FINAL APPROACH: “The beast flies up in them.”
I remember him saying in the most offhand way that he’d crashed an airplane into the House of Lords. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke, but it turned out to be true, almost true. His plane stalled and lost altitude over Parliament Bridge but swung away, just missing Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster on a foggy evening in November, 1936. He managed to follow the wavering line of the Thames towards an RAF base in Heston, but the engine sputtered and conked out completely as it glided over Borehamwood, quiet as a sparrow. An elderly resident of Broughinge Road contacted the police after she heard loud splintering followed by an earth-trembling thud behind her cottage in the wooded end of Meadow Park, seventeen miles north of London. She hurried outside but felt too frightened to look up. “Surely, no one will have survived,” she said to the constable who arrived ten minutes later. The fuselage was crumpled vertically among the saplings, sticking straight up, aileron and elevator sheared off, propeller and engine scrunched into the cockpit.
I missed the sign on A63 but took Welton Road and circled back past housing estates, a fish-and-chip shop called Medici, past Barclay’s and Morrison’s, to the intersection with Skillings Road and turned left across the railway tracks to the old RAF aerodrome. God knows, it’s not a place you’d ever think to go on your own, in rainy Yorkshire weather, driving a rented Vauxhall Astra up slippery M1 to M18, east on M62, through Goole towards Hull, but it’s a part of history, his story, a missing part that I wanted to see for myself.
The original 1930s Aero Club is still in tact with white stucco walls, recently restored as a commercial complex. The airfield’s a pleasant pasture with wild flowers growing in clumps here and there among red boundary markers. A paved runway looks much the same as my father’s day, lengthened considerably but still branching off the river at a 30-degree angle. The old clay pits have been turned into a bird sanctuary and a concrete pillbox stands guard at one end of the property, last vestige of war, painted in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern. A collie races up the footpath that separates the river from the airfield. “The drums of war were beating and someone had to respond. I did. Not with enthusiasm but with a grim sense of duty,” wrote my father fifty years after the fact. He’d seen a notice in the Student Union calling for young men to train as pilots in the Royal Air Force. The Hawker Hurricane was just off the assembly line and the Spitfire made its maiden flight at Eastleigh. But while drums may have been beating, they were distant drums. Actual war was another three years off so it wasn’t so much a grim sense of duty that drove him to the recruitment office on Dumbarton Road that day, as a humiliating lack of funds to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow. His father didn’t have the 24 pound to pay the next semester’s tuition, thereby interrupting his plan to become a missionary doctor in China, as inspired by Eric (“the Flying Scot”) Lydell, the great track and rugby star who’d won Olympic Gold but renounced a life of athletic glory to work among the peasants of Tientsin, China. If my father couldn’t be a missionary doctor in China he’d be a dashing pilot in the RAF. He signed up in the Fall of 1936 and went for training in Hatfield, Hertfordshire at the De Haviland School of Flying. (The RAF was still farming out its training to private flying schools.) They felt his pulse, drew blood, peered down his throat, poked something up his ass, told him to blow into a rubber tube and hold his breath for sixty seconds. They tested him for balance and color blindness. They tested his night vision by making him sit in a darkened booth with a restraining collar around his neck naming various shapes that popped up on a screen. He’d expected a regimented and Spartan routine but Hatfield was more country fair than air force base. It had a fancy restaurant, swimming pool, squash courts, putting greens and “en-tout-cas” tennis courts. (“Riding lessons and hacking can be arranged at the Aerodrome.“) In fact, it was operated as a country club and RAF trainees were given temporary membership, but a few weeks later my father was posted to No. 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School), in Brough, Yorkshire, not far from Hull and moved into a damp Nissen hut near the gasworks and railway bridge. In the morning he did physical training and in the afternoon he attended lectures on navigation, aircraft recognition, Morse signaling and air gunnery. He flew his first solo in a Blackburn B-2 “Lizzie” with dented metal fuselage. An afternoon haze hung over East Riding as he flew east above the Humber, singing to himself, over a bend where the river split around a knuckle-shaped spit, silver light slanting off tidal markers, riffles, wind streaking the water a gray willow hue, reed warblers flitting over salt marsh and brackish lagoons.
The other trainees continued to Goole at the confluence of the Ouse and Trent Rivers and further out to the foothills of the Wolds, but my father turned and banked the B-2 over a line of shadowed mounds made by Roman ruins, suffering a headache after late night at Ferry Inn, same crowd–Ratcliff, Langford, Mackenzie–but an unpleasant buzzing “at the roots” of his eyes. (He’d had two strange falls the same week, scrapes on both elbows and a gash on his knee.) Colored specks, miniscule angels, clustered in the retina, were occluding his line of sight and he had the premonition of himself and his fellow pilots falling from the sky, their unholy lives on fast forward, as if flickering through the broken projector in the Officer’s Club, all racing to their graves. And they were. Four died before final training. Another eleven perished by the fall of 1940, which made fifteen out of the original twenty-four. (My father would have been number sixteen if he hadn’t been so lucky.)
He could see where the river narrowed and made a natural crossing–the Romans called it Petuaria–where fingerling sandbars stretched out from the banks as he continued his descent over tidal swales, drainage canals and dry sedge. The landing field came up abruptly at an angle after the heiroglyphic outlines of Welton Waters, an abandoned clay pit where fragmented pools of water glistened with oil and puffy, iridescent reflections.
