Category Archives: 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…

ME? A WANDERING MINSTREL?

Its a funny old world.

Ever since I was a child, I have loved music – in particular, any song that tells a full story. It seems that the only genres left that adequately do this consistently are country music and country rock. I could be wrong though, as my music taste has become more and more discrimnatory and selective over the years. I could be unfairly judging modern music, but, hey, I’m a product of my generation…

A Good Ole Country Boy, telling it how it is…

I havent listen to a “pop” station for decades, prefering the wider range of genres presented by (dare I say it ) Radio 2, I also listen to Union Jack Radio which plays all British artistes and when I’m feeling nostalgic, Eagle 80s. If you’re interested, both of these staions broadcast on DAB and over the internet, so no excuse not to give them a try…

Anyhow, back to musical story-telling…

Now, love him or hate him, who can forget Kenny Rogers telling the story of The Coward of the County, or The Gambler?

Maybe listen to the Eagles, and let them sing the sad story of the love-lorn woman and her uncaring husband in Lyin’ Eyes.

If you like a little humour in your music, listen to the late, great Johhny Cash telling the story of the Boy Named Sue.

Love of music must be an almost genetic thing though.

My Father was a musician. He couldn’t read a word of music, but he was a competent guitarist, and played banjo in a Jazz band. He could also busk it with a trombone, and the harmonica.

My Dear Old Dad, playing the Trombone at a charity fund-raiser with the Fleet Jazz Band, circa 1957

Sometimes he would arrive home with a new instrument – purchased just because the mood took him. I seem to recall him coming home one evening with a ukelele and within a few hours of tinkering he could bash out a reasonable number of recognisable tunes.

My Mother on the other hand does not have a musical bone in her body, and couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it. But she does have a lot of poetic ability, some of which I think I must have inherited from her.

So, over the years, I have written reams of lyrics and poems, none of which had seen the light of day – mainly because as I am unable to read music or play an instrument, I have been unable to marry the words with a suitable musical vehicle.

Possibly one of the best Mystical Musical Stories – The Eagles’ Hotel California

That changed when I went to work for the Civil Aviation Authority. It turned out that one of my fellow managers was a skilled guitarist, and played in a band, and spent the rest of his free time either as a Johnny Cash Tribute artiste, or playing in a duo called Loki.

Discussing my problem with him, he said that if I sent him a lyric, he would see what he could do with it.

With a little trepidation, I passed over some lyrics that I had written in the early 1990s,

In my minds eye, I imagined this particular song being played by a group like Sad Cafe, or Air Supply, so I didn’t really know what to expect it to be like like after Kevin had played around with it.

A few weeks later, and it was finished. In a quiet side room at work, Kevin played me the embryonic song – which sounded weird – hearing words that I had written melded with music.

After a little tweaking, Kevin treated the number to a full studio workout, and the result was intriguing. I think it works very well, but I guess I’m a bit biased.

So, here it is.

Yesterday You Told Me It Was Over (Lyrics Mark Charlwood, Music by Kevin Russell)

Kevin Russell is The Fat Man in Black – Johnny Cash Tribute Atriste

Kevin appears regularly on the music circuit, and plays pretty much throughout the South East. One of his regular gigs is at the Sharpthorne Organic Cafe in Sharpthorne, West Sussex – so visit for a relaxed and mellow Sunday lunch whilst being entertained.

The Sharpthorne Organic Cafe in Sharpthorne, West Sussex

He may even play this song, if you ask him nicely…

Go Well…

Mark Charlwood© January 2020

Thumbs up for typewriters? well, maybe not…

This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)

In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.

Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.

Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.

When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.  

A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.

Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.

So, now you know the basics…

As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.

Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine.  He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.

The Triumph Adler/Imperial Model 800 – A true Workhorse of the 1980s office

“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman. 

“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.

With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.  

The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X. 

The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.  

I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice. 

He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses. 

He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence.  It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.

Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.  

So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.

“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”

I waited.   And waited.  He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game. 

I leaned forwards.  “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.

