For half a century Pilot has been Britain’s best-selling GA magazine – to honour this incredible achievement we look back at what has adorned the cover over the past 50 years

In Pilot fifty years ago

‘All good pilots file a flight plan before taking off and we for our part intend to define our course in this first issue of Pilot,’ wrote Editor Brian Healy in the October 1967 edition of the monthly magazine that had previously gone under the title Light Aeroplane and Aviation Review. ‘Whether it’s the commercial pilot of a sophisticated business jet or the weekend pilot who flies for fun, we aim to serve his interests in helping improve the facilities for general aviation in the UK.’

1967 had started with the news that Beagle had been acquired by the Government and that plans were in hand to ‘forge ahead’ with the Beagle Pup and twin range of aircraft. We know today how that ended, but at the time Pilot first hit the newsstands its editor was convinced that light aircraft were ‘being developed with success’ in Britain.

Lacking any colour pages, sparsely — albeit at times stylishly — illustrated and comprising just 44 pages, the first edition of Pilot looks more like a club journal than the professionally produced magazine it became in the 1970s.

However, the seeds are there: not least in the form of a detailed flight test of the Beech C33 Debonair; something unexpected and informative in George Locke’s piece on using gravity, sailplane fashion, as your engine; general aviation news, covering everything from the new Handley Page Jetream’s handling trials to Watford Boys Grammar School pupil Alan Rawlinson flying solo after only 5hr 45min; a feature covering professional pilot training (at Oxford Air Training, now Oxford Aviation Academy) and a taste of aviation history in the form of articles on ‘The last of the Australian Air pioneers’ (Raymond Parer, who had died in July that year) and ‘Open cockpit series No.4’ — the Fairy Flycatcher.

Forty years ago

Colour was yet to appear on the page, but ten years into its life and now under the editorship of James Gilbert, Pilot now had the look and fine balance of content that had already made it the magazine for those ‘flying for business and pleasure’ – qualities that would carry it through the decades to follow. Lead feature of the October 1977 edition was Alan ‘Bunny’ Bramson’s flight test of the Chris Heinz designed all-metal, aerobatic Robin R2160, an improved version of the unsuccessful HR200, which had been plagued with intractable spin problems.

Following a page of ‘Air Mail’ (two words then) came Doug Bianchi’s wonderful ‘Aeroplanes that have owned me’ – the kind of story telling at which the famed aircraft restorer and film replica builder excelled. As if one’s cup wasn’t overflowing, there was also ‘Jet experience’: ‘with just 500 hours – all on light aircraft – Maxi Gainza got to fly a Fokker F-28 twin-jet airliner on a positioning flight in Argentina’.

In ‘Pilot Notes’ – compiled then as now by Mike Jerram – it was reported that UK sales of new aircraft for the first six months of 1977 were up 43 per cent over sales figures for 1976. It was the fiftieth anniversary year of Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic flight and the magazine paid tribute with a genuinely ‘refreshing insight’ to the Lone Eagle’s character, extracted from Clipper, Pan-Am’s in-flight magazine (remember Pan-Am?)

After six months of enforced shut-down, Popham owner Jim Espin had just triumphed over Basingstoke District Council in his battle to keep open the airfield and provide an ‘air sports centre for popular flying’ and at Oshkosh ‘the venerable Bede’, as Mike Jerram styled the controversial US lightplane designer, had just delivered his annual ‘Don’t despair, success is just around the corner’ speech to several thousand long-suffering BD-5 customers.

Thirty years ago

The cover of the October 1987 edition was more of an exercise in typography than photography, the flight-test Turbo Trinidad flying not so much over a hazy landscape than a sea of words. Bunny Branson was smitten with the aircraft, a development of the TB10 Tobago that Socata had brought to Britain in 1979. The new high-performance (200kt at 20,00ft) TB21 offered ‘exceptional cabin width [and] excellent engineering’ and was ‘delightful to fly… a most impressive aeroplane’. UK Agent Air Touring was charging a base price of £117,067 (equivalent to something like £300,000 today) at a time Pilot cost £1.20 (oh dear – £3.10 in today’s money!)

