published in Air NORTH Vol.50 No.5 May 2010

The publication of this issue will co-incide with the culmination of, thankfully, one of the shortest election campaigns many younger members will have ever had to endure. As I watch the parties go about their business on the campaign trail, my mind harks back to the general election of 1992, one which I became a very small part of, and one which still provides fond - but certainly fading! - memories, even now, eighteen years later.

Dan Air HS.748 G-BIUV proudly wearing its Liberal Democrat 'livery' at RAF Valley on Friday 3rd April 1992.

I will always remember the day I got 'the call'! - it was Tuesday 11th March 1992, and I had just returned home from another early shift with Dan Air at Newcastle Airport. I had apparently been selected by 'head office' for a special role in an upcoming charter series, which would see me away from Newcastle for three weeks, how did I feel about it? I of course jumped at the chance, and the next morning I was on the 'DA101' to visit Dan Air HQ at Horley, just north of Gatwick Airport, to be briefed on the forthcoming 'mssion'.

I absolutely loved the seven and a half years I spent with Dan Air, not only for the always challenging roles I performed at Newcastle Airport - from checking in a whole charter flight alone, through trying to fit eighty-eight passengers (who had arrived from Gatwick, Manchester and at the terminal itself), oodles of freight and quite often large polystyrene boxes of live lobsters, onto what was quite often an un-fit for purpose BAe146-100 to Stavanger and Bergen, to supervising a whole ground staff operation. The role that really brings back amazing memories however, was an 'extra' one that myself and other 'strapping lads' from the Newcastle base were often recruited for, that of stand-by loadmaster for the nightly Royal Mail operation flown by Dan Air, covering for sickness and holidays taken by the two permanent loadmasters based at Gatwick and Liverpool respectively. These intrepid individuals would fly nightly, Monday to Friday, on a Gatwick-Liverpool return (2 sectors) and a double Liverpool-Belfast return (4 sectors), the two aircraft 'connecting' in Liverpool. This in itself is a subject worthy of additional coverage - we could all write a very entertaining book I'm sure - but the experience gained regarding the load and balance of the HS.748 during this mail work, and my ground handling experience from my normal job at the Newcastle base, led head office to call for my services for this all important charter series. After all by its very nature, the company would be in the 'public eye', with some important and influential passengers - it had to go well. And the contract was? ..... flying the Liberal Democrat leader, and associated press, around the UK for three weeks as he went on the campaign trail for the General Election on 9th April 1992!

The contract was due to begin on Wednesday 18th March, but looking at my flying log book for the period, I had further 748 flying to do before then, as I departed Newcastle on Gill Airways Shorts 330 G-OGIL on Thursday 12th March (the day after my briefing in Gatwick), for Belfast and two nights worth of mail flying, what would transpire to be my last - by this time the mail operation had shrunk to a nightly run from Belfast Aldergrove to Heathrow and then position to Gatwick, while the other mail aeroplane (the two mail-equipped HS.748-1s used at the time were G-BEJD and G-BEJE) flew in the opposite direction. So after another (rest) day-stop in Gatwick on Friday 13th March, it was back to Northern Ireland, and then home to Newcastle again on Gill Airways Shorts 360 G-SBAC on Saturday 14th, to prepare myself for the coming weeks.

