Monday, 21 March 2011


The last of the few

By Peter Lemesurier

Version 13b

Copyright © Peter Lemesurier 2014

All rights available: please use the comments box at the bottom to contact the author.

My thanks to David Hill for maintaining a record of our squadron history on his site at and for making his collection of photographs available. Thanks, too, to other members of the squadron such as Tom Cox, Peter Viggers and David Turner for making and/or supplying personal photos. Unless otherwise indicated, the formal group photos were freely distributed by staff photographers for the organisations involved (RAF, RCAF, French Line).

While what follows is based on my own archives from the time, some of the names have been changed (not least my own), and all descriptions and characterisations are as I remember them, not necessarily as others remember them. These are my memoirs, after all, not theirs!

Every reasonable effort has been made to contact the owners of copyright material. Any whose names have inadvertently been omitted are invited to contact me so that their contributions can be gratefully acknowledged in subsequent editions.




PER ARDUA AD ASTRA                                           

GETTING OUR FEET OFF THE GROUND                              

THE YELLOW PERIL                                                  

ON LAUGHTER-SILVERED WINGS                         






THIS IS A STORY OF NATIONAL SERVICE, and of a time when all young British men of eighteen and over were routinely called up into the armed forces for up to two years, whether they wanted to be or not, so that they could be taught to kill on the nation’s behalf. Profusely illustrated with photos taken at the time, it is the story in particular of future author Peter Lemesurier who, unusually, took the opportunity to learn to fly jets, surviving a posting to Canada, accidents, the death and failure of colleagues, concussion, mechanical failure, a forced landing without wheels in a farmer’s field, coping with ancient and modern aircraft (and instructors!) of varying difficulty, brushes with dangerous thunderstorms, and the challenge of flying above snowfields in temperatures of minus 40o. It tells of first solos, hairy landings and take-offs, ‘circuits and bumps’, aerobatics and blind instrument flying, perilously close formation work, long navigation trips to remote locations, and the dangers and delights of night-flying under the Northern Lights – all of this long before electronic computers were invented to help with any of this. It even tells of how Lemesurier’s aircraft became, however briefly, a ‘UFO’. And it records how, despite everything, he and some of his colleagues eventually gained their coveted Wings and survived to celebrate the squadron’s fiftieth anniversary in, of all places, Britain’s House of Commons…


THIS IS NOT A SET OF WAR MEMOIRS. We never killed anybody, except occasionally ourselves.
            Instead, it is the warts-and-all story of a bunch of young men who were snatched unwillingly from school and plunged headlong into the adventure of their lives. It is the story of their trials and tribulations, their triumphs and tragedies. It is the story of how a group of overgrown schoolboys, given the chance of a lifetime, seized it with both hands, determined to make the best of it.
             And, in particular, it is my story.
Almost the last of their kind, they were conscripted straight from home into an unfamiliar military, forced to march up and down, made to spit-and-polish, and then sent far overseas to do it all over again, where they were forced to risk their lives in uncertain machines that at any moment threatened to kill them.
Which in due course some of them did.
No batmen for them, no flunkies or lackeys. Just a common janitor towards the end to prevent their dilapidated wooden barracks in the middle of a frozen prairie from becoming even more dilapidated.
And all that, only to be told, on gaining their much-coveted wings, that the RAF no longer had any use for them.
It was a strange existence, full of excitement on the one hand and drudgery on the other – an existence that had them now down on their knees cleaning the floor, now mounting the firmament with their heads in the clouds. A life that promised them the sky while threatening them with the earth, that paid them very little for risking their lives in the air while subsidising them while they drove rickety old cars across distant deserts to explore unknown mountains and fabulous cities that they had barely even heard of.
‘Do you realise we’re actually being paid for this?’ they asked.
But the story, like all stories, needs to begin at the beginning…

(‘After Work, To The Movies’ -- Flt. Lt.Tinline)

WE HAVE COME STRAIGHT FROM SCHOOL, MANY OF US. Some, inspired by the familiar Meteor or Vampire fighters, the extraordinary new 'V' bombers or the latest supersonic (just!) Hawker Hunter, have been funnelled through their British public or grammar schools’ air cadet corps. Others have had their minds blown by the annual Farnborough air show. It is, after all, a time of extraordinary aeronautical innovation in Britain, and idealism is in the air.
            But the system will soon knock all that out of us.
First, having left our various parents and girl-friends behind us, we are subjected to batteries of tests at RAF Hornchurch. During it there are medicals, interviews, debates, fairground games designed to test whether we can drive a car along an unpredictably winding road or fly a dot with a mind of its own across a screen, and sessions in which it is our job to talk teams of equally inexperienced young men into bridging impossible chasms with an unpromising selection of planks, barrels and ropes, and all without actually touching the floor. What matters is apparently not whether we succeed, but how we fail.
Which is just as well, since all of us do – and next to none of us have yet learned how to fly.
I am asked, though, what I want to fly if ever I do. ‘Fighters, sir’, I reply optimistically, feigning keenness and figuring that bombers are more likely to get shot down – and that flying transport aircraft is likely to be too much like bus-driving.

What on earth do I think I am doing even discussing such things? Here I am – a quiet, introverted, bookish schoolboy who abhors both gymnastics and violent sport and is only here under protest. Yet now, it seems, I have suddenly decided to take the bull by the horns and go for the jackpot. It is so unlike me. It can only be because I don’t believe for a moment that I shall succeed. The consequences if I do don’t bear thinking about...
Then we are posted to the sprawling base at Cardington, near Bedford, with its two vast, cathedral-like hangars designed to house the ill-fated R100 and R101 airships, and so enormous that many minor airships actually take their first flights inside them even today. Quite how the RAF there cope with the vast input of raw, unwilling recruits, many of whom hardly know how to wipe their bottoms, is a mystery to me. Much of it depends on the efforts of swarms of corporals, who seem to have nothing better to do than bawl at recruits who infringe regulations. And since most recruits haven’t the slightest idea of what the regulations actually are – not even regarding the wiping of bottoms – quite a lot of bawling is done.
This doesn’t bother me too much, though, since I am only one among many and find it fairly easy to be inconspicuous.
The main activity here is cleaning – of knives, forks and spoons, of boots and of Nissen hut floors, which recruits polish until they gleam and on which they subsequently slide about gingerly on dusters as though their lives depend on it. After being awoken at 6.30 each morning by the Tannoy, our trips to the ‘ablutions’ – the separate toilet blocks – involve a perilous dash through the early morning fog and/or frost from which some never recover. Catching the typical ‘Cardington cold’ is apparently obligatory.

Eventually I am billeted in an obscure wooden hut known as ‘Flight F’ with a bunch of other misfits, hopefuls and rejects, and told to await the results of my tests. Meanwhile I am given menial secretarial tasks to perform.

                                Cardington Camp: with members of ‘F’ flight

One morning when I arrive the sergeant is waiting for me outside his office and waving a piece of paper. ‘The judgment of doom,’ I reflect, recalling that only about one in forty of aircrew applicants are reckoned to succeed, and that many of my super-fit former rugby-playing school-friends have been rejected, not merely for flying, but for National Service itself, on the grounds of deformed toes, burst eardrums or whatever. Why should I be lucky, I ask myself -- or possibly unlucky?
But I am in for a surprise. ‘Lemesurier’, says the sergeant. ‘You’re A1 G1. You’re a pilot.’
I am flabbergasted. I wear glasses for reading, for heaven’s sake! True, I have been interested in aircraft ever since the age of 13, when I selected The Book of Flying as a form prize. I have also been taking Flight magazine since I was 16. But I have only volunteered for aircrew in order to waste a week of National Service and have something interesting to do for a few days at least. Now it looks as if I shall have something interesting to do for a good deal longer than that. 

I have still not got over my excitement and sense of shock. What am I doing among all these confident, extraverted physical types, pretending to take it all in my stride? Are they really all as confident as they seem? They seem to be regarding me with an extraordinary degree of respect. Are they scared of my apparent intellectualism, or do they assume that I have some hidden talent that they have failed to spot? Have they concluded that I can’t possibly be as hopeless as I seem? My friends back at home are evidently as flabbergasted as I am. The rugby players who have been rejected for National Service because of minor physical problems are mildly put out at being trumped by such an obvious weed. My schoolmasters, in between chuckles, assume that I must be some sort of dark horse who has hidden his talents even from the most observant sports staff. But the younger pupils of the school, less concerned with practical matters, seem to be expecting me to buzz the playing fields at any moment… 

I am duly posted to RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, on the bleak wolds of Lincolnshire. Here – after being made to send home all our civilian clothes – my new colleagues and I are put through basic ground training for twelve weeks. Primarily this involves square-bashing – marching up and down a vast asphalt parade-ground while being bawled at all over again by a little Scottish sergeant (quite why all NCO instructors seem to come from Scotland or the north of England I never do manage to figure out). Eventually, too, we are each expected to drill the squad ourselves, though the results are sometimes disastrous. More than once only those at the rear of the squad hear the rather plaintive calls of the soft-voiced 'duty cadet', while the rest continue marching blithely off into the distance...
          'Squad... halt -- please!'
There are also classes in RAF law (so now they tell us!), RAF English, RAF science and maths (in both of which I have to seek the aid of the one or two qualified university graduates who happen to be on the course), RAF being-gassed, RAF rank-recognition, RAF lecture technique and RAF firing-light-weapons. With the pistol I manage to graze the target once, and with my five rifle shots I can make only three holes. I fail to convince the sergeant that three of them went through the same hole, and he threatens to shoot the next man who turns round with his sten gun and says ‘Sergeant, my gun is jammed’.
Then there are Second World War films of aerial combat. There is regular PT in the gym involving, among other things, gymnastics – at which I have always been hopeless and by which I am frankly terrified. There are compulsory Sunday services (at which I, who have seemingly been spotted making friends with the organist of nearby Lincoln cathedral, am expected to play the organ, which at least gets me out of joining in the ritual congregational groaning and mumbling). Indeed, there is a remarkably sophisticated procedure for vetting us for these last. It goes something like:

SERGEANT:  What religion are you, cadet? C. of E. or Catholic?

OFFICER CADET: Actually, sir – I mean sergeant – I’m a Buddhist.

SERGEANT (licking pencil): Hmm. C. of E., then.

On top of this, there are team exercises in building non-operational machine gun towers, scaling impossible walls with overhanging ledges and crossing already-bridged canals that remind us of the Suez version that is currently being fought over in Egypt – all intentionally with hopelessly inadequate equipment. There is Ground Combat Training (‘Now you must be mutually self-supportin’ with your ’ead ’arness, the reason bein’, is, because…’ explains the helpful GCT instructor, before marching us into the gas chamber). There is a winter camp somewhere far away in the woods, over which we have to take turns to stand guard all night (‘Halt, who goes there?’) while the moisture on our bayonets turns to ice. There is organising the defence of an unsuspecting nearby village, where we naturally assume that the enemy will concentrate on attacking the pub and so think we had better occupy it. There is training in life-saving at Scunthorpe swimming baths – until that, is, they discover that I can barely swim enough to save my own life and decide that I had better concentrate on learning to do that first. And there are voluntary Wednesday afternoon sports, for which everybody is, of course, expected to volunteer.
Realising that I have to volunteer for something, therefore, I at once choose the rugby team. Having been forced to play the game at school, I know, after all, vaguely what a rugby ball looks like, and have quite a good idea of how to avoid it – mainly by running to wherever the ball isn’t. (I recall, though, that on one occasion at school this didn’t work, and I found it heading straight for me. I had no option but to catch it, and was then visibly nonplussed about what to do with it, never having had the rules explained to me. ‘Stop! Stop!’ the master shouted, blowing his whistle, ‘A terrible thing has happened – Lemesurier’s touched the ball!’ – and ordered a scrum on the spot. Needless to say, they kept the ball well away from me after that.)
Possibly the rugby teams sense my reluctance. At all events, they reject my kind offer, and so I volunteer for the soccer, hoping that the same skills might apply to a round ball. When they reject me, they send me to the hockey team (a dangerous sport if ever there was one), put me in goal – and then blame me when they lose.
None of this seems to do much for my skinny physique, though. Before we leave Kirton, we are supposed to pass a triple ‘standards’ test that involves completing a prescribed number of (a) sit-ups, (b) press-ups and (c) pull-ups. Unfortunately, by the time I have done (a) and (b) I am too worn out to complete (c) and, but for the friendly PT corporal who kindly eases me up towards the beam from behind when nobody is looking, I would have been thrown out as ‘unfit’ and consigned to do menial tasks for the rest of my RAF life. I feel both grateful and humiliated – and naturally blame the gas.
Thus, in my case, it is not so much a case of ‘the survival of the fittest’ as of ‘the survival of those with the friendliest corporals’. It is also a case of ‘the survival of the most agile’ as, while marching the squad to classes one day and barking my orders from its right flank, I absent-mindedly order it to execute a right turn on the march, and nearly get trampled to death by twenty-four pairs of RAF boots. The officers before whom I am summoned to explain myself are not impressed. Evidently they consider a potential officer’s dignity more important than his survival. I escape (just) with my life.
Apart from this, there are the usual activities of obsessive barrack-block cleaning and early morning inspections. The slightest speck of dust means that the whole room has to be cleaned all over again. Lacking the really fat cadet whom some other squadrons simply push up and down the floor on a pile of blankets to polish it -- so, at least, we are told by the corpulent  (and hugely funny) Flight Lieutenant Tinline who seems to have been the model for this -- we have to use the regulation mops and ‘bumpers’. Then we have our own kit to clean, our boots to blacken (mine seem at least three sizes too big) with the aid of a hot spoon and a certain amount of spittle, and our brasses to polish with Brasso until we can see our faces in them. Instead of risking dirtying our soap and shaving kit, most of us keep a special, unused set just for show, and stow the ones we use every day in our kit bags in the loft. In fact I often prefer to use a Swiss clockwork razor that I have brought along, which comes in handy one day when I realise, as I go out on parade, that I have forgotten to shave. Slipping it into my raincoat pocket, I manage to perform the operation surreptitiously in the back rank while the front one is still being inspected.
Though this doesn’t stop the suspicious sergeant telling me, when he gets to me, to step a yard nearer the razor in future.
However, at least we are called ‘Mr’ instead of just ‘Oy’. Moreover, we are soon being measured for our officers’ uniforms and even permitted to show our faces in the officers’ mess. Some of us tie wet towels around our de-hooped caps to make them droop at the sides – so making us look (as we hope) more ‘experienced’. Some go downstairs in them and order the junior squadron to parade outside in the middle of the night. Others, I am told, command their juniors to scratch their beautifully-polished barrack-room floors with forks, or to scrub the parade-ground with toothbrushes. But alas, I cannot vouch for either of these – nor for the further rumour that one particularly unpopular member of the squadron woke up one morning to find both himself and his bed in the middle of the parade ground. Perhaps all three were merely helpful suggestions…
We are also asked whether or not we want to train in Canada where, safe alike from unpredictable weather and from German marauders, aircrew training has been going on ever since the last war. I say ‘No.’ So, along with a couple of dozen others, I am told that, shortly after Christmas and our final passing-out parade, I shall be sent to Canada (true, I have privately indicated in the meantime that I want to change my mind).

