My hobby – how it all started -1952 to 1972
I was born in July 1952, just a few years after the cessation of the Second World War. We lived and where I was raised in a small village called Chelsfield in Kent, England approximately 7 (track) miles (11.25 Km) from RAF Biggin Hill. I grew up to the sights and sound of planes passing overhead our house going to and from this former World War II airfield.
Not far from us was also the Biggin (BIG) VOR; a VOR is a Very high frequency Omni-directional Radio beacon that emits a Morse code “signature” on a set / predetermined radio frequency which in the case of Biggin Hill was 115.0 Mhz. Pilots use the VOR’s to help navigate and guide them towards airports, they also use them as en-route points when flying along an airway. Biggin was one of the holding points around London where incoming aircraft were held prior to landing in this case at Heathrow.
The planes hold would be in a race-track pattern i.e. a one-minute leg, followed by a one-minute leg to another one minute and two-minute leg around the VOR. This meant that they would come right over Chelsfield. The types I would have seen during my early childhood defy recall but no doubt there would have been HS.121 Trident’s, DH Comets, Boeing 707’s and all types of propeller driven aircraft circling over the Biggin VOR.
Although I cannot remember them there would have been planes going into Biggin Hill and circling overhead our house as I lay in my pram. How many wonderful types would have thundered high and not so high above the house on their journey either to Biggin Hill or their eventual destination(s)?
I am guessing but I think it was when I was five (5) years old that I first began to notice the aircraft coming and going to Biggin Hill and holding over our village.
My first real introduction to Air Shows was at the age of 10 when my Uncle Gordon took me to The Society of British Aircraft Manufacturers (SBAC) Farnborough in Hampshire. What a first it was for me in more ways than one; it was the first time that I had left the County of Kent and it was going to be the start of an adventure that was going to last me my lifetime.
In the 1960’s Farnborough was “the” show piece of the aviation industry that Great Britain had. It was in the day when Britain had an aircraft and aviation industry that was the envy of the World. The day we were there amongst other things it was there that I was to witness the “V” Force aircraft flying in formation, the aircraft were the Handley Page Victor, the AVRO Vulcan and the Vickers Valiant. The “V” Force as it was called meant that each of the V named aircraft were destined when they entered service to carry nuclear weapons. The aircraft those days were all painted in “anti-flash” white schemes which in the event they delivered their nuclear cargo a good percentage of the flash from the explosion would be radiated back toward the explosion. Farnborough was probably where my true interest in aircraft and aviation started, that and the soon to be regular visits with my Uncle Gordon to Heathrow and beyond.
Pictured is AVRO Vulcan XL361 at the 1962 Farnborough show – Courtesy of Ken Elliott A-BPIC
Also at Farnborough that year were these 16 Hawker Hunters Flying in formation – Courtesy of George Trussell
Age 11; there was an air show at the former RAF Biggin Hill on September 14 1963 although I did not actually go to the show at Biggin Hill I know I would have seen the majority of the aircraft arriving as Biggin Hill’s runway alignment meant the aircraft came right over our village on the way to landing.
I do remember being very scared by the English Electric Lightning’s and came to call them the “Frightening” in later years. I would have seen the Mk.1 Lightning’s from 56 Squadron at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, and even better on that particular weekend I would have seen five Javelin FAW.8’s from 41 Squadron also at RAF Wattisham.
I looked back at a show report on www.scramble.nl and found that at that air show there was a Lockheed C-130A Hercules serial number 57-0464 from the 322nd AD USAF from Evreux in France as well as a Lockheed T-33 (53-5055) from the 20th FBW (Fighter Bomber Wing) Wethersfield in Essex. As I say all of these aircraft at one time or the other would have flown over my village on their way into RAF Biggin Hill.
From age 11 to 14 I didn’t go spotting at all as we lived in a coastal town called Bexhill-on-Sea near to Hastings in Sussex. My Father described this place (Bexhill) as the only Cemetery with street lights and a bus service.
In 1966 my Father took up the position of Housing Manager for Harlow District Council (Essex). This meant moving from Sussex to Essex and going to a comprehensive school, which in itself was an eye opener having only been educated until then in segregated Boys schools.
