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My Loss is My Gain…

I woke up on the 1st of January with mixed feelings. It was the start of a brand new flying year, and I could look forward to lots of aerial fun with the Super Cub, always assuming that the lousy weather would improve. 

However, there was a cloud of a different type on my personal horizon; the dreaded CAA biannual medical that assures the residents of Aviation House at Gatwick that I won’t suddenly collapse at the controls, incapacitated and crash land, demolishing a primary school or even a whole suburb.

I, like many of you, do not enjoy undergoing medicals. I’m not a screaming hypochondriac, neither am I so decrepit that I would automatically fail. It’s just that – well, I don’t like medicals. 

I also suffer from White Coat Syndrome and this has a tendency to elevate my blood pressure to stratospheric levels. In an effort to control my incipient hypertension, I gave up caffeine and reduced my salt intake years ago. 

But, as my long-suffering partner frequently points out (her being an ex-nurse and all), it is a complete waste of effort if I continue to eat the wrong things, and dare I say it – drink beer.

Beer – It’s not just for breakfast…

So, there I lay on New Years morning, considering that ominous red ring on the calendar, the date three months away, upon which I would have to say “Ah” and cough whilst staring skywards.

I had been making some half-hearted attempts at weight control since October when I first accepted that 95kg (209 pounds) was a little too much weight to be carrying around.

So, I came to the conclusion that drastic action was needed. Damn it, I needed to exercise. Back in the day, I had swum competitively. played rugby, and did a lot of cycling. However, these days, my exercise routine seemed to have slipped, and my work out was to play chess by an open window and glug beer.

This wasn’t a particularly constructive programme, so I had to do something more constructive. I decided to pull my old bicycle out of the garage.

Better across the South Downs than the A30 to Heathrow…

It wasn’t looking very well. It, like me, needed some serious attention.

I put it up into the bike stand, and inspected it. It needed new brake pads, a new chain, a new chainring, and a new cassette on the rear wheel.

The next day, all the parts arrived from Amazon, and I spent a happy morning removing the worn components and fitting and adjusting the new ones.

Now I was ready to rock!

My initial effort included a fairly regular cycle ride into work, a distance of some eight miles, coupled with eating salad at lunchtime.  So it was that I coasted into the month of January and for the first week was able to stick to my plan. 

However, the festive season brings forth its temptations, and I had “enjoyed” a few Christmas binges with various corporate departments, friends and eaten shed-loads of inappropriate foods. That, coupled with gorging on one of my Mother’s gargantuan Christmas lunches, a lot of work was needed if I was to get my weight down to the sub 90Kg mark!

Hastily scribbling the figures, I worked out my BMI, and was aghast to realise that it was sitting at 31.5! 

Running the calculation in reverse, I would have to be a shade over six feet to put my weight back into proportion with my height.

It appeared that my target weight would ultimately be 79kg. I wasn’t sure about this. Being so lean may make me look ill, so I decided that I would make 81 kg my target weight.

I mulled this over. There was no way that I could lose almost two stones in three months. As I considered it, I could almost feel my blood pressure ratchet up another notch or two. I decided that I would have to do this in stages.

I would continue with an expanded “self-help” programme before going to see my GP. I know he is a very busy man… and I am also a craven coward, so I embarked upon a tough regime based on a simple formula. 

I would have to eat and drink less, and exercise more. This is an anathema to me, as I love food, and hate most forms of exercise. I exclude playing chess in front of an open window, as this has the benefit of a complete mental workout in the fresh air!

So, on January 2nd I started my revised plan.

I decided that as I liked cycling, I would continue to use my mountain bike for the commute to work – but now on a more regular basis. The first few rides had been quite difficult  – an eight-mile slog to be in work for 0630 in winter conditions are less than fully motivating. 

I stuck with it though, and I am now able to complete the ride in just over 40 minutes. 

Having mastered the psychological barriers to doing anything that actually involves a modicum of physical effort, I decided that I would go one step further – literally. I decided that I would try commuting to work by foot.

This was definitely not one of my better ideas.

The first day I did this was a beautiful, crisp January morning. It was still dark when I left the house at 0515, but with a yellowing moon sneaking along just above the horizon, it was quite pleasant. I cracked along at a reasonable pace and managed to cover the 8 miles in just over two hours, ready for a 0730 start. I felt quite exhilarated as I walked into the office, still damp from the shower, still puffing from the effort.

Exhilarated wasn’t quite how I would summarise my feelings when I left the office at 1530, for the walk home. It took forever, (well, two hours and twenty-five minutes to be exact!) and by the time I got home, my left foot was on fire, and my lower back felt like it had been run over by a 747 freighter. 

The blisters took about a week to heal, during which time I cycled very gently back and forth. 

The scales testified to the efficiency of this programme, and I had got my weight down to about 88kg

However, I came to realise that my faithful Marin Alpine Trail full suspension mountain bike was not the ideal machine to cycle to work on – knobbly tyres, and lower gearing made it better suited to the wilds of the South Downs National Park, not the A30 Great South West Road.

I decided to buy a newer bike on the Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme, so I ended up with a flagship state of the art hybrid, with built in lighting, and better wheels and tyres. It was also considerably lighter, and shaved about seven minutes off my commute.

The Cube Delhi Hybrid Commuter. A lovely cycle…

I had now completed stages one and two; my New Year resolution was to moderate my alcohol consumption by two thirds, until my birthday in May. I now enjoy a couple of pints a day at the weekend.

Stage three would be to bring my blood pressure down, which was currently averaging at about 159/100, against the ideal of  140/90.

By mid January, I decided that I had now lost enough weight to show the doctor that I was doing my best to manage my health, so I made an appointment, and sat down in his surgery.

I explained that I was worried about my blood pressure, and told him of my forthcoming medical at Gatwick. I also advised him of my white coat hypertension. I also showed him my blood pressure diary, and after studying it for a few minutes, he scurried to the other side of the office, then advanced rapidly towards me with a tape measure in his hand.

I shrank back in alarm – had my doctor suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to do a quick bit of DIY whilst I was sitting in the consulting room? Was he about to measure me up for my coffin?

My fears were misguided, and he proceeded to measure the circumference of my upper arm. He squinted at the measure, and pronounced that I was a 34cm – so needed a large cuff.  

He went on to explain that most home blood pressure monitors (or sphygmonometers) come with a standard sized cuff, and that I was on the borderline of needing the next size up. He expanded on this, saying that using a cuff that was too small could result in erroneously high readings. 

My blood pressure fell dramatically – not by diet, but by using a larger cuff. I now have a six foot cuff on order…

He checked my pressure with the larger cuff, and the result was much lower than I was expecting – a mere 132/110!

