Memories of Learning to Fly
With reference to my log book and a few pictures which can be found HERE.
It was at 10.15 on Wednesday the 17th of February 1965 when I found myself trying to keep 'straight and level' at the controls in the company of my instructor Wing Commander Cyril Arthur. He must have been 70 plus at the time with a wealth of adventures, excitement and experience in the RAF which he didn't talk about but he exuded a confidence which transferred to and inspired his pupils. He would never criticise or admonish but simply remain silent when errors were made allowing you to learn from your mistakes. On some of the longer trips he would 'drop off' which presumably meant he had confidence in his pupil. Unlike some instructors who would blind you with science, try to impress, take control and create unease.
That morning I had, for some reason, decided to spend £3.10 shillings on a half hour trial lesson at Fairoaks Flying Club rather than spend another morning drawing lines and circles on somebody’s drawing board.
We had taken off from the grass strip at Fairoaks Airfield in a 2 seat Piper Colt which was basic, no flaps and no radio which, on reflection, was great. We were approaching the Hogs Back at about 2000ft when Wing Commander Arthur said 'you have control'. Wha’! ‘Treat her gently and she’ll respond accordingly’ he said. I tried 'skidding' turns to the left and 'skidding' turns to the right, they're not supposed to be ‘skidding’ but 'banking' and getting a ‘balanced turn’ using a combination of rudder, aileron, elevator and throttle, for me, took a while to master despite my vast experience of ‘flying’ model aircraft from the age of eight, I was 26 and should have known better. The Wing Commander said nothing.
Climbing and descending in a straight line and climbing and descending turns came next followed by a 'stall' which could develop into a flat spin or 'falling leaf' or a 'spiral dive if you weren't careful. A stall is when flying speed is lost, controls don't work and gravity takes over unless you 'catch it' with plenty of throttle, if the engine doesn't respond then it's a quick look round for a friendly field, settle into a glide and remember you need the wind in your face, not up your tail! But fortunately that never happened. Emergency landing is part of the course but that comes later, usually when you've just taken off or not expecting it!
A couple of weeks later I turned up at Fairoaks again for another lesson. This time with another instructor who took me into tight turns and honed my skills at more accurate flying, especially at maintaining altitude, holding a compass heading and not drifting up or down. During the Spring and Summer of ‘65 I amassed a further 6 hours of flying with an instructor mostly practising take offs and landings, missed approaches, go arounds and crosswind handling.
On Saturday the 19th March 1966 at 5.20pm I turned up again, this time with The Wing Commander as my instructor who put me through my paces once again in the circuit. Following a few half decent circuits he opened the door (we were on the ground!) and said OK off you go and promptly shut the door. I was on my own, in charge of a ton of metal that flies through the air at 100mph! This was to be my ‘First Solo’ after only 7 hours and 10 minutes at the controls. I taxied back to the downwind hedge, went through my pre take off checks and without thinking further opened the throttle and bounced off along the grass strip. Being a touch lighter she bounced into the air more eagerly to demonstrate her capabilities. I held her reins tight but not too tight. A climbing turn to the left to 500 ft a further turn to the left to 800ft and level off heading downwind parallel to the runway. A moment of reflection when suddenly becoming aware of the empty seat next to me. Wha! But it didn’t last long. Suddenly it was time for landing checks. BUMPFHH (Brakes, Undercarriage, Mixture, Pump, Fuel, Hatches, Harnesses). That done a glance over my left shoulder to see where the runway was, another gentle turn to the left and then a reduction of power and descend to 500ft by which time you should be somewhere in line with the runway. Another gentle left turn and you are on ‘final approach’.
Keeping an eye on your air speed, checking for drift, adjusting power and missing the fast approaching perimeter hedge are all quite important as is not taxying at 50mph into the far perimeter hedge, so, with any luck the stall warning buzzer goes off in the middle of the field just as your wheels kiss the grass. Wing Commander Arthur was pleased and relieved in equal measure. I didn’t need the toilet!
The next few hours spent at the controls over the next few months was a mixture of dual and solo flying in the circuit followed by an introduction to Navigation using a map, compass and an old fashioned mechanical drift calculator. I had by this time enrolled for evening classes at the club to study Navigation, Aircraft Handling and Maintenance in order to satisfy the requirements for the PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence).
