A lift from the hangar floor
As I recall, there was a bit of a nip in the air on the January afternoon in 1974 when as a nineteen year old I first walked into the hanger at Swanton Morley. Deep within the cavernous interior, tucked away in a corner was a Tiger Moth, she was in a flying attitude, tail up on a trestle with most of the easily detachable bits removed, and generally looking a little the worse for wear. Protruding from beneath the port wing was a pair of legs clad in grubby overalls, humming, sighing or grunting to taste as some intricate task was being performed.
‘Odette’ as she is today, (well, June ’06 anyway)
I wandered up to and around the aircraft peering at it feeling slightly awkward as an unauthorised, but interested bystander. There were aircraft parts and tools strewn in ordered chaos around the flightless bird. Her engine cowlings and access panels were detached exposing the black steel mass of the motor and its ancillary components. A magneto had been removed and a piece of oily rag stuffed into the void it left behind.
The cylinder heads and pistons had been removed for specialist attention; the drip tray beneath the exposed cylinder barrels received residual lifeblood from the heart of the steel mass in slow, regular, silent drips. The propeller was frozen in the horizontal position with an scrawled edict on cardboard announcing to all, “DO NOT TURN”.
The scene was exciting and vital, it reeked of ‘real’ aviation and I felt irresistibly drawn towards it.
‘Busy then?’ I said to the legs lying on an inspection trolley beneath the wing, the rest of the body now aware of my presence shot out from underneath. I now know he was thirty five but he looked older to me at the time. he had a full head of dark hair and keen blue eyes.
‘Sort of.’ he grinned before partially disappearing again.
I stood there with my hands in my pockets soaking up the scene as the talk idly drifted around Tiger Moths, gliders and flying. Stan, as he later introduced himself between grunts, fettled away beneath the aeroplane until it was time to put the kettle on. A pleasant chat over a cup of tea filled in the gaps in story for me.
The ‘Tiger’ earned its living as a glider tug for the Norfolk Soaring Group, a small band of experienced glider pilots flying high performance glass fibre sail-planes. Stan being the chief pilot, chief engineer and just about every other chief in the organisation was sorting out the Certificate of Airworthiness inspection on the aircraft in preparation for a busy seasons glider towing. By all accounts it had been slow going with help being a little thin on the ground from the other members of the group.
I wasn’t that busy and from a previous association with the ‘Tiger’ and the gliding world knew enough about wood and fabric aeroplanes to be slightly better than useless on the engineering side.
The words, ‘Do you need a hand?’ tumbled from my lips and that was all it took.
Odd afternoons and every evening for the following couple of months were filled with ‘remove paint, de-corrode, inspect – re-protect.’ These words became our mantra as the 1940’s vintage biplane received a deep inspection and minor face-lift.
Stan and I got on like a house on fire and Tiger Moth G-AODT, ‘Odette’ as she was called, became a familiar friend. Stan’s freely dispensed and unique sense of humour gave me a deeper insight into my engineering inability; he didn’t suffer fools but was very tolerant of energy and enthusiasm, which was fortunate for me.
Stan was a complex character, his manner was often more severe than his conscience would tolerate had he been aware of its effect on others. His occasional sharp tongue had a reputation among the fledgling glider pilots he instructed during his day job for the Air Training Corps. Nevertheless, they queued up to fly with him; he was an exceptional teacher who managed to infect his charges with the same fever that kept him running and looking to the sky.
The days lengthened and the nights receded with the coming of the spring.
With the works completed and the aircraft re-assembled time the air test was upon us.
‘Are you coming along?’ said Stan wearing an old fashioned look. He didn’t have to wait for an answer and within the half hour we lifted off into the late afternoon sky to perform the last step required to bring the blue and silver biplane back into service.
I did most of the flying whilst Stan recorded the essentials for the CAA inspector. A timed climb, the other requirements and a few ‘essential manoeuvres’ and the job was done just before we lost the evening light. We landed and taxied toward the fuel pumps in the brake-less biplane’s ungainly manner and shut down. The prop stopping with a final kick and we sat there for a moment in the sunset enjoying the silence and the ticking of the engine as it cooled rapidly.