After a discussion about my weight loss programme, and other factors, we agreed on a further course of action – I would be fitted with an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Monitor for a 24 hour period.

Having been told this, I rang my Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) or Flight Surgeon and explained the situation to him in full. He seemed quite relaxed about it, and told me not to worry, and come and see him for the dreaded class two medical in three weeks time.

The only thing they don’t ask is inside leg measurement…

So, I duly drove down to Gatwick, leaving myself plenty of time for my imbecilic-driver induced hypertension to reduce to less stratospheric levels, and went in for the medical.

I have known Dr Maddison for several years, and after conducting my medical, together with the mandated 12 lead Electro-Cardio Gram (ECG) he issued me my class two but requested a copy of the results of my Ambulatory 24-hour monitoring test. He seemed quite satisfied that I was taking control, and that the meds that I had been prescribed wouldn’t cause me to auger into a shopping mall or nuclear power station, so I was good to go.

A Normal ECG readout – just what a pilot needs!

To supplement my new exercise regime, I substituted breakfast every day for a nice, healthy smoothie.

My favourite, if it can be called that, is made with cherries, chocolate protein powder, almond milk, almond paste, peaches and seeds. Once whizzed up in the Nutri-Bullet, it looks like pond sludge but tastes quite reasonable.

Looks like I’ve murdered Kermit, but it does taste OK…

It does bulk me out, so I can last easily until lunch time before I need feeding..

Now, people imagine that being a flight instructor is a somewhat sedentary occupation, like an office worker. Let me put you straight folks.

The simulator in which I conduct my training is the furthest from the offices and is a 500-metre walk to the far end of the hangar building. I normally conduct two simulator sessions per day – two kilometres walking! The journey also involves climbing and descending four flight of stairs.

The other aspect of my free workout at work, is that of coffee.

Whilst there are vending machines near my work area they are of the ingredients-in-a-cup design, and quite frankly a pair of old socks stewed in used bathwater would probably taste better.

Convenient as a last resort…

So, when the need for caffeine hits, I walk to the nest building, 200 metres away, to use the staff canteen.

The exercise benefit here, is that it sits on the ninth floor. Rather than take one of the three lifts servicing this building, I use the emergency stairs, and climb 9 stories. I unwind the spring by walking back down.

I make this trip three times a day; first coffee a standard filter coffee in a thermos jug at about 0700. Then, elevenses. Normally the excuse that Brits wheel out whenever they fancy a cuppa and either a biscuit or a slice of cake. As soon as eleven o’clock approaches, desks empty, phone calls terminated and a mini exodus heads for the canteen.

I usually opt for a “posh coffee” – either a speciality coffee from the bean-to-cup machine, or if I am feeling particularly profligate, I have a medium white Americano from the Starbucks implant in the canteen.

Lastly, I normally come here again at lunch time to be sociable – another 8 flights climbed!

24 flights climbed a day.

So, here we are, with enforced inactivity as a result of COVID 19. The results of the new laws on self-isolation and social distancing make it very difficult to remain fit.

I am legally entitled to take exercise once a day out of the house, but I am not allowed to drive to a venue to exercise. So, I walk a mile or so or cycle around the military ranges not far from my home.

My exercise area is also used as a military exercise area. Except they use tanks…

I do have activities that stop me from becoming too bored – a multitude of Honey-dos. So far, I have managed to clear my woodshed so that I can start chain-sawing wood for next winter; I have pressure cleaned the terrace, and swapped the winter tyres on the car for the standard summer ones.

I have just been furloughed, so I now have some extra time to get ahead of the chores curve and maintain physical activity.

So in the next couple of days, I will finish pressure cleaning the paths in the garden, mow the grass, and tackle the small jungle that I have called a compost heap. I must get the strimmer (Weed-Whacker/Brush Cutter) out of retirement.

I will also dig over my vegetable plots. Maybe lay out a small nature reserve, and plant it with wild flowers, and old logs as a habitat for insects and hedgehogs.

Wash the windows. Thats a pane…

The list goes on…

However, a few minutes ago, a good friend of mine WhatsApp’ed me to invite me for a virtual beer, and it would be rude to refuse.

So, I am relaxing before the call – watching two pigeons attempting to eat from a bird feeder designed to support finches and tits. It a bit like watching a C-130J Hercules attempting to land on a strip designed for Tiger Moths.

In between trying to stuff their avian faces, they are also both harassing a female pigeon (at least – I hope it is female!) for favours. She appears to be totally underwhelmed by their advances, so when they are not eating they are waddling round the garden after her.

It seems so sickeningly familiar…

So – I am hoping that I may continue to carry on being active in spite of the strictures of COVID 19.

Maybe even shed a few more kilos?

Go Well…

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Aircew airlines Airport aviation Flight Old Friends pilots Society Travel

Around Cape Point in a Cessna Cutlass

Having worked for two major international air carriers, one US and one British, I consider myself a reasonably well-travelled person.

However, I am also a total aviation geek.

In the heady days before the world suffered its seismic shift, in the form of 9/11, the flight deck was not an impregnable citadel only occupied by the flight crew.

My partner was resigned to the fact that whenever we boarded an aircraft for a flight, I would always discretely pass my pilot licence to the senior cabin crew member, murmuring “Please pass my compliments to the Captain, and ask him if I may be permitted to visit the flight deck for the take-off”

This often raised an eyebrow and caused me to miss many welcome- aboard glasses of champagne, but I was always accepted into the “office” and would talk flying with the crew prior to departure.

I would be offered a headset and would sit on the jump seat, quietly, enjoying the takeoff and climb, only returning to my seat once we got into the cruise.

It was sometimes a bit bizarre, as the commander may have been one of my students only a few months prior, so an interesting juxtaposition of rôles.

Very often, I would be summoned to the flight deck just before the top of descent and would sit there happily until we parked at the gate, where I would eventually be reunited with the long-suffering girlfriend.

She is still a committed airfield widow, so she knows where to look for me if she hasn’t seen me for a few weeks…

I digress.

Whenever we go away on holiday, I always do some research into the local flying clubs, so that I can commit aviation around the world.

So it was on this trip.

May 2008 saw me visiting the Republic of South Africa, for the second time.

I had already booked an aeroplane from the Cape Town Flying Club – a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, so I was looking forward to conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the local area.

ZS-KSS Cessna C172 RG Cutlass. Cape Town Flying Club, May 2003

On a particularly gloomy and rain swept Wednesday, I drove my Toyota hire care to the flying club, leaving the better half to check out the the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town.

The amount of time I had available for aviation when on vacation was limited, so rather than getting a complete check flight, and sitting written exams, I elected to engage one of the club instructors to sit next to me as a safety pilot.

