Ab Initio 01 “Preflight”

In which I discover an enthusiasm for Things Airborne, visit pretty places to look at pretty things and wonder if I could do that too.

The enthusiasm for things airborne came upon me quite suddenly and I don’t really know what to blame it on. Certainly the potential was there early on, a grandfather who’d been in the RAF, weird and wonderful things flying over from the base at Brawdy, and a father fascinated by all things mechanical. I grew into one of the kids who was ‘into everything’. Early memories are of getting into trouble for pulling a video apart looking for the pictures on that black tape and of getting complete aircraft details instead of the answer “aeroplane” when asking “What’s that” in response to something overhead.

Doubtless the trip in my father’s friend’s Cessna was an influence, I clearly remember asking repeatedly for him to turn around again and again because I enjoyed the way the plane banked and the way you could see right down to the ground beneath.

But that was about it. I didn’t think much more of it aside from an occasional wistful glance upwards and the dreams about flying that everyone has. The kind where you just spread yourself across the air, balancing your weight evenly enough, that like crawling on ice, you can do it without falling.

I moved to Swansea, went to university there, studied computer science, dropped out but stayed and worked as an IT technician anyway.

Then the Air Wales ATRs moved into Swansea airport. Big twin turboprop passenger airliners which flew so low over Singleton Park you could see the red dragon painted on the tailfin and the blur of the spinning propellers. I was entranced. Suddenly I started looking up whenever I heard an engine overhead and was amazed at the diversity I found there. RAF Hawks and Tornados on their way to the bombing ranges and low flying areas in the hills, the police helicopter and the air ambulance, the big yellow search and rescue helicopter (Westland Sea King S-61 out of Chivenor a voice from my childhood reminded me) and outnumbering them all, the little Cessnas and Cherokees from the local flying club.

Any item in the news which mentioned aircraft was now of prime interest and once I started looking I was amazed again by how much there was. Two microlighters arrested for flying under the Forth bridge. Vintage aircraft pilot crashed onto motorway during airshow. Some loony tune in Germany stealing an aircraft and flying around the city threatening to crash it. An attempted reconstruction of the Leonardo da Vinci glider. Weird and wonderful things. A whole world was out there that I knew nothing about, but I knew I wanted to.

I’ve always tended to the obsessive end of hobbying, and aviation was my new passion. I scoured bookshops and libraries, websites and magazines, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I could spot a book with an aircraft on the cover from a hundred yards.

In the course of this information binge I discovered the previously unknown titbit of local history that when the famous first flight of Amelia Earhart across the Atlantic took place, they actually landed in Burry Port, just a few miles from where I lived. What’s more in was the 75th anniversary of the flight in a few weeks and the town was having a celebratory festival to mark the day. Promised were flyby by RAF Hawks and a rescue demonstration by the fondly remembered Sea King helicopter.

This was too good an opportunity for my newly airminded self to miss so I booked the day off work and on an unpromisingly wet Wednesday set off on the train to Burry Port.

By the time I got of the train thick fog and a howling gale had been added to the rain and the prospects were not good. I wandered into the local shop of the essentially one street town and found a dismal discussion of the weather already in progress. Ever optimistic I made by way down to the harbour peered over the be-plaqued bouy where the Friendship floatplane had tied up, watched flocks of schoolkids being shepherded from buses in long crocodiles along the harbour walk, and admired the fortitude of the Navy and Coastguard personnel manning the extremely windswept recruitment stands.

While waiting for the grand unveiling of a new memorial on the harbourside I took shelter inside the marquee where I was sufficiently early that the corner of the marquee reserved for the assembling dignitaries had not yet been roped off and I was consequently able to wander over and read the erected display boards gather more history about the flight. I discovered pretty quickly that Burry Port was not the intended destination, but low fuel and weather to match that of the current anniversary has forced them to make an early landing and Burry Port was the first place they came to.

Being a second choice emergency landing site didn’t seem to have affected the enthusiasm with which the town received her however and it was clear from the number of people who had turned out for the anniversary even in appalling weather that the town still held the incident as a treasured part of it’s history.

Following the unveiling of a shiny metallic fingerpost with the directions and distance to the Friendship’s departure point of Trepassey and the intended destination of London a cloud of balloons was released to quickly disappear into the grey sky.

