The perils of Grand Prix plane journeys

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I recently saw an article about the VSCC’s early days, in which Tim Carson and “Ken Carslake” were mentioned. I assume the latter was a mistaken reference to Kent Karslake, whom I knew very well although I would never presume to have called him “Ken”.

The ex-Etonian stockbroker once accompanied us to a Spanish GP at Barcelona, in an aeroplane Motor Sport had chartered from Croydon. He was there to translate the race commentary for me, because I had to write my report on the flight home. This was partly to repay Kent for his erudite and literary Sideslips, which deserve to be republished in book form and are doubtless enjoyed by those who have back issues of Motor Sport. Karslake used to write some of his pieces as ‘Baladeur’, so he could discuss controversial aspects with himself.

He was a Hispano-Suiza enthusiast, first with a 1913 Alfonso model and later a 27hp Barcelona saloon. While he was at Oxford, when first-year undergraduates were not allowed a car, he went for a long run in the Alfonso when a strike had put buses and trains out. Its clutch gave out, and only desperate roadside work enabled a return before Kent was rumbled.

Our Avro Anson duly set off and, through no fault of the pilot, we nearly lost our lives over Barcelona at midnight. The pilot’s instructions listed the airport as being open for 24 hours, but it was dark as we approached. Fortunately Spaniards go to bed late and, thinking this might be a grand prix driver arriving, they switched on the runway lighting. The next morning I asked our pilot what he would have done without that stroke of luck. “I had very little fuel left, have never made a night landing before and the Anson has no landing light,” he said.

On the flight back to England we ran into a furious hailstorm. Photographer Michael Tee’s camera flew several feet in the air as we fell into air pockets. Throughout all of this Karslake read his Financial Times, but when we landed at Lyon to refuel he remarked that he did not think we would survive. The radio operator had virtually passed out and fate was still against us. With the storm still raging, we were regarded as mad Englishmen, no other aeroplanes having landed there that day. Back in the Anson the pilot seemed concerned about the fuel gauges. “Perhaps you should check,” said Karslake. The refuelling had not, in fact, been done.

I think Motor Sport arranged these two-day charter flights because they were less expensive than sending us by car, which incurred hotel expenses.

We had other adventures, too. On another occasion, when Michael Tee, now a very capable pilot, was about to bring us home from a grand prix, newly married Motoring News editor Michael Cotton, who had gone out by car, remarked how much he envied our rapid return. Michael Tee then told him to come with us and let one of our party drive his car back. Alas, fog closed in and we were unable to land at Luton, the usual destination, or other adjacent aerodromes. In the end we were instructed to go to Heathrow, where it was still foggy but a car would lead us off the designated runway. The fog was so bad the car could not find us, but Michael made a faultless landing. For that, I have always had the greatest admiration.