Saturday, March 10, 2012

'Gosport.' Excerpt, 'Heaven Is Too Far Away.'

Fleet Finch, used in the Second World War in Canada for training student pilots. Photo and model by Louis.


“O.K., Robert. What are we flying today?” I asked the slender, red-haired lad beside me.

He was about five-eight, and very shy. Surrey farmer’s boy. A bookworm, and quiet.

“An Avro 504, sir?” he stammered.

“It seems like such an obvious question, doesn’t it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a one-hundred-ten-horsepower Le Rhone,” he said. “The mechanics filled up the tank.”

“Are you sure it’s not the 130-horsepower Clerget? Or the Monosoupape?”

He hesitated, shuddering slightly.

“Which one?” I asked the boy.

This kid was, God, maybe seventeen and a half years old and he seemed intimidated by me. Robert was a bright kid, very intelligent. Keen. Raring to go, and that was the trouble sometimes. They thought aircraft flew on mere dash and courage.

“What’s next?” I asked. “Did you check the oil?”

“I’ll check the oil, sir,” he stammered again, hanging his head a little.

“Yeah, you check everything. Don’t ever trust a fucking mechanic.”

I noted a couple of sidelong glances from the vicinity of the hangar door.

“They did a good job, sir,” protested Robert.

He’s got spunk. That’s fine, but I just don’t care.

“It’s your ass up there, boy, not theirs. They’ll be sleeping in a bed tonight.”

The unspoken question, of course is where will YOU sleep? Six feet under?

Or Will Tucker, your grumpy old instructor. Grumpy old Tucker, a cripple at nineteen years of age. I went through that thought but immediately trashed it; as instructed by a certain doctor in London.

“Just wad it up old boy, and toss it in the rubbish, don’t you know. Haw! Haw!”

God, I hate psychiatrists. They have their uses. Who else would rent them big, ugly old houses? You must be nuts.

“Are you absolutely satisfied that this aircraft is whole, and complete, and properly prepared, Robert?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Good. Let’s climb aboard.”

After flying a couple of real pigs, for example the RE-2; the Avro was quite a delight to fly. I could never understand why some guys just couldn’t get the hang of it.

I told Robert everything I was about to do, bellowing at him through the tube as I rolled the plane inverted and we hung in our straps.

“I’m holding a little down-stick on it, Robert, and I’m watching our altitude as best I can,” I yelled, and watched his head bobbing in the front cockpit.

“Watch the compass!”

My ears, swathed in the helmet as it were, caught the high-pitched notes of some garbled reply. My right foot shoved forward, the tail crabbed.

Push with my left foot, the tail crabbed the other way.

I rolled the plane back into a straight and level path.

“You have the plane,” I called, and felt the controls wiggle in acknowledgement as he took over.

“Bring her around, about fifteen degrees to the right,” I instructed.

Turbulence wobbled the wings, and he overcorrected, but they always do the first few times up. He settled on a course of 270 degrees, which was more or less what I intended.

“Oh, Robert, me boy, now it’s your turn,” I bellowed at the student ahead.

With a sickening lurch, he started into his roll.

“Use the rudder to turn it and the ailerons to hold it level,” I yelled.

Out over the sea, towards France…soon enough, soon enough.

“Good, good,” I lied. “Now watch your compass and hold this altitude.”

Robert practiced inverted flying for a while, turning on occasion.

He was doing better, and thank God for that. Half the problem with some students was that they were afraid of the instructors. So eager to please, hanging on every word, and worried about looking like a coward or a fool. And I really didn’t know much about instructing, either. If you’re tense with some kind of social fear, you can’t relax, feel the plane. They treat it like it’s made of glass, or some such nonsense.

“You’re doing fine, Robert,” and then he carried out the next part of the drill, which after an inverted figure eight, meant rolling back straight and level.

“Course looks good, Robert. Do a loop now please,” I called.