In for a penny, in for a pound, it seems. If flying with the RAF in the UK is so far beyond my former dreams and apparent capabilities, why not go the whole hog and do it in Canada, of all places? And so I ignore the official booklet that warns (with illustrations) of severe temperatures, demanding course conditions, competitive colleagues wanting to subject me to ‘initiations’ and the sheer brutalities of flying there – just as I ignore my mother’s frank discouragemnt. I have come so far, so why not push things to the limit?
Then there is a further piece of icing on the cake. Three days into 1957, just after the end of our training proper, our Flight Commander, Flight Lieutenant Freeborn, tells me that he needs to fly to the well-known bomber base at Scampton, the former home of the Dam Busters squadron some ten miles to the south, to deliver an urgent package, and offers to take me along (I can’t imagine why – possibly to see if I get airsick or am too generally weedy to withstand the experience). Figuring that it may well turn out to be my one-and-only chance of actually getting into the air during National Service, I agree. I am a bit daunted by all the gear I am expected to kit myself out with – Mae West, flying-helmet and headset, parachute – but eventually I manage to insert myself into the Chipmunk’s cramped rear cockpit. We bump off across the grass, easily clearing the hedge at the far end of the field. But the flight does not last long – barely long enough for me to get my bearings – and, sitting in the cage-like rear cockpit, I am not even invited to touch the controls. Scarcely has our tiny, insect-like machine touched down on Scampton’s vast runway and taxied to the tarmac – where an unidentified ‘erk’ runs out to take the precious package – than we are airborne again. I have no idea how Freeborn manages to find little Kirton amid the maze of Lincolnshire’s fields, hedgerows and patches of moorland, but he does, almost as though he knew where it was all along. And soon he and I – my appetite still fully intact – are sloping in to a reassuring landing on its familiar grass field. In consequence, I seem to be the first serving member of the squadron to have taken to the air -- though others have no doubt already done so through their various schools' air-cadet corps.
Soon the ‘non-Canadians’ are being packed off to their next RAF station in the UK for basic flying training. Some wag among them apparently decides to get his revenge on the system by decorating the ablutions (toilets) with boot blacking. But the transport is stopped and not allowed to proceed until it has all been cleaned off again. Meanwhile we ‘Canadians’ are sent home and told to report to Waterloo Station for the voyage to New York via Southampton. Evidently the RAF doesn’t trust aeroplanes (but then flying the Atlantic has not yet become routine). Laden with trunks full of whatever we think we shall need for the next year or so (books, in my case), we duly turn up at the great transatlantic terminal. The liner Ile de France is waiting for us offshore.
The adventure is about to begin.

Kirton-in-Lindsey, January 8, 1957: our passing-out parade: I am second from the left in the front rank


THE GREAT LINER LYING OUT THERE AT ANCHOR WITH ITS LIGHTS BLAZING doesn’t quite date back to the Titanic era, but its antique lines and overhanging stern are highly reminiscent of it. The tender disgorges us into its dark, cliff-like side, and we are swallowed up below decks. Our tiny cabin, somewhere in the bowels of the ship, turns out to be resplendent with electric lights, dazzling mirrors and shiny metal. Only a firmly shut porthole suggests a view outside.

 The S.S. Île De France in her original, three-funnelled incarnation

Dinner in the lofty, Art Deco dining room is quite an experience. I can understand the ship’s known attraction for American film-stars and celebrities. The menu is positively vast, but few of the milling, white-coated waiters seem to know enough English to explain it to us. Since I have just gained an Exhibition in modern languages to St John’s College, Cambridge (I suppose that makes me an Exhibitionist?), I am forced to act as interpreter for our table. However, I seem to have made a mistake somewhere, since a few hours after consuming the oysters or whatever it is I have ordered I am struck down with some kind of dysentery. As a result, faced with that vast menu, all I feel like ordering for the rest of the week-long trip is a glass of milk. Others are even worse off, being confined to their cabins with sea-sickness as the weather steadily worsens and heavy seas cascade over the bows, as also over those of the Queen Elizabeth, which slowly overhauls us some miles to the south during the course of the second day.

            Consequently, I am unable to enjoy the bars, the entertainments or particularly the swimming-pool, whose water slops to and fro with increasing violence as the trip goes on. I only just make it to a gala evening in the first class tea-lounge (until part of the ceiling collapses) and to a posed group photograph with the captain on the bridge. So damaged is the liner that it will have to be put into dry dock in New York on arrival for repairs to its plating.

'Aren't you supposed to be steering this thing?' With the Captain on the bridge. I am third from right in the front row  Portlock seems to think it's rather windy where he is standing

But by then the sea has calmed down somewhat as we approach the American coast. Having entered New York almost a day behind schedule, our travel schedule to Canada has to be re-arranged. Consequently we are put up for twenty-four hours at the Plymouth Hotel, just off Broadway, and next day make the most of the opportunity to go on set tours of the city. I find the United Nations building inspiring, but decide that it is not worth visiting the Empire State building, as most of it is up in the clouds.
That evening we duly catch the train for Hamilton via Buffalo, finally arriving in London, Ontario the following morning to start our NATO training. Here we first undergo a fortnight’s ‘orientation’ course alongside Canadians (including the French variety), Norwegians, Danes, French, Italians, Germans and even Turks – though personally I suggest that it should really be called an occidentation course. Having been demoted to Flight Cadet status and assigned white cap-bands to mark the fact (apparently so as not to offend the other nationalities, many of whom are simple NCOs), we are assigned double-decker bunks in barracks even more crowded than at Cardington. With thick snow still lying on the ground, the buildings, as often in Canada, are vastly over-heated. Drill is practised in soft shoes in the gym. But the food is plentiful and wholesome, if rather bland, and always accompanied by a jug of milk. We are given thorough medicals, and I am told that my eyes, while not perfect (the medics tell me that, if I were a Canadian, I would be rejected), are as normal as they are ever likely to be, given that (as the RAF recognises back at home) eyes change all the time.

Niagara: with David Hill beneath the ice-bound Canadian falls

We take the opportunity to visit St Paul’s Cathedral (London… on Thames!), where I manage to get a tootle on the organ. I also go ice-skating for the first time, constantly leaning forward lest I fall over backwards. Towards the end of our stay we are taken on a visit to Niagara, where we explore the still partially frozen Canadian falls. Then, while the majority are visiting the vast hydroelectric power station, a handful of us ‘abscond’ and cross the Rainbow Bridge to the American side, where we pay a brief visit to Goat Island, between the American and Canadian falls, braving the spindly bridge over the mighty torrent that seems to threaten to sweep us all down into the abyss below...

At the organ of St Paul’s cathedral, London-on-Thames, Ontario [photo David Hill]

Then it is on to the large base at Centralia, in western Ontario, where we are to undergo six weeks of preliminary flying training on Chipmunks (an old school friend will later write to ask whether they are kept in chipmonasteries). Here at last we are assigned proper, spacious double rooms which we are expected to share with the Canadians. While we are still settling in, four of us (Peter Viggers, Tom Cox, Tony Brown and myself) buy an old jalopy for $130, just as almost everybody else on the squadron seems to be doing (apart from the skint Norwegians who sell it to us, that is). It is a 1940 Oldsmobile with coil springs and (amazingly) steering-column gear-change – though it has a cracked window, only three of its doors will open at any one time, and it seems to be firing on only five of its six cylinders. We are proposing (somewhat optimistically) to drive it to Alberta when we are posted out there in six weeks’ time – assuming that we survive that long – so by way of practice we embark on a variety of local excursions, including to the frozen shores of Lake Huron and to Stratford, Ontario, where the new Shakespeare memorial theatre is currently being built.

On the ice of Lake Huron

But now the actual training begins. To start with there is Ground School – with subjects such as maths, principles of flight, engineering, navigation and meteorology. Then it is off to Flights to meet our instructors. A dapper young instructor with Flying Officer’s shoulder-flashes introduces himself to me in a perfect Oxford accent. He seems stylish, even dashing. I almost find myself pitying him for being saddled with such an uninteresting, bookish student as myself. But he seems keen, enthusiastic and irrepressibly cheerful.

Our car, with Viggers and Brown. David Hill (left), has just joined our group (photo Tom Cox)

‘I’m Gratrix, your instructor. Grab your parachute and let’s go out to the aeroplane.’
I am relieved at his Britishness (he was apparently a test pilot in Britain) and the use of the old-fashioned word ‘aeroplane’. He explains that, unlike pilots in some other air forces, we don’t have our own aircraft, but simply have to use whichever one is available, so it is especially important to do thorough checks, since there is no telling what state the previous pilot will have left it in. So, after we have dumped our parachutes on the wing and he has prepared the cockpit, he walks me clockwise around the aircraft. We examine the flap, check that the aileron moves freely up and down, see that there is no damage to the wingtip or its light. We examine the undercarriage and check that the port tyre is both inflated and undamaged (he makes a point of rejecting the Canadian spelling ‘tire’). Then, as we walk towards the engine, he suddenly stops and unscrews the fuel filler cap.
‘Smell that, Lemesurier.’
I stick my nose in the hole.
‘Well, what does it smell of?’
‘Petrol, sir.’
‘And so it should. You never know what they’ve put in there until you smell it. Don’t trust anybody, especially mechanics.’
I find his attitude refreshing, and particularly like the word ‘mechanics’. It suggests that he thinks of the aircraft as a kind of aerial sports car – something for enjoyment, not just military duty. My impression is confirmed as soon as – carefully avoiding the dangerous propeller disc – we have finished our walk-around via the elevator and rudder and I have climbed into the front cockpit. While he is showing me the various instruments and controls, he points to the brake and says, ‘See that, Lemesurier? Just like a sports car, isn’t it?’
Then he climbs into the back cockpit and talks me through the final cockpit checks over the intercom.
When we are ready, we signal to the groundcrew that the time has come to start the engine. Once it is running, we close the bubble canopy (unlike the more restrictive ‘cage’ variety still sported by Kirton’s Chipmunk), release the brake and start to move off. First he, then I, weave our way down the taxiway in a series of swerves so that we can see ahead past the rearing engine, using the rudder-bar in conjunction with the partially applied brakes to achieve differential braking and thus some kind of crude steering. With the brakes now fully on, Gratrix opens up the engine and does a run-up check, then obtains clearance from the Tower (which apparently calls itself ‘Debunk’) to line up on the runway. Then he releases the brakes and we are off.
As the aircraft gathers speed, it seems to wander slightly, but straightens up as soon as the tail comes off the ground. And then the magical moment – the rumbling of the wheels stops, the runway falls away beneath us… and we are airborne! This, to me, will always be literally the most uplifting part of the process.
Gratrix proceeds to show me the effects of the controls, then says ‘OK Lemesurier, you have control.’
I gulp. ‘I have control, sir’, I reply, somewhat disbelievingly.
‘Jolly good. Now try some turns.’

I try some gentle ones at first. On trying some steeper turns, I really start to get the feeling of being aloft as my eyes follow the sharply dipped wing down to the villages and farmhouses far below and I fully realise for the first time that we have no visible means of support. Yet I find things remarkably easy and intuitive. As we arrive over Grand Bend, he keeps his hands up on the bulkhead behind me, where I can see them out of the corner of my eye, then tells me to fly back. ‘I never ride the controls,’ he says.
Next time, he shows me stalls and how to recover from them – and then comes my first attempted landing. He has to rescue me when I fail to level out, then does a circuit and lands the aircraft himself. He approaches the field on full flaps, slams on the brakes and stops almost dead before turning on to the nearest taxiway. ‘You can almost hear the applause from the Tower!’ he chortles, then explains the theory of three-point landings, which more or less involve stalling the aircraft on to the ground. ‘Once you’ve landed the thing like that, it can no more take off again than a bloody brick shit-house, can it?’ he asks.
I can only agree.

First page of my logbook

The following day we practise wing-over turns and stalls, and he shows me loops and rolls and spins. Earth and sky tumble crazily around, but his voice from the back cockpit remains steady and reassuring. My first spin seems a little scary to start with as the farmhouse immediately below us revolves dizzyingly, getting closer all the time, but the recovery procedure (full opposite rudder, stick coming steadily forward until rotation stops, then immediately centralise the controls before a spin develops in the opposite direction) works splendidly. We don't do inverted or flat spins, though, no doubt because recovery is less certain!
This is followed by a little low-flying in the designated low-flying area, which proves extremely bumpy. By now my stomach is feeling somewhat queasy, so we land at our reserve field at Grand Bend for coffee. He proposes that I do some loops and spins for myself, then changes his mind. ‘Too soon after breakfast,’ he says.
As there are no groundcrew to assist us, he now tells me to restart the aircraft myself. He sits in the cockpit to operate the switches, while I swing the prop through four initial compressions.
I give the prop one final swing, carefully stepping back from the spinning disc, and the engine springs into life (somebody will later tell me the famous story about what happened to the female RAF officer who walked backwards into one – apparently it was a case of ‘Dis-ast-er!’ )
With the engine running, I climb back aboard. Almost before I have got myself strapped in again and the canopy closed, we are moving off. Once Gratrix has handed over to me, I fly us back to Centralia to practise circuits and bumps. I manage several good three-point landings (so-called ‘greasers’), but come in too low on my final one, and the main wheels hit the ground in the field on the wrong side of the boundary hedge. At once I open up the throttle and ease back on the stick, and we float over the hedge before doing a proper landing on the runway. Gratrix’s hands never move from on top of the bulkhead.
‘Bloody good, Lemesurier!’ he says.

My experience with Gratrix is starting to prove positively encouraging. He is confident, relaxed, suave, eminently approachable. He is not some kind of crude he-man seeking to intimidate or bully me. With Gratrix as my instructor, I am starting to believe that I could survive and even succeed. Flying is not looking to be so demanding after all…
Next day he is gone. I am appalled. I am told that he has taken five-weeks’ leave to be with his archaeologist girl-friend in Mexico. I just hope it isn’t my fault.
So now it’s a case of a new instructor. I shall need time to get used to him, as will he to me. That will probably delay my first solo.
He is Flying Officer Perry. Friendly and encouraging, he is a vastly experienced former bush pilot who has already owned three aircraft of his own, so at least he should know what he is doing. But bad weather and the fact that he is currently Duty Pilot delay the start of our time together. Finally, however, we get off the ground, though he sticks to the book much more closely than the expansive, devil-may-care Gratrix. Perhaps it is he who first introduces me to the old pilots' adage: 'There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.' Once aloft, he ceaselessly reminds me to keep a good lookout, not merely around us, but above and below as well. On one occasion, while doing this, I catch sight of a strange apparition out of the corner of my eye. Something strange is going on in the back cockpit. I look round further and see that he is wearing a gorilla mask and waving the fire hatchet. Since I know by now that he is prone to play practical jokes, I take no notice, but he explains that on a previous occasion the Greek student in the front cockpit nearly jumped out of it in panic.

My first solo Chipmunk (photo Otto Samuelsen)

 It takes two more sessions with Perry before he finally stops me in front of the control tower and climbs out. He leans over the edge of the cockpit, the wind of the propeller buffeting his face, and says, ‘OK, Lemesurier, now we’ll see you do it alone. Do a circuit – and try not to bend it!’
With a gulp, I close the canopy and start trundling out to the start of the runway. I reflect that I could quite easily trundle all over the field if I wanted to – but I don't. Instead, I follow the usual weaving pattern down the taxiway until I am lined up and ready to go. The Tower gives me takeoff clearance, and soon I am rushing down the runway at ever increasing speed. Then, once again, the miracle happens, and the runway drops away beneath me. I pull up the flaps and check the temperatures and pressures. Soon I am at 1500 feet and on the crosswind leg, doing 90 knots. Then, almost before I know it, I am on the long downwind leg, with the edge of my wingtip just about aligned with the runway. Gradually I start to realise that here I am, actually piloting an aircraft on my own -- something that I had scarcely taken seriously when I first volunteered.
At this point,. though, I start wondering whether I shall ever get back down again, until I remind myself that I shall certainly do that. The question is merely… in how many pieces? The answer, clearly, lies in my own hands.

