Formerly an Orkney Island resident, Martin Harvey is a retired doctor recently located to north east England. He's a keen builder and flyer and recounts his exploits here on a regular basis. You can chat to Martyn by using the forum thread link below. 

Flying Tonight? - 7/11/14

I think we are good at complaining about anything we don’t like, and the weather just about tops the bill. The last summer has hit some records for sunniest, driest, wettest, coldest, and, yes, this is still good old United Britain. And we are still a nation of weather-watchers, still one nation although in some areas deeply divided. Here we have Hadrian’s Wall right across our country to remind us of times long ago when things were a trifle less peaceful. Edward Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots. Brave Heart William Wallace. Robert the Bruce. They all fought and died over these pastures And not so far back as that were the Border Reivers, the Corsairs of these northern hills, who rode in on their sturdy horses and rounded up what they wanted and disappeared back into the valleys whence they came. Don’t get in their way if you wanted to stay the same shape as you were before they arrived, you might find an arm or a head missing. If you found yourself bereaved, the Reivers did it. It is the same word, just a different spelling. It is said that monks in a local Abbey heard the Reivers were in the area looking for them so they ran off and hid. Then they heard the Reivers had got lost in the fog and were headed way off north to Hadrian’s Wall, so they rushed back to the abbey and rang the bells and celebrated, only to find out that the noise attracted the Reivers back out of the fog just up the road where they were searching for the road home. An exchange of goods was arranged and the remaining Monks were somewhat impoverished for a few centuries. Strange how the principles of government have changed so little over centuries. There are still bonuses for us in such stories. There are several excellent sites and museums along the Wall where we can see what incredible achievements our ancestors got up to, and the Wall was built along a scarp slope with steep northerly cliffs which create updraughts for gliding.

I just can’t recall a decent summer. I can remember being rained off, blown off, fairly often on the days when I wanted to fly. I can remember being able to drive into our field without getting bogged down up to the axles in soft mud, and I hear we still can drive in. but the weather these last few days will surely change that. I can remember trying to cut grass ankle-deep after a couple of weeks growth. I can remember having some very frustrating times with planes. I can remember not achieving what I wanted. We all watched a new member struggle valiantly and vainly with a plane he wanted to use for aerial photography. The bungee launch, the crash, the cyano, the relaunch, the frustrated scowls. Finally he found another plane and was successful. Sound familiar? I think he has now mastered the black art of quadcopters and flying round lots of GPS waypoints taking lots of photos. Another member is at the cutting edge of commercial photography and live television and high-speed quadcopters. Things look promising, and you may be looking at his achievements soon. These things all filter down the club and into the hobby and benefit us all in the fullness of time.

Well, this year is almost dead and gone, and another is about to wake up and offer more hopes and dreams. I look up at the skies and see, sometimes, below the glowering clouds, birds wheeling freely through the air untrammelled by rain, wind, dead batteries, and soggy flying sites. We took a break recently to Ardwell Bay, a holiday haunt of my childhood. My first trip back in many years, we took a scenic route through the Reiver strongholds to Gretna (though I doubt they paid much attention to such rituals) and on to Sweetheart Abbey. So called because the Laird was killed in the crusades and his wife kept his heart to be buried with her in the abbey she built with his remaining fortune. It is an imposing ruin somewhat similar to but smaller than St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney. Those masters of aerial high jinks the rooks and jackdaws wheeled round and through window arches. At the southernmost tip of Scotland we saw a peregrine slicing through the air over cliffs on scimitar wings, as distinctive a silhouette as a spitfire. A flock of swans, 20 or so, flying low over the sea towards England, probably whoopers down from Iceland or Russia. One of the heaviest flying birds, how do they ever take off and keep flying for hours at a time. And all they eat is grass. And when will Li-Pos ever match their rechargability? A jay, north of Stranraer, resplendent in red, white, and azure wings and an awful cackle like a piston ring grinding itself to smithereens, and a squirrel running across the ground. Was it red? Was it grey? Gone too soon! Red Kites on the way home. I never tire of seeing these magnificent birds exulting over air currents we can never see, their tails shifting oh so slightly as they move left and right, long slim wings changing shape and incidence at their slightest whim. Such beautiful colours when seen in sunlight, and a great conservation story to pull them back from extinction. I have watched them do perfect touch-and-goes picking up offal at a feeding station, and then eating it on the wing. Hobby falcons catch insects in full flight and also eat them while flying. And we can achieve the odd mid-air collision!

