31 May 2002

FLYINGTORESCUE

Vintage aircraft are enjoying new life

as cargo carriers thanks to a Coventry-

based airline and air crew hand-picked

from farming families. Mike Stones

buckled up to find out why

THEY helped to win the war and preserve the peace. They transported troops during the allied invasion of Europe during the Second World War, and they fed a city during the Berlin airlift.

Today, 60-year-old Dakota DC3 aircraft are part of a fleet of vintage aircraft operated by Air Atlantique, some piloted and maintained by crew recruited from farming families.

"Theres never been an aircraft like the DC3 Dakota," says managing director and pilot, Russell Ladkin. "Its a pleasure to fly and its got lots of character and a proud history. Theres nothing like the sound or smell of big radial engine planes."

But theres nothing sentimental about the companys attachment to the DC3 and its younger team-mate the Lockheed Electra. "DC3s were designed in the war for carrying bulk equipment into short, ill-prepared strips. They can still carry big payloads into small airstrips which is our main business," explains Russell. "Provided its legal, we will take anything, anywhere, anytime. We have flown everything from racehorses to banknotes and car parts to explosives."

Special performance aircraft need special crews to fly them and to maintain them safely and efficiently. For that reason, and in keeping with the can-do spirit of the company, Russell prefers to recruit from the UK farming community.

"Our aircraft demand above average pilot skills. So we look for hard-working, loyal, bright and capable young men and women. Long experience has taught us that the best place to find such qualities is from British farming families," says Russell. "People from farming communities tend to be full of commitment, practical and to be very hard working."

Those are virtues tested to the full at Air Atlantique.

Everyone starts at the bottom. During the early months, new recruits can expect to spend far more time with a broom in their hands, sweeping out hangers, than at the control column of an aircraft. Even after graduating from the companys training programme, whether as a pilot, engineer or manager, staff are expected to turn their hand to anything.

"We want the type of people who will roll up their sleeves and muck in. Our pilots wear wings but none would hesitate to help load a cargo or refuel an aircraft." Aircrew and ground staff, like the company that employs them, are paid to be problem solvers.

"Air Atlantique is hired when things go wrong. Most of our work is with ad hoc cargoes. People phone us when their just-in-time-delivery system becomes just-too-late." Typical of the jobs the company takes on is delivering a desperately needed pallet of washers; the lack of which is holding up a car production plant at a cost of £100,000/hour. Most flights are dispatched at one hours notice.

The aircraft usually entrusted with the task are the rugged Lockheed Electras – four-engined aircraft built in the 1960s. They can carry up to 15t of cargo and have a trans-Atlantic range. But the trusty DC3 performs valuable freight transport too – particularly into small airstrips.

&#42 Private charter

Other work includes private charter and corporate entertainment together with aerial surveying and marine pollution control with a DC3 equipped to spray detergents.

Boasting none of the cockpit computer systems routinely fitted to modern aircraft, operating DC3s and Electras demands exceptional flying skills, acknowledges Russell whose own pilots log book contains nearly 8000 hours. "The best way of securing those skills is by recruiting young people and letting them grow and develop within our company."

A good example is 24-year-old Luke Hutsby. Luke joined the company as a trainee pilot but lends his hand to anything from painting the office walls to covering as a temporary telephone receptionist. "Lukes dad is a typical farmer – and that attitude of working from dawn till dusk and being prepared to tackle anything had rubbed off on Luke."

One of Lukes favourite tasks is terrain mapping for the Environment Agency flying the companys twin-engine Cessna 404 aircraft.

"I like flying the C404 because its manoeuvrable, powerful and has a long endurance," says Luke.

&#42 Farm parallels

Russell even sees some parallels between aerial surveying and farm work. "One of the requirements of survey flying is to fly in straight lines with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, it is almost like ploughing. And Luke is an excellent survey pilot."

Does he miss life on the land? "I miss the feeling of summer and hay making at home. But when it comes to bale stacking I dont miss that," says Luke with feeling.

Neither would Russell willingly exchange his role. "Ive never asked anyone to do anything, I havent done myself. Pressure of work allows little time for flying these days but even after thousands of hours in the cockpit, I still enjoy the buzz of landing and taking off in historic aircraft such as the DC3 Dakota."

* Luke Hutsby recently left Air Atlantique to find work flying corporate jets.

Inquiries:Air Atlantique telephone 024-7688 2618.