Thursday, October 30, 2014

Curiosities In The Sky: Mallorca and airplanes

The tale was once told to me by the then very old man who could recall the planes of Alcúdia. He spoke of different aircraft - the seaplanes that came from Marseille and those of the Civil War Italian fighters, who used the improvised landing strip built on what had briefly been Mallorca's first golf course. Aviation history in Mallorca is associated with seaplanes, more famously at the Puerto Pollensa base, with Son Bonet, where the Italians were also based and which was to become the original airport for tourism, and with Son Sant Joan, now the most profitable airport in the Spanish network.

The first airline was Aero Marítima Mallorquina, and as the name suggests it operated seaplanes, the principal purpose of which was for carrying post between Palma, where the planes landed by the port, and Barcelona. It was founded in 1921. Thirteen years later, another airline, Aero-Taxi de Mallorca, became the first which catered for tourists. However, aircraft and tourism had a rather longer association. In 1910, the Chamber of Commerce, alert to the possibilities that tourism might offer Mallorca, organised an exhibition of Balearic produce and a week of sports activities. There was a further attraction: the first airplane that the people of Mallorca would have ever seen.

The plane was a Blériot XI. Its pilot was the Frenchman, Julien Mamet. This monoplane was essentially in kit form. Mamet travelled by boat from Barcelona to Palma, accompanied by the disassembled Blériot. On 28 June at the Balearic Hippodrome near Pont d'Inca, invited dignitaries witnessed the first flight over Mallorcan land. The next day the public were allowed in. There was applause as the monoplane took to the skies. But the applause was shortlived. The plane crashed, Mamet suffered only minor injuries, but a third flight was cancelled and Mamet left Mallorca and never returned.

Six years later, a pilot from Santander, Salvador Hedilla, became the first to fly across the sea from Barcelona. The monoplane took two hours and sixteen minutes to make its journey. And in 1921, Miquel Colomer from Barcelona gave flying exhibitions in an Aviatik biplane at both Son Bonet and Son Sant Joan. For the princely sum of four pesetas for a fifteen-minute spin, punters were able to take to the air themselves. Colomer was involved with that first airline - Aero Marítima Mallorquina. On what was a test flight in April 1922, Colomer's seaplane crashed into the sea between Palma and Barcelona. His body was never recovered.

Those magnificent men in their flying machines of the early twentieth century provide just some of the curiosities in Mallorca's aviation story. But as curious were planes which had ceased to be planes and which were converted. These were the "disco planes" of Mallorca. They didn't actually fly of course - and let's hope no bright spark has the idea to replicate the current-day party boat with the party airplane - they were on terra firma and the first was created in Porto Cristo.

In time for the summer season of 1976, the Discopub D-3 opened for business. It was a converted Douglas DC-4 propeller-driven aircraft. It was found at Son Sant Joan, having been taken out of use the previous year. Actually transporting the plane from Palma to Porto Cristo by road seemingly ended up costing more than the plane itself had, as it had to be taken apart and then put back together again. Nevertheless, the disco in a plane proved to be a great success.

For some four years all went well until rumours started to surface. They suggested that the disco was doubling as a brothel. Less than salubrious types were said to have got involved. The owners took the decision to close it, and the disco plane was left where it was, all but abandoned. But not quite. It became attractive to vagrants. In August 1983, tragedy struck. A fire broke out. A homeless man lost his life. The burnout plane was eventually removed.

Undeterred by the experiences in Porto Cristo, someone in Magalluf had the idea for another disco plane. Getting an accurate timeline on this plane's existence has proved quite difficult - perhaps there are those who remember it - but it would seem to have been plonked in Magalluf at the end of the 1980s. It was a Douglas DC-6, which had apparently been purchased for 100,000 pesetas, and the disco was called, so it would appear, Bertorelli's Bar. It wasn't a great success, lasting only some five years. It ended up looking an eyesore and was ultimately broken up and disposed of.

The adventures with the disco planes are unlikely to be repeated, but adventures they were, just as Mamet and others had engaged in their early adventures and had amazed the local people, who had probably been equally amazed to have one day found a plane doubling as a disco.

Photo of the Magalluf disco plane, found in an edition of "Entre Tots" magazine, 1993.

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