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 even 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.
High Flight, John Gillespie Magee, Jr
I was fascinated – obsessed would be closer – with flying as far back as I can remember. That was only strengthened when I learned that my grandfather had been a pilot during the Second World War – his eyesight not being up to RAF standard, but being an experienced private pilot, he’d joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ATA were a group of pilots, initially men, though women got in a little later, who ferried aircraft around the country. Although not a front line activity, it was not without risk; the pilots flew without radio and even in armed aircraft were not allowed ammunition. Some were killed through the natural risks of weather or mechanical failures, a few by enemy action. Grandad died flying a Tiger Moth trainer; it was thought he’d become lost in heavy cloud and crashed into a hill in the Yorkshire Dales.
As I grew up, I fed my interest with books, films and model aeroplanes. As soon as I was old enough I bought an old motorbike and travelled to the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden near Biggleswade. I joined the Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society, though I lived too far away to really get involved as a volunteer. My eyes, like Grandad’s, weren’t good enough for the Air Force. Perhaps I ought to have joined anyway, as ground crew, to work on the planes, but instead I trained as a teacher. The obsession didn’t fade, and when I discovered it was possible to fly a microlight aircraft without a licence, I took a few lessons and bought a second-hand machine. An unlicensed pilot is, as you’d expect, restricted in what he can fly, and it wasn’t long before I was seeking to qualify for a licence so I could get something more capable. Thus, I joined with three other enthusiasts and bought an equal share in a Sherwood Ranger with a four-stroke motor. It was a delightful, capable biplane aircraft with a top speed around eighty miles an hour. We were lucky to find one second hand, hardly used, for not much more than the basic kit price, and proceeded to have a lot of fun. It was special for me, too, as I felt closer to the grandfather I never knew, flying a biplane not unlike the Tiger Moth he died in.
My friends and I had an amicable relationship concerning the use of the aircraft; basically, it was there to use and we just kept a sort of diary. Weekends, of course, we had to negotiate some sort of rota, but during the school holidays I had almost free rein.
It was during the summer I had an experience that changed my life. It was eerie, in a way, but – I was going to say, not frightening, but actually, I was terrified. This is how it happened.
I was flying over the Dales. Daydreaming when flying is not a good idea, but I suddenly realised that was what I’d been doing. Fortunately, the Ranger is quite stable, but that was the only good thing. The aircraft is VFR (Visual Flight Rules) only, and in any event I had no instrument qualification, so when I realised I could feel a definite chill through my fleece-lined jacket, and the horizon was rapidly fading, closely followed by any sight of the ground, I knew I was potentially in deep trouble. I had only a vague idea of where I was and maybe an hour’s fuel remaining. Thoughts of Corporal Jones, running around shouting “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!” raised only a rather grim smile. I set up a gentle turn onto a heading I hoped would take me home, and climbed to a height that would clear the highest hills in the area.
The visibility improved, though it didn’t clear, as I climbed, glancing briefly away from the rudimentary flight instruments. Surely – I was dreaming again? Or some kind of illusion? Hallucination? The vague outline of another aircraft loomed over to the right. Another biplane, but painted green and brown, with RAF roundels and yellow markings. A Tiger Moth. There are quite a few Moths still flying, and some carry wartime paint schemes, but it was still ... disconcerting, to say the least. The wings of the other aircraft waggled, and it took station ahead of me, just close enough to be easily seen. The wings waggled again, and I responded likewise. Then the other aircraft banked into a turn. What did I have to lose? Well, my life, I supposed. And my friends wouldn’t be pleased to lose the aircraft, though I dare say they’d be more worried for me than that. I followed.
Nervously, pulse racing and thudding in my ears, I stayed behind as we lost height. Would I end the same way as Grandad? Perhaps I’d have a little more warning and the Ranger’s manoeuvrability would get me out of trouble.
Suddenly, a tree loomed ahead and below, then a windsock, and a grass strip.
I cut the throttle and eased my aircraft onto the ground, stopping well short of a drystone wall, looking around for my erstwhile saviour, who was nowhere to be seen.
What the hell did I do now? At least I was on the ground and safe. I cut the motor and rummaged for my mobile phone. Wouldn’t you know I had no signal? I climbed out of the cockpit and looked around, knees knocking with the release of tension; not that I could see much. I suppose the visibility might have been a hundred yards.
A figure loomed (I seem to be using that word a lot, but what else can I use?) out of the mist. I removed my helmet.
“Hello! I thought I heard something!” A woman’s voice, mellow, clear. She drew closer and I could see she was elderly, though still attractive. She must have been quite the beauty in her youth; now she was still slim and upright, with a close trimmed helmet of pure white hair surrounding a weathered face with laughter-lines. I stood there as she approached and stopped short a few feet away.
“Charles?” She took a step closer. “Charlie, is that you?”
“My name’s David,” I said. “David Millward.”
“My God!” It was barely more than a whisper, “You’re so like him...” She cut herself off, and cleared her throat. “Let’s get your machine under cover and safe. I expect you’ll want to make a call to tell people where you are?” She didn’t wait for a response, but moved up to the Ranger. “Come on, I’m pretty strong, even at my age, but I’ll need your help to push.”