The flight was a simple route. Depart from Cape Town’s D.F. Malan International Airport, heading south to cross the coast at Rocklands, then turn onto a south-westerly heading to Muizenburg, where we would turn south to parallel the coast.

Just some of the route, down the South Eastern side of the Cape.

Passing the military base at Simon’s Town, we continued on at about 1000 feet, to remain clear of the cloud base.

Approaching Simon’s Town – Destroyers of the RSA Navy in clear view.

We were now descending constantly to remain in VFR conditions and eventually levelled out at about 500 feet above the sea as we rounded Cape Point.

The waters around Cape Point are treacherous, with very strong tides and localised currents giving rise to huge swells. I was thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking about having an engine failure at this moment.

Cape Point, descending to 500 feet – a grotty day indeed. Just a couple of orbits to get a photo of course.

So, having gone as far south as we could, we slid up the western side of the Cape, flying abeam of the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards, heading north.

The cloud was turning into water on the windscreen, the rivulets streaming backwards in the prop wash, and it felt as though King Neptune was reaching out of the deep to shake the aeroplane, as we bounced about in the turbulence.

We dog-legged back to the north-east at Pegrams Rock, and passed overhead the small town of Ocean View, then back to the east coast at Fishoek, then headed back to Fisantekraal, a small airfield north by north-east of Cape Town.

Fisantekraal Airfield, despite its location, it was still miserable and overcast.

Fisantekraal Airfield is an ex-South African Air Force facility that was built towards the end of World War Two. During the war, it was the home for Lockheed Ventura bombers.  A quick coffee in the ops room, and it was away back to Cape Town.

Having safely seceurd the aeroplane, and paid my bill, I sauntered out across the car park, whistling tunelessly. It had been a good flight, mixing it up on the taxi out with a SAA Boeing 737, and then having the challenge of flying marginal VFR/IFR in an unfamiliar aeroplane over some interesting terrain.

So, I left the airport, and headed up the eastern side of the Cape, to meet SWMBO, Mike and Carmen.

Mike, an old Africa hand, had spent many years in South Africa in the travel business, and as a result seemed to know all of the best places to eat.

He made sure that we weren’t disappointed. A short drive into Hout Bay saw us arriving at the Mariners Wharf restaurant – which served the most amazing food and the most excellent wines.

I retired to bed feeling very satisfied; I had flown, enjoyed superb company, ate a fantastic meal, and enjoyed some of the best wines from the Cape.

Maybe its time to do some more wandering…

Go Well…

Categories
Aircew Airport aviation English Culture Flight Lyricist Nostalgia pilots Poetry Transport Vehicles

I’ve always been a hangar rat at heart

I’ve hung around small airfields, since I was just a lad,

A hangar rat, an air cadet, just aviation mad,

Sent solo in a sailplane, when I was just sixteen,

Soaring over English fields, a  quilt of gold and green.

The miracle of flight. Too young for a motorbike, but able to fly the Kirby Cadet Mk III

Sweeping out the hangars, polishing the props,

Cleaning all  their windshields, hanging round in ops,

Topping up the tanks and tyres, mowing taxiway and strip,

Befriending all the pilots, to see if I could blag a trip.

Gissa Flight Mate…

I worked hard at my day job, slaving nine till’ five,

Then pumping gas, and cleaning, to keep the dream alive,

When I wasn’t working, I was studying my craft,

Funny how quickly, the months and years flash past

Practicing the art and skill of landing a taildragger.

As I got older, I got bigger,  and the airfields did the same,

And I was thrilled to hang around, much bigger aeroplanes,

Still in operations, briefing crews and planning flights

Working out performance, a blur of days and nights.

Bit bigger that I was used to!

Then one day, the time arrived, when I had to say goodbye,

To the mighty ships that plied their trade, so high up in the sky,

I left the airport on that final day, without once looking back,

Already thinking of my former self, and could I get him back?

So I wandered up the airstrip as the sun climbed the clear blue sky,

Pulled my little airplane out, I prepared myself to fly,

Turning round, I saw him, overalls, broom and cap,

Young, fresh-faced, teenager, My replacement Hangar Rat

So I took him flying….

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Aircew airlines Airport aviation English Culture Flight Humour Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Security Society Transport Travel Work

That light bulb moment – a guest appearance from an old friend

The first time I met Pookie was in Summer 1991.

Blimey – that’s 29 years ago!

I was enjoying a cuppa in the baggage loaders rest room, catching my breath after working a busy departure in the gate room upstairs. I was working as a Passenger Security Agent for American AIrlines – my first airline job.

Security would’nt have been my first choice of job – I was already a qualified pilot, and had passed all of my Flight Operations and Despatch exams, but nobody gets hired into a blue chip airline in Flight Ops. The only way in is either as a Check In Agent, a Baggage Loader, or a Security Agent.

I chose Security Agent.

The decision was a simple one. After PanAm 103 was brought down at Lockerbie just two and a half years previously, security was uppermost in everyone’s mind. American Airlines were using the profiling system at the time, similar to that used by El-Al.

I learnt behavioural psychology, how to question, how to conduct a proper body search (NOT how Hollywood imagines that it is done) and how to use a security X-Ray machine.

I just thought at the time, that this would be more interesting than seeing a procession of faces, all demanding an upgrade, or doing my back in hefting overloaded bags.

Working in Ops is considered a plum job, as it is remote from the passengers, is conducted in the dry, and is intellectually demanding.

I found an empty space at one of the grubby tables, and sat down to enjoy my brew.

I saw a dark blue silhouette lurch to a stop outside the building, blanking the sunlight streaming through the window, plunging the restroom into a gloom that matched it’s decor.

The door slammed open, and a bearded bloke in his forties appeared. Walking over, he dropped an overstuffed clipboard onto the table, saying “Mind if I join you”

“Help Yourself” I replied, watching as he swiftly made a coffee at the small sink.

Returning to the table, he proffered his hand, saying “I’m Bev, I’m doing the Royal Mail”

I must have looked a bit blank, because he laughed, and said “Mail Sacks – You know, letters for air mail”

I shook his hand, telling him I was in security.

We spent about half an hour exchaning our histories, and it came up in the conversation that we both flew. He had a share in a De Havilland Chipmunk down at Shoreham, and I flew Piper Warriors and Cessnas at Popham.

We went our spearate ways, and it wasn’t until another three years had passed that I ran into Pookie again.

I was the new boy in Flight Operations. Having returned from eighteen months working as Special Services Manager at Stansted, I had finally obtained a position in Ops.

There, sitting at the main control desk was Bev, quietly and efficiently running the entire ground operation at London Heathrow for the 14 daily flights.

I worked with Bev closely for the next three years, and came to love his gentle humour and his ability to produce fantastic caricatures of his colleagues.

