DAS & DAN
Keith Bradshaw takes a look back at the much missed independent airline DAN-AIR and its contribution to the British Airliner Collection.
One of the major contributors to the world famous British Airliner Collection was Dan-Air. Unusually for an airline they regarded their history with respect and as historic airliners were retired, instead of going to the scrap yard, they were treated like much loved workhorses and put out to pasture - parked on the grass at the Dan-Air maintenance base at Lasham in Hampshire! These included a DC-3 painted to represent the first aeroplane the company operated when it started flying in 1953. This American built aeroplane was not of great interest to DAS, but the others, a York and Ambassador certainly were. However these two iconic aeroplanes were not the first to come our way. That was to be the Comet 4 G-APDB. The Dakota went through several hands before ending its days being destroyed during filming in Poland.
When Dan-Air retired Comet PDB they were well aware of its historic pedigree. Delivered to BOAC in 1958, it became the first ever jet airliner to carry fare paying passengers non-stop across the Atlantic from west to east. This historic flight took place on 4 October 1958 and carried a full load from New York to London. Leaving BOAC in 1965 she flew for four years in the Far East with Malaysian Singapore Airlines before being bought by Dan-Air and returned to the UK on 16 September 1969.
Joining the large fleet of Comets Dan-Air had acquired from around the world, she flew on with them until November 1973 before being retired. In view of her iconic status, Dan-Air donated the aeroplane to the East Anglian Aviation Society and she was flown to their home at Duxford in February 1974. In her 16 years of flying she had amassed a total of 36,269 hours, more than any other Comet. The following year the East Anglian Aviation Society became the Duxford Aviation Society and PDB was to be their first exhibit and the beginning of the British Airliner Collection.
Twelve years after the Comet had arrived at Duxford , Dan-Air realised that they didn’t have the time and manpower to restore the York and Ambassador that had been sitting at their engineering base since withdrawal from service in 1964 and 1971. The York freighter was one of only two complete Yorks still in existence, but the Ambassador could top that, being the sole survivor of the 23 examples made. Ambassador G-ALZO operated the last ever scheduled Ambassador flight on 26 September 1971. It then flew a charter flight for Dan-Air staff followed a couple of days later by a freight flight to Zagreb to deliver a replacement engine for a Dan-Air BAC 1-11. Captain Peter Collier flew her home finally touching down for the last time at Lasham on 2 October 1971. Here she kept the York company in the long grass until Dan-Air kindly donated both aircraft to the Duxford Aviation Society in 1986. The York arrived in May of that year and the Ambassador followed in October. Both were major restoration projects.
Let us look a little deeper into the history of this great British airline from which we have all benefitted through the preservation of these three iconic aeroplanes. Formed in 1953 as the aviation arm of ship brokers Davis And Newman the new airline took its name from the initials of its parent company and began flying with just one Douglas Dakota from its main base at Southend. These flights were ad-hoc charters and inclusive tour holiday flights, the type of business the airline was to later excel at.
Over the next few years the Dakota was joined by other examples and Bristol 170 and York freighters were added to the fleet. Then in 1955 the airline moved its operating base to Blackbushe, a busy secondary airport at that time, and set up their engineering base at Lasham in Hampshire. The airline stayed at Blackbushe until its closure to commercial traffic in 1959 when it moved on to its final base at Gatwick. However it had been Blackbushe that had seen the first Dan-Air scheduled flight when the Dakotas started flying from there to Jersey in May 1956.
By the early 1960s with new scheduled flights, military charters and inclusive tour work, the fleet of Dakotas were supplemented by York, Bristol Freighter, Dove and Heron aircraft. The Yorks were retired by 1964 and a new breed of airliner arrived - ex BEA Ambassadors. These aircraft were well received by passengers and flew most of the inclusive tour flights.
At the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, inclusive tour work had grown considerably and Dan-Air began to replace the old piston engine airliners with more modern aircraft, notably the de Havilland Comet. Dan-Air became the world’s largest and last airline operator of this type with 49 examples passing through its hands until the Comet’s last service on 9 November 1980. The 1970s saw the airline begin its association with Boeing when it acquired two Boeing 707s for long range charters and bought a small fleet of four Boeing 727s from Japan Airlines for their European routes, becoming the first UK airline to operate the Boeing Tri-jet. By now the airline that had started with just one Dakota had become the UK’s largest independent airline.
