I always wanted to fly. Maybe my father had something to do with it – he was an RAF pilot during the War – but that could have influenced me either way. I have two childhood memories which may be the root of a life-long obsession. At the age of five I stood on a bridge in Rochester, Kent, looking down on the River Medway. Against the brown water I could see the shapes of a line of Sunderland flying-boats – enormous, white monsters, wing-tip to wing-tip, which seemed to gleam in the afternoon sunlight. They had been mothballed and were waiting to be scrapped.
At the age of eight I was taken to the airshow at Biggin Hill. We stood in an enclosure next to the runway with a group of other RAF veterans – blazers, squadron badges and moustaches (of which my father’s was by far the largest). The Avro Vulcan was due to perform a fly-past. Behind us I heard a low roar; then suddenly we were in shadow as a giant triangular object floated, very slowly, over our heads. As it reached the runway its nose lifted up, taking all the time in the world, until it pointed vertically at the sky. For some time the Vulcan seemed to hang there; then the ground began to shake and every fibre of my body began to vibrate as full power was applied. Slowly the Vulcan climbed, straight up, leaving the audience deafened, flattened and awe-struck. It seemed more a force of nature than a man-made machine.
As I grew up I thought about joining the RAF: they could teach me to fly. But my heart was set on tanks, and that meant the Royal Armoured Corps. The chance to get my licence came in a surprising way, as important events in life often do.
My first ‘real’ job was in a public relations company in the City of London. My boss was a kindly man with an aversion to Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue. One day he decided it was time for me to receive a pay-rise; he asked me if there was anything I really wanted to do but couldn’t afford. ‘Yes – I want to learn to fly!’ My boss smiled; here was an opportunity to provide an employee with his heart’s desire without contributing further to the national exchequer. From that moment I became the company’s official Aerial Photographer, and all my lessons were entered on the books as a business expense.
There was only one place to learn: Biggin Hill, the legendary airfield which stood as our last line of defence against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Even so many years later, the aura of ‘The Few’ still permeated the base and its buildings: a Spitfire and a Hurricane guarded the entrance; the taxyway was ringed with dispersal points where wartime fighters had sheltered from the bombing behind earth embankments; the flying clubs operated from Nissen huts of 1940s vintage. In a nearby pub customers could see a blackout screen signed in chalk by Biggin Hill’s heroes: Al Deere, Johnnie Johnson, Sailor Malan…
My instructor was a laconic individual with a natural talent for flying and a habit – which I eagerly shared – of smoking in the cockpit. He was building up hours for his commercial licence, which he eventually gained, and went off to fly for British Airways. We both imagined ourselves as fighter-pilots and he was only too ready to abandon the training routine in favour of aerobatics; I learnt to loop-the-loop before I could land. We became great friends and – a few years later – companions in a free-fall parachuting club at another wartime airfield in the middle of Kent. We are still friends today, he in France and I in Prague.
With my Private Pilot’s Licence freshly-minted, I could take up my duties as ‘official aerial photographer’. This mainly consisted of taking pictures of the boss’s friends’ houses – large, comfortable mansions set in the meadows and orchards of Kent. Once I knew where they lived I could indulge in the juvenile pleasure of ‘buzzing’ their gardens on a Sunday morning… mildly irritating for them and their guests but intriguing for their daughters.
One Spring morning I was given an aerial photography assignment for a client, a large company which was moving to a new headquarters building in Essex – about 150 km from Biggin Hill. I was to fly the aircraft and a professional cameraman was hired to take the pictures. We arrived overhead the site and I circled, one wing low; ‘click – click – click’. ‘Can we go round again?’ ‘Click – click – click’. ‘Can we try from the North so I can get the shadows?’ ‘Click – click – click’. ‘Can we go lower so I can get more details?’ ‘Click – click – click.’ After an hour of this he was satisfied and we headed home to Biggin. As we got out of the aircraft I looked at his face: it was ashen. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this… I forgot to load the film.’ It was worth four beers in the bar.
I decided to learn night-flying, and after a few hours of dual was signed off to go solo. On the way back to the airfield one dark night I was concentrating hard on my instruments when – suddenly – the cockpit was flooded with light and a strange noise filled my headphones: ‘Takatakatakatakatak!’ I was under attack. Instinctively I pulled into a tight turn to escape from my assailant’s landing-lights; peering desperately into the murk I tried to spot him. There he was! My turn… sneak up on his tail… a bit higher… a bit more speed… now! ‘Takatakatakatakatak!’ He whipped away and moments later I was blinded by an onslaught from the rear quarter. And so it went on. I had never done anything so utterly exciting in my life, and I never have since. When I got back to the club-house for a beer, someone slapped me on the back with a broad grin: ‘So you think you survived? Not a chance!’ It was the Chief Flying Instructor.
(There is plenty more of this stuff if anyone is interested in reading it…)