The Helvellyn aircraft landing

I’ve not written a blog for ages but I guess life, which includes writing for other outlets to make a living, gets in the way.

So it’s high time to post another entry.

And there’s probably no better subject to write about than the one I’ve written about for the latest issue of ‘Aeroplane’ magazine.

That is the landing of a small Avro biplane on (and take-off from) the summit of Helvellyn mountain in the Lake District.

It took place no less than 90 years ago next month and you’ll probably not be surprised to learn that nothing like it has happened since – either on Helvellyn or another mountain in Britain.

Despite what I do for a living, I can’t say I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of landing an aeroplane on a mountain’s summit. I can empathise with the editor of one local newspaper, the Dundee Courier, who was outraged at the event – their words showed they regarded it as an unnecessary and undesirable invasion of the mechanical world on the natural one.

But the writer in me nevertheless sees a good tale. It’s an old-fashioned adventure story in a way – there’s a dash of bravery, a lot of skill, and our characters battling against the elements to fulfil their quest.

It was nice to research and write this article – something I did more than 18 months ago in fact, aware that it’d be saved until the 90th anniversary came around.

As always with printed media, it’s lovely to see your words on a piece of paper – accompanied here by some archive photos.

I hope it’s a tale that appeals to people who aren’t just interested in aviation, but anyone who likes a quirky story.

And I hope that I’ve given a bit of life to an unusual bit of Lake District history.


The Comet returns

The flight today (1 August) by the Shuttleworth Collection‘s de Havilland DH88 Comet, G-ACSS Grosvenor House, the aircraft’s first in over a decade, is aptly timed.

In only a few weeks it will be 80 years since the aircraft, flown by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black, won the MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia.

Launched by the Australian confectionary tycoon Sir MacPherson Robertson – whose company had in 1930 invented one of my childhood chocolate favourites, the Freddo – the race offered a $75,000 prize to the pilots that could travel the fastest from Mildenhall in Suffolk to Melbourne, 11,000 miles away.

Scott and Campbell Black, flying the red Grosvenor House – so named after the posh London hotel whose managing director, Albert Edwards, bought the aircraft for the race and hired the two pilots to fly it – were the first to get there.

They flew Grosvenor House across oceans, mountains and deserts in two days, 23 hours and 18 seconds – the fastest time anyone had ever flown to Australia.

Even in an age when speed and distance records in aviation were set and broken regularly as pilots, aircraft manufacturers and nations competed for glory and dominance in the air, this time-shrinking achievement captured the imagination.

And it was de Havilland’s sleek twin-engine aircraft, now preserved by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, which got them there.

That spot of rural Bedfordshire is an appropriate home for the Comet, which last flew in 2002 and has undergone restoration over many years.

The Shuttleworth Collection was started in the 1930s by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a racing driver and pilot, who’d inherited Shuttleworth College and Old Warden Park, the grounds in which the airfield sits, in 1928.

Shuttleworth was killed in August 1941 in a flying accident in Oxfordshire whilst serving in the RAF, but his collection – also including numerous historic vehicles, naturally – was put into trust by his mother before being opened to the public after the war.

Grosvenor House fits the Collection like a silk glove worn by an inter-war aviator of Scott, Campbell Black and indeed Shuttleworth’s stock: it’s right that an aircraft from an era of record-setting and breaking is part of a collection started by a pilot who was himself part of that glamorous age of speed.

With its rakish Art Deco lines, in the 1930s the Comet caught the eye just like a matinee idol from the then still nascent Hollywood.  It still cuts a dash today.

Red Bull Air Race returns

Air race 2

After a four-year break, the Red Bull Air Race returns next Friday. Over the next few months, 12 of the world’s most talented aerobatic pilots will fly lithe, streamlined aircraft in a competition that has a simple aim: to find out who can fly the fastest.

This year the Air Race will visit seven locations across three continents (starting this weekend at Abu Dhabi in the UAE).

The new series includes some format changes. There are now standard engines and propellers for competing aircraft, changes to the lightweight pylon material to make them easier to burst apart if they are clipped by aircraft wings and raising the height of the pylons that the pilots pass through from 20 to 25 metres. The rules have also been tightened to prevent any pilots from exceeding the set limits.

Another new feature is the Challengers Cup, what Red Bull describes as a “stepping-stone competition” for new pilots to gain experience racing in the tracks on certain Red Bull Air Race stops. They will also participate in several training camps during the season.

What Red Bull will hope won’t change, though, is the pure spectacle of watching pilots flying low to the ground in a picturesque location against the clock. In the UK, you’ll be able to watch the races (both live and highlights) on Sky Sports 4. Details here.

And another constant are the demands on the pilots. This mix of flying and racing requires accurate piloting of the highest order.

Nigel Lamb is one of the 12 pilots in the revitalised Red Bull Air Race. A veteran of the series, he’ll be flying a Breitling-branded MXS.  Nigel’s very eloquent on the specific physical-mental challenges involved in the Air Race. I interviewed him in 2010 about the challenges involved: Interview – Red Bull Air Racer Nigel Lamb

Nigel Lamb - Race Day, Windsor

He told me that the crux of the Air Race is the ability to fly precisely at the current point in time and – at the same time as that – be able to think ahead.

