Tales from the North - updated!
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.
FIRE! FIRE! - 29/1/14
The plane came zooming in out of the sun when no-one was expecting it and FIRE!! FIRE!! someone shouted.
Well, what tosh would you expect me to write at this time of year, when we have had cold and rain for months and the workshop has been frozen and I just don’t feel like getting all that cold. Also, the flying strip is sodden and full of cowpats and hoof holes and little puddles of ice and slush. So, flying has been off the agenda for me as well as the rest of the world, and I seem this year to be more sensitive to the cold so I don’t feel like enquiring after the health of brass monkeys.
A news item caught my eye, and that set off a train of thought - a fire crew on one of the Shetland Isles hit the headlines because half the crew were unable to continue with their duties. Two of them had grown beards, and so their smoke/breathing masks would no longer fit correctly putting them at risk of smoke inhalation. The other two were miffed because they had to do extra work, like 24/7. Being an Island community they couldn’t just drive a truck over from the mainland as the sea was a bit deep and the waves would sink the truck. This is a problem unique to island communities which the rest of the civilised world has difficulty grasping. For example, how many of our problems would be solved if the Thames actually flowed round the M25 instead of through the middle of London. It would give quite a different slant to Prime Minister’s Question Time. And how would Jeremy Paxman look in waders, with or without a beard? Perhaps he could emigrate to that Shetland Isle and mediate on the beard-growing dispute. Island communities are quite small and they don’t all multi-task so recruiting spare fire fighters isn’t so easy.
But why on earth would pillars of their local and remote communities ever want to change the habits of a lifetime and suddenly grow beards? Ask Jeremy Paxman? NO! Just look in the local paper.
Every year around this time Shetlanders indulge in a Fire Festival called UP HELLY AA. The nights are now just noticeably shorter and the summer is on its way. I have written before about the amazing way the Sun’s rising and setting changes in Orkney. Well, Shetland is further north still and just a few degrees below the Arctic Circle and the change from winter gloom to simmer Dim as they call it is even more remarkable.
Shetland and Orkney were once owned by Norway, and were swapped to Scotland for a princess. I am not sure who got the best of the bargain, or if this was the origin of devolution or independence, and it may be best not to enquire too deeply. However, it does explain their torch procession through the capital Lerwick where they march in Viking garb of leather tunics, Viking helmets with ox horns poking out through the sides, oxhide shields, and huge Viking cutlasses sharpened to cleave poor little Shetland ponies clean in half. They all grow huge tickly Viking beards and carry huge torches smothered in pitch cloth which burn for hours. Perhaps you can see where this story is coming from?
The procession, and all the planning leading up to it, is led by the Jarl. He is the Head Guizer, he has to be elected to this committee for 15 years, and only one Guizer is elected to the committee each year. So they have to be careful with the torches and the cutlasses and who they put on the Viking longship they make every year. This is dragged through the streets of Lerwick surrounded by whooping Vikings with cutlasses, torches, and lots of strong liquor in case they have to try firebreathing until it gets to the harbour where it is set on fire. Then they all move on to various parties they throw in halls around Lerwick, and they all have a very good time.
Those two fire fighters had made it on to the committee and were growing Viking beards. That had stopped their helmets fitting correctly, and that had caused a fall-out with their bosses and their local community. It is like ripples in a pond. I didn’t find out how that story ended, but I bet the ripples are still travelling.
Another story from the Northern Isles also caught my eye. When we were in Orkney, wheelie bins didn’t exist, at least not for mere mortals. We had to take our black plastic bags up to the end of our track and dump them so the bin wagon could pick them up in the fullness of time. The crows and seagulls are pretty smart, and had ripped the bags to shreds in minutes, and the wind blew everything all over the landscape. But things have obviously changed. Orkney has suddenly developed a surfeit of wheelie bins, almost 10,000 of them, at a cost of some £200,000. And they have some of the highest council tax rates in Britain. They don’t know what to do with them. Well, I have some ideas. They could tie them together and float them across the Pentland Firth and make a pontoon so people could pass happily and safely between Orkney and John O'Groats. And maybe the Chief Jarl could stand at one end and charge a groat for each successful passage? Perhaps they could tie some of them together and put the responsible counsellors in with some honey and not much money and cut them adrift? They might make it to Norway, with a following wind, in exchange for another princess? The first one apparently died on the journey from Norway.
Try a different idea. Why don’t we have an UP HELI/PLANE AAARRGGHH ? We could meet at the flying strip, say, sunset or a bit later. We would have our favourite models, the ones we are currently advertising for sale and no-one has answered our ads. We would approach the strip from different angles, dressed in costumes of our choice but probably white tutus and pointy white hats, and at some pre-arranged signal we would douse our models in glo fuel and apply a suitable match. We could stand around looking a bit like Guizers, and then retire to a suitable hostelry to put the flames out and quench our thirsts.
We could leave the Jarl to put his own flames out, and buy us a round. And all agree --- Don’t do this at Home!!
And if Jarl or Jeremy ask where I live, tell them I just went on holiday.
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feedback and commentary By Tim Mackey
by Tim Mackey