Friday, 26 December 2014
Plane Speaking - A Simple Aspiration for 2015
It might seem a million miles away from radical politics, rock music and getting drunk, but everybody needs a benign release from the challenges of a confrontational existence and for me it was the simple practice of spending a day - whether it was at a remote airfield, a major air show or at the local park under the Heathrow runway with a pair of binoculars - ticking off numbers from my CAM* or my JP*, or my various disjointed and semi-official records of military aircraft resident in the UK.
My plane spotting "career" began in 1976 with a dedicated visit to London Heathrow with a couple of friends. The object of the exercise was quite simply to "spot" as many individual aircraft as was possible, recording their "reggies" (Sp?) and then crossing them off neatly in the relevant book. Once a particular aeroplane had been spotted once it was henceforth rendered superfluous. No second spot was necessary.
Of course Heathrow had its own aircraft fleets, and so the persistent spotter would in the fullness of time collect the full list of, say, British Airways aircraft, which were virtually all based there. Then there would be those aircraft which were based elsewhere, primarily from foreign airlines, but which would visit Heathrow on a regular basis on their scheduled flights to London. And then thirdly, and most excitingly, there would be those which did not visit as a matter of course but which were making unexpected or (to us) unexpected calls - private or "light" aircraft, unscheduled airlines, flights diverted from other airports, long-haul aircraft from close neighbouring countries sent in place for whatever reason of the usual short-range vehicles, or even the occasional military visitor (the USAF Starlifter and the Hercules from the Royal Saudi Air Force were two which made a number of appearances if I recall correctly). Then of course there were the Soviet airliners of which, although they were scheduled, the State airline Aeroflot had so many of that one never seemed to see the same one twice.
Such was the law of diminishing returns that each visit to Heathrow (or to the local park) tended to bag less new spots than had the previous one. Pretty soon all that was to be had from such expeditions was the occasional unexpected arrival. When that scenario had begun to become the norm visits to every airport and airfield other than Heathrow rapidly became the order of the day.
A day out at Gatwick with my friends was always an enjoyable experience. Not only did it host its own fleets of aircraft (British Caledonian, Dan Air, the equally ill-fated Laker Airways and the BA-owned British Airtours among them) and receive its own regular visitors from usually lower league foreign airlines, but it was also a very short and handy train ride from Redhill aerodrome (alight at Salfords station, not Redhill, and follow a long country lane), which was home not only to Bristow Helicopters but also probably a hundred or so very small privately-owned machines. Ordinarily such airfields were out of bounds to the public, with all manner of diabolical disinducements threatened to those who might be tempted to breach the instructions which shouted out from stark notices atop the barbed wire fence, but being mere youngsters we were always welcomed whenever we arrived cautiously at the hangers beyond and were even permitted to walk around them unsupervised. This in fact was the case at most of not all of such airfields around the South East - Booker, Denham, Elstree and Blackbushe to name but a few.
Less accessible, perhaps understandingly, were the military bases. RAF Northolt was for me not very much further away from home than Heathrow. It was where the Queen's Flight British Aerospace BAe125s were based, and the sight and sound of a Hercules roaring over my head at the perimeter fence at a hundred feet or less was to die for.
But the best days out were always to be had at the air shows. I could never decide whether I preferred the military shows and the plethora of never-to-be-seen-again modern fighters, bombers and air trainers of sundry European and international air forces that they featured, or Farnborough, the king of air shows, which always showcased the latest designs in civil aviation as well as the more eccentric regular turns such as the Lockspeiser LDA-01 Land Development Aircraft and the car-sized Bede BD5, as well as sundry "old faithfuls" including ever-present civilian-registered Harriers, Hawks and sundry World War Two models.
As useful exercises go collecting aircraft numbers must rank alongside sweeping up leaves in a windstorm or standing on the hard shoulder of the M1 counting cars, but it is so strangely therapeutic. I'm not sure I could ever find the time or the patience to return to it as a scientific endeavour, but one thing I am determined to do sometime in 2015 is visit an air show and savour that ambience once more.
*Civil Aircraft Markings published annually by Ian Allen, and JP-World Airline Fleets