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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - << Previous storyNext story >>

Doug Johns - British Westpoint Airlines and More!


Continued from Flying with the CAACU at Exeter

I had spent five years in the dust and heat, but, enjoyable flying in Aden, operating around Southern Arabia, East and North Africa. It had become obvious that the British were going to be leaving the Aden Protectorate very shortly. Flying the DC3 in what primarily was a 'bush' operation, although as we were a BOAC Associate, we had main line services as well - I well remember the expression on one man's face, when climbing out of a BOAC Comet 3, he was led to a Dakota to continue his journey - no smoked salmon and champagne on that part of the journey!

Pilots have to have each type of aircraft they operate commercially, on their licence, and with complex aircraft the ground school, technical examination and 'type' flight training can take some time, and of course is costly to an Airline; so, an Airline operating the same type is usually the first choice.

Return to Exeter

I had been very pleased while on leave from Aden Airways, to find that there was an Operator at Exeter who was using the splendid Dakota - British Westpoint Airlines (formally F and J Mann Airlines) More to the point, although a small operation, they were in need of a Dakota Captain and I was taken on. The Company also operated Rapides to the Scilly Islands (Mayflower Air Services) from Roborough (Plymouth) and these were usually flown by the Dakota First Officers.

The Company was started by the Mann brothers, and, Frank Mann was the Administrator, Jack, the Chief Engineer and Don was Chief Pilot at the time I joined.

Having left Aden in early March 1965, I started flying at Exeter on the 30th March, with Bill Scott, who was Chief Training Captain, by carrying out a local 'check' flight of 50 minutes, and, the following day as a supernumery on the 'bread and butter' schedule of Exeter (flown in from Newquay) to London Heathrow, to continue the schedule to Lille, (an Air France charter) in the evening! Night stop! The return schedule the following morning via Newquay to Exeter, where the next crew took over. On the 6th - 7th April I operated the full schedule, with Bill Scott acting as my First Officer, and on the 8th, we flew to Heathrow - Sandown - Heathrow - Exeter, ensuring that I had shaken the sand out of my shoes, was au fait with the stringent instrument and flight conditions of an English Spring, and, had been introduced to all the splendid people of Lille, who had a small part of Devon introduced every evening into their midst - a very French and pleasant Bar and Hotel especially, where most of us spent every second or third night!

First 'UK command'

On the 9th April I set off in command of my own 'ship'. Always a nice feeling!

The whole operation was run with three Dakota's (although one was on a loan basis), with basically three full crews, and, therefore you were kept pretty busy. However, if you are doing something you love, and, in those days without all the 'stresses' of delays, 'slot' times, security madness and all that modern crews have to put up with, plus, friendly faces in most places you land, life is pretty good. Even on the days I flew of course, I often had the morning or afternoon free, ensuring my Wife never forgot what I looked like, and the odd complete days off were well used, as around Exeter there is always something worth doing.

On return from Aden, without a house to return to, we found ourselves in the Coach House of a Vicarage that had been turned into a large Guest House, on the wooded slopes overlooking Dawlish. It was a very peaceful site, with splendid views, which suited us, but, as I heard from the owners, that, when they had some city dwelling Northerners staying, they had commented, "How do you put up with living here, it's too quiet and there's nothing to do"! In the hope that the Airline had a future, we decided to look for a property to buy, and were in fact one of the first to move into a Maisonette in Strand Court, Topsham; only a few properties at the time being ready. It provided a magnificent view down river, and across to Powderham Castle, and as I had brought a small boat - a Robert Tucker Mystic 21ft sloop, named 'Sea Myst' - back deck cargo from Aden, I created a mooring (in the days when you could) just outside the Exe channel to allow the small Coasters to pass, but in full sight of the living room and balcony. When things seem nye perfect, you can be sure troubles brewing, but as yet we were very happy.

A typical two days operating the, to the best of my knowledge, only, and last scheduled DC3 operation into Heathrow would be; depart Exeter at 1650 hrs for Heathrow, when as the scheduled Lille flight was not until 2045 hrs; the aircraft would be prepared and remain on stand. Today there are queues waiting for stands; in 1965 it was a lot quieter. I personally used to retire to Terminal 1, next to the Queens Building, and relax with a cup of tea and either people watch or read. All who needed to know, were aware where I was and could reach me! It's fascinating watching people who are often in a state of heightened emotion, and their reactions to their environment. Also, you had 'snippets' of life, such as a film being made, when a very harrassed looking David Niven - fully made up - was rushed below me from one corridor to another.