“Yes.  Judy.  You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”

I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.

Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears. 

General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.  Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.

Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.

I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.

I really shouldn’t have worried.

I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet. 

Now was my moment!

I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket.  I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.

“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”

With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide.  Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.

I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne.  He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.

“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.

She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.

“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper.  By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”

“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”

Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish

“……..bring ourselves up to date”

I inwardly smirked.  The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel.  Up to date indeed!

I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.  

She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”

I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”

The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard.  At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.

“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved.  “Oh My,” she remarked.

Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.

She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned.  The carbon copy was just as good.

I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission.  Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out. 

Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.

I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion.  The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion.  I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.  

I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.

I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.

This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!

Setting up the Cash Register

My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.  

Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.

The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head –  I had never seen him without it.

He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves.  I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.  

I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.

Simple to use – even when you’re stoned

Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.

A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book. 

In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.

It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses.  I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.  

Nice place for a pub lunch…

As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.

I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries.  I would need to get a hustle on…

I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.

I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.

I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why.  He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.

“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”

He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”

He stopped.  I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”

“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”

“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.

“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”

I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.

“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”  

He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?

“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.

Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.

“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”

He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.

£259.00 in 2020*

Sniff it – Dont bath in it!

It had been a long and tiring few days.

Yesterday, I had started work at 0430, and it had been pretty much full on all day. I was lucky that I managed to slip out at 0830 and grab a late breakfast from the “Roach Coach” burger van, as the crews used to refer to it. The Roach Coach, or Botulism Bus was an old Citroen van fitted out as a kitchen.

Egg and Bacon French Stick – Fantastic Breakfast for the AA IFO Flight Operations Crew!

Breakfast was usually good and reasonably cheap – I had a simply huge egg and bacon French stick and a mug of tea so strong that it stripped the plating off the spoon. Despite its nickname, in all of the eight years that I used it, I never got any form of food poisoning!

By the end of my shift, I had handled one inbound emergency diversion, two gate delays, and a flight returning to gate due to a technical problem.

My throat was tingling with the tell-tale signs of an oncoming cold, and my nasal passages felt strangely dry and cold, and I was feeling distinctly under the weather as I returned home.

In an effort to clear my head, I dripped some Olbas Oil into a Pyrex bowl filled with hot water, and then draped a towel over my head and around the bowl, so that I could breathe the vapours. My dear old Mum used to swear by this stuff when I was a kid.

I think after about half an hour under the towel, my head felt marginally clearer, so I took full advantage of this, and went straight to bed.

The next day, I was on an 0500 start, and would be co-ordinating the whole of the flight operation at Heathrow for the Mighty American Airlines.

Happy Days at LHR T3 Gater Room L25 – AA European International Flight Operations.

Waking up well before dawn, the hot shower did little to improve either my mood or my well-being, and my throat felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater. Overnight, someone had slipped into my room, and stuffed both of my nostrils with glue, and my head had been packed with cotton wool.

Once I was booted and suited, so to speak, I drove mostly on auto-pilot to the Northside staff car park, and waited in the cold pre-dawn air for the staff shuttle bus to ferry us to the Central Area of London Heathrow’s Airport.

The bus soon filled with security-screened zombies, bright in their High Vis jackets, and the uniforms of many different airlines. The conservative navy blue of my Flight Operations uniform was overshadowed with the bright crimson red of the Virgin Atlantic hostie who plonked herself next to me.

Muted desultory conversations murmured around the bus, but in the main, we all slumped in silence each still longing for bed.

Arriving at the central staff bus stop, I briskly strode the five-minute walk to Terminal Three, the home of American Airlines. The check in hall was almost deserted as I walked through, but some of my colleagues from security were already at work, checking and calibrating the X-Ray equipment and testing the baggage belts and check in computers.

Pushing the large, heavy-duty vinyl doors open, I walked down the gloomy corridor towards the baggage make up area, and waited in line to have my ID card inspected, and walk through the arch scanner.

On this morning I was feeling too miserable to engage in my normal banter with the Indian lady who normally manned this isolated post.

