….with a flying story.
It’s about 20 years ago now that I received a call one Sunday morning from Jean Salis asking if I’d like to attend his airshow with my Avro 504k at La Ferte-Alais? ‘Gosh, yes, I’d love to’.
With the aid of some French motoring maps, I was able to establish the whereabouts of La Ferte-Alais – about 40 miles south of Paris. So, from the farm in Suffolk, I would pop down to Headcorn and stay with my sister overnight. At first light I would slip across the Channel to Calais and turn right for the first stop at Abbeville. Then Compiegne or Meaux (where an old friend Jaques Petit would be on hand) and finally on to La Ferte, landing by about 5 ish. Piece of cake.
Not quite. Headcorn to Abbeville via Calais was beyond the Avro’s range and I couldn’t stop at Calais because I needed grass in all directions as there’s no brakes or steering on the Avro (so landing and taking-off is always into wind). Abbeville was the nearest field to Headcorn with grass in all directions. To reach Abbeville and still have some fuel in the tank, I would have to strike out across the Channel at Lydd and head for Boulogne. At 60 knots indicated, this would be a long crossing. Time spent over water in a single engined aircraft is always fraught with imagined noises and fluctuating engine gauges.
From Boulogne, I would follow the coast south until I hit the mouth of the Somme, turn left and Abbeville would appear on the nose. Leaving Abbeville, a course for Amiens and Paris then, round the east side of Paris (giving me the run-for-cover Compiegne option) and after Disney World, turn south again for La Ferte.
A week or two before I was due to go, a great friend and fellow aviator, Karen, rang to volunteer for the trip. This was good news for not only was Karen excellent company but, as the fuel was used up, someone in the front seat would keep the CG more or less in limits.
A few days before the airshow, the forecast promised if not ideal conditions, certainly flyable weather. As is customary, ‘winds light and variable’ pitched up as 20 kts gusting 35 but, the die was cast and as I flew down past Rochester and over the Downs, the winds eased up. They returned with a vengeance in the morning. Karen and I took off for France in 20 kts with a 70% risk of heavy showers by midday.
The showers arrived a bit early and by the time we were over Boulogne Harbour, we were down to 500ft in the pouring rain as we met lines of black clouds steam-rollering their way up from Dieppe. As we passed Le Touquet and Berck, the rain began to recede and Abbeville was all puffy white clouds and sunshine. That was good then.
We left Abbeville and floated off towards Amiens.
Just past Amiens, I felt a sharp judder through the airframe and suddenly we were pointing in the wrong direction. Just a bit of turbulence. An aircraft like the 504 is, with its huge wings, very lightly loaded and you only need someone on the ground underneath you to sneeze and all hell lets loose. Trenches and cemeteries passed under our wings and I wondered who might have last passed this way in an Avro 504k?
Things were going well and we elected to skip Compiegne and duck round the corner of Paris to Meaux. As we rounded the east side of the city, things became really rather rough and as the Avro began to get caught in up-drafts, down-drafts and every other sort of draft, she was only just controllable with very coarse use of stick and throttle. I realised that it was time to get down – anywhere – and to get down as quickly as possible. We were only about 5 kms from Meaux but the whole landscape had whited-out in a wall of rain and we could see only downwards. On the approach along a shallow valley to the first field I selected, I suddenly caught sight of horses sheltering under a group of trees. No good. Opening the throttle, a helpful up-draft whisked us up over the ridge where the next option presented itself – a sugar beet field with telephone and power lines ranged across it. Karen knew that this was where we were going to land; ‘Mind the wires! 50 yards, Mind the wires!’ she shouted. Thirty yards from my aiming point I turned off the fuel and flicked the mag switches to off. Committed, we swept under the wires and touched down in a shower of mud as the wheels picked up and dug in.
It turned out that we had landed at St Fiacre and, what’s more, we were the 3rd aircraft to land in this field in the last 10 years. What! You’re kidding! No, I’m not. And if we thought that the worst bit was over, we hadn’t allowed for dealing with the French police at ‘going home’ time. They don’t like their routines upset.
Karen, ever resourceful and able to make herself understood in French, trudged off to find a phone. We needed to call Jaques Petit at Meaux and tell him of our predicament. Not long after Karen had left, a number of the villagers turned up to view the spectacle from a safe distance. Soon the whole village had turned out and it was all rather sociable and light-hearted. The farmer wasn’t in the least bit bothered about his crop and all he wanted was a ride in the Avro – which I was able to give him the following day. Meanwhile, the Orly airport police had turned up and began to throw their weight around regarding getting the Avro out of the field. Jaques, who’d pitched up at the same time, wasn’t having any of it and explained to them that the only person who was going to fly the Avro out of the field was me; their chosen pilot wouldn’t have the first clue. Happily, Jaques prevailed and we pushed the Avro back to a corner of the field to get the best run.
About 3 hours after we’d landed, I ploughed my way across the beet and heaved the old girl into the air. Meaux was only 10 minutes away and by the time I’d got the Avro bedded down for the night, Karen and the police had arrived and Jaques had produced a bottle of whisky – he knew the form.
We opened with trebles all round. ‘Alors, Monsieur, nous voudrions voir votre radio license please’. Yup, straight for the jugular – they were good at this. About the only person in the world to carry a radio license for their aircraft was Captain Speaking; most not bothering and the rest never having heard of one. Clouseau was wise to this rather casual attitude to paperwork amongst the English flyers and impounding an aircraft for lack of attention to detail was considered good sport. I reckoned that my best strategy was to play it dumb. Karen translated with charm and wit (some of the French got quite technical) and I produced my CAA paperwork which allowed the Avro to carry military markings. It took about 20 minutes to convince les grands chapeaux that this exemption extended to the radio license. Whether they swallowed it or just gave up as the lemonade took effect, I’ll never know. The main thing was that after about an hour we all parted the best of friends and wasn’t it all a frightfully jolly adventure and all the English had mad-cow disease. But of course.
We made the front page of the weekly blah:
I’m going to do some milling on the middle engine mount now – I’ll tell you about that later.