Another occasion, one of the BEA Captains came to find me, both to introduce himself and explain that he was flying over with us as the British representative of the RAF Escape Committee, where the following day a French Woman, who had been betrayed to the Gestapo, but survived, was being awarded the Legion d'Honneur in Lille. That night we also had the privilege and pleasure of going to the farmhouse where he was staying, and meeting one of the French Resistance families who were part of the escape chain.

We departed Heathrow at 2045 for Lille, and, in most cases after putting the aircraft to bed, would arrive in the City sometime after 2200 hrs.

A flying salute to bravery

A quick change into civvies, and off to a very non-touristy Bar - run by a fine Frenchman and his Scot's Wife. The atmosphere alone was a relaxant, and, as we were due to depart in the morning at 0830 (local), a 'snifter' the norm! On the morning of the presentation to a very brave Woman, I asked the Tower, explaining why, if they would object to a low pass over Lille. They didn't say 'No', so we passed over the City at rooftop height, before climbing away!

In those days, there were no 'mobiles', laptop's, overwhelming security, very few rules and strangely enough people got on with each other pretty well and seldom blew one another up. You tend to get what you create!

On arrival at Heathrow, we would have a quick turn-round for Newquay and Exeter. There the cycle would recommence.

Fitting in to the pattern of the above schedule, we also had a number of Jersey flights and other charter operations to places such as Sandown, Rotterdam, Ostend, Le Bourget and elsewhere. These were relatively frequent, but I had over the next few months three very interesting flights.

Le Mans

The first was a charter to Le Mans for the 24 hour race. Leaving Exeter with race enthusiasts, we travelled first to Tours where they would then go by road to the circuit, then to Gatwick to take a party direct to a grass 'strip' alongside the racecourse. Today, there is a major airfield practically on the circuit. I remember the 'field' as full of small private aircraft and the solitary Dak' dwarfed them. Crew rest was in a seat on the aircraft, whilst the cars droned in broken sound throughout the night! The following day the flights reversed - first from Le Mans, although as the hut that served as the official 'landing fees' office required more than I had; the passengers were asked if they could "spare a dime", until we got back to Gatwick and repaid them. Then back to Tours for the remaining people, to return to Exeter.

The second was a flight to Algiers for Algerians returning home from Gatwick. The flight was interesting in that a direct track took us over some of the highest peaks in the Alps. The maximum height for an unpressurised aircraft is 14,000, and that is usually only used when essential, 10,000, being the normal cruise level; the flight was overnight and would be carried out under Instrument Rules (IFR) anyway, requiring a safety height at least a 1,000 feet above highest ground in the vicinity. Mont Blanc is nearly 16,000 ft, and there are plenty of mountains above 9,000 ft. A suitable route was flight planned, and a stop at Barcelona to refuel. A short hop across to North Africa. The return being empty meant less fuel used and was made without landing en route. What brings it to mind, is that shortly before boarding, I was approached by our agent and a policeman, who asked me if I would take a look at one of the passengers who was semi conscious from drink. Did I wish to leave him behind? He was over six feet and weighed easily 18/20 stone, but was apparently sleeping like a baby. Drunks are a common problem, although today will almost certainly be refused permission to fly, but very difficult to ascertain the behavoir of an individual. He seemed pretty incapable and I agreed to take him. We taxied out close to midnight and as I approached the runway, the door flew open and a Stewardess breathing heavily, blurted out that this Individual was out of his seat and fighting about four people at the same time! I called the Tower to return and requested the police to meet us. We pulled up just outside the Terminal, where a very large Airport policeman climbed out of a Mini, grabbed said individual by the scruff of the neck and placing him on the passenger seat, sat on him, and was driven away!

On the 3rd July, I flew from Exeter to Gatwick and then set off for Berlin arriving around midnight. Berlin in those days, had the three corridors over East Germany which were monitored by the Americans, and as the USSR and America were not 'best buddies', care had to be taken to fly on time and accurately, as any excuse for a diplomatic incident was current and Soviet Mig's had created incidents and had actually attacked planes in the past. At midnight we slipped past the high rise flats alongside Templehof runway and put the 'old Lady GAMDB' to bed. We, decided to go out and have a drink and something to eat, as we weren't due off until 1630 hrs. The return flight, back along the corridor, this time dropping into Groningen, the very old University city of the Netherlands; where a quick turn round and some passengers off, we left for Heathrow arriving at 20.45 to leave immediately as the Air France schedule to Lille.