Thanks Bev… This is the only one that you wont get sued for!

Once we had got to know each other, we flew together on many occassions, and in any number of different aircraft. I have shared the sky with him in the delightful Chipmunk, pulling gentle loops, rolls and stall turns over the timeless, grassy south downs.

The DHC-1 Chipmunk at Goodwood… A six-gallon per hour Spitfire.

We pottered up and down the south coast of England enjoying summer in a PZL Wilga (A delightful Polish cross between a combine harvester and an aircraft).

PZL- Wilga. A very interesting aeroplane…

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in a Piper Warrior, and did a low pass at the small grass strip in Sussex appropriately named Kittyhawk.

Kittyhawk – an Appropriate place to do a low pass on the 100th Anniversary of flight, December 17th 2003

We have fooled about in the Citabria, and been school kids in the Stolp Starduster Too. And what can be better than flying in a Bücker Jungmann with a friend, whilst another friend formates on you in a Stampe?

Ahh yes, The wonderful old Bücker Jungmann, A lovely old Fräulein of the skies…

Anyhow, getting back on track…

Pookie’s sense of fun has often been unleashed on his poor, unsuspecting colleagues.

Below is his account of an episode that amused us all back in Ops whilst he was on holiday one year..

Thanks for all the laughs over the years Bev…

And as for the flying?

Well – that’s been a blast!

Good Friends, Beer, on an Airfield at Sunset… What could be better?

Over to you.

The following was written by Bev Pook, Pilot, Humourist, Motorcyclist, Bon Vivant and Good Friend.

Pookie – probably considering another practical joke, or wondering if he should bash out another quick caricature…

A Lightbulb On Vacation.

Back in the mid-nineties, I was working for American Airlines as a Flight Operations Agent, planning flights, briefing crews, and coordinating everything to ensure flights arrived and departed on time.

The flight operations room had few windows and was lit with harsh fluorescent lights, which are difficult to work with due to their flicker,  The flicker isn’t normally discernible unless you concentrate on your peripheral vision and it can then be sensed.

These lights are very good for office work as they cast little or no shadow, but if using a computer screen (which also flickers) they can cause sight problems as your iris struggles to cope with the flickering.

Enough of the technical details then.

Being heartily fed up with the eye-ache, I ferreted around for a solution, and during one very uneventful night shift, I found a battered old Angle Poise lamp which had been discarded into a dark and cluttered corner of an unused office.

What a find! My Eyeballs were finally happy!

Further investigating led me to a new bulb in a cupboard, and once wiped off with a cloth, the old lamp worked perfectly.

I placed it on the main Ops desk in and I would use it whenever I was positioned in that area. I found it particularly useful on night shifts when I worked alone and could turn off the fluorescents and enjoy a softer light emitted by an incandescent light bulb.

However, I found nobody else seemed to appreciate my light as when I returned on shift after a few days off, the lamp had been pushed back out of the way.

Just before I went on vacation the bulb blew, so I threw it away and departed for a fortnights tranquillity. No sooner had I returned from holiday, I was accosted by my work companions who accused me of taking the bulb on holiday.

Because of this, I decided that my next vacation would see me having some fun at their expense. This time I took the bulb out of the fitting and locked it away in my cabinet, leaving the office with the Angle Poise containing no light source.

After a long and boring flight, I eventually arrived in Muskogee Oklahoma and was met by my good friends, with whom I would be spending my vacation.

Over breakfast the next morning, I asked Terry if I could borrow one of their light bulbs, which was greeted by a strange look but I did get the light bulb.

I then started taking photos of the bulb and me on holiday. Each picture got more and more elaborate and set up to highlight (excuse the pun) that I had indeed this time taken the bulb with me.

Here are a few of those pictures.

I hope you enjoy my rather schoolboy humour.

light bulb 1
Me, the bulb and Elvis at the Muskogee Airshow. I caught him just as he was leaving…
light bulb 2
light bulb 3
The bulb playing a light-fingered bandit
light bulb 4
The bulb and I, about to go flying in a microlight
light bulb 6
Making light of wing walking

Sorry Bev, I would have published this as an “Illuminated” manuscript, but couldn’t find the correct keys.

Go Well…

Categories
Aircew Airport aviation Flight Humour pilots Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized

radio failure, hot texas desert and bubblegum

The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.

Fort Worth Meacham – Also a Nuclear Bunker!

Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!

I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.

Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.

He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.

“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”

“I’m here” was his reply.

Situation normal then.

I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”

Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.

If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.

If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.

Easy right?

So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.

A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.

The truly iconic Bell 47 helicopter. Flying it is like being a one-armed soot juggler.

Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.

The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.

Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.

Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.

The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.

Looking across at me, he grinned.

“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”

“I have it” I responded.

I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.

The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.

I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.

“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”

I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.

“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.

After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.

Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.

He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”

I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.

Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.

He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.

Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.

Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.

Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.

However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…

I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.

Fort Worth-Meacham Airfield – Just west of Dallas, and right next to Carswell Air Force Base, Home of B-52 Bombers.

There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.

A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…

Maybe not.

A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.

A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.

My first flying logbook. I am now working on filling up my seventh…

It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.

After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.

Shiner Bock – the local brew of choice.

Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.

The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.

I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.

My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.

Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.

I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.

I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.

Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.

The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.

“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”

“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.

The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.

I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?

I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.

The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.

I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!

Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.

On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.

So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.

My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.

Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.

By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!

Or so I thought…

Cessna N714HH – An Honest Airplane that Looked After me on my FIrst Solo.

I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.

Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.

It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.

Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.

The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.

Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.

An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.

After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.

I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.

Not back then with so few hours.

So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.

The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.

Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.

“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”

Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.

Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.

My God! I had read about this, but never done it.

I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.

I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.

I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,

Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.

I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.

I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.

I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.

The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.

Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.

I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.

I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.

It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.

I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.

I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.

I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.

I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.

I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.

I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.

About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.

Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.

“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.

I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.

She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.

Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.

Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.

The Cessna 150 instrument panel.

Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.

I felt hugely foolish.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”

“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”

I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.

Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”

The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Fort Worth Meacham at night.

So, What did I learn?

I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.

Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.

Go Well…

Categories
Aircew Airport Flight Movie Stars Movies pilots Transport Travel Uncategorized Veterans

Stars in their skies

Earlier today, I posted an article featuring James Stewart, the movie actor.

During my research, I came across the account of Harrison Ford who crash-landed his vintage aeroplane whilst taking off from Santa Monica airport on the 5 March 2015.

Harrison Ford’s Vinatge Ryan trainer after crashing after takeoff from Santa Monica Airport, California

Now, I have always had a lot of admiration for Harrison Ford, and as a fellow pilot, I feel a lot of sympathy, as I know how easy it is for a situation to develop, and rapidly get out of control.