So here I am, sitting alone up here in this yellow potential flying coffin. I never thought I would make it this far. But am I about to make a mess of it – and me? Do I have the nerve to keep control, complete the circuit and bring the aircraft safely back down to earth again? There is absolutely nobody to trust but me – no friendly, experienced hand to take control, no wise instructor to rescue me. So there is nothing for it but to keep flying and trust to luck – or should I really be trusting my own newly acquired skill, aided (let’s face it) by a modicum of native cleverness?

Still unsure about exactly when to turn onto the base leg, I notice that there are other aircraft in front of me, and take my lead from them. Now it is time to start the pre-landing checks – parking brake off, fuel sufficient, mixture rich, harness secure. As I reduce power, start descending and turn onto finals, I receive landing clearance from the Tower and set the flaps, ready for landing. In the absence of any red light from the ground, and with the airspeed now down to about 65 knots, I go ahead and land, thankful that I don’t have to go around again, and turn off at the first convenient taxiway. Pulling up the flaps, I start weaving my way back to the Flights, having first set the brakes on to their partial, 'five clicks' setting that permits differential braking. Once there, I perform the final shutdown check and can finally open the canopy and climb out.
            I heave a sigh of relief, completely forgetting that I am now in for the traditional initiation ceremony. Mercifully, I am not drenched with a fire extinguisher, but as soon as I get back to the flight room my tie is ceremonially clipped off and hung on the wall (I still have the remainder of it today). Perry appears and shakes me by the hand. No doubt he is as relieved as I am.
            It is 14 March 1957.

Updating my logbook

Almost at once I am sent up again. Then, after three more solo flights and four with Perry (including a VHF homing practice), I am ready for my final handling test, in which I gain 71%, despite stalling while pulling out of a loop – which is quite hard to do (evidently I take the right corrective action, though, or I wouldn’t be here now). ‘71% of what?’ you may ask. Hopefully it is not an indication of how likely it is that I shall survive the next stage of the course somewhere in the wild west of Canada. (Poor Tony Brown, alas, is chopped from the course before going solo, and David Hill takes over his share in the car.)
Not all the others have fared as well as I did. But the butt of everybody's jokes are the poor Turks. Various stories circulate about them:

* One Turkish student started up a Chipmunk in the hangar, and it chewed through two other aricraft before coming to a stop.
* Another called the Tower to say he was running out of fuel. 'That's OK,' called another who was listening in, 'I've got plenty -- follow me!'
* A third called to say he was doing a forced landing in a field.. 'Which field?' asked the tower. 'There's a cow in it,' came the answer.
* And then there was the one who was executing a perfectly good forced landing until, at the last moment, he covered his eyes and said 'Allah has control!' Evidently this was news to Allah, and so the aircraft was wrecked.

No doubt all these stories are untrue and the easily-mocked Turkish contingent is completely innocent. But at least they point up the cultural and linguistic problems involved in running a multi-ethnic NATO course for people who have barely mastered the relevant English technical terms -- especially when, as we gather, any Turks who are 'chopped' are expected to pay for their own passage home. Some of the foreign participants actually have to learn the relevant vocabulary of runways, altimeters and flap-configurations in English before they learn it in their own languages. In which case it is surprising that there are not more crashes.

Perry’s final report says I am ‘keen and conscientious’ and ought to make a ‘high average pilot’. In groundschool multiple choice exams I gain 100% in navigation, 95% in meteorology, 85% in flight procedures and 76% in principles of flight (does that mean I have a 24% risk of crashing, I wonder?), and am rated ‘high in mental alertness, initiative and determination’, though only average in drill and PT. Surprise, surprise!
‘You have an advantage over the Danes and the French and the rest of that shower,’ the official RAF liaison officer tells us at a post-exam briefing, ‘in that you speak some sort of English, and anyone who does the merest suspicion of work should get 75% with this fool multiple-choice type exam. They gave the navigation exam to the typist downstairs and she got 65%.’
So much for my 100%!

So I seem to have made it thus far. No real alarms, no crashes, merely a fairly seamless, if jerky progress through the course. I am still alive, still here. My flying hours – and my confidence – are steadily building up. I seem to be doing as well as anybody, and better than most. It is all rather unbelievable. Can it really be that I am far less hopeless than I and most of my colleagues had assumed – or even not hopeless at all? The next few months will doubtless answer that question for good and all…
I now have just over twenty flying hours to my credit. No doubt there will be hundreds more to come!


Tony Brown poses in front of the Chipmunk flightline. A brilliant classical scholar, he proves unable to land and is transferred to navigator training. He will subsequently be killed whilst serving in the UK

                                          THE YELLOW PERIL

OUR OLD JALOPY, with Viggers, Cox and myself aboard, makes the 2300-mile trip to Penhold, Alberta in three days and two nights. We have to travel via the USA because the Transcanada highway has not yet been completed. Our route takes us through Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, St Cloud, Grand Forks, Shelby and then up into Alberta via Calgary, but we gain several hours on the way because we have failed to take into account the various changes of time-zone. We are stopped by the police several times – in Chicago because we have shot several red lights in our early morning attempts to escape the city, and in Minneapolis because the cop controlling the traffic at a busy intersection insists on wandering over, motioning us to wind down the window, and saying ‘1940 Olds, isn’t it? Used to have one like it myself. Nice car!’ The rest of the traffic is left fuming.
    We finally make it to Penhold, halfway between Calgary and Edmonton (as do all the squadron’s other old jalopies) despite having no tools, no jack, no working generator and only a split spare tyre. After about thirteen hours’ sleep, we discover that the base is like a mini-town with every conceivable facility, but is currently drowned in mud as the last of the winter’s snow melts. We are housed in four-man rooms on the top floor of a modern barrack block, from which we can see the Rocky Mountains ninety miles to the west (which is how the station met office measures the day’s visibility!), but the water pressure is low and frequently has oil in it – and the Coke machines are all in the basement. There is a luxurious flight cadets’ mess, largely run by other ‘limeys’, but when we explore the local ‘town’ we discover that it consists only of four grain elevators, three gas stations and two shops with rudimentary cafés. I lay-in a stock of Coca Cola from one of the gas stations and start selling it to other members of the squadron at a profit (anything, it seems, rather than go down three flights of stairs to the basement and back!). Along with my new Norwegian roommate Anders Dalland, I am to be assigned to an apparently laid-back, but forceful instructor called Kerry who seems to believe in making his presence loudly felt in the flight-room and usually takes charge of its clean-up.
    We spend the first week in ground school being lectured to by young Canadian instructors who have been pulled straight off the flight line and often cannot spell (Canadian practice seems to be recruit instructors directly from among newly qualified students, thus ensuring both that the approved ‘gospel’ is passed on unadulterated and that some of them are actually younger than we are).
But now it is time for us to face our next big challenge – the Harvard.
   This loud-voiced, snub-nosed trainer is, they say, a positive danger to life and limb. It is reported to have all the worst characteristics of all aircraft. If you can fly a Harvard, it is said, you can fly anything – a brick, perhaps. Perhaps that is the idea. ‘But they’re dangerous!’ our original Flight Commander at Kirton exclaimed when told that we were going to train on them. That is apparently why we have been taught to fly on the simpler, safer Chipmunk first. Too many trainees were getting killed before they had a chance to become proficient.
   The Harvard was designed before World War II, and so the design is getting pretty old by now, as are many of the aircraft themselves. As I shall discover in due course, the nuts and bolts securing its ailerons can drop off. It regularly develops oil leaks. It can suffer electrical problems. The hydraulics can fail. It can even suffer catastrophic engine failure (as I shall likewise go on to discover). As with the Chipmunk, meanwhile, if you turn too sharply while taxiing, it will dig one wingtip into the ground – a so-called ‘ground loop’. If you stand on the brakes too hard it will finish up standing on its nose.
   And it makes an unholy row. Because its big, nine-cylindered Pratt & Whitney radial engine is much more powerful than the Chipmunk’s, it can whirl the propeller around so fast that its tips go supersonic, with what are in effect a rapid series of sonic booms cutting straight through you if you are unwise enough to stand abreast of it. We have already noticed that from our barrack-block half-a-mile away. On top of that, their thrust creates an enormous torque which, together with slipstream turbulence, obliges pilots to open up with something like full right rudder for take off (confusingly, the prop rotates in the opposite direction from the Chipmunk’s) and to finish landing with full, or nearly full left rudder. So, at least, we are told. This means that if, during the early stages of take-off, you are struck by any kind of crosswind from the right, there will be next to no rudder remaining to correct the movement with, and so the aircraft will inevitably drift to the left and thence off the runway altogether -- unless you follow the example formerly set by Messerschmitt 109 pilots, who were sometimes canny enough to correct the tendency with opposite brake. ‘The Harvard is a wonderful aircraft’, one of the instructors tells us. ‘It’ll take off through grass and snow, and even over runway lights – and frequently does.’ Viggers will actually keep a tally of the number of runway lights he has pranged.
   It is not just that the engine is big – so big so that you can’t taxi straight, but (even more than in the Chipmunk) have to advance down the taxiway in a series of swerves, just to see what you are about to hit. It is not even that, seen from below, the shape of the wings, with their strangely swept back leading edges, looks wrong, almost as if the designer discovered at the last moment that the engine was too heavy for the airframe (with aircraft, as with boats, what looks wrong often is wrong). There is a possible consequence of all this. If you stall it, it will drop a wing (as, again, I shall subsequently go on to discover for myself on more than one occasion).
  Think about it. This could be disastrous. Provided that you have enough altitude, you might conceivably be able to recover from the stall – or rather from the spin, as it may well become. But if it happens near the ground, you will probably be a goner. And landing is, of course, very much something that happens near the ground. Moreover, the whole point of landing on three points, which is as mandatory on the Harvard as on the Chipmunk, is actually to stall the thing onto the runway, as Gratrix, my original instructor, explained so graphically. If, therefore, you are even a few feet too high (as Tony Brown usually was on Chipmunks), you are liable to crash into the ground either sideways or upside down in a shower of sparks, in the latter case with the aircraft on top of you. In this case you will probably be unable to escape from the cockpit, since this will have been mangled beyond all recognition, and so you may well be burnt to death in any subsequent fire. And if you are foolish enough to release your straps without hanging on to something, you will be liable to fall on your head and break your neck.


    The Penhold flightline, control tower, tender and fire-truck [from colour photo by David Hill]

   In short, learning to fly the Harvard promises to be a horror. Most of us, except the more gung-ho among us, are well aware of this -- though it's true that the Harvard does seem to be a bit of a 'Marmite aircraft', in that some of its ex-pilots regard it as a beast, while others speak of it with affection as a 'very nice aeroplane'. Rumour has it that some cadets in other squadrons have been physically sick on their way to Flights as soon as they saw the rank on rank of yellow Harvards waiting hungrily to gobble them up (presumably painted that colour, I reflect ironically, so as to make them easy to spot from the air when they crash, as they regularly do, in the midst of Alberta’s yellow cornfields!). In time, merely seeing the same shade of yellow, it is said, has occasionally been enough to trigger the same response. I don’t suffer the same reaction, and neither do any of my colleagues, but I still feel pretty apprehensive as I march them down to the Flights that morning to meet our instructors and find out if all this alarming catalogue of woes is really true.
    I start off on the Mark II, which is the more primitive version without tailwheel steering. While much of the cavernous cockpit is essentially the same as in the Chipmunk, there are some important new features for me. It’s not just that the great radial engine rearing up in front of me as I sit in the cockpit looks positively huge. The throttle quadrant on the left now has an extra lever to control the variable-pitch propeller. There is a further lever, also on the left, for raising and lowering the undercarriage, together with a so-called ‘power push’ to supply hydraulic power both for that and for the flaps which, similarly, are controlled by a second small lever instead of, as formerly, by a mechanical yank-handle. There are two trim-wheels that operate small servos on the rudder and elevators to make it unnecessary, for example, to apply large amounts of rudder to counteract the engine’s torque while climbing – a necessity that, on Chipmunks, used to have my left leg shaking uncontrollably all the way up to altitude. There is a radio compass for taking radio bearings. The stick, with its spade-grip handle, is more like a fighter’s. And, for starting up, there is a kind of organ pedal for engaging the engine with the inertial flywheel that the ground crew can wind up to speed beforehand either electrically or by manhandling a crank on the side of the engine casing.

                                                                   The Mark II cockpit

    And there is a new set of checklists for managing all this – all of which have to be learnt.
   With Kerry yelling in my ear, as he rather tends to, I duly begin the start-up process. The whole machine bucks and shudders, the propeller swings reluctantly, and flames and smoke belch forth from the engine. Eventually it ‘catches’, and I discover that the Harvard, unlike the Chipmunk, does indeed swing to the left on takeoff, and so needs a lot of right rudder instead of left (on the Mark II, as I said, the tailwheel does not steer). Nevertheless I manage to control it until flying-speed has been arttained. Then, once aloft, there is a wonderful surprise. I am greeted by the early morning sight of the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies stretching hundreds of miles away to the south. The view is truly breathtaking.

I don’t know what to think about all this. The noise and vibration of start-up – to say nothing of the flames – are positively appalling. The great brute of a machine seems ready to head in any direction except straight down the runway. The violent rudder movements required to control it in the early stages of take-off smack of sheer desperation. Yet now, as it presents me with a marvellous view of the Rockies stretching all down the western horizon, a magic atmosphere of calm has taken over. Shall I be able to master its brutalities and rise to its lofty rewards? And what about the expected brutalities of bringing the damned thing back down again?    

I duly prepare to land (albeit with some trepidation) and eventually manage it, albeit with much violent rudder correction. And so, much to my relief, I complete my first flight.

On the Harvard: the engine seems huge

      Now there is an interlude. For us there is a wonderful Easter break at the mountain resort of Banff, in the Rockies, and before that a visit to Ghost Pine Lake (where we meet our first cowboy – and he meets his first pilots). But then we resume flying. On my next flight, one of the undercarriage legs refuses to come up, and the engine runs out of control. The problems resolve themselves, however – which is just as well, since I continue to realise how difficult it really is, even with everything working properly, to keep the aircraft on the runway when landing (Dalland, for his part, manages to ruin a tailwheel tyre, while others report that they have pranged a whole series of runway lights – and that presumably whilst applying full rudder to avoid doing so).
    There follow two days without flying: it is rumoured that the second is because several of our instructors have failed their regular engineering exams. In several of mine, in that case, I seem to have done rather better than they did – 92% in engineering and 100% in principles of flight (whatever that means). We have now changed rooms, and I am with Dalland and a friendly Canadian called Harrison. Dalland is large, heavily built, fair-haired, often flushed, laughs like a maniac and insists on sleeping in the nude with all the windows open. He manages to go solo before me, but Cox does a ‘ground loop’, damaging both a wing tip and his undercarriage. But then, as they say, every landing is a controlled crash.