In 1987 readers were getting even better value for money thanks to the addition of fabled US correspondent and Falco builder Stephan Wilkinson, and French correspondent Bernard Chabbert. The magazine was in its pomp and boasted a fair smattering of colour pages, which extended even to Bob Grimstead’s article on ‘cheap flying’ (which might have been subtitled ‘or how I came to buy a Turbulent’).

Long-term advertiser Transair had a full-page ad, offering headsets, handheld radios, intercoms and flight-planning programmable calculators from Avstar and Jepperson/Texas Instruments (the Prostar) – but none of the GPS wizardry we know and love today. Notes was… er, noting the ‘important airspace and procedural changes’ to be introduced on 1 October with the opening of London City Airport, then referred to as ‘STOLport’. There was controversy about an FAA AD calling for wing removal and spar inspection on PA-28/32 aircraft after cracks had been found in aeroplanes that Piper claimed had been overloaded and overstressed.

US GA was in the doldrums, manufacturers predicting ’87 would be the ‘worst ever’ year for aircraft sales, the projected figure falling from 1,495 delivered in 1986 to 1,000. They were blaming the cost of lawsuits that were adding an average of $105,000 to the cost of each new aircraft.

Twenty years ago

We are now in the full colour era, with a new name flight-testing the Max Holste Broussard: Peter Underhill – a controversial figure who had done sterling work in raising the game of the Popular Flying Association (now LAA).

‘Not being an opinionated person’, James Gilbert had left Darrol Stinton to write the leading op-ed piece in this issue: a very politely worded attack on the way the CAA had hijacked the Historic Aircraft Association’s display pilot evaluation system and rules, imposed new regulation following the P-38 Lightning crash at Duxford and were now considering charging for work freely undertaken by the HAA. Plus ca change… you might think.

Ten years on from that ‘worst ever’ year, US GA aircraft sales were up 16.5 per cent on the previous year. In the first half of ’97 Cessna had delivered 194 aircraft, 93 of which were piston-singles, followed by Raytheon (145 fomer BAe bizjets and Beech aircraft) and New Piper (104). Two decades ahead of the European game, the FAA approved single-engined commercial IFR operations and the Smiths, father Mike and son ‘Q’, set different around the world helicopter records. Q accompanied Jennifer Murray on the first round-the-world helicopter flight by a woman pilot, and the first in a piston-engined helicopter. Mike Smith set the speed record for a single-engined turbine helicopter. Elsewhere flexwing microlights were becoming more mainstream, as noted by veteran glider pilot Ann Welch’s piece on ‘Trikes as tugs’. Towards the back of the book appears ‘Old-Timers’ (clearly hyphens were in good supply in 1997) co-authored by Peter R March and Mike Jerram, and James Allen brings the editorial content to a close with his ‘Air-Brained’ quiz.

Finally, occupying the familiar back-cover slot is long-term advertiser Harry Mendelssohn, offering a range of GPS units from Garmin, Skyforce and Magellan. Colour had arrived with Skyforce’s offering, albeit at an eye-watering £2,499 (£4,200-odd today) – and in this respect things really have changed!

Ten Years ago

Now in Archant ownership, the magazine had been freshened up with new design, a multitude of cover lines vying for the reader’s attention. Flight tests predominate, two of the three (ACA Citabria Ultimate Adventure and Magni MT-03 autogyro) being written by Editor Nick Bloom, who’d also penned a piece on the Yak-3 owned by the Tiger Club’s chairman, Chris Bellhouse.

‘Pilot Notes’ reported that the PFA had just changed its name to the Light Aircraft Association, Turweston was seeking planning permission for a new headquarters building for the renamed association, and the magazine continued to campaign in support of GA with a petition to Downing Street asking the Treasury not to impose additional taxes on aviation fuels.

For the ‘Buyer’s Guide’ series Bob Davy flew the Extra 300L, while guest writer Colin Goodwin’s boldly titled Practical Aviation piece ‘Flying in the face of poverty’ managed to embrace all aspects of aviation finance from funding an aircraft purchase to borrowing for an ATPL. At this stage he had a half share of a Luscombe – he has of course since built his own Vans RV-7 without the aid of a loan!

Finally, the airfield profiled was London Ashford Airport (Lydd), ‘a great stopping off point for crossing the Channel,’ yes – but then, as now, hardly the gateway to the capitol city its rather grand name might suggest. Once again, plus ca change…


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