Flying solo at seventeen
The brusque Scotsman sitting by my side unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the cabin door. The pulsing gale of the idling propeller wafted petroleum flatulence into the cabin.
“Right!” he bellowed. “Don’t fucking prang it.” And out he got.
Just to instil confidence the station fire engine trundled up and parked alongside the runway. I radioed for permission, taxied onto the runway, opened up the throttle and released the breaks. When the dial said something over seventy I eased the magic joystick towards my heart and up we went, just the two of us: Golf Hotel and I.
A thousand feet up, I bust into song. All alone, at that height and behind a screaming engine, it was probably the safest place to do so.
Four right hand turns and half a dozen checks later and I was already descending for the difficult bit. With the absentee Scots eardrum basher’s instructions ringing in the resonant glen of my much-bollocked memory, I waited until we were the height of a house, and then tugged back on the control column once more, to plop the Piper Cherokee just slightly shy of the runway centreline on the Fire Tender side.
No prang was fucked.
That first solo at 15.55GMT on 29th August 1974 was the beginning of the end of a dream. It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of the begging. Devouring The Victor comic perhaps, in which stiff upper inked honourable heroes shot down pesky Nazi planes with due deference and sporting waves to their pilots, or perhaps my fervour was founded in the American comics received as swaps from James Bond’s brother who lived next door. I was particularly taken with a superhero called The Angel who had a very fine pair of wings, but who couldn’t get a girlfriend in case she took his shirt off and saw his secret.
Most likely it was down to plastic models. The first was a foundling from the street. It was finished but not painted and the port tail plane was missing. I called it the little yellow fighter not knowing it wasn’t a fighter at all but a Harvard trainer – an auspicious error perhaps?
The desire to pilot the full-sized models grew alongside the burgeoning polystyrene air force. Friends who were good at games and had dads that wore ties when they went to work, said my particular ambition was pie in the sky. My hunger was not a problem, I told them, provided one could pilot a plane.
The Victor contained a comic-strip advert for The Air Training Corps. The blue-eyed boy signed up and soared through the ranks, probably because I was keen, reliable, dedicated and could recognise the silhouette of a Spitfire mark 9 when it was projected onto a prefabricated wall.
While at sixth-form college, an application was made to the Royal Air Force to supply sponsorship through university. I was summoned to Biggin Hill to undergo selection. BIGGIN HILL! The heart of the Battle of Britain.
I failed to secure the sponsorship, but to my immense astonishment was awarded something called a Flying Scholarship. This meant a four-week residential course of flying training at no charge to my hard-working-class parents other than a nominal fee for accommodation.
So it was that in early August 1974 I arrived at Halfpenny Green where a civilian flying school had been charged with dispatching me and two dozen others to pitch, yaw, bank and recover from potentially fatal stalls, above the unsuspecting folk of Worcestershire.
It was a halcyon summer. Progress was delayed because a cadet had pranged an aeroplane just prior to our arrival. It wasn’t serious but a nose wheel had to be straightened and that set back the schedule, so in the end my stay was six weeks.
Most, but not all, of my comrades that summer were fellow air cadets but pretty much all were good sorts. Salt of the sky, or so we thought. To begin with there was a lot of waiting around for the call to action, but my log book shows that on most days we got at least one sortie each. In the evenings we made our own immature entertainment. Everyone was Kung Fu fighting that year. There was a trip to A&E for the boy with the dart embedded in his arm. He bore no grudge, and the next morning was up first as usual to gather wild mushrooms to supplement our breakfast. His assailant declined the treat.
Another prime chap shuttled me back and forth between the airfield and a Wolverhampton club when I was refused entry because I was wearing jeans. He drove a Volvo coupe, which prior to that I’d only ever seen on screen being devilishly accelerated by the saintly Roger Moore. My chauffeur had a wider selection of air horns than the infamous eyebrow-flexing felon fixer, and refrained George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps aggressively on his eight-track cartridge player.
There was a bevy of instructors, one of whom had actually flown Spitfires and who took delight in coming out of the sun if he spotted a fellow flyer in the same airspace while machine-gunning “Dagger, dagger, dagger” over the radio. Mr Bartleet, was much more dignified, and would often tune the onboard radio to BBC Radio 2 when we were flying cross-country towards the Droitwich transmitter. The tutor who cudgelled me into going solo was called, believe it or not, Mr McLeod. (Pronounced m-cloud.)
Those instructors literally put their confidence in us. These days a teacher can’t hand out a pencil sharpener without conducting a risk assessment, but those chaps essentially said to seventeen-year-olds: “Here’s twenty grand’s worth of red-hot aluminium and highly inflammable liquid. Take it up there, throw it around a bit, and bring it back down. Off you go.”
One cadet went solo after just seven hours dual instruction. It took me just short of twelve. The training continued and I notched up five and a half hours solo before trundling back home to start my final college year a week or so late.
I was fascinated by aircraft and loved flying. I was competent enough, but I wasn’t particularly skilled at it. The free course was successfully concluded and somehow my mother found sufficient bundles of cash stashed in secret drawers in her bedroom to pay for another six hours duel and three solo from Squires Gate in Blackpool.
In September 1975 an eye test put an end to all ambition to fly with the RAF. It was perhaps just as well. My direct contemporaries who lived the dream ended up flying nightmare missions over Iraq, something with which I would not have been at all comfortable.
So now there is just the nostalgia, but the pie in the sky tasted sweet. The Piper Cherokee was a noble high plains companion, we had a spiffing six weeks; and I didn’t fucking prang it.
Actually, my first aeronautical solo was actually my second, but the first lacked a propeller. See: Spoiler alert: contains glider components.
The James Bond next door truth is explained in: You only Bond thrice
Flying sequences feature in two of my novels, fleetingly in Untitled:
and more frequently in Ice & Lemon: