The Flying Duchess

The Spirit of Jersey Airlines lives on in the restored de Havilland Heron G-AORG Duchess of Brittany. She flies every summer from her base in Jersey, to which she was first delivered in May 1956 and gives pleasure not only to those who travel in her but to the hundreds of Islanders who watch her pass overhead: many of them took their first flight in a Jersey Airlines Heron fifty years ago. Journalist and broadcaster Alastair Layzell recalls the campaign to keep this little piece of aviation history where she belongs...in the air.

‘Romeo Golf’ and her sister ship, G-AORH Duchess of Normandy, were actually built for British European Airways but when Jersey Airlines became as associate of the Corporation the two aeroplanes were diverted to serve the Alderney route and appeared in full Jersey Airlines livery. In 1961 they were sold to the Royal Navy and flew with a VIP squadron until they were retired in 1989. Spurred on by the Jersey Airlines Re-union Club, I joined forces with Captain Derek Lane to launch an appeal to save ‘RG. The first contribution – from a former engineer – came just minutes after I had appeared on local radio: Roy Spencer was walking his dog past my house and listening to the news on his Walkman!

Within days we had assembled a group of enthusiasts – many of them former Jersey Airlines staff – and at Sotheby’s in March 1990 we became the proud owner of one de Havilland Heron, lying in a hangar at RAF Shawbury. Over the following year we had it flown to Bournemouth where a company with the necessary licences was contracted to transfer it from the military to the civil register, bought tons of spares which had to be carted from a maintenance unit at Carlisle to Jersey, painted the aeroplane in its original livery, and wondered how we were going to keep it flying.

The group, consisting of twenty owners, would have been quite content to see Duchess of Brittany fly for three years before being donated to a museum for static display. Thirteen years later she is still airborne and the owners have resolved to keep her flying until her fiftieth birthday, in 2006.

For me, the pleasure of this great enterprise has been to re-unite former pilots and cabin crew with an aeroplane they had last seen forty years before. Captains Freddy Clarkson, Derek Lane, Willy Weber, Tony Gothard and the late Alan Spencer had gone on to complete distinguished flying careers. Some of them ended up on the flight decks of Boeing 747s: now they were sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft on which they had started their life in aviation. It has been thrilling to see their enjoyment and the enjoyment of former Jersey Airlines staff who have flown in ‘RG since her restoration in 1991. They have fond memories of time spent with the airline throughout the 1950s.

Even though I am a child of the ‘50s I am too young to remember Jersey Airlines, although I knew its founder, Maldwyn Thomas. So, the Heron is a tangible link with another age, when passengers had their own seats either side of the aisle and a hat rack (of red knotted string) was thoughtfully provided. When the first owners took turn to rub down the fuselage before it was re-sprayed we found evidence of the early colour-scheme. When we unscrewed the chrome loudspeaker covers in the cabin we found that the Royal Navy had simply turned them round when they bought the aircraft in 1961: on the other side was the original inscription “Jersey Airlines”.

Discoveries such as these made the project rewarding for all those involved. You can imagine our excitement on 27 June 1991 when Freddy Clarkson – one of Jersey Airlines’ original captains – delivered the restored Duchess of Brittany to Jersey. It was as if time had stood still.

Every picture tells a story. From top to bottom:
1. During service with the Royal Navy 1961 - 1989 XR441 poses over Chesil Beach.
2. Bearing her original registration G-AORG arrives at Bournemouth Airport in 1990 to await restoration. She was ferried from RAF Shawbury by Flight Lieutenant Tony Ellerbeck (who had flown her for the Navy) and Captain Alan Spencer, former chief pilot of Jersey Airlines.
3. In the hangar at Bournemouth.
4. John Coleman and Roy Spencer, both former Jersey Airlines' engineers flank the redoudtable Bas Ahier as the wraps come off their paintwork early in 1991. They said: "we painted the company's aircraft in the 1950s, why can't we do it again?"
5. With the last of the masking tape removed, Duchess of Brittany is rolled out of the hangar at Bournemouth.
6. Captain Freddy Clarkson delivers G-AORG to Jersey on a calm summer evening, 27 June 1991.