Low visibility deterred some aircraft but couldn’t veil unique aviation history

Aviation history returns to Lough Erne - a Catalina G-PBYA built in 1943
Aviation history returns to Lough Erne - a Catalina G-PBYA built in 1943

Unhelpful weather conditions and low visibility curtailed the flying display at last Saturday’s RAF100 celebrations in and around Lough Erne Yacht club, but over 800 visitors to the former Secomd World War Flying Boat base weren’t overly disappointed.

Spectators on adjacent roadsides and hilltops doubtlessly enjoyed the spectacle too.

An original Second World War aircraft Hangar at the Lough Erne Yacht Club

An original Second World War aircraft Hangar at the Lough Erne Yacht Club

The star of the somewhat diminished show, a 75-year-old Catalina, spent the day circling above the lake and islands and landing and taking off from Gublusk Bay.

It was an historic display, as a Catalina from 209 Squadron roared into the sky from the same waters on May 26th 1941 and spotted the dreaded German battleship Bismark on her way to France after sinking the iconic British battle cruiser HMS Hood.

In one of history’s best-known sea battles, the Royal Navy sank Bismark the following day.

Lough Erne’s air bases were amongst the 29 RAF bases in Northern Ireland that operated during the Second World War, several of them during the First World War as well, an often-untold history that’s being marked by the ongoing RAF100 centenary celebrations here and across the UK.

Pastoral scene evocative of times past - a Catalina G-PBYA moored in Lough Erne celebrating RAF100

Pastoral scene evocative of times past - a Catalina G-PBYA moored in Lough Erne celebrating RAF100

Saturday’s return of a Catalina to the former RAF Killadeas flying boat base was hugely evocative – they were a common sight there during the Second World War – though the powerful throb of its twin engines faded into insignificance compared with the deafening screech of a modern Tornado GR4 jet-fighter aircraft which took a spectacular, low-level flypast.

The Tornado is a variable-sweep wing, twin Rolls-Royce turbofan, multi-combat aircraft that’s capable of well over 1,000 mph.

Originally built to meet the threat of the Cold War, it has been in constant combat operations with the RAF for over 25 years.

The Catalina that (less deafeningly!) charmed Saturday’s spectators was built by Canadian Vickers for the Royal Canada Air Force in 1943 when it patrolled the coast of Western Canada.

Today it specialises in air displays.

They were the only two planes that could brave the weather conditions and come to Lough Erne on Saturday but their contrasting age and varied past aptly reflected the proud history of aviation that was being celebrated at Gublusk Bay.

Some Second World War veterans from the army and air force mingled with senior officers, VIPs, older and younger spectators and members of the Air Cadets and University Air Squadron – and the army turned up too!

A Royal Gun Salute marking Her Majesty the Queen’s Coronation was fired at noon by 206 (Ulster) Battery, Royal Artillery. (Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey on June 2nd 1953).

Ear plugs were handed out to the spectators prior to three teams of meticulously uniformed gun-crews firing 21 ear-splitting rounds, though one of the detonations was a little hesitant!

A pall of acrid smoke hung over the guns and drifted across the Lough to the Catalina, moored majestically at an original Second World War flying-boat mooring-weight recently restored to Gublusk Bay.

And history hung attentively over the whole event.

Outside the original the Second World War aircraft hangar that remains intact at the Lough Erne Yacht Club, the Ulster Aviation Society’s replica Spitfire was a reminder of the Belfast Telegraph’s Second World War Spitfire fund, when local people donated over £88,000 for 17 Spitfires.

That’s almost £3 million at today’s value!

The amounts raised ranged from £4,559 from Belfast shipyard workers to the 336 half-pennies raised by two Fermanagh schoolgirls.

(Many congratulations, by the way, to the Ulster Aviation Society which was one of the 23 local organisations to recently receive a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.)

Some of Northern Ireland’s 29 historic RAF bases have already been highlighted during the ongoing RAF100 celebrations, and many other events are planned, with details on the regularly updated website at www.raf.mod.uk/raf100.

The history of the RAF goes back 100 years to April 1918 when it was established as a separate Service, independent of the British Army and Royal Navy.

But air power came to Ireland in May 1917, when farmland at Aldergrove was surveyed by Major Sholto Douglas, of the Royal Flying Corps.

Major Douglas also selected the sites which became Dublin Airport at Collinstown and Baldonnel, subsequently the headquarters of the Irish Air Corps.

Meanwhile in the early summer of 1917, extending their reach from sea to air, Harland and Wolff manufactured a batch of military trainer ‘de Havilland 6’ aircraft, nicknamed “the clutching hand”(..on the control column!)

Harland and Wolff went on to produce over 600 aircraft, including Avro 500s and Handley-Paige V/1500 bombers.

Ireland first squadron was Squadron 105, part of the Royal Flying Corps, set up in 1917 at Strathroy Airfield, Omagh.

On 1 April 1918 the RAF was established – an historic first as no other country in the world maintained a self-contained air force, independent of the army and navy.

The new RAF, boasting its own ministry and Secretary of State for Air, was soon the most powerful air force in the world with over 290,000 personnel and nearly 23,000 aircraft.

It fought effectively during the First World War and by the Second World War had a significant presence across Northern Ireland with 29 airfields extending from the Ards Peninsula to Lough Erne, though one at Millisle was cancelled during construction.

The full story about the air bases, and the men and women who worked there and flew from them, often heroically, is being marked and commemorated during RAF100.

Almost 12,000 men and women from Northern Ireland volunteered to serve in the RAF during the Second World with 1,352 losing their lives.

Over 300 from the Lough Erne bases perished.