Human beings seem to have a penchant for order, a desire to identify, organise and categorise anything from bird species and subatomic particles to the tins in the store cupboard and paint cans in the shed. Some take this apparently innate habit to the extreme by collecting items in particular categories, such as porcelain, stamps or engine numbers. Some even write books on their topics of interest - and this is one of them.
Guy Halford-MacLeod, the author of ‘Telling Aircraft Tails: A History of Britain’s Airlines in 40 Aircraft’ (The History Press, £30, ISBN 9780750970129), could be described as an ‘aircraft hugger’, having worked for four independent airlines between 1971 and 1995, co-founding one of them and later writing three volumes of British airline history. Job done, you might think, but now it’s time for some detailed plane-spotting!
Most of us will be aware that aircraft have their own registration letters, like a car number plate, and that those registered in Great Britain begin with a G. The author of this book is a flight-level or two above that; during his research for other books, he came across “aircraft registrations that looked familiar.” He would recognise “a specific airliner from some previous incarnation in a new role with a different owner” and that became the premise for this book.
Using 40 hand-picked aircraft, Halford-MacLeod traces the history of their “multi-faceted careers” for an insight into the wider story of British aviation. His introductory example, the Handley Page Hermes (G-ALDM), had three different owners: in the early 1950s, it was used by BOAC on its scheduled passenger services to Africa; then Britavia carried troops to military garrisons abroad; and finally another British charter airline, Air Safaris, employed G-ALDM to fly holiday-makers to the Mediterranean.
Other, potentially more familiar, aircraft types include a Douglas DC-3 Dakota; Vickers Viscount; Boeing 707, and Hawker Siddeley Trident. The DC-3, famous as the WWII transporter used in the Berlin Airlift, was widely employed for general aviation in the post-war years. The G-AMPZ example, described here, is pictured in no less than a dozen different liveries, from British United Airways to Air Service Berlin (with the RAF somewhere in between).
The book is not all about the hardware, though. Apparently, airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker was “one of the pioneers of personalised registrations”: not quite as cheeky as some car number plates, but as proprietor of Aviation Traders Engineering Ltd, he did manage to register G-ATEL. Moreover, he was not afraid of “cutting off the noses of aircraft” to enhance their usefulness. His “most ambitious rhinosectomy,” according to Halford-MacLeod, involved a DC-4 Skymaster which Laker re-engineered by moving the cockpit above the fuselage and providing a large door on the nose to improve access, allowing its use as a ‘car ferry’.
The choice of individual aircraft is clearly that of the author, but this glossy, well-illustrated colour production will appeal to plane-spotters everywhere. And train-spotters tired of those windy platforms might even consider an upgrade!