Tag Archives: Aviation

Cessna Skyhawk

After so many serious posts, here is something cheerier.

After writing so much about flying, it was time to actually take to the skies. I spent a very happy hour at the controls of a sweet little Cessna Skyhawk called G-LOOC. Although I was fairly hopeless, it was simply wonderful to be in the air with the controls in my hands. The forecast predicted rain, but the weather held back and afforded beautiful views of the English Channel and South Downs.

If time and money allowed, I’d be back up again tomorrow. As time and money do not allow, I have occupied myself with a sketch of this dandy aircraft.


Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

The Tangmere Military Aviation Museum was established in 1982 on the historic RAF Tangmere airfield. Tangmere was the sector station for the embattled 11 Group and was also home to many record breaking aircraft in the post war years.

With such a rich history in aviation, it seemed sensible to investigate the museum. 

I was greeted by a team of earnest volunteers (all chaps over the age of 60), who quickly ushered me into the ‘screening room’. Before being unleashed on the exhibits, all guests are encouraged to endure a shabby little video made in 2007. The museum is really only two rooms, but the film takes at least 10 minutes to explain how you should find your way around.

Overall, the museum has the feeling of a neglected attic. The displays look handmade, dusty and faded. Most of the aircraft are replicas. The ‘simulators’ aren’t  a patch on what you’d find on a modern video game. And, for me to take my family in, cost £25…

It was a sad place, because you can feel the intensity of the volunteers as they try to preserve history. What will happen when this current wave of custodians are no longer able to unlock the doors and take in dreary groups of school children? I noticed that their leaflet asks for anyone with web development skills to get in touch (the internet age is just beyond their reach. Their website advertises out of date events and is littered with broken links). A sign at the gates, which is covered in weeds and flaking paint reads: “For sale: former aircraft hangar”. In this museum, you can see that the War is bleaching away from living memory with every passing day. It takes energy, creativity and investment to preserve the past.

But, if you take the time, and look at each artifact on its own, there were some fascinating items languishing in the crowded cabinets. Perhaps the best bit that I discovered was a voice recording of a Lancaster crew on their bombing run over Germany. You could hear the pilot, navigator and bomb aimer speaking to each other over the intercom. It was haunting to listen to their voices as they went about their work. The accents and manner of speaking were far removed from modern inflections. They were so calm. I listened to the recording several times and had a chill down the spine.

In short, if you are passing near Chichester and have a bit of time on your hands, the museum is worth a visit- close your eyes to the overall effect and instead look for a lost relic in amongst the chaos.

Download the Tangmere museum brochure

High flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941) was an American aviator and poet during World War II. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States officially entered the war. He is most famous for his poem “High Flight”.  

Magee enclosed the poem on the back of a letter to his parents.

Magee was killed at the age of 19, while flying Spitfire VZ-H, serial number AD-291.

Part of the official letter to his parents read: “Your son’s funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honours, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron.”

A Canadian training

A first-hand account of training in the depths of a Canadian winter, extracted from the Bomber Command website:

‘There was a great response in Western Canada to the British Empire Air Training scheme. All the flying schools in Canada became training centres under the supervision of the airforce. There was a big manning pool opened in Edmonton where I lived. We stayed there a few weeks, but they didn’t have any stores or uniforms. We finally got kitted out and we had to go to different stations on what they called Tarmac Duty, or guard duty. I went to a service flying school in southern Alberta, where I was driving a tractor. Then they opened an Initial Training School at Saskatoon and we went over there on one of the coldest days of the winter. I had not been issued with a great coat, and we had to march 2 or 3 miles up the road to the training station.

Most of the navigation instructors were ex-schoolteachers, recruited from schools. Some of us who didn’t have as great an education as others had to learn logarithms and so forth. We were billeted in this old school and there were blackboards up all over the place. At night those who understood navigation and logarithms, and I didn’t know a logarithm from a hole, taught us our classes. One was a mathematical genius, and he used to stand up and pound the blackboard because we were all so dumb. “Don’t you guys get it?” he would say and he would bang the board until chalk came out of the cracks. That is where we were selected as pilot or navigator or wireless operator.’

Wilkie Wanless,
Bomber Command rear gunner

Wings over Alberta

On December 17, 1939, two months after joining World War II, Canada signed on to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Far from Europe and destructive German attacks, yet closer to Britain than Australia or New Zealand, Canada was the ideal training ground for Commonwealth air force recruits.

Dozens of training schools opened across Canada, including 18 in Alberta. They impacted the economic, political and social life of dozens of communities and left a lasting impression on the Canadian landscape.

In small prairie cities and towns such as Vulcan, Claresholm and Medicine Hat, young airmen from around the world arrived to train for the battle that raged in the skies over Europe.

