AFT R FIFTEEN YEARS.
LEARNING TO FLY—YESTERDAY AND TO-DAY. BY “EX.R.F.C.”
WHEN I say that I am able to recall clearly and in detail my very first flight as a pupil in aviation, I do not claim it as a phenomenal feat of memory, even though it happened fifteen years ago. I have no doubt the real veterans of the pioneer days of 1910-1914 can do the same, for every man who has ever flown retains vividly the recollection of his first flip in the face of all subsequent events which may prove to be richer by far in adventure, hazards and sensation.
There is nothing quite like that first flight. One is overwhelmed with surprise, exhilaration., awe, and alternating spasms of fear and confidence. A whole medley of feelings moulded into one colossal emotion. Initiation into other things—let us say motorcycling, track driving or outboard racing—dwindles to insignificance when compared with ” the air.” And so through fifteen years, not altogether barren. of experiences, I have been able to call up visions of a certain morning, dull, grey, cheerless and very cold. A ground mist shrouded the hangars and the aerodrome; leather-clad figures stood around—instructors, pupils, soloists. We were waiting, of course, for the mist to lift. It’s a grim time of day,
that first hour after dawn, when breakfast seems so far off, and one’s eyes are heavy with sleep. Presently when the outskirts of the aerodrome became discernible the business began. Machines emerged from the dimness of the sheds, there were cries of “Suck in ! ” and “Contact ! “—icy blasts from propellers flattened the grass and churned the dust, the rotaries coughed and roared ; there was a pungent reek of ” castor.” And then I was shown to one of these machines, and was directed in the somewhat ticklish procedure of entering it. I had to step deftly with bowed head through tailbooms
and a mass of diagonal piano wires. I had to insert my clumsy sheepskin boot in a crazy and frail stirrup step, and heave myself upwards and inwards to find myself in. due course in a narrow and shallow nacelle. Actually the sides came level with one’s waist, and—I can look back on it now, and marvel—there was no windscreen, no belt, not one solitary instrument, no throttle and no headphones. My instructor (a Frenchman) already occupied the front seat. He turned and said laconically, “We will go up now.” The intermittent ” blipping ” of the engine ceased, and the Gnome kept up a steady hum. Slowly the tail lifted and the machine gathered speed and before I had realised it, we came clear of the ground. My begoggled eyes strayed round and I saw the dark streak of the horizon, the evergrowing panorama, the wing tips and the trailing edge blurred in feverish vibration. We went round in a gentle bank, and I saw the hangars dwarfed by 1,000 feet.
My instructor turned his head, gesticulated with his left hand, and mouthed unheard words, drowned by the roar of wind and engine. What it was all about I had not the faintest idea—so I shook my head. Suddenly the nose dropped, and the engine was cut out. I heard then faintly, “Hold—the—stick—feeton—rudder bar ! “
My instruction in the art of aviation had begun.
Looking back on that time, I can recall that while we were the best of friends on the ground, we seemed to be at daggers drawn when flying. How I hated that Frenchman with his hand wavings, and his unheard ravings and curses ! For him, no doubt, I was a ham-fisted, clumsy fool ; while on my side, he was an unreasonable, temperamental Continental. But time passed, and I began to distinguish between the resistance on the stick from the warp control, and the violent and savage corrections of my movements by my instructor. Somehow, I suppose, I was learning to fly. Anyhow, after something over three hours— which included a violent pile-up in a field, due to the inevitable passing out of the Gnome—I was sent up solo, and chapter one was ended and chapter two began. Fifteen years have passed. The R.F.C., the R.N.A.S., the rotaries, and a hundred-and-one things have
gone to limbo. Flying the Atlantic or to Australia is quickly becoming a mere bagatelle. Elderly gentlemen fly, women fly, everyone flies. And I have started again. Once more I am a pupil in aviation ; and what a contrast I have found !
I walk from the warm comfort of the chief instructor’s sumptuous office, down a paved way to the sheds. The red ” Moths ” of the D.H. School stand ready, spotless, immaculate and glistening in the winter sunshine. Engines are idling with less noise than a sports car. I am loaned a helmet with comfortable ‘phones, and get aboard. I do not feel, as I did in 1917, like a prisoner being marched to his execution. Friendly hands assist me to adjust my safety belt. I note with pleasure the snugness of the cockpit, the neat instrument board, the position of the throttle lever, the stick and rudder bar—everything just right. “You will find that things have changed a bit, since you first flew,” says my instructor as we taxi out. Then, with the deep muffled hum
of the engine in my ears, we’re off. Again I see the earth slide away from beneath me, and the countryside sprawl out as we get our height. At my pilot’s bidding I take control. A light, easy pressure on the stick, a shade of rudder and the ” Moth ” sweeps round in an easy left-hand turn, and away beyond our port wing tip I discern the 1drome again.
To the right and to the left we go through these simple evolutions, and no warning comes down the speaking tubes to “stuff the nose down on the turn “to guard against the stall, and I have no querulous car cocked ever alert to sense the engine’s falter. We talk in normal voices, without effort, without strain, we fly without effort, without anxiety. Then with airscrew slowly flicking round we approach the aerodrome, land and taxi in. And as I walk away I realise the potency of that remark that “things
have changed a bit.” The bad and barbarous days of flying have gone. but who regrets their passing ?