Alarms and Excursions

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Grand Prix reporting today always involves flying, but when Bill Boddy was doing it pre-war that was rare – and risky

When I was Editor of Motor Sport we used charter aeroplanes to cover post-war events, especially continental Grands Prix. It cost less than going by car, which could involve several days away, whereas flying involved only one or two days. I would write my race reports on the homeward flights, drive from Croydon to the office in City Road, London, wait to check the proofs (on the ‘stone’) and then drive home to Hampshire in the middle of the night. I have an idea that the ‘comps’, or typesetters, held a sweepstake as to whether I would return or be an aerial casualty!

The first charter flight was a disaster. I was to cover the 1949 Jersey races so we hired an Airspeed Consul 65. There was thick cloud but after a time I looked down and remarked how similar Jersey airport looked to Croydon. It was Croydon, as the pilot refused to cross the Channel in the poor conditions. Instead of seeing the race myself I had to listen to a commentary on a car radio in the car park and from that compile a half-page report.

Subsequently there were three episodes which might have had serious consequences.

The first of these occurred when we used an Enterprise Airspeed Consul to get to the Le Mans 24 Hours race, their pilot a keen person who raced his own Alta car at Brooklands. We had intended to take naps in the plane’s comfortable seats during the race, but it had to be locked up as there were no Customs arrangements at the race course. So we were all up for the round-the-clock stint. On the flight back to Croydon on the Sunday evening the Consul suddenly dived steeply when it was over the Channel. At Croydon the pilot asked whether we had noticed. “I just dozed off,” he explained.

In our second episode, on a flight to Barcelona for the Spanish GP, in a Transair Consul, we were met by a smartly uniformed pilot and radio operator. I asked if they ever got bored of such flights. “Oh no,” said the pilot. “I’ve never been further than Paris, so this one is rather special.”

On previous visits to Spain I took as translator Kent Karslake, who contributed a series of top-class articles to Motor Sport and whom I knew liked foreign travel and French cuisine. When he was unable to come I asked Transair’s manager to find me a substitute. This turned out to be a well-dressed person who asked, when we arrived at our destination, if we would excuse him if he did not join us for dinner as he had many friends to visit – presumably nocturnal! He turned up for breakfast, performed admirably in understanding race news, and afterwards knew where to find us a taxi. He saw me and the photographer into it, told the driver to go to the airport – and vanished! We had trouble trying to explain why five people had booked out but now one was missing. The gentleman involved had given me his card with the address of the Spanish Embassy in London, but when I phoned them they could find no one of that name on their staff…

The third episode, again going to Barcelona, this time in a Transair Avro Anson, involved a failure of power to the undercarriage so that the luckless radio operator had to wind it up by hand. A strong headwind made refuellings necessary at Rennes and Toulouse, where we went off to eat. We were not allowed to leave until Customs had been cleared, which meant a very long wait until the officer arrived on a bicycle. Thus it was pitch-dark when we finally began to circle Barcelona, with no runway lights to guide us and little fuel remaining. Fortunately someone at the aerodrome heard us and switched on the runway lights. Next morning our pilot said he had never made a night landing and had no idea what to do; he had checked before leaving that the aerodrome was always open.

The race over, we experienced a fearful storm on the way back. A thunderstorm set in, hail beat so loudly on the engine cowlings that it seemed water might affect the ignition, St Elmo’s Fire streamed from the wing tips, the radio expired, and in turbulence over the Pyrenees the Anson fell so quickly that a camera left on a seat rose feet into the air. But we got to Lyons, still in pouring rain and lightning flashes, where the gendarmes must have regarded us as mad Englishmen, saying that no other aeroplane had landed that day. Throughout it all Kent Karslake calmly read his Financial Times, but later admitted that he doubted we would survive. We went off for a welcome meal after the young pilot had asked Shell to check the Anson’s fuel level. On our return he seemed a bit doubtful but prepared to take off. Karslake enquired if the fuel had been checked and it transpired that the Shell chaps had also gone for a meal and had not refuelled the Anson. A forced landing in the Channel, perhaps…

If all this seems rather dramatic, other charterings were normal, although a hatch did fly off an Anson’s roof with an enormous report, allowing rain to enter the cabin. Our photographer Michael Tee found just enough room to open his umbrella. Meanwhile I was able to listen on the crew’s headphones to the 1951 election results.

Also in 1951 we went to the Isle of Man events in Consul G-AIOP, to Jersey in Transair’s G-AIXZ and to the Dundrod TT in G-AIVA. We wanted to return quickly from the IoM as we had to be at Brands Hatch on the Sunday, but Speke aerodrome was closed early, so no fuel. Stirling Moss’s father Alfred, who was at the island event, was desperate to get back to see Stirling drive at Brands, and he managed to get a seat with BEA (British European Airways). We eventually returned in gale conditions.

On another occasion the pilot who had previously flown us to Le Mans gave us an uneventful out-and-home flight to the Reims GP in Consul G-AIVA. We used a field near the circuit with high-tension wires crossing it; on the take off he jokingly said that he would drink Citroënade but we should have champagne. The local bar emptied out to watch us take off, but all went well and we were back at Croydon in 1hr 50min.

I enjoyed the first of these aerial journeys pre-war when I discovered that Captain O?V?Holmes, a returned Indian Army officer, would hire a Percival Proctor 1 to take us and the proprietor of Motor Sport to the Isle of Man. On the outward trip we were supposed to circle the Speke tower so that they had a note of who was crossing the sea, but there was no one there! Holmes had the tip of the nearside wing almost touching the glass before giving up. The return flight was wonderful, with stately houses seen every so often and cars just insignificant blobs in the peaceful countryside.

Holmes published Brooklands – Track and Air magazine, bought when the Brooklands Flying Club one was failing. It later became a caravan journal but until it did I ran the car side, Holmes the aeroplane section. I received no pay, merely getting a third-class rail ticket between South London and West Weybridge, from where I walked to the Track. Holmes was an excellent and safe pilot, who in 1933 gave me my first flight, in a Gypsy Moth. Testing his new camera he came close to stalling several times but prevented the aircraft going into a spin. Back at my ‘digs’ I still felt sick and refused dinner, but my landlady was very impressed that I had been up in an aeroplane!

I recall how, very close to the outbreak of WWII, Holmes borrowed an aeroplane from Dick Shuttleworth and landed at a French aerodrome to check where he was. Unfortunately it was a military base and the machine was impounded, annoying Dick who wanted it back as he had started a business of flying advertising banners behind the aeroplane…

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