  What an experience – taking off then swooping low over the beaches, the amusement arcade and pier at Yarmouth.

All too soon we headed back and I remember feeling a little scared when the pilot put the engine into idle, not knowing that is the only way to lose height, I thought the engine had failed! It was a very happy and aviation bug-bitten kiddie that climbed out of that Auster after his first flight.

As a footnote, mum was perhaps right to feel apprehensive as two weeks later the other Auster did indeed crash with the loss of all on board.

Between that first flight in 1962 and flying on my first airliner in 1970 there was only one other little hop – a joy ride at Southend Airport. The airliner in question was a BEA Viscount when we went on our first ‘foreign’ holiday to Jersey. Just one week before, I  joined BEA as an engineering apprentice. This was the flying turning point.  Staff rebate travel beckoned!

The first trip using this perk was on a Pan Am Boeing 707 to Frankfurt. As far as BEA was concerned you had to work for them for 12 months before your rebate travel kicked in. Pan Am did not care how long you had been in the job. If you were airline staff you were on, space permitting of course!

Apart from being the first real foreign trip, that flight was memorable for two other things. Firstly,

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Photo: ClipperArtic
A Pan Am Boeing 707 takes off from Heathrow airport in 1973.

As it was Easter time, Pan Am served little cakes in the shape of Easter bunnies and secondly, I found out just how hot spring in Germany can be. As this was 1970, people still dressed up for flying and there was a strict dress code. A sports jacket, slacks and a tie did not exactly help as we deplaned and walked across the boiling tarmac.

Numerous trips around Europe followed with me and my apprentice mate turning up at Heathrow most Saturday mornings clutching our stand-by tickets, mainly on BEA (later British Airways) aircraft but now and again on something a bit different with another carrier.

Fortunately I had decided to keep a log of all the flights and destinations and it was reading through this that brought back the memories for my articles. I have relatives living in the USA so it was not long before Europe was left behind and long-haul travel began. The first thing I noticed over there was how many different airlines there where and also how most airfields around the country had an Airplane rides board outside. All at a fraction of the cost we would have to pay back home. Heaven for the joy rider!  Some of these were not without incident. The summer of ’88 saw me in Canada, in a Hughes 500 helicopter, 500 feet above Niagara Falls when the pilot calmly said,  “We need to land. There is a problem with the tail rotor“.  When you are not a very good swimmer, that is not the place to hear those words! As you can tell by the fact I’ve written this article we landed safely.

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Photo:  Keith Bradshaw
Not the view of Niagara you want when the pilot says there’s a problem with the helicopter!

Something that was available in the US but not the UK were warbird fights. Whilst visiting Florida in 1990, a trip was made to the TICO air show out on the coast near the Kennedy Space Centre. At that show the plastic took a severe hit as Stallion 51 were offering rides in their dual control P51 Mustang. Convinced the opportunity would not arise again I signed up and after the show duly arrived at the aeroplane for my flight. The pilot, Lee Lauderback (the world’s most experienced Mustang pilot) came over and said there was a problem. Noooooo! However, don’t jump to conclusions as the ‘problem’ was that a magazine wanted to do 30 minutes air-to-air filming with my Mustang from a Harvard. Lee asked would I be so kind as to have an extra 30 minutes flight time with the film crew before my 30 minute joy ride. Well, it would have been rude to say no wouldn’t it!

Sure enough, after smiling at the camera and watching the other P51, Hurry Home Honey, in close formation we went off and did some flying, including hands on. I even managed to fly a loop, under expert guidance of course. That was my first warbird flight and it made me hungry for more. For many years thereafter, the USA would be a favourite destination on the lookout for flying possibilities. So much so, over a period of 40 years, I ended up visiting all fifty states.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
Taking off in formation with the other P51 from TICO airfield for a Mustang flight of a lifetime.

Back over this side of the Atlantic I made a trip to the USSR in 1991, flying mainly Aeroflot. An interesting experience. On the flight to Moscow on one of their Illyushin IL-86 wide-body airliners the cabin attendant appeared with her trolley selling what I assumed to be duty free goods. I was wrong. All that was for sale were personal items from the cabin crew. It was like an airborne boot sale. Plastic hairbrushes, Russian cosmetics, pens and pencils, I had never seen anything like it! This was my introduction to flying Aeroflot style. When we landed in Moscow everybody had to stay in their seats until the flight crew had walked the entire length of the cabin to exit by the rear door, perhaps the front one was broken, who knows?

