Stig laughed when I told him this, but when he saw I was serious he told me I’d have to train and train hard. So I pounded the beach every day before and after work; come rain, wind or snow, it didn’t matter. Gradually, I built up my fitness. When it became easy, I tied a rope to a tractor tyre, fixed it round my waist and ran up and down the beach dragging the tyre behind me. People thought I was mad, but in August 1984 it got me where I wanted.
I was a fully fledged member of 2 Para by April of the following year, but as time passed, even that wasn’t enough: I set my sights on joining the SAS. Being in the Paras was no guarantee of passing Selection. The SAS needed specialists, so I concentrated with every fibre of my being on becoming the battalion’s best signaller, then on coming top of the combat medics’ course. Nothing was going to stop me achieving my goal. Or so I thought.
On a cold, rainy October night in Aldershot, the Paras’ garrison town in Hampshire, some twat in a Volvo clipped my bike and sent me over the handlebars. Flying through the air, upside down and facing backwards, I was hit by a car driving too fast in the opposite direction.
With their unorthodox methods, the surgeons saved me from death by internal bleeding. Too bad the hospital didn’t also check if I’d broken any bones before it discharged me. By the time I’d got a second opinion, my right foot, both ankles and right hip had set in the wrong positions. They were completely fucked, as were my back, knees and right shoulder. Not only was I out of contention for the SAS, I was medically unfit for duty in any front line regiment.
To compound matters, the hospital had ‘lost’ my medical records. Closing ranks, they’d removed all the evidence. It was like my case never existed.
As far as the lads alongside me saw it it didn’t make much difference: my soldiering was over. But I refused to accept a desk job and the quest was on to find a way back into combat without a Bergen.
A mate of mine suggested I should apply for the Army Air Corps (AAC). ‘You want to be in the thick of it?’ he said. ‘You could end up flying for the SAS.’
He showed me a book. Inside was a photo of a pilot in an army helicopter, his eyes blacked out with censor-ink. Behind him were four fully tooled-up members of the Special Air Service. He was right. If I couldn’t fight for the SAS, maybe I could fly for them. How cool would that be? I could get back to the front line without getting off my arse.
All I had to do now, I figured, was to con my way past the medicals that awaited anyone who wanted to become a pilot. Fate had already stepped in and given me a hand. Because I had no recent medical records, there was no paperwork to attest to the fact that little over a year ago I’d been mangled in a life-threatening accident.
Although 2 Para weren’t keen on anyone leaving eventually my application was processed. I passed the aptitude tests and managed to bluff my way through the medicals.
Switching from the Paras to train as a pilot – provided I was accepted – meant I’d be stuck as a corporal for another four years, but I wasn’t rank hungry. I was on a mission.
Within weeks I was told I’d been accepted for ‘grading’ at Middle Wallop, the AAC’s main airfield a stone’s throw from Salisbury Plain.
Grading was a process for assessing a potential pilot’s ability to listen, absorb and replicate simple flying manoeuvres. It was a baseline test that included ground school and was designed to see if we had the ability to cope with the army pilots’ course.
I was to start in July 1991.
I didn’t know if I could fly or not, but by hook or by crook I would give it everything I had.
I was waiting outside the clothing store for my flying suit when a giant of a man nudged me out of the way with a dismissive, semi-hostile look and threw a pair of tatty old gloves onto the counter. The civvie behind the counter half-jumped to attention, threw the man-mountain a sickly smile and laid out a nice new pair of pristine white chamois-leather gloves in front of him.
‘There you go, Mr Palmer. Your size if I’m not mistaken.’ They must have skinned a whole mountain antelope to make just one pair for him.
Mr Palmer never said a word. He flicked a glance at my maroon beret, leaned into my personal space and stared into my eyes. I figured he either had something against the way I wore my silver-winged cap badge – 2 Para style – round by my left ear, or he just didn’t like Paras, full stop.
He gave me a thin smile, tucked his gloves into his pocket and walked out.
I filed Mr Palmer’s name away. I had other things to worry about right then. The trouble with grading was the fact that none of the instructors – crusty old pilots who had been in the RAF, but were now civvies, well beyond retirement age – gave you any feedback on your chances of success. I had no idea how I was doing.
Captain Tucker called us together in the Chipmunk hangar briefing room. A tall, softly spoken, well-to-do Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers officer, he was a candidate just like us, but because of his rank he was the grading course leader. We were told we needed an average score of fifty for each exercise. There would be twelve exercises altogether, with a final handling assessment tacked on the end.
When they debriefed us, the instructors wrote everything down in blue A4 ring binders that had our names on the spines.
I desperately wanted to know what was in my binder.
Standing outside the hangar with the smokers one day, I could see through the window into the room where the instructors kept them. The folders were in a neat row on the second shelf of a steel cabinet. As I glanced nonchalantly past the smokers, in came Chopper Jennings, one of the instructors, and locked the cabinet. Then he opened the top-right drawer of the desk, lifted out a big orange folder and flung in the key. Jennings took the key to the drawer away with him, but that didn’t bother me. I could pick a drawer lock, no problem. Doors didn’t present an obstacle either.
I asked one of the ground crew what time the hangar opened the following morning. I told him I wanted to practise my checks in peace. Six, he told me, and from that moment my mind was set.
I told my Para mate Chris my plan but he wasn’t getting up early. He didn’t want me to tell him if he was failing; only to let him know if he was passing.
Suit yourself, I told him.
The next morning, I hung around for the ground crew to open the hangar and push out the ‘Chippies’ – our De Havilland Chipmunk T10 training aircraft – into the crisp summer morning light. I crept past them, made my way to the corridor and reached the door to the office. Skills I’d learned from my mates at school for cracking locks and flipping Yales came in very handy. The key for the steel cabinet was where Chopper Jennings had put it. I opened the cabinet and selected the folder with ‘MACY’ on the spine.
I was scoring 54s and 55s. Each piece of airmanship was carefully marked. I studied the details closely. Mr Fulford, my sweet old instructor, had marked me down for not looking out enough. This, he said, could lead to a mid-air collision, and would need to be rectified if I was to become a pilot.
No sooner said than done, Mr Fulford.
I looked at my mate’s folder and he was bombing big-style. Then I looked at some of the other guys to see how they were doing. Only a few were doing okay, the majority were borderline and some were totally losing it.
When I got back, Chris asked how he was getting on and I told him I hadn’t been able to get into the office, but would try again. What else could I say?
The following day, bombing along in my Chippie with Mr Fulford behind me, I made sure that my head never stopped moving as I scanned the Hampshire skies for other aircraft.
When I broke into the office and sneaked a look at my file the following day, I was gratified to see that my situational awareness had improved greatly, but I needed to work on my navigational accuracy.