I was reminded of one of my more memorable flying adventures when visiting the M Shed museum in Bristol a few days ago.
Among many other traditions the city has been famous for its aviation industry. Possibly the most famous plane to come out of the Bristol aviation works at Filton was the super-sonic Concorde, but among earlier classic planes was the Bristol Britannia – the “Whispering Giant” of the 1950s and 60s. Lesser known was the Bristol Freighter, an iconic transport plane notable for its front-opening fuselage. Both were built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
It was my unexpected privilege to ride in one of these in 1969. It happened like this…
I was working under VSO in Laos at the time – part of the Colombo Plan aid team working at Lao National Radio in Vientiane. One key section of the project was the provincial radio station located in the idyllic royal capital of Luang Prabang some 300 km north of Vientiane. The station was already built, but one of the remaining challenges was to get the standby generator set there. Not difficult under normal circumstances, the mountainous terrain separating Vientiane from Luang Prabang was challenging to say the least. The area was also a war zone and ambushes along the winding road were frequent.
My boss, however, was thinking outside the box and in the course of his socialising in Vientiane he encountered the skipper of a New Zealand Air Force training squad that were temporarily in town. Their plane – a Bristol Freighter – would be ideal for the job in hand. With a little persuasion (I did hear mention of a crate of whiskey) they agreed to fly to Luang Prabang – and take the 2-ton generator set with them.
Now the challenge – I was asked to oversee the operation once it arrived at the other end. It meant flying with the crew to LP and then offloading the payload onto a lorry and ultimately into place at the radio station. To add to the challenge we had no special equipment, no crane – and I was not yet conversant in the local language at that time – Lao.
The early morning loading had gone well and I was strapped into my seat beside the window. Mufflers straddled my head to reduce the noise as the twin-engined prop plane took to the skies….climbing away to the north. In front of us was the cargo, carefully stowed and secured. Happily the weather was good and turbulence minimal.
On landing the large freighter taxied to a standstill. George drew up with a large truck and the challenge of getting the generator off the plane began. He had not been successful in finding lifting gear so all we had were sections of galvanised iron piping.
The truck backed up to the plane, its nose wide open, the generator in full view. Unfortunately the cargo-hold of the plane was more than a foot higher than the truck. Oh dear!
We had little choice. Rolling the gen-set as far as we could, tilting it – then finally a (sickening) drop onto the truck base. Sometimes tough decisions with calculated risk have to be made. Happily the generator set survived.
A 5-kilometre drive to the radio station and the truck reversed up to the generator house – its final destination. A few hours later and the generator set was ready for testing…. We hit the start button and the motor roared to life. With its AEC engine it sounded just like a London bus!
Thanks to the Bristol Freighter the station, which incidentally is just along the road from what used to be the Royal Palace, now had its own standby power! It gave me a lot of satisfaction – a huge confidence boost… One of my more interesting challenges as a 22-year-old.