I arrived in the Ops room, snotty and grotty and made myself a hot Lemsip, and then went to look at the movements board, which had been updated by Mick on the night shift. It looked like the system was running normally, with all of the birds departed, and heading east, and no obvious delays or cancellations.

The first arrival from JFK would be hitting the tarmac at about 0615, so I had time to check in with all of the other parts of the operation, doing radio checks with check-in, arrivals, gates, security, catering, special services, ground movements and engineering.

I then sat back sipping mournfully at the Lemsip, in the vain hope that it would clear my head and ease my throat.

It did neither, and by 1300 I was feeling really rough. Thank goodness the shift had run smoothly, with no problems or incidents.

When I got home I was feeling hot and sweaty and my skin had become super-sensitive.

I decided to have a good soak in a hot bath to try and warm up, and feel a little more comfortable.

My nose was still blocked, and my sinuses were still jammed, and I felt totally congested.

As the bath was running, I spotted the small brown bottle of Olbas Oil, still sitting on the shelf over the hand basin, where I had left it after using it the previous evening.

It was then that I had my brainwave.

Such an innocent looking bottle…

I could save time if I were to mix the Olbas Oil into the bath water, and gain the benefits of a relaxing tub of hot water whilst the vapour gently penetrated and cleared by nasal passages.

Unscrewing the cap, I looked at the bottle top. There was a small nozzle similar to the shaker top on a bottle of vinegar, so I could apply it easily.

According to the instructions, all I had to do was drip a few drops into a bowl of hot water to clean my passages.

I considered this, and decided that if I needed a few drops in a bowl, I would probably need to shake a considerable number of drops into a bath that probably held 100 litres.

I upended the bottle, and vigorously shook the bottle, watching as the droplets scattered over the water.

I stirred the water around briskly, and was satisfied to smell the pungent odour wafting from the water. I could see that the drops had each formed a miniature puddle that floated on the surface, some refracting the light in a myriad of rainbow hues.

Satisfied that all was well, I climbed gingerly into the bath, the water coming up to the middle of my calves.

Crouching down, I slowly eased myself into a sitting position, sighing deeply as I relaxed back into the water, leaning back into the wonderfully warm water.

I had just shut my eyes, when the burning began.

It started gently initially. A slight tingling in my crotch, and a faint burning in my armpits.

My eyes snapped fully open as suddenly, it felt as if someone had taken a welding torch to my family jewels, the heat searing and eye-watering. I clambered up out of the water as fast as I could, but getting out of the water did nothing to ease my immediate predicament.

The logical side of my mind was telling me that the oil-based product was clinging to my skin, but the other side of my brain was demanding that I use the abrasive cleaning sponge to rid my skin of the intense fire caused by the herbal napalm that was soaking the most delicate bits of my anatomy.

I hauled the shower head from behind the taps, turning the water on full, and attempted to douse the areas that were blazing with the intensity of a bush fire, but it was to no avail, the Olbas Oil was diligently refusing to release my soft tissues from its inferno grip.

Hopping out of the bath, I literally ran down the stairs, and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and jammed it lovingly between my legs, praying that Olbas Oil wouldn’t leave chemical burns that would need treatment at Ashford General’s A & E department. That would take too much explaining away.

The ice pack made little difference, but eventually, after what seemed like three days, (but was in fact about twenty minutes) the pain subsided a little, and I was able to face returning to the bathroom.

I spent a good half hour cleaning the bath, wiping the walls and base with a cloth, and rinsing and re-rinsing the entire structure to ensure that there was no Olbas Oil left to interfere with future bathing enjoyment.

I dried off, and eventually conceded defeat to my cold, and went to bed, tired, damp, feverish and very delicate.

So, folks – whatever you do, DON’T climb into a bath laced with nasal decongestant -Stick with bubble bath or foam bath.

