Days Of Wings And Engines - part one
Most books about flying are written by war aces, aerobatic champions or experts’ of one kind or another. The nearest I have approached either of these categories was to be kindly described as The Great Racing Legend, by a lady who had been on of my competitors in my air racing days.
However to experience the joys, the challenges and occasionally the pain of flying you do not have to fit into any of the above. The vast majority of private pilots get immense pleasure and satisfaction from unspectacular, non-competitive aviation - for example just popping over to Le Touquet for lunch.
Neither do you need to be young to enjoy it - financial considerations probably militate against those struggling to buy houses, have families and all the other pressures of growing towards middle age, leaving an older more affluent few to indulge in what can be an expensive pastime. So let us explore the world of the private pilot - still one within reach of many people often deterred by misconceptions and prejudices.
Personal reasons for my obsessive desire to fly were many. Firstly my uncle, a father substitute as my own was an unemployed no-good who finally ended up in Norwich’s Mousehold prison, was an ex-wartime Lancaster pilot who had seen much action culminating in the mid air destruction of his aircraft following his successful evacuation by parachute. His encouragement of my interest went as far as installing me in the cockpit of a Lancaster at an air show at RAF Horsham St Faith’s - on the outskirts of Norwich. The aircraft was on the ground of course - my uncle, wearing his RAF reservist uniform had the blessing of the aircraft’s pilot, and aged nine I was talked through the procedure of take off and flying the big bomber - a lesson I still remember to this day.
But the fascination remains - although now, over 70, with my flying curtailed by ill health, only dreams and memories remain. Yet there are no regrets - not a solitary one - not the money spent over thirty years, 120 different types flown, the frustrations of ownership and the irritations of restrictions.
Je ne regret rien.
But back to the beginning… the environment of my childhood influenced me greatly. Wartime Norfolk was almost one vast airfield - a patchwork quilt of forty-two airfields, often only two or three miles apart, then so much like giant wasp’s nests. Never since have I have never seen so many aircraft, big and small going and coming, the roar of jet engines in a sky etched with vapour trails. Overhead on could usually watch fighters practising aerobatics or maybe just enjoying their lives. It was a more carefree world - no body worried about fuel shortages or ruining the planet.
Now as England gasped for normality - a weary county struggling, emerging from wartime austerity to face the remainder of the twentieth century.
At nights we were kept awake by hundreds of RAF bombers from all around Norfolk and adjoining counties loudly droning across the county en route to their destinations on the continent, and again on their return.
Daytime was punctuated by hordes of American aircraft - equally noisy - the RAF usually bombed by night and the Americans by day. One of my earliest memories was being dragged into the village street to witness a B24 Liberator - at least one engine trailing black smoke trying to reach the United States base at Shipdham. Alas it did not make it, and we watched numerous parachutes bloom in its wake as it loss its struggle to remain airborne, finally striking the ground with a loud sickening crump. It was, and still remains my earliest conscious memory.
England, Britain was at war - and for Norfolk that war was an air war.
For my formative years, aircraft were by far the dominant feature in my vision, it is not surprising that I developed a fascination for them and an overwhelming desire to fly them.
Aircraft were my hobby and my obsession - at home I would build what ever model aircraft I could afford - outside apart from flying (and usually crashing) the models I would, still only aged nine or ten, walk for miles across the fields to find scraps of aluminium left over from the many wrecked aircraft that had crashed usually trying to find sanctuary returning to one of the many airfields that patterned the area.
Well before my eleven-plus examination a favourite pastime was to trespass within the boundaries of the local American base. There we would climb onto large piles of five hundred pound bombs store in clearings in the woods awaiting disposal by controlled detonation. Occasionally we were chased away, but no one seemed much bothered. Often we helped ourselves to small cartons containing reels of metallic tinsel - the window released by the bombers as a means of radar evasion.
A small paper parachute was attached to one end of the tinsel, delaying its descent as the weight of the carton caused the roll to unravel as it descended. In those austere post-war days, the rationed and oppressed forties brightened into the more optimistic fifties, things such as Christmas decorations for tree and home were virtually impossible to obtain, the toy parachutes and their tinsel were perfect and there was a ready market for these materials that the military were so ready to destroy.