Mister Ford is a keen pilot, and holds both single engine and twin engine licences, together with a helicopter licence.  He owns a number of aircraft, and is in love with flying to the extent that – in his words “I will fly up the coast for a cheeseburger” – and I don’t know any fellow pilots who have not done this…

As an aviation enthusiast (anorak) I love any films related to flight, flying, or aeroplanes.  My film collection is littered with films such as Top Gun (which must be the seminal aviation movie for the 80s) Air America, The Great Waldo Pepper, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and the Flight of the Phoenix.

I decided that it would be interesting to see how many other Hollywood stars who appeared in such movies actually had piloting experience.

There are one or two well-known high-profile pilots, such as John Travolta, who owns a number of aircraft, and has a home on an air park in Florida.  Up until recently he owned and operated a Boeing 707 bearing Qantas livery, which he used to fly as a goodwill ambassador for Qantas. He has recently donated this aircraft to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society, which is part of the Australian Aviation Museum in Illawarra, Australia, just outside of Sydney.

John Travolta, a lifelong active pilot

His nearby neighbour in California, one Clint Eastwood has been a qualified helicopter pilot for over thirty years, as well as being a keen environmentalist.

Fellow actor and songwriter, Kris Kristofferson was also a helicopter pilot, having been taught by the U.S. military, and serving in Germany.  Leaving the army in 1965, he became a commercial helicopter pilot, serving oil platforms in Southern Louisiana for three years before making it big in the music industry, and then more latterly, the movies

A VERY young Kris Kristoffrsen

The diminutive Tom Cruise, who played the lead role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the film Top Gun is a pilot in real life as well.  Having qualified in Canada, he owns a P51 Mustang, and a Pitts   Special. Not content with just flying aircraft, he also likes to jump out of them, and is a keen parachutist. This, in my opinion, makes him a certifiable lunatic – but, hey, each to his own.

Morgan Freeman also flies, and holds a Private licence.  He too has experienced the thrill and freedom that flying offers.  As a younger man he was an aircraft engineer in the USAF, and had aspirations of being a fighter pilot. I think he made the right choice, because as a successful movie star he can afford to fly whatever he likes….

The late, great James Stewart was a full Colonel in the USAF, and flew many combat missions during the Second World War, and was a highly decorated pilot.  He also appeared in the famous film The Flight of the Phoenix, and appeared in the starring role in the biopic of Charles Lindbergh. However, his wartime experiences affected him profoundly, and he was averse to appearing in war films.

Now, let’s move on to Star Trek.  Stark Trek epitomises the pinnacle of what aviation could become;  flying in what is effectively four dimensions.  The cast of this show is positively filled with an abundance of pilots.

James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer “Scottie” flew during the Second World War as a liaison pilot, flying Taylorcraft Auster single engine aircraft, liaising with Canadian Artillery units. He was a natural and exuberant pilot, and was apparently reprimanded for slaloming his aircraft between telegraph poles in around Salisbury Plain, whilst operating from RAF Andover.

Creator and director of the Star Trek franchise, Gene Rodenberry was a bomber pilot during the Second World War, flying B17 Flying Fortresses in the Pacific theatre.  He flew 89 combat missions, and was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Medal, and the Air Medal. He retired from the USAF holding the rank of Captain.

Subsequently, he went on to work for Pan American, flying Lockheed Constellations.  Strangely, he left his aviation connections behind and before creating the series, he enrolled as a police officer in the LAPD.

Gene Rodenberry stands in front of a Lockheed COnstellation.

Michael Dorn, (Lieutenant Worf) is an accomplished and experienced pilot too. – and has owned a number of classic American ex-military jets, including a T33 trainer, and F86 Sabre, and a Sabreliner.  He is also very privileged to have flown with both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds.

Kurt Russell, joins the ranks of celebrity aviators.  The star of films such as Backdraught, and Vanilla Sky, and long-time partner to Goldie Hawn holds a private licence for both single and multi-engine aeroplanes.  He is also heavily involved in the aviation charity Wings of Hope.

Action man Steve McQueen was also a very keen aviator. Having had a very dismal and fractured childhood, Steve developed a love for motor racing, fast cars and motorcycles.  He owned a collection of both, and performed a lot of his own stunts.  He is particularly renowned for the motorcycle chase sequence in The Great Escape, and for the high speed car chase in the film Bullit. 

It must be a hand-eye coordination thing, because he also fell in love with aviation. 

Or it could possibly be because his natural father was a stunt pilot with a Barnstormer Flying Circus!

Steve owned and flew a 1945 Boeing Stearman biplane, a Piper J-3 Cub, and a very rare Pitcairn PA-8 which was used by the U.S. ace Eddie Rickenbacker when he flew for the U.S. postal service.

George Peppard of “The A Team” fame was a talented pilot, and flew most of the aerial sequences in the film “The Blue Max” in which he starred as a German Air Force pilot.   He also piloted his own Lear jet, which he used for commuting.

Jack Pallance, was selected by the USAF for pilot training, but a serious aircraft crash, which severely burned his face prevented him from flying thereafter. 

It’s also important not to forget the ladies in aviation.

Angelina Jolie is a qualified private pilot and flies a Cirrus SR-22. The model Giesele Bundchen has gained her wings, as has the British TV personality Carol Vorderman. 

Angelina Jolie climbs aboard…

Hilary Swank who, coincidentally, played the part of Amelia Earhart has also got a licence.

Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart

It’s not just the movie and TV personalities that have been gripped by the thrill of flying.

Country Singer Alan Jackson has a private licence for both single engine and twins, and ex Van Halen rocker Dave Lee Roth has a helicopter licence.

Gary Numan, the Techno-Pop icon of the 1970s and front man of Tubeway Army is passionate about flying.  He qualified as a pilot and operated a North American Harvard for 15 years on the UK Airshow circuit.

Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of heavy rock group Iron Maiden is also a flier.  However, his enthusiasm took him one stage further than most of his contemporaries, who are, in the main, private pilots. 

He decided that he would gain his commercial licence, and in fact flew for the now defunct UK based airline Astraeus, flying Boeing 757/767 types. He now owns an aviation company based at St Athan in Wales.

Probably the most famous musician with a licence is John Denver.  During a musical career that spanned a couple of decades, he too fell in love with flying.  Taught to fly by his Father, a record breaking USAF officer (who flew a B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber) he also owned and operated many different aeroplanes, including a Learjet, a Christen Eagle aerobatic biplane, and a pair of Cessna 210 utility planes. 

Many of Johns songs were about aviation or space travel.

John died too early in an air accident, when flying  his recently acquired Rutan Long EZ which crashed on a Californian beach, killing him instantly.

