Ken Wakefield: 1928 – 2022

It is only within the last two years that I finally got my own L4 Cub but I have been a member of the Vintage Piper Aircraft Club for over 25 years. I recently received this sad email:

With much regret that we report that Ken Wakefield, the world renowned reference historian and expert on US liaison aircraft passed away last month after a short stay in hospital. Ken was involved with the VPAC from its very beginning — member number 004 after the club’s founders.

Ken was born in Bristol, the family home being close to the former Whitchurch aerodrome and this must have kindled his interest in aviation. When, in 1944, the American First Army based Piper L-4s on a nearby airstrip, it had a huge influence on the sixteen-year old West Country lad. “One day I’m going to own one of those”, he pledged. This marked the beginning of Ken’s association with the Piper Cub and other US Liaison “L-Bird” aircraft. 38 years later he achieved that ambition. His knowledge of US liaison / observation aircraft was legendary and he devoted much of his time researching and writing books on the subject. Any restorer, before starting his project, begins today by reading the ‘books of Ken’ and he was always happy to help. With extreme kindness, he encouraged youngsters, gave advise to hundreds of pilots and through his meticulous research and publications connected families of veterans with the past.

Ken had a distinguished career as an airline pilot which began flying charter flights to Johannesburg as a DC-3 co-pilot, retiring as a senior captain with British Airways on Lockheed TriStars. He was also a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and holder of the Master Pilot Award of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.

We have lost a true gentleman, Godfather to the L-Birds and a true friend to so many.

(via Richard Keech, Vintage Piper Aircraft Club)

Like any self respecting Cub enthusiast, I have two of Ken’s books:

Both are well thumbed. I lost my original “Fighting Grasshoppers” somewhere along the way, and recently replaced it at some expense. I didn’t pay the £100 or so that I just saw on Amazon, maybe half that – they are now quite rare to find.

When I heard of Ken’s death, I dug out his books for another look through. A piece of paper fluttered out from between the pages of “The Fighting Grasshoppers”. Turning it over, it was a photograph of Ken, the same photo used on the back flap of the dust cover:

I replied to Richard and the VPAC wondering if Ken did this with all his books and got this reply:

Well, your question prompted me to check my copy of “Lightplanes at War” and look what I found inserted in page 115. I’ve seen it before, but never thought where it had come from so maybe Ken was in the habit of popping in the odd photo. The photo on Pg115 shows Brixham Harbour in 1944 and the hand-written note on the loose photo tells that it shows the same in 2004.

Mike Mothershaw, another senior VPAC member, wrote:

Richard passed your question on to me and the straight answer is, not sure. It might well have been one of those nice little touches he did when the books were first published, the sort of thing Ken would do. Obviously, that’s some time ago now.
I’ve got three of his books sitting on my shelf and, just like you, I couldn’t help but pick them up and thumb through the them again. Later, I did a search using the author’s name and was surprised to see not only did Ken write a number of books on the L-Birds in some depth, but also wrote several on Luftwaffe operations during the war, and there are also three volumes he wrote on The Blitz (‘then and now’). A busy chap!
Some of Ken’s books are now hard to find, one of them appeared on Amazon a while ago with a three figure price tag prompting him to declare he wished he’d put a case of them to one side !
Back to the question of photos, I’m expecting to see Ken’s daughter and son-in-law in a few weeks time so I’ll ask them the question.

I may also be able to answer the question…during research on Amazon I ended up ordering “Lightplanes At War” – when it arrives we will have to see if anything flutters out. Thanks Ken.

Here Be Dragons

Every so often work reminds me that other helicopter jobs are available, and that I have no desire to do them! Here we are in the middle of nowhere, over the sea at low level, wearing immersion suits and with the liferaft fitted to the aircraft:

It can be quite tedious overwater when you are out of sight of land. A reminder that I have no desire to fly offshore to oil and gas rigs. Life in a rubber suit does not appeal. Out west there was not a lot to look at apart from the instruments and the odd stray fishing boat…

The moving map display is not much help either. Pretty soon after this picture was taken we fell off the end of the map into “here be dragons” territory:

The day had started with a good forecast. We had been trying for several weeks to get out to Barra Hospital in the Hebrides to tick off my night currency requirement…Barra is one of our landing sites that needs a day visit within the previous 12 months to qualify the pilot for a night visit. This is due to distance from the mainland, terrain near the landing site, weather considerations and fuel availability. We used to have a stock of fuel drums at the hospital, together with an electric pump, but the shed they were stored in was damaged in a storm and the roof fell in, letting water everywhere and increasing the risk of contamination. The replacement of the EC135 by the H145 on the Scottish Ambulance contract removed the need for fuel as the 145 carries a lot more fuel. The Barra refuel option was discontinued, but we still have drums of fuel at Tiree and Islay.

We fly a 135, so we needed to leave the mainland with as much fuel as possible. First stop was Oban where there is an ambulance fuel trailer parked next to the helipads at Oban Airport. This is paramedic Rich’s view out of the aircraft as we pass the Oyster Inn ( we’ve been here before…see ) and the Connel Bridge at the Falls of Lora on the way in to land:

After a quick refuel (in the rain!) we headed up the Sound of Mull for the crossing to Barra. Another photo from Rich in the back as we approach Tobermory, the capital of Mull:

It was at this point that we got a request from ambulance control…as we were out and about on training could we give them a hand and actually move a patient? There was a request for a Stornoway to Glasgow transfer. One patient and one bag going to the mainland for enhanced care at one of the larger hospitals. We did a few calculations and confirmed that we could reach Stornoway with the fuel we had on board. Then we could refuel and load the patient and get going. Our simple training trip was turning into a bit of an epic!

Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra. We could not work out why it is called that! The hospital is just out of sight to the left:

Then it was northbound up the east coast of the Outer Hebrides, passing Benbecula Airport which would have been available for a refuel if we had needed it. This is Eilean Glas lighthouse on Scalpay, a small island off Harris:

Final approach into Stornoway:

Refuelling on the apron. At the same time the paramedics were in the ambulance talking to the patient. Multi tasking in action…

Then it was off to Glasgow. The trip from Oban via Barra to Stornoway had taken 1 hour 40 minutes, but Stornoway to Glasgow took just 50 minutes, due to the tailwind.

I took the next shot on the way to Barra. Notice top left of the screen where it says SPD 103 – that is the groundspeed. Bottom left is the wind indicator, showing that we were headed into a 25 knot headwind at the time. We were at low level to get out of the teeth of the gale:

Compare with this next screen. Now the wind indicator is showing a 45 knot tailwind and the groundspeed readout now shows SPD 171. We were now at 4000 feet to get as much advantage of the tailwind as possible.

Interestingly, by a mere fluke in both cases we are about 34 miles from the next waypoint, top right where it says DST 34.1 or 34.8. Comparing the TTG figures top left of each screen shows a 20 minute time to go (TTG 20) into wind and TTG 12 with the wind behind us. An eight minute difference over just 34 miles due to the wind. Groundspeed 1-0-1.

The return trip didn’t take long at all. Some great views which made it all worthwhile in the end. Here we are approaching the Isle of Skye:

Training completed, a patient transferred and loads of flying. Another great day out, even if it was in an uncomfortable rubber suit.