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LEARNING TO FLY SOLO

Charles Barker-Benfield

First learn to swim

Bear with me on this – it may seem a bit of a stretch first to learn to swim but it worked for me: having learned to swim, I progressed to sailing – the idea being that if you fell into the water you’d swim back to the boat, get in and carry on. Or the boat would come back to pick you up, assuming always there was someone else still in the boat to do that and that meanwhile you had managed to stay afloat by swimming.

I should introduce some context here: swimming was learned at a reasonably early age with my mother’s encouragement in the outdoor pool at the Box Hill Hotel. And I have a photograph showing me swimming with my mother in the sea off Hong Kong at an even earlier age. So, swimming = tick thanks to my mother’s encouragement.

The progression to sailing involved first learning the basics in a heavy wooden craft then developing further skills in a wine glass dinghy (a fast two seater with fibreglass hull and a low transom through which water flows out as you speed on), all whilst in the Sea Scouts – the somewhat rarer nautical arm of the Scouts.

And whilst in the Sea Scouts and on discovering my eligibility to apply, I applied to participate in the Royal Navy’s Flying Scholarship scheme – an opportunity to learn to fly courtesy of the Fleet Air Arm. Can anyone remember the car sticker: “Fly Navy”? Thus swim, sail, fly.

So, having applied in the spring of 1970, I found myself accepted for assessment at Biggin Hill airfield where a batch of applicants on the RNFS scheme were put through a lot of aptitude tests: mathematical and other problem solving, hand-eye coordination skills, reasoning tests, medical and eyesight tests, measurement of height, weight, length of arms and legs… An intensive day spent being examined, measured, tested. My parents had disappeared, probably to a decent pub, and returned to collect me at closing time.

After which followed the summer of 1970: the Isle of Wight Festival with 5 friends (another story), and various other distractions of interest to a 16 year old until suddenly, in the autumn, a letter arrives to confirm the award of the Flying Scholarship, sponsored by the Royal Navy, no strings attached (nobody had slipped me the King’s shilling) and ready to be undertaken once I’d reached the qualifying age of 17. I was really pleased with that.

The first opportunity to progress to training came in the summer of 1971. Arrangements were made to join the private pilots’ training course run by the Fleet Air Arm at Kidlington airfield near Oxford. Military uniform to be worn. Which in my case was an extremely hairy set of battledress fatigues, rapidly swapped for a hairless cotton equivalent.

As the date of the course approached, my father commented that as I’d never actually been in an aeroplane before, ever, it might be a good idea to try it out, just to be sure I didn’t suffer from airsickness or a chronic fear of flying which no one knew about.

I had to report at Kidlington by 1400 hours on Sunday 11th July so on Saturday 10th he drove me to Fairoaks airfield and we took a half hour “test” flight in an Islander.

(Note: he drove me. I hadn’t started driving lessons at this point either, but we weren’t worried about driving at this stage).

And the flight in the Islander went fine – I was really impressed by the way the ground fell away on take-off but quickly got my bearings.

The next day we drove to Kidlington; I met the course director John Fensome, RN, who at 3.40 that afternoon took me for a twenty-minute familiarisation flight in a Piper Cherokee (Tango Mike). And I met the two other trainees who’d been there a week already. Two flights in two days seemed intense, but that wasn’t the half of it when my course began in earnest on the Monday.

Exercise 14

Mr Fensome was probably around 40 when he was running the training school in 1971 (it’s hard to judge ages when you’re only 17; anyone who is older than you is either old, or very old). And he knew a thing or two which explains why he was doing the training. I reckon he was the most relaxed instructor on the course, but that didn’t mean he was unfocussed.

The course progressed through a mix of classroom teaching – the theory of flight, the physics of lift and drag, how flight controls work in an aircraft, calculating projected drift from forecast wind speeds, to the more practical skills – how to read a map strapped to your knee and navigate a course across country whilst keeping the plane at a constant speed in level trim and flying in a specific direction for a predetermined time, whilst reading the instruments and keeping lookout for other aircraft, whilst operating the radio and communicating with the appropriate control tower, and avoiding no fly zones, and… etc. (The word ‘multitasking’ might have been in its infancy in 1971 but that didn’t mean that nobody could).

In the training manual the flying exercises were numbered 1 through 18, the key ones being: 1. Familiarisation with the aircraft; 2. Preparing for flight; 4. Effects of controls; 6. Straight and level flight; 7. Climbing; 8. Descending; 9. Medium turns; 10. Stalling; 11. Spinning; 12. Take off and climb; 13. Approach and landing.

Each had various sub sections (10.1 Basic stalls; 10.2 Advanced stalls; 11.1 Basic spins; 11.2 Advanced spins).

All except exercise 14 which was simply: First Solo.

Every exercise before and everything after was given appropriate detail. But exercise 14 stood out simply and starkly for what it was – your first solo flight in an aircraft under your sole control to test the key skills: preparing for flight, take off, climb, turn, climb, straight and level flight, turn, descend, turn, approach and landing. One circuit under your own steam. Preferably avoiding stalling, spinning, emergency descent and forced landing (with or without power). And I was very pleased to note that as the forced landing section was numbered 17 it was clearly not anticipated before exercise 14: First Solo.

I had a quiet word with the other trainees – roughly when in the overall scheme of things would it be likely for the first solo normally to occur, could they say…? About a third the way through the course, say 12 hours’ flying experience was their reply. So armed with this information I kept a close tally as my hours built up.