One fine day I was in class, as it happened a history lesson. I looked out of the large classroom window and saw Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitt Bf.109’s diving and rolling across the skies, it transpired that they were making a film of the Battle of Britain. The aircraft used in the film were flying out of a local airfield called North Weald (Bassett) not too far from our home in Harlow.
My lack of attention to the class History teacher was duly noted and asked what I was staring at I simply replied “watching history”. This was just too much for the teacher and I was ordered to the Head Masters Office. He asked why I had been sent to him and explained what I had seen; yet again stating I was watching history. I got away with it; no further action was taken against me because they knew as well as I did that I was right.
As a Teenager in the ensuing years I would travel from my new home in Harlow, Essex to my Uncle’s home in Lee, South London and from there to Heathrow by bus! We would spend what was left of the day sitting on the roof of the Queen’s Building watching the civil aircraft land and take off.
Lunch those days as I recall was a French stick filled with really strong Canadian Cheddar. I still like Canadian Cheddar although I think that it has lost its “bite” and these days I do like a good spreading of the yellow mustard based Piccalilli on it!
When I was 15 (so that’s 1967!) I walked from my home in Southern Harlow to North Weald aerodrome where there was an air show on May 29th. North Weald had been home to 111 Squadron, Royal Air Force in the Second World War. The Squadron’s nickname was the Tremblers and bore three Essex Seaxes on a cross on the aircraft.
Looking at the Scramble (scramble.nl) show reports I would have been witness to the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team the Red Arrows flying their Folland Gnat T.1’s and an RAF display team called the Red Pelicans flying their Jet Provost T.4’s. Also present were five Northrop F-5A’s Tiger II’s from 336 Skv (Squadron) Royal Norwegian AF. The highlight for me though was three United States Air Force (USAF) 81st Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) McDonnell-Douglas (McDD) F-4C Phantom II’s flying overhead during the show. These three aircraft would have come from either RAF Woodbridge or Bentwaters in Suffolk; both bases wore the WR tail code.
I am lead to believe that this show was the start of the International Air Tattoo. That had been a long walk and a long time standing at the fence close to the end of the runway off of what in those days was the A128 road.
At age 17 I had learnt to drive; from Harlow, Stansted airport was virtually on the door step so it was a given that I would make weekly or twice weekly visits to this airport. However, when the aircraft were landing on the 05 (050 magnetic runway / compass heading) runway at Stansted they would fly right over our council house.
Having my own car certainly changed my life. I vividly remember one evening when I said to my girlfriend of the time Lesley “shall we go to the airport for a coffee?” I got the nod of approval and off we went with another couple to Terminal 1 at London Heathrow! Of course in those days (1969/70) there was no M25 so it took forever to get there and we found that the coffee shop had just closed for the day so I drove all the way back. I didn’t get any spotting done that day either.
In the summer of 1969 I was sitting in Hyde Park listening to a free concert given by the Rolling Stones. It had been a long road getting to the concert that involved sleeping on the floor of a signal box to ensure that I and my friends caught the first train out to London. Luckily our friend was the Signalman on duty the night before we went. In 1969 I was just 17 years old, a smoker and a drinker, it was at Hyde Park, London that during that Rolling Stones concert that I got “stoned”. At the time I was smoking Marlboro Red label cigarettes, however one of the group passed round a rather larger “cigarette”, fatter in diameter than a conventional ciggy; that was my introduction to the “spliff”.
Hyde Park, London was also the first occasion that I had seen a Boeing 747 “Jumbo” jet flying over central London on its way to London Heathrow. It was in the livery of Pan Am, an all-white fuselage and tail with a huge blue and white symbol on the tail, it looked so majestic there in the clear blue sky over London. (I hadn’t had the spliff by the time I saw the Jumbo)
I used to record all the tail numbers and registrations of the planes I had “spotted” over the years and I’d keep these log books as a reference for later years. Sadly, all of my log books prior to September 1972 seemed to have disappeared into an abyss, this could be down to a number of reasons none more so than various house moves by me and my family in between 1969 and the autumn of ’76 when we moved to Harlow.
