G-ALYF The first Pionair

I visited Glasgow’s Abbotsinch airport in June 1972 during a trip to Scotland which took in Fleet Air Arm relics in Moray scrapyards and the DC-6 TF-AAD at Prestwick. My main target at Glasgow was the fire heap’s resident Dakota G-AMWV, an old friend from Hibernian Airlines/ Emerald Airways days. She had fallen on hard times along with her most recent owner, the defunct Ulster Air Transport. However, ‘WV was parked alongside the rather more complete G-ALYF, an aircraft I had been keen to see for many years. The British Westpoint Dakotas had always looked rather exotic with the smart and unusual cheat line and British civil air ensign on the forward fuselage. This visit turned-out to be my first opportunity to see one of the fleet and, sadly, G-ALYF’s crisp maroon and white colour scheme had been superseded by the Fire Service’s rather more mundane medium blue design -possibly hand painted with Dulux!

G-ALYF had been dismantled and semi-derelict at Prestwick between June 1967 and its move to Glasgow on March 19th 1968. As with G-AMWV, she had been destined for maintenance by Scottish Aviation but the bankruptcy of her owners had left her abandoned and stripped for spares. Sold for around £500, G-ALYF was trucked to Abbotsinch where she was originally hangared. The Fire Department decided to reassemble the Dakota in a rather rudimentary way. The tailplane, wings and undercarriage were reconstructed with the help of bolts and pop rivets while the rudder was removed to avoid potential injuries on windy days. By late 1970, the Abbotsinch fire department was well-equipped with G-ALYF, the second Dakota G-AMWV and Beech C-45 N15332. G-ALYF could be moved around the airport for various exercises and, with Glasgow’s ‘no-burn’ policy, survived longer than many fire dump residents. The nosecone had been dented when I visited in June 1972 and there was evidence of high pressure water hose damage, but the aircraft was largely intact and even retained a few instruments and the control wheels. The cabin contained a Dakota main wheel tyre labelled ‘Emerald’, probably transferred from G-AMWV. ‘YF was used by the airport Rescue and Safety Services until summer 1980 when she was retired. Her role at Glasgow was taken up by Varsity WJ903 and, subsequently, by British Airways Trident G-ARPN which arrived on 27th March 1982.

Photos of G-ALYF after she was cut-up at Abbotsinch can be viewed in the Flikr portfolio of Glasgow photographer Hugh McMillan. There are also shots of the replacement aircraft, Varsity WJ903.

G-ALYF at Glasgow Airport, Scotland.

https://www.flikr.com/photos/75122977@N05/26962859157/in/album-72157649702513441/


G-ALYF’s final move, predictably also by road, was made in August 1980 when she was delivered to the old RAF airbase at Rufforth, four miles west of York. The TV drama ‘Airline’, scripted by Wilfred Greatorex, was being filmed by Yorkshire TV using the Duxford-based G-DAKS and three ex-Spanish Air Force C-47s TS-29, TS-32 and TS-36 (registered G-BHUB, G-BHUD and G-BHUC respectively). Flying sequences involved these real Dakotas plus a couple of 1/9th scale models while the first episode also demanded a full-size aircraft for a crash scene. G-ALYF was brought-in to star as the crashed airliner, although a few prosthetic parts were needed to make-up the full aircraft. The rudder and elevators had been removed at Glasgow during the early 1970’s and, from the photo reproduced in a 1986 edition of Radio Control Scale Models, it looks like the full tail section was added using timber and cardboard. 


G-AGZA Dakota crash Ruislip British European Airways
The scene in the Yorkshire TV series 'Airline' is very reminiscent of the crash of BEA Dakota G-AGZA shortly after take-off from Northolt. A picture from the making of the series can be found in a 1986 edition of Radio Control Scale Models, but this is the real thing.

G-ALYF’s curtain call was to provide a realistic representation of an air crash during the first episode of ‘Airline’. The series dramatised early post WW2 civil aviation as seen through the operations of ‘Ruskin Air Services’, a fictional company with similarities to pioneers such as Channel Airways, Starways and the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation. The crash scene also bears a resemblance to BEA Dakota G-AGZA’s unscheduled landing on 46, Angus Drive, Northolt – a house which came to be known as ‘Dakota’s Rest’!