So, next time you watch a film, and think that the actor or actress is a “Lovey” and a soft shrinking violet, you may be doing them a great dis-service. Not only may they be doing a good percentage of their own stunts, but they may be better qualified than you are!

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What does a giant rabbit called harvey have in common with a world war two b24 liberator bomber?

What do a giant Rabbit called Harvey, and a World War Two B24 Liberator  Bomber have in common?  Some of you may have guessed the answer, but for those of you that are still trying to make the leap in associations, let me save you some head scratching – the answer is Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor.

This year we celebrate the one hundred and twelth anniversary of the birth of James Maitland Stewart, who achieved fame as both an actor and a pilot. I believe that he was a man deserving of great respect, and that his story should be told.

James M Stewart, Officer, Architect, Actor – and most of all a total Gentleman

James Stewart was born of Scottish/Irish stock on May 20th 1908, in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his Father ran the local hardware store. As a young man, Jimmy never took an acting lesson, preferring instead to serve with the Boy Scouting movement.

Within four years of joining his local Scout pack, Stewart had achieved the rank of Scout second class, and had appeared in a series of commercials promoting the scouting movement – probably his very first movie appearances! He also served as a volunteer with the Orange County and Los Angeles Scout Councils, and received the Silver Beaver award, the highest award for adults in the Boy Scout movement.

Always an intelligent and thoughtful man, Jimmy studied at Princeton University, and graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture.

Young Jimmy Stewart was also a very keen actor, and had previously attended acting camps with many other embryonic stars, including the late Henry Fonda.

A quiet adventurer, he had already learned to fly by 1935, and had quickly bought his first aeroplane . Frequently flying from the Los Angeles area to see his parents in Pennsylvania, he regularly used the most basic of navigational aids – following roads, railways and rivers to make the trip both there and back.  In 1938, after much effort, he was awarded his commercial pilot licence.

By February 1941, World War Two was up and running, and the thirty-three year old Stewart was called up under draft number 310. He had already decided that he wanted to fly for the military.

Surprisingly, at the time of his attempted enlistment at Draft Board No. 245, the six foot three inch (1.90m) Jimmy weighed only 138 pounds (62.5kg) – a BMI of just 17! He was uniquely refused service on the grounds of being underweight!

Desperately keen to fly, he returned home, and commenced a weight gain programme that had one basic instruction – eat everything! This was made all the more important, as by May of that year, he would have been too old to muster as aircrew.

As soon as he felt able, he re-presented himself for the selection board, and was passed as fit for aircrew duties.

To this day, there are still muttered and whispered allegations that he was underweight at the time of his second medical assessment and that he used his acting abilities to persuade the medicos to be “flexible” in their assessments!

The newly-minted Private James Stewart initially reported to Fort McArthur near San Pedro, California, and was then assigned for aircrew training to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field a large airbase located just north west of San Jose in Northern California.

Originally commissioned for the US Navy to accommodate airships, this huge base was given to the US Army Air Force during WWII, but is now the home of the NASA Ames Research Laboratories.

Needing an extra one hundred hours of flying time in order to qualify as a military pilot, Jimmy bought them from a local flying club at his personal expense, and soon had the necessary experience to progress further.

By January 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Stewart passed out through the gates of Moffet Field, and was posted to Mather Field Sacramento, California, where he was to become a multi-engine airplane instructor, primarily teaching students to fly on the B17 (Flying Fortress) and the B25 (Mitchell) bombers.

USAF B25 Mitchell Bomber

Whilst this was worthy work, Lieutenant Stewart pestered his superiors to be posted overseas to a war theatre, and was finally successful in late 1943. Conceding defeat, his CO finally promoted Jimmy to the rank of Captain, and sent him to join the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force.

So it was, that in November 1943, Jimmy Stewart, arrived in the gloomy, damp fens of Norfolk, specifically to Tibenham airfield, (now the home of the Norfolk Gliding Club). His new post was that of Operations Officer. At the time the squadron was equipped with B24 Liberator bombers.

A Liberator Bomber, similar to that flown by Captain Jimmy Stewart.

Only staying a short time with the 445th, Stewart was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group, as Group Operations Officer, joining them at the nearby Old Buckenham Aerodrome on the 30th March 1944 as a newly promoted Major.

Advancement within an active service Bomber Group in wartime England was rapid due to high casualties and the need for experienced men to lead – and by early July 1944, James Stewart was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and moved to Wing Headquarters, where he continued to serve until the end of the war.

It is interesting to see that Jimmy Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any actor in modern history; during the second world war he rose to the rank of full colonel, and post-war he remained in the US Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of Brigadier-General.

Only two other celebrities outranked him – President Ronald Reagan – and therefore Commander-in-Chief of all US Forces (Captain US Army Air Force 1937 – 1945), and John Ford the movie director (Commander, US Navy, and retired as Rear Admiral US Navy Reserve).

This delightfully unassuming man was also a highly decorated officer, being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross (with Oak Leaf Cluster) Air Medal (Three Oak Leaf Clusters) The Army Commendation Medal, The French Croix de Guerre, American Defence Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It is typical of James Stewart that he rarely spoke of his part in the war, and was deeply affected by the deaths of his friends in service, and found the aerial bombing campaigns traumatic. This is somewhat reflected in the nature of the rôles he took after the war. He is also reputed to have had a dislike for Hollywood war films, on the grounds of their lack of accuracy.

This probably accounts for the fact that he only ever starred in two combat films after the war, “Strategic Air Command” and “The Mountain Road”. 

He remained, however totally committed to aviation, and keenly pursued the studios to portray Charles Lindbergh in the film “Spirit of St. Louis” despite the producers feeling that he was a bit too old to play the part. His enthusiasm for the part was simply because he greatly admired Lindbergh.

The 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix, saw Jimmy playing yet another pilot – this time as Captain Frank Towns, the commander of a Fairchild C-82 airplane which crashes in a remote part of the Sahara desert.

The twin engine aircraft is built with  twin booms to support the tailplane, and a central fuselage containing the flight deck, cabin, and cargo hold.

Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo aircraft

When the crash occurs, the aircraft is severely damaged on landing, but with the help of a passenger who is an aircraft designer, they create a composite aeroplane out of the remains of one engine and tail boom, and sections of the wing, with which to build a single engine aeroplane to fly out of the desert.

In reality, a company called Tallmantz Aviation purpose-built the Phoenix P-1, designed by Otto Timm. Measuring 45 feet long, and with a wingspan of 42 feet, it was quite a large aircraft. The power was provided by a virtually new Pratt and Whitney R-1340 nine-cylinder radial engine,  which was removed from a T6 Texan military trainer, as were some of the undercarriage components, and other associated parts. The wings were taken from a Beechcraft 18, and the rest of the airframe was made of plywood panels over a wooden frame.