We were doing them a favour if we relieved them of a few.
The only real downside to our activities was the need to be watchful and dodge the large Alsatian guard dogs that the military deployed - but they seemed never a serious problem. The animals had the ‘reputation’ of killers, but to my knowledge never hurt anyone.
In our way, we were brightening a few lives when even the basics were still rationed and people longed for signs that the wartime years were well behind us.
Every few flat miles were blessed with an airfield - some still active - others silent and rapidly decaying into ghosts - pale relics of their wartime presence. Strips of concrete paving, grass already sprouting in the gaps between the slabs - lonely parking areas that had once held the squadrons of throbbing, straining bombers, their barking engines warming eager to be released at the enemy.
Buildings already crumbling into disrepair, sightless buildings whose inner walls sported the uninhibited art of young men many of which were soon to die violently a few hundred miles to the east. Only the occasional tractor pulling trailer or another farm implement disturbed their graveyard calm.
They were truly places of ghosts…
But in these haunted places I would ride as fast as I could peddle - my bike a great four engined bomber, Lancaster or Flying Fortress pounding along the runway - my imagination alive with the roar of over-speeding engines straining to claw the overloaded machine into the air.
That was my world, mixing fantasy with fact - how could I imagine any thing other than to be a pilot when I grew up…
Gradually as aircraft were scrapped or sold to less prosperous overseas countries, more and more of the airfields dotting East Anglia became unused and decayed. Most was sold back to the farmers who originally owned them. Some were converted into turkey farms an others had industrial units or car factories built on them with testing tracks for vehicles or, like Snetterton important international motor racing circuits utilising runways and peri tracks.
Flying has not been perhaps the most significant part of my life - survival - meaning work, the generation of the resources to live, has of course been that, coupled with a long and fulfilling marriage - but my time in the air has provided entertainment, a feeling of accomplishment and for almost half a lifetime has dominated and shaped me.
More of an expression…
More a way of life…
Norfolk - in the early fifties was a haunted land - it contained the ruins o roman forts guarding windswept estuaries - a landscape that had remained unchanged since the Viking longships lurked in shallow rivers bringing terror to a simple people. Remnants of their language and customs still lingered - as did the physical traces of their ancestry in the very independent ox-like redheaded men.
It - perhaps was not surprising that roads and railways to Norfolk seldom went further - ending in a cul-de-sac as they met the grey North Sea. But it made it not a worse place to live. I am proud that on those rare occasions I return, old acquaintances different me from those who have gone there to live with the comment - but Peter is ‘Norfolk’!
So, in my imaginative mind, bicycle tyres thumping over the joins separating the runway’s concrete slabs as my imagined Mosquito or Lancaster struggled for take-off speed clutching the air for lift - anything other than being a pilot when I grew up - was unimaginable.
The ghosts were everywhere…and I longed to be one of their fugitive kind...
The sunshine is hot and bright; the sky decorated with fluffy cumulus clouds criss crossed with the vapour trails of fighter jets - a ballet in the air. The year is 1952 and Britain is still great and I cannot believe I am destined to be a reincarnation of some wartime fighter ace.
RAF Horsham St Faith’s annual air show was as usual, exciting, but this time it was especially memorial. My hero uncle had promised to treat me to a ride in an aeroplane. It would be my first ever flight. The aircraft was an Auster, capable of taking the pilot and two passengers - myself and my friend Mike. The fare, for five-minutes flying, was five shillings - a lot of money in those days - but now, thanks to fifty years of inflation it translates to just twenty-five pence.
The airfield perimeter was a regular haunt. Only eleven miles from my home it was an easy bike ride and I had a good view of the aircraft - usually Meteors, Vampire and Javelins. Those were the days when we had thousands of aircraft and mis-government had not reduced us to a virtual non-entity as a country.
Gradually the fifties unrolled, the only uneventful, the only contact I had with flying was to be taken to a small air show at Marshall’s Field near Cambridge where the highlight was a flight by a Vampire the mechanics had build themselves - but my particular highlight was watching my uncle, as part of a three man team of RAF reservists - flying a chipmunk in close formation - its wingtips tied the two other aircraft by a strip of fragile ribbon.