So, having documented G-ALYF’s demise, what is known of her operational career? C-47A-75-DL was built with construction number 19350 at Douglas’s Long Beach plant and delivered to the USAAF as 42-100887 on 29th December 1943. Supplied to the Eighth Air Force on 21st February 1944, the C-47 was ferried to the UK and transferred to the Ninth Air Force. This was possibly in October 1944 when the Ninth took over all the Mighty Eighth’s tactical transport aircraft. The C-47 was transferred to the RAF as part of a batch of 12 Dakota 3s, TS422 to TS436 (*1), mostly destined for the Heavy Glider Support Unit. These aircraft were fitted with the necessary hardware to perform ‘glider snatch’ operations. This is where the end of the glider’s 180′ long nylon tow line is suspended between two ‘goal posts’ about 20′ apart on the ground. The C-47 approaches at low altitude with its 20 foot tow arm, carrying the tow hook, deployed from the aft belly of the fuselage at around a 45 degree angle. The tow hook is at the end of 1000′ of steel wire wound onto a winch drum on board the aircraft. When the tow hook snags the glider’s tow line, the steel wire initially pays out rapidly from the aircraft’s winch drum as the Dakota flies away from the glider (*2). Braking is gradually applied to the drum and the glider is ‘snatched’ off the ground (*3). This technique clearly needs expert training and the 107 Operational Training Unit (OTU) had been formed at Leicester East in May 1944 to train Dakota pilots and Horsa glider pilots immediately prior to D-Day. Our subject, allocated RAF serial TS424, was delivered to the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit on 5th September 1944 and to 107 OTU on 11th January 1945. Transport squadrons such as 48, 233, 271, 512, 575 and 437 RCAF had been combined into 46 Group in January 1944 and they sent their Dakota aircrew to Leicester for training in glider towing, pannier and paratroop dropping using the 107 OTU aircraft. Records of a 233 squadron navigator show TS424 being flown on simulated glider pick-up snatches on April 5th and 6th 1945. On the following two days TS433 and 434 were flown on sorties completing the four and a half hours of pick-up training. With the Rhine crossings successfully completed, this training must have been directed at possible future operations deep into Germany as well as in the Far East with SEAC (*4). Flight training took place from Leicester and Netheravon with exercises at the Wiltshire airfield of Zeals until April 1945 and the Hampshire airfield of Ibsley. On June 5th 1945, it was from Ibsley that Pilot Officer Legge flew TS434 to Jersey at the disposal of GOC (*5) Southern Command to support the post-Liberation visit of the King and Queen to the Channel Islands (*6). Subsequently, the King arrived in Jersey on June 7th 1945 on board HMS Jamaica, less than a month after the Channel Islands had finally been liberated. The couple departed for Guernsey at 15:25 by air, probably on the ‘Royal’ Dakota KN386 of 24 squadron rather than TS424.

TS424 was transferred to 1382 (T) Conversion Unit on 15th December 1945 before returning to the HGCU, probably at Netheravon, on 26th July 1946. By the end of that year it was time to demob the Dakota and she was flown to 22 Maintenance Unit at Silloth, Cumberland, on 23rd January 1947. This airfield, along with its neighbour Kirkbride, had been tasked with wartime training, dispersal and maintenance of aircraft and reception of ferry flights across the Atlantic. Post-war 22MU was assigned to the storage, sale or dismantling of redundant RAF aircraft. With new tensions building in Cold War Europe, there was a reluctance to dispose of transport aircraft such as the Dakota and the York and they were stacked ready for future military use. Sure enough, by spring 1948, the road corridor to Berlin had been closed by the Soviet authorities and the Berlin Airlift commenced on June 24th 1948. At least 64 Dakotas from RAF Transport Command were used on the operation along with around 40 Yorks. It is not known whether TS424 participated, but it appears that she was not released from the RAF until 28th December 1948 (*7) when she is recorded as passing to the Scottish Airlines division of Scottish Aviation Limited (SAL).

The Prestwick-based company had bought three Liberators and five Dakotas from the US Government’s Army Surplus Commission following the end of the WW2 Lend Lease scheme in August 1945. They planned to use their limited stock of dollars to acquire a further 25 C-47s at the bargain price of $2500 each. These aircraft were already at Prestwick and were being maintained for the ASC by Scottish Aviation, so the deal  would have been mutually advantageous. However, the British government vetoed the deal and Scottish Aviation switched to purchasing ex- RAF Dakotas parked-up at the Cumberland airfields. As well as converting aircraft for the Ministry of Aircraft Procurement, several down-at-heel ex-RAF Dakotas were added to the UK civil register (*8) during 1947 after upgrades by Scottish Aviation. Eventually, an SAL work group was established at Silloth in order to service Dakotas due to be ferried to Prestwick for conversion and to cannibalise others for spares. Many of the 50+ Dakotas were acquired at very good prices enabling Scottish Aviation to offer civil specification aircraft at £10,500 to £13,500 for freighters, £15,500 to £17,500 for standard passenger aircraft and £30,000 to £40,000 for executive models (*9). SAL were also the Douglas Aircraft Company’s official conversion specialist in Europe but, before long, they had even bigger projects in mind.

