In which we have served - part two

We wannabe fighter aces underwent our classroom training and 'square-bashing' at R.A.F. Digby, but having done my share of drill when first enlisting to the ranks, I considered myself something of an expert in that department. That is, until Sergeant Nelson cut me down to size. (That's how big an impression he made on me, remembering his bloody name after all these sixty years.) I had missed a step. He called the whole rank and file to a halt, instructed me to step forward then placed his red and shiny face with its mad piggy eyes and toothpaste beery breath about six inches in front of mine before uttering the words that, again, I have never forgotten; "Officer Cadet? You piece of fxxxxxx sxxx. You want to fly fxxxxxx aeroplanes? You can't even fly your fxxxxxx feet."

For want of anything sensible to respond, "No, sergeant", I muttered.

"Did I fxxxxxx ask you to say fxxx-all," he yelled. "Get fxxxxxx back in line."

But came the magic day when we were bussed off to nearby R.A.F. Cranwell, there to say hello to the tiny aircraft called a Tiger Moth and my flying instructor. The good old Tiger Moth was of canvas covered wood throughout with two wings, an upper and a lower joined together with many wires, two open-air cockpits, one behind the other  student in front and instructor behind, and a large wooden, hand swung propellor. I have to tell you that for the next six weeks this temperamental little beauty was to drive everything else - even girls - out of my mind. I had found my one true love!

We were to undertake what the R.A.F. called 'grading' there at Cranwell. That is, after flying training and assessment we would be divided into pilots or navigators. Navigator seemed to us like being only one step up from castration. Navigators were for bombers, not fighters, and you weren't even flying the buggers. Furthermore you only got half a wing with a big "N" stuck to it instead of the twin eagle wings of the real heroes.There were other aircrew classifications but that lot didn't even bear thinking about.

Cranwell in Lincolnshire, besides being the historic airfield where Whittle had first, in 1938, demonstrated to a disbelieving world that aircraft could indeed take to the skies without propellors, was home to those 'career' officer cadets who had entered the service on (prospective) long term commissions. My lot were all National Servicemen seeking short term commissions as aircrew. So it was a bit them and us. Be that as it may, I donned my canvas, wool-lined overall, heavy leather jerkin and fur-lines big boots, tucked my leather helmet with goggles under my arm and headed out to the appointed Tiger.

Awaiting me there was my flying instructor. I learned later that he had been an army glider pilot in the war, towed by a bomber over occupied France before releasing and gliding down in the pitch dark to crash land through hedge and crop and woodland with his cargo of paratroop commandos. The word 'brave' doesn't nearly cover it.

So, up and away at last! Unfortunately I had forgotten one part of my pre-flight checks. At about five hundred feet my instructor snap inverted the bi-plane. I dropped a few inches out of my seat. Being open to the winds it felt like forever. I found myself looking straight down on to a tractor whose driver was looking up, waving. I had not tightened up my harness straps as per pre-flight routine. Upside down, a voice in my headphones said calmly; "That's so you won't try to shortcut the preflight checks, OK? "

Anyway he went on to teach me to fly circuits and bumps - that is, taking off and climbing, left hand turn at a thousand feet, flying straight and level before another left and another, then coming in to land on the grassy airfield. The turns involved fixing a part of the plane's nose to the horizon then co-ordinating the throttle, joystick and foot pedals to make the turn. Sounds easy? It isn't. Natural flyers have natural co-ordination but that's not given to very many. I wasn't bad at it. In fact I had more difficulty with the landing. When you descend using mainly your throttle, at just above stalling speed you pull back on the joystick so that the nose rises. At that point you cannot see the ground to estimate how far above it you are, but you jockey the controls until you touch town, hopefully without bumping back up, knowing that senior officers would be appraising your performance from the control tower. My first landings were bone shaking kangaroo hops.

And then one day when you come to a stop your instructor tells you to stay harnessed up. He climbs out and waves you off on your own. You're going to fly the thing solo! The best of the entry  flew solo after about eight hours of airborne instruction. I did it in ten and a half hours. About sixty percent of the students never did get to fly their Tiger Moth solo, even though most of them passed their pilot grading and went on to get their wings, either half with the N or the full pilot's.

Flushed with premature success, having bought my officer's kit including its beret with white circle backing behind the badge. I was off to R.A.F. Jurby on the Isle of Man for officer training and general assesssment, We sailed from Liverpool on a boat called the King Orry. The world belonged to me. Or did it? ...

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