‘Only leaders travel in helicopters,’ is a maxim that makes helicopters and leaders special.
The phrase, coined by Jim Hancock, former political editor of BBC North West, sums up three tales of when I joined the leader in his campaign helicopter.
Charles Kennedy is not a big fan of helicopters, which is a shame, because personally I think they are the biggest boys toys that have been invented.
I did fly with Charles from Harrogate to Westmorland but with the exception of the stomach churning flight over the ups and downs of the Cumbrian fells the trip to see Tim Farron, now the local MP, was relatively uneventful.
Paddy Ashdown and helicopters is a different matter.
European Elections 1999 – sharing the burden
When Paddy announced his retirement this was to be his last national election campaign for the party and as such his journey to the North West became something of a grand tour, stopping in Chester, (with the Eddibsury by-election in the offing), Southport, Kendal, Oldham and Stockport.
The tour landed in Chester, and having done a walkabout of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities, we returned to the helipad: a field I rural Cheshire.
A large crowd of well-wishers, and members, had appeared to give Paddy a big send off. Hilary Stephenson was the agent for the election and was on site to make sure all went to plan. Several people were questioning why I, and not Paddy, was sitting in the front seat.
An elderly member leant across saying, ‘weight distribution.’ We ascended, just!
Wigan By-Election, September 1999 – ‘close all orifices’
On the eve of Paddy’s retirement in 1999, and the last day of the party conference in Harrogate, Paddy agreed to come and support our candidate in the Wigan by-election.
On this occasion Paddy was in the front, I had learnt my lesson.
Flying across the Pennines, from Harrogate to a high school in Wigan, with a former Royal Marine and SBS operative was an education, the conversation, over the intercom, went something like this:
Ashdown: ‘Pilot, what’s that at 10 o’clock?’
Pilot: ‘That’s Bury Sir.’
Ashdown: ‘And what’s that at 2 o’clock’
Pilot: ‘That’s Bolton Sir.’
Ashdown: ‘Marvellous! Of course, I’ve always loved helicopters, by far the best form of transport. When I was a marine we had to do parachute jumps. The worst thing I have ever had to do.’
Pilot: ‘I see Sir.’
Ashdown: ‘In fact before every jump I used to tell my men, “close all orifices”.’
Me: ‘Chapter 3 of the Ashdown Memoirs – ‘Close all Orifices’
Ashdown: ‘Can you hear us in the back?’
(And for those that don’t know much about helicopters – they have a boot, which you can transport target letters back from conference in.)