And we left wing-warping behind a hundred years ago! Do any birds or insects do swing-wing technology? I know dragonflies can warp two sets of wings independently with a brain the size of a pinhead.

There were no whales to see off the coast, and no eagles. Not the right time or place for either, really, which leaves a nice excuse for a return visit another year.

Summertime - 20/8/14

Yes, this is Summertime. And we are still rejoicing under the after-effects of  Hurricane Bertha. Three weeks of wet and windy, a dose of fertiliser on our patch which, with the gracious attentions of a flock of sheep wandering around adding another type of fertiliser, has made the grass grow at a wild rate. The Farmer has already taken one cut of hay, and is getting ready for the next. No-one has been up to the strip because it has been such high summer and the bog round the gate has stopped all but those cars shod with seven-league-wellington boots. And that includes me OUT!
So, with the drying wind now down to “Strong Breeze” I tried the mower. We have two in our shed. The nice big one has just been serviced. I found it has 2 flat tyres and one flat battery and the fuel gauge read “Empty”. So the small mower trundled across the pasture at its maximum height and still got stalled and bogged in the lush grass. An hour later I had taken the grass down to about 2”, just enough to trip up any plane that tried to take off or land, and the mower got jammed every few minutes.. By this time some friends had arrived and raked the cuttings off the patch so the mower could be set low and get the grass down to an acceptable height. Exhausted, we realised that the wind was again freshening and play was postponed to another time. There is another Low coming in from Iceland which will encourage us all to engage in shedly activities.

So much for our flying. But for some light relief the Sunderland Air Show was at its usual standard. It is free and lasts 3 days and gets all the best planes around. All, except, sadly, the great, the one and only, Avro Vulcan. I gather this is its last year flying and it was sad not to see it, and hear those great engines roar as she rolled away from the crowd. I grew up with the V-Bombers regularly flying over our house just 3 miles from RAF Finningley, now Robin Hood Airport. Robin Hood’s forest is, of course, miles from there but I am sure there is still a small element of robin the rich to give to other deserving individuals. Equity balancing and distribution is a posh description. Well, if I can have the occasional ARTF out of such redistributions I shall stay happy.

The two stars of the Show, as far as I was concerned, were the BBMF trio and the Eurofighter Typhoon. There is something about these planes that catches at my heartstrings. It may be the throb of the Merlins, 6 x 27 litres of megabucks whirling round at 2500 rpm. It may be the rush to get these planes built to fly into the War. And they were each world-leaders. It may be the rush to get those lads trained and thrown into the skies to do a job which was almost impossible. It may be that I am now much older than they ever were. Whatever, I love to see them, and hear them, and watch them manoeuvre around the skies. And there is another one from Canada come to join them, and the Vulcan will also be displaying. It is staggering that some 7 years separate the Lancaster from the Vulcan in their design.

Some 50 years separated the concept of the Spitfire from the Typhoon. The Spitfire developed out of the Schneider trophy winner and was a graceful ballerina with a deadly kick. The Typhoon developed out of a Committee and took years and years of satisfying opposing egos. One country insisted on taking the lead but the committee decided otherwise. So they walked out to make their own and sell it off to the rest of the world. And it looked uncannily like the Committee finished product Messerschmitt were at one side of the table, Hawkers were at the other. That must have been fun. The Spitfire had the tail at the back, the Typhoon has a tail at the front - a canard which is French for a duck. Truly a Committee design. We have all heard of “Spitfire Mitchell”. A chocolate noddy goes to anyone who can tell me anyone important on the design committee without looking it up in Wikipedia. Whatever the politics, the end result is a remarkable plane with a truly incredible noise attached. This is ear-splitting with the afterburners, and its agility is amazing. It can do a sort of prop-hang sitting on its afterburners, a bit like hatching a hard-boiled egg. But give me a Merlin any day!

Some comparisons. The Spitfire and Typhoon have the same wingspan, but look a bit different. The Typhoon is almost twice as long and five times heavier. It can fly twice as high as its little sister and its range was about twice as far. Its climb rate is 62,000 ft/min. Little sister did 2,600ft/min but didn’t have an afterburner. And it could fly about four times faster than a Spitfire. And its armament? A very Lot!!

