Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter 2 : The Sky Above

The impressive and powerful Fairey Firefly of the Royal Navy, with the distinctive harsh roar of its Griffon engine, was often in the sky over Liverpool when I was a schoolboy. Used for anti-submarine work by the RNVR Squadron at Stretton, it was one of the last big piston-engined aircraft.

The desire to fly has been inherent in man for aeons. Only in the twentieth century has the technology permitted sustained manned flight. The variety of flying machines designed, built and flown since the Wright brothers is awesome and is a fascinating story in itself. My own path to the skies of California encompasses two decades of flying a large variety of aircraft, hard work and, incidentally, a lot of fun.

I grew up in England in the years after the Second World War. We lived on the outskirts of Liverpool, a sprawling seaport at that time still recovering slowly from the devastating effects of the Luftwaffe blitz. Playgrounds in the city were largely confined to roughly-cleared bomb sites. However bad the conditions underfoot to a young and impressionable boy the sky above was a constant source of wonder, with the roar of powerful piston engines or the whistle of jets echoing down from the vault of the sky.

There was good reason for this. Within twenty miles or so were located a variety of military airfields: the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from Stretton flew Supermarine Attackers from Stretton, with sections of the jets screaming down the Mersey estuary at mast-top height, and their anti-submarine Fireflies, their Griffon engines roaring loudly, would pass overhead. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force operated Meteors out of Hooton Park. Most weekends a Meteor would wail overhead towing a banner target. He would fly down the Mersey estuary en route for gunnery practice out over the sea. Some time later the Meteor would return, usually with a rather tattered banner.

From the East the big WB-50 Superfortresses of the USAF 53rd Weather reconnaissance Squadron at Burtonwood droned out over our house, flying out over the Atlantic every day. Occasional visits to Burtonwood by units flying the even noisier B-36 varied this routine. On other occasions a lone B-36 boomed over at 40,000 feet, drawing a spectacular swath of contrails through the heavens as the crew targeted Liverpool on their radar bomb runs.

One chilly and clear October night a string of B-36s took off from Burtonwood, each one coming directly over our house with an awesome noise from the six R-4360 radial engines loud enough to shake small ornaments from the mantelpiece. As each ghostly shape droned overhead, flashlights scanned the wings from the fuselage observation blisters. It was not until years later I learned that the frequency of fuel and oil leaks made this necessary.

My alarm clock was a blue Spitfire PR.19 which took off from Woodvale every morning and climbed to 30,000 feet over Shrewsbury on a weather flight every morning, recording temperature and humidity every few thousand feet (This was before satellites) and then come back and land at Liverpool airport to hand in his readings. He would then come back over our house, low and fast, on his way back to Woodvale. Eventually the Spitfires were retired and replaced by even noisier DH Mosquitos. One morning as the Mossie howled back over our house he obviously had forgotten to switch tanks, both engines suddenly quit, and it went deathly quiet for an eternity before the Merlins coughed into life again and he continued on his way.

My father took me for my first flight in a Fox Moth biplane from Southport sands at the age of ten. The cabin held four passengers in a noisy, cramped and vibrating environment, with the pilot sitting in his open cockpit to the rear of the cabin. The discomfort was forgotten as we lifted off the sands. This was fun. This was the place to be.

On my fourteenth birthday I joined the Air Training Corps. As a branch of the RAF Volunteer reserve, the ATC taught its cadets in Theory of Flight, Navigation and Weapons, took them on summer camps to Operational RAF stations and did a host of other good things. But from my point of view the icing on the cake was the fact that Cadets had the opportunity to fly in Chipmunks and could qualify for glider training. I worked diligently through the qualifying exams so that when the time came I was ready to start glider flying.

My glider training started at RAF Hawarden with 631 Gliding School. Hawarden was a ferry boat ride away across the Mersey, We first flew in the side-by-side T21 Sedburgh, then progressed to the tandem–seat T.31. My instructor, Ken Higgins, was one of that breed of leather-lunged instructors who could berate cadets unmercifully from the open rear cockpit of the T.31 glider above the howl of the wind. Our gliders were towed up to altitude by an ex-barrage balloon winch at the far end of the field. The sound of the instructor bellowing at his pupil at the top of the launch, when heard from the ground, was enough to give any young cadet second thoughts about embarking on this venture. Nevertheless we half-dozen neophytes embarked upon our first familiarization rides.