In the film, the structure is given dummy “bracing” wires, and to give the desired “home-made” effect, washing line and linen was used with the specific intention to make the whole airframe look flimsy.

The Flight of the Phoenix 1965

As the aircraft was truly intended to get airborne, it was considered too dangerous to allow Jimmy to fly, so Paul Mantz a famous stunt pilot, was commissioned to pilot it for the film.

It was considered by the director and crew to do repeated take offs, so it was decided that a low pass would be made for filming, and the aircraft would touch down, perform a longer landing roll, and then take off again. This would enable both the take-off and landing sequences to be made from one shoot.

Sadly, on the second take, the aircraft crashed, tragically killing Paul Mantz.

In 1966, Jimmy was given permission to fly one last military operation –  he flew as a non-duty observer on a B-52 strategic bomber during a combat mission over North Vietnam. Two years later, he retired from the US Air Force, to spend time with his wife. 

Jimmy never truly recovered from the shock of his wife’s death in 1997, and made no further public appearances after her funeral.

James Stewart, Pilot, War Hero Architect, and Actor, died of cardiac arrest on the morning of 2nd July 1997, at the age of 89.

And that giant rabbit called Harvey? Well, Jimmy made a film in 1950, where his character, the eccentric Elmer P Dowd meets a 6 foot three white rabbit that only he can see, and who accompanies him wherever he goes.  Now you know.

Go Well…

Categories
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Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.

Categories
Aircew Airport Flight pilots Society Transport Travel Uncategorized

Cabin Crew Hero!

The water dripped sullenly off my jacket, creating audible “plops” as the droplets hit the polished wooden floor, where they co-operatively coalesced into a minor puddle.

I smiled at the barista, as she cheerfully passed my coffee across to me, proudly announcing “Caffe Latte Medio”, as if she were conferring a knighthood upon me.

I walked to an empty corner table, and sat down, shoving my rucksack into the corner.

Pulling my battered laptop computer out of its cover, I set up; the battery was full, my mug was full, and so I settled down.

I have had a life-long interest – a passion for aviation that has spanned fifty years. My early schoolboy heroes were the wartime pilots from both the Great War, and World War Two. In my teens, the trailblazing pilots of the 1920s and 1930s caught my imagination, and I read almost everything about the early fliers that I could lay my hands on.

By the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was familiar with the great pioneers – Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Jean Batten, Sir Alan Cobham, Neville Norway, Elrey Jeppesen and Wiley Post.

Over the years, I became familiar with the names of hero pilots, Al Haynes, and his flight deck colleagues who heroically flew their stricken DC-10 jet to its infamous crash landing at Sioux City.

Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal whose aircraft ran out of fuel over the wastes of the Canadian prairies, and who successfully glided to a safe landing at Gimli, a former Royal Canadian Air Force base.

More recently Captain Chesley Sullenberger was hailed a hero after ditching his fully laden Airbus A320 into the River Hudson after a bird strike critically damaged both of its engines shortly after take-off.

All these accounts tend to stick in the minds of the public, due to the courage and swift decision making of the flight crew.

Little is said about their cabin crew colleagues, despite many of them having been instrumental in saving lives – and sometimes dying in the course of their duties, and the spotlight tends to focus on the pilots.

This imbalance is probably not deliberate, but needs to be corrected, so after a little digging around, I found some accounts of very brave and courageous cabin crew.

Take the case of Barbara Harrison. She joined British Overseas Airways Corporation in May 1966, at the age of twenty one as a Flight Attendant (or Air Stewardess as they were known at the time).

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 12.53.54

On the 8th April 1968 she was rostered to operate BOAC’s Flight 712WE to Sydney. This long-haul flight was flown by a Boeing 707 –  long and tiring, routing via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Mumbai, Singapore and Perth.

Sadly, the flight was doomed from the start. It departed Heathrow Airport at about three thirty in the afternoon. During the initial climb out, the number two engine caught fire, and was so severely damaged that it fell from the aircraft, leaving the rest of the left wing ablaze.

The flight made an immediate emergency return back to Heathrow, where it made a safe landing. However, the fire on the port wing intensified to the point that the cabin windows were actually melting. Once the stricken aircraft touched down, the situation was so dire, that the cabin crew were beginning to start an immediate passenger evacuation.

Barbara’s crew position was at the rear of the aircraft, and her emergency duties were to assist the cabin attendant at the aft crew station in opening the appropriate passenger door, and help to inflate the escape slide, and then subsequently direct passengers to the door to make their escape.

The pair eventually managed to open the rear starboard door, furthest from the fire and fired the escape slide, however, during the deployment, the slide twisted, making it useless. Bravely, the steward climbed down the slide, and straightened it, leaving Barbara in the cabin to organise the evacuation.

She managed to evacuate six passengers before the slide was punctured, and deflated, but despite this she managed to evacuate a further five passengers through encouragement and in some cases forcibly ejecting them down the deflated slide.

She then moved to the port rear door, which was extremely close to the blazing left wing, but she still managed to evacuate a further five passengers before that slide was damaged by the intensity of the fire, and deflated.

21 year old Barbara Harrison was last seen in the doorway, looking as if she were preparing to jump.

She didn’t…

She disappeared back into the blazing cabin in a desperate attempt to save the four remaining passengers – including a disabled woman and an eight year old girl.

She was never seen alive again.

 

She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in recognition of her selfless gallantry that day – the only woman to have ever received the award in peacetime, and the youngest woman ever to hold the George Cross.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 12.38.58

Digging a bit further, I found out about Neerja Bhanot.

Neerja was a senior Cabin Attendant working with Pan American Airlines. She was just twenty-three when she was rostered to operate Pan Am Flight 73, scheduled to fly from Mumbai to New York on the 5th September 1986[1].

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 12.59.38

The flight was to be operated by a Boeing 747-100 series aircraft, and departed from Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International carrying 394 passengers, 9 infants, and 13 Indian cabin crew.

Flight 73 was planned to land twice before getting to New York, with stops at Karachi, Pakistan, and Frankfurt in West Germany.

Arriving at Karachi at 04:30, Flight 73 had disembarked over a hundred passengers, and was in the process of boarding the first busload of passengers for the next leg of the trip, when the aircraft was violently taken over by four Palestinian hijackers.

The Hijackers identified themselves as belonging to the Abu Nidal terrorist group.

During the ensuing confusion, Neerja managed to contact the flight deck and give the alarm, and the flight deck crew, following corporate policy, immediately evacuated the flight deck, thus leaving the hijackers with no means of flying the aircraft away[2].

