Since Top Gun and innumerable movies before it, sunglasses seem to have played a role in the way the public perceives aviators. The ‘cool’ of the huge pearl shaped Ray Bans™ turned TC into a cheesy icon, ‘kept the sun out of his eyes and emphasized yet again the importance of that essential accessory, sunglasses, ‘Sunnies’ as Australians call them. RBs don’t do it for me.
I have always had an eye on the Randolph® product, in the late seventies they were the height of cool and have always seemed to me to be practical with their flat side-stems and Mil-Spec construction standards. The USAF liked them and so did I, they would slide under a helmet without puncturing silicon filled ear pieces that then soaked your neck with body temperature guck. I have always craved a pair, and now that they have their own Classical position in history, they appeared on my doorstep!
It was a very pleasant surprise for me when John White dropped me a line to ask if I would be interested in ‘doing a piece’ on the Randolphs, he sells them through his website and as I discovered, believes in them. ‘Sure, why not’ I said. To my delight he sends a pair across from the US, in fact I have them on my desk in front of me as I write.
My plan was to write a review post on a trip to Buenos Aires, although flown mostly in the dark, the flight’s arrival and departure on the return sector happen in the sunshine – an ideal opportunity to nail together some feedback from colleagues. In the event it didn’t turn out that well as the whole crew (four of us) used corrective lenses and the others were a little shy. A quick ‘Chicago’ provided the next opportunity. Enter ‘Ivan’, my first officer and the perfect candidate to provide feedback. He never wears sunglasses, “never has” – he doesn’t like wearing them, Dang! After some begging and simpering from me he finally agrees to give them a try.
Those who understand the mysteries of how the world works will know that when flying East at jet speeds the sun sets very rapidly. When going West you are chasing the sun down, so it sets very, very slowly. In the process of setting we all know that the sun comes towards the horizon before slipping into bed for the night. What a useful characteristic this was on this flight as it gave Ivan plenty of opportunity to benefit from the power of tinted, optically perfect glass – Randolph® glass.
Ivan and I chatted for hours, did all the usual pilot stuff, reading, writing etc, eventually we started down across Lake Mitchigan towards The Windy City and 27L at O’Hare. We turned onto the gate and after rolling to a halt, shut down. I looked across at Ivan who on completion of the shutdown checklist had started to pack away charts and prepare for our exit. “Do you think I could have the Randolphs back now please Ivan?” I said. He was still wearing them…
I could give you a bunch of words that describe the sunglasses but I won’t, I will direct you instead to John’s and Randolph’s own websites with the graphic links below for you to gather your own research. What I will say is this, Ivan never took them off and was actually very positive about them. When I asked about comfort he had found them to be excellent, in fact ceased to notice that he was wearing them, even as dark approached. They didn’t change his mind about wearing sunglasses generally of course as he… well, he doesn’t ‘do’ sunglasses.
I love them, of course I had to pay import duty on them even though they were gift. I will be taking them to my optician and having Nikon grey tinted vari-focal lenses fitted, the frames are superb, I don’t think I have ever come across a better made set of Sunnies, period. I will be using them until I retire and beyond – with the flat stems they fit comfortably under a particularly uncomfortable headset made by <redacted>. Bearing in mind we often wear headsets on ultra long-haul flights for up to six hours at a stretch, I think that is quite a tribute. Had I not liked them I assure you I would have popped them in the post back to the USA and not written a word.
If you fancy a pair of these for yourself, why not talk to John, he has a fine, informative blog, ‘All things Aviation’ that’s well worth a visit. I discovered across a few emails that he is a man of his word, we used to live within five miles of each other in the ’80s when he worked for Uncle Sam and I flew charter. What a small world this is.
Please excuse me for rattling on about Arthur Keen, but as the story grows with incoming material, it becomes more compelling. We continue to transcribe the letters and delve deeper into the archive. As with archaeology it isn’t only the writing and the photographs that provide the interest. The backfilling from research, the exposure of context and cross fertilisation offered by events and other testimonies all become remarkably revealing. A bit like the gradual scraping of dirt away from an artefact with a trowel to reveal the underlying relic, in this case – the story.