Exeter Air Show

I note from my 'logbook', that the 26th June was in 1965 the day of the Exeter Air Show, and remember it well, when, we gave 'pleasure flights' along the edge of Dartmoor and back over the Exe - coast to the right, and, Exeter City to the left - lasting about 12 to 14 minutes flight time. By 1300, we had completed 2hrs10 mins, when we stopped for the display, recommencing at 1615 with another two hours around the countryside - hopefully a lot of happy passengers - who, as the last one left, we refuelled and set off for Jersey, returning at 2225 hrs. I don't remember passengers, but believe flowers were the cargo. I do remember a Viscount, emulating a Dakota by sitting on it's tail! It transpired, that, boxes of flowers are light in weight, and, whoever was in charge of loading had forgotten that a lot of light boxes do still get heavier, also, the centre of gravity of a nosewheel aircraft is not that far in front of the main wheels. They had started loading from the tail forward. Sometimes a 'strut' is suspended from the tail, but the answer is to load properly! The aircraft would have required a major structural check.

Flying Dakotas

The Dakota stands alone in aviation history! It was the first modern passenger aircraft, continues on, and nothing has replaced it for rough strip 'bush' operations, as, nosewheels collapse when landing over scrub bush and shallow ditches, and on unlevel steep mountain slopes - the norm. in Arabia and many parts of the World. The large balloon tyres and forgiving oleo legs take it in their stride. It can dodge round trees and giraffe, and if you do have to land 'wheels up', they still rotate as they fold back in situ for that purpose - not that it does the props a lot of good! I saw a comment on 'www.airliners.net', where a fairly young pilot had had the pleasure of learning his trade on the DC3, and that it translated into good training for turbo and jet aircraft later. The reverse is not the case, as sadly, many splendid old aeroplanes have been wrecked by jet 'aces' who have not the skills required to fly piston prop - tail 'draggers'! The modern jet can, and often is, landed with drift on, and on touch down has (if set), auto deployment of ground and air brakes, dumping some 70 per cent of 'lift' preventing a bounce, and of course has 'reverse thrust' and is unlikely to 'ground loop'. The 'Boeing technique' for jets, is to continue the 3 degree slope of the ILS to a firm touchdown - although the majority of pilots still carry out some 'roundout'. Older aircraft are less forgiving of poor landing skills, and will 'bite', also, with the 'old ladies', you have lack of power to weight, flight levels that are in the weather, and, in the days when they were the modern transport, flight instruments that 'toppled', a need to navigate by 'brain' and give TLC to the engines; together with WW2 radio equipment. Without doubt, sitting in a modern jet in a clean white shirt, with a properly set bunch of computers doing most of the work, may seem preferable, but can't beat the 'kick' and pleasure of carrying out a good flight, while besmeared in oil and with a raincoat over your lap, as, the Dakota leaked like a sieve when in rain, through the side-windows (held closed by a bungee), and, fortunately you are restrained by the lap strap from going through the roof, when, an explosion like a bomb going off means you've been struck by lightning - in a jet, a flash and a quiet 'ping' on the radio is the norm. The crew in those days were at all times wholly intergrated with the operation - 'flying by the seat of your pants' was relevant; today, more especially as jet engines and systems do work well for long periods of time, it is far more difficult for the crew to be practised and intergrated with what the computer(s) have been doing - in fact, initially diagnosing WHAT has failed can be the problem!

Today, the 'flap' and 'gear' levers are tiny, on the Dakota they are about 18 inches long, and can easily, when not used to them, be crossed over one another - which causes much merriment, and there is a spring loaded lever to the left of the aisle, which 'pins' the main wheels 'down', when flush with the floor and needs raising before selecting up. Also, the hydraulics, should the fluid have leaked out, can be topped up from the 'flight deck' with any fluid handy - many suggestions were made. An incredible aircraft, a delight to fly and always gave the satisfaction of a job worth doing!

Weather was obviously more of a problem, as landing 'aids' were more basic, also, although 'decision heights' based on obstacles had to be known, the very tight restrictions of today were still being thought through! Exeter did not have at the time, an Instrument Landing System (ILS), the standard today for most airports, and I note that radiation fog on the 18th and 21st July caused me to 'hold' at Exeter and Newquay for an hour and a half and fifty minutes respectively. Radiation fog is when cold air pools in valleys and hollows and becomes saturated, the extra water condenses out as cloud on the ground. It usually means a good day in prospect as it needs clear skies and hardly any wind. It can be literally a few feet in height, or several hundred, and, from above, often, the whole airfield is visible, but when on approach as you enter it, visibility drops to a few yards. In the summer it nearly always burns off as the sun rises. A good demonstration of how unexpectedly and suddenly a pilot needs to react, occurred around the same period, when approaching Lille on our scheduled evening flight, the Tower cleared us to land with clear skies and little wind. On the approach at eight hundred feet or so, I noticed that the runway and approach lights were twinkling rather like the stars! Puzzling as to why, I thought maybe the windscreen was slightly damp which causes a similar effect, but had the interesting experience as I rounded out of having every light vanish - total darkness for a second or two until my adjusting eyes picked out sufficient details to keep straight. There was a band of radiation fog about 12 feet thick and we had entered it with the wheels just off the ground. The Tower was above it, and no doubt the controllers were putting the cards away and draining the last drops of a good vintage in order to close down for the night, and were unaware that fog had formed. Today you are strictly regulated in critical (decision) heights for all types of approach, and, even if you can see for miles, British commercial aircraft are restricted to a 'circling minima' for a visual approach - based on obstacles around the Aerodrome. On one arrival at Exeter from Heathrow early morning, there was a low cloud base of a few hundred feet, possibly lifted radiation fog, but very good visibility. The coast was clear due the warming effect from the water, so we dropped down just out to sea off Exmouth and flew up the Exe with a gentle turn at Topsham, keeping the high tension cables in sight, hopped over them and landed. You would not be allowed to do that today - unless you could prove an emergency!

