On a roll in the RAF
– My RAF Journey Part 15
On a roll in the RAF
In the officers’ mess (a classical RAF architectural building in the tradition of an English country-house), life revolved around the mess pub. We did our best to befriend Cattle, Robinson, Winterbottom and Thorn over beers, but they were not open to any attempts at sycophancy which could influence their assessments of our competencies. Related to this incorruptibility, at this point I would like to share an observation at the time which has influenced me ever since: the RAF’s utter non-negotiability of integrity in all things – no matter what.
On weekends I would take long walks on my own, around the Swinderby village and countryside. The emerald greenness of the fields and forests struck me most after the contrast of SA’s austere landscape. It was the best therapy to escape the intensity of the exponential learning curve in the skies above. It felt like living in an A.A. Milne story for a couple of days a week: Ye Olde England.
Back in the air, everything seemed to be falling into place. The envelope was pushed each time we got airborne to more uncomfortable levels such as learning aerobatics, stall & spin recoveries. ‘Getting it’ just happened naturally. There is this indefinable moment, on all aircraft types, when all the energies suddenly popped from being at war with agonizing internal cockpit-fixation struggles to external awareness, three-dimensional orientation and being at one with the sky. Hard to describe, but a euphoric sensation indeed. Flying circuits became the new drill: following a ‘Racecourse’ pattern at 1,000 feet, descending turns onto finals, touching down, powering up, taking off (collectively referred to as “Roll” in the RAF, unlike the more widespread US “Touch & go” parlance), ascending turns back to 180° downwind and repeating. Speaking of downwind, one memorable quirk was John’s and my ridiculous made-up mnemonic for downwind checks: “Motherf#@&ing Hating Bastard”, which in our memory code stood for Mixture (fuel), Flaps, Hydraulics and Brakes. It was an absurd idea we had conjured up while lying in bed at night, but it clearly worked and can still recall it today.
Ultimately, there were even spaces for musings, rather than just ‘polling’ an aeroplane: for example, I felt for the white-haired gurus in the back seat. They must have been terribly bored dealing with the endless streams of novices after being at the top of their games in the aerial battles of the early 40s. But, as I was later to experience, the RAF is an institution where you can easily become ‘Institutionalised’ and stuck in the system, which narrows life’s options for many. On short finals, I became aware of a huge oak tree on the port side and began pondering on this being the very same tree the Wellington pilots would have encountered on their returns from bombing sorties over France – and later Germany.