After refuelling the aircraft I lifted her tail above my head in that idiosyncratic Tiger Moth way and we pushed her in the dark towards the hanger. The glaring light pool cast through the open doors from within brought made it seem as if a star was returning to the stage, which in a sense she had. I almost expected applause as we swung through the doors into the full glare of the hanger lights.
Stan put away the parachutes and finished filling in the paperwork while I repositioned the oil drip tray after cleaning oil from the underside of the fuselage. Oil gets vented beneath every healthy Tiger Moth after flight, particularly after aerobatics.
Parked in her spot, squat and complete, the Tiger now looked fit for business and eager for the next days flying. I cleaned the oil from my hands with a rag as we walked back towards the clubhouse, ears still ringing and elated beyond measure.
“Its going to be a busy summer – ‘you going to be around much?” said Stan.
“Yep,” I replied, “days off, evenings and weekends.”
I knew the group would need help with the gliders and was looking forward to maybe doing a spot of soaring on top of all the flying I could buy or scrounge.
‘Good.’ said Stan, ‘Fancy being the new chief tug pilot?
You could have knocked me down with a feather, a ride now and again would have been tremendous – but a seasons tugging!
‘Er, Stan, that would be fantastic.’ was all I managed to blurt out, my ear lobes had suddenly become connected to each corner of my mouth, he just laughed. Free flying was like gold dust and Stan had just handed me a bag of it. So started my hour building towards the next step that would qualify me to become a flying instructor.
That summer passed far too quickly and was packed with more fun than is decent. ‘Odette’ and I had an engine failure whilst towing a Kestrel 19 and slipped between two large dead oaks into a field full of kale. The glider lazily scraped a low circuit and landed as I climbed from the cockpit shaking and surging with adrenaline. The rush that followed when I realized that I hadn’t damaged the aircraft and survived my first real emergency is still with me now as I recall it here.
Stan had a head on mid-air collision in cloud during a gliding competition.
Laughing about it later in the bar he said that he remembered wondering initially what the massive bang was, then clocked the fact that he wasn’t in a glider any more. He had been thrown clear of the wrecked glider during the impact and became disorientated as he fell through cloud with no visual reference. Falling out of the cloud base he realized what had happened, pulled the ripcord and gathered his wits. Seconds later a disconcerting, loud swishing noise whipped by as the guy he had collided with came past spinning inverted, still trapped in the cockpit of his dismembered glider. You will be relieved to know that he got out just in time and landed near our Stan. They both retired to a bar shaking and laughing fit to split.
I lost touch with Stan after leaving Swanton Morley but bumped into his girlfriend some years later. Stan had been killed in a flying accident in Scotland three months previously. He had been towing a glider with a Citabria, at low level the glider pilot got himself badly out of position above the tug and flew it into the ground before Stan could reach the cable release. He had lived for around half an hour before dying in the wreckage with ‘A’ at his side. Funny isn’t it, I feel the loss of that man to this day. He made such a difference to many of us with his life. I won’t forget him in a hurry, neither will a lot of other people. It was a long time ago…
Thanks for the start Stan (Easton)
1974 saw her with polished aluminium cowlings
and a Snoopy caricature on the left engine access panel.
I just had a email from a young lady (Stan’s daughter Melanie) recounting how I used to lift her into the air and almost bounce her off the ceiling. Although I didn’t remember it at first contact, the memory came flooding back recently here in Philadelphia (11th Apr ’07) She had the most beautiful blue eyes too… aren’t memories wonderful things?
Latest development 14th Feb ’08: ‘A’ has just got in touch after many years, I was positioning a C421 from Old Sarum to Birmingham in the eighties and transited Brize Norton’s airspace. A rather smooth female controller’s voice happened to say,
“Is that november, whisky romeo up there.”
“Yes!” I said, “Who’s that.”
“A” was all she said, all she could say really and that was the last contact we had over twenty years ago. She found me on the internet just this evening and dropped me a line.
Well done ‘A’ XX