From pounding the beat to ferrying ostriches, Jeremy Tweedie’s path into aviation and the 747 has taken a few interesting turns | Words: Colin Goodwin – Photos: Jeremy Tweedie
Captain Jeremy Tweedie sits in his Boeing 747 en route to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates cruising comfortably at 35,000ft.
Behind him are several hundred passengers, a dozen or so lucky enough to enjoy the privileges of first class travel. A better bottle of wine and a better class of nosebag than those back in economy.
Eighty-four years earlier Captain Patrick Tweedie was also flying to Sharjah. His Handley Page HP.42 flew somewhat lower than FL340 and made its way considerably more slowly than the Boeing.
There were no first class passengers behind him because all passengers who flew on the Imperial Airways service to the East were treated to a level of luxury that no modern airline could hope to match.
Once they’d landed at Sharjah, Tweedie, his crew and passengers would have rested the night at Al Mahatta Fort before continuing their journey the next day.
If you have read Alexander Frater’s beautifully written book Beyond The Blue Horizon, which retraces the old Imperial Airways route eastwards (and you should have, because it is probably one of the best books on aviation ever written), you will be familiar with places like Al Mahatta.
You will also have met Captain Patrick Tweedie because, as the last living Imperial Airways captain, Frater interviewed him for his book.
I came across Tweedie’s grandson Jeremy purely by chance. I was being chauffeured to a motoring do and got chatting with my driver who, as is often the case, was ex-police. After a while I got onto the subject of flying.
“Ah,” said my driver, “I served with a bloke who left the police and became an airline pilot. He’s interesting because his grandfather flew those old biplane airliners.” Up flashed my story light.
Captain Patrick Tweedie flew in a remarkable era, pioneering air travel that had a romance and style that we’ll never see again. Few passengers ever came to harm on Imperial Airways flights which says something about the skill and ability of those pioneer airline pilots.
From the photographs that Jeremy Tweedie sent me by return email after I’d made contact with him, his grandfather looked like the sort of chap who’d do things properly.
Jeremy sent me a lot of photographs, not just of his grandfather but of his own flying career. The bulb that illuminates when I think I’ve sniffed a good story suddenly fused.
Captain Patrick Tweedie was a pilot who lived through a golden era of commercial aviation and so, in a very different way and style, has his grandson.
“My grandfather talked to me about flying all the time,” explains Tweedie, “and helped me build model aeroplanes. He lit the fire, but my earliest memory of actually wanting to be a pilot myself was seeing a gleaming Bristol Britannia on the apron at Singapore. My dad was in the army and we lived in Singapore when I was young. I was mesmerised by the sight of this giant and from then on knew I wanted to be a pilot.”
Jeremy Tweedie and I have two things in common: we were both born in 1962 and neither of us did much work at school.
“I left with hardly any ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels and if you have barely any qualifications and big feet there’s an obvious career option,” explains Tweedie, “the police. Actually, my maternal grandfather was a copper in Portsmouth and he suggested that I join up.
“In 1985 I bought Mike Jerram’s book To be a Pilot and that did it. I had to somehow fulfil that five year old’s dream. My first task was to get my PPL. My grandfather considered that the only correct way to become a pilot was either to join the RAF (as he had done) or British Airways, via its Hamble training centre.
“The back door route that I was planning?and eventually took?appalled him. He simply didn’t think one could, or should do it that way?not proper. He was brilliant with me when I was little but sadly he never took much interest in my flying when I was an adult. He was a bit of a cold person, in fact.”
As we all know, learning to fly takes time and money, with the two commodities interlinked. “I had little of either,” says Tweedie. “I went to Manston?the nearest airfield to where I was serving?and approached an instructor called Ted Girdler, and asked him if he could teach me to fly in three weeks.
“Ted was ex-Red Arrows and became my flying mentor. Sadly he was killed displaying an L-29 Delfin in 2000. Anyway, Ted said that it was possible if I really concentrated and put maximum effort into it. As promised I got my PPL within three weeks. It was winter, too.”