Monday 12th July was day one of the course and I clocked up 1 hour 35 minutes flying time under instruction with Mr Fensome. By the end of Thursday 15th this had risen to 8 hours 40 minutes and on the Friday all of us (three trainees plus Mr Fensome) were scheduled to spend the day at Sywell, a small grass airfield near Northampton. We left Oxford at 10.30 flying Cherokee Juliet Sierra. I was sitting in the back and – without duties – was able to enjoy the view.

But I knew it wouldn’t be that long before I was to make my first solo flight and was getting quite anxious about it. So after we landed I asked Mr Fensome when my first solo flight was likely to be. “Not today” was his answer. Relieved, I relaxed, and was able to concentrate on my next two training flights with the instructor, practicing exercises 12 and 13, becoming familiar with the Sywell circuit, flying first for 45 minutes at 11.30 then 30 minutes at 3.15, each of us rotating in turn.

In a Cherokee the trainee pilot sits on the left, the instructor on the right (the right being the same side as the door). After landing at 3.45 we taxied to the edge of the field and stopped. ‘Right’ said Fensome, ‘off you go: one circuit, solo’, and he got out.

I didn’t have time to be worried: I completed my checks, taxied to the runway, was cleared for take-off by the tower and was away: take-off, climb to 500 feet, turn 90 degrees left, continue climb to 1,000 feet, turn 90 degrees left and level off; fly downwind, complete downwind checks, turn 90 degrees left, deploy flap and begin descent, turn 90 degrees onto final approach and land back on the grass strip. Taxy back, park and shut down.

Fensome had watched it all from the tower. I was buzzing – the solo was a fantastic experience – and the best part of it was there was nobody else in the aircraft telling me what to do.

My instructor had judged it perfectly, knowing how to distract and when to launch me over the hurdle I’d managed to build up for Exercise 14 – on day 5, with 9 hours 55 minutes on the clock and a quiet word in my ear. He’d impressive judgement, that man.

Cross country running

I mentioned navigation earlier. For years my father and I had driven west to visit his parents who lived in the mid-Devon village of Morchard Bishop; this was before many of the dual carriageways were built so the journey was always long and it helped to have an alternative route as plan B if the roads were clogged up. Plan B could be invoked at any of many points on the journey (there were in fact many plans B), but essentially all we’d do was take off into the hills, stop and ponder the map if we got lost, and get there, eventually.

That sort of navigation doesn’t work so well in an aircraft, not least as you can’t stop and ponder the map if you get lost (I have a lost procedure guide which states that "aviators are seldom lost but fairly frequently become uncertain of their position" which is reassuring now to know). Nevertheless, just pondering the map whilst flying at 100 knots with a cross wind moving you in a different direction can be quite tricky – particularly if the features you spot on the ground bear no relation to what is marked on the map (which happens every time your position over the ground is different to what you believe it to be on the map, i.e. when you are indeed well and truly lost).

So the solution, in aviation terms, is simply to radio for help – you ask for the direction to fly in order to arrive back at your airfield of origin (for example). And cover your surprise when you discover the direction given is markedly different to that in which you were flying.

My first solo cross-country flight involved plotting a route from Oxford to Moreton in Marsh to Edgehill to Barford to Enstone and back to Oxford. The route was planned in the classroom, marked on the map with a chinagraph pencil, with flying times calculated to allow for wind speed and direction, noting changes of radio frequency and then, when ready, flown.

I recall becoming very uncertain of my position within 5 minutes of starting, returning to the Oxford circuit and beginning again. The reason I was lost? Momentarily distracted by the joy of flying solo, missing a landmark on the ground and becoming disoriented. Easily done. It didn’t happen again, and the round trip took an hour to complete. Later, as part of the final examinations, I flew a triangular route between Oxford, Sywell, Staverton (Gloucester) and back to Oxford, landing first at Sywell then at Staverton to have my flight card countersigned by each of the tower controllers and completing the course in a couple of hours.

I finished my training on Wednesday 28th July, two and a half weeks after that very first flight in the Islander when on take-off the ground had fallen away as if by some magical illusion. I had qualified as a private pilot with a licence to fly the first (by weight) class of single-engined aircraft. And four weeks after that, on Wednesday 25th August, my father and I returned to Oxford to give that licence its first flight.

Vulcans at 11 o’clock

Looking back now from some considerable distance but with rather more clarity, my father must have had great faith and no fear. He never mentioned any anxiety, particularly of the sort I had suffered in the run up to my first solo flight. And mine had all gone by then. I’d learned how to fly an aircraft safely, to navigate across country, to bring it back to base. Many years later I found some photos he’d taken of me checking the aircraft over before our flight (it was the one I’d flown most whilst training – Kilo X-Ray).

So we took off and flew around for half an hour much as we’d done in the Islander. But this time we were over Blenheim, taking in the Oxfordshire countryside: I was flying and my dad was now my passenger. I was able to explain what was happening, show him something I’d learned to do and demonstrate the beginnings of some independence. (Only the beginnings mind, I still didn’t have a licence to drive a car and wouldn’t have time to learn that till the following year. But beginnings).

And whilst we were enjoying the view (and always with a keen lookout) we saw another aircraft, on the same level (bearing slightly left of straight ahead) and flying towards us: a Vulcan bomber, landing lights on for added visibility. I didn’t pause to think before engaging full throttle into a steep climb and turn; then, after quickly gaining height, we flew away. And never saw the Vulcan again.

Later, I wondered which aircraft its pilot had encountered the first time he'd flown with his new wings and his first passenger – and happily bet it wasn't a Vulcan.

Charles Barker-Benfield

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