The history of Europe’s first ‘mini-airport’, based on a translation of an article by Hugo Hooftman in a special edition of the magazine 'Cockpit', issue 175.
Sometimes an airplane’s life incorporates quite a few ‘out of the ordinary’ experiences. This story is about three Vickers Vikings that together formed a mini restaurant in Soesterberg, The Netherlands, called ‘Avia-Resto’.
Responsible for this idea was John H. Bouvy, whose stepfather was Dutch aviation pioneer F.A. van Heyst, commander of the Dutch Airforce in 1940. In 1963 Mr. Bouvy bought a piece of land alongside the regional road E.8 running from Soesterberg to Amersfoort, on which was a café that wasn’t doing too well. For his work he frequently flew back and fort to England, and on one of these trips he flew in Channel Airways’ Viking G-AGRU (previously also used by the Kuwait Oil Company) when he suddenly thought that this might be the solution: having this particular airplane as a coffee bar in his backyard! Once in Southend he immediately walked into the office of Channel Airways’ director Squadron Leader R.J. Jones. He was quite taken with the idea and saw it as a great advertising opportunity, and therefore made the aircraft a free gift to Mr. Bouvy.
While the beginning looked easy, the rest was less so. On 10th January 1964 G-AGRU made its last flight from Southend to the Soesterberg Airbase, flown by Captain Brian Deakin and Co-pilot John Garrod. Also aboard was mechanic Sam Quelch, who would be responsible for transporting the aircraft to the restaurant site. Even with the wings removed the aircraft still needed the full width of the road to keep its mainwheels on the pavement. And although many hours of requests and meetings in order to get all the permits needed had preceded the transport, the involvement of the local council still caused traffic chaos when the move finally happened.
Through this ‘stunt’ as it was seen by some, the name of Channel Airways certainly became a well-known one in The Netherlands. Once the aircraft was in place people soon flocked to the site to enjoy a cup of coffee or a snack or meal in this extraordinary restaurant. Especially during weekends the number of customers often became too much to handle for the staff. Because of this Mr. Bouvy decided to buy two other Vikings, which he was able to obtain from Autair. This airline had used the two aircraft on flights between Amsterdam and Berlin carrying flowers, but on 15th February 1968 these two machines were also flown to Soesterberg by Captains Freddy Fox and Ball, with mechanic Fred Kozo. The two pilots returned to Schiphol to catch an Autair flight back to Luton, but the mechanic stayed behind, being assisted in his tasks by Sam Quelch who had been approached by Mr. Bouvy to manage these transports as well. Having learned from the previous occasion, and applying some fast thinking and organising, this time the two aircraft arrived at the ‘Avia-Resto’ site before the council ever knew what was going to happen. Quite a feat considering the fact that a sudden onset of snow rendered the planned route unusable, forcing the 46 meter long, 7 meters high and 12 meters wide convoy to make a detour over the highway for three kilometres.
The completed restaurant could now serve between 100 and 200 visitors at the same time in the Vikings, which now sported a neat restaurant interior, apart from the cockpits. Mr. Bouvy was later offered an Airspeed Ambassador to add to his collection, but decided against that as he figured he would never get permission to land it at Soesterberg, due to the fact that the local mayor did not see eye-to-eye with him. The mayor was of the belief that the aircraft were an eye-sore, while at the same time he would have agreed to let Mr. Bouvy park 50 caravans on the property. As if that would look good! Mr. Bouvy had enough plans for the site, he also wanted to add a few light aircraft, like the Tiger Moth, to create a small museum. In those days there was also talk of opening a Military Aviation museum at Soesterberg and Mr. Bouvy was a great supporter of this idea, as Soesterberg had been the birthplace of military aviation in The Netherlands. Certainly the number of visitors to his restaurant seemed to indicate that there was enough interest in these plans.
Apart from coffee and food, visitors were also offered aviation related souvenirs, and the chance to have their photo taken in front of the aircraft dressed as a captain. The cockpits were open to the public at first, with sound tapes to add a touch of realism, but G-AGRU suffered badly at the hands of youthful enthusiasm, and later cockpit visits were only enabled when guided. An extra cockpit section was obtained at one point to help restore G-AGRU’s interior. At some point the three aircraft were named after famous Dutch Aviation pioneers, with G-AGRU becoming “Henri Wijnmalen”, G-AHPB becoming “Marinus van Meel” and the name “Floris Albert van Heyst” was given to G-AGRW.
Before coming to Soesterberg G-AGRU had had a varied career. Built for BEA in 1946 as a type V.498 Viking, construction number 112 was given the name “Vagrant”. In June 1948 she was converted to a type V.657 for British West Indies Airlines (BIWA) and re-registered as VP-TAX was now named “R.M.A. Barbados”. She returned to England in April 1955 to fly for British International Airlines Ltd and was later sold to Channel Airlines in April 1959 for which she flew until landing at Soesterberg in 1964.
A bit of background on the name she was given: Henri Wijnmalen was one of the first Dutchmen to gain a pilot’s licence in France. With his own Reims-built Farman he set a world altitude record of 2800 meters on 1st October 1910, he was then 21 years old. Later he flew the same aircraft to win a price of 50.000 guilders for winning a race from Paris to Brussels (to be completed within 36 hours) that was held by the French Automobile Association, completing the journey in 30 hours and 10 minutes. He became a well-known aviator in The Netherlands, later becoming director of the ‘Trompenburg’ factory where ‘Spijker’ cars were built, and in later years ‘Spijker’ airplanes. In later years Henri Wijnmalen moved away from aviation and became an expert in horse racing. He settled in the UK on a manor in Twyfford, Berkshire and passed away in 1964, at the age of 74.
The ‘Avia Resto’ restaurant remained in existence until late 1979 or early 1980. After John Bouvy died the restaurant was closed and the aircraft sold to the Cosford Aerospace Museum. Not all three aircraft actually ended up in Cosford though, to pay for shipping G-AGRU to the museum the two other Vikings were sold to a German museum. G-AHPB was painted in LTU colours with the registration D-BABY and ended up in the Technorama Museum at Winterthur, Switzerland, after being displayed at Dusseldorf Airport for a few years. She was scrapped in Switzerland. The second Viking that went to Germany eventually ended up next to a McDonalds restaurant in Schwechat, Austria, and can still be seen there, painted in Austria Airlines colours. She was first displayed on top of the terminal building, but was finally brought down and restored by an Austria Airlines crew.
Update (2013): G-AGRW has been removed from its place next to the McDonalds and is being restored for display at Bad Vosslau Airport. Click here for a photo of the aircraft from January 2013.
G-AGRU did end up in the Cosford Aerospace museum, but was owned by British Airways. BA later offered the Viking on a long-term loan to The Brooklands Museum where she has been undergoing a complete restoration. In 2005 the Viking was donated to The Brooklands Museum by BA.
Translation and additions J. Hieminga, all photos are copyrighted as indicated. With thanks to J. Sprangers, J. Roza, J. van der Wees and W. Snieder.