100 Years of Powered Flight: A Personal Perspective
by Bob Collis
 

 
 
Today, 100 years ago, mankind first sortied into the wild blue yonder in a powered aeroplane. As aviation enthusiasts around the world celebrated the first centenary of powered flight in their own ways, I studied the sky carefully today, and would like to offer a humble personal perspective of what aircraft and aviation mean to me.

It was a cold but clear blue sky this morning, and by 11.00 am I had already heard the rumbling note of 48th Wing F-15 Eagles in the area. I occasionally remark to my wife that the USAF's F-15s are the only thing worth looking at in the skies over Lowestoft. How blas I have become! I was just in time to see one F-15 disappearing at a rate of knots in a N.W. direction. Immediately afterwards, the first of a procession of civil airliners began crossing from W. to E., each carving a fine white contrail against a cloudless backdrop of sky. I thought for a moment about the passengers being blissfully ignorant of the date as they jetted off to warmer climes for Christmas, but then again, perhaps those Captains with a sense of history might have made some comment over the PA system ?

Out to the W. hung a big, silvery moon. The same year that I was born, 1957, saw the Russians launch Sputnik I, and overnight, aviation became aerospace.

I can still vividly recall being woken up by my father in the small hours of 21 July 1969, to watch on TV, along with millions of others all round the world, Neil Armstrong's first "giant leap for mankind" in the Sea of Tranquillity. The picture quality was so bad many had difficulty determining what it was they were looking at, but that did not diminish the enormity of the occasion.

Scratch mark in the sky
One of a procession of civil airliners which etched a trail across the blue sky over Oulton Broad on the morning of 17 Dec 2003.

My first flight was in 1970 in a Puma helicopter, then relatively new to RAF service - and I was treated as a young 469 (Lowestoft) Squadron ATC cadet on Summer Camp to a grand "air-experience" passenger flight from Odiham to the Isle of Wight and back. Unfortunately, air-sickness marred my first flight, but it was an experience I would not have missed for anything. Like lots of other ATC cadets, I subsequently flew in a variety of aircraft, from Chipmunk, Husky and Wessex, to flights in Sedburgh and Kirby T.III gliders at RAF Swanton Morley.

I contemplated a career in the RAF, but it never happened. Instead, I began to develop an increasing interest in military aviation history, particularly regarding the WW 2 period.


Another civil airliner passing overhead on 17 Dec 2003. Oh, for a decent zoom lens !
 
Late one night in April 1999, I watched with interest as eight aircraft, I now know them to have been US F-15s from Lakenheath, crossed Oulton Broad in trail heading in an Easterly direction. They were bound for Kosovo and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. It struck me as odd at the time, to think that as we neared the end of the 20th century, US warplanes were heading out from a base in Suffolk, over the Lowestoft area, to bomb targets in Europe, in much the same ways that hundreds of B-17 Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers of the 8th USAAF had done 55 years earlier. In retrospect, it was probably the closest I will ever be to a real bombing raid in progress. Earlier this year, I was also able to spot one of the giant B-52 Stratofortress bombers heading out from RAF Fairford over the North Sea on a long-range sortie to Iraq. It was only through information from LAS members that I became aware these massive symbols of air-power were flying over our town, and again, the awesome spectacle of their payloads detonating in and around Baghdad were beamed directly to our living rooms as it happened via TV, several hours later.
 
At the going down of the sun: The grave of Sgt Pilot Hereward Wake at St Michael's Churchyard, Oulton. Sgt Wake, step-son of Major Selwyn Humphery, the wartime Mayor of Lowestoft, was killed in a training accident in Scotland on 30th Sept 1940.

That afternoon, as our Hon Chair Roger Smith was preparing to broadcast to the nation on Radio Suffolk, I set out with my digicam to try to capture some sunset pictures from the edge of Butcher's Marsh, Oulton, a favourite walking spot with an excellent view of the sky.

En route, I visited the lovely little Church of St Michael, where two local men who made the supreme sacrifice with the RAF in WW 2 are buried. Sgt W H Wake, a trainee pilot flying with No.1 (C) OTU, died in September 1940 when the Hudson he was flying solo in crashed at Barrhill, Dumfriesshire. Close by lies P/O Charles Folkard, another victim of a training accident, aged only 21, on 16th February 1944.