This escalated the tension, and a passenger was arbitrarily selected, and taken to the forward aircraft door, where he was brutally murdered – shot in the back of the head, and thrown onto the tarmac from the aircraft door.

As the Senior Purser on board, Neeraj maintained her professionalism, and kept the passengers calm in an effort to stabilise the situation.

She was ordered to collect all of the passenger passports, and give them to the lead hijacker.

Realising that holders of US passports would be at the highest risk, she briefed her colleagues to hide as many of the US passports as possible, and many were hidden under seats, and the rest thrown down a galley refuse chute.

Realising the situation could only get worse, Neerja removed the page detailing how to open an aircraft door from her cabin crew manual, and slipped it into a magazine. Passing down the cabin, she passed this to a male passenger sitting adjacent to the door, instructing him to read the magazine carefully and to refer to it again later if needed. The page contained full instructions on how to open the door safely, and how to deploy the evacuation slide.

As the hijack progressed, The aircraft ran out of fuel, resulting in the aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) shutting down.

The aircraft was now only lit with the emergency lights, and this obviously unnerved one of the gunmen standing by the forward aircraft door, who opened fire in the darkness, aiming at the suicide vest worn by another of the terrorists.

The shot was inaccurate, and the desired explosion didn’t happen, but the sudden gunfire acted as a catalyst, causing the remaining gunmen to detonate explosives and open fire indiscriminately in the passenger cabin injuring and killing many of those on board.

Neeraj bravely opened doors, and assisted passengers in making their escape. Shot in the hip, and bleeding heavily, she was eventually evacuated to the local hospital, where she died of her wounds.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 13.06.18Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 13.05.26

Stories on the internet suggest that she was shot whilst shielding three children, one of whom was so inspired that he learned to fly, and subsequently became a captain with a major air carrier, although I have found no corroborative evidence for this, not even in documented interviews with the crew.

There is no doubt in my mind though, that Neeraj saved many lives with her selfless actions that terrible day in 1986.

More recently, on the 5th May 2019, Aeroflot Flight 1492 left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport bound for Murmansk. Shortly after take-off, the Sukhoi Superjet was hit by lightning, sustaining damage to its fly-by-wire flight controls, autopilot and radios.

It returned to Moscow, where it made an emergency landing. During the landing, it bounced heavily, and burst into flames.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 13.12.55

Twenty-two year old Maxim Moiseev was positioned in the aft section of the cabin, where the intense fire struck first. Unable to open his exit door, he directed his passengers forwards, but died quickly in his valiant efforts to assist his passengers.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 13.19.44

His colleague, Tatyana Kasatkina stationed in the forward part of the fuselage managed to kick her door open, and forcibly ejected passengers down the escape slide, saving many lives as she did so. This was conducted whilst the cabin was filling with pungent, acrid smoke, and with intense fire. Temperatures in the cabin were so high that windows were melting.

In all of these cases, many passengers only survived as a result of the courage, selfless bravery and cool thinking of their cabin crew.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 13.20.15

Call them what you will – Flight Attendants, Cabin Crew, Stewards and Stewardesses, they have as much to be proud of in an emergency as their flight deck colleagues.

Next time you fly, show a little respect for the “hostie” or “trolley dolly” that is serving your meal, or bringing you another Gin and Tonic. Behind the uniform, or the make-up and smile, there will be a brave, highly trained and caring person – who could be the difference between life and death in an emergency.

Draining the last of my coffee, I closed the lid of my laptop, the article finished.

The result is here on my page.

Mark Charlwood©  December 2019

[1] One India news article     India Times article

[2] Boeing 747 Flight Crew Escape System

Categories
Aircew Airport English Culture Flight Motorcycling Motoring pilots Society Transport Uncategorized

A Summer Fly-in at a Country Airfield

The sky was an azure bowl, and the scent of new-mown grass lay heavy in the mid-morning sunshine. The playful breeze toyed with the surrounding tents, causing them to billow and sway, like an insane troupe of Turkish Belly Dancers.

I wandered along, past ranks of parked aircraft, each one trembling slightly at each soft breath of wind. To the other side of the runway stood a mediaeval cluster of tents, gazebos and stalls, each accumulating untidy gaggles of pilots and aviation enthusiasts.

The subdued hubbub of conversation was suddenly overwhelmed with the electronic hiss of the public address system. The disembodied voice of the commentator rolled across the airfield, bouncing back from the surrounding hills, the echoes garbled and distorted.

The announcement was garbled, but I caught a few words and realised that a lost boy was being held at the First Aid tent. I wondered idly where his parents were. At the Burger Van? The Mobile Bar?  Or were they queuing to use the lavatories?

The murmuring was quiet at first – almost beneath the threshold of hearing, but it gradually became persistent, growing in volume and engorging with tone. Suddenly the day was split apart with the thunderous yet melodious note of three vintage aeroplanes flying in perfect formation – appearing low over the trees at the Eastern end of the airfield.

The staccato high-pitched whine of motor-driven cameras was just audible above the palpable growl of the engines. Every spectator looked skyward, envying the superb airmanship shown by the pilots.

The flight swooped majestically around the airfield, the sun glinting on the polished cowlings, refracting off wings as they looped and rolled above the South Downs. They were gone as suddenly as they arrived, and peace reigned once more.

As I continued my ramble towards the end of the runway, I heard the much softer note of another aircraft engine. I spotted a single light in the sky, which grew steadily until it metamorphosed into a small aircraft.

With its engine at idle, the aeroplane passed me, sighing softly as it touched down on the bumpy grass, its nose nodding up and down, affirming a good landing. As I watched, it slowed to walking pace, and taxied sedately towards the low Nissan Hut housing Air-Traffic Control.

A sallow youth wearing a very grubby High Visibility Tabard, stood glumly at the head of a vacant parking slot, and  began to unenthusiastically wave his arms at the pilot, marshalling him into the vacant position.

More incoherence from the Tannoy indicated something would soon be happening. Looking up, I faintly recognised the profile of an aeroplane, obviously at high altitude – a ghostly insect crawling across the window of the sky.

Suddenly, the blue fabric of the sky was cross-stitched with a web of pristine white trails, each creating patterns of gently expanding white.

Blossoming into multi-coloured parachutes, each action-man figure oscillated like a small pendulum, expanding as they approached the white cross laid on the grass.

With a graceful pull on their control lines, each man arrested his descent, landing as softly as thistledown. An appreciative crowd clapped, as the team collected their deflated chutes.

Shadows were lengthening as I drove out of the car park. A Spitfire suddenly howled overhead, just in front of my car, its wheels already tucking up into its belly, its sides bronzed and gilded by the setting sun. Disappearing into the heat shimmer, it left only the echoes of its engine to testify to its existence.

End

Mark Charlwood MRAeS MISTC)©