1969 was also the year I left school. My first job lasted just six weeks; as a Capstan Lathe Operator for a small company based at Stansted Airport. The hours were from 08:00 to 18:00 five days a week and from 08:00 to 13:00 on Saturday’s. However, the company was very close to the then Fire Training School of the Airport Fire Service and many of my lunchtimes were spent watching these guys hack away at planes then set fire to them.
Later the same year I moved away from engineering and went to work for a Builder, I became an apprentice Carpenter / Joiner. It was here that I got nicknamed the “Hippie Chippie” as my hair was long (over my shoulders) and I used to wear tie/dye tee shirts, disruptive pattern jackets and jeans that in 2016 are so fashionable with gaping great holes in them. In 1971 the company made us all redundant as the owner wanted to retire; where did I go from here?
One evening across the dining table I told my parents that I had to go to the Police Station. Stoney silence prevailed for the next few seconds but it seemed like minutes followed by the inevitable, “why”. I explained that I wanted to join the Police and make a career of it. Dressed as described above I set off for Harlow Police Station. I was met at the front desk of the nick by a very smartly dressed Sergeant who asked why or what I wanted. I explained that I wanted to join the Police, the look on his face was priceless, there was shock, horror and incredulity all rolled into one.
I was taken into what I now know was an interview room and given a whole host of forms to fill in and a test to complete. When I’d completed all the paperwork the Sergeant escorted me out of the Police Station. Several weeks went by, then the letter from Essex Police, I’d been accepted.
On January 5th 1972 I left home and went to a Police Training Centre located in the village of Eynsham, close to Witney in Oxfordshire I was just nineteen years old. Witney as some of you may know is very close to RAF Brize Norton home then to Bristol Britannia’s of 99/511 Sqn’s, Shorts Belfast of 53 Sqn and VC-10 passenger transport aircraft of 10 Squadron.
On one of the first mornings whilst on the eight o’clock parade the Drill Instructor caught me looking skyward as one of the above mentioned types flew low overhead to final approach to runway 28 at Brize Norton. Without batting an eyelid he said “if you’re so interested in f***ing aircraft why don’t you f*** off to the R A F***ing F? I must have given the right answer as I went on to be a thirty year veteran with Essex Police. I would say that in my thirteen weeks at Eynsham Hall I must have fleeted all three types but I don’t do guessing spotting!
So 1972 was the end of my first twenty years of spotting, what did the next twenty have in store for me?
The next twenty years, 1973 to 1992
On my 21st birthday July 15 1973 my present from my parents was a flight; this was from Clacton airstrip in a Cessna 172M G-AVVZ, the flight lasted just 20 minutes but I was hooked. In those early years I used to “spot” anything that flew, you name it I spotted it.
Picture by permission of the photographer Stuart Jessup.
1974 seems to have been divided between London Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted albeit at the time I was living in south Essex in a place called Stanford-Le-Hope or as I came to call it Stanford-No-Hope. I was also in my second and last year of my probationary period as a Police Constable with Essex Police and no-one else was really interested in my hobby so it took as they say a place on the back burner.
The highlight of 1974 for me was at Heathrow when I saw the US Presidential Boeing C-137C 62-6000 of the 89th AW.
In 1975 while living at Stanford-le-Hope in Essex I met up with a guy who used to take me flying with him in a variety of Piper Cherokee aircraft from Southend. One afternoon we left Southend and flew to Headcorn in Kent for afternoon tea.
During June 1975 I paid one of my first visits to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford Cambridgeshire for what was one of their annual air shows. There are as far as I can see no show reports for this event on the Scramble pages. Amongst other types there was two Lockheed T.33’s G-OAHB & G-WGHB both owned by a man called Haydon-Bailey, a Jaguar GR.1 XX732 and a USAF type I only have as “21298”, there was also a Boeing B-17G N17TE
On August 10th of 1975 together with my (late) wife we flew from Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol in The Netherlands. The flight was my first ever commercial flight and in a Hawker-Siddeley Trident 3B G-AZWA of BEA (British European Airways). Not long after we arrived I was spotting from the roof terrace of Schiphol airport. In those days the charter airline Transavia flew a mixture of early Boeing 737’s and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle. KLM the National airline were flying a mixture of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the Boeing 747, McDonnell Douglas DC-8 and DC-9.