When sixteen, existing on £2 per week as the village postman, I applied to join the RAF - but only as a pilot. Having grown up assuming I would have do National Service it was planned to be soon scrapped and I was now about a year too young to be eligible. Although at sixteen I was too young to join up as aircrew the RAF operated a scheme of pre-assessment tests meaning I would, if successful, have to return at seventeen and a half for further tests.
Tests were then conducted at the test centre at RAF Hornchurch in Essex, and I am glad to say I passed without any apparent problem.
The future looked good…
Because of my youth I had to wait for over a year - repeating the medical and taking more advanced leadership tests topping up the aptitude tests previously taken. Only partial success… I was devastated that the leadership tests were OK but the medical had shown deterioration in my left eye. It was still within limits but they judged, on the evidence of two tests a year apart - that it would continue to deteriorate until out limits for their pilots. Those were the days before spectacle became acceptable in the services
They offered a commission, but as a navigator.
Strangely - flying until I was sixty - I never used my glasses for flying, although I always had two pairs with me in the aircraft - and still not do so for driving during daylight.
My devastation continued and I roamed unsuccessfully from one job to another - ending up as a black leather clad biker - then known as a ‘ton-up’ boy - narrowly avoiding serious trouble until a fascination with computers save me in 1960 - but that is another story which I told in my autobiography Too Many Miles from the Land of Rivers.
Life passed as I missed the ‘Swinging Sixties’ due to my preoccupation with working long, hard days to compensate for my lack of education in a graduate dominated computer industry - until ten years later, now a prosperous director of a leading software house I was led astray by colleague - in a flying way of course.
Knowing of my unfulfilled interest, one day he said; ‘Peter - you have always been interested in flying?’
It was the day after the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix.
‘Because of the weather I could no get back to Biggin Hill.’ It was Monday lunchtime. ‘So I diverted to Gatwick. Fancy coming with me and collecting it and helping me take it back to Biggin?’
Silly question… when we got to Gatwick and were checking his aircraft, a twin-engined de Haviland Dove, we noticed a recognisable face checking the oil levels in the Piper Aztec parked alongside.
‘Peter - have you met Graham Hill?’ Mark introduced my to the famous racing driver - winner at the time of his first Formula One World Championship, the Le Mans Twenty four Hour race, plus being the first British driver to win the Indianapolis 500, and in a British car. As if I would know Graham Hill, already a legend with three massive motor racing accomplishments that had never been achieved before and almost certainly never will be equalled - one of my few heroes; Peter, have you met Graham Hill?
Little was I to know that within a few years I would be a fellow member of Graham’s in the Elstree Aero Club. Later - as I climbed away from Gatwick with me at one set of dual controls although never ever having piloted before - I resolved to take lessons and get my license.
My generous wife paid for my lessons in advance after I had negotiated a fixed price package - paying £200 in advance for two hundred hours. Learning to fly was a non-event, almost a letdown - it was so easy and so obvious. Before my first take-off I nagged my instructor to let me do it - on the basis that the dual controls meant he could retrieve the situation if anything went wrong.
Climbing through about twenty feet, I activated the bakes. ‘what on earth did you do that for?’ said he chief Instructor who was supposed to be teaching me.
‘To stop the wheels spinning.’ I replied, ‘in preparation for when I eventually fly retractable. So that here is no chance of them fouling the wheel bays. Perhaps causing a fire.’
His silence was as good as a question.
‘I leaned it from my uncle when I was nine. Sitting in a Lancaster in a static display.’
‘Smart arse.’ Was his reply.
I insisted on him remaining my instructor until I had soloed, despite his efforts on palming me off with his assistant, assuming that as chief Instructor he must be the best the school had. His attitude was that; ‘Senior businessmen were difficult to teach because they were used t making their own decisions an thought they knew it all.’
After five hours and forty minutes I flew my first solo and then transferred to his assistant. Learning to fly was one of the easiest tasks I have ever undertaken - the only thing remotely taxing were the ground subjects - navigation, meteology and aviation law. The flying was simple and obvious. At thirty-two hours I had completed my course but having to log forty to complete my license, flew the remaining eight enjoying the scenery.
To celebrate becoming a license holder - my lovely wife bought me the aircraft I had trained on…
© Peter Hunter
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