BEA and other airlines were looking for an updated version of the Dakota with standardised interiors, a two-person flight deck and modern avionics. Scottish Aviation received G-ALYF on 6th March 1950 (*7) and commenced her upgrade to the prototype for the new ‘Pionair’ class. The converted aircraft was demonstrated to the industry in general with BEA as the prime target. Suitably impressed, BEA purchased G-ALYF on 31st August 1950 (*7) and placed an order for the conversion of a further 37 Dakotas as part of a rolling programme to be commenced at Prestwick in November 1950. The 38 passenger aircraft were supplemented by ten ‘Pionair Leopard’ freighters and the first commercial flight was made from Northolt to Dublin on 21st January 1951 for Smiths Instruments (*10). Each of the 32-seat aircraft was given the name of a luminary from the world of aviation, with the exception of G-ALYF which, as the flagship, was simply named ‘RMA Pionair’. A more comprehensive history of the Pionairs will appear in a future module.

BEA safety card for G-ALYF, the fleet flagship.

The Pionairs formed the backbone of BEA’s domestic operations during the mid fifties but, by March 1957, the BEA Annual Report foresaw the gradual disposal of the Pionair fleet between Autumn 1958 and late 1960. As it transpired, by May 1961 BEA had decided against continuing freight operations with the Leopards but the final passenger flight was not until May 1962 (*11). Disposals were commenced and, on March 21st 1961 (*7) G-ALYF passed to Westpoint Aviation, a charismatic British airline formed by the Mann family at Exeter.

Initially, Frank H.J.Mann and Jack Mann started the company using their own names and a share capital of one hundred pounds. Frank looked after administration, Jack was the engineer and, by March 1961 and the arrival of G-ALYF, they had been joined by Don Mann as the Chief Pilot. Initially, the company had the same address in Torquay as the fruit and veg wholesaling company established by Frank Mann in 1948. The name was soon changed to ‘Westpoint Aviation’, a title which encapsulated their philosophy for an independent airline linking the west of England to major centres. Several routes were approved by the ATLB, DC-3 services between Exeter and Newcastle being an early example, but very few were actually taken-up. There was also a plan to operate a car ferry service between Exeter and Cherbourg but that was one licence that wasn’t given the go-ahead. Instead, the airline made much of its profit from inclusive tour (IT) charters and the majority of this market was from Gatwick rather than Exeter. Paris Le Bourget was the most popular destination but other Gatwick routes operated to Tarbes, Perpignan, Dieppe and Switzerland. G-ALYF was upgraded to ‘Dakmaster’ configuration by Westpoint’s Gatwick neighbour, Transair. The modifications included closing wheel-well doors, faster-functioning hydraulics to assist with undercarriage retraction, uprated engines, propellers and Goodyear brakes. Many operators outside Transair’s British United group ordered Dakmaster modifications to their Dakotas as the modifications added several knots to the airspeed. G-ALYF, named ‘Sir Francis Drake’, had been joined by a second Dakota in 1961. G-AMDB had been the ex-Rolls Royce Dart Dakota but had now reverted to piston engines. Named ‘Sir Richard Grenville’, ‘DB did not benefit from the Dakmaster upgrade.

G-ALYF at Ringway , October 1965. Photo by Ruth AS via Wikimedia Commons.