Harvard Mark IV returning to base (photo Tom Cox)

    Finally, after some problems with my eyes which may have something to do either with an infection I have picked up or with my former need for glasses, I go solo after 10 hours 40 minutes, and am duly soaked with a fire extinguisher. Things are quite different from on Chipmunks – climb out at 90 knots, level out at 4000 feet (the base is situated at 3000 feet), base leg at 80 knots, trimming all the time. The circuit is extremely busy, and on my solo check I have to go around four times before finally getting down, but on the solo itself I thankfully get down at the first attempt. My landings are now better than Kerry’s – but then he has to fly the thing from the back cockpit.
   But now there is a setback. I am taking a perfectly peaceful bath one Friday evening in the ablutions when I am suddenly deluged with cold water from above. I open the door of the cubicle and discover Hill and Viggers chortling at me, bucket in hand. I rush forth to do battle and slip over, hitting my head violently on the wet floor. The next I know, it is Saturday morning, but I have no idea in which month or even where I am. Apparently I have been repeatedly asking the time and making no sense at all. My two colleagues have rushed me to sick bay, whose staff have diagnosed concussion and given me penicillin (apparently a matter of routine!). My official sick note of May 28 reads, ‘No games, drill, excess activity or flying until cleared by MO on 3rd June 57.’
    Nearly a week off flying! In view of pressures on our training schedule I shall be lucky not to be re-coursed to a later squadron. The instructors obviously recognise this too. As soon as I return to Flights, they start flying the pants off me – two, three, four hours a day. I am now doing instrument flying – sitting under a canvas hood and trying to fly the aircraft by staring at the instruments alone

and ignoring the insistent messages from my backside that I am turning or diving (so much for ‘flying by the seat of your pants’!), while Kerry sits up front to tell me what sort of a tree I am going to hit. Apparently I am quite good at it. I have converted to Harvard Mark IVs, too, which seem heavier and have an entirely different balance, but at least have a steerable tailwheel. The pressure is relentless. Eventually I start to suffer from a splitting headache, whether because of my former eye problem or as a result of the bang on the head. I point out that it’s no use flying me again that day, because I simply shan’t learn anything. I am rushed straight into the office of the Flight Commander, who accuses me of lying. I protest so vehemently that he retracts the accusation, and I don’t have to fly again that day.
    Suitably drugged by the MO, I resume flying after the weekend, and the grind recommences. Having already flown four-and-a-half hours one day, I am sent up to do yet another one-and-a-quarter hours, despite an apparent rule that we aren’t allowed to fly more than four hours in any one day. But nature has other ideas.
    Far out to the west, the regular afternoon thunderstorm has started to come in early from the Rockies. All aircraft are recalled, but I fail to hear it because my radio is playing up. I dodge to the east of the station, but then find that I am cut off from it by the storm, which is directly over the top of it. There is nothing for it but to set the aircraft up for endurance and fly around in circles until I am recalled. Gradually I work my way around to the north of the storm and finish up over Sylvan Lake, which is a holiday resort a couple of dozen miles to the northwest of Penhold. Still the storm is hanging around, blanketing the station from view, and I can no longer even hear the Tower because their signal has become completely garbled by the storm’s electrical activity. I start thinking about where I am to land if I run out of fuel before I make it back. The answer is there, staring up at me. It is the broad, straight Sylvan Lake highway! I just hope that there is no traffic around when I attempt it…

                        Thunderstorm over the base

Just in the nick of time, however, I get a signal from Penhold control.
   ‘One-eight-niner Decorator, you can come in now.’
   In the wake of the storm, I just make it back to the circuit through heavy rain, but with little fuel to spare. Expecting the engine to cut out at any moment, I ask for a straight-in landing. Realising that I probably shan’t have enough fuel to go around a second time, I am very careful to make it the first time, and land on the semi-flooded runway in a huge cloud of spray. I taxi back to the flightline and shut down.
   There are only three gallons left in the tank! 

Curiously, I have been strangely calm throughout. True, there was a moment of panic when I realised that I was about to be cut off from the station. But after that it was simply a matter of accepting the situation and whatever it might lead to. Somehow I have become so inured to being thrown willy-nilly into situation after ludicrous situation that one more ludicrous situation seems to be neither here nor there. If I run out of fuel, I run out of fuel. If I crash, I crash. In either situation all I can do is work through it and try to make the best of it. For so controlling and fearful a person as myself this apparent fatalism has come as something of a surprise. Could there be depths of myself that I haven’t yet explored?

   In preparation for navigation, I am now introduced to radio direction finding. This is intended to supplement the traditional dead-reckoning methods involving laying out a course across the map, applying corrections for wind-direction and strength, calculating fuel consumption and then converting the resulting headings to compass directions.

The Flight room: Barrie Hall prepares his next navigation trip
This can prove pretty complicated, but fortunately there are other, less demanding forms of navigation to be done. These involve me in travelling with a colleague called John Bewick to Edmonton in our jalopy to find a family who have emigrated from Sussex and whose kids used to be in my church choir there. Curiously, I spot the kids first, and find the house afterwards. They are only one of a number of families who are kind enough to welcome us during our time in Canada. We get back in the small hours of the morning.

Soon I am attempting recovery from unusual positions in the air while sitting under the hood with the main gyros caged and therefore inoperable, and manage to do a blind VHF letdown which leaves me literally about to touch down on the runway. I also embark on the first of a number of navigation exercises, and manage to return to the station even after Kerry has deliberately ‘lost’ me.

                                                Sunbathing whilst waiting for an aircraft

   Earlier in the course the Wing Commander gave us all a briefing in which he urged us to make our approaches to the runway steep, so as to avoid any obstructions in the undershoot area, and also so as to have plenty of height to spare should the engine let us down at the last moment. By doing so, I usually find myself landing some way up the runway, rather than at the start of it. On one occasion, however, I find myself landing squarely on the button and, seeing a turnoff to the right only about a hundred yards ahead of me, decide to ‘do a Gratrix’ (given that a Harvard is not a Chipmunk, I don’t know what has come over me!). I stand on the brakes, just managing not to stand the aircraft on its nose, then swerve on to the turnoff (like all Harvards, mine is of course only too eager to swerve the right on landing), applying right rudder and left brake simultaneously so as to keep it under control (presumably it is a Mark IV). Leaning to the left, the machine bucks and skitters, with the tyres squealing and the port wingtip threatening to hit the ground. But miraculously it stays upright. Still travelling quite fast towards the flightline, I notice that the ground crew are scattering in all directions. So I stand on the brakes again, and the machine almost comes to a stop. I then trundle peacefully into the flights as though nothing has happened. I imagine that the Tower thinks I am either some experienced old hand or a complete idiot. However, nothing is said, so hopefully it is the former.
   At the same time I am starting to develop my own method of takeoff. Instead of waiting for the tail to come up and then allowing the aircraft to stagger into the air off its own bat, as recommended – which means that it is barely airborne, and not far above the stall – I start holding the aircraft down on the ground until nearly the end of the runway. This, as I see it, gives it a chance to accelerate rapidly in the most streamlined configuration to a speed well above the stall. Then I can haul back on the stick and it will soar gracefully into the air. All the instructors seem to accept this, apart from one of them who confesses that he is worried that I might dig the propeller into the ground.

   Meanwhile not everybody is well behaved. With so many energetic young men chafing under the constraints of military discipline, this would be a bit much to expect. Some get drunk, or stay up all night, or make themselves unfit to fly in the morning, or leave themselves stranded miles from base, or are simply slovenly in dress or behaviour. Minor punishments usually involve spending the next evening washing aircraft, or being dispatched to far-distant hangars to ask for a bucket of prop-wash (!) -- though only Canadians seem to incur these. Major punishments are much more serious.

Now the time has come for my initial handling test. In the course of it I am told to do a practice forced landing on our reserve field – which goes splendidly, except that I forget to put the wheels down until I am actually rounding out for landing. So I say over the intercom, in an offhand sort of way, ‘And now, as this is a practice forced landing and not a real one, we put the wheels down.’ Then I go ahead and land – and it is an absolute ‘greaser’.
   ‘You had me worried there for a moment, Lemesurier,’ says the examiner. ‘I thought you left it pretty late.’
    Evidently he is taken in, because he then goes on to test me on spins.
   ‘Okay, Lemesurier, do a spin to the left.’
  I duly pull the stick back and, just as the aircraft is about to stall, apply full left rudder as prescribed.  

   It hesitates for a moment, then does a spin to the right.
   I try again, and exactly the same thing happens.
   ‘Now look, Lemesurier – I have control – you’ve got to put it in, like this!’
    Flying Officer Chalmers regains altitude and repeats the process. Another spin to the right results – thus proving that a Harvard will indeed, as rumoured, drop a wing unprompted when stalled.
    ‘OK, Lemesurier, I apologize. The aircraft is obviously bent. Do a spin to the right.’
    Surprisingly, perhaps, he awards me 75.8%.
  Much later, Kerry will comment, ‘You’re no damn good at putting an aircraft into a spin, Lemesurier – but you can get it out again like nobody’s business!’
   Soon, though, the time comes for our mid-course break. Whether on not because of my concussion interlude, my flight (‘B’ Flight) is a week behind the other flight, of which Cox, Viggers and Hill are all members. A vigorous argument ensues about who has the right to take our car on an extended trip. It takes a semi-legal judgment from Hill to settle the issue on the basis of our respective shares of ownership. The three of them will have the car for the first week, and since they won’t be back for the second it will be up to me to find a place in another car. And so it is decided. The three of them co-opt the chirpy Roy Humphreyson to make up their number, and set off in our jalopy for Los Angeles via the inland route. Meanwhile I secure a place in an old Pontiac part-owned by Dave Turner, along with ‘Doc’ Berry, the squadron’s mature aeromedical student, who reckons that a special noise that he used to make out of the window to scare sheep off the road back in Scotland might work with bears, too. The car’s leading owner, Ted Portlock, apparently has other plans, and goes off on his own.

   ‘Doc’ Berry (left) seems frustrated at the failure of his special bear-scaring noise

So we duly set off, crossing the Rockies to Vancouver, and then all down the west coast via Waldport (where we see an offshore firework display on 4 July), Everett (where, to swim in the YMCA’s pool, we are expected to do so in the nude), and San Francisco (where we manage to park and start on the hills despite having no working handbrake – and then contrive to get lost in the US navy’s supposedly secure base). We finally leave the city via the Oaklands toll-bridge, pursued by the sound of heavy boots, which turn out to be those of the bridge-attendant, angry with us for paying him with a perfectly legal Canadian quarter instead of an American one. At night we simply drive off the road to sleep, only to find that it is extraordinarily difficult to find our way back to the road through the trees in the morning. The police stop by, and tell us to use the official campsites in future because of the bears – which we do, only to be woken up in the morning by bears running past us to the trash cans, where their protruding backsides are a common sight. So we pay no attention to the warning from now on. The temperature is almost unbearable, and it makes little difference whether we open the windows or close them – we either get still hot air or moving hot air.
   Far to the south in Santa Cruz we decide that it is finally time to turn back while the ailing car will still let us. Our return route takes us through Sacramento, Reno (where we are turned out of one of the casinos for being too young) and Salt Lake City (where we attend an organ recital and visit the cinema and the Capitol), crossing the Nevada desert by night to prevent the engine from overheating. This brings us to Yellowstone National Park, home of the famous geysers (where we only just manage to avoid a bear lazily crossing the road in the gloaming), and then to Lethbridge in Canada, where the car finally gives up. So then we catch a Greyhound bus to Calgary, where we are just in time for the last day of its celebrated Stampede, presided over this year by Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.   
   We arrive back at Penhold carless but happy, leaving poor Portlock to collect the wreckage of his car – only to discover that the other flight has been flying for a week, and so it is time for us to continue trying to catch up.
   On my return to the squadron, I discover that I have a new instructor. His name (or rather his pseudonym for the purposes of this account) is Raeburn. Small, wiry and fair-haired, he seems quieter and wittier than Kerry, if at the same time more demanding and more liable to snap at me in the air (justifiably, perhaps – who knows?). He does this so much that I sometimes feel like saying, ‘Look, you fly the damn thing!’ The problem becomes even more acute when we start doing a series of long navigation trips together, one of them at low level, since there is no escaping him until we land. There are alternate cries from the back cockpit of ‘Get up, Lemesurier, get up!’ and ‘What are we doing up here?’ The chicken go wild, the farmers wave – or possibly they are just shaking their fists. My final navigation test ensues, which I pass (as they say) with flying colours. The examiner says he doesn’t mind how low I fly, as long as he doesn’t actually have to look up at the grain elevators, whose names (like the big railway station names in Britain) we sometimes use to establish where we are when lost. The other students, too, are doing long-distance navigation flights, and two of them have to land at remote stations when trapped behind a line of cold front thunderstorms – one at Edmonton and the other at Claresholm, far away to the south. I. too, do a trip to Claresholm, but manage to work my way around the edge of my thunderstorm despite one or two anxious moments.

                                         A returning Mark IV attempts a three-point landing

   Instrument flying, too, proceeds apace, and I gain 76.8% in my basic instrument test (does this mean, I wonder, that I am incapable of reading 23.2% of the instruments?). Viggers, on one of his trips under the hood, reportedly tells his instructor, ‘I have control, Sir,’ only to discover that he has no stick: he has to fly the aircraft by sticking his finger in the hole until he can release it from its stowage with the other hand. But then that may be merely a yarn.
    The routine is only alleviated by an unexpected visit from Douglas Bader, the celebrated legless World War II fighter ace, who is currently doing publicity for Shell (and whose first operational squadron flew out of Kirton-in-Lindsey). Unfortunately I am in the air during his visit, so I tell Dalland that he can have my copy of Bader’s biography Reach for the Sky if he can get him to sign it. Being the usual irrepressible Dalland, he does. Unfortunately, I have lost the official station photograph of him doing so, and it is too late now to ask Dalland for a copy, as he was killed in a flying accident soon after his eventual return to Norway. But I gather that Bader completely took over the flight-room, as well as doing some low flying in search of a lost student with McCarthy, our Wing Commander, who was one of the original Dam Busters

Douglas Bader with 'A' Flight
At this point I am transferred to yet another, senior instructor called Ehman, whom I have inherited from another student. Unemotional and unsmiling, he rides the controls unmercifully, and I feel like either leaving him to it or slapping the stick around in the hope of bruising his knees. Perhaps, I reflect morosely, he is simply hanging on until his retirement? Somewhat intermittently we go up on seemingly endless instrument trips together, and eventually proceed to flying at night and daytime formation flying. 

    With members of ‘B’ Flight on a rainy day [Photo Otto Samuelsen]

  Flying at night is a dramatically different kettle of fish. After inspecting the aircraft in the dark by the light of a red torch to the accompaniment of the roar of aero-engines, I am expected to taxi to the runway along dark, lamp-flanked taxiways. Having located the runway itself, whose rows of blazing lights suddenly appear to my right, I rush down it and take off, only to be plunged into darkness once more and discover that I am piloting a largely unseen aircraft amid the red glow of disembodied instruments and controls that seem more ghostly than real. Soon I am navigating over a strange, unfamiliar landscape whose blackness is punctuated only by distant, isolated lights. The people they are illuminating might as well be on another planet. I am brought back to reality only by the others' radio-calls and the curt responses of the tower. And when the time comes to land once more, I find that I am approaching a barely-recognisable airfield, where I am guided to the parking rank by waving torches wielded by disembodied marshals.
   Meanwhile Ehman is helped out by other instructors, including Raeburn, who complains that my daytime aerobatics are ‘too tight’. During solo circuits and bumps in preparation for night flying, two of us nearly collide, another’s engine stops, there are two ground loops and a wheels-up landing.

I actually saw the wheels-up night landing,’ Tom Cox will comment later. ‘Lots of sparks, and it amazed me there was not a fire.’  That such wheel-up landings are possible may be due partly, ironically enough, to the loud warning horn that sounds in the cockpit when the pilot pulls back the throttle to do it. Legend has it that one student, warned by the Tower that he was landing with his wheels up, actually replied ‘I can’t hear you because of that damned horn!’

