Days Of Wings And Engines
If I had to choose a single activity that has dominated my life I would without hesitation nominate flying. Starting when aged thirty; I filled eighteen logbooks - with over nine thousand flights in control. I did a total of about fifteen thousand landings - all manual - and in doing so flew 120 types of aircraft. If you add gliders there are perhaps ten more types.
I owned several aircraft, hired them - and wherever possible borrowed them, often swapping time with one of mine. My greatest obsession was air racing. Flying was an infatuation and passion, only brought to a halt when, aged sixty, ill health waved a warning hand and abruptly ended it all.
Days of Wings and Engines
Most books about flying are written by war aces, aerobatic champions or experts of one kind or another. The nearest I have approached either of these categories was to be kindly and recently described as The Great Racing Legend, by a lady who had been one of my competitors in my air racing days.
However to experience the joys, the challenges and occasionally the pain of flying you do not have to fit into any of the above. The vast majority of private pilots get immense pleasure and satisfaction from unspectacular, non-competitive aviation - for example just popping over to Le Touquet for lunch.
Neither do you need to be young to enjoy it - financial considerations probably militate against those struggling to buy houses, have families and all the other pressures of growing towards middle age, leaving an older more affluent few to indulge in what can be an expensive pastime. So let us explore the world of the private pilot - still one within reach of many people often deterred by misconceptions and prejudices. I had no desire to fly commercially and once I had adjusted to an eyesight defect not allowing me to fly fast jets for the military, I resigned myself to a path where I would eventually spend more than the cost of a large house on my flying pass time.
Personal reasons for my obsessive desire to fly were many. Firstly my uncle, a father substitute - as my own was an unemployed no-good who finally ended up in Norwich’s Mousehold prison. My uncle was an ex wartime Lancaster pilot who had seen much action, culminating in the mid air destruction of his bomber - following his successful evacuation by parachute. His encouragement of my interest went as far as unofficially installing me in the cockpit of a Lancaster at an air show at RAF Horsham St Faith’s - on the outskirts of Norwich. The aircraft was on the ground of course - my uncle, wearing his RAF reservist uniform had the blessing of the aircraft’s pilot, and aged nine I was talked through the procedure of take off and flying the big bomber - a lesson I still remember to this day.
The fascination remains - although now, over 70, with my flying curtailed by ill health, only dreams and memories remain. Yet there are no regrets - not a solitary one - not the money spent over thirty years, 120 different types flown, the frustrations of ownership and the irritations of restrictions. However I do not intend to fly again - either as pilot or passenger. Only a few days ago - whilst having lunch with Steve, a friend who I had not seen for eleven years, I leaned an interesting lesson.
As part of his long journey to eventually captaining large airliners, Steve had been financing his training by ferrying single engine light aircraft from the USA to Europe. Towards the end of his seventy plus single engine crossings he encountered serious icing conditions in the thick clouds of a warm front. Initially it appeared as a thin film of rime gently coating windshield and wings but soon turned into thickening layer of the clear variety. Frequent use of carburettor de-icing maintained engine power but decreasing airspeed indicated lowered efficiency as the propeller picked up ice. Steve was faced with almost certain death ditching into a hostile ocean - where the cold water, even in summer, would affect him with hypothermia even sitting in a survival dinghy.
Coolly and calmly Steve allowed the little aircraft to down towards the sea. And at merely five feet or so above the waves he resumed level flight and let the salt spray in the wind act as a natural de-icing fluid on his wings.
It worked - the ice gradually melted - although the sound of ice breaking away from the propeller and hitting the side of the aircraft were initially alarming.
Steve's quick-thinking had almost certainly saved his life and a valuable aircraft. It was about this time he decided to no longer ferry single engined planes over the Atlantic.
I too have had my ‘moments’, but they are now just memories. Je ne regret rien.
But back to the beginning… the environment of my childhood influenced me greatly. Wartime Norfolk was almost one vast airfield - a patchwork quilt of forty-two airfields, often only two or three miles apart, then so much like giant wasp’s nests. Now as England gasped for normality - a weary county struggling, emerging from wartime austerity to face the remainder of the twentieth century.
At night we were kept awake by hundreds of RAF bombers from all around Norfolk and the adjoining counties, loudly droning across the county en route to their destinations on the continent, and again on their return.
Daytime was punctuated by hordes of American aircraft - equally noisy - the RAF usually bombed by night and the Americans by day. One of my earliest memories was being dragged into the village street to witness a B24 Liberator - at least one engine was trailing black smoke as the aircraft struggled, trying to reach the United States base at Shipdham. Alas it did not make it, and as its descent rate increased we watched numerous parachutes bloom in its wake as it lost its struggle to remain airborne, finally striking the ground with a loud sickening crump.
It was, and still remains my earliest conscious memory…
England, Britain was at war - and for Norfolk that war was an air war…
For all my formative years, aircraft were by far the dominant feature in my vision; it is not surprising that I developed a fascination for them and an overwhelming desire to fly them.
