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Aviation: Cloudmaster DC-6: restoring a classic

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Back to the Golden Age

The Cloudmaster DC-6 promises to return its passengers to the most glamorous era of aviation

W ith its sleek lines, throaty roar and impressive heritage there are many parallels to be drawn between a Douglas DC-6 airliner and a classic car.

That’s certainly the thinking of Julian Firth, an aeronautical engineer and commercial pilot whose company, Cloudmaster, is planning to transform one of these handsome 1950s-era aircraft into a luxurious reminder of a golden age of aviation.

The idea is that a maximum of eight people will each invest around £2.5m in an innovative fractional ownership scheme that will entitle each shareholder to up to 34 days flying each year.

But that is not the whole story. ‘We won’t be creating some sort of quaint museum piece,’ says Firth, ‘the aircraft is going to be fully operational and is going to adhere to all modern safety standards. People are going to be attracted to the DC-6 in the same way as they are to a classic car or classic yacht. This project appeals to people who understand there are alternative ways to travel.’

This particular aircraft, carrying the identification letters G-APSA, has a long and distinguished history. ‘It dates to 1958 and was one of the last DC-6s to come off the production line,’ says Firth. ‘It was bought by the airline British Eagle in the 1960s – that was the Virgin Atlantic of its day.

‘Later it performed a lot of transportation work all around the world, in particular taking rocket parts from the UK to Australia to form part of the BlueStreak project – the forerunner of the Arianne European Space Programme.’

Another port of call in those days was Christmas Island, scene of weapons testing in the 1960s. Working on behalf of Her Majesty’s government, G-APSA circumnavigated the globe many times.

In 1987, the aircraft was bought by Instone Airlines, a specialist in race-horse transportation, then owned by the great-grandson of the original Mr Instone who, in 1919, had launched the first company to use aircraft as an integral part of its business. One of his descendants, Jeremy Instone, is now both a director at Cloudmaster and a shareholder in G-APSA.

Cloudmaster has already completed a similar project – restoring a DC-6 airliner for Red Bull – and that has provided useful experience for the team as they prepare for this project.

‘It has certainly informed our direction mechanically,’ adds Firth. ‘But this aircraft won’t be the same as that one. The Red Bull aircraft is very comfortable, but it is more like a Boeing Business Jet inside than this one will be.’

The restored G-APSA will not be a direct competitor for any privately held Learjets, adds Firth – agreeing that it’s unlikely to be able to compete with such aircraft when the plan is to get to a nearby business destination as quickly as possible.

‘This project appeals to people who understand there are alternative ways to travel.’

What it lacks it speed, however, it makes up for in other ways, not least elegance and luxury – Bannenberg & Rowell, famous as designers of superyacht interiors, have been commissioned to put together the interior of the aircraft in keeping with its overall luxurious ambience – sleek lines, dark wood, cosy seating and generous headroom.

But that’s not all. The DC-6 was arguably the finest piston-engined airliner of its time, capable of travelling at a brisk 320mph, with a range of up to 3,500 nautical miles. Its four Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial engines each have 18 cylinders.

With water injection the engines produce 2,500hp, while in the cruise they burn a relatively meagre 1,000kg of fuel per hour. Perhaps surprisingly, the fuel required for a given trip is the same as the modern Embraer ERJ195 airliner, designed over 50 years later.

Also likely to appeal to potential owners is the Eagle’s ability to fly at low altitude without affecting performance.

The prospect of a leisurely and luxurious cruise above Alpine peaks is a very real possibility, with passengers free to take in the scenery from the opulent comfort of their seats.

‘The aircraft was right at the pinnacle of propeller design,’ adds Firth. ‘It uses alloys that are still in commercial use today. Of course it requires care and attention, but in that respect it’s like a concours racing car. We don’t want to make it feel like a new airliner, we’re taking the best of 1950s aviation and bringing it up to current standards.’

The DC-6 was arguably the finest piston-engined airliner of its time, capable of travelling at a brisk 320mph, with a range of up to 3,500 nautical miles

For a pilot such as Firth, another attraction lies in the actual handling of the aircraft. The DC-6 requires considerable skill from its pilot, but arguably rewards their efforts more than a modern aircraft. It is also remarkably versatile, able at a pinch to land on an unprepared grass airstrip – a remarkable thing for an aeroplane of this size.

In recognition of its history, when complete G-APSA will be painted in the white, red and silver livery of British Eagle – complete with the airline’s logo on its tail. All that lies between the dream and reality for G-APSA now is a full list of sponsors – once this is complete, the emotive sound of four Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines warming up for take-off will be heard once again at Europe’s airports.

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2014

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