    It is not just landing that can pose a few problems. At about this time, I am climbing out from the runway into the circuit when I suddenly realise that I am under attack. Not from enemy aircraft, you understand, but from a family car that has parked in the overshoot area, whose occupants evidently have nothing better to do than to throw stones at passing aircraft. I call the Tower to complain, but they seem uninterested. Resisting the temptation to call off my climb and buzz them (which might have the reverse effect from that intended) I decide just to continue on my way, relieved that neither the propeller nor the cockpit seems to have been hit. But it does set me thinking. Flying, after all, is pretty risky at the best of times, but when one has to do it under a hail of fire as well, as combat pilots regularly have to, it is far from a joke. Yet that is something that I myself might have to face at the end of my time in Canada. I have ignored it so far because I didn't think there was much prospect of my finishing the course. But here I still am, and, though Korea and Suez are long past, the Russians are still straddling Europe, with Khrushchev apparently doing his best to stoke up the cold war into a hot one. If he did, well, we might all conceivably be co-opted into regular service as combat pilots -- which was never my idea at all. My efforts to thwart national service by volunteering to fly might finish up by having unexpected consequences. My only consolation is that, as a pilot, I would have at least some input into whether I survived or not. 

Could it actually come to that? Can I imagine myself being attacked by other aircraft or shot at from the ground? What would be my reaction? Would I positively enjoy taking out my many childhood frustrations on the enemy? Would I panic, throw in the towel? Or would my strange calmness in the air during my ‘thunderstorm’ incident continue to manifest itself? To be honest, it doesn’t bear thinking about. After all, it may not come to it, and I can only hope that it doesn’t. And if all else fails, at least I am equipped (unlike those poor World War One pilots whose commanders evidently thought less valuable than their aircraft) with a parachute!

    So perhaps my best plan is just to concentrate on improving my flying, whether by day or (as is next on the curriculum) by night...
    When it actually comes to landing in the dark, I find it easiest to ‘feel’ for the ground with my main wheels before rounding out and landing properly. Otherwise I tend to round out too high – always assuming that the runway is actually there when I get to it, and that the Tower hasn’t switched all the lights around to another runway while I am on approach, as actually happens on one occasion, leaving me letting down into a black void (I decide that there is nothing for it but to break off my approach, climb back to circuit altitude and start all over again, since for the Tower to turn them back on again would merely be a recipe for confusion and multiple collisions). 
    Navigating at night amid beautifully calm air by the lights of towns and cities and reflections of the sky in lakes and rivers is a new experience altogether. The instruments and switches glow red in the dark. The other aircraft are merely passing lights in the sky and their pilots disembodied voices out of the either. I can usually recognise them, though, and can spot which lights they belong to by their position reports to the Tower. And meanwhile, overhead, there are wonderful displays of the Northern Lights, with streamers of red and green spreading out in all directions.
     There are compensations for undertaking flight training, I decide.
   The course drags on into the autumn -- 'circuits and bumps', navigation exercises, aerobatics, instrument flying, radio let-downs, night-flying -- interspersed with occasional whole-station parades (complete with band), which usually end up in chaos because it has been so long since the officers did any serious drill. McCarthy roars and rages and makes us do it all again. 

NATO course 5615 parades in its various national uniforms: Portlock leads the right-hand file, and I am three places behind him.

We seem to be getting older -- as are the aircraft themselves. One particular aircraft, Mark IV number 440, acquires a particularly ferocious reputation for misbehaving itself. One day, just after I have got back to the flight-room after flying it, Portlock suddenly rushes in shouting, 'Peter, Peter, have you just been flying four-four-zero?'
    'Yes, why?'
    'You'd better come and take a look!'
   We hurry out to the flight-line, to discover that one of its ailerons (which control roll in both directions) is in a state of collapse. The nut has fallen off one of its retaining bolts. Had it parted in flight, I probably wouldn't be here now.
    Portlock, who was due to fly the thing next, seems very excited -- as well he might be, given his evident narrow escape. I thank whichever god watches over Harvards, and resolve never to fly that particular machine again.
    But a few days later, inevitably, there I am doing precisely that...

After a car-trip to Jasper and the Athabasca glacier, returning via Edmonton and my emigrant British family (who invite me to stay for Christmas), I now embark on the final stage of the course. This consists mainly of formation flying, though there are still a few instrument trips to do and instrument and final handling tests to pass. At this point, however, fate has a nasty surprise in store for me.

                      On the Athabasca glacier

   On my seventh and final formation flight I am allocated my old instructor, Kerry. While we are practising group manoeuvres some fifty miles east of base, the engine starts to splutter, and oil appears all over the windscreen. We are losing power, and are forced to drop out of formation. There is no prospect of returning to base, so Kerry starts looking around for a field to do a forced landing in.
‘You do the checks, Lemesurier. I’ll do the landing.’
   I am not at all sure that dividing responsibility in this way is a good idea, but he is obviously busy, so I do my best. The Simulated Forced Landing check mentions mixture, pitch and flaps. I clearly cannot interfere with those, so I do the Real Action check instead. Even this, however, mentions ‘fuel off’ and ‘switches off’, and I can’t do those, either, in case he is still using them. The check does, however, mention ‘undercarriage as applicable’ – so I lower the landing gear, as I have always done before when practising the manoeuvre on airfields (albeit somewhat late in one case!). At once there is an agitated call from the formation leader.
   ‘What are you doing putting your wheels down?’
  At once I recall that forced landings in fields are supposed to be done with no wheels, in case the wheels should stick in the mud or should hit boulders, in which case the aircraft would turn head-over-heels. I therefore hurriedly select ‘wheels up’, only to realise that, with the engine now virtually stopped, there is no more hydraulic pressure to raise them. Moreover, Kerry has now selected flaps down, and there is no hydraulic pressure for that either.

               The Harvard forced landing checklist

   At this point I have a flash of inspiration. Under the seat is a telescopic hand-operated pump. Trying hard not to confuse it with the euphemistically-named ‘relief tube’ alongside it, I whip it out and start pumping like mad. I am relieved to see from the cockpit indicators that the wheels are gradually coming up and the flaps going down. This is probably too late for Kerry, though, who has by now selected a field to land in, especially as it looks to me as if he has chosen to land downwind and so will need all the flap he can get to stop in time.
   And too late it turns out to be.  As we approach the ground, it becomes clear that we are not going to land at the beginning of the field, or even half way up it. We float and float, and the trees at the far end are rapidly getting nearer and nearer.
With the cockpit hood now open to permit a speedy exit, I can feel the buffeting of the wind and reflect that it may be one of the last things I shall ever experience. 
   Suddenly there is a sickening crash as we hit the ground. Possibly Kerry has seen the approaching trees and has deliberately flown into it. The machine slithers to a stop in thirty yards flat, with its nose nestling almost among the trees. Seeing them coming towards me, I jump out on to the wing even before we have fully stopped, not wishing to get crushed by a tree-trunk. Kerry stays put, his sunglasses coming to rest in the front cockpit, just where my feet would have been. He is evidently anxious to ensure that all the switches are in the right position before the Wing Commander appears (one does have to have a sense of priorities, after all!). McCarthy does so in his pink Buick in less than an hour, closely followed by the ambulance. He quickly surveys the situation, and congratulates Kerry. To me, however, he says absolutely nothing. Possibly somebody has told him about the undercarriage incident.

                       End of another successful day!

   The ride back to Penhold is far more dangerous than the forced landing. We nearly skid off the dirt-track road twice. Back at the station, we are x-rayed from head to foot, then released. Being pretty hungry by now, we look for something to eat. But all the station food outlets are closed for the night, so all we can manage to do is scrounge a couple of sandwiches from a fridge. I am still grumbling to myself about this when I arrive back at the barrack block. As I reach the top of the stairs I am suddenly surprised to be greeted with astonished shouts of ‘Peter!!’ Evidently I have been given up for dead. At once I am surrounded by a small crowd of smiling admirers. I have never been so popular in my life. Now I know what it is like to return from the dead.
  Later, I am paraded before the Squadron Commander. He tells me off for lowering the undercarriage, but is perhaps somewhat mollified by my presence of mind in initiating emergency use of the hand pump. At all events, no further action is taken. Once again I seem to have escaped by the skin of my teeth.

Once again I am surprised at how calm I remained throughout the incident – though the fact that I lowered the wheels possibly indicates that there was a moment of panic initially. But the fact that I then remembered the hand-pump suggests that clarity and calm quickly set in. During the landing itself I was thinking quickly and logically, even planning what I would do as soon as we hit the ground – or the trees, as the case might be. And on emerging from the aircraft I experienced not the slightest degree of shaking – though nature decreed that I then needed to perform the bodily function that the so-called ‘relief tube’ is designed to facilitate. But then peeing seems to be a natural male reaction to any moment of triumph!

There remain only a single navigation trip and an applied instrument test, in which, despite a couple of ‘criticals’, I manage 80.8% – which presumably means that I still have nearly a 20% chance of not getting to where I’m supposed to be going.
   ‘And hast thou slain the Yellowbird?’

   And with that, the course is over. Since the weather has just turned very told indeed, and most of us are suffering from the ’flu, this is probably just as well. Much to my surprise, I find that, despite my weediness and lack of athleticism, I have been ranked top British National Service flier in the squadron. Evidently Kerry, Raeburn and Ehman got it right after all. My over-all report, however, is less complimentary. Despite being described as a ‘good average pilot’, I am apparently too heavy-footed on the rudders (especially on take-off, I imagine, when I have usually engaged full right rudder, as anticipated, until the speed picked up and made the rudder more effective – though, perhaps as a result, I have never swerved off a runway) and I tend to adopt a ‘superior attitude’. This may reflect the fact that I have tended not to mix with most of the squadron, especially the Canadians, but have preferred to associate with my apparently more cultured British or Scandinavian colleagues. Although well-liked and respected, I need more tact to make an above average officer.
   I tend to put my foot in it, in other words. In both senses.
  We are now told that, unlike the Norwegians and Canadians, we are being posted to MacDonald, Manitoba for training on jets. Then, instead of being returned to the UK for operational training
, however -- presumably on Hunters or all-weather Javelins -- a surprise now awaits us. On completion of our jet training we shall be disbanded and sent home as reservists, since British National Service is being wound down. Personally I am immensely relieved at this unexpected development, though I can't speak for my conscripted British colleagues.
   So much, at all events, for all our hard work!
  A graduation dance and parade conclude the proceedings, and we return all our equipment – sunglasses and all, even the cheap ones that we have bought and smashed to replace the official ones we have lost – before a short leave during which some of us visit various friends and families in western Canada.

  I also give an organ recital in Red Deer City, at which the vicar helpfully ‘corrects’ my accompanying notes to say what he thinks they should say. Thus, Bach’s chorale preludes suddenly acquire a new identity as ‘choral preludes’, despite the absence of any choir to sing them. Nevertheless, the packed congregation seems very appreciative.
   One final footnote. During our final week on Harvards we learn that the USAF has just brought out an order to the effect that Harvards should on no account be landed on three points in future, and must always be brought in on main wheels instead.
   So now they tell us!

Will we survive the next few months on converting to an entirely different type of aircraft? We estimate that, statistically, at least one of us ought not to. In that case it will be on the jets or not at all. Perhaps that is why at about this time I put it in somewhat poetic, if not religious terms, after a night-flight by moonlight:

O harvest moon that rides so calm
That thrones amid the dark so bright,
Where cloud is silver-thin and hangs
Like angel-voices down the night;

O flaming sentinels, O stars
That ever burn with heat so cold;
O planets steady on your way,
As steady too when I am old;

O sky, O blazing host of heaven,
O singing night, O splendid truth,
Look down and pity jarring man
That he has not eternal youth!

Scarce heeds he how the Reaper's scythe
Spares him but little golden day
To leave some seed of good behind
When all the rest is borne away.

Gaze, autumn heavens, on summer's earth,
And let your voice of silent dread
Whisper to us the wintry truth
That, though alive, we shall be dead.



HAVING FINALLY SOLD OUR OLD CAR and ceremonially burned our hated white cap-bands, we arrive at MacDonald in central Canada via a variety of forms of transport just in time for the winter. We are assigned individual rooms in old wooden H-blocks. All cleaning is done by a common janitor, and there are no room inspections. Drill and compulsory PT are unheard of. The CO even refuses to fly the flag on his car so that we don’t have to salute it. On the other hand, all the non-commissioned ranks now have to salute us – which soon becomes rather a bore as we now have to salute back!

                                        The MacDonald flighline (by courtesy of David Hill)

We start by exploring the base on foot. From the top of the old wooden control tower we look down on rank on rank of shiny silver T-33s (or 'T-Birds', as we call them), some of them just taxied in by solo students, almost as if they do it every day – as indeed they probably do. It seems incredible that we shall ever be allowed to control such expensive-looking space-age machines. When we take our first look inside the cockpits, they turn out to have safety devices, reserve safety devices, horns and lights – some thirty-two of these in fact, of which no less than twelve are for emergencies. The trims are now controlled by electric buttons on the stick on which you can actually play tunes. Yet, there is of course not a single electronic computer, as they haven't been invented yet.
    We spend the first couple of weeks in ground school, with exams to match. We are encouraged to go out into the hangar, sit in one of the aircraft and learn exactly where every control is until we can locate it with our eyes closed. We are given sessions on the flight-simulator, but as this never leaves the ground we feel free to crash it deliberately to see what happens when we do (nothing does!). We are also introduced to the decompression chamber to test our oxygen equipment and observe the effects when we fail to use it. But we are thankful not to be dumped on the far side of the airfield to demonstrate the effectiveness of our winter flying suits -- which is just as well, as most of us are not inclined to wear our regulation mukluks (Eskimo lace-up knee-length boots). 

    Meanwhile I seem to have been appointed official organist to one of the two architecturally identical chapels – one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic. The Protestant Hammond instrument has a huge extra amplifier at the back of the church, but I am forced to stop using it when some of the congregation threaten to change their religion.

                                                       Full-frontal T-33 on the flightline

   Then comes our first familiarisation flight. Mine is with Flying Officer Violette. First we do the external check, carefully ignoring the tiny cracks in the skins of the wing-roots (the ends of which the maintenance crew have laboriously drilled through in the hope that this will stop them spreading). Then, after removing all the safety pins bearing red flags (I refuse to remove the ones retaining the huge tip-tanks until I have walked around them, as I don’t want to be crushed by them when they fall off!), we taxi to the start of the runway using differential braking as on the Chipmunk and, having lined up, prepare to take off. Because the T33 has a nosewheel instead of a tailwheel, we can actually see where we are going and so there is no more weaving to do. Once we are given clearance, Violette opens the throttle to 110% and we get a powerful boot in the pants as the aircraft accelerates violently down the runway. As soon as the nosewheel starts to shimmy he lifts it off the ground, and immediately we take off willy-nilly. In no time the wheels and flaps are coming up before the airspeed becomes too great for them. At which point we are already at circuit-height. The whole thing is breathtaking.