Exeter was still operationally quiet in the mid 1960's, but many of the airfields we operated into were now reasonably busy with 707's, DC 8's, Trident, and others, where the area speed is 210 kts (242 mph), and as required by ATC, reduced during approach to 190Kts, 170 kts, 150 kts as required for spacing - all the last usually require some flap for lift purposes! We were cruising normally at only around 143 kts, which as can be seen could cause a problem for the controllers, so that we normally came down the ILS 'flat out', until reaching the 'outer marker' usually a 'beacon' around 3 1/2 to 4 miles out (1100/1200 feet) and then by reducing power and dropping the gear and flaps as we slowed, arrive at the threshold at 'over the hedge speed'. I was delighted to be called by 'approach' on one occasion, to slow down, as we were catching a 707 up!

We also were one of the last to use the short runway at Heathrow (05/23 if I remember correctly), which was used if very windy and across the main 28/10 runway. What is interesting about this runway - now disused - is that it's approach crosses Northolt, and there were occasions when visibility was not good, that aircraft cleared to land at Heathrow tried or did land at Northolt, resulting in a very large notice painted on the hanger roof, pointing to Heathrow.

Flying for British Eagle

Sadly, there was trouble brewing at Westpoint, partly due to the lack of commuters from the West Country in general, unlike, for instance Glasgow and Edinburgh, where 'shuttle' services do very well, but also Bill Scott had replaced Don Mann as Chief Pilot, for reasons I only have scant knowledge of, and, through Bill I became aware that the future was very uncertain, but that if I stayed, he wished me to take over his previous job of Training Captain - but was well aware that British Eagle had offered me a job on the Britannia 300 at Heathrow, and, at age 33, was not a job to turndown. I thoroughly enjoyed flying the DC3 and the work involved, but recognised that with such uncertainty - and, British Eagle as the biggest charter Company looked very secure - it went into liquidation overnight 3 1/2 years later, the fate of so many Independants - I decided the chance to get the Britannia (Whispering Giant) on my licence, was a chance not to be missed. It was also long-haul and that meant that I would stay at Topsham and commute to Heathrow! So, on the 22nd July '65, I returned from Lille via Heathrow to Exeter for the last time in a DC3.

The whole of August was taken up with ground school with BOAC, as they were ex BOAC aircraft, exams, and the multitude of tasks when starting afresh. On September 1st thro' to the 3rd, I did all the actual flying required, completing 36 landings in all! In those days it was totally hands on in the air, not in simulators. A few days later I was enroute to Singapore as a First Officer, as Eagle had all the trooping flights and Australian immigrant flights, also Woomera. Six days off after seven days away and a 3 1/2 hrs easy drive at 3 am back to Exeter.

For the next year, the work schedule meant I was away usually between five days to three weeks at a time, followed by two to eight days off, and, although as the 'package holiday's' to Europe were gaining ground, created by such as Eagle, Laker, etc., where you were there and back the same day, when, a free day between was required for me to get to and from Exeter or I stayed in London, it gave me the best of both Worlds - World travel and a splendid existence at Topsham. Setting off in 'Sea Myst' to Dartmouth for the weekend, where the Naval College serenaded all of us on the river below, was an excellent way to recover.

Travel to and from Exeter was on fairly quiet roads in the mid '60's; I remember leaving Heathrow at about 2300 hrs on New Years Eve (1965/66), and after leaving the London area, saw only about five cars all the way back to Exeter.

