Slipping the surly bonds of Earth for the first time

Griffin ht1.jpgIt seems odd to many of my friends now but there was once a time when I was afraid of flying. When I was 9 I was offered the chance to go to Disneyland but I said no because we would have had to go on a plane. I was convinced that any plane I would step foot on would crash and burn and there was a very important reason for this for it was not long after the Lockerbie disaster and the image of half a Boeing 747 cockpit strewn across the Scottish countryside was fresh in my mind. I may have been 9 but it was impossible not to escape the gravity of the tragedy.

Thus it seemed I would never fly.

Then, one Saturday morning a year after I declined Disneyland my uncle came to my house and offered to take me to the air show at RAF St Athan that very day. I didn’t have any real interest in aviation at that point but I was happy at a day out. Frankly, it was akin to a religious experience. Tornado. Jaguar. Harrier. Spitfire. Red Arrows. They were all there and I got a chance to speak to pilots and groundcrews and suddenly flying was not the stuff of my own death and destruction anymore. From that point on I become obsessed with aircraft reading any books I could get my hands on (I must have read the 1994 RAF Yearbook I bought that day several times over – it had a tribute to the recently retired Buccaneer).

Sadly, my chances of flying away on holiday with my parents began to diminish. My parents were self employed working their absolute tail-ends off to make a success of their butcher shop. I am immensely proud of them and while me and my sister wanted for nothing it did mean holidays were out of the question because for them to stop working was the household to stop having an income.

Then I turned 13 in 1997 and a visit to my school by a man in a blue uniform finally offered me the opportunity to fly. He was the Warrant Officer of No.631 (Maesteg) Squadron of the Air Training Corps. I had heard about the air cadets but I couldn’t believe that they were so close to me (less than 5 minutes by car). That Friday I joined up and started my First Class training which was the bare minimum needed to take part in the activities outside of the squadron.

At the same time the annual summer camp was coming up and it was at RAF Shawbury which is home to the Defence Helicopter Flying School. I desperately wanted to go and so my First Class training was a little rushed to say the least. I had all the book-smarts you could want but my drill was appalling made worse by the fact that I towered over most of the others in my squadron so naturally I was the “right marker” which was what everyone else worked off.

August 8th 1998 and I found myself leaving my parents for the first time and boarding a bus full of cadets I didn’t know. It was frightening and exciting all at the same time. Not long after arriving my marching skills let me down when I found myself marching off away from everyone else not knowing what “right wheel” was – instant legend! Camp was always a great place to improve your drill skills and by the end of the week my drill was perfected to the point where our flight won the drill competition.

We were scheduled to go flying on the Friday which of course I was looking forward to the most. On the Wednesday night we were at nearby RAF Cosford’s swimming pool for our RAF swimming proficiency tests when my Warrant Officer walked up to me and said, “Want to go flying?”

Breaking discipline and codes of conduct I simply said, “Seriously?”

He was serious. The staff at Shawbury had offered places for cadets to jump on a Griffin HT.1 which was going out on a night navigation flight over Shropshire and I had been selected to go. I couldn’t believe my luck. There were three of us in all selected to go that night and we were quickly shown around one of the Griffins regarding where we would sit, what we should (or shouldn’t) do while in flight and what to do in an emergency – which was essentially listen to what the loadmaster tells you.

We had to wait for the aircraft to be ready for take off and by now my heart was trying to smash my ribcage open I was so excited. Waiting with some of the pilots at Shawbury was an interesting experience since they were watching a video which I assumed was called The Greatest Plane Crashes Caught On Tape. I am not joking here. I was about to fly for the very first time and I had a history of aviaphobia and these guys were watching planes crash. It didn’t dissuade me however.

Then we got the call that it was time to go and we were led outside in to the darkness where the Griffin’s rotors were thudding away. As we approached the aircraft I found myself crouching down to the point where my body was almost an L-shape since I thought if I went any higher my head would be chopped off. I boarded the aircraft and was put on a fold down bench on the port side facing out. The loadmaster belted me in, gave me the thumbs up and I was left to stare out of an open door feeling like I was in a Vietnam war film (the Griffin is based on the legendary Huey).

Not being able to speak to anyone in the aircraft I felt quite alone and unsure what was going on. So it was with some surprise that I felt a bump under my butt as the helicopter left the ground and hovered a few feet for a short while. I was flying! Not very high but I was flying. Then the aircraft pitched forward and upwards and then I was really flying and it was everything I had hoped it would be. I kept having to remind myself it was real since it had always felt like flying was something other people did not me.

We were in the air for about an hour and a half making two returns and take-offs from Shawbury. It was incredible seeing the world from above even in the darkness. I remember vividly seeing a police car with its lights beaming across the countryside and a few trains with their headlamps lighting up the track. I could have stayed up there all night but it had to come to an end and we landed back at Shawbury where I was helped off and taken back to the barracks.

That Friday I flew again in a Bulldog T.1 trainer, this time in the day. If ever my love of aviation was confirmed it was that week. I honestly think I came back from Shawbury a different person. I was more confident than when I left having been away without my parents for the first time and I also had realised my ambition – to fly.

As I write this my 5 year old daughter is playing on her Wii games console flying a plane on Wii Sports (no joke that’s what is really happening). Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?

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Author: Tony Wilkins

When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

6 thoughts on “Slipping the surly bonds of Earth for the first time”

  1. A great little story Tony, being in the right place at the right time can certainly pay dividends. I must admit, apart from commercial aircraft, I’ve only ever flown once in a Small Cessna, with a friend who was learning to fly. He let me take the controls and even flying straight and level gives you a chill. It’s ways been a dream but money, kids and jobs have always got in the way – One regret in life. One day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was one of the high points of my life and I am sure it was for you too. What you have to remember is that feeling will always be there for you never to be replaced by the feeling of flying being routine as professional pilots experience. That’s the way I look at it

      Liked by 1 person

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