In 1969 the airline acquired a BAC 1-11, the first of 20 of these British twin jets the airline would operate, with the type still being in service at the time of the airlines demise in 1992. 1971 saw the arrival of the first of 21 HS748 turbo props which were used mainly on oil industry support work and for a few years continued the ‘Coach-Air-Coach’ routes to Europe originally flown by Skyways, an airline Dan-Air had taken over. Throughout the 1970s the airline continued to open more scheduled services, including several that British Airways could not operate profitably. Inclusive tour work continued to boom but Dan-Air was not tied to one tour operator so had to fight for its share of the market. With the low operating costs of its fleet of mainly second hand aircraft it was able to offer good rates to the tour operators.
Dan-Air celebrated the beginning of the 1980s with the purchase of a new aircraft when it became the launch customer for the BAe 146 and brought it into service in 1983. In 1986 the airline joined the ‘wide-bodied’ club when it introduced Airbus A300 aircraft onto its routes. At the beginning of the 80s the airline had become the major operator on the oil industry flights with 13 HS748 aircraft flying oilmen from the mainland to Shetland for onward transit to their rigs by helicopter.
With the last Comet being retired in 1980 the first two Boeing 737s arrived. The airline would eventually operate 19 of these twin- engine jets. In 1987 the first cabin crew course for male stewards was completed. Until then, all Dan-Air cabin crew had been female. Dan-Air was however the first UK airline to have a female captain when Yvonne Pope became Captain Yvonne Pope flying the HS748 and later the BAC 1-11. 1988 saw the opening at Gatwick of the airline’s new £5m hangar. Things were looking good for the company as throughout the decade scheduled services had continued to grow and by 1989 Dan-Air had carried 6.2 million people over the year making a profit of £10m in 1988 .
But the bubble had burst and by the time the accounts for 1989 were published, the airline was in the red to the tune of £3m. To help improve their bottom line the airline sold its two Airbus A300 aircraft. 1990 saw the airline begin the new decade with a fleet of 55 aeroplanes. It was also the year that a big customer for their engineering and charter arm, Air Europe, itself in financial difficulties stopped using Dan-Air services making a large dent in its income. 1990 also saw an economic downturn due to the Gulf War and soaring fuel costs.
In 1991 Air Europe collapsed and Dan-Air took on many of their schedules making the airline the biggest short haul scheduled operator at Gatwick. The banks however refused to extend further loans to Dan-Air. Considering Dan-Air had up to this point made a profit every year bar two this was a strange decision. A change of management wanted to move Dan-Air upmarket and deeper into scheduled services with all the costs this would bring. With no direct link to a travel firm, Dan-Air was severely hit by some of the large travel companies setting up their own airlines and no longer chartering Dan-Air aircraft. In the same year the board made the decision to sell off the successful engineering group to FLS aerospace and planned to reduce the fleet to just two types - the BAe146 and the Boeing 737. However, all this was not enough to get the banks onside and with a continuing increase in debt, discussions were held in August 1992 with British Airways regarding a potential take over. This came into effect in November of that year when BA bought Dan-Air plus its debts for just £1 and the former king of the independents was gone.
Dan-Air was always viewed by the public and the aviation industry as a company that was very careful with its money, preferring to operate old or obsolete aeroplanes rather than investing in new builds. However they nearly always ended the year in profit, so maybe it should be said they were just prudent with their cash. A story I heard first hand from a de Havilland product support manager supports this idea. When he used to visit BEA/British Airways he would be greeted like an honoured guest, shown into a palatial office for talks and then ushered into the management dining room for a five course silver service lunch. At Dan-Air however he was shown into an office at the back of the hangar and when lunch time arrived he was served a plate of sandwiches and a cup of tea whilst working! As he often remarked Dan-Air knew how to spend their money wisely.
The airline may have been gone now for 26 years but thanks to their generosity back in the 1980s, the dedicated efforts by the Duxford Aviation Society members and help from such groups as Dan-Air Remembered and the Dan-Air Staff Association, Dan-Air London lives on at Duxford. After lengthy restorations both the York and Ambassador are now resplendent in the airline’s red and black livery. Gone but not forgotten.
Special thanks go to Roger Syratt for his help with this article by allowing the use of his pictures from Lasham
‘Till the next time Keith
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