Donald MacLean's Blog 17
"We're only going for a week - do you really need all these
"Well I am taking a hundred books ... but they're all inside
this nice eReader which you gave me."
"'Biggles' ... who is Biggles?"
"Long before you were born, darling - Tom
Sawyer and Biggles were my teenage fiction heroes. I expect the stories will
seem medieval now - but it will be interesting to read them again. Biggles
was a fighter-pilot - in the pre-Spitfire days. The author was a WW1 pilot,
W.E.Johns. Biggles shot-down whole squadrons of Huns single-handed ...
the Camels were old biplanes."
"Like the Tiger Moth ... ?"
"Ah ... you remember ..."
"Your 70th birthday. Heavens, that's 14
"Mmm ... you booked the old
Tiger Moth at Wycombe ... a lovely surprise present ... and do you remember what
Sunday 14th July 1996 dawns sunny and calm. Wycombe Air
Park is where Ann learned to fly gliders. It's also the home of one of
the few surviving Tiger Moth biplanes - the type of plane in which I had my
first (WW2) flying lessons. This one is a dignified old lady only
a few years younger then me. The passenger-seat can be booked by the hour - it's in
a catalogue called "Special Days for Thrill-Seekers", alongside
bungee-jumping and white-water boat rides. Ann has booked for me the last free
slot on this midsummer Sunday - 3.0pm.
We leave home after breakfast, heading for the river at Henley
- which is en fÍte for the start of the annual rowing
regatta. Our route passes the airfield so we check-in with the Tiger
office soon after 10am. The 9am and 10am clients are both there - waiting!
Apparently the old lady's engine is refusing to start. Young 'Mr 9am'
and middle-aged 'Mr 10am' are being very jolly ... their words mean "I'm
not having second-thoughts" - but the truth is patently the opposite!
At Henley-on-Thames we rendezvous with the
doctor and his wife whom we had met on holiday at Ravello. They are
members of an exclusive club here. We drink Pimms with them on a
riverside terrace. I think I am the only male not wearing a blazer and straw
'boater'. I'd rather be back at the airfield with my little radio tuned
to Wycombe Approach. We thank our hosts for their kind hospitality, gush
about their impeccable taste in being members of so special a
club and, with relief, return about 1.0pm to the Tiger office.
The plane remains where it was. The
engine-cover still raised. Messrs 9am and 10am are nowhere to be seen.
Messrs 11, 12 and 1pm are looking at their watches and explaining to each
other why they really should not wait much longer. They tell
us, with forced smiles, that the engineer has gone off to the nearby town - to
Halfords Auto Accessories Ltd - for a new set of contact-breakers in
the hope that this will revive the old lady.
You may not be surprised to learn that on the
return the office is occupied solely by 'Mr 3.0pm' and wife.
Now I remember ...
ground you can't
see where you're going!
Happily the ancient magneto now does its
thing and the engine splutters into life. I don the proffered
flying-jacket and helmet, give my kind spouse a 'thankyou' hug and am soon
airborne, with the owner in the rear cockpit ... more than an hour early.
In the back seat - is he
"Maybe I should
get out NOW"?
It all comes back ... like
riding a bike
"Even after 50 years ... it's like riding a bike again!" I reported through the intercom
"Is it OK if we head down to Henley?"
Throttled-back, and at only a few hundred feet, we sail
sedately over the punts and pavilions and I wonder if our friends are among
the blazers and boaters that are running out, on both sides of the river,
champagne in hand, to wave to us - as though the old lady and I are there
just to complete a very English scene of half-a-century ago.
With the agreement of the owner-behind-me we follow the
Thames Westward and, after bumbling gently over the spires of Oxford, turn to
cruise cross-country homeward to a relieved Ann, naturally anxious at our
absence for much more than the hour she had booked.
Biggles II ... with
It has been, as she had hoped, a 70th-birthday present to cherish.
And, I whisper it, made the more memorable by the extra airtime
kindly donated by the preceding "thrill-seekers" ... whose reading had
perhaps failed to include the works of Capt W.E. Johns.
engine is the heart of an airplane, the pilot is its soul."
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