Above the door of the so-called Pilot’s Hall hung a rather Masonic looking insignia hand-painted with wings and bull’s-eye above a billowing explosion (or was it a parachute opening?) with zigzagging bolts of lightning and a seven-pointed star gleaming from the top. Inside, Dr. Ingle, M.O. from Hull, was having his tea wondering if he should have grounded A.C.2 Gordon, just as A.C.2 Gordon completed a near perfect three-point landing and taxied up to the corrugated hangar. He waved at Goudie, the welterweight engineer from Inverkip, and waited for some sign or compliment but got nothing. Goudie was distracted. Goudie was enraged. He threw his monkey wrench and kicked the landing gear of an old Shark Torpedo Bomber, screaming “Fucking Fucker’s Fucked!!” loud enough so that everyone in Brough, even dead Romans, could hear.
I couldn’t see my father in this place, no matter how many times I walked the perimeter of the field and tried to imagine him gliding over the mud flats on his final approach. He was clumsy with tools and all things mechanical. He had trouble putting up a Christmas tree or changing a lightbulb. He was surprisingly clumsy, beyond the normal big-man clumsiness, and whenever he fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase or cut his hand on the lid of a can, it was extreme, with curses, blood, stitches and bruises that often took weeks to heal. I just couldn’t imagine him operating one of those machines.
In the late 1990s I stumbled upon a box in my parent’s attic that contained a manila envelope stuffed with RAF memorabilia: letters from the Air Ministry in London; a “Certificate of Competency” (No. 11002,) bound in blue leather with a silk tassel issued on November 14, 1936, stating that my father was certified to fly any type of land plane except for “public transport or aerial work flying machines.” There was also a ragged shoulder patch with silver wings and the RAF emblem as well as a photograph of twenty-two trainees posing in front of a De Haviland biplane. It must have been early in the program because they were still dressed in civilian clothes. My father stands taller than the rest, over on the left, wearing an old jacket that’s too tight over a turtleneck sweater. He seems a bit baggy and unkempt compared to some of the others who look like proper Oxbridge gents, entitled, dressed in tweed jackets, club ties, neatly folded pocket handkerchiefs, hair waxed and parted. My father was the son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper, not highborn, dropped out of university, played rugby, joined in the occasional pub brawl, and still spoke with a broad West Highland accent.
All the pilots had signed the back of the photograph, each in his own stylized script: D.G. Ractliff, A.B. Landgford, D. Mackenzie, T. Krikwood, and Freddy Langford who wrote his name with an almost Elizabethan flourish and wore his hair brushed back in a casual wave. A few of them were “spoiled sods,” according to my
father, especially Ratcliff and Harvie who acted like public school boys. Henry Hind was not a snob and considered the most talented pilot in the squad. (His father was someone high up in the Air Ministry.) Harry McDonald was an odd-ball loner, tall and gaunt, who spoke like an Englishman but came from a middle-class background in Glasgow. In the photograph he stands stiffly next to my father with a pale face and eyes shut, an uncanny premonition of things to come.
I was shocked when I found the photograph of the wrecked plane taken at night in the lurid flash of the Fox Photos camera. How had he survived? All the branches and saplings must have slowed his descent and softened the final impact, gashing holes through the wings and fuselage. He hardly ever talked about the crash because it didn’t fit with the rest of his war narrative. It hadn’t ended well. His head slammed into the padded console and four of his front teeth were knocked out, punching through his upper lip. He fractured his skull, broke his collarbone and spent three months at the RAF Officer’s Hospital in Uxbridge where he lay around in a plaster cast, smoking, reading magazines and flirting with one of the nurses. In one account he wrote that the plane suffered “metal failure” but it seems clear that he either ran out of fuel or blacked out. (One of the letters from the medical board inferred as much.) Whatever the cause, the Air Ministry made it clear that he wasn’t welcome back in the program. The photo appeared in the morning papers along with a sensational account of reckless RAF pilots, no names mentioned, and how “they” endangered public safety. (There’d been a fatal crash a few weeks earlier in Slough.) Upset about the bad publicity, upset about the loss of an expensive plane, the Ministry released my father as “unlikely ever to reach the standard of fitness required for aerial duties in the Royal Air Force, and they (the RAF Central Medical Establishment) regret that it is therefore necessary for you to relinquish your appointment on account of ill-health,” suggesting that he consider trying for a different branch of the armed services, signed Your obedient Servant, J.M. Wright, Air Ministry, Adastral House, Kinsway, London, W.C.2.
After leaving hospital in Uxbridge he was allowed to renew his pilot’s license but repeated pleas to the Air Ministry went unanswered. Some of his fellow pilots were discharged like himself, others died in training or went on to become heroes in
the Battle of Britain. (Only a few would survive the war.) He rather morbidly and methodically recorded their fates on the back of the photograph from 1936, writing the event and date in his own miniscule script beneath each name: Crashed. 16th Nov. 1936, below his own name while under his friend Harry McDonald he wrote simply: Killed. 11th Sept. 1937, with no further explanation.
I drove out to Uxbridge from London on a rainy Saturday but arrived a month too late. The old RAF base had already been decommissioned and the wreckers were making way for a shopping center and housing estate. There were no dashing young pilots lounging about in silk scarves lighting one another’s cigarettes, nothing like that. In fact, there wasn’t much to see at all, just a decrepit hangar and a few of the original brick barracks laid out like a borstal school. Windows were boarded over and the concrete steps leading up to the old hospital had caved in. I walked across the rain-splattered tarmac wondering why I’d bothered to come. Like any son, I always wanted to hear about my father’s adventures but I also wanted to know about his mistakes, his troubles, not just the heroic parts. He had a hard time admitting failure and tended to turn everything in his life into a kind of Biblical allegory. I certainly don’t want to add to the allegory, but whenever I think or dream of myself in his shadow, whenever I think or dream of my own son, I imagine a continuum of sorts. I see my father’s crumpled plane and the northern wildness in his eyes. I see myself and I see my son. Perhaps I’ve come out here to find a moment when he was mortal and grounded just so I can walk through that ineffable break in space and throw my arms around him.
This is the first in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.See also: