learning to fly

   a Cranwell cadet and a large spanner
Dudgeon at Cranwell I remember that first trip well. I dare say my instructor's memory is equally vivid. The two open cockpits were one behind the other. I was levered up to the back one, wedged and strapped in. Ahead, through my little windscreen on the turtle back of the fuselage I could see the smooth fitting black leather helmet of my mentor. An airman fitted the starting handle at the side, and wound it energetically; the engine fired, caught and the prop went into a spinning blur. We taxied out across the bumpy grass and took off.

My first shock was to discover that I couldn't hear a word being said. This was not surprising because my issue helmet fitted my head about as well as a wellington boot fits a turnip. The exhilarating roar of the engine and the rush of the wind stopped any useful transfer of information from the speaking tube.
Wallace must have gone nearly insane when I did not take the controls when he besought me to do so, then clung on with a grip of iron when he wanted to save our joint lives. I later heard that some instructors carried a large spanner in the knee-pocket of their flying suits. This was so that, having loosened their straps, they could turn and strike a pupil insensible if he 'froze' on the controls.

I was having the time of my life. I was in the air, in a mighty mechanical bird. In front was a superman, all knowing, all capable. He, poor fellow, must have thought that seated behind him was a deaf congenital idiot, bent on murder and suicide in one sudden go. Finally he wrested the controls from my reluctant grasp and took us home to land. I suppose I should have been crestfallen and apologetic. Far from it. I was beside myself with exitement. It had been pure delight all the way, even when I was lumbering through the hangar with the parachute banging against my thighs and the metal buckles chinking against my calf muscles.

A.G. Dudgeon, The luck of the devil (1985)

learning to fly

   the derisive clamour of a Moth
We began when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and you could see your breath and smell traces of the night. We began every morning at that same hour, using what we were pleased to call the Nairobi Aerodrome, climbing away from it with derisive clamour, while the burghers of the town twitched in their beds and dreamed perhaps of all unpleasant things that drone - of wings and stings, and corridors in Bedlam.
Tom taught me in a Gipsy Moth, and her propeller beat the sunrise silence of the Athi Plains to shreds and scraps. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned how to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know - that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.

   getting close
You can open a throttle just so far and increase the angle of a joy-stick to just such a degree - and if your plane does not respond to this, you had better think of something else.
The Moth was not gaining altitude; she was losing that, and her speed. She was heading straight for the implacable Ngong Hills like a moth hypnotized by light. There was a weight on her wings that I could feel, bearing her down. She could not lift the weight.

When you can see the branches of trees from a cockpit, and the shape of rocks no bigger than your own hands, and places where grass thins against sand and becomes yellow, and watch the blow of wind on leaves, you are too close. You are so close that thought is a slow process, useless to you now - even if you can think. Tom took the controls. He banked sharply, dusting the trees and rock with blue exhaust. He put the nose of the Gipsy down and swung her deep into the valley while her shadow rode close on the hill. He lost altitude until the valley was flat. He climbed in spirals until we were high above the Ngong hills, and then he went over them and home. It was all so simple.
'Now you know what down-draft is,' said Tom. 'You get it near mountains, and in Africa it's common as rain. I could have warned you - but you shouldn't be robbed of your right to make mistakes.'

Beryl Markham, West with the night (1942)

Tom Campbell Black (with Charles Scott) won the Melbourne-race in 1934, and was pioneer founder and pilot of Wilson Airways.
See also rescue of Ernst Udet

learning to fly

   a fortunate fellow

There were sixteen of us altogether learning to fly in this Initial Training School in Nairobi, and I liked every one of my companions. They were all young men like me who had come out from England to work for some large commercial concern, and who had now volunteered for flying duties. It is a fact, and I verified it carefully later, that out of those sixteen, no fewer than thirteen were killed in the air within the next two years.
In retrospect, one gasps at the waste of life.

At the aerodrome we had three instructors and three planes. The instructors were civil airline pilots borrowed by the RAF from a small domestic company called Wilson Airways. The planes were Tiger Moths. The Tiger Moth is a thing of great beauty. Everybody who has ever flown a Tiger Moth has fallen in love with it. You could throw one about all over the sky and nothing ever broke. You could spin her vertically downwards for thousands of feet and then all she needed was a touch on the rudder-bar, a bit of throttle and the stick pushed forward and out she came in a couple of flips. A Tiger Moth had no vices. She never dropped a wing if you lost flying speed coming in to land, and she would suffer innumerable heavy landings from incompetent beginners without turning a hair.

There was only one runway on the little Nairobi aerodrome and this gave everyone plenty of practice at crosswind landings and take-offs. And on most mornings, before flying began, we all had to run out on the airfield and chase the zebra away.

Afer I had gone solo, I was allowed to go up alone for much of the time and it was wonderful. In the Great Rift Valley the big game and smaller game were as plentyful as cows on a dairy farm, and I flew low in my little Tiger Moth to look at them. Oh, the animals I saw every day from that cockpit! I would fly for long periods at a height of no more than sixty or seventy feet, gazing down at huge herds of buffalo and wildebeest which would stampede in all directions as I whizzed over. I flew over the pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru and I flew all the way round the snow summit of Mount Kenya. What a fortunate fellow I am, I kept telling myself.

Roald Dahl, Going Solo (1986)

learning to fly

Your comments or suggestions are greatly appreciated: e-mail Hanneke Hoogstrate!
or, for the JavaScript-disabled: blagoAntiRobot@xs4all.nl, please remember to remove [AntiRobot].

This page is from Plane Writing: quotes from early pilots' biographies; please use a JavaScript-enabled browser for best results.