Fly, Robert, fly. Fly your fucking brains out. You’re going to need all the hours in the air you can get. I know where you’re going. As we went over the top everything looked good. He was learning. Painful and slow sometimes, a sudden revelation at others. Some students picked up the theory in an instant. Watch them stagger all over the sky. Theory is good. So is a fine touch and an awareness of the limitations of the machine. Numbers on a page mean nothing. You have to feel it. If you have to think it through, you are not properly trained.

A plane is like a horse. You have to get to know it a little bit.

The more knowledge and experience they had, the better chance they had of survival, and I honestly didn’t give a damn if the kid ever shot down an enemy aircraft. Teaching them to shoot was some other silly bugger’s job.

“I have the airplane, Robert,” I yelled.

Gripping the stick, I gave it a little shake.

“Watch this and analyze what I’m doing,” as I pulled her up into a rudder turn, then rotated left over the top and went plummeting downward.

Kick in right rudder and pull back on the stick.

“Entering a spin is easy and getting out is just as easy.”

The world came spinning crazily up towards us.

“How is that, young fellow?” I laughed, reversing the spin and going the other way.

“I love it!” he yelled back.

“Oh, really?” I shouted. “Watch this one!”

I bunted her over and we went inverted, spinning back to the left again.

“Check our altitude, Robert.”

You have a job to do too, boy. I pulled out and waited.

“Two thousand, sir,” and I carefully listened to his voice.

He wasn’t afraid, that’s fine. The trouble is the young ones tended to be too trusting.

They have too much respect for their elders. Checking the clock and the compass, with control turned over to the student, we set a course for home.

“Take it upside down. I want to check the map,” I instructed.

I was always throwing curves at my boys. So did the enemy; and that was the point.

As we hung there, I took a quick glance at the map. We were climbing a bit, but then he eased off and we were at about 2,200 feet.

“Stay inverted. Ease off the throttle,” I told him.

The plane shook ever so slightly, and then the altimeter began to creep down.

“Hold her..hold her…that’s good. Throttle up,” I ordered.

He rolled out suddenly without instruction.

“That’s fine, Robert. Not a problem, I’ll take her now.”

He was tired, and the concentration tends to lag. I only push them so hard and then give them a rest. His hands were probably shaking from all the excitement.

“Just relax and watch me fly,” I yelled.

He’ll be fine. Another month and he’ll be ready for the Front. My new job had its moments of deep satisfaction, and moments of dread. These were not usually for myself, but for somebody else.

I wondered how he might do. Faintly, I could feel his hands and feet following the controls around. He seemed a little more relaxed, and that’s good. Now it’s time for my fun. As I gently and ever so slowly put the plane into an axial roll, I watched the bubble and it stayed pretty well in the center.

That’s the way she’s done, boys.

“As I roll to the right, I ease in left rudder. Then you have to pull it out at just the right time. When I’m upside down, it needs a little down-stick,” and showing him as the plane smoothly transitioned. “As we come up, we put in right rudder.”

“The trick is to do it smoothly and just enough,” I added superfluously.

Anybody can just yank the stick over and snap it around. How smooth, how slow can it be done? Can you make it look easy? Make it look pretty?

“Imagine your feet are on bicycle pedals, and you want to make one rotation,” I bellowed, exaggerating my foot movements for effect. “Now you try it again.”

Was it all a waste of breath? He wasn’t any better, he wasn’t any worse. And now he had some new way to think about it.

“All it takes is practice. Lots and lots of practice, although it is basically a useless maneuver,” I explained.

Trying to explain things at a bellow is both frustrating and very tiring.

I knew what I was looking for.

“Where’s that confounded bridge?” I grunted.

I read somewhere that the exploits of the Gosport school were ‘legendary.’ Flying through hangars, landing on roofs or on roads in front of pubs. Flying under bridges. And I’m talking Westminster Bridge, not just the little streams in the neighbourhood. We were just having fun, a whole bunch of irrepressible personalities. My reserve, my shyness, probably benefited from being around the other instructors and ground personnel. Given responsibility, and a little authority, gave me new confidence in an unexpected way. Maybe, ‘Higher Command,’ knew what they were doing when they selected instructors. Doubt that though; more likely the luck of the draw.