                                                     Approaching the base from the air

   I spend most of the flight sitting in the back seat staring intently at the plenum chamber fire warning light, since we have been told that, when that comes on, we have about four seconds to eject (we have been told that, if faced with a choice between the aircraft and ourselves, we should favour ourselves, since it costs far more to train a pilot than to supply a new aircraft). While I am watching it, Violette completes his climb out with a perfect roll followed by a graceful loop (not something we could ever have done on Harvards), and then hands ever to me. Having been told that the aircraft’s hydraulics are very powerful, I do a few very tentative turns until, slightly surprised, he points out that I can throw the aircraft around as much as I like. Then he climbs to around 40,000 feet, and shows me how woolly the controls have become in the thin air. Finally, having simply stalled the aircraft down to 20,000 feet, he does a Mach run at about .8 of the speed of sound, while I observe how the control surfaces judder. Later there is a composite exercise on the ground, in which I have to practise flight planning, meteorology, navigation, flight procedures, engineering, ejection and survival – the last two only in simulated form, since (to my relief) the station’s ejection machine only raises us a couple of feet off the ground, unlike the tall ramp that, at certain stations, shoots its victims high into the air.
    At this point I start my flying programme proper, but now with an unsmiling young instructor called Featherstone whom I do not like at all. In fact I rather get the impression that he doesn’t like me either. Frankly, he is a bit of a bully. He makes me do loop after loop after loop without the slightest coaching or encouragement if he thinks there is the slightest thing wrong, and the constant G forces make me start to feel physically tired. He does the same with landings, and tries repeatedly – again without any actual coaching – to make me approach less steeply and land nearer the beginning of the runway. But the habit of doing steep landings is ingrained by now and I find I simply cannot do it. On top of that, he pulls a vertical eight on me (one loop on top of another), which involves pulling 6G at the bottom. This is all very well for Featherstone, who is wearing a G suit, but students aren’t allowed such things in case they encourage them to bend the aircraft. He knows this perfectly well, but he still goes ahead, and consequently I start to suffer the full repertory of G symptoms – greyout, blackout, dreams, unconsciousness, coma, death. I get as far as the dreams before I come to, with my head, now weighing six times as much as normal, lolling uselessly on my chest. Quite what this is supposed to teach me I cannot imagine.
     I get the impression, in short, that he is trying to intimidate me. If so, he certainly succeeds. He could scarcely have invented a more effective form of aversion therapy if he had tried. Fearful that this might be setting the pattern for the rest of the course, I start seriously to think about ceasing training, and even consult the MO about my concerns. He assures me that such thoughts are not uncommon at this stage, and advises me to continue for the time being and see how things pan out.

Alas, things are starting to look rather as I had feared. The he-man archetype has put in his appearance, with all his aggression and swagger. The relatively caring, civilised instructors that I have been experiencing so far have been left far behind. I shall have to attempt to find similar aggression and swagger within myself or fail to survive. Frankly, I don’t believe for a moment that I can. Indeed, I am not even sure I want to live and work in such an environment. If I am to be engaged militarily in a battle for anything, it is civilisation, not brutality. 

 In fact I am about to ask for a change of instructor (since we are allowed to do that, if necessary, on the grounds of incompatibility), when the Flight Commander himself – another Greatrix, but now so spelt – takes over. Whether this is because he has heard of my contretemps with Featherstone I do not know.
    Greatrix is much more supportive and sympathetic, and gives me three lessons in preparation for my first solo, constantly encouraging me and restoring my confidence. But at this point fate once again takes a hand in proceedings.
    The senior squadron are currently doing night flying. During the course of it, a particularly hairy instructor decides to take off with his student down the blue-lit taxiway instead of down the white-lit runway. Sheer bravado, I imagine. On the taxiway, unknown to him, is a groundcrew van known as a Bulldog, and in it two unsuspecting groundcrew are sitting. The aircraft’s wing promptly slices straight through their cabin – and both groundcrew are decapitated. One of them is a Protestant and the other a Roman Catholic, so as organist of the Protestant Chapel I am expected to play for the funeral of the former. The wreckage of the aircraft is left by the runway as an awful warning. This, I feel, is hardly a good build-up to my impending first solo.

                                             Flying the Protestant chapel’s Hammond organ

    Nevertheless, the funeral once over, we wait for suitable weather for me to do it in. With the cloud ceiling at 10,000 feet, Greatrix is unable to check me out because it is too low for a final spin test (the aircraft loses about 1000 feet per turn). The next day we try again, but this time Greatrix decides to chance it. We climb to just below the cloud base.
    ‘OK, Lemesurier, do a spin to the right.’
    I check around for other aircraft, then do the necessary. Check around and below, cut the power, stick fully back, full right rudder. The aircraft starts to spin, descending at an alarming rate.
   ‘OK, Lemesurier, in your own time… recover.’ His languid, almost singsong voice sounds incredibly laid-back and laconic, but possibly he knows, like Kerry, that I can get an aircraft out of a spin ‘like nobody’s business’.

                                                 The official programme for first jet solo

    All goes well, and soon I am doing solo circuits and bumps. The next day, the weather clears and I am able to complete the full first solo programme. At which point my new permanent instructor appears in the flight room.
    ‘Well, Oi’m Broian O’Malley,’ he says.
    He is a slightly dumpy Irishman with frizzy hair, straight out of the RAF, and turns out to be a very efficient and positive pilot. But he knows absolutely nothing about the station procedures – which is possibly why he has been assigned to me, who know them pretty well by now.
    ‘Okay,’ he says, once we are up. ‘At this point we do a turn to the roight.’
    ‘Excuse me, sir, we do a turn to the left.’
    ‘Aarh, that’s roight, Lemesurier, we do a turn to the left.’
    Four further lessons follow, interspersed with two solos and another flight with Greatrix. But then it is time for mutuals. These involve two students going up together. In one case I am paired up with Danish sergeant Lundt, who proves to be wonderfully assured and efficient. In another I am paired up with Hill. First he sits up front to take us off and land (which he does perfectly normally), while I sit in the back under the hood and try to fly the thing on instruments. Later that day we swap around.
    Hill’s instrument flying, I discover, is very efficient, but on his letdown, the final part of which is controlled from the ground, the controllers get it badly wrong. We finish up at about 1000 feet over the station’s married patch, approaching the runway at right angles. I ride the controls for a moment, attempting to nudge Hill back into the correct alignment, but soon realise that I am only confusing him. So I call off the exercise and tell the controllers how wrong they are. Then I attempt to come in for a final landing. This proves extremely difficult. I find that my approach is far too high (McCarthy would have been delighted!), and even when I try to dive off some height in the approved ungainly manner I am still too high. I dive off some more, but even then only manage to land half-way up the runway. Fortunately the T33 has some very efficient brakes, and I manage to stop well before the end without too much difficulty – and hopefully without alarming Hill. Wisely, he says nothing.
    What has apparently happened is that a strong tailwind has built up at altitude during our flight, unknown to the controllers on the ground. This was evidently why they got Hill’s approach so wrong, too. Such things do sometimes happen.
    Further solos and mutuals follow – including one in which Viggers, riding shotgun up front, comes in very low and, instead of adding power when we are about to hit the ground in the undershoot area, cuts it completely (I know – I am watching the throttle intently!). ‘We’re going in the boondocks’, he starts to chant, and presumably only reaches the runway by the grace of God and the ‘ground effect’. Then it is back to O’Malley. And soon we are flying formation – and not only official formation.
    It is not unknown for some instructors to make secret arrangements with other instructors to meet in the air to perform hairy manoeuvres together. On an earlier occasion, for example, another instructor – an absolute ace, admittedly – insisted on performing unauthorised loops with me and others in formation. In O’Malley’s case, he has evidently decided that he wants to attempt to do a barrel roll around another aircraft. This is all very well, but he seems to have forgotten that he has me in the back. And so (as I recall, at least) we duly meet up with his chosen co-conspirator and, once we are flying alongside each other, he starts the manoeuvre. The stick comes back slightly, we bank sharply to the left… and in less time than it takes to tell we are inverted and descending fast directly on top of the other aircraft. Fortunately O’Malley is not only adventurous, but quick. Like a flash he hauls off 90° of bank, pulls back the stick and disappears off to the other side, just missing the other aircraft’s wing-tank.
    To this day, over half a century later, I recall – or at least I think I recall – not only this, but others of O’Malley’s antics, too:

*·    On entering the flight room one morning, I find a bleary-looking O’Malley nibbling at an apple and drinking a can of soup. I ask whether he is proposing to brief me about our forthcoming flight as per regulations. He stops nibbling for a moment and just says, ‘Aarh yes, we’ll just go up there and fool around a bit.’
*·    He has two ways of taking off. In the first, he is at around a thousand feet by the end of the runway. In the other, he holds the thing down at telegraph pole height for about four miles, until the Tower calls up and asks, ‘Cabman 88, do you intend to penetrate cloud?’ He replies, ‘Negative!’ and immediately pulls the stick back hard into his stomach. We shoot up vertically through the cloud to about 20,000 feet, where we emerge into bright sunshine. Then we have to spend half an hour cruising around until we can find a hole to come back down through without alerting the Tower – whereupon I forget to raise my sun-visor and wonder why it is so dark.
*·    In order to set me up for practice in recovering from unusual positions under the hood, he takes it to the extreme. He performs several vertical rolls and other unidentifiable manoeuvres with my main gyros caged, and then leaves me hanging in my straps. Noticing that my airspeed is decreasing and my altitude is increasing, while the compass is going haywire, somehow I work out that I am inverted and climbing, and in due course manage to recover to something like straight and level flight. He seems satisfied, because he never tries it again.
*·    On the 14th of February he goes up solo and inscribes a huge heart in the sky in vapour trails (one of his more harmless pranks). It stays floating there most of the day.
*·    After lunch one day, I suspect that he is asleep in the back cockpit. I decide to wake him up. ‘Sir, what does your clock read?’ There is a sound of spluttering from the back cockpit. ‘Whassat, Lemesurier, whassat? Aarh, me clock! Half past two, whoy?’
*·    One weekend he offers me a trip across the now-distant Rockies to Vancouver. In view of the hours that this would involve sitting immobile in the fairly cramped cockpit, I respectfully decline. Besides, I also imagine that he may well decide to do a bit of hairy mountain flying, and that I shall then have to rescue him from the bar to fly him back home again.

Whether these memories are reliable I cannot possibly say. Certainly none of them appear in the official records – not even the attempted barrel-roll. So I shall just have to leave him sitting there hunched over his beer in the bar of my mind, and proceed with the rest of the course.

      I now go on a series of navigation trips, one of which takes me all the way north to a lonely outpost called The Pas. It is  long trip, and on the way I take to reminiscing... What am I doing all the way up here on my own, flying such a gleaming, advanced piece of equipment, when only a year or so ago I was still a schoolboy? Who would have thought that I could have volunteered to fly, passed all the preliminary tests, survived drill and PT, passed out from preliminary training, learned to fly Chipmunks, converted to noisy, smelly Harvards, survived a crash landing, come out top of the National Service class for flying, and then graduated on to jets -- albeit thanks more to luck and innate cleverness than to any physical toughness or natural ability on my part? Such letters as I receive from home suggest that the answer is 'Nobody'. My former school-friends are gobsmacked (if an aircraft flies low over the sports-field, they apparently shout 'Look out, here comes Lemesurier!'). The sports masters are still incredulous, the PT staff flabbergasted. The Head alone seems to take it in his stride. He even writes to me occasionally, imagining my new life of 'music and movement'. To the rest, however, I seem completely out of character. Or is this my character, and my former incarnation a fake? What will my present experience do to my idea of myself, my self-confidence, my prospects? It is all too much. There is no hope right now of getting my head around it all. The most I can do is concentrate on what I am doing and complete my present 'mission', as the North Americans like to call simple sorties.
    Before long I am approaching The Pas. Or at least, so my radio compass tells me. From up here there is absolutely nothing of note to see. Yet, all of 250 miles to the south, I can astonishingly still see MacDonald at the far end of Lake Manitoba. I am almost surprised when, in answer to my radio call, a lone voice comes floating up out of that vast wilderness to acknowledge my presence. But then I am quite lucky to be there to hear it in the first place, because I have forgotten to switch on my IFF (the aircraft’s Identification Friend or Foe transponder) and have no intention of undoing my straps so that I can reach the switch behind my right elbow. As a result, the US radars on which it is designed to leave a trace are presumably identifying me as an Unidentified Flying Object. Or perhaps they are not, and the system is purely a dummy designed to reassure the pilot? In which case I am slightly disappointed not to have been either intercepted or shot down…
    The long return leg takes me all the way out via Regina in Saskatchewan before homing me back eastwards towards MacDonald. So long is it that I start to wonder whether I have missed the station, or even overflown it. The snow-covered ground below offers little in the way of recognition marks. So I turn on the radio compass -- and there the station's beacon is, reassuringly still dead ahead of me. Assuming that nobody is watching me, I do an unauthorised roll to celebrate, then find myself penetrating the thin layer of cloud above me. On emerging, I find myself only about a hundred yards to starboard of another T-33 heading in the same direction. I just hope they didn't see me emerge, and quickly disappear again. It is nice to get back and have my feet firmly on the ground once more.
    Then it is back to the usual grind, including circuits and bumps of various kinds. There are landings with and without flaps, the latter being much less steep and causing the aircraft to float seemingly forever before finally touching down. There are practice forced landings, both with and without flaps. I have much fun twisting the trainee controllers' tongues by asking them to clear me for a 'practice flapless forced landing'. They rarely manage it.

     On one occasion the Wing Commander, a former Mosquito pilot who is extraordinarily keen on my organ-playing in the station Chapel (as, apparently, is his wife!), insists on flying with me. We spend almost all the time in the air discussing music, with occasional breaks while he tears a strip off ground control. On another trip, I am in the course of doing a let-down at about 10,000 feet when Greatrix, once more presiding from the front cockpit, suddenly says, ‘Lemesurier, in about fifteen seconds you’re going to hit the ground.’ I can’t believe it. It makes no sense at all. I feel totally disorientated. When I fail to react he says, ‘OK, Lemesurier, I have control. Come out from under the hood.’ When I do, there are pine trees rushing past either wingtip. It appears that I have misread the altimeter – by 10,000 feet! Later I am told that the design of the altimeter should make this impossible. Obviously I have missed something...

