10 Years

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by Chris Smith


This year marks 10 years since I became involved in recreational aviation on what you might call a professional level, and whilst I've held an interest my entire life it was in 2006 aged 18 that I found myself at a cross-roads: - do I turn what before now had just been a minor interest into a "proper" hobby and commit for the long term or do I attempt to forge a normal life, find a wife and have a couple of kids? I chose the former - on hindesight I would have probably failed at the latter anyway!! I had run my old DTVAirport website for a little while before that and become aware of a couple of fellow local enthusiasts, as well as the existence of a couple of local spotting groups which I would later join, but I hadn't really scratched the surface.

The problem I had was I was the immature, over-enthusiastic nerd that tried too hard to impress. Luckily I did grow out of it but I think that's why sometimes some of the more 'mature' enthusiasts are none too welcoming to the younger generation. Now when someone else like that comes along I look back with embarrassment to think I used to be the same! Unfortunately this is also the stereotypical public perception of us - that we're all just geeks, and whilst [to start with] it was true in my case the vast majority of enthusiasts I've had the priviledge to meet are ordinary people, even laddish types who have no trouble earning respect amongst their peers. That said spotting does seem to attract the nerdy kind of youth and it's a real shame because there aren't that many kids coming up through the ranks - it is a slowly dying hobby.

At first, I didn't take photos or numbers - I just observed, enjoying the sight and sound of civil aircraft. I started taking photos on the advice of another local aviation photographer during late 2008/early 2009, and numbers started going in the book around 2010 when my log shows 662 airframes sighted. Figures may be a bit off due to a computer fault which saw me have to re-log 2060 airframes under the date 01/01/1900! 2012 has been my best year to date with 2292 logged, and I'm on 987 for this year so far taking me to a total of 9210 - I'll let someone else decide if that's good going or not for six years worth of spotting! It was also 2010 when I established an interest in military aviation, though I draw the line at gliders (with the exception of some motor examples), flex-wing microlights and hot air balloons.

Most enthusiasts have a more specific "sub-interest" within aviation, mine is definitely bizjets, they're far more unpredictable and varied compared to an airline who can send the same airframe time and time again and can be seen almost anywhere in the country! I'm also very interested in the business side of things, i.e. I like to know what's going on behind the scenes with the airlines and airports.

My 'Start'

Although it's pretty obvious, I quickly learned that for most enthusiasts, aviation life revolves around the local airport, sure enough I have mine to thank for getting me into the game in the first place! I've told this story a few times before so skip to the next paragraph if you wish. My Grandparents would go on holiday to Jersey each summer without fail and my family would always drive them to the then Teesside International Airport where we would meet up with more family, some who were also going and some who had also provided a lift. The flight was always a British Midland Fokker 100 and on arrival at the airport we would always see one parked up (in my earliest memories it could well have been a DC-9), sending my mum into panic as each and every year she would mistake this for the Jersey flight and assume we were late, and each and every year I would reassure her it was in fact the Heathrow flight. Once out of the car I would religiously run up the old wooden staircase to the rooftop viewing area and see what was about - and it always seemed to be the same regardless of the time of day, day of week or month of year - a British Midland F100 on stand one, two or three, an Air UK Fokker 50 on 5R and the Police Islander on 5RR. This annual routine came to an end in the late 90s/early 00s and towards the end a one-off event occured which probably cemented my interest in aviation:- the situation was reversed, it was me and my family going on a typical Spanish holiday (on an all-white LTE A321 if memory serves) with my Grandparents giving us a lift. Whilst in the departure lounge waiting to board, five British Midland F100s pitched up! To this day I have never found the reasons for this or a log from the airport from that day, but I can only assume it was a mixture of Heathrow and Jersey flights, perhaps some were running late causing an overlap, coupled with perhaps Leeds diversions or maybe one of the first arrivals had gone tech and one of the latter ones was substituting - who knows but thank God it happened!!

Towards the end of the 90s and into the early 00s, my Dad would occasionally drive me to one of the pull-ins at either end of the runway and this was when I became aware of holiday flights with the likes of Airtours/MyTravel, Britannia/Thomson, Spanair, Air Europa etc. Also, as daft as it sounds whilst I was aware of everything 'to the left' of the terminal, it never ever occured to me to have a wander down that side of things to look for more aircraft, and the first time I ever explored that area was just 12 years ago when I went up in Bulldog G-CBBT/XX695 for my 16th birthday!! More fool me I guess!

