A6-GDP …Goodbye to a giant
On the 9th February 2010 I was asked to accompany a friend on a very interesting excursion. My family friend and colleague Rich rang me and asked if I would take some photographs for him. This is not an unusual request for me, as its something that I am frequently asked; this is one of the pitfalls of being classified as an experienced photographer. Maybe “Pitfall” isn’t the right word because it does have its positive sides. “We have to go to East Midlands Airport tomorrow so if you can make your way over to my house in the morning we will go down in my car” .. ah right, so aircraft and aviation is involved in this. That’ll do for me. I do get asked to take all sorts of photographs by friends; everything from parties for grannies to christmas cakes but getting an aviation related opportunity is a real winner.
So, I was up nice and early the next morning and headed over to the other side of Leeds to meet my lift to East Midlands Airport. I still had no idea what I was actually doing until Rich informed me that there would be nothing to do at East Midlands Airport and we were actually going to be flying down to an airfield in Gloucestershire called Kemble. Wow… In an executive jet. Big Wow ! That’s put a nice flavour to the day.
Kemble, Gloucestershire is now known as Cotswold Airport. It was an RAF base until March 1993 when it was purchased by local businessman Ronan Harvey who already had his company based on the airfield. It is now a fully operational airfield and home to Kemble Air Services (KAS) who are a member of the Airline Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA). The airport is also home to one of the world’s most thriving aircraft recycling organisations, Air Salvage International (ASI).
After a short wait in the executive handling office at East Midlands Airprot we were escorted airside to climb aboard our jet for the day. The aircraft was M-TSGP a Cessna 525A CitationJet CJ2 Plus. This is an aircraft with standard seating for seven passengers. The CJ2+ amenities include refreshment center, LED indirect lighting and both nose and tail cone external baggage compartments. Which ever way you cut it, it was small for a big guy like me. Once inside it was very comfortable with plenty of room…and unlike our holiday charter to Lanzarote you could stretch your legs out in front without having to worry about kicking fellow passengers. Again, unlike your normal passenger flights, within minutes we were ready to go and a quick word from the flight deck asking us to strap in was all that was needed before we pulled away from the General Aviation apron to the south-west of the airport.
We taxied straight east along the southern taxiway at East Midlands and briefly held prior to lining up on runway 27 for departure. I have flown hundreds of times in both airliners and light aircraft but nothing could have prepared me for the feeling of a “lighter and smaller” aircraft with powerful jet engines. It was like been in a rocket. Within seconds of rolling for take off we were airborne and climbing at an impressive rate. I recall been pinned to my seat and thinking, you should be taking photographs Markus! Instead, all I could think about was Elaine. All that kept going through my mind was, oh my god, she would hate this so much. Until she attended a specialist course for her fear of flying Elaine was absolutely terrified. The aircraft climbed very steep and as I looked right I could see the cooling towers at Willington Power Station. This was the start of the 187 mile journey south-west…with no motorways and no traffic jams.
I suppose this would be a good time to explain the reason for the trip to Kemble: A colleague was involved in the breaking up and dismantling of aircraft and through connections in the industry he was asked to assist in a particular airframe. The airframe concerned was A6-GDP A Boeing 747-2B4B formerly of British Airways. At the time the aircraft was 35 years old and had been operated by numerous carriers. Prior to its last flight to Kemble the aircraft was in service with the Dubai Air Wing. The aircraft was formerly a passenger aircraft with nearly 500 seats. The DAW later stripped them out as they weren’t required for cargo operations. The aircraft was actually owned by the Government of the United Arab Emirates and operated by the Dubai Air Wing, its primary use was to transport race horses owned by that country’s ruler. The aircraft had arrived in to Kemble the day before with the Dubai Wing in attendance. The aircrafts’ engines were to be removed that day and sold on, whilst the fuselage was to be scrapped with various re-useable parts been sent for cataloging and then on for storage. My position was to take some images, nothing special, no DSLR, just a small point and shoot.
