IF one photograph represents the chaotic courage of the gladiatorial age of aviation, then it’s page 48 of Michael Kennedy’s book, Pioneers and Aviators.
Here, you will find the image (above) of two dozen Garda Síochána, frozen in silver, as they attempt to prevent Charles Ulm’s doomed Avro X monoplane, hopelessly overloaded with fuel for his transatlantic flight attempt, from subsiding into the sand at the Velvet Strand, in Portmarnock.
The photograph was taken in July, 1933, when Ireland was literally the beginning and the end of the aviation world.
A place of importance
When location was key, Ireland was prominent in aviation. Aviators came to the island with their dreams and with their makeshift aircraft, because it was the closest point to North America. They were journeymen in the most glamorous adventure on the planet.
The excitement lasted just over a decade, roughly from Alcock and Brown’s crash-landing in Clifden, in 1919 (16 hours, eastbound), to Charles Kingsford-Smith take-off from Portmarnock strand in 1930 (30 hours, westbound). The anomaly endures. You still save an hour on the return journey from JFK.
These guys were the mega-celebrities of the age. The airport in Sydney is named after Kingsford-Smith, who died off Burma on another adventure (having a hyphen in its name is just one of the airport’s eccentricities — it is the only major international airport that is closed at night). Kingsford-Smith was on the Australian $20 note until 1996.
His aircraft was a classic ‘Smithy’ creation: two machines welded together. Pilot and co-pilot were in one compartment, separated by the petrol tank, (which was filled with 1,300 gallons of fuel), from the wireless operator and the Limerick-born navigator, Paddy Saul. They communicated by poking a stick at each other from either side of the tank.
Largest airline in Europe
In today’s airline industry, which is all transponders, safety videos and lie-flat seats, Ireland is still a place of importance. While extended flight ranges mean aircraft no longer have to stop and refuel at Shannon, Ireland’s place in the nose wheel of the industry has been preserved through hard work and a new kind of chaotic courage.
One of our airlines is the largest in Europe. Another is the 15th largest and one of the strongest trans-Atlantic brands. Two more are rated among Europe’s best regionals. Irish executives head up IAG and Qantas, and numerous other airlines from Jamaica to Brunei.
Ireland leads the world of airport retail: Auckland’s shops are the latest to come under Irish management. An Irishman is trying to get Libya’s aircraft back in the air. An honorary Irish aviator is trying to save the accident-prone Malaysian airline industry.
Most prominently, Ireland seized the emerging leasing industry (largely co-invented by Irishman Tony Ryan with Steven Udver-Hazy) and has come to dominate it.
One of those lessors, Dómhnal Slattery, CEO of Avolon, sponsored this book, a hard-bound monster which could usefully serve as cargo flight ballast, or could land you a €20 excess-baggage charge on Ryanair. Dómhnal’s father owned a fruit-and-veg shop in Ennis, under the flight path to Shannon airport. Today,Slattery owns and leases more aircraft than Michael O’Leary.
A rival, Aengus Kelly, has just bought 122 of Airbus’s new flagship craft, the A350, as casually as the rest of us would buy our weekly shop. Tax contracts (with 170 countries), Excel charts and white-label aircraft are not, however, as sexy as leather-helmeted and goggled heroes, purveyors of the most glamorous profession on the planet and the trope has survived: for details, see the Cartoon Network or Mad Max movies.
There are few photographs of suited lessors in the book, but their place is as important as Amelia Earhart and her Derry landing or James Fitzmaurice, carried shoulder high by an adoring crowd after he landed in Baldonnel on return from his historic east-west crossing in 1928; or Jim Mollison, who proposed to Amy Johnson while still airborne on a commercial flight in Australia and who married her in Baldonnel.
There are other surprises. Sean Lemass is pictured in passionate Hollywood kiss with his wife, Kathleen, about to board an aircraft. His personal passion was the development of Aer Lingus, in all its under-financed and anxious mores. When Fianna Fáil were voted out of power in 1948, it set the aviation industry back ten years. And great tales, as befits an industry that generates so much hot air? One of Alcock and Brown’s propellers is still working as a ceiling fan in Luigi Malone’s restaurant in Cork. On the night Collie Hernon was airlifted off Inis Mór, to be treated for a heart attack, he rose off the stretcher to get the airfield ready, because he was the only one who knew how to turn on the lights.
Charles Ulm never took off. Six people were injured when the aircraft toppled over. An Air Corps salvage party was rushed to the beach, siphoning off the fuel as the incoming tide swept over the aircraft. The crippled machine was sent back to the factory.
But, then, heroic failure is a staple of the industry. GPA toppled in ignominy in 1992, as spectacularly as Ulm’s aircraft.
Out of the debris, Dómhnal Slattery and his colleagues at Avolon have hoisted Ireland’s aviation industry above the clouds, where, tradition dictates, it rightfully belongs.
Pioneers and Aviators, by Michael Kennedy edited by Mark Quinn, is published by Avolon. No retail price.