                   Leading a ground-controlled formation let-down through cloud: we start to see 
                           the snow-covered ground below coming up to meet us [Photo David Hill)

On another occasion I completely screw up in the circuit. There are two types of these. The so-called ‘open circuit’ of some twenty miles by ten culminates in a so-called ‘break’ right over the button (a kind of tight descending spiral, with wheels, flaps and dive-brakes going down one after the other and all kinds of bells and whistles sounding in the cockpit, the manoeuvre being designed to slow the aircraft down, throw any enemy pursuers off the scent and more or less land us on the runway). The so-called ‘closed circuit’, by contrast, takes place almost over the runway, and involves a kind of semi-loop straight off the end of it, with the power cut back to avoid shooting up too high, and designed to save fuel and put the aircraft directly on the downwind leg. In attempting one of these latter one day, I inadvertently cut the power much too far and too early, and finish up nearly inverted at circuit-height, but with an airspeed of only about ninety knots on the clock. Since this is too slow for the wings to take the weight of the aircraft, I decide to stay semi-inverted, shove on maximum power and allow the nose to complete its parabola towards the ground, in the hope that the aircraft will start flying again before it hits it. Fortunately, by the time it gets down to about a thousand feet it does – start flying, that is, not hit the ground – and I am able to regain altitude and continue with the circuit. Throughout, the admirable Greatrix, who is sitting in the back watching all this going on, doesn’t interfere – though I suspect that his hand is poised on the ejection seat’s so-called ‘banana handle’. Only when normality has resumed do I hear his laconic voice remark, ‘Lemesurier, if this were a Sabre, you’d be a hole in the ground.’ But nothing more is said.
    It is at around this time, too, that I experience a rather strange development. On returning from a perfectly incident-free solo flight one day, I find myself on Finals behind a large transport aircraft -- a relatively unusual sight at MacDonald. Scarcely have I registered this fact however, than my T-33 starts to be thrown about all over the sky. First one wing drops, then the other, and there is nothing I can do about it. My first thought is that that the hydraulic system that boosts the aircraft's aileron control has somehow gone haywire, so I experimentally turn the system off. This makes absolutely no difference, however, so I quickly turn it back on again. Yet there is no prospect at all of doing a landing under these conditions. And I don't want to bail out, either, as this would spoil the aircraft -- and might spoil me, too. So I call the Tower:
    'Nordic, Niner Eight One, overshooting with control problems.'
   There is no reply, so I abandon all thought of performing the usual 'break' over the runway-button and simply overfly the runway while waggling the wings -- a standard distress signal. No sooner have I stopped waggling them, however, than I realise that the only convulsions still occurring are being caused by me, not the hydraulics. Everything seems to have returned to normal. As I zoom back to circuit altitude I have a moment to mull over the incident, and soon realise what has happened: I have been caught in the transport aircraft's lingering slipstream, and particularly in the violent eddies left behind by its four propellers and/or the vortices created at its wingtips - all of them, of course, totally invisible and for that reason unexpected. I know perfectly well about the phenomenon, of course, but have never experienced it.
   Well, now I have. So I complete the circuit in the usual way and make a perfectly safe landing. On returning to the flight room, however, I am too embarrassed to say anything about it. After all, I don't want to be responsible for the groundcrew's having to take the aircraft apart...
   The time now comes for a number of flying tests. Despite the above incidents, the so-called Clear Hood Test rates my flying as ‘above average’. My aerobatics are rated as ‘very smooth and nicely done’, even though, during the course of the test, I actually attempt my first four-point roll, pausing at each 90° mark. I also treat the examiner to a Cuban eight (two half-loops connected by a roll-out and dive) and a cloverleaf (a sequence of four connected loops, each at right-angles to its predecessor, which, when done correctly, causes the aircraft to shudder satisfyingly each time it hits its own slipstream). This last manoeuvre takes quite a bit of time to complete, and so is particularly useful when I am required (as at present) to pad out an aerobatic sequence to a given length. The examiner’s only complaint is that I failed to tell him to lock his harness before I did the spin that he also required of me. Apparently he was thrown all over the cockpit. He sounds rather breathless as a result. Perhaps in revenge, he does a vertical eight on me, pulling 6G at the bottom. I duly reach the ‘dreams’ stage again.

    Nevertheless, I am evidently quite good at aerobatics. This is curious, because I cannot do acrobatics in the gym to save my life. But then, to be honest, I never use the facility at MacDonald anyway. At about this time I also do my final instrument test under the hood -- relying entirely on instruments such as the artificial horizon, the airspeed indicator, the rate-of-descent indicator and the turn-and-bank indicator, together with the altimeter and compass -- in which I am likewise rated as ‘above average’, and am described as ‘a confident instrument pilot who knows his procedures, thinks well in the air, and is well ahead of the aircraft at all times.’ Perhaps, Superman-like, I don’t need the plane at all, then?

So I seem to be developing into something of an intuitive pilot, responding to the aircraft’s needs, rather than to what I have been taught, as perhaps a bush-pilot might? If so, this has to be a good thing, since I am all too aware, for example, of what god-awful sailors most sea-cadets make who have been taught the ropes only by rote. For all I know this may apply to some of my more gung-ho colleagues, too, who seem more enthusiastic than they are competent. Nevertheless, I shall have to be careful, lest mere intuition lead me into fatal situations that basic, routine instruction is incapable of  rescuing me from.  

      By contrast, a number of the squadron, alas, are now chopped or recoursed, even at this late stage, including the universally admired Ted Portlock – in his case, I believe, because of airsickness. Cox and Hill are still with us, though, even though they nearly manage to crash headlong into each other in the climb-out when Cox’s instructor cuts his power and demands that he return to the runway to perform a practice emergency forced landing. They claim to have missed each other by no more than fifteen feet.

'Heading into the stratosphere' [Photo David Hill]

For my part, I have now been signed out for a ceiling of 500 feet and visibility one mile. I do let-downs at Portage-La-Prairie and Gimli, and frankly am feeling much better about flying now, despite being hauled up before the Squadron Commander for allegedly over-stressing an aircraft – negatively (anybody who knows my cautious approach to flying also knows how extremely unlikely this is, and so the damning G-meter reading is put down to a ‘bad landing’ – though I don’t remember that, either!). Only formation work and night flying now remain. Most of the formation-flights are four-plane, but on one occasion I participate in an authorised three-plane low pass over the station, with Viggers as the corresponding wing-man. Since this is something of a show-off performance, the formation has to be particularly tight, with a horizontal clearance of no more than about a foot between wing-tips, and roughly the same vertically. This last is much more difficult than when flying in simple line-ahead, when the correct clearance can be judged just by feeling for the lead aircraft's slip-stream through the rudders, and thus through the feet. The whole thing demands huge concentration and total trust in the leader (in this case Flying Officer Violette), since I have to concentrate purely on the lead aircraft, and not on the ground no more than a couple of hundred feet below. It is something of a relief when it is over. 

So here I am at last, at the controls of a potentially lethal war-machine. I don’t know whether guns are installed – though if so they have been covered up. But is this how I expected my National Service to end up? True, they are proposing to disband us after this, but it’ll only take another Middle Eastern flare-up or a change of mind by the Soviets to re-activate everything again. How shall I react if that happens? Am I even remotely capable of going to war? Even if I am capable of it, would I be able to screw up my courage that far? This was an outcome of my volunteering to fly during National Service that I frankly hadn’t foreseen. The very fact of my success would turn out, paradoxically, to be the very thing that I least wanted. I can only hope that things won’t go that far…

Entries from my log book from 14th to 21st February 1958
    Meanwhile night flying proves particularly rewarding, even though I usually find it difficult to judge my height on landing in the dark middle of the vast runway, and instead choose to land to the side, next to the runway lights, where I can actually see the ground by their light. And meanwhile we still have only six inches of snow, despite temperatures of anything down to -40°. This comes in the form of light showers, usually at night. After it, the first aircraft off in the morning (of which I am one on at least one occasion) tends to blast the runway clear on take-off. But with the temperature so low, the air is quite dense. This increases both the engine's power and the wings' lift, with the result that I only need to use the first part of the runway anyway. Consequently, on my return, I find the far part of it still covered with snow -- which wouldn't be good if I had to use it for braking. However, what applies to take-offs also applies to landings, in that only the first part of it tends to be used. So I can restrict myself to taxiing over it quite gingerly.
     Fortunately, daytime temperatures don't fall so low a to force us (as we gather they have forced some earlier squadrons) to climb into our aircraft in the centrally-heated hangar before closing the hood and being towed out to the flightline to carry on our business -- much to the peril of the groundcrew's ears and noses, I might add. But there is plenty of ice on the ground, and some of us, having cocked our nosewheels on it while taxiing (i.e. jammed them fully to right or left) reportedly try to free them by opening up full power against opposite brake, thus sending battery carts and groundcrew alike skimming helplessly across the frozen tarmac. Whilst aloft each night, however, we are greeted by a magnificent display of the Northern Lights, so leaving our ground-based problems far behind.
      This is not enough for some people, however. Reports reach us that members of our Canadian contingent at Portage-la-Prairie have actually been practising aerobatics at night -- a highly dangerous procedure given the danger of disorientation, and particularly of mistaking the lights on the ground for the stars in the sky. Others, we are told, have been flying low along the local highways at night with their landing gear down and their landing lights blazing so as to panic motorists into thinking they are being buzzed by UFOs. I have no means of checking these reports, though frankly I wouldn't put it past some of them.
     Perhaps it is the lack of snow that allows four of us to pay a visit in John Bewick’s car to ‘our’ navigators at Winnipeg. The evening proves convivial, but after it I (being the least ‘convivial’ of us) am obliged to take the wheel for the return trip. The roads having iced up again by now, I am forced to drive most of the way with the nearside wheels on the gravelly hard shoulder in order to retain some traction.

                                              Preparing to ‘sweep the skies for freedom’

For my last night trip, which is supposed to consist solely of circuits and bumps, they inadvertently fill up my enormous wing tanks to the brim, which means that I shall be unable to land until I have emptied them, for fear of breaking off the wings. Consequently I have to spend half the time flying around at low altitude with the dive-brakes extended and the flaps and landing-gear down to burn it off as quickly as possible. Always superstitious about things being likely to go wrong, if at all, on my last trip (which is only logical, after all!), I fear the worst. I manage to dispose of 200 gallons in about 20 minutes. But the subsequent landings and takeoffs go perfectly well, and I finish up landing directly behind Cox, who has just pulled off the runway. Something is holding him up, however, and so as not to obstruct the runway I have to pull up close to his tailpipe. Forgetting that the checklist tells me that, under such circumstances, I should switch my breathing on to 100% oxygen, I start worrying instead about whether the hot gases from his engine might cause my own to overheat and explode. Fortunately, nothing of the kind happens, and Cox moves off to the flightline, with me close behind.

I am the last of the MacDonald contingent to complete the course, just as, back at Kirton, I seem to have been the first of us to take to the skies. As we walk back to barracks together, we shake hands and congratulate each other on completing our training. I have a grand total of some 270 hours’ flying under my belt – not much by commercial or wartime standards, but quite enough for me! It is the sixth of March 1958.

                              Taken while leading ‘Cabman Reds’ at altitude on 2 February 1958:
                         working outwards, P/O Viggers, Flt/Lt. Leavitt (with instructor), P/O Hill

Greatrix’s final report describes me as ‘an above average pilot, and a wonderful musician.’ I cannot imagine how he knows about the latter, and wonder quite how much the music is likely to help when doing a final approach in fog, snow or cloud! There is, inevitably, a final mess party for the instructors and a final chapel choir practice for me, at which I am presented by its long-suffering ladies and gentlemen with a record of the Vienna Boys Choir and a beautifully engraved and generously autographed hymnbook -- which suggests touching optimism on their part that I would survive until the end of the course. A flight of planes from Portage buzz the station, and are quickly chased off again by our aircraft – but not before dropping a bunch of leaflets from their dive-brakes inviting us to a ‘fallen down gedrunken beer loaden party’, to which some of us duly go. There is also a final Wings parade which many of the choir kindly attend, and at which I forget to salute the presenting officer until I have advanced on him to have my wings pinned on – much to his apparent alarm. He quickly recovers himself, however, and duly does the necessary, and this time I remember to salute.
     It only remains for me to hand in my kit and say good-bye to O’Malley in the bar, and for us to be informed about our transport home via CNR, Montreal, Halifax, the Cunard liner Sylvania and the port of Liverpool (evidently the RAF still don’t trust aeroplanes!), and thence by steam train to RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire for our final discharge. As senior pilot, I am expected to supervise the trip, though this doesn’t protect me from another dose of dysentery on the Sylvania.  I duly report to the MO on arrival at Innsworth, and he mixes up some white liquid for me in a flask whose previous use he advises not to look into too closely. ‘What’s the dosage?’ I ask. His reply is suitably scientific – and characteristically and reassuringly RAF. ‘Oh, just take a swig when you feel like it’, he says.
    Curiously, while catching the train at Portage-la-Prairie, I notice that Featherstone, too, is leaving the station – though whether permanently or not I cannot tell. But then we don’t care. The world, after all, is our oyster. Hill, Viggers and I are bound for Cambridge (where I only meet Viggers once, and Hill not at all), Cox for St Andrews, most of the other Brits for a career in flying – and who knows where that will lead us?

                            Fiinal Wings parade: the ever-keen David Hill holds the Scroll of Honour



ON RETURNING HOME FROM CANADA, I take a week or two to recover, then embark on a term’s worth of supply-teaching – mainly in subjects I know nothing about. I also return to my previous organist’s job at a local village church.

St John’s College, Cambridge: the main gate (photo Andrew Dunn / Wikipedia Commons)

Then it is off to Cambridge, where I am to commence my studies in Modern Languages at St John’s College. Although David Hill, Peter Viggers and Ted Portlock are all in residence, I only see Peter briefly once, or is it twice – did he invite me to tea? Our paths and interests just never seem to meet. All my memories of our time in Canada quickly fade, until they are seemingly erased completely by the here and now. There are lectures (‘some of which’, my tutor explains, ‘you may wish to attend’), classes (‘which you ought to attend’) and supervisions (‘which you must attend, or you will be missed’). As he is a world-expert on primates, I refer to his collection of paintings both of and by chimps and rhesus monkeys, and congratulate him on taking such an interest in his past pupils. Meanwhile there are all kinds of clubs and extra-curricular activities – though I draw the line at joining any sports clubs.
            My real interest lies elsewhere. When visiting Cambridge for entrance exams before doing National Service, I managed to get a tootle on the magnificent organ at King’s College chapel, supervised by my former school-friend Philip Ledger, with the permission of the then organist Boris Ord, ‘provided (as he put it) you don’t make a filthy row’ (though only once everybody had gone home!). Now things on the musical front start to show even more promise. At St John’s I am able to gain regular access to the college’s own four-manual organ, complete with its blaring Trompeta real pipes sticking straight out of its casing, which students are forbidden to use for fear of frightening the horses. The instrument has only recently been rebuilt by (ironically) an organ-builder called Hill – and will subsequently be rebuilt yet again by Mander Organs. There are even more knobs and switches than on the T-33.
Meanwhile my roommate has joined the famous Cambridge Footlights as a musician and composer. Indeed, he has only agreed to share rooms with me on the grounds that I am musical enough to know what he is doing (mainly opera rehearsals), but unmusical enough not to care. It is at his behest that, when the official Organ Scholar falls ill with pneumonia, I am invited to stand in for the latter for six weeks, even though I have no special organ qualifications other than experience. This is a demanding business, involving (in one case) accompanying the choir (which is to all intents and purposes a celebrated cathedral choir) in Vaughan Williams’ D minor setting of the Magnificat while sight-reading the score. Needless to say, I get hopelessly lost half-way through, and plonk both arms down on the keyboard in despair. There is an unholy explosion of sound, followed by a shocked silence. Into it floats the mellifluous voice of organist George Guest from down in the Choir:
‘No, no, Mr Lemesurier. It’s a B flat, I believe.’

I suspect it’s really a joke, by way of a test. If so, I have failed it. But I imagine I did better than was expected. At all events, I still seem to be regarded with more respect than I really deserve, especially when I perform the magnificent Toccata from Boëllmann’s Gothic Suite after evensong one day. I also perform the near-impossible by accompanying Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord alway at the same time as conducting (on the basis of George Guest’s uncertain beat, relayed from the Choir down below) the string quartet that, unknown to the congregation, has been smuggled into the organ loft behind the scenes. This would be much better, I thought, than scraping music stands and cellos around on the chapel floor in the middle of the service, as usually  happens – though I gather that some of the congregation, unable to see any musicians, simply assume that the instrumental parts have been tape-recorded beforehand. At all events, somehow we all manage to finish together.