There was a shed – small hangar, really – quite close. She unlocked the door. It was large enough to take the Ranger, even with the wings locked in position, as well as a small, high-winged monoplane; a Taylorcraft Auster, painted silver, with a single dark red line along the fuselage from the nose. It was obviously quite old. We got the Ranger pushed in, facing out, and she saw where I was looking. “War surplus,” she commented. “It keeps me flying, at least as long as I can pass the medical.” She walked over and patted the cowling of the old machine, then turned back to me. “Come on. Let’s relieve some anxieties. By the way, I’m Edna Slattersthwaite.”
A couple of calls, to say I was safe on the ground at a private airstrip, then sitting in a stone-floored kitchen with a mug of strong tea. “You seemed to mistake me for someone else,” I prompted.
She sighed. “You’re the image of a man I knew in the War. We were in the ATA together.” She smiled. “We were ... friends. But he married, and then got himself killed – not so far from here, actually – though I could never understand how. He was such a careful, skilled pilot, and the Moth wasn’t demanding to fly. They think the engine failed and he flew into the hill trying for a forced landing through the cloud.”
“Charles Morrison,” I said. “First Officer, ATA.”
“My grandfather,” I said. “Maternal grandfather, that is.”
“Ah. Yes. Strong genes they must be, to pull you into the air and look so much like him.” She looked away, pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose noisily. “This mist will persist until dark. Will you stay overnight? I have some petrol if you need it.”
“Thank you,” I thought, and went on, “That would be good, as long as I’m not putting you out. Of course I’ve nothing with me but what I stand up in, Missus Slattersthwaite.”
“Please, call me Edna. No problem. I’ve a few things of my late husband’s I’ve never disposed of, and I’m sure I can find a new toothbrush.”
“Well, all I can say is ‘thank you’ again, Edna.”
“Tell me – how did you find your way here? It’s not the easiest approach in good visibility.”
I told the story, expecting incredulity, but she just nodded. “Sometimes I wake in the night, you know, and hear the sound of a Gypsy Major engine overhead. I often think of him; I’m sure he was looking after his grandson.”
True to her predictions the mist lingered, and in the evening she served up a savoury lamb casserole, with new potatoes and runner beans grown in her own vegetable patch. She asked me about, myself and my family, and later as we drank beer from a nearby micro-brewery, she began to open up about Grandad and their relationship. She had a far-away expression and I wonder how aware she was of my presence, really.
“He was rather like you,” she began, “serious, with little interest in anything other than aircraft. As you’ll guess, he looked like you, too.” She disappeared at one point, only to reappear with her old log-book and an album of photos. Only a few of them, in the middle of the album, featured my grandfather. In her log-book, she pointed to entries where she’d flown the Dominie (the RAF version of the de Havilland Dragon Rapide short-haul airliner) to collect other ATA pilots and return them to White Waltham. I also noticed entries for Spitfire, Hurricane, Harvard, Tiger Moth, Blenheim and Mosquito. She saw me scanning the other entries. “Most of the others loved the Spitfire. So did I, for that matter, but my favourite was the Mosquito. It had its foibles – you had to be on the ball – but the power; oh, my.”
I was fading by eleven o’clock, and she showed me to a small bedroom. I undressed to t-shirt and shorts and got under the covers, heavy with sheet and blanket, not the duvet I was used to. As I drifted off to sleep I could hear music from the kitchen, bagpipes playing ‘Abide with me’, then ‘Flowers of the Forest’.
She woke me with coffee at seven o’clock. “Come to the kitchen when you’re ready for breakfast. There’s plenty of hot water if you want a shower, and I’ve put towels in the bathroom for you. There’s clean shorts and t-shirt as well. I think they’ll fit you well enough – they’re from before my husband put on weight.”
It was great to wash off the funk of my ‘near death’ experience, and I went to the kitchen comfortable, but in a reflective frame of mind. I’d learned more the previous night about my ancestor from Edna than in the rest of my life from the rest of my family. I don’t usually bother with a cooked breakfast, but that morning I was presented with an enormous platter; bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, baked beans, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fried bread. More coffee. Apple juice.
“How did you know I drank my coffee black?”
She smiled conspiratorially. “Just a guess. One more way you’re like Charlie.” She hesitated. “Is your grandmother still alive?”
“No – she died when I was ten. I don’t think I knew her very well; I just remember a plump, taciturn, rather grim woman.”
She nodded. “I never quite understood ... well. Water under the bridge, I suppose.”
I finished eating and helped with the washing-up, then it was time to depart. She came with me to the hangar and brought out a two-gallon can of petrol. “How much does this thing use?”
“About thirteen litres an hour.” I probed the tank with my stick (‘Never rely on the gauge before you take off. Always dip and make sure’). “There’s about ten in here. If I can have yours, that’ll be plenty with a margin for error. Can I pay for it?”
She grinned and, I don’t know, about seventy years fell away from her. “If you insist. The stuff’s certainly expensive enough. Where do you base?”
“Sherburn,” I said.
She nodded. “Fifty miles or so.”
I handed over a tenner – barely enough for two gallons, nine litres – and she pocketed it with a shrug and a smile. “I hope you’ll come back.”
I finished emptying the can into the Ranger’s tank. “Certainly. I’d love to.”