It was 1967 that I was invited to the Royal Air Force base at Biggin Hill to attend the five day RAF Officer Selection, to be tested and interviewed as to my suitability to become an RAF officer.
I had always had an interest in flying machines, being taken as a small boy to the now closed RAF Fradley also known as RAF Lichfield, for their open day to watch the Hurricanes, Spitfires and Lancasters doing their displays, laying in bed listening to the propeller powered aircraft flying over my parents house at fifteen minutes past midnight every night, thinking it maybe a Royal Mail flight, flying letters from London to the north of the UK. I seem to remember a Lancaster crash into a wooded area on the on the far side of the Fradley air display, but it could be my mind playing games with me.
I was interested in the aircraft, knowing as many schoolboys did in those days the flying heroes, the fictional pilots like Biggles, the manufacturers and aircraft models and names, both military and civilian. This interest has stayed with me, noticing an old abandoned English Electric Lightning jet in a scrap metal yard next to the A1 road near Newark as I drove from one computer customer to another, sitting at the end of a runway at RAF Conningsby watching Lightnings and especially Phantom jets take off and feeling the power of their after-burners, driving passed RAF Waddington marvelling at the delta winged bomber Vulcans waiting on their pads to take to the skies trailing long black dirty exhaust fumes to perhaps deliver the UK’s nuclear bomb.
I still visit aircraft museums, seeking new knowledge, linking ideas, marvelling at the vast array of aircraft that British industry once produced, pushing the boundaries of knowledge.
Now being restored at the Gatwick Aircraft Museum
But going back to 1967, and my potential to become an officer in the RAF, not as a pilot but as an Air Traffic Controller. The five day selection by the RAF, tested the knowledge of the applications, their health, their fitness, their IQ, their team working, and we were being tested from the start as soon as we entered Biggin Hill’s gate house.
I was allocated along with three other applicants a “Bat Man” to look after us and who showed us to our shared bedroom, to unpack and prepare ourselves for the evening meal. My room mates rather put me in my place as one was from Eaton School, one was an Air Commodores son, and another was a Prince from a Middle Eastern country. Me? I was a son of an electrician and Secondary School educated, a country yokel.
Now, I knew how to conduct myself at the dinner table, my parents had prepared me well for life, teaching me etiquette, social skills the does and don’ts, how to conduct myself in a high quality restaurant like The Ritz, how to hold a tea cup with the pointy little finger, but nothing had prepared me for so many knifes, forks and spoons at a place setting. Nothing had prepared me for so much silver wear on a table.
The next day the selection process continued, for example the medical tests, writing skills, aptitude tests, and for me in the afternoon an interview with the Camp Commander, the Chaplain, and a Senior Flying Officer.
Those whose turn it was to be interviewed waited in a small anti room, and one by one we were called in. Before I was called, my room mate from Eaton School went in, and I sat there wondering what was to come. My room mate came out white as a ghost, as if he had seen the end of the world, and this did not bode well for me. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied they asked him so many deep and difficult questions, including pointing to framed photographs of RAF aircraft hanging on the walls of the room, testing his knowledge of the RAF, and he said that he was asked what was the name of the missile hanging blow the wing of the fighter, and he did not know so they told him it was a Firestreak air to air heat seeking missile.
It soon became my turn to face the panel, and I was called into the interview room, sitting alone in the middle of the room facing the three senior RAF officers as if I was a capture spy, and they grilled me, asking deep questions, seeking out my knowledge and interest of the RAF.
Then the Chaplain pointed to a photograph hanging and asked what was the aircraft.
My heart jumped because there was only one aircraft like it in the world, the English Electric Lightning, a supersonic fighter jet, designed to intercept any incoming target, especially from the Soviet Union, as it was the height of the Cold War. With its’ polished silver metal body, short swept back stubby wings, its’ two Rolls Royce Avon jet engines mounted on top of each other making up the fuselage, and its’ conical pointed radar dome mounted in the open round air intake at the front of the aircraft.
There was no mistaking this aircraft, I was in my element.
Then he pointed to the missile hanging from the wing, and with all the confidence in the world I answered, “It is a Firestreak Air to Air heat seeking missile“. Thank you my friend from Eaton.
Today I finished reading the book by Richard Pike called the LIGHTNING BOYS, and it is a collection of stories, true tales from pilots of the English Electric Lightning aircraft, from flying virtually non stop from the UK to Singapore and the adventures along the way, to the need to constantly having to refuel midair by Victor airborne tankers. It gives insights of what the pilots did, their thoughts, their missions, and how they sometimes nearly died. It tells the tales of those involved flying the Lightning from the first test Lightnings, the P1 and P1A (see photograph above) in 1954, to the decommissioning from the RAF in 1988.
This book is highly entertaining and informative as it tells the stories of those who flew this iconic aircraft, with little or no technical details, it makes an easy read for all, the general reader and the enthusiast.
In the book it tells of an RAF Lightning pilot who as a youth wanted to join the RAF, and was invited to go to Biggin Hill to the Officer Selection along with a fellow student from his school. His school friend, he said lasted a day before being sent home. I lasted two days.
I packed my bags and caught the train back home, at a time when there were no mobile phones, in fact a time when most homes did not have their own phones, so I did not inform my parents of my impending early arrival from RAF Biggin Hill.
On reaching home, there was no-one there, but I knew where my parents would be, at my Aunty and Uncle’s house, so I went there.
Entering the house, the family were sitting around the table, and my father looked up and said. “Oh you are back, we were expecting you.“
Another lesson they taught me, to aim high, go for my dreams, but to know my limitations sometimes, and accept failure gracefully, and just because the RAF was not for me, that there would be other places, things and jobs that would be for me.