“It sounds crazy that you can be pulling g…yet thinking of something else, but you really do need the capacity to do that. You need the perfect balance, being in tune with the present task yet always sufficiently ahead of the machine to see the big picture. If you’re not thinking ahead fairly well you’re definitely going to come unstuck, but how do you do that and fly incredibly accurately?

“It’s hugely intense…to go through a whole week of competition you need to have good mental preparation; the whole body-mind thing becomes very important.”

From Abu Dhabi this week to Ascot racecourse (host of the UK round), from the USA, Malaysia and China to the picturesque Croatian town of Rovinj, Nigel and the other pilots will have to rise to this challenge.

Images courtesy Victoria Griffiths, Breitling Race Team

Concorde – 10 years on


Today marks a decade since Concorde’s final commercial flight.

The last Concorde flights took place in November 2003, a month after its final fare-paying passengers stepped off the most beautiful aircraft ever designed.

The impact of the post-9/11 air travel downturn on Concorde’s premium passenger market, rising support costs and the prospect of expensive life-extension work ended the supersonic era.

Supersonic vision
Back in the Fifties, when Britain and France separately began working on supersonic transport (SST) concepts before joining forces in 1962 to create what became Concorde, there was a spirit of modernity. That took many forms in Britain: consumerism, a re-energised pop culture with TV and new forms of film and music and the welfare state’s expansion.

But arguably the most potent symbol of that post-war spirit was the Jet Age. The pushing of boundaries and the exploration of new technologies held a powerful hold in the popular consciousness.

It was this spirit which gave rise to a belief, in Britain and France at least, that supersonic air travel was the way forward. Concorde was the result – as was the millions poured into its development by the British and French governments. The Anglo-French aircraft was, in Europe at any rate, the ultimate expression of the cultural impulse to go faster, higher and further.

However rocketing fuel prices in the Seventies and the problems of gaining permissions for overland supersonic operations would torpedo Concorde’s commercial hopes, with only 14 ever to be operated commercially by British Airways and Air France.

As The Independent‘s travel editor Simon Calder has recently noted, Concorde’s problem was a “commercially debilitating lack of range” which, combined with its relatively small size, meant its operating economics were manifestly unattractive compared to the more efficient larger widebodies then entering the market.


The hope expressed in a January 1976 Aircraft Illustrated article that “Concorde will make for a more closely-knit world, most major cities will be within 12 hours’ flying time of one another” – a view also borne of that further, faster, higher idealism – just didn’t cut ice. The dream of SSTs like Concorde whizzing ordinary men and women around the earth ended up being just that. Grey Seventies realities washed away the Technicolor ideas of mass supersonic air travel.

Concorde therefore ended up as a transport for moneyed, time-sensitive premium customers so valued by flag carriers. The aircraft’s shape and supersonic capability gave it allure to start with, but its use by the rich and famous – and the idea of sipping champagne while flying along faster than a rifle bullet –   added lustre to its already glamorous sheen, and helped cement its place in pop-culture consciousness.

Phil Collins and Live Aid, Mick Jagger, Sir David Frost and Liz Taylor being regulars, Suggs hitting a golf ball down the centre aisle and claiming the world’s fastest golf putt – Concorde was the place where aviation met celebrity most vividly.

There was some democratisation.  Concorde charter flights in the 1980s and 1990s took passengers on supersonic hops over the Bay of Biscay. Sometimes BA operated these from UK regional airports like Manchester (where ex-BA Concorde G-BOAC is now proudly on show) and Liverpool – the latter sometimes involved fly-overs of the Grand National each spring.

BA and AF also occasionally flew Concordes at European and North American air shows, where its appearances boosted gate numbers. Apparently, a BA Concorde display in 1988 at an airshow at the small grass airfield of Barton outside Manchester caused such a large queues that traffic ground completely to a halt on both sides of the nearby M60 motorway.

Cultural icon
Stories like that – and the thousands who turned out at Heathrow on the day of the aircraft’s last commercial flights a decade ago – attest to Concorde’s true place in history: it’s one of very few aircraft to have captured the truly mass public imagination.

Not for nothing did the BBC, in the days when it covered air shows, invariably feature Concorde in its programmes, for example in this footage from Farnborough 1994.  And neither was it surprising that when, in 2002, a BA Concorde flew in formation with that other great British aviation icon, the Red Arrows, above The Mall in London as part of a flypast marking the Queen’s golden jubilee, it raised some of the loudest cheers of the day. There’s footage in this video, from the 6min 11sec mark.

Two sunsets in one day
Nuggets of Concorde trivia explain the aircraft’s hold over the imagination. Sat on Concorde you could see the curvature of the earth – the only passenger aircraft from where such a view was possible – because it flew at 60,000ft, just 40,000ft below space. Concorde flew faster than the speed at which earth rotates. At full chat, it covered three miles per second.