Go Well…

Beer, Bikes and Burritos – a Ride Out to Southern California’s Most Famous Biker Bar at Cooks Corner

What on earth possesses a man, evidently in his late fifties to wear a tassled baseball cap back to front, and wear a ripped tee shirt bearing the legend “Red Rider – Death Machine”  My mind is definitely boggled. He arrived by pick up truck rather than a hog, so I was a little confused as to why a Ford Ranger could be regarded as a Death Machine.

Unless there is something I don’t know…

I was sitting at a beer-stained table at Cooks Corner, a well-known biker’s bar in Orange County, California.  Sitting in front of me was a large pitcher of ice cold beer.  The hubbub of conversation was frequently overwhelmed with the booming thunder of a large capacity Harley Davidson arriving, or the bellow of one accelerating hard up East Santiago Canyon Road, heading for Silverado or the Limestone Canyon National Park

Cook’s Corner, Trabuco Canyon, Laguna Hills, California

Just behind me, a simple stage had been set up under an awning upon which was a drum kit, three guitars and a keyboard. As it was a warm and sunny lunchtime, the place was filling up fast. I have never seen so many tattoos, leather waistcoats and goatee beards….and that was just the women!

Plenty of seating and near to the stage!

The atmosphere, for a busy biker bar was relaxed and friendly, with everybody up for a good time. And the hubbub of happy conversation bubbled around the place. 

As the advance guard, I had located a table capable of seating the eight people in our party, which was already occupied by a middle aged couple. Evidently, the man hadn’t been stroked by the happy stick, and neither had his wife, who bore an expression suggesting that she had just been engaged in sucking on a particularly obnoxious substance, such as a skunk dung.  

“Are these seats taken?” I asked.  The man stared at me vacuously, giving a shrug, so I assumed that his inability to articulate was due to him being profoundly happy for our extrovert and vociferous group to join him.

I plonked myself down, and inspected my fellow diners more closely. Both in their late forties, they had obviously embraced the West Coast Urban Designer Biker culture. He was wearing a gloss black leather peaked cap, which I imagined he borrowed, or maybe stole from one of the more flamboyant members of The Village People, and wore what looked like a Swarovski diamanté encrusted crucifix around his neck.  Large? I imagine it probably weighed in the region of about a kilo!

His red leather waistcoat was adorned with patches proclaiming his membership of an absurd number of biker clubs, but the biggest patch of all was for The Laguna Hills Motorcycle club.  He also had a patch with a screaming skull embroidered upon it.  In other respects, from his sallow complexion to his soft, pudgy hands, he hardly looked like a biker.  I expect that in reality he was a suburban architect, or ran a firm of accountants.

But then, I am a biker, and I’m a sixty year old balding flight instructor… Go figure!

Tangmere Aviation Museum, with the Triumph Tropy

His wife fared not much better and was also wearing the obligatory black leather cap, although, her’s was of a style favoured by Donny Osmond in the early 1970s.  Her waistcoat was tasselled and covered in biker patches.  

In the ten minutes or so that I sat there waiting for the rest of my group, they never said a single word to each other, and totally ignored me.

When my friends finally arrived after parking their bikes, they spotted me snd descended on the table in a happy chattering gaggle, with three or four conversations taking place simultaneously. I could hear Giuseppe’s strident voice loudly discussing something in Italian, with Francesca, his partner. 

The rest of the group were talking animatedly about motorcycles, aeroplanes, beer and women. 

The beer-stained menu was hastily passed around, and as we were all hungry, we wasted no time in placing our order at the bar. As it was fairly early, the service was relatively quick and our food order arrived quickly. 

A sudden silence descended on the table as we dived in on burgers, fries, beers, and burritos.  Our inadvertent companions, the odd couple, stonily sat there, still not talking, and looking disapprovingly at our group, who were clearly getting noisier in direct proportion to the food and beer that was consumed.

Seeing that my friend’s glasses were almost emptied, I wandered into the bar, and ordered a further two pitchers of ice cold Budweiser, and two Cadillac Margaritas. The cheerful young woman behind the bar smiled at me, saying how much she loved my accent, and then asked me which part of Australia I was from. I replied, dryly saying that I came from a suburb of Sydney called Earls Court. 