Aircraft were my hobby and my obsession - at home I would build what ever model aircraft I could afford - outside apart from flying (and usually crashing) the models I would, still only aged nine or ten, walk for miles across the fields to find scraps of aluminium left over from the many wrecked aircraft that had crashed locally, when usually seeking sanctuary, landing on one of the many airfields that patterned the area.
Well before my eleven-plus examination a favourite pastime was to trespass on one of the local American bases. There we would climb onto large piles of five hundred pound bombs stored in clearings in the woods awaiting disposal by controlled detonation. Occasionally we were chased away, but nobody seemed bothered. Often we helped ourselves to small cartons containing reels of metallic tinsel - the window released by the bombers as a means of radar evasion.
A small paper parachute was attached to one end of the tinsel, delaying its descent as the weight of the carton caused the roll to unravel as it descended. In those austere post-war days, the rationed and oppressed forties brightened into the more optimistic fifties, things such as Christmas decorations for tree and home were virtually impossible to obtain, the toy parachutes and their tinsel were perfect and there was a ready market for these materials that the military were so ready to destroy.
We thought we were doing them a favour if we relieved them of a few…
The only real downside to our activities was the need to be watchful and dodge the large Alsatian guard dogs that the military deployed - but they never seemed a serious threat. The animals had the ‘reputation’ of killers, but to my knowledge never hurt anyone.
In our way, we were brightening a few lives with our plunder, when even basics were still rationed and people longed for signs or symbols that the austere wartime years were well behind us.
Every few miles of that flat land were blessed with an airfield - some still active - others silent and rapidly decaying into ghosts - pale relics of their wartime presence. Strips of concrete paving, wisps of grass already sprouting in the gaps between the slabs - lonely parking areas that had once held the squadrons of throbbing, straining bombers, their barking engines warming eager to be released at the enemy. At the war’s end Norfolk had forty-two airfields many of which can still be identified from the air even after being returned to farmland.
Even then, in the fifties, buildings were already crumbling into disrepair - sightless buildings whose inner walls sported the uninhibited art, paintings from young men many of which were soon to die violently a few hundred miles to the east. Only the occasional tractor pulling a trailer or other farm implements disturbed their graveyard calm.
They were truly places of ghosts…
But in those haunted places I would ride as fast as I could pedal - in my mind my bike was a great four engined bomber, a Lancaster or Flying Fortress - my young imagination alive with the roar of over-speeding engines straining to claw the overloaded machine into the air.
That was my world, mixing fantasy with fact - how could I imagine anything other than being a pilot when I grew up…
Gradually as the surplus aircraft were scrapped or sold to less prosperous overseas countries, more and more of the airfields dotting East Anglia became unused and decayed. Most were sold back to the farmers who originally owned them. Some were converted into turkey farms and others became industrial units or car factories built on them with testing tracks for vehicles or, like Snetterton became important international motor racing circuits utilising runways and perimeter tracks for competition.
Flying has not been perhaps been the most significant part of my life rather a way of balancing it - survival, meaning work, the generation of the means to live, has of course been paramount, coupled with a long and fulfilling marriage - but my time in the air provided entertainment, a feeling of accomplishment and for almost half a lifetime dominated and shaped me.
More of an expression…
More a way of life…
Norfolk in the early fifties was a haunted land - it contained the ruins of roman forts guarding windswept estuaries - a landscape that had remained unchanged since the Viking long-ships lurked in its shallow rivers - bringing terror to a simple people. Remnants of their language and customs still lingered - as did the physical traces of their ancestry in the very independent burley ox-like redheaded men.
Perhaps it was not surprising that roads and railways to Norfolk seldom went further - a road to nowhere ending in a cul-de-sac as they met the grey North Sea. But it made it a good place to live. I am proud that, on those rare occasions when I return, old acquaintances differentiate me from those many ‘incomers’ with the comment - but Peter is ‘Norfolk’!
So, I say again, in my boy’s imaginative mind, my bicycle tyres thumping over the joins between the runway’s concrete slabs as my imagined Mosquito or Lancaster struggled for take-off speed, clutching the air for lift - anything other than being a pilot when I grew up - was unimaginable.
The ghosts were everywhere…and I longed to belong, to join their fugitive kind...
The sunshine is hot and bright; the sky decorated with fluffy cumulus clouds criss crossed with the vapour trails of fighter jets - performing a ballet in the air. The year is 1952 and Britain is still great and I cannot believe I am not destined to be a reincarnation of some wartime fighter ace.
RAF Horsham St Faith’s annual air show was, as usual, exciting, but this year it was to be especially memorable. My hero uncle had promised to treat me to a ride in an aeroplane. It would be my first ever flight and very unforgettable. The aircraft was an Auster, capable of taking the pilot and two passengers - myself and my friend Mike. The fare, for five-minutes flying, was five shillings - a lot of money in those days - but now, thanks to fifty years of rampant inflation it translates to just twenty-five pence…
The airfield perimeter was a regular haunt. Only eleven miles from my home village it was an easy bike ride and I had a great view of the aircraft - usually Meteors, Vampire and Javelins. Those were the days when we had thousands of aircraft and our persistent mis-government had yet to reduce us to virtually a non-entity as a country.
