The centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force on April 1st has brought much to my mind. I was in the RAF Volunteer reserve when I was in the University Air Squadron in Glasgow as a teenager. That my father had been a pilot in the RAF was no doubt influential in my going down that route. My father had very humble origins in the seaside town of Saltcoats in Ayrshire. (I see that Ayrshire continues to supply the RAF. The current top man, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier KCB CBE DFC ADC MA RAF, Chief of the Air Staff, went to Kilmarnock Academy. Kilmarnock Academy’s list of alumni is rather formidable and includes two Nobel Laureates.)
My dad was in the work force from age 8. He was smart, dux of Kyleshill Primary, and went on to Ardrossan Academy, but he wasn’t comfortable with the posh boys and he left when he was 14 and went to work down the coast in ICI Ardeer. He got a break when he was chosen to go to the Duke of York’s camp down south (I still have his signed photo of the young man who became George VI) and he got a taste of the wider world. He joined the City of Glasgow Police, and then war broke out.
The Clydebank Blitz occurred in 1941 and my father volunteered for the RAF. I know the devastation of Clydebank made a great impression on him and now I have no doubt it contributed towards his decision to volunteer. He went to London thence by troopship to Canada to train as a pilot. On board, he attended Sunday worship, when the congregation sang “For those in peril on the seas” with great fervour.
On the other side of the Pond they boarded a train and travelled west for days to places with exotic names like Medicine Hat. He was subjected to the rigours of RAF training of which I have some personal knowledge. He didn’t take to the bullying culture. He actually said to his instructor, “Don’t talk to me like that. You won’t get the best out of me.” I greatly honour my father for that because I know what it would have meant for a young man from Ayrshire to say that to a person of authority. Things got better for him after that and he won his wings and flew with Coastal Command out of Prince Edward Island, tracking the submarine traffic out in the North Atlantic. I have pictures of him in Canada, lying on the beach surrounded by beautiful women with big hair.
Then he crossed the Atlantic. Dorval – Gander Newfoundland – Greenland (Bluey West One) – Reykjavik – Prestwick (I have all his log books). When he got into Prestwick he said to the Commanding Officer, “My mother lives 10 miles up the road and I haven’t seen her for three years; may I visit her?” The CO said no. But he went anyway, bearing exotic gifts that rationing had rendered unobtainable. So I suppose technically he was a deserter. But he never got into trouble. In Saltcoats his youngest brother (I spoke to him on the phone on Saturday) answered the door and didn’t recognise the man in uniform and got a hell of a fright.
Then he was posted to the south of England for a time and thence to West Africa where he seemed to spend a lot of his time flying VIPs around. I remember the year my father died I happened to be going on holiday to Madeira. He said to me, “I know it well.” I said, “I didn’t know you’d been there.” “I haven’t, but I’ve flown over it a lot.” He flew out of exotic locations like Casablanca. On VE day he was in Accra. His chums said, “Give us a show, James!” and he duly did a few swoops over the aerodrome. His last flight before he came home was from Ikeja to Accra, on September 9th, 1945.
I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that my experience in the RAF VR was remotely as taxing as my father’s experience, but I do believe I got something of its flavour. You get a sense of it in the film The Battle of Britain. One of my University Air Squadron instructors flew a Spitfire in the making of that film. If you’ve seen it, do you remember the rather feckless pilot who tries to land with his undercarriage up and is warned off by a groundsman flying a flare? The pilots witnessing this at dispersal pass derisory remarks under their breath but lapse into silence when the pilot walks by them. Then his intimidating Squadron Leader (played by Robert Shaw) takes him up on a training sortie and basically frightens the life out of him. (But in the long run he doesn’t manage to save his life.) That scene reminds me that standard procedure in the Air Squadron was that if you “cocked up” you could expect to receive a “bollocking”. I suppose the rationale was that aeroplanes can be very unforgiving. Take-offs, as they say, are optional, but landings are compulsory. So the stakes are high; in the war, considerably higher.
My father never bought that argument and neither did I. You learn by your mistakes. Teaching by intimidation in any discipline – it’s the same in Medicine – is useless. In order to master any art or craft, you must be relaxed. When I took up flying again in New Zealand I couldn’t get over the fact that my instructor was full of good humour and completely laid back. He said, “You can fly!” He didn’t berate; he encouraged. Over the years I flew the length and breadth of New Zealand and when my father visited it was a privilege to have him sit beside me, to take off and say to him, “You have control.” He flew 1700 hours during the war so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself saying, “You can fly!” He said, “It’s like riding a bike.”
Actually I’m not sure that it is. If you don’t fly, you lose “currency”. And that, too, is true of any art or craft. Even riding a bike isn’t like riding a bike.