Well, some Committees do make a little progress. And the guys who left the Committee? They sold some planes to one other country. C’est la vie! They also sold Exocets to Argentina, but that is a different story.

Gladiators! - 12/6/14

There was a programme my Kids were keen on called Gladiators. Big guys tried to beat up other big guys, and we at home on the sofa would cheer and shout things at them. But that was just the same in the film of that name, and that was based on what the Romans did a couple of millennia ago. And the Greeks, and the Assyrians, and the Egyptians before them. And probably Neanderthal Man had a book running on who was the strongest guy with a dinosaur thigh bone.

There was another Gladiator which excelled in a different field. This one had wings and flew, and spat venom out of its nose. Lead-filled venom! It is interesting that there were some similarities between this and other Gladiators, as all were fighters, all marked the ends of eras and set the stage for newer versions of the same game. It was all about Death and Glory. Fortunately, most of us reading this column have never had to fight for Death and Glory, apart from casting our franchise at occasional elections, but in 1934, just 80 years ago, this was a growing fear. The Gloster Aviation Company had built the Gauntlet, designed by Henry Folland, and were competing for another commission for an even faster fighter which could fly at the incredible speed of 250 mph. And if it could use the sophisticated new Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine they would be laughing all the way to the Bank. But the Goshawk didn’t squawk so they put some quicksilver in the front instead. The Bristol Mercury was a big round radial engine which wasn’t at all aerodynamic, but did deliver reliable grunt, and did get the new plane close to the target speed. Some three years later the new Fighter became operational.

Meanwhile, Gloster’s parent company, Hawker Aircraft, were preparing the most successful fighter of the era, the Hurricane. It seems incredible that these two designs, within the same company, just fifty miles apart, were going ahead at almost the same time, apparently in opposite directions. Sydney Camm also found the Goshawk’s squawk unpleasant and waited for the much better Merlin to hatch. He also did what we now graciously call “out of the box” thinking and produced a revolutionary design which didn’t need an extra wing, tucked its wheels inside its underpants when not needed, and packed just eight machine guns. It also flew almost twice as fast as its Gladiator cousin.

So, we have a brand new fighter aircraft going into service in a run-down Royal Air Force when its own cousin has rendered it obsolete. Sounds like a plot-line for “Yes, Minister”. But did it sit down and cry? Not Likely!! Clearly outflown and outgunned by the German machines it met as the War broke, it achieved considerable success in less well-known fields, and the defence of Malta made three famous as “Faith, Hope, and Charity”. Gloster Airplanes were sold to many other countries, and that had prompted a change of name from the “Gloucestershire Aircraft Company” to “Gloster Aircraft Company” as overseas customers had difficulties getting the name right. Is anyone surprised? How has our beloved language survived so long with all its intricasies of spilleng and pronounciashun? And is English still the number one language on this planet?

Their first success of the War was in Orkney where a Dornier flying boat was shot down. Hatston Airport is now an industrial estate where you can buy almost anything, and get almost anything made, if you know the right guy. I know, I lived there. It is where the ferry from Aberdeen will drop you if you visit. Gladiators were modified to fly off Carriers, with over half surviving till the end of the War. Their slower speed was an advantage here, and they were facing slower opposition. 36 were sold to China and did well until they met the Zeros. Then they were relegated to training duties. Their Ace pilot was Buffalo Wong.

There weren’t just three planes defending Malta. There were several, some being recycled as spares and repairs, but all did an excellent job in defending the island until Hurricanes finally arrived to bolster their defences. In fact, from the Arctic Circle in Norway and Finland to the Equator Gladiators worked tirelessly to the limit of their abilities, surviving the War, and continuing in a brave new world twenty years after they first flew.

So it was perhaps no surprise that when I saw a Gladiator kit at the Nats I got it. This had a grp fuz and cowl, and super plastic cabanes and wing struts which would anchor the wings in exactly the right place, I hoped. The servo tray anchored the cabanes, and also held the undercarriage in place. Neat! The wings and tail feathers were foam and balsa, so it looked an easy build and a fun plane to fly. The full instructions, I was assured, were all on the comprehensive plan. One modest sheet, printed on one side only. Maybe not so full! Well, at least it was not too expensive, and I really liked it, so it joined my Family for an eventful life.

