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Back Then: Ulster hero of Great War reached for skies after horrors of the Somme


Edward Armstrong in the cockpit of his Vickers Vimy bomber

Edward Armstrong in the cockpit of his Vickers Vimy bomber

Edward Armstrong in the cockpit of his Vickers Vimy bomber

Bomber Command veteran Rex Armstrong's heart beats with pride every time he gazes at this photograph of a lone pilot at the controls of a Vickers Vimy biplane at RAF Aldergrove in the summer of 1927.

For the man sitting there in the cockpit of the ancient bomber is his father Edward.

Edward Armstrong, who died age 80 in 1970, is looked on as a hero by his 89-year-old son. For after serving as a soldier at the Somme and surviving several close shaves, Edward volunteered to join the Royal Flying Corps and saw the rest of the war out flying in the Vickers Vimy for 502 Squadron out of Aldergrove before returning home to Belfast and his wife Edith and his family, which included Rex and his brother Ted.

"Flying was a family tradition," said Rex, an engineer in a Stirling who flew on 28 bombing missions out of the Wratting Common base in Cambridge.

Ted Armstrong, who survived two tours on bombing missions, one of which was with the Dambusters, has also passed away.

The picture I reproduce today is dear to Rex for another reason. It was in a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber that aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop flight across the Attlantic in June 1919. They flew from St John's, Newfoundland, to Clifden in Co Galway and were later presented with a trophy for their achievment by Winston Churchill, who at that time was Secretary of State for Air. The flight, which took less than 72 hours, carried a small amount of mail - making it the first transatlantic airmail trip.

The Vickers Vimy was the first aircraft flown by the aviators of 502 Squadron out of Aldergrove, but it was later replaced by the Handley Page Hyderabad.

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After WWII in which it played a vital role, 502 Squadron was disbanded, but it has now been reformed with Wing Commander James Armstrong as CO and is looking for recruits at Flying Station Aldergrove, as it is now known, as the base is shared with the Army.

Recalling The Throne... but just how did hospital get unusual name?

Was there a hospital once upon a time on the lower reaches of Cavehill way down from Belfast's Antrim Road? 

Of course there was, I can tell you today, and its name was The Throne. It was opened in 1874 with 32 beds where adults and children could recover from serious illness away from the grime of the city.

It was built by mill owner John Martin and his family in memory of his son Samuel who started the project but alas died prematurely before the wards were opened.

The hospital was a huge success except that visitors had a steep climb back to the Antrim Road after calling on the patients. Eventually The Throne became associated with the Royal Victoria, but it was still in operation into the early Sixties when I visited an aunt who found that view out over the lough quite a tonic.

But here's a mystery I can't solve: why was this hospital on the side of a little mountain called The Throne?

Somebody please tell me. Not knowing is keeping me awake at nights.

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