During a visit to Schiphol on the 13th the star of the day went to a Yugoslavian Tupolev Tu-134 YU-AHY. It was a star prize for me albeit I had seen numerous Tu-134’s operated by Aeroflot out of London’s Heathrow Airport in previous years.
Seven days after we went to Amsterdam we flew home on another BEA Trident this time a Trident Mk.2 G-AVFM. That day the Schiphol ramps were full of KLM, Transavia and many other European based airlines.
The day after we arrived home I yet again flew with my friend from Southend to LeTouquet in France for lunch – as you do this time it was in a Cessna 172 G-AZDZ.
On August 21st I visited RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire England. According to my log there were two Britannia’s XL658 & 660, Belfast C.1’s XR362, 368, 369 & 370 of 53 Sqn and VC-10’s XR810, XV104, 106, 107 & 108. I’m certain there was other stuff there but this was a fleeting visit while on my way back home to my home in Harlow from my late wife’s parents near Cowley in Oxfordshire.
September 7th while on a trip to Stansted I saw my first and at that time only Indian Air Force aircraft which was BG579 a Lockheed Super Constellation, what a crying shame I had no camera with me to record this event.
On October 1st I noted XL635 & XN398 two former RAF Bristol Britannia Srs.252’s at Stansted airport, the latter went on to become civilian registered as OO-YCA.
On October 26th I had arranged to take myself on the last flight of the then Invicta Airways Vanguard 592 from Luton to Luton. When I arrived at the airport there were still a number of seats available so I ended up taking my (late) wife and my (late) Mother. The Vanguard was G-AXOY and we flew from Luton to Immingham on the East Coast down the East Coast to Clacton and back into Luton in just 1 hour and 5 minutes.
To finish off the year on November 8 I flew off with a Group called Aviation News to Basel in Switzerland on a DC9-32 HB-IFY. We then travelled all over that side of Switzerland visiting bases and places until we finally arrived at our hotel in Zurich.
The flowing day we had a visit to what is now familiar territory to me Pilatus-Werke at Stans-Buochs.
Some interesting aircraft in the back of one of the hangars, there were Piper Cherokees marked up as “Air America” painted in silver with blue cheat lines. There were also an assortment of Swiss AF Hunters which were stored and or being re-worked and Pilatus PC-6’s either on re-work on being manufactured. This side of the airfield is now “off-limits” to Aviation Enthusiasts which is a great shame as behind the hangars are some very interesting caves. It is still rumoured that a number of airworthy types are stored in these caves. (Circa 2014)
That evening I flew home on the same DC9-32 HB-IFY from Zurich to Heathrow; that was also the close of my “flying” year.
In my “early” years of spotting I used to spend as much time as I could at either London-Heathrow or London-Gatwick.
In 1976 I was still “in” to spotting just about anything that flew so I spent a lot of time visiting old Faithfull’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. On Sunday January 18 1976 I made a trip to Luton airport in Bedfordshire where three former RAF Bristol Britannia aircraft languished. They were XL657, XM496 & XM520 which also wore the civil registration of 9G-ACE. I thought it was going to be a long time that year until I saw anything Military!
March 1st and one of my first visits to RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk. I only recorded a few of the serials which included a C-141A 40618, 10 x KC-135’s of various marks and operators and a C-130H 37856 and finally all I have in my log book is a Navy Twin 6753? The day was a bit rushed as I was out and about with my late Father. Our next stop was Norwich where my only real number of the day was VX580 a Vickers Valetta C.2 which was then in use with the Norwich Air Scouts.
March 9th back to Stansted to see Bristol Britannia XN398 & XL639 as well as the Boeing B-17G N17TE and for me at that time a rare sighting in the guise of a Korean Airlines Boeing 707 N370WA. Later that day at Luton I saw XL657 / 9U-BAD & XM491 / EI-BBH both Bristol Britannia’s ex RAF. The following day I was back at Heathrow where there was a visiting RAF H.S. Andover XS769.
