First Flight It was a crisp cold October morning in 1972, as my Father and I climbed into his Morris Minor Traveller, to head off to Crowborough. I was almost hopping from foot to foot with excitement, yet my stomach was also performing somersaults, probably due to the number of butterflies flying madly around it.
Today was THE day. This was the day that I would experience the utter joy and exhilaration of flight. And the start of a love affair that was to last my entire life.
We set off nice and early, as we had to drive to Crowborough, a small country town, in the middle of the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, Once there, we were to meet up with My Father’s friend, Bernard Kirby, who was the Chief Flying Instructor at RAF West Malling, the home of 618 Volunteer Gliding Squadron.
My Father had met Bernard whilst conducting his daily commute to work. East Grinstead is a terminal station, and my Father, always a creature of habit, chose to sit in the same seat every day.
His regular companion, who always sat opposite Dad, happened to notice one day that my Father was reading yet another book about flying. He asked “are you interested in flying Alan?” My father responded that he was. Bernard then generously offered to take Dad up in a glider.
Knowing that I was aircraft crazy, my Dad asked if his 13 year old son could come as well. The answer was yes.
Having arrived at Crowborough, we all piled into Bernard’s blue VW Beetle, and he drove us to RAF West Malling. This small military airfield was home to my boyhood heroes, the pilots that constituted “The Few”, who so bravely defended my country against the Germans during the Battle of Britain.
Having been active throughout all of the Second World War, the RAF had downgraded its operational status, and it was now a non active base, but it was still home to 618 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, manned by members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
We arrived at the time of the Ugandan crisis, when President Idi Amin had deported thousands of Ugandan Asians. Many had arrived in Britain, and a lot of the old military quarters were being used to house these poor unfortunate souls. Even as a 13 year old kid, I could still see the desperation and sadness in their listless eyes. It still haunts me now, in those quiet contemplative moments.
Mr Kirby parked his car by the hangar, and we all got into the land rover. Well, my Dad and Mr Kirby got into the Land Rover. I was unceremoniously loaded into the back, and we bounced our way across the grassy tussocks to the launch point, where a number of gliders had been seemingly abandoned.
Getting out of the Landie, I felt a bit disoriented. There was a lot going on, and everyone seemed to know what to do, or where to stand except me. I stood to the back, and watched as my Dad was strapped into a large two seat side by side glider with an open cockpit.
It was fitted with two jaunty little windscreens directly in front of each pilot, reminiscent of a 1930s sports car. Bernard hopped in beside him, and I watched, fascinated, as he zipped through the Pre take off checks. In short order, a cable was attached to the hook on the underside of the fuselage. A few calls later, and the glider suddenly swooped forwards, accelerating at a very brisk rate, and rotating into what seemed to me to be a very steep climb.
I watched as the aircraft got to the apex of its climb, and then saw the cable drop, it’s little drogue chute flapping and gyrating like a wounded bird as it fell to earth.
A lad wearing a blue uniform approached me. He was about my age, but was resplendent in his RAF blues, oddly contrasting with a pair of white training shoes. He shyly asked me which squadron I was with.
I stared at him dumbly. Squadron? “I’m here with my Dad. What do you mean which Squadron.”
He replied that he was with Crowborough Squadron of the ATC
“ATC” he confirmed.
“The Air Training Corps. I’m here to do a gliding day”. “How much does it cost?”, I asked, fearful that it would be well beyond my meagre pocket money.
“20p a week subscription”.
I was stunned. I could join up and get to fly for 20 p a week?????
Throughout the conversation I was tracking my Father in the glider.
It was now curving round, it’s air brakes open, as it sliced its way though the air, I could hear it sighing, and then it was down, rumbling to a stop about 100 yards from the launch point. I saw my Dad get out, and asked him what it was like. He grinned enthusiastically, and said it was fascinating.
I know now with hindsight, that my Dear old Dad was putting a brave face on it. I believe that he was terrified, but didn’t want to influence me.
In later. Years, I would ask my Dad if he would come flying with me. I have instructor ratings, and have amassed hundreds of hours, but he never flew again after that event.
Standing with Dad, I continued to wait patiently for my turn to get airborne. I didn’t have to wait long!
Another Air Cadet, a lad of about 16, briskly marched up, and asked me to “come this way please”
Flinging a dismissive and airy wave at my Dad, I strolled nonchalantly after the other chap, my relaxed stroll disguising my inner turmoil.
Would I be scared – shit myself? Would I be airsick?
“That’s your ‘plane” said my guide, indicating a very elderly glider that looked like it had been designed by Leonardo Da Vinci.
It had an open cockpit, but the seats were arranged one in front of the other. Small curved windshields protected the pilots from the slipstream. The wing was a huge slab, mounted onto a short pylon, so that the rear cockpit sat under it. The front cockpit was therefore totally exposed.
A lanky man wandered up the frail craft, and looked intently at me. “Are you Mark?” He asked. I nodded dumbly back at him, my mouth dry, and my stomach doing backflips. “My names Colin, and I will be taking to up. Have you ever flown before?”