                          St John’s College Cambridge: the organ console (photo Mander Organs)

George usually asks me to play ‘a few well-chosen chords’ before the service, while he hangs over the balcony to see when the choir is coming. When it appears at the far end of the chapel, he expects me to thin down the ‘well-chosen chords’ to a single note, whereupon he vaults on to the organ seat, takes the note over with one finger and proceeds to play the choir in. Whether anybody ever notices the difference in style I don’t know. He may not realise it, but his ‘well-chosen chords’ are normally played above a pedal bass that merely descends by semitones. By the time he reaches the bottom of the pedal-board the choir are usually in position and ready to begin.
But then there is also the celebrated occasion when, while George and I are squabbling about what the next hymn is, we manage to drop the hymn-book down all four keyboards. In view of that, I am surprised that he allows me anywhere near the organ in future. No doubt that is why, whenever I am accosted in the hushed Junior Common Room by another former schoolfriend (and future University Orator), Stephen Fleet, he insists on demanding loudly and rather embarrassingly, ‘Hello Peter, how’s the organ?’
At about this time, while visiting Blois Cathedral in France, I am invited by its blind organist Roger Guyot to play for Mass. I also perform the Boëllmann again at the Easter service at St-Éloi, the ancient Protestant temple in Rouen. I receive no reports of people changing their religion as a result.
In due course I go on to gain my Associate Diploma at the Royal College of Organists, though only at the second attempt (many old codgers seem to make an annual pilgrimage of it). Among the signatures on it are those of Herbert Howells and William Lloyd Webber (father of composer Andrew and cellist Julian). But I lack the ambition to progress further in the profession, limiting my grander activities to officiating for a few weeks at the huge brick pile of St Bartholomew’s church in Brighton, complete with all its High Church smells and bells, when my teacher George Austin falls ill.
Meanwhile the modern languages seem to be going reasonably well, apart from the fact that, thanks to my having started the language very late, my German is intolerably weak and liable to fail me. In an attempt to improve it I seek out a temporary post as private teacher in Germany during the Christmas vacation just prior to my finals, and am met off the train in Berlin by a lady in furs, a chauffeur and a large Mercedes with the number ‘B3’. She turns out to be the wife of Pastor Heinrich Albertz, Secretary of State to Governing Mayor Willy Brandt (and later his successor). This ensures me a first-night ticket at the opera and visits to the Berliner Ensemble and to Spandau jail, where former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess is still banged up. I’m not sure that the Albertz children learn much English from me, but it seems to do the trick for my German, since I manage an upper second class degree – just! (Although my French is apparently outstanding, never in my life will I manage more than the bare minimum grade in German!). At Cambridge, the difference between a BA and an MA is currently a matter of three years and five pounds. This in due course qualifies me for a post as Head of Modern Languages in a large comprehensive school where I have deliberately worked ever since it was a Secondary Modern, and where I finish up presiding over two Language Laboratories with almost as many knobs and switches as the T-33 and the organ at St John’s. In the process, I  institute a series of in-term exchanges with French and German French schools that wins first national prize in the Fanfare For Europe competition held to celebrate Britain’s entry into the European Common Market in 1973.
But in time all this extra work starts to wear me out, despite having acquired a cruising multihull in which (thanks to the navigation that I leaned in the RAF) I complete over 5000 miles of coastal sailing between Whitby and Milford Haven over the years, taking in the French coast and the Channel Islands on the way. There are, inevitably, maritime incidents of varying danger, ranging from gales at sea to near-strandings, to say nothing of dangerous tide-races, but there are also lighter moments. I meet a trimaran sailor, for example, who confesses to being scared stiff by the boat that he has hired, and invites me to take him for a sail and show him the ropes. On bringing him back again, I discover that the jittery young man is a fellow RAF pilot and ask him what he flies. ‘Vulcans’, he replies.
            Eventually, exasperated by the growing and seemingly contradictory demands of the ‘educational’ system, I leave teaching. I also change my religion (having concluded that what goes on in church has next to nothing to do with Christianity), drop the organist’s job (necessarily!) and turn to writing instead. Yes, since you ask, they are mainly ‘weirdo’ books. The Great Pyramid Decoded allegedly sells around 100,000 copies (I say ‘allegedly’ because it is notoriously difficult to disentangle publishers’ sales figures from their publicity claims). Later, my agent suggests writing a book about Nostradamus, which I decline, having concluded after a cursory perusal that the French seer was obsessed and possibly sick. However, I do try translating one or two of his prophetic verses into English verse, which so far as I know has never been done before – and the process duly becomes addictive. It is rather like doing a daily crossword. In no time I am translating three or four quatrains a day (Nostradamus wrote at least 942 of them) – all thanks to the fact that I have been

studying 16th century French ever since my schooldays (unlike most alleged Nostradamus commentators, some of whom don’t know French at all!).

The first book, Nostradamus: The Next 50 Years, goes through six reprints and/or editions, and The Nostradamus Encyclopedia (sic – it is aimed at the American market!) manages to sell 62,000 or so. In the process, I am quickly turning into a reputed world ‘Nostradamus expert’ (not a difficult niche to fill, given his limited output), and am repeatedly invited by the Town Council of Salon-de-Provence, Nostradamus’s hometown, to talk on the alleged prophet in French, both there and at the Higher School of Translators and Interpreters in Brussels. The only problem is that my researches are rapidly leading me to the conclusion that the man wasn’t a prophet at all – as indeed he himself repeatedly admitted. He was merely projecting past events and other people’s prophecies into the future – the so-called ‘Janus technique’ – on the basis of the age-old belief that ‘history repeats itself’. The more I point this out in books and lectures, however, the less my books on him tend to sell, since it is his allegedly magical mystique that attracts the fans. I have effectively shot the goose that lays the golden eggs.

                            Salon-de-Provence: ‘helping Nostradamus write his Prophecies’

And my hosts at Salon-de-Provence aren’t too impressed, either.
To write and research all these books, meanwhile, I am by now using a common-or-garden computer. Except that, when I left teaching, home computers were by no means so common-or garden. When I left the RAF, they had never been heard of at all. By now, however, not merely computers, but the Internet and the World-Wide Web are coming into their own. The whole world is at my fingertips. As a result, the inevitable happens.
I receive an email from my old college, telling me that it has been contacted by somebody from Canada seeking to get in touch with me.
His name is… David Hill, Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Calgary University.
The very same!
When I reply, I discover that he has been getting together all my old air force colleagues – even including two of my Penhold instructors – into a kind of email forum. On top of that, plans are apparently afoot to hold a fiftieth anniversary squadron reunion. Moreover, thanks to the fact that our erstwhile colleague Peter Viggers is now a senior Westminster MP, it is proposed to hold it at Britain’s House of Commons!
I quickly signify my interest, and when, as a struggling author, I boggle at the price being asked for lunch, David Hill generously offers to pay for mine.

                         Those attending the London reunion [By courtesy of John Bewick]

The reunion duly takes place in September 2007. Some eighteen surviving members of former NATO squadron 5615 attend. Some have flown in from Australia, Canada and Norway to be there. The event is, as mooted, organised by David Hill (back left, waving camera in the air) and Peter Viggers (light trousers). Some of them are instantly recognisable, while others are hard to recognise at all. We are given a guided tour of the Commons by the official guides, who (forgetting that most of us are pretty doddery by now) forbid us to sit on the plush green seating, and blithely inform us that the Palace of Westminster is the ‘mother of parliaments’ (actually the expression was coined by one John Bright in 1865, and referred to England itself, not Parliament). Then we sit down to lunch and a lot of reminiscing. Achievements are magnified, speeds exaggerated, G-forces blown out of all proportion – in fact Tom Cox will later suggest that, typically, they tend to increase by one G every ten years. In the absence of a hoped for London get-together of our original car-crew (all of whom are present) the other three go on to the Shoreham air-show the following day, being put up overnight by Peter Viggers in what I imagine to be his mansion in Hampshire – which I find myself unable to do because of the complexity of the last-minute travel arrangements. However, I shall in due course visit Tom Cox on a couple of occasions, whose views and memories often accord with mine, at the home that he shares with his wife in Wiltshire – at least until age and infirmity start to make such trips difficult or inadvisable.

    Among those mentioned in this account who attend are:
David Hill, science consultant and Emeritus Professor at the University of Calgary (back, left, waving camera)
Tom Cox, former petroleum engineer in the oil industry (back, second from right)
David Turner, former airline and corporate pilot
John Bewick, former Fleet Air Arm pilot
Barrie Hall, former RAF pilot
Roy Humphreyson, Group Captain and former CO of RAF Brawdey, West Wales
Peter Viggers, merchant banker and senior Westminster MP (light trousers)
Peter Lemesurier (back, right), Nostradamus specialist and mainly ‘esoteric’ author.

Peter Viggers (foreground), Tom Cox (background) and I at the House of Commons reunion [photo David Hill]

The cycle, then, is complete. The pilgrimage, as every pilgrimage must, has returned to the place where it began. In the words of T S Eliot in Little Gidding (1942):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Man sits but short upon the throne of time
Short as a gull's call on the long grey shore --
A cry upon the wind;

A cry amid the mists that shroud the past,
Where men that lived and laughed and had renown
Lie silent in the tomb –

Proud kings and soft-voiced minstrels, mighty seers
And sages, dead for all their wise old lore --
So young and splendid once;

Their women too, roses whose brittle blooms
Lured many a man's heart to impale itself
Then, with the dew, were gone.

And we were young, and we are splendid still.
Must we, like them, entrust the falling years
To flesh we have not seen?

For day on livelong day goes slipping past,.
And though we seek to stem the flowing tide,
Will nevermore return.

And boyhood's laughter is already dead,
Already friends and faces that were loved
No more than memories.

Our days indeed are numbered, and our youth --
Though even sins, men say, may be redeemed --
Our youth, once spent, is gone.

But what lament is this? Does not the light
That shone of old shine all as bright today?
Are days, then, at an end?

See! Happiness lives on; days still shall be
When summer shadows sleep upon the grass,
And nights still full of stars!

Let us then feast our eyes, with this our faith
Upon the present, live, and laugh, and then
Turn down time's empty glass!

And die. For all things die. A timescape none
Has seen, except in death, shall hood the moon
And turn the sun to blood;

And man, if he would gain his journey's end,
Must plant his feet on surer ground, and seek
To ford time's flowing stream.

For Truth alone, that rides the burning heavens,
The Truth that stirs within the soul of man,
Can cross the dusts of time,

And fill the sunset of the world with peace
Till in the dusk there steals the beat of wings
Upon the evening air –

The fleeting soul that passes, with a cry,
Homeward upon its way, and heading out
Into eternity.

                                                                                                 PL 1956


Ten of the instructors and two of the commanding officers had already set out on their Final Mission at the time of writing, as had eighteen of my former student colleagues. Two of these are  mentioned in this account. In addition, the following former students and instructors are known to have set out into the Beyond since the preparation of this book:

Howard Aldridge

Ejnar Lundt

Ted Portlock

John Greatrex

For further details please see David Hill’s site at


featuring the pre-metric data that we knew at the time

De Havilland Chipmunk (original version)

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1-2
  • Length: 25 ft 5 in/7.75 m
  • Wingspan: 34 ft 4 in
  • Height: 7 ft in
  • Wing area: 172 ft²
  • Unladen weight: 1,517 lb
  • Maximum all-up weight: 2,014 lb
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 2,200 lb
  • Power plant De Havilland Gipsy Major 1C, 145 hp

  • Maximum airspeed: 120 knots at sea level
  • Cruising speed: 90 knots
  • Range: 225 nautical miles
  • Service ceiling: 15,800 ft
  • Maximum rate of climb: 900 ft/min
  • Wing loading: 11.709 lb/ft²
  • Power/weight ratio: .072 hp/lb

North American Harvard/Texan (basic version)


General characteristics

  • Crew: 1-2
  • Length: 29 ft
  • Wingspan: 42 ft
  • Height: 11 ft 8 in)
  • Wing area: 253.7 ft²
  • Unladen weight: 4,158 lb
  • Maximum loaded weight: 5,617 lb
  • Power plant: Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-1 Wasp radial engine, 600 hp


  • Maximum speed: 208 knots at 5,000 ft
  • Cruising speed: 145 mph
  • Range: 730 miles
  • Service ceiling: 24,200 ft
  • Maximum rate of climb: 1200ft/sec
  • Wing loading: 22.2 lb/ft²
  • Power/weight ratio: 0.11 hp/lb

  • Provision for up to 3× 0.30 in/7.62 mm machine guns

Lockheed/Canadair T-33 Silver Star (‘T-Bird’)


General characteristics
  • Crew: 1–2
  • Length: 37 ft 8 in
  • Wingspan: 42 ft 5 in
  • Height: 11 ft 8 in
  • Empty weight: 8440 lb
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 16800 lb
  • Maximum rate of climb: 6000 ft/min
  • Power plant: Rolls-Royce Nene 10 turbojet, 5000 lb
  • Jettisonable wingtip tanks weighing 1500 lb each when full: 2
  • Electro-hydraulic speed brakes: 2
  • Maximum speed: 570 knots (or Mach .83)
  • Service ceiling: 47000 ft
  • Maximum G-loading: positive +7.3/negative -3

St John’s College chapel organ, Cambridge

The organ has four manual keyboards and a pedal board. Counting from top to bottom, the manuals control the Solo, Swell, Great, and Choir organs. The buttons beneath the keyboards and above the pedal-board are infinitely adjustable combination pistons that can be programmed to select and withdraw selected groups of stops. The two swell pedals open and close sets of Venetian shutters enclosing the Solo and Swell organs to permit smooth increases and decreases of volume. The action has recently been re-converted to the old tracker variety comprising relays of solid levers.

In the following list, references in feet are to the notional length of the longest pipe in the rank.

The enclosed section contains five eight-foot stops (Viola da Gamba, Viola Celeste, Hohl Flute, Corno di Bassetto and Cor Anglais) and  one four-foot stop (Flauto Traverso)). The unenclosed section contains the eight-foot Tuba Mirabilis and externally-mounted Trompeta Real.

THE SWELL ORGAN (all enclosed)
This contains two sixteen-foot stops (Bourdon and Double Trumpet), six eight-foot stops (Open Diapason, Rohr Gedackt, Salicional, Voix Celeste [tuned slightly sharp to give a ‘dreamy’ effect], Oboe and Vox Humana), four four-foot stops (Principal, Stopped Flute, Cornopean and Clarion), one two-foot stop (Fifteenth) and two mixtures (Sesquialtera and Mixture) which play selections of harmonics to add brightness to the basic tones. There is also a Tremulant and a Solo to Swell coupler.

THE GREAT ORGAN (unenclosed)
This contains one sixteen-foot stop (Double Open Diapason), four eight-foot stops (Open Diapason I, Open Diapason II,  Stopped Diapason and Trumpet), four four-foot stops (Principal, Gemshorn, Wald Flute and Clarion), one two-and-two-thirds-foot stop (Twelfth), two two-foot stops (Fifteenth and Flageolet) and three mixtures (Full Mixture, Sharp Mixture and Cornet). There are also couplers to link Choir to Great, Swell to Great and Solo to Great.

THE CHOIR ORGAN (unenclosed)
This contains four eight-foot stops (Open Diapason, Gedackt, Gamba and Cremona), two four-foot stops (Principal and Flute), one two-and-two-third-foot stop (Nazard), one one-and-three-fifths-foot stop (Tierce) and a two/three rank Mixture There is also a Tremulant, plus couplers for linking Swell to Choir and Solo to Choir.

THE PEDAL ORGAN (unenclosed)
This contains two notional thirty-two foot stops (Subbass and Contra Trombone), six sixteen-foot stops (Open Diapason Wood, Open Diapason Metal, Dulciana, a Bourdon, Ophicleide and Fagotto), three eight-foot stops (Principal, Bass Flute and Posaune), three four-foot stops (Fifteenth, Flute and Clarion) and a four-rank Mixture. There are also couplers for linking Choir to Pedal, Great to Pedal, Swell to Pedal and Solo to Pedal.