As well as IT work, G-ALYF was briefly leased-out to North South Airlines in August 1961 to fly their Leeds to Sandown route. North South were chronically short of aircraft at the time as they waited for the overhaul and delivery of their own Dakota, G-ALXK. Flights were also operated for Air Safaris on the Jersey to Hurn route. Westpoint received a third Dakota, G-AJHY, in August 1961 and the IT services to Northern France continued to expand. Eventually, Westpoint got to take up one of their licences for scheduled services with a weekday DC-3 flight from Newquay to Heathrow via Exeter. Departing Exeter at 16:50, the Dakota arrived at Heathrow in time for the same aircraft to operate a 20:45 service to Lille on behalf of Air France. The arrangement with the state airline commenced in early 1964 and the Air France Hippocampe symbol was carried on G-ALYF’s rear freight door. The schedule to Lille proved valuable to Westpoint as the Newquay-Exeter-Heathrow stages were proving hard to fill reliably. In an attempt to feed customers into their network, British Westpoint, as the airline had been rebranded, took over Mayflower Air Services in 1964. Mayflower flew Dragon Rapide services between the Scilly Islands and mainland towns in the West of England and Wales. To supplement the two Mayflower aircraft, Westpoint bought BEA’s last three Rapides. British Westpoint operated with quite a low number of aircrew and Dakota first officers often flew the Rapide services from the Exeter and Plymouth bases. The lucrative IT work from Gatwick stopped during 1964, but frequent charters were operated from other British cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow. Scheduled services from the West Country remained sporadic and the Scilly services were predominantly a summer operation. The link-up with Air France remained important and, for a while, Westpoint considered adding Air France DC-4s to their fleet as a precursor to eventual replacement of the Douglas hardware by HS748s. Ironically, Hawker Siddely chartered one of Westpoint’s Dakotas to accompany their HS125 aircraft during overseas trials in North Africa. To retain capacity, Westpoint found that the only suitable Dakota replacement was….another Dakota! For most of 1964, G-AMPO was leased from Aviation Overhauls of Speke, previously the engineering division of Starways (*12). In February 1965 British Westpoint applied to the Air Transport Licensing Board (ATLB) for a weekly service between Exeter and Birmingham three times per week. Once again, this was approved but never operated. 1965 did, however, prove to be a year of some change for westpoint with a degree of cooperation with fellow Dakota operator South Coast Air Services. SCAS had Dakotas G-AJHZ and G-AMSN based at Shoreham airport and, during early summer 1965, were flying a nightly Manchester to Shannon newspaper service interspersed with some Westpoint routes. G-AJHZ (*13) even carried a basic Westpoint colour scheme with a ‘W’ on the fin. The company was, however, short of funds and their last service was the return of a newspaper flight operated by G-AMSN on the night of August 4th/ 5th. Subsequent services were operated by British Westpoint although they too were having some financial issues. G-ALYF was transferred to the personal ownership of Frank Herbert Mann on 16th July 1965 (*7) shortly before the September 1965 acquisition of the airline by the British-owned but Libyan-orientated company Metropolitan Air Movements. On 11th December 1965, G-ALYF passed through Malta on what was described as a delivery flight, presumably to service Metropolitan/ LAVCO operations in Libya. Despite the sale to MAM, financial problems prevailed at British Westpoint and the quiet winter 1965/ 66 proved impossible to weather. Although reliable income was maintained from the Shannon newspaper services, the airline went into liquidation in May 1966, just too early to benefit from the National Union of Seamen strike which paralysed ports from May 16th.

Early associations were maintained, however, and G-ALYF was leased by Irelfly, another Shoreham-based airline set-up by T.F.Williams, previously the Chairman of SCAS. Irelfly operations commenced from Gatwick on 18th February 1966 using Aviation Overhauls Dakota G-AMPY painted in the new blue and white colour scheme.

G-AMPY at Speke in Irelfly colours.

G-ALYF arrived along with G-AMSH in June 1966 in order to cover demand during the NUS strike. G-ALYF didn’t benefit from the new scheme and was noted at Speke on June 29th with the Westpoint colours retained and the old titles white-washed over…..until it rained!

Ken Fielding's photo of G-ALYF at Liverpool on June 29th 1966. Via WikimediaCommons.

The NUS strike had led to a run on sterling and the balance of payments, a much-quoted figure in those days, suffered accordingly. Air freight was boosted, especially from the blockaded port cities, and G-ALYF was allocated the Belfast-Liverpool-Belfast route, making frequent journies between June 21st and 30th. G-AMSH operated the Southend-Liverpool-Belfast and each aircraft had visited Liverpool 10 times each by the time the dock strike ended on July 1st. All three Dakotas remained with Irelfly for the rest of the summer with freight and passenger charters maintained from Gatwick. Despite plans existing for the 1967 season, Irelfly ceased operations in November 1966 and all aircraft were returned to their owners.