” No Sir” I responded.
“Nothing to worry about – its great fun. Come here, and lets get you in.” I walked up to the side of the beast, and gazed into the cockpit; it was ancient! It only had two dials – I was expecting more. It also had two vertical tubes mounted on the instrument panel.
“Right, stand beside the cockpit, and swing your right leg in. Stand on the seat, then bring your left leg in. Don’t step on the controls or cables, and keep your feet on the small floorboards, or you will damage the hull”
I gingerly climbed in and sat down, and Colin swiftly strapped me in, and pulled the straps tightly. The glider wobbled about a bit, as Colin eased himself into the rear cockpit, and he continued his commentary which, whilst I don’t remember it word for word, its almost the same as the patter that I give to others as I strap in.
“You’ll see in front of you two dials. The one on the left is the Air Speed Indicator, or ASI, the one on the right is the altimeter. In the middle are two tubes. This is called a Cosim Variometer. It has a green bead in one tube, and a red bead in the other. If the red bead goes up, we are sinking. If the green bead goes up, we are climbing.” (I was later to discover that the Mark 3 has a built in rate of sink, and I very rarely saw the green bead float up its tube, except during take off)
Colin continued “On the left side of the panel is a yellow knob. When we get to the top of the launch, you’ll feel the nose lower, as I push the stick forwards to take the load off of the cable. The red lever on the left cockpit wall is the lever to extend the spoilers” “The stick moves the flight controls. Push it forward, and the aircraft will dive, pull it back, and the nose will go up. Moving it to the left will cause the aircraft to roll to the left, and moving it right will start us rolling to the right. The rudder pedals are used to help us in the turns. Have you got that?”
Colin called out to the Cadet loitering near the aircraft “wing up six”. The lad dutifully lifted the wingtip a few inches, and Colin began checking the controls. The stick waggled around between my legs, and the rudder pedals moved. It seemed that Colin was satisfied that the aircraft was functional, as he called to another cadet to bring a cable to our machine.
Kneeling down, the cadet requested “open” and I saw the yellow knob moved, and felt a metallic action under my seat. “Close” the knob retracted back into its recess in the panel. The boy then pulled on the cable to the rear, and I felt the recoil of the mechanism opening. I asked Colin what was happening, and he explained that the back release was being checked to make sure that if the manual release failed, the glider would still disconnect from the cable.
The cadet then reconnected the cable to the glider, and the rest of the controls were checked. I was told to “follow through” on the stick and rudder, and he would explain what was happening.
The wingman now lifted the wing so that the glider was sitting with the wings level. “Take up slack” called Colin. The cadet at the wing started waving his hand slowly, and within a few seconds, I noticed a ripple in the grass, as the winch was pulling the cable taut. The glider moved forwards a foot or so, and then stopped.
“Ready?” Said Colin
“Yes” I squeaked. Looking to the left, I could see my Dad watching, and I gave him a nervous thumbs up, and saw him smile in response. “All out!” Called Colin, and a couple of seconds later, the glider suddenly accelerated, faster than any car I had ever been in.
A few bounces and rumbles, and all of a sudden we were airborne!
Pure, unadulterated, fucking magic!
The aircraft rotated into a steep climbing angle, and the wind howled and whistled around the cockpit. I looked at the altimeter, and saw that we were approaching 1300 feet. Awesome!
At almost 1500 feet, I felt my stomach lurch as the nose dipped, and then I heard and felt a metallic bang, as the cable was released, and the noise dropped to a ruffle. I could hear Colin quite clearly.
I looked out, and spread below me was the Weald of Kent, and the city of London.
“Would you like to fly it” asked Colin? “When I hand control to you, I will say “You Have Control”. You will respond “I have control”. That way we both know who is flying” I took hold of the stick, and I heard those magical words for the first time in my life “you have control”.
“I have control” the stick tremored slightly as Colin relaxed his grip. “Gently pull back on the stick”.
I eased the column backwards, and the nose slowly climbed above the horizon, and the wind noise muted further. “Now gently relax the stick and allow the nose to drop” Following the instruction, I allowed the nose to drop and the altimeter began unwinding. The speed crept up, and then Colin asked me to level her out. I was allowed to do a bank in each direction, and then Colin said ” I have control”, and we commenced our descent back to the airfield. Talking me through continuously, Colin explained the approach, and the use of the spoilers to aid the a curacy of the landing. The aiming point was steady in the windshield, slowly floating up towards me, until, at the last minute, the ground rushed by in a blur, and with a bump and a rumble we were down, coming to rest a few yards from where we took off. I thought my head would fall in half, so wide was my grin. I clambered out, and thanked Colin, and wandered back to Dad. I was euphoric for days, and promptly joined my local Air Cadet squadron, 1343 (East Grinstead). My next exposure to flying was as a student pilot at Royal Air Force Kenley, the home of the mighty 615 Volunteer Gliding Squadron. So, I would like to thank you Mr Bernard Kirby, and Colin, who gave me the everlasting joy of flight.