Lobsters to Bergen

Al Stenhouse
March 25, 2023
9 mins

In the summer of 1971 I had just graduated as a cadet from the Joint Airways Pilot Training Scheme which supplied pilots for both BEA and BOAC. 

My joy, at having in my hand, the brand new light blue Commercial Pilots Licence ( ink barely dry!) with it’s quaint pages tied inside a sturdy cardboard cover by a piece of string was tempered by the news that the original destination of my course that  had been BOAC was no longer as they had decided that they did not require any more pilots for the time being! 

Fortunately a place had been found for us within BEA however there was to be a delay of some months in scheduling us onto a type rating course.  This meant I had time to “kick my heels” before I started. 

My new CPL/IR enabled me to be paid for flying but it also came with Group A and Group B privileges as P1   This allowed me to fly any single OR multi-engined aircraft up to a maximum weight of 12,500 lbs. (5,700 kgs.) provided it was not paid ie. PPL privileges. 

This point was relevant to my story. 

Through an obscure friend of a friend of my older sister I was put in touch with a Canadian pilot who needed a second pilot to help with his operation. 

Thus it was that my father drove me to Tayside Airfield which was the grass strip for Dundee. 

Parked there was a De Havilland Dove Mk6 (DH104) waiting for it’s owner to arrive. She had a blue and orange paint scheme which was peeling off and  had obviously seen better days! 

In due course George (not his real name) and his wife arrived in matching sports cars.  His an MGB and hers  a MG Midget both painted in a garish bright orange paint. 

George could best be described as looking like an ex-jockey.  Slightly built, weather beaten face, wiry and with a fag permanently hanging from the corner of his mouth. 

His career had started in the far north of Canada before moving to Zambia to fly for their Police Air Wing.  He had returned to the UK for a job that had fallen through and therefore had set himself up with the Dove to export live lobsters from Scotland to Norway. 

The Dove was ideal for this - the eight seat cabin once stripped of it’s seats allowed one ton of boxed live lobsters to be carried.  Compared to what I had trained on this seemed like a large aircraft.  Twin 350 hp. Gypsy Queen engines, separate crew compartment and 50 foot plus wingspan.  I could hardly wait to try her. 

After some brief introductions I climbed on-board with George and we set off for Wick. 

If my father had had any misgivings about what his only son was doing he kept it to himself! 

I guess, his generation having survived the war had a different attitude to risk than perhaps pertains today? 

A one hour flight had us landing at Wick Airport and then a short taxi ride to the Station Hotel in town which would be our base for the coming weeks.  We settled in for a meal in the bar, had  a few drinks and George continued to engage with the buxom blond lady who ran the hotel and was also serving behind the bar.  They were obviously not strangers! 

The next morning we took a taxi at 5 am to the airport.  At that time of year in northern Scotland it was light already and since George had established a dispensation from the airport authorities to operate outside it’s operating hours we drove straight to the aircraft and were met by a lorry with a  load of live lobsters to be loaded.   During the night the pneumatics that powered the brakes and the flaps had bled off and she looked a sorry state with one flap down and one flap up and the whole airframe dripping in dew. 

The lobsters were packed in ice with rubber bands around their claws to stop them damaging each other.  These were quickly stacked in the bare cabin leaving space only for a walkway and room for the “Elsan” lavatory bolted to the floor at the rear of the cabin. 

Door closed and we settled ourselves into the cockpit.  This was typical of the 40’s and 50’s.  Everything painted black, luminous paint on the instrument needles (probably enough to irradiate you by today’s standards!) dials and controls strewn everywhere with no obvious logic to their positioning, for example, both fuel cocks behind the pilots seat! 

George started the engines and after the pneumatics were high enough the flaps took up their designed positions.  We taxied out with use of differential engine power and braking to turn the nosewheel which simply castered.  The brake system was typical of 40’s - a bicycle like lever behind the control wheel activated both wheels if the rudder was central but only one wheel if full rudder was applied!   So, taxying proceeded to the sound a squirts of air applied to a single wheel to turn the aircraft. 

At this stage I should mention that George had not even attempted to get a met forecast or NOTAM review, or file a flight plan for that matter! 

I am sitting there in the right hand seat thinking “this is going to be interesting and I hope in a good way?!” 

Power and pre take off checks complete George swings onto the runway and using occasional squirts of differential brake to counter the marked torque swing to the right and we get airborne. 

He then proceeds to level off at 200 feet on the correct track for Bergen and allows the airspeed to build up to cruising speed of 140kts.  Next he studies the drift we are experiencing by observing the waves ahead of us and announces that he now knows the required drift angle  to maintain track and we climb to a suitable cruising altitude and a small allowance is made for the upper wind usually veering compared to sea level. 

