Put your hands up in the air!
– My RAF Journey Part 14
Once at altitude, the general handling characteristics, with increasing levels of complexity, were demonstrated by the veteran flyers: pitch being nose up or down about an axis running from wing to wing for climb and descent, roll being the axis along the aircraft’s centreline for turning, yaw being movement of the nose perpendicular to the wings: the fundamentals. The vernacular of ‘Joystick’ had been abandoned by the RAF by those days and flight inputs were made by what was called the ‘control’ in your right hand for aileron and elevator variations, throttle at your left hand for engine thrust adjustments and rudder pedals at your feet for rudder directional adjustments. After each demonstration, control was handed over to you for the manoeuvres to be replicated, commented on as feedback from the back seat and repeated continuously. Improvements in precision were expected to be forthcoming at each iteration.
The one weak spot which screwed me initially – and I guess all of us – was trim. The trim control consisted of a knobbed wheel on the left of the cockpit which required rotational accommodation of the given airspeed to ‘trim’ the elevator (as a sub-elevator) in such a way that it was balanced to eliminate the input pressure on the controls. This always varies with airspeed and needs constant finessing. Most of the time, for the first few hours, you didn’t care a damn about such refinements with all the other overwhelming novelties at play. The instruction’ “Hands up” would be blurted from the back seat and you’d realise that you’ve been caught out and have to show your hands. To cover up for not being on top of the trimming setting, I would clench the controls between my legs to stop the aircraft from pitching on its own, but doubtless these veterans would know every trick in the book. You had this dreaded image of them scribbling notes about your every slip-up.
I found landing the Chipmunk easier than the take off. Even though it was a tail dragger which required a three-point touch down at just the right speed, for some reason the ability to sink on to the runway in the necessary attitude (nose up angle relative to air flow) came naturally to me. I was not sure, at all, how the rest of my abilities were developing.
Life on the ground was like a fantasy. I had only been a commissioned officer for a month, but it felt like a world of new-found respectability in an institution I had fallen in love with, and which represented everything my boyhood imaginings had conjured up – and more. My then best friend, John McFadzean – a Scottish mechanical engineering graduate – and I chose to share a room to split the mess fees. At night we would jump up and down on our beds, laughing in childlike hysteria, to release the incredible tension of the daily airborne challenges. For some reason, I still remember John’s FSS callsign – ‘November Zero Niner’ – but not my own.