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
An Illyushin Il-86 at Moscow airport. Later developed with new engines into the IL-96, these were the only wide-bodied airliners to be produced in the USSR.

On another flight from Moscow to Leningrad, as it was then, all the passengers were herded into a small departure gate, before the door was opened. It was a 200-yard sprint across the tarmac to get a good seat on the Tupolev TU-154 waiting to take us on our flight. Something of a foretaste of early Ryan Air flights. The difference was that amongst the boarding passengers was a stretcher case. I will never forget the sight of him being carried up the steps at head height by two orderlies, with the boarding Russians elbowing their way past the poor guy, it was a wonder he didn’t fall off the stretcher.

This was in August 1991. Those of you with an interest in politics may remember this was the month Russian Generals attempted a coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev. An interesting trip. We saw many tanks and armoured personnel carriers in the streets, but it was all very civilised and during the day life went on as usual. It was just during the evening that things kicked off with lots of protests and gunfire.  It did have an effect on our tour as one morning when the coach had not turned up to take us out for the day, the tour guide explained it had been placed on a barricade the night before and torched. She was waiting for a replacement!

When I hit the ripe old age of 50, oh to be there now, my wife bought me an aerobatic flight in a Jet Provost (CAA rules were different then). This was to take place at Sandtoft up near Doncaster. Arriving at the airfield the JP was nowhere to be seen but I soon met the pilot, Eddie. He appeared a little eccentric and when he said to my wife, “jump in the Merc and we’ll fetch the plane”,  I was still a little unsure. So you can imagine that when he appeared round the corner ten minutes later in his Mercedes estate car with my wife in the front seat towing a Jet Provost with flames painted all over it, I was convinced my first impressions were correct!

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
Aerobatics in a Jet Provost. Sandtoft Airfield 2004.

The flight was something else.  After the first five minutes I had no idea which way up we were, which direction we were pointing in or indeed what I was doing there! Just as everything began to return to normal during the approach to land, Eddie looked at me with a grin on his face just like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and said, “that was f***** great!  Let’s go round again” as he pulled the nose up into a steep climb!  When we finally landed, we didn’t shut down on the apron but taxied straight into the hangar only stopping when a tennis ball suspended from the roof hit the windscreen.

That was a trip not to be forgotten in a hurry, great fun. Sadly the ‘arrangements’ used for getting around the CAA rules were eventually frowned upon by the authorities and flights like this came to a halt. This calls to mind a couple of other excellent ploys that were used to get around the CAA rule which basically said owners couldn’t fly for hire and reward if their plane was registered in the private aircraft category. There was a group that supported the Jersey-based Heron and if you joined you were invited to the Island for a summer picnic. To cover the picnic costs they charged the members about £50. Expensive picnic I hear you say? Well it was only a can of drink and a sandwich and of course a free trip round the island in the Heron !

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Photo Keith Bradshaw
In comes the Heron after another ‘free’ trip around Jersey at the supporter’s club picnic.

Some of you reading this may well remember the first time the Swiss-based Super Constellation came to Duxford for Flying Legends. To fly on this magnificent aeroplane required you to have been a member of the supporter’s club for a year as they more or less owned the aeroplane. After 12 months you could buy a ticket on any of the flights they had planned around Europe. This scheme had the full backing of EASA who were the overall aviation authority in Europe (including the UK). So, as a paid-up member, when I heard she was coming to Duxford, I bought my ticket and duly turned up at Basle airport to fly back to Duxford. You can imagine the shock when at the check-in desk the guy organising the trip gave everybody an envelope containing their ticket money! The CAA had heard the flight was coming over with paying passengers and banned it. We were told the flight would go ahead, thanks to sponsors helping with the cost and our seats would be free. BUT any donations in envelopes would be gratefully received. You get it in one hand and pay it out with the other!

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Photo Keith Bradshaw
The SCFA Super Connie on its first visit to Duxford.

That’s it for episode one, hope you have enjoyed it and will join me again in episode two when you can find out how I came to be walking ankle deep in paper at Barcelona airport and read the Tale of two Huey’s. ‘Till the next time Keith.