A romantic reunion at Caernarfon Airworld
It was my first time. Just me and she. I was five days shy of my seventeenth birthday and it only lasted three minutes but she lifted me a thousand feet high then let me down very gently. Last week we met again. In 1973 she was to be found just outside Warrington. Now she resides in Wales.
It all began with plastic models. The Airfix 1/72 scale De Havilland Mosquito was the first, swiftly followed by a Wellington bomber and then seventy or eighty others over a decade or so. One weekend, an advertisement in a comic seduced me out of the Boy Scouts and into the Air Training Corps, and in December 1972 I was granted a week off from St Thomas More Comprehensive to attend the Central Gliding School at RAF Spitalgate just outside Grantham in Lincolnshire. It was a complete washout with horrendous weather until the final day, Saturday 8th December, when my logbook shows five flights totalling just 14 minutes.
The following month brought the commencement of a dozen weekend trips spread over a nine-month period to Burtonwood near Warrington, where the good people of 635 Gliding School built on my premature spurt at Grantham.
Burtonwood was the largest US airbase in Europe during the Second World War with 18000 personnel based there at its peak. Their duties involved receiving, fitting out, testing and forwarding aircraft from the States to bases in the UK or on Royal Navy vessels. By 1973 it was a demi-ghost base, a huge expanse with only tokens of its former function in evidence.
I flew in four or five different aircraft but it was to be XA282 (or Xandra as I will affectionately call her) who was to be the cherished one. I first wriggled inside her cockpit on 12th May 1973, accompanied by Mr Pritchard who kept it up for seventeen minutes – far longer than any of my other flights in that type.
Xandra is a Slingsby Cadet Mark 3 glider. Developed from a pre-war German design, she was ideal for teaching the rudiments of the most important aspect of flying – how to land. Tens of thousands of pilots learned to glide in this type and Xandra gave generously during her active years.
This glider was designed to be launched by a high-powered winch, the cable from which was clipped to a quick-release catch on the nose. Once the all-clear signal was given, acceleration was rapid. As soon as flying speed was attained a hard pull back on the control column lurched the glider skywards in a very steep arc to roughly a thousand feet, when a sharp tug on the wooden handle of the cable release set the aircraft free. Being unpowered, unless she was in experienced and skilled hands, she was from that moment always going down at just over one metre every second. The novice pilot had somewhere between two and four minutes to execute four turns and put the aeroplane back on the ground fairly close to where she had started.
Some gliders have spoilers fitted, control surfaces that can be brought into action to disrupt airflow and hence lose lift and height. These are not needed on basic training flights from a winch because the starting altitude is so low. The challenge was to reposition the aircraft accurately during the very brief flight and then make as smooth and balanced a touchdown as one could. Without the benefit of an engine the pilot only gets one chance. In addition to learning a few emergency procedures it was the perfecting of the circuit, approach and landing that was the focus of the training.
The climax eventually came on Saturday 22nd September 1973 when, after six flights with Mr Blease and two with Mr Howard I was cleared to go solo. This was the pinnacle of five fervent years of dreaming, desiring and devotion to all things aeronautical.
Xandra waited silently as adjustments were made to her trim to rebalance her from a threesome to a duet. In I climbed, the wings were held level, final checks made, “All out!” signalled and off we went. Three minutes later and it was all over, but she gave me another couple of rides just to make sure the first wasn’t a fluke. I’ve never quite been the same since, and I’ve never forgotten Xandra.
The internet is a powerful ally for finding old flames. Six months ago I Googled Xandra’s registration and to my intense surprise discovered that she not only still existed but was on display at Caernarfon Airport.
Marion and I were greeted by Caroline who is currently cracking an orderly whip at this modestly-sized but richly-endowed museum. She seemed thrilled when she saw the entry in my log book and led us personally through into Xandra’s boudoir which is stuffed with former flying icons.
“Buccaneer!” I declared, and Caroline was polite enough not to correct my misty-eyed misidentification of what I later realised was the frontal third of a Gloster Javelin. With heart in mouth I followed past the Westland Whirlwind, the Hawker Sea Hawk, the De Havilland Vampire, the Hawker Hunter (perhaps the prettiest jet aircraft of all) and towards the two-seat Hawker Siddeley Harrier, and there, lording over all those noble warriors was the one I had come to revere.
Xandra is a little dusty, and has her stretch-marks and the odd rip but she was instantly recognisable and seemed pleased to see me. She’s forever out of reach, but by leaning precariously from the steps leading to the Hunter’s canopy I could just stroke her cable catch. The thrill was almost unbearable.
Marion was tactful enough to wander off and give Xandra and I some time together. We didn’t say much. With our kind of bond, words aren’t necessary.
It’s pleasing to see Xandra is in such a good place. The museum is especially strong on 1950s and 1960s artefacts and the great joy is in the access to the hardware, being able to get right up to the business end of the aeroplanes, and actually sit at the controls. In addition to the types mentioned above there’s also a sizable chunk of a Bristol Sycamore helicopter, several iconic engines (including the infamous Merlin), some fascinating displays regarding the emergence of Mountain Rescue operations, and of the unfortunate consequences of using airspace where mountains, sea and inclement weather often collide.
There’s a Vickers Varsity cockpit. “I flew in one of these” said another visitor as I studied the nearby Barnes Wallis display. “Snap!” I said. It turned out he too had been an Air Cadet, we’d each had a trip in a Varsity, and he had also flown in Slingsby gliders, though he hadn’t had the pleasure of Xandra’s uplifting embrace.
Caroline has her grand designs for the displays and the museum may close during the forthcoming winter so that she can oversee a refurbishment and a general upgrade. She wants to implement bilingual labelling (Welsh and English) and make some of the artefacts more interactive. An historian by trade, but with secure connections to the RAF, she brings a peculiar proficiency powered by genuine enthusiasm for the potential of the place.
We live in times of long-overdue gender realignment in terms of occupational opportunities and remuneration, so it is an apt time for a woman to take a grip on what must surely have been a predominantly testosterone-powered establishment.
As it stands, the female role is presented historically correctly. Today women can see front line service in the armed forces but previously they were limited to support roles. We observed the meteorologist mannequin.
“Smart uniform,” I remarked.
“She’s got a ladder in her tights,” said Marion.
The observation was slightly feline, the metaphor almost thermonuclear.
We had another natter with Caroline on the way out. Marion said it was good to hear a woman being so enthusiastic about aviation history. She was right. Caroline was inspiring, and she’s clearly a person with a plan.
“You’ve got some impressive exhibits here,” I told her, “especially from the Cold War period.”
Caroline nodded. “The kids love leaping in and out of them.”
“So did he,” jibed Marion. “Except he didn’t exactly leap.”
We all laughed; the two women genuinely.
My last glimpse of Xandra was of her peeping at me over the cockpit of the Sea Hawk. It might just have been the fluorescent strip reflecting in her windscreen, but I swear she winked.
I’ll probably never see her again; but we’ll always have Burtonwood.
Caernarfon Air World is to be commended and is well worth a visit. On the map it may look a little out of the way but it is less than fifteen minutes from Caenarfon centre and nestles on a picturesque peninsular with the Welsh mountains providing a spectacular backdrop. Other attractions there include air experience and pleasure flights in both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Parking is free and there’s an inexpensive café overlooking the runway.
Website: Caernarfon Airworld
Flying sequences crop up in The Atheist’s Prayer Book , in Ice & Lemon and in my forthcoming novel: Untitled.
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