I was simply available. Someone must have put in a good word for me.

But some young buck destined for the fighter squadrons…they give you their trust and you’d better not abuse it. You’re playing with some kid’s life. We have to temper it with skill. In order to trust the planes, they had to know what made them tick. In order to trust themselves and each other, they had to be made aware of just what they were capable of as pilots.

“Watch this, me lad,” and I did a thousand-foot side-slip and brought her down to the river.

Skimming along, the weeping willows on the left barked back our engine noise, which sounded raspier and closer to us. The river curved to the left. We followed it, then I eased her level, entering a low right turn above a weir. A fisherman puffed furiously on his pipe, ducking and glaring as we flew over, barely twenty-five feet above.

Robert’s head was moving around in front as he laughed; peering about at the view. A heron, frozen in time as he attempted to scurry his way into flight, at an open place where the fields came right down to the water. A mill, more trees. One more turn.

There she is, the prettiest little bridge you’ve ever seen. Robert appeared to be a little tense. His head sank down until it was barely visible. I was grinning from ear to ear.

Life is a joke. Bob was just lowering his head for maximum visibility.

Life is a huge joke. Then you die. I’m determined to enjoy it if I can.

Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

There was a crescendo of noise building up to a ‘brapp!’ of the air as we went under.

“That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

Robert didn’t reply. Hope we haven’t lost him. I’ve never had a student just get out and walk away after a flight, but I know someone who has. It happens. Off the record, I blame the instructor, who tried some hare-brained stunt and bit off a little more than he could chew.

Eyes-bigger-than-his-stomach syndrome.

“That was great,” he called back a little weakly.

“You’re riding with the best,” I assured Robert.

Inspire confidence. That’s part of the job.

And I have to be confident in myself to do that. At least that’s one part of the theory.

“Take us home, Robert.”

He could handle the plane at a thousand feet. I wouldn’t let him do it otherwise. How does the student feel about it? He seems to be doing fairly well. Let him fly the thing.

“How many other planes did we see today?” I barked suddenly.

“Nine, sir,” he yelled back with no hesitation.


I must have missed one. That’s pretty good.

“Are you sure, boy?” as he steadied up and began to make an approach.

(We always say, ‘an’ approach, and never, ‘the’ approach!)

“Yes, sir,” he called.

He was a lying little bugger, but I decided to let him get away with one, this time.

You have to convince them they’re smarter than someone else.

“You have the plane. Land it,” I ordered.

“Yes, sir.”

When you switch off, the ringing in your ears stays with you. The wind beating on the back of your neck is exhausting. The buffeting of the slipstream on your head just made the neck ache sometimes. I was suffering from a bit of a headache.

“That’s all for today, Bob,” I gave him a slap on the back. “Good job. Thanks for the flight.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He looked tired and strained, but a very happy young man.

My job was not entirely without its perks.

“Off you go then.”

Was there someone else, or is this my last flight of the day? There was one figure walking toward the hangars, but there was no one else lined up and ready to go. Time for a nice cup of tea. My knee was a little wobbly, but it was early days yet. That much was clear, I thought as I walked away. Every so often lurching, when my foot came down a little too hard.

My flying was fine. Walking hurt. It just plain hurt.

Notes. This was my first novel, and I went overboard at 183,000 words. There are one or two things I would do differently if I was to write this book at this point in my development as a writer. I can take or leave the first person narrative. But it was worth doing it as a memoir, because to write another dry and dusty history book was and remains beyond my ability or interest. This one took about two and a half years to write, and was extensively researched. Presently I am much more sophisticated in terms of dialogue tags and semi--colons, that sort of thing, the basic nuts-and-bolts writing skills that a lot of people probably do take for granted. But some of us learn by doing, and I have no real regrets with this book. The greatest lesson it taught me was perseverance--and the fact that I could actually complete a book, write a good story, and have a lot of fun doing it.

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