Cooks Corner Biker Bar

Taking my proffered cash, she told me she would bring the beers out to our table.

Must have been my smooth-talking antipodean charm!

We finished eating, and I must say, that for a so-called “Biker Bar” the food was superb, well cooked, and full of flavour. The servings were generous, and fantastic value for money.

What a fantastic place. Everyone I met there was friendly, (although I can’t speak for our table companions, as they didnt say a word) and we were made to feel very welcome, by both the bar staff and our fellow bikers.

Everyone was there for one reason – to share good food, cold beers, great bikes and fun memories.

The linguistically-challenged bar girl came to our table, clearing plates. She was really lovely, and simply exuded happy friendliness, exchanging banter and flirting with the customers as she glided effortlessly between the tables. We left her a very generous tip.

It’s a shame I had no Aussie Dollars though…

We all relaxed now, full of lunch and beer and happy to stay in the shade as the temperature continued to rise whilst the sun crawled up the blue fabric of the sky. More and more bikes arrived, with many of the riders wearing nothing more than shorts, tee-shirts and flip flops. Many of the girls riding pillion wore bikinis and little else.

During a quieter period – Just wait until it gets busy!

I shuddered to think of what would happen to them should they have a spill out on the highway.

I glanced at our group.

All in our fifties and sixties, we had all experienced coming off in the past and so were wearing slightly more appropriate wear, and everyone had a leather jacket, gloves, jeans and boots. Not quite what I would wear on the miserable roads of Blighty – back home I would be wearing an armoured leather jacket, armoured leather trousers, armoured boots and armoured leather gloves.

I guess that our climate, and the dreadfully congested roads mean that you have to dress like a mediaeval knight to withstand the risks.

My attention was caught by a group of pasty-faced youths in ripped jeans who were picking up guitars and obviously tuning up with a view to playing, and with unspoken agreement we all decided that now was the time to leave, whilst we still had the benefit of functional hearing.

So, having chilled for about three hours, we decided that a gentle meander through the canyons and passes in the Laguna Hills was in order, so we suited up, and rode back to Coto de Caza via the back roads,  enjoying the warm wind on our faces, as we swooped along the almost empty highways that run through the valleys of the Laguna Hills.

Returning to my friend’s house, we all peeled off our leathers, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking, drinking and watching the sun dip slowly in the west, drowning in the waters off Laguna Beach.

California sunset, from the terrace in Coto De Caza

A good ending to a great day out.

Go Well! 

Abandoned – and on the Verge of Falling Apart…

On December the second last year, I left home to endure my pre dawn commute. Driving down the lane, I noticed a black Mini car parked on the grass verge outside my neighbours’ house. As I passed it, I could see that it wasn’t in bad condition, and assumed that it belonged to a visitor.

Thinking about this later, I realised that if it were one of Jim’s visitors, then they would have parked in his large forecourt, off the road, rather than untidily parked on the grass.

I continued to wonder what the true situation was, and made a mental note to chat with Jim at the weekend.

Happily, and by coincidence, my Brother and Sister in law (of Tread the Globe fame) visited during the week, and Chris wanted to test fly his new drone, in preparation of it being used on their epic Round the World journey. During his test flights, he captured a nice image of the car parked in the lane, and that photo, shown below, was dated 5th December 2019.

The Mini Car parked on the grass – Drone photo courtesy of Chris Fisher of Tread the Globe

On Saturday morning, I spotted Jim, my neighbour, so wandered down to have a chat to him.

I asked him about the Mini car, and he told me that it was abandoned, and that he had checked with DVLA and the vehicle was untaxed, and he therefore assumed that it had been either abandoned or stolen. He had called the local council, and had reported this so that they could organise for it to be collected and disposed of.

To date the vehicle is still sitting there on the grass, and as each week passes it is subjected to further vandalism and damage; both door mirrors smashed off, and the rear wiper ripped away. It now looks very sad, and is slowly decomposing in the wind and rain.