The flight was nice and smooth and it got me thinking whether normal flight protocol was in place; you know, seatbelts etc…so I asked the pilot if I could grab a shot of the flight deck from the passenger cabin, “sure you can” he said. “Just kneel down in the middle”. Well that was a new one for me. We commenced our speedy descent in to Kemble and flew downwind at 1500ft before turning base-leg for a short final from the east for runway 26. We touched down smoothly and rolled to a slow 20 knots in no time. This was my first visit to this airfield and as we landed at Kemble I had a great view of aircraft lined up either waiting for scrapping or in the process of being scrapped. These airframes were all flashbacks of my plane spotting days. Two of them in particular brought back memories of working at Manchester Airport in the nineties. This was the United Kingdom equivalent of Mojave or Marana, an airliners graveyard. A bone yard for the good and the great, the classic airliners we all knew and loved. It was quite a sad sight, looking, thinking and wondering where their last visit was prior to the arrival at Kemble and wondering who was the last to fly these birds.
As we taxied to our parking space I could see aircraft scattered all over the airfield. They seemed to be grouped into types. The Bae 146’s were all together in a group, with the Boeing 747’s and 737’s in the same format. Two ex-KLM 737’s were parked on an apron together, facing each other in such a way that suggested they wouldn’t be lonely whilst waiting for their demise. Their registrations had been scrubbed out to hide the true identity of each aircraft, this really appealed to me and came across as quite funny, as I knew it didn’t take a genius to work out which frames they were. The colour schemes and a quick search on the www would give it away. Our jet spun around to face towards the runway and as we came to a standstill I had my first distant glance of A6-GDP. A large, white Boeing 747 Freighter parked at the opposite side of the runway. The first thing that struck me was how clean it was…it looked really shiny. I had expected it to be quite tattered and looking a little ragged. When you consider its former owner I guess my thoughts were misguided.
Within a minute of coming to a standstill the door was open and I was stood on the apron at Kemble. The wind was bracing and I could really feel the cold. We had seen snow in the fields below as we flew down and I will be the first to admit that I wasnt prepared for this. We were met by Mark Gregory from ASI (Air Salvage International) who had come to escort us whilst we took a look around the aircraft. We climbed in his 4×4 and he radioed Air Traffic Control for permission to cross the active runway and head over to where the mighty 747 was parked. I have crossed runways in cars, jeeps, aircraft you name it and it feels weird every time. It’s almost like you shouldn’t be there, even with permission granted it makes you feel like a fish out of water. We crossed the runway and made our way down the short taxiway to where Delta Papa was parked. As we got closer the memories came flooding back of how big a 747 actually is. It isn’t until you stand underneath one that you can appreciate the size. I have done this hundreds of times at Manchester Airport but this time was different. There was no shouting, no airport vehicles rushing round, no urgency, I could actually take my time and wander around and take a closer look at this magnificent soon-to-be former queen of the skies.
At the aircraft side I noticed that all the recognisable markings had been removed. The registration had been painted over as is customary when an aircraft is de-registered. It was like she had lost her identity, it was like she was already dead but her body was in a mortuary. I moved position and went to stand under the main under carriage section, looking from the centre of the aircraft first to the front and then to the back, it seemed every bit as long as its statistics confirmed; 231 feet of flying metal. As I walked under the wing something caught my eye, something that proved her actual existence…under the wing section, still in the Boeing primer colour were the letters A6-GDP
As I stated earlier, the engines had already been removed the previous day. When we arrived at the aircraft I had noticed that the cowls were on the grass next to the apron. I took a photograph of my friend Rich stood next to them, I figured that it would give you a better idea of the size of these things. We headed off up the stairs to take a look inside this aircraft. GDP has been in service for many years and had become a recognised and familiar visitor at many destinations around the world. From Hong Kong to Sydney, New York to Dallas, London to Beijing….Delta Papa was loved by all that had any association with her. This became even more apparent when I reached the very top of the two tier steps. On the once shiny white paint near the main passenger door were messages. Messages from handling staff, pilots, flight engineers, ramp agents and crew. Messages from old friends in countries all over the world…. I was staggered, absolutely stunned. I found it amazing that people associated this aircraft with a way of life, an occupation, an industrial tool. It suddenly dawned on me that this wasnt just a machine, it was an icon. A stalwart of the skies. Some of the words endorsed on the fuselage read as follows:-
“Blue skies and a smooth ride. So long GDP. It’s been great” …..Steve
“Bye-Bye Baby” …..D
“On time everytime, but not this time”
“Enjoy Retirement, will miss you bestest” …. Chris Thomson
“The spirit of Dave Bartlett R.I.P.”
