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A Flight to Remember

(C) 2020 C.R. Britting

February 1952,
Royal Air Force Base El Adem,
Libya, North Africa
The BOAC passenger airliner Atalanta rolled to a stop just short of the active runway.
“El Adem tower, BOAC Atalanta,” the pilot radioed, “We’re ready to go.”
“Roger, Atalanta. Runway zero two, you’re cleared for takeoff. Have a good flight.”
“Clear to go. Thanks, tower, we’ll see you next time.”
Pilot R. C. Parker taxied out onto the runway, stopped, and glanced at the rest of his crew. “Everyone ready?” he asked and received thumbs-up in response.
Parker picked up the mic for the cabin PA system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, hullo, again from the cockpit. The tower has given us clearance to depart. This leg of our trip looks like about nine and a half hours. Nothing we can do about that, I’m afraid, but if there’s anything else we can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please let us know.”

The pilot pulled his shoulder harness a bit tighter and shoved the four throttles forward. A minute later, the Canadair DC4M propeller aircraft reached 400 feet and began a climbing turn to the northwest, destination Heathrow Airport, London. 

Seated in the back was the new Queen of England.
* * * * *

Hours later and eight hundred miles to the west, another four-engine aircraft took off, this time from Wheelus Airfield, a US Air Force installation near Tripoli, also in Libya. The C-69 Constellation, side number 706, was a big aircraft, and it was easy to identify because of its large triple-tail arrangement, unique to that aircraft type alone. Today 706’s destination was RAF Mildenhall, an airbase operated jointly by the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force and located about 75 miles Northeast of London.

They had just turned to the northwest when the control tower called.
“Wheelus Tower to 706.”

“706, go ahead, tower," replied Major John Simmons.

“Just for your information, sir, you may have company later in the flight. There’s a BOAC DC-4M headed to London. He took off from El Adem in Tobruk earlier, so he won’t be a factor for hours, but when you get farther north, you may see him off to your right. If you do encounter them, you might want to fly in company, in case you have engine trouble or some other difficulty. Their call sign is Atalanta.”

“Appreciate the heads up, sir. We’ll look for them.”
“Have a good flight, Major.”
“Thanks, Tower. Out.”
* * * * *

As the tower predicted, the crew of the American aircraft did see another plane off to their right about seven hours later.
“Look over there, sir,” the co-pilot called, pointing out his right windshield. “About five miles away and maybe 1000 ft lower.”
Simmons picked up his binoculars. "I see him, Tom.  It is a BOAC aircraft all right. Let’s give them a call on guard.”
‘Guard’ is an international radio frequency monitored by all aircraft, meant to allow them to communicate with one another in flight. Guard is separate from the air traffic control system, which uses a different set of frequencies.

“BOAC Atalanta, this is US Air Force 706 calling you on guard. We’re a C-69, about five miles left of you at flight level 2-1-0 (21,000’).”

After a short delay, the British aircraft replied. “Ah, Tallyho 706. We see you.”

“Good afternoon, sir. We took off from Wheelus in Tripoli after you did, and we’re bound for RAF Mildenhall.”

“Splendid. We’re a charter flight headed to Heathrow, near London. If I remember correctly, Mildenhall is only a hundred kilometers up the road.”

“When we left Wheelus, the tower suggested we might want to stay in company on the way up, just in case one of us has difficulty.”

“That's a good idea, sir. We’re at flight level 2-0-0. (20,000') Why don’t you slide down and join us? Then we’ll maintain about a 500-meter spacing.”

* * * * *
They flew alongside for quite a while, and Captain Parker of Atalanta had just finished updating their position when the crew heard a knock on the cockpit door.

“Who is it?” the flight engineer asked.

“Commander Mountbatten. May I come in for a moment?”

“Certainly,” the BOAC pilot said. “Open the door for him, Jeremy.”

“Come in, sir,” the pilot called when Lt. Commander Philip Mountbatten, Royal Navy, stepped into the cockpit.

 "Ah, good afternoon, Captain, gentlemen. How’s everything going today?
“Fine, sir,” Parker replied. “No problems at all.”
“I’m curious, what’s that American aircraft over to our left? The one with the three tails?”

“That’s a C-69 Constellation. Constellations are usually passenger airplanes, but the captain says they’ve modified his to carry high-priority freight. It still has some seats, but they took out the rest for cargo."

“That’s interesting.”

“And not only that, the Yanks are experimenting with mid-air refueling. They’ve installed a special receptacle into 706’s upper fuselage just behind the cockpit, so they can refuel from a tanker aircraft while in flight.”

“Really?” Phillip replied as he looked out the side window. “Oh, I see it. The small hump?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Can I ask the pilot a couple of questions?”
“You can, sir, but they don’t know you and the queen are on-board. Can we tell them?”
“Sure. We’ll be landing soon anyway. Go ahead.”
Parker keyed the radio. “Constellation 706, Atalanta.”
* * * * *

On-board the American aircraft, Major Timmons picked up the mic. “We’re here, Atalanta. Go ahead, sir.”

“In the last week, we carried Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Phillip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinborough, to Africa on the first part of their Commonwealth Tour. During the last few days, they’ve been to Kenya and Uganda. Unfortunately, last night, the Princess’ father, King George, passed away in his sleep. 

“Sorry to hear that, sir.”
“With the King’s death, Elizabeth becomes Queen Ascendant, and when she is confirmed, she will become the Queen and head of state. They have canceled the rest of their tour, and we are returning them to the UK.”
Major Simmons stared at the rest of his crew in surprise. “Wow.”
“Understand, sir.”
“The Duke is also a commander in the Royal Navy. He’s here in the cockpit with me, and he’d like to ask a few questions about mid-air refueling.”
“Sure,” Timmons replied. “Go ahead, sir.”
“Thanks, Captain,” Philip replied. “The UK has done some experimenting with refueling mid-air as well, but not nearly to the extent you Yanks have. Have you done that with your aircraft?”
“Yes, sir. Hmm, maybe half a dozen times. On long flights, it allows us to take on fuel without wasting an hour to land, refuel, and take off again.”
They continued the discussion for fifteen minutes, and finally, Phillip called a halt.
“Thanks for your help, Captain. I’ll let you go. After you land and recover from your journey, would you please ask someone to contact me? I want to learn more about it and perhaps see an actual refueling if that might be possible.”

“I’ll pass the word, sir. Oh, before you go, I would like to say on behalf of myself and my crew and, I think, the people of the United States, we extend our deepest condolences to your wife on the death of her father. Losing someone close to you is always hard, as I know from personal experience. We would also like to extend our best wishes to her on her ascendency to the throne. I’m sure it will be a challenge. America and Britain have been good friends for a very long time. Let’s hope we can grow closer in the years to come.”
There was a pause on the radio and then a feminine voice. “Thank you, Captain. My father was an extraordinary man and a tower of strength during the dark days of World War II. I loved him dearly.

“Papa, uh, Papa died last night, and I’m frankly, well, I’m still in shock about it.”
Timmons thought he heard a sigh on the radio.
“Still, we must get on with life, mustn’t we? I’ll miss my father, but he told me not long ago he thought I was ready to become Queen. As you said, I’m sure to need help. Even so, I assume this new position gladly, and I’ll remember and cherish your kind words. I, too, hope that our relationship with America will grow and strengthen as we face our common challenges. Please convey to your president my good wishes, and I hope we can have a visit sometime soon.”
Simmonds keyed his mic. “Thank you, your Majesty. I’ll pass the word. Thanks for talking to us and good luck. 706 out.”
* * * * *

It was a small thing, a chance encounter, but for the crews of the two aircraft, it was a flight they’d remember for the rest of their lives.
A few days later, the new queen received a personal phone call from Harry Truman.


[Inspired by “The Crown,” a Netflix original series]

Author's notes: To save time, the air traffic system uses a standard abbreviation when talking about altitude. It's the actual altitude with the last two digits removed. So 21,000 feet is flight level 2-1-0, and an aircraft at 35,000 feet is at flight level 3-5-0. Get the idea?

Some readers have asked if the story is real or fiction. It's both. Atalanta was a real aircraft, and it actually carried the princess and her husband to Africa in 1952. And home again after the death of Elizabeth's father. Captain R.C. Parker was the actual pilot-in-command.  The American aircraft, its crew, and their encounter with Atalanta is fiction.

About the image: After getting off Atalanta at London's Heathrow airport, Elizabeth takes a moment to thank Captain Parker and his crew for their safe flight.  Screen capture from an old 1952 newsreel by British Pathe. You can find the full seven-minute video on YouTube:  The arrival at Heathrow begins at 34 seconds into the video.

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