The schedule was now confirmed for the contract, and I looked over the thirteen days of planned flying with trepidation and excitement - I was certainly going to see the UK, and get some once in a lifetime airfield 'ticks' in the flying log book! As we were visiting some non-standard aerodromes, notably military bases, my presence was going to be vital to smooth over any issues of aircraft/passenger handling. Wednesday 18th March dawned and the first sector was from Stansted to East Midlands, so I was booked on the second British Airways Heathrow departure of the day from Newcastle, and collected by taxi for the journey onwards to Essex to meet the aeroplane which would more or less be my home for the next three weeks, HS.748 G-BIUV, a machine that I had already flown on eleven times previous, nine of them on mail flights as it covered for 'JD' and 'JE' on maintenance - 'UV' was Dan Air's 'freighter', boasting a large cargo door on the port side, although I never saw it fully open during my time as a mail flight-only loadmaster, and I certainly wasn't 'checked' to operate it (as a loadmaster I sadly never operated a non-Royal Mail freight flight unlike some of my colleagues). I finally met up with my crew for the next couple of days at least - two flight-deck and two cabin crew, while as well as myself there was a dedicated engineer along for the entire operation, Steve from the Gatwick base - on the old terminal ramp at Stansted (now the Harrods area), where 'UV' sat proudly wearing 'Liberal Democrat' titles and the party's logo on the tail fin, markings that had been applied at Manchester where the aeroplane had positioned in from earlier.

'UV' was in Y44 config. - eleven rows of four seats - of which the Liberal Democrat party were assigned the rear two rows of the aircraft along with the requisite protection officers; myself and Steve the engineer took up row 9 (I remember always taking the right-hand window seat, and Steve the left), row 8 was not to be used (primarily for privacy purposes - you couldn't have the journalists 'ear-wigging' on the politicians' strategy talks), the front seven rows of the aircraft being reserved for the press themselves. The Liberal Democrat party had reportedly chosen such a 'basic' - and looking back now rather austere - aeroplane for their tour on purpose, making a point about their 'green' credentials etc., in the face of the other two main parties who were 'living it up' in modern, flash and fuel-thirsty jets (actually BAe146s, but you get the drift!). The first flight of the trip would of course attract more interest than the rest, and we had TV crews along for the ride (for if I remember correctly the only time - thankfully!), my copy of the loadsheet stating we had 41 passengers on board (including myself and Steve), and an estimated 50kgs of TV equipment in the rear hold (notionally!), and 120kgs of cabin baggage. The load sheet showed an 'underload' of 1217kgs, but this didn't calm my concerns as we got underway, the TV crews true to their reputation not being bothered in the slightest about sitting down for the taxi/take-off/stowing their baggage etc. etc., in fact it was sheer chaos - I distinctly remember sitting in my seat (I had even been 'kicked out' of what would become 'my' 9D) thinking to myself "if the next three weeks is going to be like this I'm not going to be able to cope"!!

HS.748 G-BIUV seen during the first turnaround of the 'Liberal Democrat Tour' at East Midlands Airport on Wednesday 18th March 1992 - the spelling mistake on the tail fin had at this point not yet been noticed!

However after forty minutes flying - it's easy to forget just how much slower things like 748s were in those days - we had gone 'all the way' to East Midlands, and there was time to catch our breaths before the return trip to what would become our Heathrow home, and specifically the Swallow Hotel at the end of the M4 spur. My aircraft sighting memories for the day - as it would seem mainly for the whole trip - waned in comparison to the experience as a whole; most of the time those few aircraft seen whilst operating flights as a loadmaster would be scribbled on the A4-sized piece of cardboard that was put behind the four sheets of carbonated load sheet for that particular flight. However my logbook for the day indicates I saw Ilyushin Il-76 CCCP-76758 at Stansted along with Gulfstream I HB-IRQ, while a pair of British Midland Airways Boeing 737s were new at East Midlands as well as Jetstream 31 G-31-960.

Date Flight No. From-To Off blocks/ Landing time
airborne time
Wed 18 Mar DA6368 STN-EMA 1403/10 1450
DA6369 EMA-LHR 1812/20 1907