I trailed along the harbour wall and wondered what the crew of the Friendship must have made of this windswept, and wet corner of Wales. I thought about the tiny floatplane which had somehow managed to safely navigate and land through weather that had today grounded RAF fighter aircraft.

As I meandered along the harbour wall, still vaguely hoping to see some flying, I was caught by surprise by a full roar of rotors passing so low and fast overhead I almost ended up in the harbour myself in my haste to locate the source of the sound.

Nose low into the wind the Sea King came barrelling through the fog like a bull elephant through the jungle.

I’m pretty sure I shouted aloud in excitement, but if I did it was lost in the racket of engine and rotors. I ran to the seafront, where an intrepid inshore lifeboat crew were bobbing about in the water, white spray fanning out all around them from the downdraft from the Sea King. The delighted observers, including myself were drenched with sea and sand thrown by rotorwash even stronger than the already howling wind.

I stood and stared. Over 15,000lbs of aircraft hovering motionless in wind that had nearly lifted me off my feet moments before. The side door was open and several of the crew sat with their legs, dangling out, grins on their faces. They knew they looked impressive.

Several low passes and a few banks and turns overhead had everyone whooping and cheering. The noise and colour and power of the craft broke the dreariness of the weather and turned it instead into a fierce challenge, a triumph of ingenuity and engineering over the fickleness of nature.

As it finally turned and headed back out into the fog over the sea I watched until I could see or heard no further trace. The fog seemed to settle with a new weight but the excited chatter of the watchers seemed even louder in the sudden silence.

I had a stated grin on my face as I wandered back to the marquee. I would have come twice as far again just to watch that.

Back in the relative comfort of the tent the was a themed concert from the local school children, which accounted for the large number of children wearing swimming goggles, fake leather bonnets, and long white scarves. The highlight was a modified version of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines rewritten to sing the praises of female aviators.

On my way out I picked up a souvenir brochure to read on the train home and tried to match the features from the period photograph of the harbour with what is still there today.

The friendly chap at the railway station to whom I’m chatted about the weather earlier asked me if it was been worth the trip. I assured him it had and at any rate the weather had been authentic!

My next opportunity to ogle at aircraft would come a little over a month later with the extra special treat for Kidwelly Carnival of having the Red Arrows display there. Clearly I had chosen a good year to become an aircraft geek in Wales as this was another first for the area, though I discovered that they had traditionally had a Spitfire display each year.

The air display was by way of a thankyou from the RAF for the locals not complaining too loudly about having their corner of the coast regularly dive bombed at Pembrey Sands by fast jet trainees.

Now the Red Arrows don’t get over this side of the border all that often and there were many dire warning on the Kidwelly council website to arrive early as crowds were expected. Being a confirmed non-driver I didn’t have much of a choice as the only trains got me there either well in advance or too late.

I stepped off the train well in advance of the carnival’s midday opening and set off in what looked vaguely the direction of own. Coloured paper signs pointed to overflow carparks in every direction and every aircraft enthusiast in the country seemed to have descended on this normally quiet little town. Every shop window bore posters and many had signs warning that they were closing for the afternoon so the staff could go to the carnival too. I wandered about for a while taking in the anticipatory atmosphere before headed over the carnival field to watch the slow transformation from rugbyfield to bustling fair full of marquees and stalls and bouncy castles.

The RAF were still setting up shop on a stall near the perimeter. I gathered quite a swag bag from their postcards and leaflets and magazines and overheard a joking remarks about how their “ought to be a vaccine for aviation” as people got caught it so badly.”

Another stall was selling cutrate binoculars and I couldn’t resist. I spent the next hour or so fiddling around with my new purchase and reading through the programme.

People were starting to stream onto the field by now and I wandered down to the far end where the local Air Cadets were roping off the display line.

Shortly afterwards the arrival of first the Red Arrows ground crew helicopter and then the local copperchopper brought everyone to have a peer across the field. Before very long at all, the police helicopter and its very friendly crew were surrounded by enthusiastic children (and me).

The display’s themselves I could wax lyrical about for hours. Suffice to say I left with a huge grin and a nasty case of sunburn down one side of my face where I’d been glued to the display line without budging.

But I was starting to get decidedly restless just watching from the ground. I needed to give this flying thing a try for myself.

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