Ronny’s enthusiasm was infectious, his deep love of computer based illustration of his subjects, almost exclusively from the Great War is inspiring as it points into a well-spring of interest in the era, the dawn of aviation.
Speaking generally, I find it difficult sometimes to automatically assign heroic qualities to a block of individuals on the basis they collectively rose to an occasion, as tough as that occasion may have been. Difficult until (in this case) you look at the facts, the daily statistics that were so much more than pure, cold numbers to them.
Whilst they may have been, at least initially, more enthused with flight than the prospect of killing their fellow man, that grim reality dined with them as they forced down breakfast, dressed and walked to their aircraft by the light of dawn’s earliest glimmer from the East. The sheer courage of these men stands out from the record, when faced with Trenchard’s grim message about the need for them to ‘endure painful losses and prevail’ they did just that. They kept calm and carried on until those at home could close the technology gap between England and Germany, then replace the unusually high losses being sustained as a consequence. ‘Hang in there and wait for the cavalry’ essentially, but they didn’t let him or us down. The more I read, the more I become deeply impressed with the grit and achievements of those from ‘England’ (using the language of the day to include Scotland, Wales, Ulster and Ireland), Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USA, India, the Caribbean – the list is a long one. They came from all over the Empire and elsewhere to help out.
These are not 40 Squadron pilots. just a typical grouping standing around their ‘Boss’ who is probably in his early 20′s.
Arthur was part of that effort, he flew through the fledglings months of the new arrival frequently watching those around him vanish. As time progressed he not only survived, but flourished. To infill losses sustained by 45 Squadron (they were virtually wiped out) he was shifted across from ’70′ as a Flight Commander. Later he moved to 40, initially as a Flight Commander but after another rotation through CFS (Home Establishment) at as a new ‘Squadron Boss’.
McElroy is a name we all recognize, Mannock is another. They were both well known to him being initially junior members of his Flight, and later leading lights in his squadron. Rest tours mercifully sent him back to ‘Blighty’ into the flying training system as an instructor, the most common source of respite.
As his experience and leadership qualities developed he was identified by Senior Officers as being ‘Staff Material’ for the new Royal Air Force. They made him an offer, ‘would he like to remain, join the staff and ascend with the organisation during peace time?’ He agonized over the decision within his letters to his mother, and particularly his brother, but in the end, he was ‘having so much fun in France’ that he simply couldn’t resist the return. This was clinched when Major Dallas, 40 Squadron’s boss , was killed whilst solo hunting. Another offer arrived from Headquarters, one he simply couldn’t refuse. He returned to France for the last time, and to his eternal resting place.
In his own words;
…..I am very pleased with everything here at the moment, the squadron is doing very well. We got a wire yesterday from General Salmond congratulating us on the work we had done during the last few days.
My star fellow McElroy by name is doing very well and will probably be the star man out here soon as he has got 42 Huns and 4 kite balloons he is about the bravest fellow I ever came across. Yesterday he was fighting a hun over the line. The carburettor caught fire and he flew quietly back over the line with his machine on fire. He got down to the ground and jumped out of the machine when he was doing about 45mph, came home in a car rather bruised, but no bones broken, got into another machine and went up and brought a hun down in flames. How he does it I don’t know, for sheer courage I don’t think there is anyone to beat him. I haven’t done much flying lately, the weather has been rather bad and I have been having a new engine put into my machine, but I hope it will be ready tomorrow. I must get a few more huns to try and keep up with these fellows…
This superb book provides some of the best background reading available about the RFC and its struggle to become an effective fighting force. Alex Revell’s review is well worth a read, praise indeed from such a knowledgeable and talented writer .
