“Ripley, Appleby!” Flight Sergeant Rowe shouted into the hangar. The two Leading Aircraftmen, who had just sat down on one of the work benches for a well-earned cup of tea, looked at one another as if for an explanation. But neither of them had an answer, and Chiefy was already calling again, “Get cracking!”
With an audible sigh, Ripley clambered over the bench resignedly, while Appleby took a last deep gulp of tea and then scrambled nimbly after him. Ripley was a solid, good-looking young man with sandy hair. Appleby was a child of the East End slums, slight of figure, with a pointed weasel-like face under a shock of dark hair. Ripley had just turned 20, and Appleby was still 17.
They drew up in front of the Flight Sergeant. “See that Hurricane over there?” The Chief pointed to a Hurricane that was waddling towards them from the airfield. “The ATA just delivered it as a replacement for the CO’s old kite. He wants his crest and name on it right away. It will be designated ‘J’ for Jones, and you are the crew. Make bloody sure you give the CO no cause for complaint, or you’ll answer to me for it!” And that was it. No explanation as to why they had been chosen. Why the CO’s old crew hadn’t been given it. Presumably he’d had some cause for complaint….
Ripley and Appleby eyed one another warily. Ripley was an aircraft engine mechanic, a fitter; Appleby was an aircraft frame mechanic, or rigger. Although they had both been with the squadron for several months, they had not worked together before. There was no time for discussion, however, as the Hurricane was coming straight at them, and Appleby signalled it onto the hangar apron and gestured for the pilot to cut the engine.
The hood was shoved backwards, and the pilot pushed off his leather helmet to reveal long, grey hair that blew about in the wind. Appleby at once nipped under the wing and watched as a stiff, old gentleman in a dark blue uniform clambered out of the cockpit of the fighter. Inwardly Appleby shook his head. What was the country coming to?
Until the start of May, the RAF had collected new fighters from the Maintenance Units themselves, but now this civilian organization, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), had been tasked with all “ferrying” work. The ATA collected new aircraft from the factories, ferried them to the Maintenance Units for radio and armament fittings, then ferried them on to the squadrons. By definition, all pilots in the ATA were, for age or disability reasons, not subject to military service, and the bulk of them were gentleman hobby fliers. This old boy looked old enough to be Appleby’s grandfather.
Out of habit and upbringing, Appleby offered cheerily, “Can I give you hand, governor?”
“Thank you. I’ll manage.” The old man replied rather tartly, as he slowly and carefully stepped off the wing of the Hurricane backwards – in sharp contrast to the way the young pilots liked to jump down. Then he turned and faced the young rigger and announced solemnly, “The starboard wing seems a shade heavy on this kite. You might want to check that.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll look into it right away. This kite has been designated for the CO already, so we wouldn’t want to let a thing like that interfere with his flying. Everything else all right, sir?”
“The engine hiccupped several times – almost as if the fuel mixture was off. You’ll want to look into that as well.”
“Yes, sir,” Appleby agreed with a glance at Ripley, who nodded. “Do you want us to take her off your hands? Sign for her, I mean, sir?”
“Oh, can you do that?” He sounded sceptical.
“Of course, sir. Got the chit?”
The old man thrust a hand down the inside of his Sidcot suit and pulled out a flimsy with the particulars of the aircraft on it. Appleby took it from the old man, looked it over and then handed it to Ripley, who checked the aircraft and the engine numbers on the receipt before handing it back with a nod. Appleby signed for the aircraft with the stub of a pencil he had tucked behind his ear and added to the old gentleman, “I expect you’ll want to get some tea over at the Mess, sir. Do you want to walk or shall I ring for transport for you, sir?”
The old man looked up at the bright blue sky and the fluffy clouds and decided to “hoof it.” He set off, carrying his flying helmet in his hand, and Appleby watched him for a moment, making sure he was out of hearing before remarking to Ripley in his thick cockney accent, “Bloody dangerous letting an old bloke like that fly around in an ‘urricane! It’s a wonder he don’t kill himself.”
Ripley frowned. “You don’t know that. For all you know he has hundreds of flying hours. Maybe even flew in the last war.”
“What the hell good is flying experience if you can ‘ardly walk! His reflexes must be slow as strawberry jam!”
“His job is to deliver aircraft safely to us, not throw them around in the sky.”
“And what if Jerry happens along? Or something goes wrong with the kite?”
“Let’s get to work and stop standing around nattering!” Ripley replied with a frown.
Appleby willingly complied, but he was one of those people who could work and talk at the same time. To Ripley’s annoyance, he did. He explained at greater length than Ripley wanted to hear how the RAF recruiter had promised him that once he was in the service he could change trades. He could apply for transfer to Flying Branch. The recruiter said that deserving airmen were selected every year for flying training. “You don’t have to be a gentleman to fly an aeroplane,” he insisted.
“Maybe not, but it don’t hurt. And what’s more, I’d think twice about it if I was you! Look what happened over Dunkirk.”
“We’re all going to die some time.”
“Well, burning to a crisp like Flying Officer Overington isn’t my idea of how I want to go!” Ripley was definitive, and Appleby was quiet for a moment – but not for long.
“What I don’t understand is that they keep saying they’re short of pilots, so why not give us a chance?”
“We’re short of trained riggers and fitters, too!” Ripley reminded him.
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