Airports and Things

These last few weeks have seen something of a heatwave in the UK and of course we Brits are just not equipped to cope with extreme heat, well not in the UK anyway. In Spain the buildings are built to keep out the heat where as in the UK, our houses are insulated and are made to hang on to the heat throughout the cooler parts of the year as well as the usual dismal summers.

When I was a child a great lure for me on a hot summer’s day was the airport. My friends and I used to cycle to Manchester Airport and sometimes lurk around the terraces that used to welcome ‘plane spotters’ or more often than not, we used to ride around the back of the airport and wander down secret (or so we thought) lanes and avenues that backed onto the runway. We always headed for a popular spot, an old world war 2 pillbox where we would meet and observe the aircraft. I remember spending many happy hours there, jotting down all sorts of thoughts in my childhood notebooks while listening to the appealing drone of light aircraft or the exciting blast of jet engines. I sometimes imagined that the reason I so loved that light aircraft droning sound was that perhaps I was a World War One fighter ace in a previous life when that sound would have been so much a part of my existence.

Some time later, I think I was in my twenties, I knew someone who had an ambition to be a pilot and was taking lessons at Blackpool Airport. He used to alleviate his tuition costs by taking friends or colleagues on his training flights if they would drive him up to Blackpool.

On the day that I joined James (as usual, names have been changed to protect the innocent) as an eager passenger, I drove up to Blackpool Airport pretty excited. James advised that on the day he would be doing some instrument tests which involved flying the aircraft on instruments alone.

I stepped into the back of the small plane and strapped myself in. It was a hot day and the aircraft had a huge glass cockpit making it warmer still. I was at a point when I thought I would have to get out and cool off but just then the instructor turned up. He was an older chap and brought his big woolly dog along as he enjoyed, well so I was told, flying. Fido was led in to the rear seat with me and we eyed each other warily as he was strapped in.

The engine was started, we taxied out on to the runway and a few moments later we were aloft. It was exhilarating to look down on Blackpool and the tower, a place where I had spent many happy holidays as a child. After a while James had to put on a rather odd-shaped helmet which blocked out the view through the windscreen and he could only see his instruments. The small plane flew higher and higher, Blackpool Tower becoming the merest pinprick in the distance. Then the engine stopped.

image courtesy wikipedia.

image courtesy Wikipedia.

I’m not sure if you have ever seen one of those World War Two films when German Stuka bombers hurtle down at their targets with a banshee type wail. I only mention that because it seemed very much akin to our current situation and not only that, the pilot was lucky on this occasion that it wasn’t me issuing the wail, but as we hurtled towards the ground, Fido and I eyed each other with mutual fear in our eyes.

“Now come on James” said the instructor. “What have we forgotten?”

Fido pawed the back of the pilot’s seat in a vain attempt to jog his memory but our downward path continued. If you ever happen to see that rather old film ‘The Sound Barrier’ you might get some idea of our situation hurtling down towards the earth with Blackpool Tower looming ever closer in our windscreen.

“You’ve forgotten something haven’t you? The instructor might have been talking to a learner driver who had not put his hand brake on at the traffic lights.

“What if I mentioned the mixture?”

If that was a hint it was certainly in a much better class than his previous comments but either way the pilot got the message, adjusted the engine mixture and our tiny aircraft’s propeller burst into renewed life and not long later we touched down rather bumpily back in Blackpool.

“Watch out” said the instructor, “Fido gets a bit excited when we land.”

If this was a typical flight with his master then it was clear to me why Fido was excited when he landed but anyway, the dog gave me a look which said in its canine way “We made it!” and hopped out of the plane. James completed his flying studies and left our company. He went on, I assume, to a career in aviation and we never met again but I have learnt one thing.

Next time, if on the way to Spain, the engines of our jet airliner conk out I’ll be shouting to the pilot “What about the mixture!?”

Much has changed with aircraft and airports since those far off days. Also when I was a child, my father who never owned and could not drive a car, took us, my mother and brother and Bob our dog, on long walks around the area. Many times we would end up at a lovely old pub called the Romper where my brother and I would get crisps (chips to you American readers) and a glass of fizzy pop before setting off on the walk back home. There would usually be somewhere to buy some fresh eggs or vegetables which we would have later. The road that took us to the Romper has now been enveloped by the ever-expanding airport and the Romper itself is also quite different. I fondly remember it as having comfy old chairs inside and no pumps at the bar: The barstaff used to fill a jug direct from the casks of ale and pour beer from that. The last time I went into the Romper was at least ten years ago. It was a posh and polite bar and eating house. Nothing stays the same.

Airports have been in the news a lot lately because the government has decided to approve the building of a third runway at Heathrow, despite this meaning the destruction of 700 houses and the entire village of Sipson. It’s pretty probable that noise pollution will increase as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a similar situation at Manchester airport where, as I said earlier, the airport seems to be expanding all the time. A new complaint at Manchester is that where motorists have been able to drop off and pick up passengers freely, a new charge of £3 has come into effect. Three pounds, just to drop your friends or relatives off for their flight!

Personally, I’d advocate a string of smaller airports around the country which would mean people wouldn’t have to travel so far to big airports like Heathrow or Manchester. Liz and I used to use Blackpool airport quite frequently. It’s a fairly small place, very handy for us and those in the local area and it was a little like a friendly bus station until Jet2 stopped flying from there and the location returned to helicopter and light aircraft use.

If you look back at the history of aviation, you’ll see that in the 1960’s Hawker Siddeley developed the Harrier Jump Jet, a fighter aircraft which could take off and land vertically! So why has that concept not been taken up by the commercial aviation world? Imagine airports with VTOL aircraft. No lengthy runways taking up space. What are today’s generation of boffins up to? Get working on vertical take off and landing guys!

This seems to be an appropriate point to plug, no not Floating in Space but one of the videos on my YouTube page. You might breathe a sigh of relief, regular readers, to know that it’s not another video about that aforementioned novel (wonderful read though it is) but a re-edit of my second most popular video, a look at Manchester Airport back in 1986.

The original has had 7.8 thousand views which is pretty impressive but as it is enhanced by the top 20 chart music of the time, all of which is copyright protected of course, no royalties are payable to me. Naturally, that was quite a motivation for me to re-edit the film with some new copyright free music. Just as I had finished YouTube announced that as I have less than 1000 followers I am no longer eligible to be a YouTube ‘partner’ and therefore ineligible for any royalties.

My old friend Steve, now longer with us, introduces various aspects of the airport, a place he loved and knew a great deal about. A few years later I took the original video and edited him out, substituted some new video and added a lot of Steve’s introductions into my voice over narration. He wasn’t happy. Not long ago when I copied the video to DVD ready to convert to digital for yet another re-edit, my laptop would not accept the digital data. I sometimes think that maybe his spirit was watching over making sure that particular version never made it to YouTube. Oh well, perhaps I’ll leave it for another day, a day when I’m eligible for YouTube royalties!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

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