On our first few trips we just flew around the pattern (or circuit) with the occasional 360 degree turn thrown in for good measure as our confidence increased. We grew more accurate in our landings, a blessing for the other cadets who had to push the glider back to the launch point again. On a hot summer day, wearing the heavy RAF issue serge uniform, this was an unwelcome chore.

After I had mastered the basics of flying, Higgins had me practice simulated cable breaks just after lift-off. Having coped successfully with these, I was not unduly surprised when instructor Dave Westaway gave me the required independent pre-solo check. After we landed he climbed out and informed me casually that the next one I could do on my own.

By now it was late afternoon on a hot summer day. The T.31 rested wing-down on the grass while the tractor noisily pulled the cable back from the winch at the far end of the field. Time for the butterflies in the stomach to take wing. After the tractor dropped the cable, three of my fellow cadets pulled the heavy cable with its parachute across to the nose of the glider. At a nod from me the cadet at the wingtip heaved the wingtip off the ground.

With wings level I automatically went through my checks which Higgins had labored hard to instill in me. Controls free…instruments…just the airspeed, altimeter and the red and green balls of the Cosim variometer to check…spoilers actuated and then locked in…trim OK…The T.31 required no ballast when flown solo, unlike the blunt-nosed Sedburgh T.21 irreverently dubbed “The Barge”..and the cable release was checked.

Thus assured that I would be able to release from the winch, the cadet at the nose attached the cable again, gave it a heave to reassure himself of its security, and stood back a few paces, sweating profusely and with a broad grin on his face. We all took turns at these chores. They all knew by the empty rear seat that I was to take to the sky alone.

I tugged my straps tight and glanced over my shoulder. That rear seat looked really empty. Despite my dry throat I somehow sang out, ” Take up slack ” Another cadet holding a pair of round bats signaled to the distant winch, shimmering in the heat haze at the far end of the field. There was a moment of delicious anticipation as the cable, lying in an arc on the grass, began to tighten, scything the long grass with a quiet swishing sound. When the cable arrowed towards the winch all was ready.

I shouted, ”All out”

The waving bats relayed the message to the far end of the field. A puff of smoke drifted away from the winch and with a jerk the glider started to accelerate, soon out-distancing the cadet running at the wingtip. Now the ailerons were responding and the glider lifted, touched briefly and rose into the air. The parachute on the cable now billowed under the nose. My senses were alive. The cable was creaking, the wind wailing and strange noises came from the hook mechanism beneath my feet as the tension built up in the cable.

I started to pull back on the stick. The nose crept higher until the pitot probe vibrating in front of the windscreen was well above the horizon. As the altimeter read 600 feet the glider started bucking against the tension on the cable and I realized that I was pulling back too hard on the stick. Easing forward into level flight, I was conscious of the wind howling as the speed increased. I pulled the release knob. There was a bang as the hook released and the noise diminished.

I was flying.

Everything was very peaceful and quiet. The view was superb from the open cockpit. To my right across the river lay the Cathedral at Liverpool. Ahead lay the Irish Sea and to my left the Welsh Mountains , were now backlit in the afternoon sunlight. But there was no time to waste in sightseeing. Training took over and I gingerly banked round, flying along the perimeter of the field as I gradually lost altitude. I made another turn onto downwind, then a further one onto base leg. Making my final turn and pushing the nose down I increased the speed in case of gusts at low altitude. Now the grass started to blur as I came lower. The other parked gliders with the watching knot of cadets were clear of my path, away to my left. Now out with the spoilers to kill the speed. The T.31 floated, light without the instructor’s weight. The tailskid whispered through the grass, then the glider touched down on the single wheel, rumbling along until one wing dropped as the glider came to rest.
I unfastened my harness and clambered out shakily as the other cadets raced up to congratulate me and cluster round the machine. I was grinning from ear to ear.

Flying. It was pure magic.

The Air Training Corps was an essential part of my life in addition to school, with more responsibilities and challenges as time went on.

Together with brothers Peter and Cliff Bolton, and Alan Walker, I participated in the Duke of Edinburghs Award scheme silver and gold which involved treks and camping in the Lake District. The final Award ceremony was performed at Buckingham Palace.

