1980 – The worst year ever for the Scottish Parachute Club? 
By Brian Robertson D4072

Long standing members of the Scottish Parachute Club will recall the numerous difficult times faced during the many years of parachuting activities at Strathallan. However few, if any, will disagree that the events of 1980 led to the worst year for the club. This contribution to the history of SPC details the events of that year, and also the period just prior when Strathallan saw one of its highest levels of parachuting activities ever.

During the late 1970s Strathallan reached one of its peak periods. Ronnie Groat was airfield manager and two Cessna 207s were in operation at the airfield. Two separate parachuting operations were in place on the airfield, that of SPC and also Paraclan. The two operations were virtually independent of each other however they operated in parallel simultaneously at the airfield. Politics were very rife between the two groups which made no difference to the level of enthusiasm that was very obviously present. 

This period saw great advances in the sport in general. New ultra lightweight kit was appearing on the market. State of the art square canopies were catching on like the Strato Star, Flyer and Cloud, with rumours of even faster canopies like the GQ Security Unit about to appear on the scene. New “piggyback” systems were in use which allowed the more progressive jumpers to actually wear their reserve on their back, although not all were convinced that this would really catch on for safety reasons. Relative work (RW) was gaining popularity rapidly, although style and accuracy were still very much in vogue. The sport at this time seemed to know no limits as to where it would advance to next there was even talk of “in air video” being used. Strathallan was near the forefront of the leading edge UK DZs. 

All was going well, that is until late 1979. Ronnie Groat moved on from his position of airfield manager to head for the Glenrothes school of parachuting based at Fife airport, taking with him one of the two Cessna 207s. Ronnie operated there with Tom Dickson as CCI, also taking a large number of the Strathallan jumpers with them. The other Cessna 207 moved off to Tyne and Wear to operate at Sunderland airport where it remained until the closure of the airport in 1984. 

SPC were in seriously dire straits with no aircraft. To make matters worse the club was forced to move from the original Strathallan hanger to a small area of vacant ground at the east side of the museum hanger. A few dedicated members persevered in trying to keep the operation going with great difficulty. A very small caravan was procured for use as a training facility, holding only a few people. A larger caravan was obtained as a club house, and a container was located adjacent to the caravans to hold the small amount of equipment still owned by the club. Student kit consisted of a few ex military “modified” C9 round canopies, and a number of “high performance” round canopies like the Paracomander, Papillion and Starlight although these were only for use by the more experienced jumpers due to their performance. The facilities were completed by an area of gravel for packing, and a rough “mock up” made of scaffolding poles. Not the best of facilities and kit, but better than nothing.

At this time Tom Hamilton was the club chairman with Chris Clements as secretary. Instructors were almost equalling the number of regular club members, with Tony Smith as CCI, and Gordon and Fiona Fernie, Trevor Newberry, Steve Critchley, Paul Hick and Frank Davis (PI) instructing there on a regular basis. 

The lack of a club owned or operated aircraft was SPCs largest problem now. However a high powered Cessna 172 known as a “Reims Rocket” was found. The aircraft belonged to a Ian Hamilton who piloted it, and it was based at Connel airfield near to Oban. The more powerful engine allowed the Rocket to take four jumpers to altitude in reasonable time, although the lack of a front in flight door froze the occupants in the icy prop blast and slipstream rendering the aircraft as far from ideal, but again better than nothing. However the main problem with the Rocket was its availability. Ian Hamilton was not always available to fly, and even when he could weather conditions at Connel or on the route over frequently prevented the aircraft from arriving at Strathallan. Many weekends went by with no aircraft and no jumping.

With the irregular positioning of the aircraft, the poor facilities, lack of club members, low course numbers and low moral, times were indeed hard for SPC in early 1980. However the situation became very considerably worse on Sunday 29th June 1980, if that was possible. 

It was a bright warm morning with blue skies and light winds. The previous day had seen a good days jumping too due to the good weather. The Rocket took off late morning with Frank Davis as jump master and three students on board. All parachutists left the aircraft and it descended as normal to land on the runway, which at that time was extended well to the east of the present runway. The Rocket landed facing east, and was then was immediately forced to take off again to avoid two sheep on the runway. Ian Hamilton then landed the aircraft again with insufficient runway left to stop. This resulted in the aircraft plunging off the end of the runway and landing upturned in the area of the rubbish tip. This was the sad end of the Rocket. 

Following the crash of the Rocket the few club members started to fragment into splinter groups with regular trips being organised to Dalcross (Inverness), Cark, Brunton, and a few other centres to allow them to continue jumping. All parachuting activities at Strathallan had well and truly ceased and serious doubts were being cast as to the future of SPC. Indeed the club had virtually folded with faint hopes for a future revival due to no income being generated for the club, and very low funds left in the bank to restart the operation.

This situation persisted until September that year when eventually another aircraft, a Cessna 206 G-STAT, was sourced on lease and SPC eventually gradually started up again. The club gained strength as word was passed around that the operation had restarted and the old members started to flock back, although numbers were low as many still remained at Glenrothes where Ronnie Groat was still operating.

Eventually later in the year the lease of G-STAT ended and another Cessna 206 G-BAGV was sourced. GV proved to be a reliable aircraft and was well suited to the club operation, which towards the end of the year was continuing to pick up with course numbers up and even more old members returning.

A small group of club members were very keen for the club to own its own aircraft and GV looked like the best choice, so early in 1981 thoughts went towards the purchase of the aircraft which was available for 16,000, a lot of money in those days! The purchase was eventually made possible with the help of a generous grant of 8000 from the Scottish Sports Council, a bank loan, and the remainder of the cash being sourced from the club funds. At last SPC had their own aircraft and the club grew from strength to strength during the following years. 

Credit is due to all those dedicated club members involved in the resurrection of the club and the purchase of the vital aircraft. In particular to the late Trevor Newberry, the Sports Council, and the SSPA without who SPC might have been only history from 1980 on………

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