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When golfers left their fairways to 'flying machines'

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: September 13, 2012

  • Chairman of the Isles of Scilly Council Major AA Dorrien Smith branded the aircraft 'atrocities'.

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IT WAS 1937, a coronation year, and a day of foul weather, pouring with rain, the islands buffeted by wind.

A little warning handbell was rung, and the fairways on the islands' golf course cleared. Everyone gazed skywards ready to surge forward and hold down the wings. A new era was dawning in maritime Scilly – one of aviation.

Despite a spot of engine trouble, Channel Air Ferries – based at Kelynack, St Just, some 30 miles east – were, for 20 shillings single, 35 return, making their inaugural bow.

Rather in the manner of the first helicopter flight in 1964 which brought worthies on a celebratory trip, the eight-seater Dragon biplane decanted a group including Lord Amherst – later general manager of Channel Air Ferries' successor, Great Western and Southern Airlines – before a quintet of islanders led by 82-year-old writer Johnny 'Baa' Mumford of Newford, St Mary's, availed themselves of this novel form of departure. Immortalising the event, Frank McFarland penned The Channel Air Ferries, in which he observed: "It flies across the ocean which covers Lyonesse/And where the seasick traveller is filled with great distress."

Referring to that octogenarian first passenger, he cited speedy convenience as the obvious benefit accruing from the new link: "In less than 15 minutes our friend had made the trip/Which sometimes in his boyhood took 15 hours by ship."

The airline's slogan of "Twenty minutes and you're over" rapidly became common currency, and soon confounded the reactionary view of council chairman Major AA Dorrien Smith, who dismissed the aircraft as "atrocities".

That modest inaugural flight would lead to regular Land's End departures at 8.10am, seven days a week. Dudley Foy, in his Shorthaul Jubilee account, noted not one flight was missed in the service's first 12 months, despite island farmers complaining the noise was making their cows dry.

This was all 75 years ago on Saturday, September 15. Until that date the only avenue in or out of Scilly was the 11-year-old steamer RMS Scillonian, a remarkably reliable transit but whose passage at times was unpleasant enough to win her the unenviable sobriquet of "the Hell Ship" and "the Great White Stomach Pump". In emergencies, the lifeboat was just about the only other means of getting to the mainland.

Two years later came the inaugural flight into a new permanent landing ground, secured by wresting High Cross fields from grazing cows, and an increase in the number of daily flights. Lord Amherst paid tribute to the golfing membership to whom the company bequeathed its booking hut, which became a clubhouse.

The notoriously hump-backed profile of St Mary's airport spectacularly contradicted the normal official requirements, and continues to do so; only a few weeks ago a private flier breached a hedge and wound up in a flower field. In the 1980s an aerodrome consultant engineer, sniffing a contract opportunity, decided the only suitable site in the whole archipelago was on the off-islands. He advocated the driving of a runway out over Samson flats – a notion that would have triggered apoplexy in the ranks of English Nature.

The advent of war saw the de Havilland Rapides, which had succeeded the Dragons, commandeered by the Air Ministry and moved to Liverpool, the only time during the initial fixed-wing link with Scilly that the islands were briefly without an air service. However, it was soon restored, with the aircraft in wartime grey livery with camouflaged windows and, for safety reasons, irregular schedules, though there was a tragedy on June 3, 1941, when a mainland-bound Rapide, her crew and passengers vanished without trace, seemingly mistaken for a military target by a German Heinkel III bomber returning to France from a raid.

As today, regularity was always subject to cliff fog, though the Rapides' safety record was impressive and they continued to ply the route after it came under the British European Airways banner in 1947, affectionately regarded in the way the helicopters are now, as a quick, convenient bus 'hop'.

Islanders long enough in the tooth to recall those fledgling, pioneering days talk of them with a wry and fond nostalgia.

There were the distinctive flying mannerisms of the different pilots – such as 'Judy' Garland or Captain Morris 'Skipper' Hearn, an institution who during the war reportedly fitted a car wing mirror to ensure he was not being tailed by the enemy.

The Steamship Company, which now owns Land's End airfield and is upgrading facilities, would be the first to concede that its aerodrome when first used was an exercise in minimalism, a cliff-top site with a utilitarian shack for a terminal building. Luxurious fripperies such as canteens, cafés, bookstalls etcetera were merely a hope for the future.

And that future was, in due course, to see the Rapide's demise in 1964 after a memorable 27-year run on the route, first with the advent of rotary-wing aircraft from Land's End and latterly from Penzance, and in the 1980s a return to fixed-wing flying from Land's End, initially with Britten-Norman Islanders and then Twin Otters, not Rapides.

So a full circle has been flown in this little sector; fixed-wing is very much back centre-stage and ruling the Scillonian skies as it did three-quarters of a century ago. No longer will it be sharing it with the choppers – or not after October 31, if BIH holds to its pledge to close after that date. If the Steamship Company uses what looks, at least for the foreseeable future, to be a sea/air travel monopoly as sympathetically and with the social responsibility showed by the Twin Otters' Dragon and Rapide antecedents, then Scilly will be well served indeed.

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