The fuz was the easy bit. Nice shape, tail feathers cut out, glue the servo tray in, solder the u/c, mount the firewall, check the cowl. These bits did feature on the plan. The upper wing was in four bits, the lower had three, and I could find no information on how the join them. I wasn’t going to trust simple glue, so I pushed a piece of piano wire through the foam centre piece and followed that with an aluminium tube. You can be pretty accurate with this method, and it was fun to see the tube coming out where I wanted it. I found the required dihedral angle at last, concealed near the top left corner of the plan, so I could set the piano wire off burrowing through the outer wing sections of foam again. Cut the tube to length, and I had a centre spar. Gorrilla Glue expands as a foam, and sets rigid, so I dribbled some into the holes through the foam and coated the tube and the mating surfaces of the foam wing, and I have a robust wing with the correct dihedral. The cabanes and struts had pre-drilled sockets and plastic nuts and it was good to see them all mate up, though I wasn’t sure how robust these fittings were.

First flights are always fun, and this was no exception. “Balance point is Critical” the plan stated, and a fair lump of church roof was bolted to the engine mount. She raced off the strip, and appeared to stand on her tail, obviously tail heavy. She reminded me of a spring salmon resisting arrest by a wily poacher. I was just able to get her round the field for a quick landing in a series of leapfrogs and landed without further damage. Recheck the CofG, a bit more church roof, and another attempt. Same again, but this time I noticed that on full throttle she shot up, but on part throttle she behaved. I put wedges behind the engine mounts, with some 10* down thrust, and now she behaves better. Yes, the theory behind multiple wings and drag and down thrust is complex. The benefit of this kit was that the lower wing incidence was fixed by the fuz, and the upper wing incidence was fixed by the cabanes. I had checked the angles before flying, and they seemed fine. Well, I managed to rescue the flights, and have had some fun from it since, so all appears well. And if you want to try this model, there is an excellent Brian Taylor plan waiting for you.

That was one of the very few days we have had so far this year when flying was possible. What has gone so wrong with our weather? And can we do anything about it, other than complain? The Rain in Spain is mainly on the wane, so perhaps we should move there for a change? And why are we still using central heating when we are hours away from the Longest Day? And why does our electric blanket still have to work so hard to lull us to sleep? It is so good to be British! 

Wonderful News! - 13/5/14

We acquired a cat some months ago. We didn’t search for it, we didn’t steal it, it just got fed up with its home nearby and moved into our greenhouse. It was beautiful, had oodles of Personality, and Patricia loved it. And soon, as all cats do, it had taken complete command of our home, and us too.

Patricia was horrified a couple of days ago to see it distressed, shaking its paws, stinking of kerosene, and leaving tell-tale oily footprints wherever it went. When she found them on her best duvet horror turned to fury and I was instantly summoned to find the fuel leak.

Ever since we moved in to this house there has been a slight smell of kerosene around the fuel tank, which hides discreetly between the garage and the greenhouse. Our plumber has looked at it several times, as has the boiler engineer, and both have pronounced the tank ok, these tanks always smell of kerosene they said in unison. But this was different. The cat was upset, and its official owner was invited to submit her two penn’orth of opinion, which she did in her usual forthright fashion, and wrapped the poor cat up in a towel and headed for the vet. Another neighbour and I scrambled around the tank searching for a problem. I brought a torch hoping not to find anything as I would have to pay for it, he brought some home-made sawdust as he is an ecological woodburner. No leak was visible, but there did seem to be a bigger stain of kerosene than there had been when I had last looked a few days ago. More sawdust, and a few wipes with the brand which only needs “One Sheet” of paper towel, and a faint crackle was visible in the plastic of the tank just below the exit fitting. More use of One Sheet, more “green” sawdust, and a definite and substantial drip could be seen, and the pile of sawdust was turning from pale yellow to dark ochre. I could see the fuel gauge seemed to be dropping a lot faster than it should be at this time of year, so something had to be done, and quick! The Fuel suppliers put us onto the Tank experts, who said they would come out. “Just rub the crack with a bar of soap” he said. Aghast, we had to confess that we had not one bar of soap in the house. We take the regulation number of showers during the year, every Quarter Day, Christmas and Bank Holidays and so on, but we use shower gel and such modern items of everyday life. But soap?? That is SO old hat! Fortunately our neighbours not only had sawdust, they also had several varieties of soap. As a plug for leaking kerosene it was on this occasion useless, and so was candle wax but we were assured that it does often prove effective.

