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About A Week: Leaving On A Jet Plane

Peter Hinchliffe writes about the early days of trans-Atlantic air travel.

There goes another big jet, tearing the air into noisy shreds as it speeds down a runway at Manchester Airport, outward bound for… Atlanta? Newark? Toronto?

No big deal. Just another long-distance flight.

For many folk boarding a jet plane has become as commonplace as stepping onto the 8.20 am bus or train. More than twenty million passengers are expected to pass through Manchester Airport this year.

Time was when folk would stop and stare if a plane passed overhead or sprint outdoors to gaze skywards if they heard the thwack-thwack of an approaching helicopter. Now they give the noise of jet or rotor blades little more attention than they do the rumble of a bread van.

In 1950, along with three school friends, I went on holiday to London. Travelling by train of course. The highlight of the week was a trip to London Airport to look at the planes.

We gazed in awe at the seemingly huge airliners, revelling in the romance of their insignia. BOAC. Pan-American. Transworld Airlines. All of them propeller driven. We were there some two years before the birth of passenger jet travel.

Moira Marchant, who lives in West Yorkshire, was in at the very dawn of Transatlantic passenger flights. She was born and raised in Newfoundland. When she was a young child the only way to cross the Atlantic Ocean was by ship.

“That meant at least two weeks on a cargo boat laden with newsprint for the Daily Mail - and only 12 passengers,’’ she says. “ During the voyage they saw the restless waves, fog, occasional gigantic icebergs and schools of whales coming up for air.’’

In 1937 Pan-American and Imperial Airways began experimental flights using flying boats between Newfoundland and the Shannon River in Ireland. Soon they began to carry passengers.

Only a few people were lucky enough to get a pass to enter the pier compound at Botwood, Newfoundland, where the Short S 23 flying boats were refuelled. Moira’s mother was one of them.

Moira and her mum had to set out early to travel 25 miles to Botwood. “It was a spectacular and exciting sight to watch these flying boats appear out of the sky and touch down on the water then manoeuvre up to the platform.’’

The British aircraft were the Cambria and the Caledonia. The Americans had the Yankee Clipper. Moira was allowed on the British aircraft. “Inside was bare except for the cockpits, and they had very few instruments compared to today’s giants.’’

The Clipper was the first to carry passengers. “Two I remember seeing were Monty Banks, then the husband of Gracie Fields, and Kay Stammers, the British tennis player,’’ Moira recalls.

Now air travel is a matter of routine rather than glamour. Though some flights are anything but dull. Someone was reminding me the other day of the feat of Yorkshire's great all-round entertainer, the late Roy Castle, who hosted the BBC TV Record Breakers programme.

Roy still holds the record for wing walking. He flew strapped to the wing of a Boeing Stearman biplane from Gatwick to Le Bourget, Paris, on August 2, 1990. The flight lasted 3 hours 23 minutes.

He survived for the duration of that breezy journey without once being served plastic food in a plastic dish.


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