Orientation flying in Chipmunks at RAF Woodvale was fun in itself, but we volunteered our weekend time to become Staff cadets, and were part of the team which flew out to outlying airfields to give rides to the cadets from other Squadrons. Formation flights out to the Isle of Man were fun, if a little nerve-wracking as each two - man crew had a rubber dinghy sandwiched in between the two cockpits, with our overnight kit also wedged into the baggage compartment behind the rear seat.

The Air Training Corps operated De Havilland Chipmunks to give orientation rides to cadets. Volunteering as Staff Cadets allowed us to fly at weekends and travel throughout the north west of England. Here we are nearing RAF Jurby on a snowy day after a sea crossing in formation from Woodvale to the Isle of Man , with Cliff Bolton in the back seat and the two-man dinghy stuffed on the deck between the cockpits.

The ATC participated in the International Cadet Exchange scheme and our West Lancashire Wing had the chance of sending one cadet to the USA each year. I was lucky enough to be selected and after being fitted out with a selection of tropical kit I was dispatched down to RAF Northolt. We flew in an RAF Britannia turboprop to Frankfurt where we met the other European Cadets at a large banquet. The following day we flew west in a USAF C-135 over the Atlantic.

Our visit was sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol, which was roughly equivalent to our ATC, but also had a fleet of aircraft to assist in rescue missions for downed aviators and to help as appropriate with natural disasters

Arriving in New York we stayed at the Waldorf, were treated to another banquet in the midst of a raging thunderstorm and watched lightning hitting the Empire State building. We visited Radio City and dined at Madame Leonis, then flew to Boston for a whirlwind 10-day visit exploring New England, with a trip up Mount Washington on the famous cog railway(cold and windy) and Cape Cod (hot and sunny). A visit to the Strategic Air Command base at Pease AFB was awesome, with a huge ramp packed with dozens of B-47s. One of these was the “Golden Bomber” having just won a major SAC bombing competition and we were driven out to inspect this aircraft. Throughout our visit the radial-engined KC-97 tankers droned in and out and we watched a B-47 do a JATO (rocket-assisted) takeoff which was impressive and noisy.
We were introduced to American football on the beach at Cape Cod, managed to beat the locals by some underhanded Rugby-type trickery, and sunburned and happy ended up the day with a huge barbeque on the beach.

Over the weekend we did the usual tourist exploration of Boston
then flew back through NewYork to Washington DC where our group of British Cadets was introduced to President Jack Kennedy in the Rose Garden of the White House.

All too soon our whirlwind visit came to an end and we embarked on our eastbound Atlantic crossing. This time instead of the jet transport we were crawling across the sky in a four-engined C-118 piston-engined transport. Over Newfoundland we circled above a fog-shrouded Harmon AFB until the fog lifted and we could land, taxied past the F-102 delta-winged fighters on alert. We refueled then flew on overnight and from the co-pilot's seat I watched the dawn rise over the Atlantic, a magical experience in itself. Scotland eventually appeared and we landed on a damp morning at Prestwick, refuelled again, then flew on to Frankfurt again for another farewell banquet before heading back home to England.

On the gliding side, during the summer of 1963 I travelled down to Bicester, was introduced to the joys of flying the all-metal Blanik and thermaling at Lasham, and being towed aloft by Auster or Chipmunk tugs on my first aerotows, and gained my ridge-soaring qualification at the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol.

Gliding with the ATC culminated in flying the Sedburgh T.21 from Halesland, near the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. I learned to ridge soar on this camp.

What lay ahead? Flying for the RAF was top of my list. I applied to the RAF and headed down to Hornchurch for the initial aptitude tests for the RAF College at Cranwell. One thing out of the ordinary happened. At the railway station the RAF Officer meeting the candidates shouted out,”Brown, David” and would you believe it, two of us answered the call. Another candidate with the same name. What where the odds of that? Anyway I passed the physical and the initial phase of tests and the surviving group was transported north to Sleaford for the next series of tests.

On the third day, everything was going well as we were progressing through a series of team-building exercises when I was summoned to the office. Here it was revealed that due to an official mix-up in the paperwork (with the other candidate of the same name) I had not in fact passed the physical, but had a problem with my left eye which, not having 20/20 vision, was enough to disqualify me from driving one of her Majesties jet fighters. So that was the end of that.

With this dream thoroughly dashed for the moment, I appealed, and went through a battery of further tests for the Air Ministry, but the writing was on the wall and I applied to the handful of British Universities offering degrees in Aeronautical Engineering.

Top of my list was Southampton University on the South Coast.

No comments: