For 2 years in my late teens I had the wonderful experience of training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force (see ‘Bio’). As a reservist in the Universities of Glasgow and Strachlyde Air Squadron I spent many evenings and Saturdays training. Flying was done from Glasgow airport. At same time I was studying aeronautical engineering as my degree subject so being a cadet pilot was the perfect practice for all that theory. In the beginning I trained on Chipmunks. Old machines where you started the engine with a ring pull device which detonated a shotgun cartridge into the chamber. The single engine aircraft was a 2 seater with a tandem arrangement. I as trainee sat in the front with the instructor behind me. Yes we had intercom but a more effective way of getting a trainee pilot’s attention was a whack from behind on your ‘bone dome’ (flying helmet).
Chipmunks had a tail wheel meaning that on the ground the aircraft tilted upward and the view from the front was of the sky. You could only see ahead by taxying in a zig zag fashion. Take off was an ‘act of faith’ as you put on full power without seeing the runway till you reached sufficient speed for the tailwheel to be lifted. As aircrew one had access to unexpected provisions. One was getting issued with a bar of chocolate for a certain length of time airborne (forget how long but think it was per hour).
After a few months on Chipmunks the squadron took delivery of brand new Scottish Aviation Bulldog T Mk1s. They were side by side trainers which made for more civilised interchange between trainee and instructor. During university term time training was only once or twice a week so during the university summer break we went on camp at an RAF base in England where training could be more intense.
Lest you think I was some kind of aspiring ‘top gun’ let me put you at ease. I was usually graded as ‘above average’ which meant what it said. Others were better and some were going solo with less training than me. There was therefore some pressure on me and assume on my regular instructor that I would soon achieve this milestone event for all pilots. I see from my logbook that for several days before the big day I changed from my regular ‘flight lieutenant’ instructor to that of the squadron leader (SL). Can’t remember why. I wonder if having the gravitas of the commanding officer’s attention helped my skill acquisition.
On 20 June 1974 at RAF Woodvale I was doing ‘circuits’ with aforementioned squadron leader. Circuits involved a, usually clockwise, rectangular route. This meant taking off and climbing to a certain height before levelling off, whilst at same time making two right hand 90 degree turns to face downwind. The runway is now to my right and I am flying parallel to it for a few minutes straight and level before then making two more 90 degree right turns whilst descending to line up on final approach to land. Once landed repeat the whole procedure again by immediately taking off. There were non-stop checklists to go through because of the constant change of maneouvers. These checks were drummed into you by memory and usually were verbalised to the instructor (it’s testimony to the quality of training that I still remember some to this day). Due to the repetitive nature of circuits there was the potential danger of forgetting if you had, for example, put on half flaps or full flaps this circuit or the previous one. Not a good idea on final approach to runway to remain on half flaps. The solution to this was to buzz away from the airfield for 10 mins or so every 3 -4 circuits giving a welcome mental break.
After about 8-10 such circuits we touched down on the runway and I expected the order to take off again. Instead was told to slow down and taxi past the control tower where I was ordered to stop. In what seems like seconds my instructor unexpectedly opened the cockpit hood and yelled at me to go ‘round again’ on another circuit. He then walked off to the control tower to observe. Suddenly this fledgling pilot was about to go ‘solo’! The strategy of surprise was I’m sure to make no room for fear or hesitation. I remember little of the subsequent experience which probably lasted only 10-15 mins. One memory shortly afterwards was the SL saying that he had been smoking the whole time in the control tower. He said he was not a smoker so hope my flying was not the start of a bad habit. Grateful for the confidence he put in me nevertheless!
I guess most of life’s ‘out of the nest’ experiences affect more than ourselves.
Going solo is celebrated by the tradition of my having to chose to pay either the squadron mess bar bill for 10 minutes or buy a barrel of beer. As a wise Scot I opted for what definitely was the cheaper option of the beer.