SHROPSHIRE SUPERMEN SHINE IN THE SUN
It didn’t seem possible that the best part of a year had passed since our last visit to our friends at The Shropshire Aero Club in their Sleap Aerodrome home; but it was! We had a bumper tribe of Bader Braves registered for the event, 40-plus Braves and their families, mostly reasonably local but one had travelled all the way from Cheltenham.
The week before the event I received a potentially catastrophic phone call from our trusty and loyal event co-ordinator at the club, Neil Edgeley, informing me that his family had booked a surprise holiday for him and his wife in celebration of a significant wedding anniversary and that he could not be with us on the day; he must have heard my gulp of dismay (bordering panic) down the phone line as he very quickly tried to reassure me that all was well and that another stalwart of the club and long-time volunteer at Bader Braves days, Tony Taylor, had agreed to “fill the vacancy”. Furthermore everything was in place and organised; there was to be a final meeting and run through on Friday morning before Neil set sail and there “really is nothing for you to worry about!” Being well aware of Neil’s keen eye for detail, you would expect nothing less from a retired senior police officer, I felt completely reassured.
Then on the Thursday before our event that dreaded phone-call from Neil saying that two aircraft had “gone techie” (broken down to you and me!) but that he was working hard to sort things out. Later in the day things were looking up, a bit of extra cover had been volunteered and I went to bed not 100% easy but 80%+.
By the time we checked into our hotel on Friday in preparation for the BIG day I had received a text that all was OK, everything was in place and telling me to “relax”!! So I did just that but I awoke early on Saturday to the sound of a 06.00 alarm. It was a glorious morning, bright blue skies and the sun just coming up; all very encouraging – even the BBC weather guy promised a great day if, perhaps, a little hot. A quick breakfast and off to the airfield just a couple of miles away. I expected the place to be bustling as we had a scheduled 09.30 start but no, it appeared deserted. Jess and I busied ourselves putting up banners when I remembered that Sleap was the airfield where we normally saw hares racing around; no sooner said than done, right near us a couple of hares seemed to be playing tag. It was a fascinating sight and a great photo opportunity but by the time I had found my camera and got myself organised they had skipped off into the long grass and out of sight. So, for the nature lovers amongst you, I am including a picture of the four alpacas just outside our hotel room window!!
Just then we heard a cheery greeting from the hut that would provide our operational HQ for the day; Tony appeared brandishing a cuppa and an armful of papers. Neil had been dead right; all was OK, the hut was already laid out, and by now the pilots were arriving for briefing and aircraft preparation. Just after 09.00 the first two aeroplanes were lined up, the early morning summer sun glinting on their windscreens. Jess had all the paperwork and goodies organised and I was still fiddling with my camera trying to get an arty shot of one of the Braves banners with a row of poppies in the background and quietly hoping that at least one of the hares would magically re-appear ………. they didn’t!!
09.20 and the first of the Braves arrived to check in. A quick whizz through the formalities of paperwork, flight allocation and an explanation of what was about to happen, then after a fitting by our tee-shirt guru and cap plonker-onner it was straight into the fray. Pilot and Brave were introduced and then they disappeared from Hut HQ through the gate and out to the waiting aeroplane. No sooner had they left than Brave No2 arrived to complete a similar procedure and in no time we had a queue of excited youngsters all waiting to check in.
More aeroplanes were now taxiing onto their stands and by 10.15 things were in full swing. The first flight returned following its 30 minute flight over Shrewsbury and beyond. The returning pilot delivered the Brave back to his waiting family, filled in the details of aircraft and pilot on the flight certificate, quick presentation, quick slurp of something cold, for it was by now becoming pretty warm outside and back to the operations desk to locate the next passengers.
We had a wonderful group of pilots with an interesting mix of aeroplanes from the familiar Cessna and PA28’s to a Bonanza, Rallye 880B, Robin DA40D and a few more throughout the day. Everything was breezing along beautifully and it seemed an amazingly short morning to me. By 11.15 the whole morning group had arrived and checked in and Bader Squadron Sleap were coping really well with their workload to the point that by about 12.30 pilots were able to grab a cuppa and a sandwich or two.
But there wasn’t much rest time for them as another 20 youngsters from the afternoon session were lined up in the check in queue; it really was pretty constant. Some of the pilots had already completed quite a number of flights and it was quite obvious judging from their shirts and streams of perspiration that the temperature had really climbed; it was bad enough in mission control and out on the airfield and in the cockpit of an aeroplane on the ground it was really stifling. But no complaints from either Braves or pilots and the whole exercise continued throughout the afternoon just as efficiently as it had in the morning.
Whilst the youngsters took their picnics and waited for their flight they had an opportunity to look around some of the super MG sports cars that were assembled for a meeting of the North Wales (I think!) MG Enthusiasts Club; there were quite a number of drooling dads as well as interested Braves too. Gradually as flights had been completed, certificates presented and sarnies finished, the braves and their families began to leave for home as too did some of the pilots until, at the end of the afternoon we had four more Braves to fly but only two aircraft/pilots to fly them. But fly them they did without complaint for one, a lovely lady pilot Pam, had been in the air for over three hours and the other pilot for almost the same length of time. At around 17.00 the Cessna 172 & one of the PA28’s coughed into life for the final two flights for Bader Braves Sleap 2017. As they taxied out for the final time they were treated to a very rare sight indeed as one of only three Avro Ansons in the world that are still flying lined up and took off just in front of them amongst much nostalgic musing from the Braves Squadron ground crews, many of whom had flown in such an aircraft whilst serving in the RAF or, like myself, as a youngster with the ATC. No sooner was the Anson climbing away when our final Bader sortie left the ground. As it climbed into the still bright blue sky and disappeared from view an eerie silence feel across the airfield. Not many of us left now. The aeroplanes were being returned to their hangers sited around the aerodrome, litter was being collected by the volunteers, Tony was clearing away the paperwork and making sure that all flight and pilot logs had been properly completed – just two blank lines awaiting the return of the last two flights. And, right on schedule at 17.40 the PA28 landed and taxied in closely followed by the final flight of the day completed by Pam in her 172.
Our final two pilots returned their charges and, after completing certificate presentations for the Braves, they slumped onto a welcoming chair and grabbed a well-deserved cold drink. We waved the last family away wishing them a safe journey. It was still blazingly hot as we took down banners and loaded the car with the paraphernalia of the day. Then time to say thank you to the few Shropshire Aero Club members left to thank. The pilots had finished the formalities and had gathered up flight bags, headsets and associated flying clobber; we had done the thanks and goodbyes bit and I watched them wearily trudging across the grass in the direction of the control tower; it uncannily resembled a scene from one of those WW2 movies and I couldn’t help thinking of our namesake – Douglas Bader.
At the end of the day nearly 45 flights had been completed and 85 people flown. Tony was locking up and all ready for home, just time for a big thank you to him and a hearty pat on the back for a job well done; fantastically well done too!! Everyone at Sleap, far too many to mention individually, had given Bader Braves a superb day and, hopefully, one that our Young Aviators will forever remember so to each and everyone of them that so freely gave of their time it is an ENORMOUS thank you.
As for Jess and I, well it was by now 19.20 so a quick sprint back along the two miles to Harmer Hill where we were staying and even before showering away the grime picked up from a hot, sticky, dusty airfield it had to be an ice cold lager taken with a toast to the day … “CHEERS SLEAP, you are all magnificent”!!!!