On one trip with the Wing Commander we were returning from a triangular course around Petersfield and Petworth, we were following the railway line back towards Guildford with towering cumulus thunderheads all around us. We were heading straight into a mass of grey. ‘Keep the railway in sight’ was the advice from the seat next to me, we got lower and lower and lower the 15.22 train from Guildford to Portsmouth went flying by the window followed by Platforms 4 and 5 at Guildford Station either side of us, my instructor was cool as a cucumber throughout. We popped out into the daylight and climbed back up to 2000ft.
More Cross-Country exercises were required in the 40 hour course leading to the PPL. I was required to find places like Woodley, Up-Nateley, Halnaker Mill, Butser Hill and Portsmouth. All these leading up to my first ‘Solo Cross-Country’ which was Fairoaks, Petersfield and Petworth again which went without a hitch except another student pilot on the same exercise followed me around the course in another aircraft but I didn’t know it until I had landed, cheeky bugger!
More Cross-Country exercises leading up to my first Solo Cross-Country with ‘two away landings’ – no less! This was to be Portsmouth (which no longer exists) and Sandown on the Isle of Wight which I’d already done with an instructor but it was required solo for the licence. So, at 9.55am on August 5th 1967 I did my calculations checked the weather and telephoned Portsmouth to tell them I’ll be there in a jiff. They told me to watch out for other aircraft due to the fact that I didn’t have a radio. I took off and headed off following my compass and railway line to Portsmouth. The signals area at Portsmouth Airfield needs to be checked which will tell you which runway to use and which direction the circuit is. I slipped in over the tall brick built perimeter wall – just! A visit to the Control Tower to get my log book signed, topped up with a few gallons of fuel and away across the Ocean to Sandown. Sandown Airport is not far away from Bembridge Airport so you need to concentrate otherwise it could be embarrassing – again, no radio!
During the summer of ’67 I amassed a further few hours with my total hours flown dual and solo now approaching the magic 40. However there was one manoeuvre which was still required to be demonstrated which could only be done in the club’s Tiger Moth and that was ‘spinning and recovering’. So, donning a flying helmet and parachute (to sit on) I climbed into the rear seat of the Tiger with yet another instructor in the front seat, somebody ‘swung’ the prop and we were off over the hanger like a dose of salts, wind tearing at your flying helmet. To be honest that half hour spinning left, spinning right and stalling with power in the Tiger was all a bit of a blur but apparently I must have done something right because he signed me off.
On the 28th September at 18.10 BST I took off again this time with the Chief Flying Instructor Keith Godfrey, who didn’t stand any nonsense, in order to demonstrate that I was a competent flyer and was capable of holding the coveted PPL. When we returned to the airfield he stamped and signed my logbook. I was now qualified to take a passenger (non paying).
So, on the 24th October 1967 at 13.05 (lunchtime at Plessey Radar) I took Chris for a ride over Guildford and back. During the next few months I took Phil, Dave, John, Cliff. Mike, Joe, Robin and another John also for a ride around the local area.
In September ’68 I started work at Boeing in Seattle and converted my PPL into a US PPL but the story for that episode can be found HERE.
By October ’69 I was back in the UK and back at Fairoaks continuing to put a few hours in. This continued through to 1976 when I converted to a Piper Cherokee which actually had a radio, flaps and four seats. All through 1978 and 1979 I took many other friends, family and workmates for rides around the tree tops without drama, including Julia, Pete, Mike, John, Keith, Alan, Ray, Dick, Barry, Eric, Pete, Chic, Matt, Eileen, John, Dad, Daniel, Bill and sons, Alan, Barney, Dan, Greg, Sharla, Shasa, John, Manuel and Julia and Dan again. The trip up to 9,000ft on the afternoon of 15th April 1978 dancing amongst the tops of the fluffy cumulus chasing the tail of another club aircraft was probably the most memorable.
Following a gap of about 30 years, in January 2010 I joined The London Transport Flying Club, also at Fairoaks which is housed in a WW1 shack on the edge of the airfield and featured in a film called ‘Reunion at Fairborough’ starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. It's about a bunch of Yankee airman re-visiting their old flames and Airfield - it’s worth a watch.
My attempts at flying at the age of 71 were nothing to write home about, but I might try again some day!
by John Gillespie Magee (1922 - 1941)
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.