Gary Parsons reports from Air Atlantique's Classic Flight Air Experience Day, held on 7 April at a warm and sunny Coventry Airport
Kicking off the 2007 air event season in fine style, Air Atlantique's Air Experience Day is perhaps one of those that deserves wider publicity than has been the case until now. A regular curtain-raiser to the Classic Flight's year, the intent is to showcase the Flight's collection and provide some currency for the pilots, many of whom will be busy over the next six months supporting the Flight's many excursions to airshows and other historic-related events.
It's not just those paying for the enjoyment of a flight in one of the historic machines that can attend - spectators are welcome, and a tenner gets you in for the day to inspect the Clacton of aircraft, view the pleasure flights and hear the roar of the Shackleton as it gets to clear its lungs for a few minutes.
Air Atlantique's Will Jarman explained: "Our intention is to recreate the ambience of a 1950s RAF station 'at home day' - all of the collection's aircraft are arranged in a static display and the spectators get a chance to see the working aircraft performing the pleasure flights. It isn't an airshow or air display, rather a pleasure flying day with the bonus of a close up view of routing training/currency flights." Eighteen sorties were planned during the day - two by a DC-3, two by the Twin Pioneer, five for a Rapide and a hefty nine for the Prentice, obviously limited in the number of passengers compared to the others. Co-piloting the Twin Pioneer was aviation enthusiast Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of rock group Iron Maiden - "He actually contacted us," remarked Will, "and volunteered his services for the day!" Another aviation-enthusiast celebrity present was 'Judge John Deed', aka Martin Shaw, who was helping the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance with some publicity work and had a ten-minute flight in the Classic Flight Vampire. "Fantastic!" was his verdict on the experience, pilot Jon Corley helping with this with a low pass of the airport before landing. Jon is typical of many of the Flight's pilots - trained through civilian PPL, he received his jet conversion training from Brian Grant, who is the regular pilot of De Havilland's Sea Vixen, therefore becoming one of a handful of non-military 'fast jet' jockeys.
The sound of Griffon engines reverberated across the Warwickshire countryside - under restoration by a dedicated team of volunteers, Shackleton MR2 WR963 ‘Ermintrude’ now has all four engines fully functional. WR963 was originally acquired by Air Atlantique as a spares resource for its AEW2 WL790, but a few years ago it was decided to restore her due to the problems in getting ‘790 back to the UK. With 13,300 hours on her airframe, she is ironically quite a youngster compared with the 30,000-hour plus DC-6s that Air Atlantique has recently retired from working life.
The airframe has been converted back to MR2 specification since its retirement from the RAF as an AEW2, primarily with the removal of the bulky radome from the forward bomb-bay and also with a new coat of paint. More difficult to change is the interior, so it still sports its airborne early-warning systems, although it isn’t possible to power them up anymore. Although she has been exposed to the elements at Coventry for the past sixteen years, the condition of the cockpit has remained good and many of the systems still function, although much of the electrical wiring has had to be replaced. It took about eighteen months to get the first two engines operating, as much of the electrical wiring and fire extinguisher systems required replacing, but spares are plentiful as the team obtained much of the spare part inventory on retirement from the RAF – no less that eight low-houred engines are available to the two Shacks that Air Atlantique own. The ultimate aim of the group, the Shackleton Charitable Trust, is to be able to taxy her down Coventry’s runway one day.
Many of the volunteers in the Group are ex-Shackleton crew – Tony Bove actually served on ‘963 during her stint with 205 Squadron in the Far East, and plainly has a special place for her in his life. Asked what it was like when those engines fired up for the first time, he simply replied "Magic!" The four Griffons make an ear-splitting noise, added to by the four contra-rotating propellers' tips approaching the speed of sound on full throttle.
Although the DC-6s are no longer viable as working machines and G-SIXC is currently up for sale, the Flight hopes to retain 'Cloudmaster' G-APSA by linking up with a major sponsor, including a complete repaint of the aircraft. Negotiations are at an advanced stage and it is hoped that she will wear her new colours in time for the 'Fly to the Past' event at Blenheim Palace on 22 July.
One aircraft that will be busy is Canberra B2(mod) WK163/G-BVWC, currently the only Canberra operating in the UK, although the Flight hopes to have T4 'VN799' fully airworthy in a year or two. "It's one of our main aims", explained Will, "but there's other things we have to do first and there isn't a firm schedule as yet - basically the engines need an overhaul, much as was done to WK163 a year ago, and the aircraft needs to be 'civilianised' for the UK register." WK163 will be participating in the Falklands Conflict 25th anniversary flypast on 17 June, as well as Duxford's airshow on 20 May and Culdrose's Open Day on 1 August.
Also ready for the airshow season is Meteor NF11 G-LOSM, another unique jet that only has Martin-Baker's examples to compare with. Rapide G-AIDL will be appearing in a new military Dominie paint scheme at the BBMF's 50th anniversary event at Duxford on 5 May.
The next event similar to this one is on the evening of 25 August, with similar ground attractions, DC-3 and Devon flights with other aircraft subject to demand... Classic Flight is always open to charters, requests and suggestions, you can contact them here!
More immediately the Flight will be operating from Wolverhampton's Halfpenny Green this weekend (14/15 April) - check here for details.