The Malone Column
Long-lived flying machinery and lasting memories
Oscar Kilo is alive and well, and flying out of Somerset
T’was a dark and stormy night. I’d been planning to fly and had left the evening clear, but it was not to be... the wind hissed in the chimney and the hail rattled the glass. I began returning my flying documents to their proper place in my office cupboard, looking forward to an evening in front of the thinking man’s television – the fire. But I stopped short as my old log book fell open at page one, and there at the top I saw my first-ever entry: September 30 1984, instructor Gordon King, Biggin to Biggin, Cessna 150 G-BEOK.
The memory triggered warm feelings. ‘Oscar Kilo’ was a shop-worn contraption finished in a cracked colour scheme that might once have been purple or might once have been brown. Her Perspex was crazed, her panel tatty and her trim torn, but to me she was quite the most gorgeous, sophisticated flying machine ever to grace the heavens. She had lovely dials and clocks, one of them a baffling instrument called an ADF, which one day I was told I would learn to use; she had a loudspeaker through which you could hear air traffic control, and a microphone with which to speak to them, if you knew the secret language. I remember sitting behind that long nose and thinking she looked and sounded like a flying Massey Ferguson, just beautiful. I went solo in her on 11 December that year. In the bar, they said that I’d get bored with her and I’d want to fly bigger planes with more engines and lots of neat kit to fiddle with, but I was sure that being airborne over Kent in Oscar Kilo was the acme of achievement, and my aviation ambitions could now rest.
Suddenly, on this stormy night 33 years later, I wanted to know what had become of Oscar Kilo, my first aviation love. How did she meet her end? Probably a cackhanded student like me, I thought, one of hundreds who’d used and abused her, taking advantage of her forgiving nature until finally, she snapped. In modern times it’s the work of seconds to track down an aircraft – I don’t know why I’d never done it before – and would you believe it, I find that Oscar Kilo is alive and well and flying out of Somerset, wearing a fetching coat of blue and white, with go-faster stripes! I see that Gordon King sold her in 1988, since when she’s been through several hands – in Southend, Derby, Rotherham, and from 2013, Yeovil. Who knows, god willing I’ll run into her again; perhaps I’ll get to pat her on the nose and remember the good times.
How rare is it for an intensively-used training aircraft still to be flying at the ripe old age of forty, as Oscar Kilo is doing, I wonder? Once again, I’m surprised at what I find. The first five training aircraft I flew in 1984 – all 150s or 152s – are still taking the air 34 years later. Here’s G-BCUH, no longer a rather insipid yellow but a fetching red and white, in the careful hands of a London-based group who’ve looked after her for 26 years. G-BEIG is alive and well at Beccles; G-BFLK is living under an assumed name, G-ENTW, at Elstree; G-BHMF is at Andrewsfield having had two changes of name. Of the seven aircraft I flew before getting my PPL, only G-KAFC (King Air Flying Club, geddit) and G-BIOM have fallen by the wayside – the former, I recall, destroyed in the Great Storm of October 1987, the latter perishing from unknown causes after being sold to Portugal.
So now I’ve got the bit between my teeth and I want to know more. I sit down with the laptop and embark on a journey through history. G-BIIB, my first grownup aeroplane, a C172 with four whole seats, now apparently works for an aerial photography outfit in Cheshire as G-OPMJ. My, she and I had some fun! The old Grumman AA5 in which I used to do booze runs across the Channel before they dug a tunnel is now domiciled in Germany on the D-register. The twins have fared less well – yes, the bar-room wisdom was spot on and I couldn’t resist the lure of prettier things; G-BAWB, an old Aztec that drank avgas like a Lancaster, has vanished from the scene, as has G-BRAV, last seen in Liverpool, and G-OXTC, pictured forlornly without engines, undercarriage or anything much of use behind Singh’s hangar at Biggin. G-BHCT, another Aztec, was sold to the Middle East a generation ago, and unless the new owner also owns an oil well, it too will have left the stage – who could afford to fill the tanks of those old gas-guzzlers at today’s prices? The Britten Norman Islander G-BJWO, the biggest aircraft I ever got a ticket on – and beside which the Aztecs looked positively teetotal – is still going strong, apparently as an oil pollution spotter with the cognomen G-NOIL.
Now it’s 1989 and we’re into the helicopter era; G-BNKX, an R22HP in which I had a minority share, came to a sticky end at Blackpool, but other friends from that time are still at it. G-CHIL, alias G-RALD, was sold to Germany in 2009, G-GSFC to Italy; G-OLAU still works in Scotland. Of the R44s, G-OKES – my first rotary four-seater, one small step for mankind but a huge leap for me – was sold to the USA, as was G-THEL… but my first turbine, the Jetranger G-WLLY, was lost in a fatal accident on a pipeline inspection job in Scotland. But now we’re getting into the modern era, where memories are tainted by recency, so I will leave off.
The fire had gone out by the time I put my laptop away; the wind howled on. I was heartened to discover how many good friends had survived the years, slightly concerned that the renewal of our training fleet operates on such a long cycle. And what of ourselves? As Richard Dawkins writes, over such a span of time not a single cell or molecule remains of the bodies we once had, and all that endures are amorphous memories. But it’s good to know that to our surprise, we can still touch some of the metal on which those memories were forged.