Saturday, November 14, 2015

Danger in the Air

There have been recently several nasty air accidents. Danger has returned to flying.
To me it has always been dangerous, although I was often unaware of it.
Through my uncle, who flew in a record-breaking Christmas airmail flight from Sydney, Australia, to London in 1932, Kingsford Smith, the pioneer Australian pilot, was going to land in a field next to our house to take us up. We laid out a T in white sheets to indicate wind direction but, being somewhat unreliable, he never turned up.
However, he was to fly us children (I was 7 years old) from Croydon Aerodrome in April 1932, but the tail skid on his aeroplane had broken. All was not lost. A friend of his flew us over London in a Klemm Bat, an early, low cantilever winged German aircraft. I wore my cap back to front to stop it being blown away by the slipstream, and held on for grim death, there being a rough seat and nothing to stop the passenger from rattling around or falling out.
Flying like that was never thought to be dangerous as we took off and landed on Croydon’s very wet and muddy grass surface. Parked nearby were those lovely Handly Page biplane airliners with four engines with their four bladed propellers strung between the wings. They flew from Croydon to Paris, landing in any large field for repair if anything went wrong. Flying was very much in vogue, very modern, but by today’s standards very primitive.
I loved aircraft, flying, and First World War tales of bravery in the air, and all that went with this new dimension to my life.
Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus had come to Rye. I was taken to the field by my father. A short flip over the sea was 5/-, and with a loop included, 7/6 pence. I had the 7/6 pence worth. It was in an Avro Tutor biplane. And then I flew in a Gypsy Moth from Christchurch.
The 1939-1945 war came. I went to the USA as a refugee until old enough, in 1942, to return by convoy across the Atlantic to join the RAF.
Until there were training facilities available for my pilot training, I took a job first as a farm labourer and then as a prop-swinger at RAF Theale, near Reading.
The latter job was ideal for me. It consisted of starting Tiger Moth (DH 82) biplane engines by swinging the propeller.
I placed chocks in front of the wheels (Tigers had no brakes) and shouted “switches off, petrol on, throttle closed ”. Then the prop was spun around a couple of times to fill the cylinders with a petrol mix and I would shout “contact”, spin the propeller, and jump backwards as the engine started. The switches were positioned outside the fuselage so that prop-swingers could see them and know that they would be safe from being sliced up by the propeller when the switches “off”. The chocks, on rope, would then be pulled clear and the aircraft would taxi to the take-off point. 
There was no meteorology then, so an instructor would fly a Tiger up wind for a while to see what kind of weather was approaching the airfield and be safe for learners. As the second cockpit was usually empty, I was often taken along and given instruction on how to fly the aeroplane. Soon I was doing all the flying. It came naturally to me.
Sometimes other aeroplanes would land at Theale. So I was able to fly in other types of aircraft – like an Oxford, Anson (devils to start their two engines), Dominie and Auster.
The Auster was a small AOP (Air Observation Post), high wing spotter aircraft, flown by my brother-in-law. He was in the Army and flew Generals around battlefields.
For that kind of flying there were no rules like the ones we were being taught. So, by taking off cross-wind or in any direction he felt like, made him somewhat unpopular with those in charge of the airfield.
The slow Tiger Moth biplanes were safe. Even when I flew my first solo flight from a farmer’s field at RAF Shellingford, no one seemed to crash and kill themselves.
As a trainee (U/T) pilot I was posted to Coastal Command’s RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall, where 281 Squadron flew twin-engined Warwick aircraft. They had a specially moulded lifeboat slung beneath the fuselage.
For operational experience I was taken along on sorties over the Bay of Biscay to search for baled-out aircrew. Had we ever found any we would have dropped them the lifeboat beneath its six parachutes. Our chances of seeing anyone in the Bay of Biscay were pretty slim, despite our square method of search.
My job aboard, while others were looking down toward the waves, was to look out for German Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. These flew from Brittany to attack convoys. They were massively armed with depth charges and cannon, and no match for our collection of Browning 303 machine guns. I did see one Condor before any of its aircrew saw us, so we escaped. I suppose that flying like that must be rated as being extremely dangerous, but one never thought of it at the time.
I probably flew there with my present picture framer’s grandfather. But his logbook at the time we were together at Davidstow recorded student pilots like me as “passenger”, and not by name. I suppose that had we been brought down by the Germans and lost our lives I would have been traced.
My 20 hours flying from Davidstow was, in fact, the only operational flying I did in the war. When I was awarded my wings in Oklahoma, the war in Europe was at an end.
But learning to fly in America was quite a different matter as far as air crashes and danger were concerned. I wrote off a lovely PT19 Cornell (not my fault I must add) and quite a few of our number crashed AT6 Harvards and were killed.
Those were pre-radar days of dead reckoning navigation when low cloud and fog were regular killers.
At that time I could not envisage civil airlines being successful. Wartime crashes and deaths had become commonplace. So, why would people willingly risk their lives to travel by air?
Then, post-war, such progress was made in the reliability of aircraft, engines and navigation, that flying became very much safer.
And now, once again, through circumstances that seem to be almost out of our control, flying can occasionally be very dangerous indeed.