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Exeter's air traffic service manager cleared for departure...after 43 years

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: December 18, 2013

  • Dave Thomas

  • Air traffic controllers Eddie Edlund (left), a decorated wartime Lancaster pilot and Dave Brooks, who acted as mentor to the young David Thomas when he first arrived at Exeter Airport 42 years ago.

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FOR more than 40 years David Thomas has been Exeter’s “eyes on the skies”.

Based high in the control tower at Exeter Airport, David has safely brought in and seen off hundreds of planes and thousands of passengers.

And since that first day he climbed to the top of the tower David has enjoyed every minute in his “magical world”.

Now, after nearly 43 years, David, 65, who lives in Pinhoe with his wife Marianne, is retiring as the airport’s air traffic service manager.

He said: “I can honestly say it has been wonderful. I have one of the best views of Devon you could wish for from the control tower and we are really one big family who all pull together as one team.”

For David it all started with a visit to see his parents in Farringdon.

“I had come down from Birmingham to see them and while I was here I saw a job in the Jobcentre for an air traffic controller,” he said.

“It sounded quite exciting so I went along for an interview with the then manager Harry Ellis and he gave me the job.

“I was taken up to the old RAF control tower they had. I remember it was a bit gaunt and there were still a few bullet holes from when the airfield had been strafed during the war, but it was Flying Control and it was a magical world.”

In those early days the airport had three runways dating from the Second World War – now there is only one – and planes were talked in to land over radio.

One of David’s earlier jobs was to keep track of approaching aircraft through binoculars to confirm they had lowered their landing gear.

“If they hadn’t we called them up and they had to go round again,” he said.

“We had four controllers in those days and flying finished at about 5pm.

“After that telephone calls to the airport were transferred to flying control.

“Now of course things are much different and the hours have been extended to run from around 5.30am to 3.30am.”

The airport, run by Exeter Airport Ltd, was then home to three flying clubs and the Civilian Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit.

In the early 1970s the airport saw its first “inclusive tour” holidays with a Spantax DC9 jet taking sun seekers off to Spain.

David said: “They were very popular. In the early days when air travel was still quite new people would dress up to go flying. It was something special.”

Flying also brought celebrities. David spoke to Prince Charles as he flew by on a training lesson, he greeted Princess Anne and met Douglas Bader, the Battle of Britain ace who lost both his legs in a pre-war accident, Colin Chapman, the boss of the Formula 1 Lotus team, F1 champion driver Graham Hill and one of Britain’s first boy bands, The Bachelors, who were learning to fly at the airport.

There were also “celebrity” aeroplanes like supersonic Concorde which called in, before it was in operational service, in 1974. More recently came the giant A380 Euro airliner and, of course, the Red Arrows.

David will be swapping such high flyers for a quieter life of golf and sailing aboard his 22-ft yacht Alice, berthed at Topsham. But even though David is retiring he will still be keeping a weather eye on the ins and out at the airport. His Pinhoe home overlooks the airfield.

“I’ll be keeping a lookout just to make sure everything is OK,” he said.

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