The first full day of what would become known as 'The Liberal Democrat Tour', Thursday 19th March, was also to be the first to put one of those extremely rare 'ticks' in the list of UK airfields flown into/out of in the flying log book, our first departure from London Heathrow's Royal Stand - which was to be our parking position for the whole tour, and yes we were made very welcome inside the Royal Stand building itself on a few occasions as we awaited our passengers! - being to the then active Hawk base at Chivenor in North Devon. I had visited the base once before on a road trip in the summer of 1987 with some Dan Air colleagues, but of course this was to be a wholly different experience. We were only on the ground for one hour however, as we left the entourage for the time being, and positioned to the civilian airport that would become our most visited during the whole tour, the shortest sector of the tour (at least flown in 'UV' - see later!) to Plymouth-Roborough. The Lib Dems caught up with us by the afternoon, and then it was off to Birmingham for the evening. It was here that one of the moments of the trip occurred, when an eagle-eyed ground handler noticed that the 'Liberal' in the party's titles on the 'My Vote' logo on the tail fin had been spelt 'Libaral'! Frantic calls were made to head office, but we otherwise kept quiet about the error, and to my knowledge the party didn't get to find out about it - urgent plans were put into place to fix the mis-spelling overnight at Heathrow.

Thu 19 Mar DA6368 LHR-CIO 0938/51 1051
DA6368P CIO-PLH 1152/56 1217
DA6368 PLH-BHX 1604/08 1700
DA6369 BHX-LHR 2116/21 2155

On the 'flight line' at RAF Chivenor on Thursday 19th March 1992.

Returning to the Royal Stand at Heathrow on the morning of Friday 20th March I think we were all amazed that the painting error had apparently been so easily rectified overnight! Today it was up to Liverpool and the first of what would be very long day-stops for Steve and I. The flight crew on such a schedule, governed by working time regulations, switched over during the day, so we said farewell to one crew during the morning, and then had to wait on the aircraft for the 'evening crew' to arrive. Once they did, and our passengers had returned, it was down to Bristol for another few hours waiting on the aircraft. This was still winter-time of course, and one of my abiding memories of the whole tour was spending three consecutive Friday evenings at UK regional airports, on a very cold HS.748 - of course the 'team' provided excellent company and the 'crack' was always first rate! It was to be the latest arrival of the whole tour back at Heathrow however, and I guess it must have been a seventeen hour day for me from 'first report' in the hotel to our return just after midnight. With no campaigning by air planned over the weekends, we all went our separate ways for a few days, for me it was a British Airways Boeing 737-200 ride (G-BKYM) back up to Newcastle on the mid-morning of Saturday 21st March.

Fri 20 Mar DA6370 LHR-LPL 0936/42 1040
DA6370 LPL-BRS 1745/49 1837
DA6371 BRS-LHR 2254/58 2335

Parked in front of the main terminal at Liverpool Airport on Friday 20th March 1992.

The next full week would be short on flying and it would involve a day off or two, however its first day would involve another military airfield - which I nearly missed, electing as I did not to position to Heathrow on the Sunday evening, but take the first British Airways departure of the day on the Monday morning. Of course I was on a lower-priority 'duty travel' ticket and those flights were always full, and I only scraped on as I was in uniform - and I won't go into detail about where I sat on Boeing 757 G-BMRA! I'm glad I did make it as Shawbury, even though the weather was appalling, provided one of the more lucrative visits for the logbook, having not been down that way before. We were only on the ground for less than an hour however, parking alongside a variety of 2FTS Wessex HC.2s and Gazelle HT.3s - I've sat at Shawbury on a number of occasions since, looking over the fence, visualising 'UV' sitting on that very same apron! With no flying for the next day or two we left our passengers in the welcoming countryside of a LibDem 'heartland', and positioned back to Gatwick so 'UV' could get some 'TLC' (indeed the aeroplane had spent the previous weekend also at LGW). I however hot-footed it straight over to Heathrow to catch British Airways Boeing 737-200 G-BGDG back home at tea-time - I couldn't 'wait for the 108'!

