Another Fine Mayfly

Willy Weber was a co-pilot with Jersey Airlines between 1963 and 1965. He flew the Heron and the Dakota and then moved to BEA, ending his career as a senior Boeing 747 captain with British Airways. In retirement he flies the restored de Havilland Heron Duchess of Brittany and, most importantly, is responsible for organising its annual programme – the Mayfly.

Willy Weber is well-connected. He has to be. He relies on e-mail, fax and ‘phone to keep in touch with the twenty owners of Heron G-AORG – of which he is one – to make sure the annual flying programme runs without a hitch. Every organisation needs someone like him. After publishing the programme – a mixture of trips organised by the group and private bookings by the aircraft’s owners – he spends hours making sure they fly full. Through his efforts hundreds of friends of the owners have been able to step back in time and find out what flying was like in the 1950s.

As Willy says: “The group members receive an updated copy of the ‘Mayfly’ about once a fortnight, mostly via e-mail. Don’t ask me how it acquired its name. I think it goes back to the Jersey Airlines era! Nowadays, it comes as an ‘Excel’ spreadsheet, made up as a four month calendar, showing weekends, bank holidays and all our planned trips. We plan at least one three or four-day ‘Company’ trip each month in the season. Southern France seems to be the most popular, usually with a few sets of golf clubs in the rear hold. ‘French Lunch Away Days’, nearly every weekend, fill up very quickly.”

In the thirteen years since it was restored RG has been seen as far a-field as Hamburg, Zurich, Le Touquet, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, East Midlands and Luton. She is a regular at the Goodwood Revival – the time-warp extravaganza staged by Lord March at his south coast race-track every September. Another fixture is the August rally of the Moth Club at Woburn Abbey. The Heron is too big to land on the tiny grass strip but positions to Luton from where she performs a spirited display.

All this is hard work but Willy thrives on it. After all, he comes from a flying family. His grandfather was a founder member of the Southend Flying Club in the late 1920s and his father flew Lancasters as one of the famous Pathfinders during the Second World War, eventually retiring as a British Caledonian BAC 1-11 captain. Willy’s younger son, Richard, is an airline pilot based in the UK. In his own career, Willy has flow the inimitable Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Freighter, the Boeing 737 and 707 and the 747. “‘Landing a block of flats from the upstairs toilet window’ is a well known 747 cliché. Coming straight from that to the Heron required lots of, shall we say, technique adjustment? I still find myself occasionally rounding out at fifty feet! Thankfully, the little aeroplane is a joy to handle and very forgiving.” Willy is being modest. When he was re-united with G-AORG is September 1991, three months after it returned to Jersey, he executed a faultless landing…twenty-eight years after he had last sat in a Heron cockpit!

Every year Willy tries to think of something new to keep the Heron’s twenty owners and their guests amused. “For the 2004 season we are reviving an idea that, eight or nine years ago, was an annual event. This is to schedule a ‘Company Grand Tour’ for a week or ten days, stopping at several places, no sector longer than two hours with ‘gourmet in flight catering’. We would plan to have several pilots among the team on a long trip like this, sharing the flying.” Shades of the Lord Brothers tours undertaken by Jersey Airlines Dart Heralds in the winter of 1963.

Hundreds have benefited from Willy Weber’s work over the past few years. A bit like Tommy Thomas, the founder of Jersey Airlines for whom he once worked, Willy is everywhere: making the plans, keeping everyone in touch and then flying the aeroplane. His enthusiasm is one of the secrets that keeps this vibrant group going. Just occasionally, shares in the group come up for sale. As Willy says: “Contact us anytime if you’re interested in swapping your 747 for something smaller, but still with four-engine safety!”

Every picture tells a story. From top to bottom:
1. Heron G-AORG at RNAS Culdrose, 1992
2. In front of the beautifully-preserved terminal at Shoreham, opened in 1935
3. Flying down to Jersey: a familiar view for thousands of passengers in the 1950s, now enjoyed by guests on Duchess of Brittany every summer. Flying over Cap de la Hague, September 2003
4. Captain Willy Weber and his 747 substitute