It was at this point that our other dearest neighbours called in distress. Their car had suddenly shed a spring and they needed to get to Newcastle urgently. So, off I drive with other dearest neighbours and minus soap and book and candle, and returned a couple of hours later to find the sawdust now distinctly wet, and the cat neighbour returned with the cat suitably vetted and now happy but freaked out, and all engaged in a lengthy and exuberant conversation about Patricia’s art work. Patricia’s pictures are really something special, far better than my own efforts, and a lot nicer than smelly fuel tanks. The tank experts then rang to say they would be really late, so this was turning into a rather special day.

My desk has been getting over-full with bills, dumb adverts, insurance renewals, and so on, so I tidied that mess till the tank experts arrived and got to work. It was just like emptying glo fuel but on a more massive scale. This tank contained more fuel than a Spitfire. The pipe was a good inch diameter, and the pump could have powered a hang-glider. Soon the old tank was emptied into two other equally old tanks where the splits were not at the bottom. I was told to await a phone call from their Boss with news of the arrival of a new wonder tank with electronic fuel recorder and a rather large bill which would have pride of place on my now uncluttered desk. This could be partially hidden under the car renewal, the house renewal, and the water rates. Partially uncluttered desk.

I saw an ad the other day for an Evolution 7 cylinder 35cc radial engine, mint, at almost half price, the only engine I really really want. I am now glad I left it to some other happy buyer, or I would be facing some considerable embarrassment in the next few days. Maybe next year……

 The Tank experts excelled, and returned the following day with a brand new tank, removed the old one and tried to fit the new one. This proved difficult, as the concrete base was slightly irregular with little protrusions on it. The official term for these, the experts said, was snots, and it was so descriptive. They were removed with hammer and chisel, a novel way to cure a cold. At last the tank sat firmly on its base, it was connected up to our boiler, and filled with what remained of our kerosene. The soggy sawdust was scooped up, and the smell diminished. Contracts were signed, and we found we really did have an electronic height recorder hidden in our tank. It is so good to be dragged into the 21st century, especially when it apparently takes up to half a day for the sender and receiver to shake hands and agree to talk to each other. We find we still have about 6 electronic bars of fuel left in our tank. I wonder what that really means in terms of hot showers or cups of tea. I believe we have height recorders for our models these days, a facility enjoyed by those who have moved on from 35mhz, but they seem to shake hands rather more frequently than every half hour or so. So long as I can see my model, I don’t really care how high it goes. I can leave the digital supremos to boast about height and speed and gizmos. I am just happy to land in approximately the same number of pieces as I took off in.

A 1 Tanks are the experts. Their base is Richmond, and they cover all the A1 from Sheffield to the Borders, from Hull to the Lakes. You get keen Yorkshire service, keen Yorkshire workmanship, and keen Yorkshire pricing. The Best! All you need to do is feed the experts with keen Yorkshire Tea and a few kitkats. It was only afterwards that I found that they also sell steel tanks as well as plastic ones. Inspecting the old tank after removal there were several cracks in it, one big one, and they have a lifetime of just 10 years. This tank was 13 years old, and out of the sun, out of use, and out of guarantee. Well, you win some, you lose some.

And these were going to be really nice flying days. Bright sunshine and no rain. Well, again, you win some, you lose some. I suppose there is a moral in there somewhere. Always check your plumbing before going flying, and make sure the tank doesn’t spring a leak. Make sure your batteries aren’t leaking their power all over the place. And if you want some free kerosene for your super new jet, you are welcome to some bags of smelly soaking sawdust to boil down. And I didn’t crash a single plane, nor use one for experimental purposes nor cause distress to any airframe during this entire interlude! The wind was a bit too strong for decent flying, anyway.

I am still wondering about our neighbours with the bars of soap. Do they have showers with shower gel, or do they soak in a steaming bath full to the brim with soap suds? Or maybe a shared tub in the kitchen with a bar of carbolic? I’m not sure I want to explore that too far, they are such nice people. I will just give them their soap back.

Patricia is fanatical about clutter. If it hasn’t been used in six months, dump it. She wages war on clutter throughout the house and garden, and on my desk, where it is called progressive entropy filing system, and she wages war (from a safe distance) on the mess in my workshop, where it is called fun. The tank  invoice arrived a day or so later, by first class post, and took pride of place on my uncluttered desk. Now, if my desk were just a little cluttered I could regretfully lose it for a few days till the reminder came. I am quite comfortable with a little clutter, and I am all for a quiet Wife. I haven’t used my fishing tackle in the last six months, not even in the last six years. I just hope Patricia doesn’t find where I have hidden all that!

I found out at the Pub quiz that the neighbours don’t really want their soap back, after all. Perhaps a shared tub wasn’t on their list of thrills. Lets hope their oil tank doesn’t start leaking.

Reach for the Sky - 8/4/14

This is one thing we have almost all been spectacularly unable to do. There has been no sky, just awful weather, for about a year. We were supposed to have had the wettest summer, the hottest summer, the driest summer, and some other things we never even noticed. Then came Autumn, rapidly worsening in to Winter, and then suddenly it was Spring again. But where exactly did Winter go? Not here, for certain. We had a little snow for a day or two in our village, and that was about all. We do have a lot of hills round here, and they create our wonderful scenery particularly with their covering of snow and frost, and some interesting driving experiences. I remember driving up one hill during a snowfall, and seeing the van, two in front of me, slithering to a halt at the steepest bit. The car following sneaked past without skidding, and the next one did the same only to find two huge artics emerging over the crest of the hill at some speed. They all missed each other and carried on blissfully happy. I was stuck behind Mr Skidpan, just able to creep on in second gear with my winter tyres barely gripping, and Patricia saying interesting things in the seat beside me while slowly letting herself settle into her seat after clutching the roof. I suppose it is a bit like being in a circuit round the field on a breezy day when someone shouts “Landing!” and at the same time someone else shouts “Dead Stick!!” from the other end of the circuit.

We had some frost, but not to cause us problems, just to brighten the grass in the mornings. There was no Sky during Spring, just deluges of wetwetwet. I used to live in Devon, a Member of the East Devon Radio Control Club. I used to see rivers flood half a mile across after rain, and sailed a boat near Dawlish where the railway line was washed away. I think the Jet Stream wasn’t invented then, but we certainly all know about it now, and it still seems to be wrecking our flying. Strange what there is in a name. Radio Control Club. It almost makes me think I might have been in full control. And I wasn’t there the day that fire started, nowhere near! Now I am in a Model Flying Club. Can I really fly models? Well, actually, yes I can, and I have a shedful of planes which have survived all of last year and are all still flyable. And one reason why they are still in flyable condition is that we have had so few flying days in the last few months. I have been up to our strip just three times since Christmas. Today we have bright blue skies; and a strong wind with trees waving in the village, so no flying possible. For the last week we have had little wind, little rain, and cloud down to 500ft. We here are at 900ft, and the strip is at a similar elevation, so foggy dew was what we got, and no flying. Before that we had sufficient rain to turn our patch into a swamp and it is still drying out. Well, so much for moaning in a very British way about the weather.

There was something else very British that happened near here. There is a very famous railway museum in York, where I once went on a school trip. That was in a previous millennium, never mind previous century. There is a sister museum at Shildon, near Bishop Auckland, where the last six remaining A4 Pacifics gathered from the far corners of the world for one last grand display in celebration of Mallard setting the still-unbroken world speed record for steam trains. These were the pinnacle of British steam engine technology. They were designed by Sir Nigel Gresley and they were all engineered and made and repaired at Doncaster LNER works, just three miles from where I grew up. They also bankrupted their various owners when they required rebuilds, which is why just three of the six were steamed up with fire in their bellies and whistles whooping. The Doncaster Plant Works was a major employer when I was at school, and I felt immensely proud to be a small part of that display.

And I love those engines. They might not fly, they weigh a hundred tons each, but they are as wonderful as Spitfires and Lancasters and radial engines and those other wonders of that era. Does penicillin rank in this group? Not quite.