March 26th and just for a change of scenery I was at Southend airport where an Army Air Corps Scout AH.1 XW603 paid a visit while I was there.
April 23rd I was once again back at Heathrow this time on the deck 67-0017 a C-141A of 438 MAW USAF, quite why it was there I don’t know.
May 8 1976 I boarded a Boeing 737-130 D-ABER of Lufthansa; I was off to Hannover for the International Air Show. I was travelling with a Group of fellow enthusiasts but for the life of me I cannot remember who had organised the trip.
We landed at Bremen, I say landed as it was more like the Pilot threw it onto the runway and I said at the time that it must be like landing on an aircraft carrier. Our departure was as ballistic as the landing the pilot (I assume the same one) held the aircraft on it brakes until the engines were screaming to go. Having released the brakes we then hurtled down the runway for a few metres before the nose went up and we’d left Mother Earth. It did leave me wondering if this Pilot was a former German Navy Pilot!
Two days of non-stop spotting at the airshow resulted in a very full and interesting log book and there were many types that I had not encountered before. Highlight of that show was a Guatemalan AF IAI (Israeli Aircraft Industries) Arava serial 856.
At the end of day two it was time for the flight home this time the Boeing 737-130 was D-ABET and we landed a lot more smoothly at Bremen (BRE) and Heathrow.
I continued with my spotting civil (washes mouth out) at Stansted and Heathrow occasionally visiting London Gatwick and Luton as well as fitting in the odd visit to RAF Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Honington.
May 20; another visit to Stansted this time four Bristol Britannia Srs.253, XL635, 636, 637 and XM497 as well as still unknown DHC Chipmunk sitting very close to them.
May 30; good old Stansted came up trumps for me again this time is was a C-130 but not a USAF example this was a Venezuelan Air Force serial number 4951. The picture that I took of this appeared in an Aviation newspaper/magazine called Aviation News.
June 17th a quick visit to Gatwick, in luck again as an MS.760 Paris 118 / NQ landed just as I was about to leave the roof terrace area. It was also coded 101 on the nose wheel door.
June 20th Back for another air show at Duxford; one that still puzzles me from here was a Lockheed T.33 N12420 that was allegedly owned by OAHB
July 4th Mildenhall was the venue; Well what a show that was I think there was one of nearly every type on the USAF and USN inventory as well as display Teams from Belgium (Red Devils in their CM170 Magister aircraft) as well as Belgian AF Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and AMD Mirage 5’s. The Royal Air Force sent their Poachers Team with their Jet Provost T.5’s. It truly was an eclectic mix of aircraft from all over the world but especially Europe & the USA. After the show ended I/we drove over to RAF Lakenheath where I saw no less than 35 of the based McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II of the three resident Squadrons 492nd 493rd and 494th TFS of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing.
On September 8th I drove from my home in Harlow to Southend and boarded an ATL 978 Carvair G-AOFW of British Air Ferries. Once again I flew to LeTouquet and had my lunch there, I was getting used to having lunch in LeTouquet. After lunch and to coincide with the return flight to Southend I flew back on the same aircraft into Southend. Prior to taking off I’d spoken to the Stewardess (today called Cabin Crew) and asked her if it would be possible at some stage on the short flight to have a look in the cockpit. After a few minutes she came back and said she’d spoken to the Captain and he’d okayed the request.
I followed her to this almost vertical ladder to the cockpit sat in the jump seat got given a set of headphones and was invited to stay there for the remainder of the flight and landing back at Southend.
The following day I was back at Farnborough for their Airshow and what a day that was just a crying shame that Digital photography hadn’t been invented then. I’d love to know what happened to some of those aircraft so must do some research one day. The highlight of that show for me was 5-249 a Boeing 707-3J9C of the Imperial Iranian AF; you don’t see one of them every day!
Just a few days later I was off on another flight; this time I flew yet again from London-Heathrow to Amsterdam this time it was with KLM on a DC9-32 PH-DNK. I think I remember spending most of the day logging stuff at Schiphol airport before going to a Bar or two.
The following day I returned to London-Heathrow again with KLM on a DC9-33RC PH-DNN.
That really was the end of another very fine years spotting.