I have always been keen on the weather – sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes of necessity.
I suppose that I started this interest (which goes with that of aviation) when I was a boy. My father, being a farmer, kept a close eye on the weather for such as rain quantity, sowing, harvesting, planting and the rest.
Our family was keen on aviation, which was then in its infancy, though I believe my father only saw one aeroplane in the sky during WW1 when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia.
He took us children to fly with Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus, which would take place in a local farmer’s field. On offer were flips in an Avro Tutor for 2/6 and with a loop-the-loop thrown in for 5/-. We also went to the Solent to see Supermarine seaplanes break airspeed records. My flying bible and most treasured book then was The Pictorial Flying Course, written by F/O W.E. Johns, the author of Biggles books. Copiously illustrated with line drawings, it told you almost everything you wanted to know about flying a biplane. As for the weather, avoid clouds. And should you see either snow or fog forming, get home as quickly as you can.
In good weather The King’s Cup Air Race’s flight path went almost over our house at Silchester, near Reading. Its mixture of private, fast and slow aircraft flew so low that one could usually see the pilots in their cockpits.
Kingsford Smith, that famous Australian aviator, was due to fly in to our large chicken field for a visit. So we laid out a landing T with sheets held down with stones, but, being unreliable, he never turned up, even though the weather was fine – a great disappointment.
All grass fields for aeroplanes in those days, had a landing T that ground crew pointed toward the direction from which the wind was blowing (windsocks, too, were also used). I imagine that it is the same now although I have not flown an aeroplane for many a day. Aircraft, even today, always take off or land into wind. This gives them maximum lift for their speed through the air.
In WW2 we used landing Ts and windsocks to determine wind direction when flying from grass fields in England and America. Having joined the RAF in 1942, after signing on, I had to wait for a vacancy for pilot training and took a job as a prop-swinger starting up Tiger Moth engines on an RAF training airfield by swinging their propellers.
We had no meteorological service then, so an instructor would fly upwind to see if the approaching weather was suitable for novice pilots (which meant no clouds). I often went along in the spare cockpit, and it was there that I learned the basic rudiments of flying an aeroplane.
With those, and more sophisticated machines later, one’s life might well depend on understanding weather patterns and dangerous cloud formations.
That interest in meteorology has continued throughout my life.
Lying in bed early each morning I listen to noises outdoors. Chimes from the church clock may tell me of wind direction, its intensity and thickness of the air. In very cold or hot weather the resonant brittleness of the sound from footsteps on the pavement below gives me a good indication of what the day’s weather will be. Snow produces silence. The sounds of weather are very important.
On rising at around 6 o’clock in winter and much earlier in summer, I look out of my studio window over a London landscape of streets, pavements, roofs and trees. I see the direction in which aircraft are landing or taking off from Heathrow airport. This will only indicate if the prevailing wind is roughly from the east or west as the runways there run almost directly east-west. If it is a cross-wind, then the aircraft have to crab in to counteract drift. I look at the bending of twigs or leaves on trees to judge wind speed. Birds land into wind. I can see rime frost on house and car roofs. When aircraft are landing toward the west, if they are below cloud and visible when passing the line of our street, their altitude is 1,800’. Or if in cloud they may appear in sight just before landing at London airport. Then the cloud base is about 800’. If I never see them at all on their approach, then the cloud base is lower still. Gulls leave their feeding grounds on rubbish tips and head for the sea. But if the weather is stormy they fly inland.
As for weather forecasts, experience tells me that weather can change very quickly, fooling the pundits – however sophisticated their equipment. So I dismiss forecasts beyond a day or so, preferring to predict it myself. I rely on wind direction, cloud formation and type (high cirrus clouds, for instance, usually precede a warm front, culminating in low, rain-filled nimbostratus cloud). And with my back to the wind I know that the low pressure area is on my left hand side.
With so much interest to be had from the sky and what inhabits it, I think how lucky I am to live in England where our climate is so splendidly variable and unpredictable.