G-BVJA - Fokker 100 - British Midland Airways (credit to Ian McMaster)

The above "toothpaste" livery is my all time favourite, particularly on the F100, I hated it when they changed the lower half to a dull grey with a red cheatline.

Things have just ticked over since then, I've met some fantastic people who I now hold in as high regard as friends I've grown up with through primary and secondary school - some perhaps higher! But ironically, of the years I've enjoyed so far, the better ones were when I was the over-enthusiastic nerd. Back then we were all a close-knit group, perhaps not so much me at that early stage, but I recognised that there was a special camaraderie if you will, seemingly more so than most other airport spotting circles. During those early days, security at the airport did not appreciate enthusiasts and it's fair to say they made our lives a misery at times, naturally at some point this had to change and thanks to the dogged efforts of a couple of individuals, we carved out a relationship with airport management and the airport based Special Branch which thankfully has put 99.9% of our issues with security staff firmly in the past. However, it came at a price; some enthusiasts - not very many, felt we were getting into bed with the devil and the first signs of a rift started to appear, the creation of the Friends of Durham Tees Valley Airport scheme seemed to compound the issue due to their pro-Peel stance - it was starting to look like 'them and us', and it piqued when the airport axed charter flights and some enthusiasts backed that controversial decision. Remember that first ever mass-meeting of enthusiasts in the old Wings Bar when Carl was running the place, it was around June or July 2006 I think, I can't remember it because I was gutted to be in Turkey at the time, but I'm sure 100+ enthusiasts turned up - it pains me to think that will likely never ever happen again. Happily for the most part people on both sides of the argument still talk to each other but there has been a couple of friendships lost. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it all, but if not it's certainly something I would like to see heal.

So what does the future hold for me personally within aviation? I hope things can only progress in one direction - up! Certainly in recent months my visits to the airport have been more fruitful thanks to the growth in GA. Away from DTVA, a couple of promotions at work means more hours and less trips causing me to lose control of the low cost / charter fleets which I now struggle to keep on top of. Both the Tories and Labour are anti-aviation in their own ways, and Brexit will do us no favours whatsoever, so I anticipate a rough few years ahead for aviation in this country.

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about throwing in the towel on more than one occasion, just retiring quietly and disappearing never to be seen again, but like the above-mentioned Brexit, it's not as simple as just leaving, I would have to unstitch years worth of work and effort. Besides, how do you turn something off that runs through the veins and is embedded in the heart? You can't.

I've achieved a lot in ten years, largely in thanks to our airport - for all it gets [unjustly] slated - it does have a knack for attracting big and special events; I've seen both Air Force One and Two on my doorstep, a mass influx of airliners of all shapes and sizes for a UEFA Cup final (including a third widebody having to hold because there are already two on the ground), I've been inside the rarer example of the only two airworthy Lancaster bombers in the world, equalling a world record for most people inside of one since WWII in the process, and then helped to fix it when it broke down, even if my contribution was only very small. I've been involved in the planning and execution of the return of an air show to the airport after nearly three decades, even if again my contribution was very small. I'm grateful to get regular opportunities to fly in light aircraft, including going on short holidays in them, in fact as I write these words the next is not two days away. I've taken flying lessons and although I had to stop for financial reasons, I got to a point where I can competently land and take-off. Away from DTVA, I've had the pleasure of flying in a private jet (C510), I've stood on the balcony of the tower at Milan Malpensa, unexpectedly stumbled across a preserved (sort-of) crashed 737 wreckage in Tunisia, witnessed the sole An-225 in action, spotted from the famous road crossing at Gibraltar and participated in the entry into service trial of the Dreamliner by a major low cost carrier. All in just ten years. Do you know what - for all it's not always been smooth sailing by any means (or should that be flying), I've had the best years of my life and it's been a honour and a priviledge being a part of the local aviation community - you guys are the very best and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise!! Here's to the next ten and beyond!

Credit to Stuart Reid for the third Lancaster photo.