Also in St Michael's Churchyard is a rather intriguing little puzzle. Just N.W. of the Church is a short headstone bearing no name or details, just a 1930s civil monoplane. There is obviously an aviation connection to this grave, but I suspect the Church Burial Register may have to be consulted before we find an answer to the mystery?
 
Forgotten flyer: Who lies buried beneath the lichen-covered stone showing a 30s monoplane at Oulton? Perhaps a vase or plaque containing further details have been removed, but it is certainly an odd memorial worthy of further research.

The sun was sinking fast as I neared the railway crossing, and already in the distance I could see the contrails of at least three aircraft. The surprising thing was that they were crossing in opposite directions. I contemplated the fact that aviation now affects all our lives in one way or another. Yesterday's headlines included the 3rd runway at Stansted and the emphasis was now on the huge environmental damage caused by increasing numbers of jet engined airliners, not to mention the property and countryside that would disappear beneath the airport expansion.

I thought about some of the extraordinary aeroplanes which I had seen in the skies over Lowestoft since I began to take an interest in the early 70s; Concorde on air-test; the futuristic-looking SR71 Blackbird; the ungainly A-10 Tankbuster (I never did like calling it "Thunderbolt II"); the majestic delta-winged Vulcan; the noisy Buccaneers and Lightnings; the swing-wing F-111s, and in recent years, the bizarre angular shape of the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth fighter. One has only had to look out of a window from one's own home to see a fascinating variety of aircraft, and I take great pride in belonging to such a dedicated and highly diverse bunch of enthusiasts as the Lowestoft Aviation Society. Not without good cause have BBC Radio Suffolk dubbed them "Suffolk's Eyes In The Sky".

The sky is never still
At least three contrails were visible when I took this shot towards the sunset that afternoon.
Nobody would now give it a second thought.

I then took a further picture towards the vapour trails, and I swear I was so intent on capturing these that I never even saw the Norwich train passing the crossing ! Then I thought about how the train had been superseded on internal inter-city routes by aircraft to some extent, and how people must have shook their heads at Stephenson's Rocket when the idea of travelling by rail first came about !
 
Trains and boats (well, the River Waveney IS close by !) and planes.
You might need a magnifying glass to see them, but there ARE two contrails in the background, distant !
 
I then ascended to a piece of headland with a commanding view across the marshes to the W. and N.W. in the hope that something would traverse the still-cloudless sky. Just as I was beginning to think it was time to head for home, right on cue, a fiercely-white trail came arcing across the heavens from behind me, seemingly chasing the setting sun towards the far horizon. As I focused for my final pictures, I could see, far off in the background, groups of birds winging their way Eastwards. How people must have scoffed and ridiculed the idea of man taking to the air in a flying machine before the Wright brothers stamped their indelible mark on our history books 100 years ago. "If God had intended man to fly he would have given him wings" went the old chestnut. And I had to smile as I watched the last guest at my own private 100th birthday party faded in the distance. How far it had all come in a hundred years.
 
Walking home in the gathering dusk, I saw several more civil aircraft, looking like miniature Christmas trees with their navigation lights, again leaving long white vapour trails in the cold, gathering gloom. Out to the W. hung a very bright star (Venus ?) and I then realised we were no longer bound to this earth. While it may be with robot craft, man is now reaching out to the planets. On Christmas day, the Brit-made Beagle II will hopefully be descending onto the surface of mars. It is no longer science fiction, it is science fact. And it all began 100 years ago today with Wilbur and Orville's first hesitant step into the unknown.
 
Happy centenary, aviation. Here's to the next 100 years, who knows what it may bring?
 
Bob Collis
17th December 2003
 
Sunset on a century
What will the next 100 years bring to the skies over Lowestoft? One thing is for certain, you can be sure LAS will be first with the news!
 
 
Lowestoft Aviation Society - Suffolk's Eyes on the Skies
www.lowestoftaviationsociety.org