Flying with St George
Andy Kenyon has a day out with Air Atlantique
With the demise of the highly acclaimed Coventry Classic Airshow, one of the best ways to see the Air Atlantique fleet of classic propliners and historic types is to attend one of the Air Atlantique open days. The first of two scheduled open days in 2005 was held on St George's day, 23 April.
The day was to be divided into two sections - firstly a tour of the Air Atlantique and Atlantic Airlines' (which was formed by a management buyout of part of the Air Atlantique operation) hangars and parked aircraft, followed by a short pleasure flight in one of the historic types. Arriving at Coventry airport at 10:30 I quickly checked in for the hangar tour and pleasure flight. With the hangar tour scheduled to commence at 11:45 I had some time to look around the magnificent collection of working propliners and historic rarities that make up the classic flight.
The Air Atlantique compound consists of a number of hangars - one for the classic flight, one for the smaller working aircraft and one for the Electras. Next to the taxiway an apron holds the aircraft that will be flying shortly, while a further apron outside the hangar provides hardstanding and a large grass area holds both working and stored propliners, as well as some of the historic types.
My first port of call was hangar seven, the classic flight hangar. A number of the historic types were housed here; Venom WR470, Meteor NF11 WM167, an Auster, one of the DC-3 fleet resplendent in a freshly applied RAF Transport Command Livery, a DH Dove, and one of the two DH Rapides on strength. However, it was not just complete aircraft that could be found here - whilst nosing around the hangar it was interesting to find a couple of Vampires in a dismantled state with the cockpits placed on pallets and the wings neatly stored in jigs. The apron immediately outside the hangar was home to both the Anson and Canberra WK163, which was having an engine worked upon. Fingers crossed that repairs to this aircraft will be completed in the summer so we may see her at some late season shows. Finally, a grassed area was home a number of the propliners - where else in Europe can you see two airworthy DC-6s parked next to each other? Although the DC-3 fleet is not as numerous as it was a few years ago, the Thales DC-3 G-ANAF and former spray aircraft G-AMSV, minus its engines, were parked here. Also minus its engines, giving the illusion of it being jet powered, was the Convair 440 that has suffered a number of misfortunes in trying to get it into service. A couple of former Reeve Aleutian Electras, whose future may be either a source of parts or possibly returned to flight, were also parked up awaiting their fate. Two preserved aircraft completed the line up of aircraft that I was able to visit unaccompanied, ex-RN Hunter WT711 was looking a little forlorn, and Avro Shackleton WR963, which is being lovingly brought back to life by members of the Shackleton Restoration Trust (SRT). How nice it was to be able to wander around taking pictures of the aircraft without crowds or barriers - it was a pity that the weather wasn't playing ball, as by now there was grey cloud cover and a stiff crosswind.
I decided to seek cover from the brisk wind and noticed that the Shackleton was open for visits. Paying a modest entrance fee I scrambled up into the cockpit and began a very interesting and enjoyable half-hour in the company of volunteers from the SRT, who having all worked on the Shackleton during its service life regaled me with tales of trips to all parts of the world - wonderful stuff. The Shackleton has been restored over the past few years so that now all four engines and the hydraulic systems are fully operational.
After finishing my visit to the Shackleton I made my way to join the guided hangar tour. Accompanied by two knowledgeable guides, volunteer helpers at the Classic Flight, we were taken around the aircraft and were given in-depth information about the aircraft, their histories and their uses. As we were on a live commercial airfield having a guide with us meant that we could venture further into the parked aircraft to get up close to a second Dove, the Pembroke, and the Twin Pioneer, aircraft that will be familiar to many airshow-goers.
At 12:30 we broke off the tour and joined the crowds gathered around the 'Shack' as one-by-one the mighty Griffons powering the contra-rotating propellers sprung into life. Standing just thirty feet away the noise was deafening. With all engines running, nav and landing lights twinkling, the bomb bay doors were slowly opened and closed - this is a live aircraft. For some lucky enthusiasts the experience was extra special, as for an additional fee they were allowed on board during the engine run. An hour later peace returned to the airfield as the four engines were shut down, the engine run scheduled for thirty minutes had overrun - but there were no complaints from anyone!
Resuming the hangar tour we were given an insight into the everyday workings of the company, which include flying training, government contracts, and the freight operations. The fleet statistics of around fifty aircraft of thirty different types gives some idea of the diverse nature of the operation. The smaller aircraft hangar visited contained a number of the interesting fleet of Cessnas 310, 402, and 406 working on various contracts including the Maritime Coastguard Agency. Judging by the number of personalised registrations it is clear that Air Atlantique have a sense of humour - G-NOSE for a Cessna 402B anyone! The final hangar housed one of the Electras, G-LOFE, undergoing maintenance. There was just time for a quick photo of the recently acquired An72, perhaps a sign of things to come, an aircraft that our guide informed us was frequently used for the transport of racehorses.
The tour of the operations now over it was time to sample a flight in one of the historic aircraft. The aircraft originally on offer for flights were the Prentice, DC-3, Rapide, Dove, and Twin Pioneer. My first choice was the Dove, but repairs to it had not been completed in time for it to fly and so my flight was switched to the Twin Pioneer. Taking my seat I was immediately impressed with the large window and, by virtue of the high wing, there was an unobstructed view. Captain Chris Bloxham and First Officer Mike Day soon had the engines fired up and we quickly taxied to line up on runway 05. The takeoff roll was impressively short and we were quickly airborne. Turning right almost immediately we set out over the Warwickshire countryside, skirting Leamington. It was easy to pick out familiar landmarks from our modest height and very soon we arrived overhead Warwick and proceeded to perform a couple of tight turns immediately over Warwick Castle, enabling passengers on both sides of the aircraft to get a view of one of England's finest castles. I wonder what visitors in the castle made of our 'raspberry ripple' machine circling overhead... Leaving Warwick we headed off cross-country towards another castle, Kenilworth, but unfortunately due to this being very close to the Coventry airport approach we were unable to circle there but the view from those large windows was still impressive. Now descending we continued our approach to Coventry and in no time we made a smooth landing and taxied back onto the grass where the next set of passengers awaited.
This was an excellent day out, a great opportunity to see the classic aircraft of Air Atlantique and also to see the day-to-day side of their operations, rounded off by a wonderful sightseeing flight. The pace of the day was relaxed and gave plenty of time for close inspection and photos of the aircraft. The next open day is scheduled for 9 October, and as I would still like to fly in the Dove there is every possibility that I'll be there!