21 July 1995


Plans to collect archive material recording the exploits of the UKs agricultural aviation industry were met with general enthusiasm at a meeting

of ex-pilots and operators. Peter Hill went along

IT was like an old boys reunion. There were plenty of "whats so-and-so doing now" questions, recollections of long flights to Africa for the cotton spraying season, continued irritation at the bureaucratic pressures that many still blame for the industrys demise, and plenty of amusing tales of daring-do and "prangs" survived.

There was also definite excitement at the discovery of long-forgotten television and publicity films, several of which showed some of these intrepid pilots in action in spectacularly low-flying aircraft.

"The idea has emerged of establishing an agricultural aviation archive here at the Rural History Centre," said research officer Dr Sadie Ward. "There is an important, and today relatively little-known story, to tell of the pioneering efforts to apply pesticides, fertilisers and other materials from the air, as well as the significant commercial contribution that established operators made to agriculture during the 1970s and 80s."

The Rural History Centres collection, housed on the University of Reading campus, is not so much one of objects – though there is a fine display of old hand-tools and examples of significant farm machinery – but rather of books, pamphlets, periodicals and other written or published material.

"We would like to record the agricultural aviation industry in its broadest sense – the where, what and when of the business," emphasised business records officer Dr Jonathan Brown. "There is a wealth of things that future students will want to know."

Individual company records, illustrating the sort of detail that today may look mundane but which in years to come will be pored over with fascination, are particularly welcome, he added.

"We have lots of general records and press reports but nothing that records the activities of the individual operators," said Dr Brown.

Quick-thinking on the part of former operator and recently retired Civil Aviation Authority officer Bill Bowker has rescued the CAAs agricultural aviation records from probable disposal. But any material, in whatever form, is worth having, adds Dr Brown.

"It can be offered as a gift or permanent loan; it will take some time for everything to be sorted, catalogued and filed but it will be available to anyone who wishes to view it (unless a confidentiality clause is applied) out of general interest or for research," he said.

Because of the emphasis on written records, however, items of aircraft spraying equipment will not be welcome – an offer of a Piper Pawnee fuselage was politely refused. But there could soon be a home for such memorabilia, said current day farm plane operator Bill Taylor.

"The British Aviation Conservation Council has talked about establishing an ag-aviation equipment display before everything disappears," he said. "It would make an excellent addition to a rural museum."

Some pioneering aircraft are already preserved, among them a converted Tiger Moth in the de Havilland museum, and a Czech Bumble Bee spray plane which was flown by ADS (Aerial) Ltd operator and pilot Ladi Marmol in the 1960s and 70s and is now part of the Science Museums collection at Wroughton.

Sadie Ward also likes the idea of an audio collection of recorded memories and anecdotes. Peter Charles, who started flying agricultural aircraft in the late 1950s and went on to form Norfolk-based Peter Charles Airfarmers, gave a taste of what might be worth getting on tape.

"It was very exciting flying," he recalled. "You were flying within very tight tolerances – close to the ground, probably over-loaded and with air-speed critical during turns. But it was all down to the pilot; you made it as safe or dangerous as you liked, depending on your mood!"

Flying the cotton-spraying season in the Sudan produced the most memories and most hair-raising tales of antics both in the air and on the ground.

"The biggest problem was the big migratory birds like ibis, stork and crane which would feed in the crop after it was irrigated and then fly up right in front of you as the plane came sweeping in," said Peter Charles.

"I hit one once. It broke the propeller which set up an awful vibration and I had to do a forced landing and banged my head. No one seemed to notice I was missing for a long time," he added.

"The aircraft was a bit damaged but we managed to pick up a couple of wings and in those days you could fit them on with just hand tools," he said. "We were soon back in the air."

&#8226 Offers of written or photographic material should be made to Dr Sadie Ward or Dr Jonathan Brown, (01734-318660).

Left: Dr Jonathan Brown and Dr Sadie Ward who are keen to record the agricultural aviation industry. Above: A photograph already in their possession showing plant protection spraying with a Piper PA 18A.

Former ag-aviation operators and pilots (Lto R) Bill Bowker, Peter Charles, Ladi Marmol and Denys Howard study old photographs.

Rockwell Thrush Commander 600hp engine sprays bracken at Cannock Chase, Staffs.