This is the best fact: when a Concorde departed Heathrow for New York in the early evening in autumn, it travelled so quickly that, with the time difference, Concorde arrived in America before it had taken off (which led BA to for a time use the ad slogan ‘Arrive before you leave’). Passengers therefore saw two sunsets in one day from different continents.

This was why Concorde captured minds: it cut through time and distance.

The SR71 Blackbird flew higher and faster. But that aircraft didn’t transport dozen of people in comfort: Concorde’s passengers wore business suits, not pressure suits. The engineering challenge overcome to achieve that makes Concorde an ultimate expression of man’s mastery of flight during the 20th century.

Concorde is the last few decades in microcosm. A mid-20th century ideal. Man’s genius in developing technology to make it possible. Design icon. The cult of celebrity. Environmental concerns. Air travel tragedy, with its Paris accident in 2000. The effects of terrorism on air travel demand at the turn of the century.  Looking back with nostalgia on something lost.

Concorde’s kaleidoscopic story – and simply its sheer beauty, brilliance and cultural impact – means it remains an icon.

Silent she may be, but she still flies in the mind.

The place airports have in the world…and in our minds

Airports are not really places we like, are they? For most of us, they’re simply a means to an end, with the security queues and delays something to be put up with to get where we want.

But that doesn’t lessen their significance in broader terms. Being part of ITV Granada Reports’ ‘Airport Uncovered’, a series of films looking behind the scenes at Manchester Airport (click ‘How the other half fly’ to see my contribution), over the summer reminded me of that significance.

Major airports like Manchester have two real impacts. One, they bring the world to an area. Two, they allow that area’s people to connect with the world with a speed and an ease that their forebears probably couldn’t have thought possible.

It’s quite easy, I think, to forget this interconnectedness that airports bring when stood queuing to get through security or waiting for the flight to board.

The fact that the distance and time-shrinking impact of airports can be so easily lost shows, perhaps, how air travel and air cargo is taken for granted.

Perhaps when there’s talk that air travel has little glamour in a world of low-fare airlines, it’s prompted not just by a nostalgic yearning for a lost (and semi-mythical) romantic age, but a unspoken realisation that in our era of e-mail and telecoms, air travel isn’t quite the fastest mode of communication it once was.

But that doesn’t lessen its significance in shaping today’s world. And by that I don’t really mean the physical impacts, which are obvious. I mean air travel’s impact on people’s minds – the knowledge that somewhere completely different is just a few hours away, which can be reached in relative comfort and ease. That’s shaped the minds of my generation, arguably the most travelled generation ever.

Granted, it’s difficult to think of all this when you’re tired stepping off the plane and waiting to collect the bags at an ungodly early hour. But it’s still true.

A busy few weeks

It’s been a busy few weeks in aerospace.  The Paris Air Show saw major announcements including the launch of the Boeing 787-10 as well as the usual orders flurry.  In the UK Heathrow Airport became a primetime TV star in the BBC Two strand Airport Live – with respectable ratings suggesting that the viewing audience liked it. Even if, perhaps to the chagrin of sniffy TV critics, there was little drama in a programme that was about informing rather than providing the car-crash viewing of slanging matches between hot-headed passengers and airline staff that was the bread-and-butter of the BBC’s Airport and ITV’s Airline ‘fly-on-the-wall’ programmes.

Then the airshow season has got going. The settled weather since May has meant that events large and small have been packed out – 30,000 turned out to the Armed Forces Day at Scarborough (which I took in as part of a weekend break in Yorkshire) where the flying display was just the Red Arrows, a Typhoon, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, a Sea King and a parachute team.  The current hot spell which started in the UK at the start of July is likely to lead to more sun-kissed events reporting good crowd figures. Swansea City Council are reporting 180,000 packed into Swansea to watch the Wales National Airshow over the weekend of 14th/15th June.

I’ve been really busy writing and editing for AIR International as well as fitting in some PR work for an agency. I’ve got features on the Boeing 787-10, regional airlines and British Airways receiving its first A380 and 787s in the next issue of AIR International. It’s out next week in the shops and online.

Roger Federer, smurfs and NYC

Display TeamsTennis great Roger Federer, smurfs and a nightclub in New York City – three things you probably wouldn’t expect to be connected.

But, bizarre as it sounds, they are linked by the fact that they are random pieces of trivia about military display teams.

You’ll be able to find out exactly how they relate to the colourful, spectacular world of military display teams (jet, prop and helicopter) by reading my 16-page supplement on the world’s d in the next issue of Air Forces Monthly magazine, which is out in the UK on 16th May.

From history to manoeuvres flown – and the odd random fact – I hope it’s something that whets the appetite as the airshow season swings into gear . Certainly, it’s been a long time since anything similar was published in a British aviation magazine.

I’ve blogged before about my enjoyment of display teams so I enjoyed compiling it and looking at everything from noisy Russian fighter jets to colourful prop aircraft from the Middle East.

I’m delighted that the supplement is the issue’s lead cover story. And I’m even more pleased that ace aviation photographer Katsuhiko Tokunaga’s stunning capture of the soon-to-be-disbanded Patrouille Suisse is the subject.

Look out for it in the shops and online!