Gradually the fifties unrolled and the only contact I had with flying was to be taken to a small air show at Marshall’s Field near Cambridge where the high spot was a flight by a Vampire the mechanics had built themselves - but my particular highlight was watching my uncle, as part of a three man team of RAF reservists - fly a chipmunk in close formation - its wingtips tied to two other aircraft by fragile tape.
At sixteen, existing on £2 per week as the village postman, I applied to join the RAF - but only as a pilot. Having grown up assuming I would have to do National Service - suddenly the country’s needs changed and it was planned to be scrapped two years ahead. I was now a little too young to be eligible. At sixteen I was also too young to join up as aircrew but the RAF operated a scheme of pre-assessment tests meaning that if successful, I would have to return at seventeen for further and final tests.
These tests were conducted at an aircrew test centre at RAF Hornchurch in Essex, a former Battle of Britain airfield no longer used for flying. I am glad to say I passed without any apparent problem.
My future was looking good…
So at seventeen, after over a year of waiting, I repeated the medical and took some more advanced leadership tests and topped up the aptitude tests previously taken.
Only partial success…
I was devastated - the leadership tests were perfectly OK - but the medical had shown deterioration in my left eye that had occurred in the year since the previous tests. While still within limits, any further weakening - judged on the evidence of two tests a year apart - would put me beyond their limits for pilots. It was before the days when spectacle became acceptable.
They offered a commission, but only as a navigator. I declined…
Those were the days when plenty of youngish pilots remained from World War Two and from the conflict in Korea. The RAF could afford to be picky - worried more about a minor sight defect than aptitude - of which I had an abundance. The then Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, had declared that the future of our military flying would depend more on un-manned missiles than on pilots.
My fast jet future was not looking good.
Strangely since - flying until I was sixty - I never used my glasses and still do not need to - in my seventies - for driving during the day. To conform to the conditions of my licence I always carried two pairs in the aircraft - but never used them in over 9000 flights - as I was more comfortable without.
My devastation continued and I roamed unsuccessfully from one job to another - ending up as a black leather-clad biker - known as a ‘ton-up’ boy. Narrowly avoiding serious trouble until discovering and becoming fascinated with computers saved me in 1960 - but that is another story, which I tell in my auto portrayal, Too Many Miles From A Land of Rivers.
Life continued as I missed the legendary ‘Swinging Sixties’. I was forced by preoccupation with working long, hard days to compensate for my lack of education in a graduate dominated computer industry. Until, ten years later, now a prosperous director of a leading software house, a colleague, Mark, led me astray - in a flying way of course and I again considered learning to fly.
Knowing my unfulfilled interest, one day Mark said; ‘Peter - you have always seemed fascinated in flying?’. It was the Monday following the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix. ‘Because of the weather I could not fly back to Biggin Hill so I diverted to Gatwick. Fancy coming with me to collect my plane and help me fly it back to Biggin?’.
When we got to Gatwick and were checking Mark's aircraft, a twin-engined Dove, I noticed a recognisable face checking the oil levels in the Piper Aztec parked alongside.
Mark introduced me to Graham Hill, the celebrated racing driver and winner of two Formula One World Championships, the Le Mans Twenty-four Hour race, plus the first British driver to win the Indianapolis 500, and in a British car. Graham Hill was already a legend, with three massive accomplishments that had never been done before and almost certainly will never be equalled, and was one of my few heroes.
Little was I to know that, within a few years, I would be a fellow member of Graham’s in the Elstree Aero Club. Later that day - as I climbed away from Gatwick with me at one set of dual controls - never ever having piloted before - I resolved to take lessons and get my licence.
My generous wife paid for my lessons after I had negotiated a fixed price package - paying £200 in advance for two hundred hours. Learning to fly was a non-event, almost a letdown - it was so easy and so obvious. Before my first take-off I nagged my instructor to let me do it - on the basis that the dual controls meant he could retrieve the situation if anything wet wrong.
Climbing through about twenty feet, I activated the bakes. ‘What on earth did you do that for?’ said the chief Instructor who was supposed to be teaching me.
‘To stop the wheels spinning.’ I replied, ‘in preparation for when I eventually fly retractable. So that there is no chance of them fouling the wheel bays. Perhaps causing a fire.’
His silence was as good as a question.
‘I learnt it from my uncle when I was nine. Sitting in a Lancaster in a static display.’
‘Smart arse’ was his terse reply.
I insisted on him remaining my instructor until I had soloed, despite his efforts to palm me off with his assistant. I assumed that as Chief Instructor he must be the best the school had. His attitude was that; ‘senior businessmen were difficult to teach because they were used to making their own decisions as though they know it all.’
After five hours and forty minutes I flew my first solo and then transferred to his assistant. Learning to fly was one of the easiest tasks I have ever undertaken - the only thing remotely taxing were the ground subjects - navigation, metrology and aviation law. The flying was simple and obvious. At thirty-two hours I had completed my course and having to log forty to get my licence flew the remaining eight enjoying the scenery and trying out different types of aircraft.
To celebrate completing the course my wife bought me the aircraft I had trained on… call sign Golf Alpha Romeo November Juliet…
© Peter Hunter