“This was the first time I saw the export documentation. This would be around the 30th March, so the sight of the export deadline brought me up sharp. Victor Oscar needed to Foxtrot Oscar back to England no later than 4th April. I had less than a week to get everything signed off, the aircraft fitted out with a ferry kit, test flight and hand-over arranged. Included in the shopping list was that I didn’t have a pilot or crew.
“In those days, you had to book an international phone call in advance. Then, if the stars aligned, Mercury moved into Uranus and the gods of electronics were momentarily distracted, you could enjoy two or three minutes of crackling before the line disconnected. A weary teleprinter was my only contact with the outside world. On the 1st April it rattled out the message that David Gilmour (Not the Pink Floyd one), Tony Belcher and Peter Wrighton would arrive the following day to drive the Herald back home.”
The dawn broke with heavy fog over a closed airport. Knowing that timing timing was tight, they’d scheduled take-off at 07:00 local.
“We had a multi-leg journey ahead, with stops planned at nameless airfields, miles from anywhere. The fly in the ointment was Belem, where we had to leave no later than one hour before dark to comply with local regulations.”
The clock ticked inexorably round towards 10:00. as one leg of the trip ahead necessitated take-off no later than one hour before dark. The crew passed the time by taking instructions from a Trans Brazil captain on flying the Herald.
“Neither Dave nor Tony had flown the type for five years. When they pointed out that all the cockpit information and checklists were in Portuguese, we all started to feel a trifle nervous.”
The Brazilian captain accompanied them as far as Belem, maintaining constant contact with the outside world via HF radio. They lifted off again, scant minutes inside the dusk-take-off curfew. As darkness fell, David Gilmour pointed the nose northwards, destination Cayenne, French Guiana.
And that’s when the radio stopped working.
“Outside was unbroken blackness. In the UK there’s always a town in sight, street lights, houses and car headlights snaking along the roads. This was darker than soot; not a light to be seen, anywhere. With the radio silent, we felt very alone up there. Peter reassured us that he knew exactly where we were, but nobody really trusts the navigator.”
As it turned out, they should have had more faith. Cayenne came up on time and on the nose, and the radio finally crackled into life.
“Victor Oscar, please state your type.”
“Victor Oscar is an HP7”
“Victor Oscar is a Handley Page HP7”
“Victor Oscar is a Handley Page Herald HP7.”
Very long pause…
“Victor Oscar is a Fokker F27.”
“Copied, Victor Oscar, thank you.”
The near-enough Fokker Friendship threaded between the cu-nims of a mighty thunderstorm on its descent into Cayenne. The windscreen immediately misted to opacity.
“Anybody remember how to switch on the de-mist?” asked David.
“Search me,” Tony answered.
“Check the pilot’s notes,” Peter volunteered.
“Great idea, how’s your Portuguese?”
By the time the Herald touched down, everyone had wet sleeves. They taxied in a couple of minutes ahead of an Air France Caravelle.
“The minute he turned off the runway, all the lights went out. He was an hour late, and they’d kept them on for his arrival. They had no record of our flight plan. If he’d been on time, or we’d been five minutes later, we’d have found the place in darkness and everybody on their way home.”
Next stop was Barbados, a largely uneventful leg, except for the small matter of the reverse current relay sticking on landing, resulting in the propeller turning backwards.
“We were carrying spares, including a full engine, so at least it was repairable, and we got the unexpected treat of three days’ solar baking and liver pickling in Barbados. It was during the twelve-hour drying-out and hangover torture of the day before departure that we noticed that our navigator had turned into a sun-dried tomato. To be fair, we’d all turned various shades of chopped liver, but you could have tied Tony to the port wing and used him as a nav light.”
On the next leg, to Jamaica, Alan entered the cockpit to find the navigator, dressed only in singlet, underpants and shoes, emitting faint grunts of pain as he brushed the majority of his facial skin off his charts.
The next day, heading for Miami via Puerto Rico, they grappled with de-icing and cabin temperature control problems, as well as an entertaining repertoire of electrical failures. It was beginning to be glaringly apparent why the exporters were so keen to see VO on her way.
Grounded for three days in Miami while help flew in from the UK, the Herald was parked among the unidentifiable mounds of aviation junk that infest the cockroach corner of every airfield.
“We dared to hope that they’d consigned us to the scrap heap, but no such luck.”
En route to Richmond Virginia, the rear passenger door warning light lit up. Cabin pressure seemed OK, but Alan went aft and, just in case, tied the door to the spare engine with a piece of rope he found in one of the boxes of spare parts. Not strictly an approved mod, but sufficient unto the day.
Ground examination revealed that somebody had fitted the plocket incorrectly. It’s a strange plug and socket arrangement, invented and (almost) jokingly named by Handley Page, with the single job of alerting the pilot should the passenger door not be properly sealed. It had done its job rather too enthusiastically on this occasion.
As the journey north continued, tropical sunshine turned to wintry snowstorms. The cabin heater cooperated by packing up, and then the starboard engine cowling de-icer boot burnt out. They landed at Boston, planning to take the boot from the spare engine, but the airport had no facilities to remove a Dowty propeller. A phone call to the Canadian Herald operator elicited the suggestion that they put into New Brunswick, where the correct equipment was available.
New Brunswick was snowbound, a normal day for the airport staff, but an unnerving arrival for four Brits in an aging airliner whose homicidal bent was becoming hard to ignore.
The Herald operator replaced the boot and ironed out a good proportion of the electrical gremlins and VO took off again, headed for Goose Bay. Alan fiddled with the cabin heating and, by removing the choke valve actuators and wiring the air valves half closed, raised a temperature almost enough to melt the ice on the windscreen.
Peter, an ex-RAF navigator, claimed an old acquaintance with the Goose Bay Station Commander.
“He’ll get us in the hangar and persuade the USAF PBX to give us some cold weather gear.”
The friendship went untested, as Peter’s old mate was away on leave, and the hangar was stacked out with V-bombers on exercise. The RAF did their best to shield the Herald from the worst of the weather and provided hot food. Then they discovered that the visitors had no cold weather gear.
“If you have to put down somewhere, you won’t last ten minutes.”
“Yes, we were hoping the USAF PBX would help us out.”
“I’m sure they would, but the PBX is shut. There’ll be nobody there until tomorrow afternoon. When are you flying out?”
“Tomorrow morning,” David replied, eyeing his navigator with murderous intent.
The following day held the arctic circle crossing via Greenland and Iceland to Glasgow. Alan and his companions staggered around the cabin wearing every item of clothing they possessed, their arms forced outward from their sides by multiple shirts, vests and at least one dressing gown. Their Barbadian suntans faded to jellyfish blue.
Glasgow greeted them with bright sunshine. They stepped outside to enjoy the warmth, only to find that the arctic had followed them throughout the long flight. The thermometer hovered at minus 150C.
That’s when Alan noticed that the ground around the plane had turned green. The seals had frozen, and fuel was leaking out at an alarming rate.
“They were rock solid. I tried to adjust them, but when they’re that brittle, there’s every chance you’ll destroy them altogether. We decided to run the engines to try to warm the seals. I stood by with a fire extinguisher and kept a close eye. It seemed to work, and the leakage visibly reduced.
“I was feeling quite cocky, right up to the moment of the fireball.”
The blast of smoke from the starboard engine was accompanied by a glowing ball of fire.
“Jet pipe blanks are handy things, but less than ideal when you forget to remove them before start-up.”
A rapid shut down saved the engines from irreparable damage, but the fuel leak problem persisted. The only options were a plentiful supply of spare PR valves or a warm hangar for the night. Neither option being available, it was decided to press on to East Midlands and the end of the odyssey.
“Two hundred and fifty miles with fuel running out like a leaky bath might sound crazy… no, it actually is crazy, but we were cold, wet, knackered and heartily sick of the poor, neglected old girl that had delivered us across more than nine thousand miles of baking, freezing and occasionally panicking hell.
“We sat in the cabin, crunching the ice in our sandwiches, and opening the undercarriage doors every ten minutes or so to let the fuel drain out.”
It’s a testament to the resilience of the Herald that, even when neglected and subjected to conditions far outside its designed limits, it slogs doggedly on.
“You’ve got to love the old witches. They just keep going, come what may.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Luxury might not be a term you’d expect to employ when describing life in the RAF, but to a newly demobbed mechanic, the unheated bleakness of the Derby Airways hangar at Burnaston had him thinking fondly of the neatness, cleanliness and – above all – warmth of St Athan.
Alan Beardmore had joined the RAF in 1956. He’d trained as a mechanic before being posted to RAF St Athan to work on Meteors, Hunters and Canberras. As the mighty V-bombers came into service, he worked on the Vickers Valiant. RAF technician training taught orderliness, and his work area around the great white bombers was always near-surgically clean and tidy.
Now, in 1961, he looked around at a disorderly tangle of Tiger moths, Dakotas, Chipmunks and an elderly ex-BOAC Argonaut, and thought seriously of asking the RAF to take him back. The information that the Argonaut was their newest and proudest acquisition did little to reassure him.
“Basically,” he recalled, “It was a bit of a tip.”
Still, the money was better than service pay, and civilian life allowed certain latitudes denied to an RAF ack-emma. And when he was asked to join the aircrew as flying spanner on the Merlin-engined Argonaut, he resolved to stay put.
Three years later, Derby Airways acquired its first Herald. Alan completed the course at Radlett, also spending time on the production line, and gained his A/F licence to work on Heralds in 1964.
“The Heralds were a bit of a problem initially. Hydraulic gremlins, and then severe corrosion. We had to take one – G-ATIG if I remember correctly – back to Radlett for emergency repair.”
Repairs to aircraft were less severely governed back then, and Handley Page’s cure for the skin corrosion was to rivet new plating over the affected section, and issue instructions to run with reduced cabin pressure differential.
“The fix worked – mostly. It added a lot of weight, though, and the reduced pressure differential restriction meant that we had to reduce our operating altitude. The route to Barcelona has a bump in the middle, usually known as the Pyrenees. Flying an overweight aeroplane at reduced altitude over that switchback was too dangerous, even for the relaxed standards of the day. With the Herald off the menu for our Barcelona route, Derby was forced to switch to the Viscount.”
The Heralds and Viscounts both used Dart turbo-props, so in 1969 Alan undertook a Rolls Royce course to gain his licence to work on the engines. He wasn’t to be reacquainted with Heralds for four years, when, as Outstation Manager at Stansted Airport, he worked on the part exchange of three Heralds for one BAC 1-11.
“I’d spent a year in Lagos on 1-11s, and got to know them intimately at Luton and Stansted. My experience as flying spanner saw me being volunteered to fly out to São Paulo to negotiate the return to the UK of an ex-Sadia Herald. I made the trip in an Air Bridge Convair and began the complex process of assembling the tech spec, equipment fit list and transfer agenda. It’s not an undertaking I’d recommend to anyone with high blood pressure. Maintenance records had been filed using the first-available-surface approach, and convincing the CAA that a Certificate of Airworthiness should be granted on the basis of an assemblage of mixed-language scraps of oil-stained paper required a certain talent for persuasion.”
The aircraft concerned was G-ASVO, which is still to be seen and explored at Highland Aviation Museum, Inverness. Alan finally received the necessary permissions, and all seemed set. He returned to São Paulo at the end of March to complete the documentation and bring the aircraft home.