Mon 23 Mar DA6372 LHR-SRY 0951/59 1047
DA6373P SRY-LGW 1132/35 1223

The 'gang' were re-united on Thursday 26th March for the only planned 'night-stop' away from Heathrow, an afternoon departure to Edinburgh allowing me to take the second British Airways departure of the day from Newcastle Airport (Boeing 737-200 G-BKYC). A long one hour-forty five sector to the Scottish capital and we left 'UV' on the airport's exec stands for our night at another Swallow hotel (the one next to the Zoo! - little did we know we would be back here again!). I took the opportunity to have a night-out, and the always necessary pizza with an ex-colleague and fellow loadmaster, the then station manager of the Edinburgh base of 'Scotland's Airline'.

Thu 26 Mar DA6374 LHR-EDI 1352/05 1548

Bidding farewell to the monkeys, old friends, and a great airport (for the time being!), Friday 27th March was to be a special day for myself and the cabin crew ('the girls'), all those assigned to the tour also being from the Newcastle base. However in an unbelievable stroke of bad luck (but good as it turned out), a heavy landing in gusty conditions at Newcastle Airport, caused the only serious technical problem of the tour. With only a couple of hours planned on the ground at Newcastle, and with 'UV' not being available for the next short trip to Leeds/Bradford, the based BAC One Eleven which was day-stopping in between Gatwick rotations (the Oslo schedule normally flown by the aeroplane had by that time ceased) was pressed into service. Of course I had to stay with the passengers so went ahead on G-BDAE for the nineteen minute flight, Steve and 'UV' continuing south a few hours later after repairs by Dan Air Engineering at Newcastle. Who knows what we'd have done if we'd gone 'tech' at somewhere like Chivenor or Shawbury without a ready replacement aircraft at hand?

Many of our journalist passengers on the tour were individuals who were househould names then and still now, but our own common sense warned against getting involved into major conversations with any. On the flight to Leeds I sat next to one female correspondant who can still be seen reporting from all sorts of war-torn locations and 'hot-spots' around the globe, still for the same news organisation. I remember being asked who I was going to vote for - I didn't divulge of course, but despite the 'intrusion' I still have fond memories of this one member of the journalistc profession as she had left her handbag on 'UV' in Newcastle. I assured her I would take care of it, and upon 'UV's arrival in Leeds I 'secured' it and sent it straight out in a taxi to the campaign rally, which she was ever so grateful for. So another Friday evening was spent on a cold Leeds/Bradford ramp, and it was another late arrival into Heathrow. The next day I took the early afternoon British Airways flight back home (on Boeing 737-200 G-BGDD - allowing me some spotting time?) for a short weekend off, before what would be a tough, full week on the campaign trail.

Fri 27 Mar DA6376 EDI-NCL 1017/25 1057
DA6376 LBA-LHR 2112/17 2214

At Edinburgh Airport after our first (and only planned) Scottish night-stop of the tour, preparing for our departure to Newcastle on the morning of Friday 27th March 1992.

Once again I 'risked' the first British Airways Heathrow departure on Monday 30th March (Boeing 757 G-BIKB), for what was to be a long day in Manchester. Again I had an old friend at hand, and we spent some time on the ramp at Manchester, as well as a trip to Woodford where some new-build BAe146s were on view.