The film Reach for the Sky seems to be doing the rounds of the minor channels. I realise that some of our younger fliers may not know about Douglas Bader, so perhaps we might introduce him. Born in 1910 he was perhaps a difficult child, and found it easier to do sports rather than homework, and so easily achieved excellence at cricket, rugger, and boxing, and indifference at readingritingrithmitick. Sounds a bit familiar. Is this my school report? Apparently Guy Gibson of Dam Busters fame was also a pupil at the same school. His determination to succeed was evident in his sport as he rapidly rose to the top and captained his school teams, and took on bigger boys in boxing, in and out of the ring. It was only when he realised that he could get a scholarship to Cranwell that he started to do his sums. There were only six a year, and he got the fifth one. Again he excelled at flying and sport and not doing what he was told. He was a member of the RAF aerobatics team, and one day someone dared him to do low-flying aerobatics, which was expressly forbidden as other pilots had been killed in such tricks.. He crashed, had both his legs amputated, very nearly died from gangrene and infection (no penicillin then), finally got some tin legs, and by incredible determination managed to walk well enough to gain an excellent golf handicap and to play squash with friends. He also eventually went solo flying again, also expressly forbidden.

There are rules and regulations governing all our activities these days. Just take a look at the BMFA handbook if you don‘t believe me. Then, “Kings Regulations” governed the RAF, and nowhere in KR did it say that officers with tin legs could fly. Nor, I am sure, did it say they could not. It simply wasn’t the thing, so Bader was out of the RAF and utterly desolate. He worked for Shell, he married, and his wife was a great strength to him. At the outbreak of war he desperately tried to get back into the RAF. They offered him a desk job and he told them to get lost in clear english. Finally he got back in flying, and was given a squadron of demoralised and dishevelled Hurricane pilots who had just returned from France where they had lost all their kit and all their fighting spirit. And they definitely weren’t going to be told what to do by a cripple. So he got into one of their Hurricanes and showed them what proper flying was all about. They changed their minds, and became a crack team. But there were no spares, like spark plugs, or tyres, and they would soon become non-operational. So he sent a telegram to his Area Commander to say that until he got ALL his spares he was NON-OPERATIONAL. The CO was livid and carpeted Bader who then told him he had copied his telegram to Fighter Command HQ. This was certain death, and of course Bader got his spares the next week and his boys were fully operational.

He acquired other squadrons, and developed the Big Wing theory. If you can get more aircraft up above your enemy, and come out of the sun, you can disrupt the attack more effectively. His Area CO agreed, but others in Fighter Command didn’t, and I gather that this question has never been resolved. Bader was asked to explain his idea to very senior people at Fighter Command, the only Squadron Leader in a room full of top brass, and they listened. I am not convinced that the Big Wing would have worked every time, but I was never there putting my life on the line. Bader was also fanatically insistent on keeping machine guns instead of cannon, and was the last man in his squadron to get the faster Spitfires with cannon. He later realised he was wrong. Cannon shells can make a far bigger hole than even eight machine gun bullets even if they all hit the same spot. Interestingly, if a Spitfire was firing its guns flying upwards towards a plane above, the recoil energy was sufficient to slow it down such that it might occasionally stall and spin away, even with 27 litres of Rolls-Royce grunt driving it on.

Bader was a remarkable man of intense energy and personality. People worshipped him or detested him, and he didn’t care either way. If his pilots or crews weren’t up to his standards (the best) they got posted. Apparently he frequently used bad language. Interesting that this was commented on in those distant times. In modern times he would probably have been labelled as a bully and been given an ASBO or something. In those days he was given a DSO and bar, a DFC and bar, he was mentioned in dispatches, he was later knighted for his work with disabled people, and he was awarded the CBE. He led a flypast after the war past Buckingham Palace, and he finally retired from the RAF as Group Captain and returned to work with Shell.

Guy Gibson was at the same school as Bader, eight years later. He was good at sports, not so good at sums. I think I’ve seen that line somewhere before. He also had a label as a difficult man to get along with. His standards were the same, best or get out. He inspired his men to great things in the Dam Busters raids. He was awarded the DSO and bar, the DFC and bar, and for the Dam Busters raids the Victoria Cross, making him the most highly decorated officer in the RAF. As with Bader’s Big Wing, there are still people who say his raid was a failure, but I disagree. He was killed aged just 26, a Wing Commander.

I wonder if there was something special in the school spinach.

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