There was a reference here recently to Enniskillen’s forthcoming 75th anniversary of D-Day, taking place at Enniskillen Model School on June 6.
One of the special guests will be 96-year-old former Model School pupil and Second World War bomber pilot Bill Eames, who skippered a plane towing a glider packed with paratroopers into Normandy during the historic D-Day landings.
Known as Operation Tonga, Bill piloted one of the dozens of RAF Albemarle tow-planes pulling Horsa gliders which heroically defied the intense, night-time barrage of anti-aircraft guns.
There’ll be more here about the anniversary of D-Day over the next few weeks, but today – intriguingly – we’re going back to the 1930s when C W Scott’s International Air Circus rolled into Enniskillen and inspired twelve-year-old Bill to become a pilot.
Held on a large field near St Angelo Airport between the September 9 and 12, 1936, the airshow was the first of its kind in Fermanagh.
‘Flying for all’ was flamboyant organiser and fearless aviator C W Scott’s catchphrase, always eager to prove that “flying need cost little more than any other worthwhile hobby.”
Scott believed that it was “a national duty for people to become air-minded” and toured the UK with an eclectic squadron of single seaters, gliders, a “flying flea”, an autogyro, a six horse-powered drone, a “three-engine airspeed liner”, and an aerobatics display by Idwal Jones “the Welsh Wizard”.
Bill Eames vividly remembers “riding out to the event on my bicycle from Enniskillen with my good friend George McVitty. I am not sure how I managed to collect the seven shillings and sixpence to pay for the cost of the flight, but I did and it was my first experience of flying.”
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and “both George and I climbed into an Auro 504 open cockpit plane. The two-seater had been converted into a training aircraft and there were two passenger seats in front of the pilot”.
“The plane took off on rough grass and there were hundreds of people who had gathered to see the Air Circus and a selection of other aircraft both in the air and on the ground. The wind whistled around us and the weather was perfect flying over Lough Erne, Devenish and the Islands – it was an amazing experience I will never forget. From that moment I knew what I wanted my career to be – a pilot!”
Asked how his mother felt about her young son riding his bicycle several miles to St Angelo for a flight in a plane, Bill laughed, and with a twinkle in his eye recounted “she was absolutely fine about it and visited the event the day after to take a pleasure flight herself”!
The famous pilot and pioneering aviatrix Amy Johnson flew in to make an appearance at the event, a huge celebrity exclusive as she’d become the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia few years earlier.
Bill went to Portora Royal School after he left the Model School, and then into the RAF.
He says that Scott’s International Air Circus tempted many young men to join up and become pilots.
Circus-master Scott believed that “flying for all cannot be a reality unless the costs are within the means of all”, and in addition to offering low cost tickets he also encouraged people to take to the skies by giving away 10 free tickets in a competition run in the Impartial Reporter newspaper, dated September 3, 1936.
The lucky winners recounted their aerial jackpots in a later edition of the newspaper.
Rene Johnston from Ballinamallard wrote: “Six other passengers were aboard and we had a splendid view, though at first I forgot to look out. We flew over Devenish, Enniskillen and part of the Lower lake and then came back to St Angelo.
“I felt quite important next day at school when my fellow pupils asked me what it felt like to be in an aeroplane.” Jim Taylor aged 17 from Derrylin said: “I was a bit excited in the beginning as I was never near an aeroplane before, much less in one, bit I soon got over my excitement and enjoyed myself thoroughly.”
Enniskillen-lad Eric Sherritt said: “As I soared through the air I could see the lake stretched below me. The boats on the lake looked like match sticks.”
And 14-year-old Gerald Harte, also from Enniskillen, said that the flight had given him “a creepy, tight, heavy, and uncanny sort of feeling in my tummy.”
There’s a sad and poignant postscript to Bill Eames’ memories of the air show.
His little friend George McVitty who cycled there with him and sat beside him for their seven and sixpenny flight also joined the RAF, but died in action with Bomber Command during the Second World War.