Vaux was already wearing a flight jacket. He had also organised an aircraft and led them over to MM-E for Easy. As they climbed up into the narrow fuselage, the familiar and unique smell of oil, dirt, and cordite enveloped them. It triggered memories that made Kit inwardly tense, but none of his inner turmoil showed as he moved with apparent ease and evident familiarity towards the cockpit. He might not have flown a Wellington, but he’d trained as a flight engineer in them. Vaux glanced over at him but said nothing. Instead, the instructor commenced providing familiarisation with the aircraft in a cheery tone, pointing out the wireless operator, navigator and bomb aimer seats to them. “Do get acquainted with the positions — just in case you wash out and get re-mustered,” he jested meaningfully.
This Wellington was still configured for two pilots. Vaux sank into the left-hand seat, and Forrester didn’t wait to be invited. He secured the second pilot’s position at once. Moran sank onto his heels behind them, trying to see between the two while Vaux went over the controls and the cockpit drill. Next, he called Flying Control and explained his intentions. Having received permission to start his engines, he signalled to the ground crew, and then turned to Forrester. “Tell me what to do.”
Forrester was good. He made only a few minor mistakes. Vaux taxied them out to the runway but paused before turning onto it. He looked over at Forrester and explained, “The Wimpy is fairly easy to fly. Where she’ll kill you is on take-off and landing. You need about 15 degrees of flap for take-off and need to retract your wheels at about 105 mph or roughly 400 feet of altitude. You want to ease — ease — your flaps up at 120 mph or some 300 feet higher because she’ll sink when the flaps come up. If you’re still at only 400 feet, you’ll go straight in. The problem is the levers for flaps and undercarriage are identical in feel and located right next to each other here.” He pointed out the levers. “Just last week, one of the trainees confused them and now he and his entire crew are six feet under.” He paused only long enough for this to sink in and then continued cheerfully, “I’ll explain the landing challenges later, but rest assured you won’t be taking-off or landing a Wimpy for several weeks to come.” He then turned on the runway and made a perfect take-off.
Kit felt an unexpected thrill to be flying over England again. Roads, streams, woods and hedges broke the green and hilly Gloucestershire countryside into mosaic pieces. It was so different from the dry, open spaces of South Africa. There the towns sprawled dusty and transient; here the neat and tidy villages and churches sat rooted to their surroundings by gardens, walls and graveyards. Even the sky was different, littered with broken cloud all the way up to 10,000 feet. Kit might have learned to fly in South Africa, but he’d been a flight engineer in England for more than a year before that. Being back in an English sky over that country’s clouded hills and pleasant pastures made South Africa seem very far away — and Don much closer.
Forrester’s loud voice shook Kit from his memories. “First time I’ve seen real sunshine since I got to this ruddy island,” he growled as they rose above the last of the clouds.
Kit laughed along with the instructor briefly, but then Vaux took his hands off the control column and announced. “She’s all yours, Forrester. Put her into a 20-degree port turn.” After that, the instructions came fast and sharp. Routine manoeuvres were followed by increasingly demanding flying. It was almost as bad as a wings exam, Kit thought, as memories of flight training obliterated his good feelings about English skies. The South African instructors had always made him feel as though he were on the brink of calamity. He felt himself tensing up.
Forrester, in contrast, seemed utterly at ease. Kit admired the Australian’s casual tone as he responded to the instructor’s orders and occasional interventions and corrections. “Port again? Didn’t we do that twice already?” The Australian complained.
“I wasn’t counting, but I thought you might not be able to master starboard. Everything turns clockwise down where you come from, doesn’t it?”
“In that case, make it starboard, if you like.”
Forrester appeared to be a confident and aggressive pilot whereas, Kit’s skills had been officially assessed as “average”, and only grudgingly at that. Being an average pilot might be good enough to earn his wings, Kit reflected, but was it good enough to get him through an operational tour?
Satisfied with Forrester’s performance, Vaux ordered the Australian to turn over the controls to Kit. As he climbed out of the right-hand seat, Forrester clapped Kit on the shoulder and remarked, “You were right, mate. Good kite!”
Kit took his place already nervous, and he concentrated hard in an effort not to make mistakes as Vaux called for various manoeuvres. Several minutes passed before Kit noticed that Vaux wasn’t teasing and niggling him the way he had Forrester. He wasn’t making any snide comments either. Was that good or bad? Kit glanced at the instructor.
Vaux nodded to him and gave him a thumbs up before adding casually, “Now, give me a slow roll, would you?”
Kit looked over at him uncertainly. Twin-engine aircraft did not particularly like rolling, and not once had Don rolled the Lancaster during operational flying.
“Go on!” Vaux urged, “Nothing to it. Just try not to get stuck upside down.” Over his shoulder he ordered, “Forrester, strap yourself into the navigator’s seat.”
Kit really did not want to roll the Wellington, at least not yet. He’d been flying this aircraft for no more than twenty minutes, and barely knew it. By way of subtle protest, he pointed out, “I’m never going to need to roll a bomber on operations,”
“How can you know that?” Forrester interjected from behind him.
Vaux turned and looked straight at Kit before saying in a deliberate tone, “Aerobatics increase a pilot’s confidence in himself and his aircraft. Now do it. Anticlockwise.”
Kit drew a deep breath and slowly lifted the starboard wing. Overcoming his own discomfort, he kept rolling the aircraft until dust, scraps of paper, rusty screws, and other bits of rubbish rained down on them from the various nooks and crannies of the old aircraft’s floor.
“Keep the nose up and keep going,” Vaux ordered before throwing over his shoulder at Forrester, “Get that green look off your face, Forrester! Being from down under you ought to be used to hanging upside down!”
The starboard wing fell below the horizontal and kept swinging. For a second, the wings were vertical again, but then the aircraft gracefully continued through the last quarter of the roll until they returned to the upright. Vaux was grinning. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Kit shot Vaux a sidelong grin and admitted, “No, sir.”
“Good. Then show me some corkscrewing.”
“Corkscrewing?” Forrester asked from behind them. “What the hell’s that?”
“Now I am shocked, Forrester! I have never before met an Aussie without a profound familiarity with corkscrews.”
Kit meanwhile was trying to work out what to do. Don had corkscrewed many times to avoid searchlights and night fighters. He knew exactly what it felt like, but he had only a vague idea what a pilot did with the controls to produce that unique motion that disrupted the aim of both flak and night fighters. They didn’t teach corkscrewing in flight school.
Vaux’s attention had returned to Kit, and he ordered: “Commence corkscrewing.”
Kit took a deep breath and pushed the nose down, lifted the left wing and turned hard to the right. Then as the Wellington gained speed, he pulled back on the column and lifted the right wing as he turned left. Vaux’s assessment was a cool, “Not bad for a first try, but you need to make everything more violent and erratic. Avoid anything predictable.”
“How many tours did you do, sir?” Moran asked, as he felt himself start to relax a bit.
“Completed two. Bostons and then Hallibags. I’m mostly here to show you sprogs survival is possible. What was your former position?”
“You’ll be fine, Moran.” Vaux spoke with the kind of emphasis that told Kit he had seen through to his nervousness. Then switching his tone of voice, Vaux called more jocularly, “Forrester? Asleep back there or are you ready to come here and learn something useful?”
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