Project Propeller - the First 10 Years
The scene was Elstree Aerodrome, one fine weekend in 1998. Gideon Todes was chatting to Ian Burnstock and observed that most of their fellow aviators were just flying around locally. He thought that they might do something more productive; they could give ex-wartime aircrew the chance to fly again. And so the seed was sown for 'Project Propeller' (PP for brevity).
Ian and Gideon then contacted the AirCrew Association, and discussed the project with fellow pilots. They also researched potential airfield venues, and this all came to fruition in the Spring of 1999 when 64 light aircraft conveyed around 100 ex-World War II aviators to their rendezvous at 'The Squadron,' North Weald, Essex.
Most airfields waived landing fees, and pilots contributed their time and aircraft to this charitable event. Food and drink were 'on the house' and all those participating had a most enjoyable day. Many of the wartime aircrew had not flown in a light aircraft since the war, and some had the opportunity to handle the controls again. Everyone looked forward to making it an annual event.
It was obvious that Gideon and Ian would require more support in order to cope with the logistics of this operation, which had stretched them to the limit. Pilots had to be matched with passengers and the transit airfields, plus negotiations with their managers for a waiver of landing fees (WOLF).They also had to allocate arrival slot times at the rendezvous, after arranging accommodation, seating, power and catering. Help arrived after the first event in the person of Dennis Ray, one of the pilots and also an IT wizard. They were joined by another pilot, Dave Cockburn. Now the administration could be divided, although some tasks would tend to overlap. Dave had the technical and engineering talents for the sound equipment and power and would also organise accommodation and associated furniture. Ian could concentrate on fund-raising, arranging venues, musical entertainment and enlisting the talents of guest speakers. Denniswould manage everything associated with flight operations. Gideon would still be involved, but only as a participating pilot. Family members and friends were prepared to help at all the events, as they did at North Weald.
Following the first event, 93 volunteer pilots flew 201 of our members to the IWM airfield at Duxford on 13 May 2000 - a brilliant piece of organisation. Wg Cdr Ken Wallis was in attendance with his famous autogiro, 'Little Nellie,' and he gave a very interesting and amusing talk to members. The project returned to Duxford the following year where we were fortunate to have the late Alex Henshaw as guest speaker. We had hoped to fly into RAF Coningsby but high landing, parking and insurance fees would have been imposed by MOD. In the meantime, Dennis, who is based at Sywell, approached me as PRO of our Northamptonshire Branch: and I agreed to his request to deal with all the transit airfields and airports, with respect to WoLF.
For PP2002, Kemble was the venue, and members were entertained by a full swing band. Our guest speaker was John Farley, of Harrier fame. A Dakota and DH Dove were also on hand, so that our veterans could enjoy more local flying. There was a move north in 2003 to Elvington, home of the YorkshireAir Museum, with their new 'Canadian' hangar, and the re-built Halifax. Guest speaker was naval aviator and test pilot, Commander Eric (Winkle) Brown. The event returned to North Weald the following year, with no less than 100 aircraft and 270 ACA veterans attending. All welcomed Diana Barnato Walker,famous ATApilot and first woman to fly a jet, as guest speaker. We were entertained by a talented group of singers ('The Hummingbirds') who had modelled themselves on the 'Andrews Sisters.'
Very poor weather took over in 2005. A return to Kemble airfield was planned with 120 aircraft, but many flights were scrubbed and only 36 managed to reach the target. Nevertheless, a number of pilots, not wishing to disappoint their passengers, drove in, regardless of distance. As a result attendees still totalled about 150 and all had an enjoyable day, with a jazz band providing the music. An Antonov An‑2M was also in residence for local 'joy-rides'.
Wolverhampton Airport (Halfpenny Green) was the venue for PP2006. This was one of the best events so far; over 100 aircraft arrived in perfect weather. This time the late Raymond Baxter was our guest speaker, a swing band entertained, and the BBMF Spitfire provided a most welcome fly-past. The Antonov, with Bill Leary and crew, who had flown up from Popham, did a great job in providing local flights for most of the afternoon. (see Intercom, Autumn 2006, page 31.)
Bad weather returned for PP2007 at Bruntingthorpe and only 12 aircraft made it. Undaunted, most of the other pilots took the low-level route by road and delivered their veterans to the venue before noon. Our guest speaker, test pilot and record breaker Peter Twiss also arrived by road, and followed his talk with a book-signing session. The band was the best ever, and as the rain eased off some of our members inspected a variety of aircraft which were on display. Your scribe climbed up into the cockpit of a Buccaneer and then wondered how he could exit - definitely a 'stand on seat' process!
Old Warden, home of the Shuttleworth Collection was the venue for 2008. Just over 100 aircraft arrived with our veterans, who were entertained by 'The Hummingbirds' once again. The Collection flew a number of their vintage aircraft, and the cars also attracted much attention. Tony Blackburn, who was chief test pilot on the Vulcan bomber development, was the guest speaker, and all our veterans enjoyed another memorable day. PP2009 returned to Bruntingthorpe; marginal weather improved slowly and 75 aircraft had arrived by noon. Some of our dedicated pilots drove in with their passengers - one in a 1919 model 'T' Ford! Polly Vacher, a solo round-the-world flyer, was guest speaker,and music was arranged by John Hunter,a brilliant pianist who is also a member of the Guild of Aviation Artists. To round things off, visitors were treated to a brilliant display by Sqn Ldr AI Pinner of the BBMF flying the Spitfire XIX.
In view of Dennis Ray's key role in Project Propeller, Ian Nelson of ACA Chiltern Branch decided that, following his 10 years as flight operations manager, it was time to organise a suitable presentation to Dennis to show our appreciation for some 'great days to remember.' Many branches and individuals contributed to his appeal. As a result, Dennis, an associate member of the Northamptonshire Branch, was presented with vouchers covering an all-inclusive Luxury Weekend for two at our Reunion dinner in the Hilton, Warwick on 26 September.Tom Knowlton (Treasurerof the Northants Branch) who made the presentation, was the veteran flown by Dennis from Sywell to North Weald, for that first memorable event, held in 1999.
On behalf of all our members, I wish to express our sincere thanks to our pilots and to Gideon, Dennis, lan, Dave and their helpers for their time, skill and resources which they have freely given, over the years. Although I participated in most of the events, Ian reminded me of how it all began, and followed up with all the details, year on year for each venue, in a recent letter.
Member for WoLF
Portsmouth & SE Hants