Anyone who has trodden the path to being an airline pilot knows what comes next: hour building and the worry that all the graft and money will come to nought because there aren’t any jobs for airline pilots. “That’s pretty much it,” agrees Tweedie.
“For a couple of years I did as much flying as I could and then in 1987 I left the police and became a full-time instructor at Manston, quitting my £16,000 per annum job with the Met and dropping to £3,000pa instructing.
“I did this for a couple of years, with a stint instructing at an English flying school in La Rochelle. Then an instructing job came up in Scotland with the huge bonus of an instrument rating thrown in so up to Aberdeen I went.”
Another step in the right direction for Tweedie, but unfortunately mistakes and misjudgements in our world can take a heavy toll, and in 1990 he made a split second decision that set off a landmine under his career path.
“I was in a [Cessna] 152 with a student practising PFLs. We started from 3,000ft, he selected a field and we descended. When we were down to about 1,000ft I spotted power lines running parallel to the field and warned him about them.
“What I should have done was abandon the exercise. Worse, what I hadn’t noticed was power lines in front of us too, and on the go-around we got slow avoiding them and stalled in.
“My first night afterwards was spent in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary where 23 fractures were bolted and strapped up. I stayed there for three and a half months, flat on my back in traction. Because my dad was a major in the military he managed to pull some strings and get me into the famous Headley Court rehabilitation centre in Surrey.
“If I hadn’t gone there I’m sure I wouldn’t have recovered so well. As soon as I was fit to fly I went up with Ted Girdler who got me to do spin recovery so that I got my confidence back.”
So Tweedie’s tally was 23 broken bones. What, one fears to ask, happened to the student? “He broke his thumb,” replies James. “My 6ft 2in frame is not always an advantage. The student was considerably shorter…”
In March of the same year Captain Patrick Tweedie passed away at the age of 88. No doubt his grandson’s next career move would not have impressed him.
“After I recovered from my accident I carried on instructing at Manston, trying to log twin hours at the same time and getting more and more frustrated. I met someone who suggested that I try going to Africa, so in 1994 I flew to Nairobi with £300 in my pocket. It took me six months to find a job.”
That job was flying tourists to safari in and out of Mombasa in a Cessna 404. “It was great flying,” says Tweedie, “but I realised that I needed to keep progressing and for that I needed turbine time.
“A mate told me that an airline in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) called TMK Air Commuter needed pilots for its forty-seat Fokker 27s so off I went. You could never have made that move in Europe but in Africa it was very different.
“It was a huge jump. We were flying into dirt strips, jungle clearings and were almost always overloaded. As well as the Fokker we had a Twin Otter, King Air 200 and a Cessna Caravan?and it wasn’t unusual to fly three different aircraft in one day. It was real seat of the pants flying.”
Seat of the pants and during a very turbulent time for the area. Tweedie’s arrival in 1994 coincided with the Rwandan genocide and then the first and second Congo wars that followed.
Today’s young airline pilots have to regularly deal with drunk and obstreperous passengers. On a stopover in Benin in the Congo our man Tweedie had a rather more tense situation to deal with.
“We got captured at gunpoint by rebels,” he explains. “We could see this sort of trouble coming and should have got out of the place. Big mistake. I was tied up in a house and the rebels would assemble mock firing squads. It got so hairy that I decided to escape into the jungle where I hid for three days. Eventually I managed to get to safety but it was a frightening time.”
TMK Air Commuter was based in Goma in the Congo and it was in Goma that Tweedie fell in love twice over. Firstly with his now wife Susan, who was a midwife with the American Refugee Committee, and second with the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 airliner.
“This always happens. I see an aeroplane that I love the look of and then set about trying to get a job flying them. It’s what happened with that DC-8.
“In 1997 I went to United Airlines in Denver where I paid to do a DC-8 type rating. It was the most demanding thing I’ve ever done. Part of the problem was that the rating was only available for the left seat, as captain.
“That and the fact that the DC-8 is extremely complicated. The flight engineer’s panel looked like a railway siding with loads of knobs and levers to transfer fuel and other functions. To be honest I didn’t really know what was going on.”
