|There is beauty and there’s flying beauty. And there is nothing that flies more beautifully than the Spitfire, the Lancaster and Concorde.|
I was lying languidly on the couch in a pose that Edouard Manet would recognise and approve when I was hit by a deep thought. I sat up to give this new experience the recognition it deserved. “Life’ the thought went, “ is not a bowl of cherries’. I reclined again to rest after that innervating experience. Neither is it a consideration of whether a beer mug is half full or half empty. Not even, as my Uncle Taddeus insisted, a mug’s game. Life is about where you were when certain epoch marking events occurred. The pomposity of the thought forced other considerations. What were the shared thoughts by which the years and decades were marked? Everybody knows the one about Kennedy. At least if you were out of nappies in 1963.
Where you were and what you were doing is indelibly marked in the diary haphazardly compiled by the brain. The heart-stopping ten minutes when the disabled Apollo 13 returned to earth and the TV conscious world stayed glued to their sets until the splash down and recovery is another of those moments. The end of WWll has the same power to transport a participant back in time. Then there are the more personal memories like the time the same Uncle Taddeus had his first Chinese meal and tried to eat the raffia mat that had been placed in the bottom of one of the dishes to soak up the fat. But of all the trivia that has impinged itself in the morass of my brain over the last three or four decades, the first sighting of Concord(e) stands alone. I’ve always been an aircraftomanic. Or an aviologist – or what ever. The first actual experience I had when I touched an aeroplane was way back in 1948. The Russians had sealed off Berlin. I was trapped inside and food was desperately short. The Allies were flying in food and medical supplies in the beautifully designed Dakota. Once they had unloaded the ground crew filled up the fuselage with children and the infirm and flew them out to places where the living was easier. I was lucky enough to be included. It was not exactly a luxury trip. All we had to keep our skinny bums insulated from the cold floor of the plane was some empty sacks. It didn’t matter. That wonderful feeling of soaring above the clouds compensated even for the wrench of having to leave my family.
Once bitten by the aviation bug I was inclined to go all silly at the sight of an aircraft. My particular favourites were, and still are, the Supermarine Spitfire, in all its variations, and the Avro Lancaster. I was lucky enough to cadge a flight in the only remaining two seater Spitfire about twenty years ago. It was an experience in two halves. The first half was bumping along the grass runway at Stapleford Airfield with the way ahead completely blanked off by the high nose of the plane, thrown from side to side by the bashing the narrow wheel-base was taking from the grass strip and the way the pilot was weaving so that he could see ahead. The second half was pure, unadulterated magic. Suddenly the juddering stopped, the obstructing nose seemed to disappear and we were climbing away into a solid blue sky. Stapleford was an alternative overflow airfield during the war. Pilots returning to find the runways at other fields just a mass of craters from Luftwaffe bombing were directed to the Essex field. As we levelled out I looked around and tried to imagine what it must have been like in those Summer days forty years earlier. I sometimes flatter myself that I really did get just a smidgen of the feeling that young pilots, like fighter ace Johnnie Johnson, who actually flew from that grass strip, must have felt as they made their way southwards to patrol the coastline.
Sadly I have never had the chance to fly in a Lancaster. A couple of years ago there was a flurry of excitement when the C.O of Duxford half promised that he would arrange it for me. Then I stupidly reported sick and the offer withered away. But I have managed to get in a Lancaster on the ground. And that is quite an experience. A mighty aircraft from the outside, inside you can’t swing a mouse. Even if you could get permission from the RSPCA. Because of the cramped space the crew weren’t able to wear their parachutes. In an emergency they had to struggle into the tricky harness before they could jump out. And all the time the plane would be losing height. The thought of being trapped inside with the plane on fire, out of control and spinning towards the earth gave me a distinctly sick feeling. I hate to think what it did to the air crews who actually found themselves in that situation.
It was in the air that I met my husband. We were on a flight to Geneva. He was going skiing and I was on my way to a location to make an episode of SKI-BOY. We didn’t exactly hit it off at first but I warmed to him when I discovered he was an ex-RAF pilot. When we met up back in England and I found out that he had a Cherokee Arrow stashed away at Elstree I knew he was the one for me. On such little things romance blossoms. It wasn’t long before I was zooming around the skies, a regular little Rockfist Rogan. I even fancied the idea of gliding at one time. I signed up for a course but it never really bit. I liked the reassurance of a spinning propeller in front of me too much to let the lightness and comparative silence of gliding lure me away.
Another unexpected bonus I received was at a dinner party in Paris. The party was nothing to do with aviation. It was, I think, Bastille Day in 1968, shortly after I had finished filming WHERE EAGLES DARE in Austria.Sitting next to me was a dear little old lady who still had that magic gleam in her eye and a quick fervour in her voice. Madame Bleriot would you believe. All right – so she hadn’t actually flown that mould breaking flight from Baraques in France to Dover on a sunny day in 1909 but she had slept in the same bed as Louis – who had. I wish I could say that she said something earth shatteringly insightful but the truth is I can’t remember a thing we talked about. Just sitting next to her was enough for me.
Concord(e), now that it is to make an ignoble exit after a horrifying crash, both physically and financially, has now joined the pantheon of magic carpets. I only managed to wangle one flight in it. I was at the Chiller Theatre Convention, ‘92 or ‘93. I was chatting to a man who told me that he had been one of the fliers on Eagles. I think he flew the Junkers which top and tailed the film. He told me he was working for Air France in Washington. On the Concorde. A desk job – not flying. I began to lose interest until he mentioned that he might be about to arrange a flight back to London supersonic – then I was all over him. He was as good as his word and rang me later to tell me he had me on standby.
I wasn’t too keen on the ‘Standby’ but – beggars and all that. The interior came as a shock. I had built my dreams on craftily position camera angles and beautifully crafted brochures. It wasn’t what I expected. The interior is more like the old Boeing 707. After becoming used to the spacious interior of a 747 the Concorde rustled up a slight case of claustrophobia. This was rapidly vanquished by liberal applications of free Champagne and I spent the rest of the just short of three hour journey mesmerised by the spinning numbers of the Mach Indicator which seemed to tell us that we could get to Heathrow and have breakfast before the sound of our voice caught up with us.
Now Concord(e), the last of the aesthetically sublime ships of the sky is to go. Shot down not by hostile missiles or a terrorists bomb. It is a casualty of soaring costs, the limited number of passengers ready and able to shell out the £8,000 return fare to America and a general fear of flying ushered in by the dramatic events of 9/11. Concord(e) won a place in my heart for its sheer beauty. Planes now are all about raw power. They may win the admiration of the fans of power for power’s sake but they will never worm their way into my affection in the way that the Spitfire, Lancaster and Concorde has.
Model Mart June 03