However, as all know who have travelled thro' many time zones, it does upset the bodies rhythm, and, when you are constantly wandering the World, at all times of the day or night, you only occasionally met your 'body clock' in passing, and at a different place each time! Eleven months after joining Eagle, I started Command training, and one of the flights where I was assessed, was a New York (Kennedy), where the Training Captain acted as my First Officer. It was an 11 hour flight commencing near midnight, and landing at 11.07 (GMT) - 06.07 New York time, with low cloud right on limits. I had driven up from Exeter before the flight, and, was feeling extremely tired having just got back from a ten day Singapore two days before. It was a hand flown ILS and I was not at my best, cursing myself aloud as I fought to keep the aircraft centered on the localiser and glideslope. We broke cloud at minima and I firmly placed the 'old lady' on the ground. By the time we had gone thro' Immigration, I was semi conscious, apologised to all and explained that having set off 20 hours before we landed, from Exeter, had in this case not been a good idea. I was certain that I would get a poor report, although the Training Captain thought the whole descent highly amusing - especially me talking to myself. The return flight went well, but, I felt I'd let myself down. However, a few weeks later, I was completing base training and three days later set off for Pisa in command.

The New York flight, also, the gradual increase in traffic and a number of incidents on the road - I went through a set of lights, over a hump backed bridge passing a lorry as I did so - and woke up on the far side, led me to consider whether I was not only endangering my own life, but that of others! A number of us had had similar incidents, with a navigator waking up to find himself upside down in his car in a field, for instance. I used to stop when I felt I must, and pull off for 15 minutes sleep, before continuing the journey. I came round a bend not far from Exeter one morning at about 0400 to find a cow in the road. No one else about, and I should have stopped to get her off the road - but didn't, and saw in the local news, that someone had not been so lucky, having hit the cow and both being killed!

I'd had a case of viral pneumonia, leaving Sydney, which resulted in two weeks in Hospital in Singapore, and, as the IT short-haul market increased, plus the need when on a 'standby' day (where you are required to be at the airport, ready to go within an hour of the call) - which required me to spend the ten hours or so at Heathrow, it was becoming obvious that my desire to remain in Exeter, was starting to impact my health and with winter of 1967 coming on, it would not improve. I changed school fourteen times, due WW2 (one being on a farm at Winkleigh on the edge of Dartmoor), and I didn't want that to happen to son and daughter, David and Melanie - that, sailing and the Devon countryside, would be a major loss, but, the decision was reluctantly taken to move to near Headley in Surrey, where I had lived before, and during, the early War years. There was no problem in finding someone looking for a property at Strand Court! The boat was sailed single handed to Portsmouth by me - a story all of it's own, as I 'came to' at around 0400 hrs in Lulworth Cove, as an unexpected gale arrived, and with poor holding for an anchor, decided to continue eastwards - only discovering how much of a gale was blowing when I left the shelter of the bay. My dinghy went skywards, throwing paddles, 'flipflops' and items from a trip to shore the night before, into the dark morning sea. Much more happened enroute, and I finally had to row ashore at Mudeford, with plastic plates screwed to broomsticks for paddles. I finally got 'Sea Myst' trailed to the new home, but I had to sell her and she set off for Scotland. Many years and wanderings later, I had the pleasure of buying a Drascombe Coaster, built on the Dart, where, she was mainly moored on the East Coast, and, when I could, trailed down to Devon and it's wonderful coastline.

Our Daughter has lived in Exeter for many years, so, there's every excuse for being there - but sadly, not often enough!

© 2011 Doug Johns

Doug John's memories of flying from Exeter Airport during the 1960s with British Westpoint Airlines and British Eagle.

Leslie Travender, the framer and his wife.British Westpoint Airways Dakota G-ALYF at Templehof, Berlin.Leslie Travender, the framer and his wife.G-AMDB at Templehop - this aircraft is now part of the 'Berlin Airlift Memorial' at Rhein-Main Airbase at Frankfurt.Leslie Travender, the framer and his wife.G-ALYF, also at Templehof - all photos courtesy of Berlin photographer Ralf Manteufel.

The three British Westpoint aircraft, were all ex BEA - GAMDB; GALYF and GBJHZ. GAMDB has become one of the most famous Dakota's (C47's) ever built, which exceeds 10,000 in number! The C47 is the military version with strengthened floor and other modifications of the civil Dakota, and, 'DB was an originally American owned C47, which became, with another Dakota, the test bed for the Rolls-Royce Dart Turboprop engine used on the Viscount, returned to standard Pratt and Whitney piston engines, and in it's last days returned to an American C47 registration, believed by Heathrow, to have been the last Dakota to have operated there! But to top it off, 'DB finally has become THE C47 which forms part of the 'Berlin Airlift Memorial' at Rhein-Main Airbase at Frankfurt.

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