 A digital collection, including first hand recollections of those who trained in Alberta

Wings Over Alberta explores a unique period in the formation of the plan and the role that it played in Canada’s contribution to World War II.

Although no longer updated, the site is owned by the University of Alberta and includes links to original documents, photographs and stories.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: the Aerodrome of Democracy

Harvard airplane

Harvards were used as a trainer aircraft by thousands of Commonwealth aviators from 1940 onwards

In 1942 the RAF was fielding the most highly trained front-line fighters in the history of warfare.

By this time, most of the pre-war generation of regular aircrew had been killed off, were promoted to non-operational roles, or were languishing in German POW camps.

The need to advance technology and increase production was paramount for success, but so was replenishing the ever-depleting stock of qualified aircrew. An experienced pilot was a valuable commodity. So much so, that it became a grim reality of war that pilots would be shot at after they had baled out and were parachuting to the ground: one couldn’t afford the risk that the pilot would live, pick himself up and walk straight into the next available aircraft.

Training itself was a dangerous business. 5,327 men were killed and a further 3,113 were injured in RAF training accidents between 1939-45.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was a massive, joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  It remains the single largest aviation training program in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers who served with the RAF.

The United Kingdom was considered an unsuitable location for air training, due to the possibility of enemy attack, the strain caused by wartime traffic at airfields and the unpredictable climate, so the plan called for the facilities in the Dominions to train British and each others’ aircrews.

Negotiations regarding joint training, between the four governments concerned, took place in Ottawa during the first few months of the war. On 17 December 1939, they signed the Air Training Agreement – often referred to as the “Riverdale Agreement”, after the UK representative at the negotiations, Lord Riverdale.

The Agreement called for the training of nearly 50,000 aircrew each year, for as long as necessary: 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Under the agreement, air crews received elementary training in various Commonwealth countries before travelling to Canada for advanced courses.


Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” due to ample supplies of fuel, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies. It was also far from the frontline and was far beyone the reaches of the Luftwaffe.

Due to its prominence in the plan, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as “the Aerodrome of Democracy”, a play on his earlier description of the United States as “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

At its height, The Plan included 231 training sites and more than 10,000 aircraft and 100,000 military administrative personnel.

In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the plan, since the Commonwealth air forces had long had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, trained in Canada under the programme from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the programme went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.

List of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities in Canada

Romantic young idealists

Our grandfather was obviously one of these graduates.

Why would a young man, living so far from the war, wish to sacrifice himself for this distant cause?

Hastings writes of the volunteers:

“Now, in the spirit of Kitchener’s New Armies of 1915, the first flower of volunteers of 1939 were reaching the squadrons. These were the romantic young idealists, almost to a man aspiring fighter pilots, many of them colonials who would make such an enormous contribution to Bomber Command- New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians. They had trained all over the world for two years or more- some in America, others in Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa. The pilots and navigators represented the highest skills” (173).

So who’s the best pilot?

What makes a good pilot? Why did some survive and others did not?

A quick zip through Google turns up plenty of definitions:

“A GOOD PILOT has knowledge of one’s own abilities and limitation; knowledge of the aircraft limitations; good flying skills which are acquired through experience and a willingness to maintain a high degree of proficiency. They are a constant risk evaluator, not a constant risk taker; they stay focused and aware and do not permit complacency.”

“A superior pilot is one who uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require the use of superior skill.”

“A good pilot is always learning from their mistakes, always trying to get back on altitude, heading, correcting, correcting, and correcting. In reality perfection only lasts a few seconds in between corrections.”

Pilots need the following characteristics (this list is supplied courtesy of the Alberta Provincial Government):

  • good spatial perception
  • good motor co-ordination
  • good judgment and the ability to make decisions and act quickly
  • leadership qualities
  • the ability to work well with others in a team in a fast paced, dynamic environment
All the definitions seem to centre on making good judgments and maintaining a humility that enables them to learn from their mistakes.
I can’t seem to put my finger on anything more specific than that. I have known a handful of pilots and I’m trying to think if there is something definable that is common to them all. I suppose the first point is that not all pilots are really good pilots. If I think of the most talented flyers, there is a peculiar combination of complete confidence (perhaps coming across as brisk or cool) tied up with utter caution-a thoughtful, diligent and careful manner.
There has to be a final edge to it. I was reading a news article, which interviewed a flying instructor and asked him why he didn’t prefer to earn a fortune flying trans-atlantic commercial flights. The author asked him whether he got tired of the daily routine: he just beamed out at the lively airfield and asked with incredulity “How could you?”
Did the best pilots who flew during the war love flying? Or did they just have better skills? Or more luck? It’s probably all of those things.

The True and Beautiful—The Sky
Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two months together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost Divine in its infinity.
—Bayard Ruskin