I spend a very pleasant evening with Ronny Bar last night in Buenos Aires sipping Malbec and munching my way through a superb Argentinian steak. My discussions with Ronny may come later but one of the subjects brushed over was the wonderful way that the sky continues to fill with aircraft once thought to be either extinct, or certainly under threat. This short clip has inbuilt links, one to a news piece on the restoration to flying status of a Seafire Mk15. Ronny loves the Spitfire but his heart lies well and truly with those that were borne through unfriendly skies on wings of spruce and linen.
This one won’t go away, perhaps it’s the secret desire I have to have an office with a difference, or even the idea that its the weird and wonderful that makes the world go around. Who didn’t have a tree house or a shack they called the ‘gang hut’?
As a boy I ‘evaporated time’ in industrial helpings creeping around the whistling, creaking hull of a Shackleton (Mk 3) parked up for the station fire service to gradually incinerate with humane purpose. I crossed oceans hunting for Russian submarines with my trusty crew (Colin and Rover). One dream was to have the fuselage as… I guess we are on the same page here; but moving on, to have a hull that would move, and with a history like ‘the Muffin’? Now there’s a dream with floats.
Luis dropped me a line from Florida asking me to pass the word around – ‘maybe raise a little interest. Does he have a good plan and do we think he will raise the green to see this project on the water with glasses tinkling, visitors tripping up and down the gangway – in out of what’s left of a Boeing 307 Stratoliner?
I don’t know but if this captures your imagination… why not? Would Boeing care to lend a helping hand; perhaps Luis needs a Patron, someone sprinkled with a little influencial stardust who can’t stay away from things that fly and/or float? C’mon, we all have dreams….
As we approach the highlight of the Winter’s offerings, just a short clip of a few of Bilbao’s delights. This shorthaul destination is a nice example of how any airfield can be turned into a challenging day out by the mere addition of a good blow.
Also a reminder (if ever we needed it ) of how terrain can take wind and do wonderfully creative things with it in your trousers.
I have just had a superb day at Old Warden watching the The Shuttleworth Collection’s last display day of the season. The weather was perfect for the full ensemble, most of the stars of this amazing flying museum raced across the turf with lifted skirts and made it into the air – memorable!
A major objective of the day was to bring together all the members of the team with an interest in Arthur’s story. Piers, Andrew and Rupert (Dent) were all there along with my friend, colleague and co-researcher, Syd Buxton. Syd spent part of the day with Tony Blackman at a book signing wedged into a chair gripping a pen whilst recounting his very interesting past.
The good news for us was that the SE5a, a Wolsey engined model that we hoped to photograph (up close) was to fly. Along with the Bristol Fighter, the Sopwith Pup and Triplane, this classic of the conflict on the Western Front was flown beautifully in the early evening light. Earlier, whilst the show was in its opening moments Andrew had bumped into a young lady called Tracey Curtis-Taylor, an Old Warden based pilot who was utterly charming and made us feel very welcome. After hearing Arthur’s story and looking into his tin chest she swept us into a privileged position near the control tower and introduced us to the guys flying the display. A lucky break for us….
When the SE5a returned to earth we were escorted ‘up close and personal’ to shoot take photographs and try a little alchemy. History takes on an immediacy when one of the principal actors comes alive in front of you, being so close to this living, breathing machine dripping hot oil fresh from flight leaves you on something of a high. Syd and I returned to my car parked on the flight line and divided up the photographic and written archive of Arthur’s life. We have now gone our separate ways to pore forensically through the evidence, record, scan and collaborate on-line.
When I last saw the material I gained an impression of the depth of detail available to us; after working more closely with it I now fully realise that the task is deliciously vast. All of the data will be arranged, appended to a time-line and integrated with other information we have from sources that reach from The RAF Central Flying School through to the principal UK museums dealing with the first great War in the Air. When we see clearly what we have, how it all relates and what it reveals about the man and his time the underlying story that we want to tell will emerge. Then the writing begins…
And now to close, a further word about Tracey and her mission to fly across Africa. I will be brief here – she will speak to you far better than I through her website, her short movie and evolving blog. I fly with talented ladies all the time and seldom fail to be impressed by their obvious enthusiasm and dedication – but this aviator is in a class of her own.
I have been fooling around with kites for a while (great upper-body exercise) and when in San Diego (yesterday – still there as I write this), what should one do with a day off?
After a hearty breakfast the fog had cleared across the sound Pete and I (friend and colleague) took a stroll down the waterfront as vendors set up shop for the amusement and the subsequent harvest)of – the tourists. A flock of spectacular parrots and Macaws splashed colour and noise about as they scratched themselves exercising wit and whistling ability. All this to delight of their compatriot henna artists, jugglers and tarot card readers.
Working alone an a grassy knoll was a guy with an array of kites and all his worldly goods. He seemed really competent which encouraged Pete and I to stop and watch, Pete being as fascinated as I am with anything that flies. After the modest private show we started chatting to Tom who shortly thereafter handed across the controls to Pete for his first lesson in the splendid arts.
The enthusiasm, no – the passion that Tom has for his kite flying is infectious and after a quick ‘Chinese Parliament’ with Pete the three of us marched off to the taxi rank. We took a ride to the kite shop and beyond with our brand new Revolution 1.5 SLEs. We had a fantastic day out in Mission Bay Park (Google Earth link) where I turned pink in the sun – Tom a slightly redder shade of burnt-umber. Pete, had a grin from ear to ear which matched ours - we were kids in a candy store.
If you love to fly and cannot do it enough, try flying kites. The sensitive handling required provides a pleasing feedback that’s not unlike flying. The acquisition of a new skill you can unfold whenever that delicious laminar draft blows is not to be missed. If you have kids you might even become a hero for a few hours.
It will be a while before I stop crashing the thing let alone producing crisp, arcing maneuvers that match the effortless control demoed’ by Tom. But ‘easy steps – it’s the journey, not necessarily arriving’… as our Mahogany Maestro put it.
So if you are in San Diego, trust that someone who carries his house on his back has something pleasing to give that you in turn can hand on. Book Tom for a day and watch a fine man at his life’s work and learn a thing or two about riding the warm and balmy onshore breeze with a kite. All for a small fistful of dollars that were never asked for, but gratefully received.
And if you can’t go fly a kite watch these guys perform – they are amazing!
Tom is at this location most days of the year, please tell him Norman and Pete sent you…
I finished Arthur Rhys Davids story a little while back and have had time to reflect on the tale and all within it. And what a story it is; a peculiar character viewed through today’s eyes. Shaped by what looks like a cloistered early life and a rumbustious, demanding schooling at the hands of Eton’s masters, Arthur made it easily through flying training to the Western Front to discover his métier – combat flying. He admits to hating the killing and longing to return to the academic world, his first love. It’s clear he didn’t make friends easily, from the texts this seems to be through choice as he had little time for light banter and the normal run of a fighter pilot’s social activity. He was nearer to Ball in this respect I think, though Ball was no academic.
I admire Arthur for his ability to adapt to his surroundings, his obvious courage and sense of duty. I think he would have made a fascinating guest at a small, well chosen dinner table. What a shame that like so many of his contemporaries, he didn’t make that dinner gong, nor return to the classics, his first and enduring love. He could have said and done so much more… Perhaps we should leave regret behind, Cecil Lewis in the company of notable otherstold their story and left an exquisite record for us all.
Arthur died on October 12th 1917 and has no known grave. He was ‘almost certainly shot down by Leutnant Karl Gallwitz, at the time acting Staffelführer of Jasta Boelke’ (Revell, 2010). He returned to earth within an area later heavily shelled and fought across during the battles for Passchendaele Ridge.
A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
Revell, A (1984) Brief Glory, the life of Arthur Rhys Davids, DSO MC, William Kimber & Co, London.