Amazingly, to me, this works really well and 200 nautical miles later we spot the coastal cliffs near Bergen.   George’s technique would have been familiar to flyers in the 20’s and 30’s where aircraft were often fitted with a glass port in the floor of the cockpit with a rotatable grid which was turned to match the ground track then the drift could be read off a scale. This technique was like one which I  had already seen on a trip in a Shackleton maritime aircraft on patrol some years before.  The only downside to this technique was that it was not possible to determine one’s groundspeed.   The aircraft was however fitted with VOR/ILS and ADF receivers which were used when possible. 

A quick visual join to the circuit and we were in Bergen to be met by a buyer for the lobsters. 

George’s whole operation was a pretence of a private flight.   He claimed to buy the lobsters then privately flew them to Bergen where a convenient buyer just happened to buy them from him.  Thus he did not need to comply with any public transport rules or regulations! 

Astute readers will of course realise that this was a somewhat grey area legally. 

Paid and refuelled to maximum tanks and the return flight was made to Wick with a landing at Kirkwall in the Orkneys to clear UK customs.   In Kirkwall we were met by a friendly customs officer who always came to the aircraft carrying a large briefcase.  This was to hold the bottle of duty free whisky that he collected from George and all the formalities seemed to go smoothly! 

This was the basic operation and most days two round trips were carried out earning George about £200 per trip.  Five trips a week was earning £1,000 per week using an aircraft that had only cost George £8,000 to buy. 

Time was always money to George so we normally tried to avoid flights that would require an instrument let down as this took costly flight time.  The reality of flying in those regions was that all the island airfields had non-precision letdowns (usually VOR) with quite high minima.  600 -700 ft. being typical.  However the islands were mostly low lying and the visibility below cloud usually excellent therefore most trips were done just below cloud even if that was 700 ft.    The maxim was: start visual and stay visual.   At the time BEA operated Viscounts around the islands and that was exactly what their crews did as often doing a instrument letdown would preclude getting in! 

On one trip we were flying along quite happily at 5,000 ft. When off to our port side we spotted a Fleet Air Arm F4 Phantom flying next to us with his tailhook and undercarrriage extended.  Having identified us as a  practice target he engaged both burners and flew a half loop around us while cleaning up and disappeared, I guess back to his boat.   He was close enough to identify the squadron markings.  (no names - no pack drill) 

I remember one trip to Bergen when we were almost caught out.   We had levelled off at around 700 ft. In light drizzle.   Height assessment over the sea is notoriously difficult at the best of times. 

At our coastal ETA we still had no sight of the Norwegian cliffs west of Bergen.   Obviously we had a head wind slowing us down however we had also had starboard drift all the way. The more astute readers will note that that meant we were flying towards an area of lower pressure.  Now we still had the original QNH set thus we were quite a bit lower than we thought.  This became blindingly obvious once we spotted the cliff edge looming higher than us.  Fortunately a quick turn and we made it into the fjord for a visual join at Bergen at around 400 ft.   Not something I would want to repeat!   That trip was a one off and several times we did in fact have to make ILS approaches into Bergen and stay overnight there with George constantly moaning about the extra cost!   Although to be fair to him I never had to pay for anything the whole time I was flying with him.  I think my brand new Instrument Rating came in useful to him. 

An interesting diversion came with a trip which started in Perth when we flew  to Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  This is the famous beach airfield where it is essential to call Kitty who runs the airport to confirm the tide times and that the runways are clear of sheep before arriving.   The airfield is on the northeast corner of the island and when the tide is out the sand becomes hard like concrete.  On finals to land it looked to me like we were about to land on 10 ft. depth of water!  In the event it was only about a quarter an inch of water! 

We loaded up with the usual load of lobsters and departed for Prestwick where we refuelled and filed airways to Quimper in Brittany where our buyer was.  The return flight to Glasgow for a nightstop was an agonising three hours with a cockpit temperature of -3C   Boy, was I glad to get off that aircraft!    A sorry postscript to this tale is that George had to land the Dove with only partial gear in Quimper after I had left him and that was the end of the Dove. 

Another example of George’s flying skills was when he took me into Kirkwall circling inside the bay at 200 ft.  to land on the short runway in a 50 kt. wind!!  The drift was unbelievable. 

I learnt a lot from George and he was very generous with letting me fly his aircraft even without him sometimes when he was otherwise distracted with the buxom barmaid from the hotel.   I like to think I learnt quite a lot from him - even things which are not a good idea! 

Vickers Vangard in BEA livery

BEA beckoned and after more weeks working in the company offices we were finally allocated onto type rating courses - in my case the mighty Vickers Vanguard one of the fastest turboprop aircraft ever built (360 kts. TAS cruise) which nevertheless had some rather quirky handling properties ready to embarrass the inattentive pilot.   But that’s a whole different story!

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