Flying as it used to be

Today we think nothing of flying off to the sun for our summer holidays, but taking a plane from Cardiff in the 1950s was a thrilling experience for a youngster. For a start you didn’t check in at the airport: you bought your tickets and had your luggage weighed at the tiny Cambrian Airways office in the City Centre, next to Central Station and then, formalities completed, a limousine arrived to whisk you to Rhoose Aerodrome, situated on a plateau near the seaside resort of Barry Island.

Being chauffeured to your destination made you feel like a king, but the airport had no multi-million pound terminal with duty-free shops and all mod cons as it does today. In those days there were iust a couple of tin sheds and a rather primitive departure building. After walking out to the Douglas DC3 airliner, better known to our paratroopers as the Dakota, we climbed the steps labelled with the airline’s name. Our hostess ensured that we were strapped in and we set off down the runway before climbing, less steeply than you do now, into the wide blue yonder. Air travel was noisier then, and of course much slower, but the windows could be made larger and the view of the receding Welsh coast was superb. Dropping into Bristol, en route to Paris, we took on post. The baggage handlers came on board and brewed a pot of tea for the four passengers. Can you imagine that happening today?

The airport is still on the same site today, but is now called Cardiff International. Instead of piston-engined DC3s there is now every kind of jet are and even an occasional visit from a trip-bound Concorde. The departure lounge has every amenity and comfort and you can fly to hundreds of destinations. Yet I miss the romance of air travel in the old days, and recently went to Coventry Airport to relive those early thrills by sampling one of Air Atlantique’s Open Days.

They operate classic aircraft and use DC3s to spray oil slicks, but keep a couple of planes for pleasure flights. Taking off first in a De Havilland Dragon Rapide biplane, I stepped gingerly on to the black mark on the wing (because the rest of the structure is fabric covered). Mauling myself into the tiny plane, along with eight other passengers, I took the rear seat (and was still close enough to the pilot to shake hands). A flight over the Warwickshire countryside, looking down on Warwick Castle, was wonderful. The English landscape was just as you see in the best calendars. When we landed we gave the flier a round of applause. Back into the air we were in a good old DC3, designed as a stop-gap in the 1930s, with thousands still in use. Advertisements showed a steam roller parked on the wing to prove its strength. The memories came flooding back. It could have been the 1950s again, except for the scene which took in the giant Peugeot factory – imagine us building cars for the French! I can recommend my day of nostalgia to anyone.

Roger Bowen