“Sayonara Baby”…. Benny
“See Ya!” …. Pete G
Opening the main door felt erie, it was almost like entering a haunted house. The whole main deck was spotless, despite years of hard labour there was no dents or scratches. The roller bed for the pallets and containers was still a shiny metal. It was really hard to understand and come to terms with the fact that this aircraft was to be scrapped. I don’t have a sense of smell as a result of my head injury but Rich told me he could smell the horses amidst the cold and musty air of this enclosed environment. I climbed the ladders to the top deck; as a passenger aircraft this would once have been a proper set of stairs for crew and passengers alike. On freighters these are usually replaced by a fixed metal ladder. I emerged on the top deck next to the crew quarters where four bunk style beds were built-in to the layout. There were no lights, no life just everything left as if it was deserted in a hurry. The only light source was the flight deck windows which directed beams of winter sun straight in to the crew area. It looked like a scene from the holocaust, like suddenly everyone had run for their lives. There were quilts on the beds, one of them folded back, another used and in a mess half draped on to the floor. On the shelf next to the bunks there were half filled fizzy drinks bottles, one with that familiar “Pepsi” logo but with text in a foreign language. In front of me on the floor was a newspaper folded in half with an incomplete crossword. If I had thought the whole experience of viewing the aircraft from outside was daunting then this was starting it again, but this time from a whole new level. The deeper I moved in to the aircraft from the crew rest area in to the actual cockpit the more visual reminders of this bird I got.
The Flight Engineers clipboard had the load sheet attached, the bottom two copies all signed off and showing the airport of departure and arrival along with the weights and fuel figures. Numerous pens and flight manuals actually seemed to be in place, right where the flight engineer had left them. I went on to the flight deck and sat in the Captains seat. Believe it or not, that’s not as easy as it looks, it a bit of an obstacle challenge climbing over the seat and the centre console without catching a switch or two. I sat facing forward looking at the flight controls and out of the window. If I am honest, for a few seconds or maybe longer I could see myself as a pilot, flying this heavy metal out of Hong Kong and heading for home. In my mind I could hear the radio chatter and the noise of those massive engines. But that was all gone now, this aircraft was never ever to hear those sounds again, the rumble of the engines at full power and the vibration down the wings were no more. The next vibration that this aircraft would feel would be the huge wrecking equipment biting in to its metal and tearing it apart in a few days time. I looked out of the side window and was amazed how high up I was. It felt like I was looking out of a third storey window on to the world below.
It was time to leave. Time to kiss goodbye to this former giant of the skies. I went back down to the main deck and as I exited the door to climb back down the steps I stood on the platform and looked at the view of the airfield from this level. Maybe I would be one of the last people ever to leave this aircraft, that then got me thinking of who was the first. On the 20th June 1975 this aircraft was delivered to Middle East Airlines as OD-AGI and today, an amazing 34 years and 8 months later she would be laid to rest. Some of the serviceable and working parts would be removed and reused as well as the 4 Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7FW Engines which are only part way through their life cycle compared to the airframe. The engines are the beating heart of an aircraft and survive much longer than the fuselage itself. The final view from the steps is shown below. This is a panorama stitch of 5 images and shows 180′. You can see two of the huge engine cowls in the frame.
As we made our way back to our aircraft I took a look over my shoulder at GDP…. she looked sombre. Alone in her very own part of the airfield. Away from the busy goings on; remote from the other aircraft awaiting their fate. It seemed quite respectful and fitting that she was left alone to rest in peace. Her own private room in this waiting area of mass destruction. I had learned a lot today. I had been given opportunities that I may never be given again. More importantly I had made my mark on a very old aircraft and become part of its history. As we departed from Kemble I took one last glance to my left before we disappeared in to some scattered cloud, banked right and headed back to East Midlands. But she wasn’t there. As we turned right and headed parallel with the airfield I sat collating my thoughts from the day when we suddenly emerged from the scattered low cloud. It was then I was given my opportunity for a final farewell….flying downwind to the runway there she was in full view gleaming white in the February sunshine. Goodbye Delta Papa…….Rest in peace.
Some further images of the day at Kemble can be found on my Flickr Pages here