1976 - Famous pilots and a simulator
As was mentioned in the previous year, local businessman Tom Howard had taken over the Air Gregory flying school and renamed it the Denham Flying Training School. This year, he acquired the two Piper Aztecs of the Air Gregory air charter business, renaming it Denham Air Taxi Services Ltd, as Gregory wished to concentrate exclusively on helicopter training and charter. The flying school included a range of support equipment beyond the fleet of aircraft and classrooms, most notable of which was a flight simulator based on the cockpit of a Piper PA-28 Cherokee. This was an uncommon facility in the UK, and was a valuable tool for the school as it enabled training, particularly in instrument flying, to take place with the minimum of expense.
The crew seated in the simulator cockpit are John Wilkinson and Judith Birch. Birch was a local journalist for the Gazette newspaper and had come to Denham to report on two things, firstly, what was required to learn to fly at Denham, and secondly, John Wilkinson and his career. John Arbuthnot Du Cane Wilkinson, the son of an Eton Housemaster, had been fascinated by aviation from an early age, cycling to his local airfield at White Waltham to learn to fly in the late 1950s. He went on to join the RAF, initially as a member of the Cambridge University Air Squadron while studying at Churchill College, then undergoing officer training at the RAF College Cranwell. After serving a short service commission in the RAF, Wilkinson became interested in politics and was elected as the Conservative MP for Bradford West in 1970, making a name for himself as a fair, community minded and approachable MP, liked and respected by the other three Bradford MPs, all of whom were Labour members. He lost his seat in the 1974 election, and moved back to London. Wilkinson had maintained his pilot's licence throughout his career and added a flying instructor's rating to it, becoming an instructor at Denham in 1975. He was elected as the MP for Ruislip-Northwood in 1979, a position he was to hold until he stood down in 2005. He often spoke on defence matters, particularly in support of the RAF, and served as the Permanent Parliamentary Secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence from 1980 to 1982. An able and hard working politician, he was widely respected throughout Parliament. Sadly he died on the Isle of Man in 2014, aged 74.
On Tuesday 20 July 1976, a small red biplane left Denham on a long flight to Kiev in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The pilot was a new resident at Denham, Philip Meeson, an ex-RAF pilot who had become one of Britain's leading exponents of aerobatics, having achieved 13th place in the European Aerobatic Championships in 1975. He was one of a five man British team taking part in the 8th World Aerobatics Championships, flying his own custom built Pitts S-1S Special, G-BBOH, an aircraft he still owns today. The Pitts weighed only 525 kilograms but was powered by a four cylinder Lycoming IO-360-B4A, an engine that produced 225hp and gave the aircraft the tremendous vertical performance required in competition class aerobatics. The competition was held over 13 days between 22 July and 4 August, with the British team, consisting of Phil Meeson, Neil Williams, James Black, Mike Riley and Brian Smith, finishing 6th overall, with Williams and Meeson being placed 4th and 16th individually. Meeson was to be a long standing resident at Denham, his brightly coloured sponsored aircraft would become a familiar sight in the Buckinghamshire sky. He will return to our story later in this history.
Earlier in the year, another member of the British World Aerobatic Championship team had been flying at Denham, although with a completely different purpose. In February, Neil Williams, another famous aerobatic, film and display pilot, had brought one of the Tiger Club's Tiger Moths to Denham, one fitted with a wing walking rig on the centre of the upper wing. Attached to this rig was film and television stunt man Roy Scammel, whose task was to pour himself a drink and enjoy it, while strapped to the outside of an aircraft travelling at 80 mph. The film was part of an advertising campaign for a brand of Swedish spirits and was typical of many of the unusual advertising ideas of the 1970s. It was well received by the manufacturer but its affect on sales is unknown!
Another famous pilot at Denham was Mike Smith, an ex-Royal Navy helicopter pilot who had placed 5th in the World Helicopter Championships in 1971. Smith had also carried out a lot of flying for films and television programmes, including "The Italian Job" and "Oh What A Lovely War". In October he featured in the local newspaper for the unusual act of landing a Hughes 500 helicopter in the garden of his home in Forty Green. The helicopter was then moved by road to the car park of Hughes Garage in Beaconsfield. The garage had a specialist paint shop and the aircraft had been booked in for a complete re-spray. The reason it couldn't fly directly to the garage were the difficulties in acquiring landing permission for the car park, so the ever practical Smith found the closest site he could legally land to achieve the appointment.
One other Denham pilot was in print in 1976, only this time for a flight he had carried out in 1962. The director of Lotus Cars, Colin Chapman, had owned a number of light aircraft and wanted a Piper PA-24 Comanche for its performance, which was superior to many other types of the time. In 1962 he had found a suitable aircraft for sale, but unfortunately it was in Lusk, Wyoming in the USA. Chapman knew Mike Dible and asked him if delivering the aircraft by ferry flight was feasible, as the cost of dismantling and shipping the aircraft was prohibitive. Dible, a careful and conscientious pilot, knew that such ferry flights had been carried out in similar aircraft and concluded it was not only feasible but entirely possible. His flight planning and research was meticulous, resulting in a route from Lusk to Boston, Massachusetts, thence to Newfoundland and the Azores before finally landing at Luton Airport. The full account of his flight is an epic tale full of humour and incident and was published in two parts in the 1976 April and May editions of Pilot Magazine.
On 28 May a new Children's Film Foundation film, 'The Copter Kids' premiered at the Classic Cinema in Gerrards Cross. The reason for the location was that the film was set in Buckinghamshire, and involved an intrepid group of youngsters tracking down and bringing cattle rustlers to justice. The helicopters of the title were supplied by Denham based Air Gregory and flown by two of their pilots, Gay Absolom and Mike Smith. The two pilots also flew one of the company Allouettes, G-BBJE, onto Gerrards Cross Common for the premiere, where the stars of the film were reunited with the pilots and the aircraft. Five of the children in the movie, Fiona Wilson, Claire Leno, Simon Redfern and Alastair and Christine Wilson were all from Chalfont St Peter, while three more, Patsy Jarrat, Julie Simpson and Julian Smith were from Chalfont St Giles. In fact most of the cast were from the area the film was set in. The plot revolves around the children enlisting the aid of a friendly helicopter pilot to track the rustlers and discover their hide out. The film was shot in the countryside and villages all around the Chalfonts, and included the grounds of the Chalfont Centre for Epilepsy as a primary location. The film was so well received that the manager of the Classic Cinema, Maurice Cheepen, said he would be pleased to welcome its return during its run.
1976 had been a year of reknowned personalities and unusual events, a facet of life that was to continue in the aerodrome's history, as will be related next.