Abandoned and un-loved. Wing Mirrors smashed, and under threat of further vandalism

Abandoned vehicles are a much bigger problem than I had imagined.

It appears that UK Councils spent almost a million pounds to remove the 32,000 abandoned vehicles from Britain’s highways and byways in the 2016/2017 fiscal year.

It’s alarming to find that there has been a 577% increase in the dumping of cars and vans in a four year period (2012-201).

A Freedom of Information request lodged with Britain’s 436 local authorities revealed that across the nation, 31,812 vehicles were removed and disposed of.

It is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Refuse Disposal (Amenities) Act of 1978 to abandon a vehicle, and carries a maximum penalty of £2,500 and/or three months imprisonment.

This doesn’t seem to deter people from dumping, and the revenues raised from fines levied (when the owners may be traced) amount to £115,610 – which comes nowhere near the costs.

The authorities costs may be even higher if the abandoned car needs to be scrapped, and the shortfall in funds have to be recovered from local residents from taxation.

It seems that the highest number of reported and removed vehicles are in the South East, probably because this region is densely populated with both people and cars.

Motor insurance comparison website, Confused.com conducted some research, and this seems to suggest that the high costs associated with recovering and repairing a car have become unaffordable for some, with 23% of respondents claiming that this is the reason for dumping a vehicle. 30% of respondents dumped their car because it had broken down, and they could not afford to have it towed to a garage for repair.

7% said that they could no longer afford to run a vehicle at all.

The statistics also seem to suggest that 16% of drives who abandoned their cars did so for an average of three weeks, which suggests that these drivers are basically honest, and returned to recover the car when they could afford to do so.

Naturally there are a percentage of drivers who dump their cars because they can’t afford to pay the VED, or the insurance, and a small percentage who have stolen a car to get somewhere, and dump it when they have finished using it.

Some abandoned cars may have been used to commit crimes, and these too will be dumped at tax payers expense.

But back to my situation

It is now 28th February. 88 days since Jim reported the Mini outside his house.

I wonder how long it will take the local authority come out and move it?

Answers on a postcard…

UPDATED 02 MARCH 2020

I spotted this sign during a trip to some of the local shops…

I dont know whether to laugh or cry… Or maybe cry with laughter!

A bit of an empty threat really. They havent been able to remove an untaxed, probably uninsured vandalised vehicle from the lane in which I live after more than ninety days, so signs threatening removal after 48 hours seem somewhat ambitious.

Go Well…

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!

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…

Photocopiers – A Salesman’s Nemesis

This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)

It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.

I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.

I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?

My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.

I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.

In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.

For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.

An early Liquid Toner Photocopier, circa 1979

Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.

A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird.  He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.

The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.

Brand new black and white carpet tiles – what could possibly go wrong?

I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.

“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”

I decided to play it cool and unflappable.  “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”

He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration.  Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.

“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked. 

“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”

“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.

With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.

I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.

At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.

He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.

With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.

He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.

My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.

I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.

“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.

“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”

I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!

The mighty Mita DC-161 copier – a beast at 117kg (258 pounds) – a definite two man lift!

Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.

So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.

We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.

Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.

Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.

I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down

“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.

“Couple more mate” He panted

I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”

“Yep!” came his wheezing response.

Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…

There was another step.

At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.

I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.

“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff. 

 “I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”

The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.

“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”

After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?

With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities. 

An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.

“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”

A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.

Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls.  They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.

Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.

The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.

The truly appalling Vauxhall Chevette – Spent more time in the workshop than on the road.

On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive.  I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.

I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat.  Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.

Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity. 

For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.

Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.

At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.

As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.

“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”  

I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.

Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.

Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.

“Is it bad?” I enquired.

“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”

This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.

“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”

“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.

He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers

“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.

“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.

Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.

Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.

I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office. 

Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.

And that is where the plan came unstuck.  Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.

I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.

I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.

“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”

I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form. 

I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.

Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”

“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”

I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner,  leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.

Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.

“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.

“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”

Generous gesture, that.

So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.

I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.

I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.

And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…

Go Well…

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.