The story of a 1929 bi-plane with a truly fascinating pedigree
Britain’s best-known wartime Prime Minister piloted a Gipsy Moth aeroplane that will be sold by auctioneers Bonhams in February 2013 at a guide of £120,000. The same craft was also featured in an iconic 1980s film and was also supposedly flown by a member of the Fiennes family who mysteriously disappeared in 1998.
Piloted several times by Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) and used in the Oscar award winning Out of Africa, this 1929 De Havilland Gipsy Moth bi-plane is 24-foot long and has a 30-foot wingspan. It is capable of a maximum speed of 105mph and “wears” a yellow and black livery. It’s registration is G-AAMY in homage to the pioneering English aviatrix Amy Johnson (1903 – 1941).
In the film, the plane was flown by Robert Redford but though the life of the big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton he played is intriguing; the exploits of Redford’s aviator double are just as fascinating a story.
Few outside of the aviation world will have heard of Tom Danaher (1929 – ) but aside from Out of Africa, he’s pretty much done it all. After graduating from a high school in Dallas in 1941, he became a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Stationed on Okiwana in August 1945, he shot down the last Japanese bomber on the final night of the Second World War and also made history, aged 21, for downing three other Japanese “Betty” bombers in the eight nights before the ceasefire.
Recalled to active service in 1951, Danaher flew one of the earliest jets, the F3D Skynight, with the Marines in Korea on night combat patrols and then was part of the last combat mission on a high altitude bombing strike over Pyongyang, North Korea in July 1953.
Danaher’s passion for flying continued after the war and in 1954 he flew his own plane, a 1948 Bonanza, to England to visit friends he’d made from the RAF whilst in Korea. To make the journey, he built a 109-gallon auxiliary fuel tank so that he could fly straight across the Atlantic. On the way home he called in for an audience with Pope Pius XII in Rome.
Danaher’s visits to England led to him becoming involved in a pirate radio station in from 1944 to 1967 named Wonderful Radio London. Like many others, Danaher was not impressed by the BBC’s monopolistic attitude to radio programming and so helped build a 17,000-watt station on a surplus Second World War minesweeper. It was anchored three and a half miles off the English coast and outside of Britain’s territorial limit. Of the experience, Danaher told Airport Journals:
“We had someone in Dallas who would record KLIF, a top 40 station, and we put it right on the air… The Englishmen over there just ate it up… The station programmed news and top 40 music and was very successful. It had the largest listening audience of any of any commercial broadcast station at the time.”
Back in America, Danaher owned three car dealerships in Wichita Falls, Texas but sold them in 1972 to open his own airport, the Tom Danaher Airport. Lake Wichita Airport (7TXO), as it was also known, kept the aviator busy but he has also piloted in films numbering Empire of the Sun, Sky Bandits, Air America, Bad Medicine, The Pleasure of Love, White Hunter Black Heart, Cliffhanger and Goldeneye.
In 1985, Danaher was recruited to fly Gipsy Moth G-AAMY by Sydney Pollack (1934 – 2008), the American director of Out of Africa. He recounted his six week experience on set in Masai Mara, Kenya in an interview for his local Texan newspaper, the TimesRecordNews, in 2008. Here, he highlighted the problems of trying to film with a vintage plane that “has no brakes and is difficult to steer”:
“Robert Redford couldn’t make the thing turn. It took considerable finesse to turn it on the ground… The third time, he gave it full throttle… The left wing contacted a thick thorn bush and it tore some of the fabric off the lower left wing of the plane. We couldn’t fly it the rest of the day.”
Other dramas arose with G-AAMY in terms of Meryl Streep’s body double refusing to fly in it and the craft struggling to reach the high altitudes necessary to film a sweeping shot of the plane flying past a waterfall. Danaher took charge stating: “If I can get a piece of string and a ruler, I can fix this.” He found just such, cleverly installed them and Pollack: “got every single shot he wanted.”
Another person to have piloted the Gipsy Moth G-AAMY, according to a comment left in the PPRuNe Professional Pilots Rumour Network forum, was a man named Roger Fiennes. Whether this “rumour” is true or not, the cousin of the actor Ralph Fiennes and the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is another character with a flying history as fascinating as his true family name – which turns out to be “Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes” when presented in full. Of why he did not use this lengthy and historic surname, Fiennes is said to have once commented:
“You try writing that signature on a 6 foot long cheque book.”
Fiennes flew many hours in a variety of planes and one of the best documented was an expedition supported by the Daily Mail from White Waltham Airfield in Berkshire to Sheremetyevo Airport in the Soviet Union in April 1989 and back. He flew one of three Tiger Moth bi-planes with a Russian navigator named Alexy Zaitov. The journey took three weeks to complete, involved 33 perilous stops and covered 5,000 miles.
On 19th April 1998, Fiennes was piloting a 1941 DH82A Tiger Moth, G-BALX, from Dieppe to Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent but he failed to reach his destination. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report into the disappearance concluded:
“Although the pilot contacted Paris Information by radio, in the absence of a specific request, the flight plan was not activated. Lashenden was therefore unaware of the flight’s departure and ETA. When the aircraft was reported missing overdue action, and the subsequent Search and Rescue operation, which was activated on the morning of 21 April 1998. Since then there has been no sign of the aircraft or pilot.”
Articles at the time and forums since are sparse in detail but several forum posters and articles suggest that Mr Fiennes had “mounting debts and a string of business collapses.” Whilst some go as far as to suggest a “Lord Lucan” style disappearance and make references to “paddling canoes” and “check[ing] the Panamanian register,” others remember a “nice guy, sadly missed.” Whatever really happened that fateful day, though, will probably never be solved.
G-AAMY, which was marked G-AAMT for the filming of Out of Africa, is a plane with a remarkable past. We suspect there’ll be a few more dramas for this craft yet.
The 1929 De Havilland DH 60 GMW Gipsy Moth bi-plane G-AAMY will be sold by Bonhams at the Grand Palais in Paris, France sale during Rétromobile week (6th to 7th February 2013). For more information telephone +33 1 42 61 10 11 or go to: http://www.bonhams.com
To learn more about Tom Danaher’s experience flying G-AAMY in Out of Africa, read the full TimesRecordNews report by Lara K. Richards at: http://www.timesrecordnews.com/news/2008/jun/08/fly/?print=1
To read the AAIB account of the disappearance of Roger Fiennes and DH82A Tiger Moth, G-BALX, go to: http://www.aaib.gov.uk/cms_resources.cfm?file=/dft_avsafety_pdf_502449.pdf