Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hey, you, get offa my ash cloud

A long, long time ago, when your columnist was a mere stripling, the Dixon family lived in a country cottage in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire.

Half a mile to the south stretched a leafy belt of beech woodland. To the north rolled the fertile plains of the Vale of Aylesbury.

It was a beautiful place to grow up, although the country lanes did tend to get a bit muddy in the winter. And having your friends around involved a logistic exercise almost as complex as bringing back stranded holidaymakers from Spain by boat, taxi, Eurostar and rickshaw.

The only problem with this otherwise idyllic setting was the fact that the house was under the flight path out of Luton Airport,
which in the early 1970s was establishing itself as the departure point of choice for package tourists.

And in those days, jets were noisy.

The worst offenders were the BAC One-Elevens and Lockheed TriStars operated by Court Line.


On the inside they were cramped and uncomfortable. On the outside, like everything in the 1970s that wasn't made of brown vinyl, they were painted in queasy pastel shades of butterscotch, lilac or pink.

And they screamed. Right over the roof of our house.

In those days of fuel crises, economy weighed more heavily on the airlines' minds than the comfort of those left behind on the ground. Planes took off on a much longer, shallower slope than they do today, and their engines were much louder.

So even 12 miles from Luton, the noise on a summer's day was enough to drive you out of the garden and into your headphones. Which were indeed made of brown vinyl. And through which you could do just as much damage to your hearing by listening to Pink Floyd at full volume. (Told you: even the bands were pink.)

Then, on August 15, 1974, Court Line went bust. Its nauseatingly-coloured planes were grounded, and for a few weeks we could sit outside in relative peace.

It seems a long time ago now. All right, it was a long time ago. Don't go there.

But what goes around comes around, and thanks to a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano, we've just enjoyed an even quieter period than that gentle summer of 1974.

With easyJet, Ryanair and the rest no longer cranking up their reverse thrusters just as they reach Bath airspace en route to Bristol airport, the only blots on the horizon have been hot-air balloons delivering their cargoes of exotic vegetables to the posher supermarkets.

But presumably not to Iceland.

On Wednesday it miraculously became safe to fly. Contrails hatched the clear blue skies, and the moans of the avocado-deprived middle classes gradually died away.

Now of course we should feel sorry for those whose lives have been disrupted by the flight ban, and we should be glad that things are getting back to normal.

But wouldn't it have been nice if it had gone on just a little bit longer?

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