And what do you do with a DC-8 type rating? If you’re Jeremy Tweedie you bump into someone who suggests that you go to Ostend in Belgium and to the bar in the Ter Streep hotel.
“I’ve always been good with people,” says Tweedie. “Being in the police taught me that and the ability to walk into a crowded room and get on with people.”
It certainly worked in the Ter Streep bar.
“It was full of old pilots and I was told to find a bloke called Zu Zu who had a limp, smoked cigars and played the piano. He gave me some cash to buy a white shirt and a pair of trousers and there I was flying DC-8s for Liberian World Airways to Calcutta.
“I stayed there for four months and then moved to African International Airways which was a British-owned cargo airline. There the fun really started.”
Tweedie calls it tramping. He and his crew would be given a flight plan to their first port of call but after that they had to work it out as they went along.
“We were given a float of about $30,000 and got on with it. It was really Uber flying. We could be flying any sort of cargo. Crates of dolphins and manatees from Cuba to Spain; ostriches from Harare to China. (They were awful.
“They stand, and their cages were near the DC-8’s loos and they pecked at you with their long necks when you went for a pee.) We transported lots of race horses too. They whinged more than business class passengers and I’d go back to see them and say ‘Why the long faces?’
“Once Saudi Arabian ATC called us up and asked what our cargo was, which was unusual. But then the back of the aircraft was piled high with Matra missiles destined for some sultan. All of it was legal but it did make life interesting at times.
“Great crews and certainly some of my happiest flying days. We’d take off in uniform and then change into jeans and t-shirts once airborne. And I loved the DC-8 although it took me three years to get to grips with it.”
Then in 2001 came another love affair with an aircraft, although this turned out to be more of a flirtation. “A mate rang and asked me if I fancied flying a Falcon 900 business jet. It was a sexy looking aircraft and not like anything I’d been flying so I said yes. We were based in Geneva because the Falcon was owned by a Swiss bloke.
“We flew all sorts of people including despots from Libya and Liberia. Once I flew some people from Oman to Paris and when we landed they realised that they’d left a box of dates back in Oman so sent me back for them. I felt my grandfather looking down on me.
“Flying the Falcon was good but I realised that flying bizjets wasn’t for me so after a couple of years I went back to African International Airways and the DC-8. The DC-8 is a great aeroplane but my second favourite (after the 747) is the DC-10. In 2005 I left African International for good and joined Avient, which was based in Paris but did most of its work in Africa.
“This is where I got to fly the DC-10. Great aeroplane with big windows in the cockpit and lots of space?it used to get incredibly hot on the flight deck. We did the same sort of work like flying eighty tonnes of fish. Flying the DC-10 was a great move because it gave me wide-body experience and the relevance of that is aircraft weight.”
Many teenagers had posters of Ferraris and Porsches on their bedroom walls: Tweedie had a poster of a Singapore Airlines 747 on his. In 2008 the poster fantasy became real. “One afternoon I was sat in my study surrounded by aircraft models and reading flight magazines. As usual I read from the back first to see what jobs were on offer.
“To my amazement there was a whole page advertisement placed by Singapore Airlines for B747 captains. I read the details and I was suitably qualified (the airline would sort the type rating). I was aware of someone behind me peering over my shoulder. ‘Well, let’s get that CV sent off then,’ said my understanding wife.
“The training was tough. Six months of simulator, dinghy drills in swimming pools, exams followed by more exams. I was drained at the end of it. It was worth it though. The routes were fantastic and the positioning flights for the family were all first class.
“My two daughters Elodie and Freya were incredibly spoilt. I loved the 747, and much to my amazement became Assistant Chief Pilot (training) on SIA’s 747 fleet.”
Tweedie left Singapore Airlines in 2018 and is currently freelancing on the 747.
He might not be flying for British Airways but I’ll wager that his grandfather Captain Patrick Tweedie is looking down on his grandson and is finally admitting that the boy’s done all right.
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