G-ALYF was ferried to Baginton in 1967, possibly for sale by Keegan Aviation. Recorded as being transferred to a new owner on June 24th 1967, the identity of the purchaser is not known. However, she subsequently departed for Prestwick on her final flight and was officially withdrawn from use on 17th October 1967. It is surprising how quickly a highly-specified aircraft was reduced to a mere source of spares, although the airframe was destined to survive for another 12 years with the Glasgow Airport Fire Service. When I visited Abbotsinch Airport in summer 1972, the Fire Department very generously gave me a section of the fuselage from G-ALYF’s neighbour on the fire heap, G-AMWV. They also allowed me to take a few odds and ends from the two Dakotas and presented me with a new, unused control wheel which had been supplied with one of the hulks. This was to go with the control yoke which I had removed from one of the Daks – I can’t remember which aircraft it came from, but I do have both to this day.

Dakota Control Wheels from Abbotsinch Fire Department aircraft

Footnotes and References:

(*1) Interestingly, RAF serial TS423, which immediately preceded our subject TS424, was allocated to the Dakota III which would ultimately become G-DAKS of Aces High. This aircraft would have the starring role in ‘Airline’ alongside G-ALYF’s walk-on part.

(*2) This brief summary was written using information from Wikipedia.

(*3) Sounds easy? The adrenaline rush involved is shown in U-Tube clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgu5yh0HkgY 

(*4) SEAC, South East Asia Command. 233 Squadron repositioned to India in August 1945.

(*5) GOC -General Officer Commander-in-Chief.

(*6) Website http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Legge.htm documents the service of Pilot Officer Legge with Transport Command.

(*7) Details from Ministry of Aviation documents and website G-INFO.

(*8) Westminster Airways and Sivewright Airways both used Scottish Aviation-supplied Dakotas on the Berlin Airlift.

(*9) From ‘Just one of the Pioneers’, William T.Neill OBE, Cirrus Associates, 2002.

(*10) Flight International, 1956. BEA had owned ‘YF since August 1950 so this was presumably a charter.

(*11) It is often quoted that G-AGZB completed BEA’s last Pionair flight on October 31st 1960 but this was the last Pionair flight from Heathrow. It ended badly with an overshoot at Elmdon. G-ALTT, Sir Charles Grey’ flew the very final service eighteen months later departing Islay for Campbeltown and Glasgow on May 19th 1965. Pionairs had flown 8.5 million passengers over 97 million miles. G-ALTT transited to Wymeswold for a Check 4 prior to service with Gibair during June 1962. From ‘The History of British European Airways 1946-1974’, Charles Woodley, 2006.

(*12) Indeed, Aviation Overhauls had maintained Westpoint’s own fleet for several years. For example, G-ALYF had undergone extensive maintenance between 28th November 1962 and 24th January 1963. She departed for Exeter the day G-AMDB arrived at Speke for an overhaul programme which lasted from 23rd January to 6th February 1963.

(*13) G-AJHZ had been owned by Mike Keegan’s Trans World Leasing and was returned to Luton off-lease in late August 1965. Subsequently, it was sold and departed for Lisbon in spring 1968 before final sightings in Las Palmas in 1969.

As with all articles dealing with British Dakotas, much information has been obtained from:

 British Independent Airlines by Tony Merton-Jones, published 1975-76 and reprinted 2000.

The Douglas DC-3, J.M.G.Gradidge, Published by Air Britain, 1984.

DC-3 Production, S.Wilkinson, Published LAAS International, 1968.

Also valuable were:

Air Britain Digest, 1966-1968; LAAS International Aviation News & Review 1967-1969; British Civil Aircraft Markings, JWR Taylor, various years; British Military Aircraft Serials 1912-1966, Bruce Robertson, Ian Allan, 1966; The Berlin Airlift, Arthur Pearcy, Airlife Books, 1997; History of British European Airways, Charles Woodley, 2006; Just one of the Pioneers, William T.Neill, Cirrus Associates, 2002.

Websites: 

http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_story/story_115.php  Recollections of Doug Johns of flying for Westpoint from Exeter.

http://www.british-caledonian.com/BCal_Transair_Dakmaster.html     G-ALYF’s Dakmaster upgrade by Transair.

https://sillothairfield.wordpress.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Royal_Air_Force_Maintenance_units

https://www.forgottenairfields.com/united-kingdom/england/cumbria/silloth-s962.html

https://abpic.co.uk/pictures/view/1005951 Ian MacFarlane’s photo of G-ALYF at Newcastle Airport; https://abpic.co.uk/pictures/view/1082174 John Tietjen’s photo of ‘YF at Heathrow late 1963 shows the new colour scheme incorporating the full ‘British Westpoint’ name; https://abpic.co.uk/pictures/view/1001514 Frank Hudson’s photo of ‘G-ALYF taken at Heathrow clearly shows the Pionair tail fairing.

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