The art of the ‘sport-of-kings’
– My RAF Journey Part 13
So why were we engaged with an already obsolete aircraft, without adequate training, being vaguely guided on the art of the ‘sport-of-kings’ by gentlemen from a bygone era? Pure economics. As the failure rate to make it to the highest order of operational aircraft in the RAF was 97%, the costs were staggering and some intentional culling at the outset was necessary to root out approximately 30% of prospective pilots who lacked the natural aptitude to reasonably make it through to the many subsequent phases that required comprehensive flying training investments. And who better to intuitively know such distinctions of inherent competence of novices – or ‘Ab initios’ (Latin for ‘From the beginning’) as we were called – or lack thereof, than by seasoned BoB fighter pilots?
But we were not made aware of this dispassionate filtration system until after the FSS program, when three of our ten were “Chopped” – a deadly label that was to remain with us for years to come, like a Sword of Damocles, all the way through to wings.
Flying the Chipmunk was therefore particularly awkward in this left-to-hang-out-and-dry, deliberate system of neglect: a Baptism of fire. The basics were taught largely on a monkey-see-monkey-do basis, where you were assessed on your abilities to comprehend the instructions, grasp the fundamentals and the rate to which you displayed developmental potential. It was more a case of being judged than nurtured. And it showed: nothing flowed automatically in the disorientating newness of it all.
The pre-flight checks were shown to you, rather than taught to you. The engine was fired up by a shotgun cartridge like a cough of an uncertain, vintage machine which rattled when throttled up. Taxiing was the cause of much mirth, as the steering system comprised a graduated handbrake mechanism on both wheels, where the rudder pedals served to apply differential braking to the extent to which you had selected the handbrake’s intensity (sorry for getting a bit technical here, but there is no other way of describing it). This archaic system led to a propensity to spin (rotate around the yaw axis) on the taxiway, more commonly than not. Being a taildragger, the classical yaw due to the torque of the propellor in the takeoff was an endless challenge to balance and staying on the runway, let alone the centreline was – let’s just say, rare. Before knowing what was happening, you would often veer off the tarmac entirely and bounce across the grass: seemingly horrifying, but perfectly within the Chipmunk’s robust flight parameters. But it would eventually pop into the air and settle into a stable climb while the knees were still knocking after the charades of the undignified sequence of events since leaving the apron.