Mon 30 Mar DA6378 LHR-MAN 0940/53 1038
DA6379 MAN-LHR 2117/23 2210

Tuesday 31st March was certainly the low point of the tour for me - leaving Heathrow at the usual time, it took us almost two hours to 'drone' on up to Inverness, the final part of the flight playing havoc with my ears - obviously I had some congestion which the pressurisation made very painful. Not only that but on arrival at Inverness in what seemd like a force eight gale, our next sector to Aberdeen to collect our passengers who were making their way eastwards across northern Scotland, became in serious doubt, the weather reports from Aberdeen being truly horrific. I remember spending all day long in the Dan Air Inverness traffic office dreading the thought of the trip to Aberdeen in such conditions in my slightly sensitive state. The turning point came when reports came through from the Captain of the Aberdeen-based HS.748 on its return from its daily trip north to Scatsta - the Aberdeen base comprised some of our most experienced 748 crews, and when they say it's possibly the worst conditions they've ever had to land in at Aberdeen, you sit up and take notice. The Commercial and Operations Departments at Horley/Gatwick had come up with a new plan, one which went down well with us 'down the back' - we were to position to Edinburgh, the LibDem entourage also making their way south on their battle-buses, and we would pick up where we left off the following day, only in Edinburgh and not Heathrow. A pleasant late evening positioning flight down to Edinburgh therefore - and I remember sitting on the flight-deck for the landing on Edinburgh's runway 05 - and another night-stop in the hotel by the zoo. Of course we had no 'night-stop kits' - in those days we did indeed go everywhere without the 'little suitcase on wheels' - so our Captain kindly bought us some basic amenities from the hotel shop, once we had managed to get it re-opened!

Tue 31 Mar DA6380 LHR-INV 0936/56 1153
DA6380 INV-EDI 2156/03 2245

Wednesday 1st April was to be a long day-stop in Gloucester, long enough for the flight crew to fly it as a 'split duty', so Steve and I, instead of having to sit on the aeroplane all day, were also allowed a day in the hotel! It was of course a slightly longer sector to get to Staverton Airport - and I recall my Edinburgh-based ex-colleague being somewhat surprised to see 'UV' on stand as he arrived for work that morning! The day-stop went well however; it was maybe just as well we left Staverton's short-ish runway in the dark, but we made it back to Heathrow a day later than expected, and back to the Swallow Hotel where we were re-united with our change of clothes/toiletries etc.!

Wed 01 Apr DA6382 EDI-GLO 0854/03 1039
DA6383 GLO-LHR 2106/12 2141

Thursday 2nd April saw us return to another LibDem 'heartland', the south-west, and a slightly shorter day in Plymouth. Our return was into Gatwick however at the request of the party, so the day's flying ended with a very pleasant positioning sector over to Heathrow - time for some photos as we went around the Biggin hold, and an early-ish night back to the hotel.

Thu 02 Apr DA6384 LHR-PLH 0938/45 1043
DA6385 PLH-LGW 1622/26 1717
DA6385P LGW-LHR 1819/33 1902

'UV's left-hand Dart as we went around the hold at BIG on the afternoon of Thursday 2nd April 1992.

Our third military base was up next, as we visited Anglesy and RAF Valley on Friday 3rd April, after it seems a lie-in looking at the flight times! This was to be one of the most embarrassing destinations for me, in charge of ground liaison etc., as upon arrival it became apparent that the base had no suitable portable steps to fit a HS.748 - military 748s have integral air stairs of course! After a short delay a set of engineering 'steps' was located and our passenger, impressively un-phased by it all, showed his pedigree by hopping down them without any fuss. While we waited for our passengers to return,and because it was an unusually nice afternoon for the time of year, I decided to take a little wander to see what Hawks I could find - it was a little wander too, being shoo'd back to 'UV' in no uncertain terms by a serviceman! We were soon off again however, this time to Cardiff, and thankfully our final Friday evening spent shivering on a cold 748 on the ramp of a regional airport - two Manx Airways Jetstream 31s were 'made' however. The end was in sight, and I think we were all thankful for it.

Fri 03 Apr DA6386 LHR-VAY 1245/57 1405
DA6386 VAY-CWL 1714/20 1801
DA6387 CWL-LHR 2124/32 2212

'UV' being watched over by a solitary 4FTS Hawk at RAF Valley on the bright afternoon of Friday 3rd April 1992 - note the rather non-standard 'airstairs'!

Another lunch-time return home on Saturday 4th April (Boeing 737-200 G-BKYO), and the week of the election was upon us. After a day off on Monday 6th, the final two days of the campaign would see our passengers stay in the welcoming surroundings of the south-west, so after my final British Airways southbound on the morning of Tuesday 7th April (Boeing 757 G-BIKO), it was back to Plymouth for the third time - just a short visit this time as we were destined to continue even further down the coast. I sat on the flight deck for the departure from Plymouth, something which I was later to ponder on the wisdom of, as we surely used 'every inch' of the airport's shorter (and now disused) runway 24, leaping off over the cliff and out over the city - and straight ahead on a low-ish level, twenty-four minute trip to RNAS Culdrose. The final approach to Culdrose was more worthwile however, with excellent views of Falmouth and the huge satellite dish array at Goonhilly Down. Our hosts for the afternoon and evening were the Culdrose-based rescue squadron 771NAS, but from an enthusiast's point of view it was a bit of a dead loss, with little flying, although the Royal Navy Jetstreams were located nearby, eleven being noted; the majority of the based Sea King fleet were parked well away on the other side of the main runway, and I have eleven codes logged none of which were ever tied up. A late night return to Heathrow - and I have a feeling our main passengers didn't return with us, as I have memories of something of a party atmosphere on board, as the 'steam' of a tough few weeks for us and the journalists was 'let off', in particular certain tabloid reporters 'assisting' with the safety demonstration! I went 'up front' again for the approach into the London area, and the always impressive 'sea of lights'.

Tue 07 Apr DA6388 LHR-PLH 1256/11 1412
DA6388 PLH-CUL 1447/52 1516
DA6389 CUL-LHR 2206/12 2315

The final day, the election 'eve', was to be a short one, with what would be only a forty-five minute turnaround at our final military base, again down in the south-west, RNAS Yeovilton - something which to be honest I have very little memory of, although the log book shows that a number of Hunters were logged as well as a single Canberra TT.18. We said our sad farewells (and best wishes!) to our guests for the last three weeks upon our return at Heathrow, and that was the LibDem Tour over, although for Steve and I we couldn't return home just yet, as a non-election connected charter had 'cropped up' for 'UV' on the day of the poll itself, which we were required to support. So we had the afternoon off, which I spent educating Steve further upon the complexities of aeroplane spotting on the Queen's Building, in nice warm sunshine!

Wed 08 Apr DA6390 LHR-YEO 1014/20 1059
DA6391 YEO-LHR 1142/52 1224

On the morning of the election itself I despatched 'UV' on a stand in the extreme north-west corner of Heathrow Airport for its charter to the Isle-of-Man - 'waving' it off, it was straight off to terminal 1 for my final return to Newcastle on board Boeing 757 G-BIKA, a lunch-time departure giving me plenty of time to vote when I got home .... for whom? Well I (conveniently) can't remember that either!

The all important load-sheet which had to be signed for by the traffic officer and the captain and distributed before every flight. The aircraft trim setting was calculated by the famous trim wheel which all loadmasters would spend substantial time 'playing with' prior to every departure, ensuring the load was balanced correctly throughout the aircraft.

The view from 'my seat' as we fly over Hatton Cross after our positoning flight from Gatwick on the afternoon of Thursday 2nd April 1992.

Tempering the feelings of 'anti-climax', always present with the end of an amazing experience, was from a personal point of view the knowledge that I had after all completed my 'ton' of HS.748 sectors - of course we had missed out on a couple of planned sectors throughout the previous three weeks, but that last flight from Yeovilton to Heathrow was indeed my one hundredth flight on a HS.748. Those 100 sectors had amounted to 93 hours & 56 minutes in the air in the 'mighty mouse', split between 42 on 'UV', 27 on G-BEJD, 12 on G-BEJE, 17 on G-BFLL, and one each on G-ARAY and G-ATMI. The tour itself had added 42 sectors overall (all types) and 35hrs 31mins to my flying log book, while I finished on 59 sectors as a mail loadmaster, with a total time in the air of 58hrs 57mins! I of course haven't flown on a 748 since, but I often long to hear the whine of those Darts, and taste again all those other amazing experiences that were a part of flying around in 748s as the rest of the country sleeps!

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