Swanton Morley was the largest grass airfield in the United Kingdom, an active RAF station serving a ATC gliding school. The station sits in the centre of Norfolk, a county swept by a locally-famed Easterly 'lazy 'wind, one destined to travel straight through you. Damp from the North Sea, bitter having met little to disrupt or warm its body from beneath since leaving its source region, Siberia, this was a wind to wrap up against.
Making your mark in any complex or exciting field is going to be challenging, aviation is notorious for the hard currency consumed and the paucity of reward released after investment. Politics, journalism, the arts and marketing be famous for their abuse of interns but are comparatively freer with opportunity after pain has been endured. So what of the aspirant pilot, the willing underling prepared to do what others eschew?
I invited a pal, Brian, across to the place I flew, The Norfolk & Norwich Aero Club, to immerse him in the world that fascinated me. Within a week his passion for mechanical things transmuted into a love of flight itself. At the time he worked with the RAF as an engine fitter. To him engines were living things of great beauty, he was also by inclination, a tenacious perfectionist. We needed an Ops Guy at the Club, someone prepared to do anything, anytime and for nothing. Service life was beginning to pall for Brian, he was overqualified for our purposes in one sense, but fell short in another. He had no flying license or funds available to obtain one. The job remains, for some, a way into flying from the ground floor. At many, probably most clubs in the UK the Ops Guy arrives at the field before anyone else and drags the aircraft out of the hangar if the day offers an inkling of promise. He/she cleans windscreens, posts up the day's weather forecast, puts the coffee on and makes the lesson booking sheets jive with the day's projected reality. Transforming a cold, empty building into a welcoming flyers cave sort of happens during the process and hits the right note before the first customer arrives. Brian had skills, the club a sucking overdraft, four stoic but worn '150s and a '172 most club pilots would park out of plain sight when visiting other airfields. The '172, 'Uniform Whiskey' spent a significant proportion of her weekends waiting for trade, often in the hanger, neither queen, or even a princess. Her paintwork was dated and bleached, her equipment either unreliable or missing.
Mac, our Chief flying instructor pulled Brian aside and over coffee made him an offer many would have refused. The proposal involved many gallons of paint stripper and the devotion of enormous tracts of spare time. The focus point was the '172 - 'UW'. Many fine days and endless evenings in splendid isolation were on offer, along with unspecified benefits involving flying training should the work reach a satisfactory conclusion. Offer accepted, Brian went to work using every spare minute he possessed. The job consumed a whole summer but the aircraft gradually turned from grubby bird into a gleaming aluminium structure. Without a pause she vanished into a plastic tent in the corner of the hangar and took on a 'Starlet-in-the-making' green coat of etch primer. Interest around the club grew. Pilots would finish their coffee and take a turn around the 'shed' to check, yet again, how 'things' were moving forward. Most returned aghast at the mess but impressed at the rate of progress, all declined offers of rags and scrapers.
Brian would clock-off most evenings as the bar started to empty for a swift beer before going home. A sparky lighter Flicked within 10 feet would have turned the lad into a fireball. On completion of the white undercoat the hangar became a no-go area for club members: excitement mounted. Overhauled instruments and a couple of unfamiliar black boxes with tags attached had been seen on the licensed engineer's desk: they weren't destined for the '150s, that much was made clear.
On roll-out day Brian fussed and polished invisibly within the depths of the shed preparing for 'UWs' debut. The 1967 Cessna F172H 'Skyhawk' eventually emerged into the sunlight to gasps of delight, one lady students put her hand to her mouth visibly moved. This was no mere fettle and respray, this was a transformation involving a red, white and blue striped scheme that seemed to shift the aircraft's underlying design into the next decade. After air-test she was consistently a handful of knots faster in the cruise and when she caught the sun, she seemed to smile from within. Prior to roll-out her booking sheets had revealed a smattering of interest, now they were black with ink.
The story doesn't finish on a totally positive note. A few, the usual suspects, were quick to forget the energy invested into the project, and its source. A few looked past the graft to the 'free' training transporting Brian up the first rung of his carefully constructed inner 'ladder' to the heavens.
Brian became our Ops Guy and most days flew at least fifteen minutes for free checking the sky for lift and confirming the presence of widespread visibility. Later he joined Air Atlantique (knowing Brian) to fly the DC3 and the 'Big 6'. I lost touch, but never my admiration for a guy who's standards and work ethic took him where he wanted to go.
'Amazing how your luck seems to get better the harder, and smarter, you work?