Your wish, Mr Fulford, is my command.
My eighth sortie was to perform a loop. I went for it, big-time. Approaching the top of the loop the blood drained from my thick skull and my vision became impaired by dark grey spots. By the time I had the red and white bird completely inverted, the spots had grown and merged and I was totally blind.
From the tone of his voice I could tell that it had caught nice Mr Fulford out too.
‘Are… your… wings… level…?’ he gasped.
I didn’t have a clue; I was fighting a losing battle to stay conscious.
I grunted my reply.
I woke to hear the Gypsy Major engine screaming, quickly pulled out of the dive and levelled back off at the altitude I had started my first aerobatic manoeuvre. That’s it, I thought. I must have failed now. But the following morning I’d somehow got away with it.
By the ninth sortie, I’d accumulated enough points to chill out a bit. I stopped sneaking into the office after my tenth flight, knowing I was almost home and dry.
Along the way, I had also learned why they’d given Jennings his nickname. He wasn’t some helicopter ace after all; in fact, he’d never flown choppers. He just marked us so harshly that he chopped more people off the grading course than any other instructor. It was all I needed to justify my early morning sorties. You had to fight fire with fire.
On the day we were due to leave, two weeks and thirteen flying hours after the grading course started, we were lined up outside the Flying Wing Chief Instructor’s office in rank order.
Decision time. I knew pretty much who had passed and who had failed, but there were still a few borderline cases I wasn’t so sure about.
As a corporal I was way down the line, just behind my pal Chris.
A lieutenant was called into the office. I held my breath, knowing he was about to have the carpet pulled from under him. He emerged a moment or two later, punching the air. ‘I’ve passed. I’m a training risk, but I’ve passed.’
I knew that from the files. How on earth did he scrape a pass?
A sergeant came out looking devastated. But from my peeks at his file I knew he was better than the lieutenant.
What the fuck was going on here? My heart sank; it seemed little better than a lottery.
I began to panic. What if I’d blown it in the last few sorties? Had I taken my eye off the ball? That was it, I convinced myself; the lieutenant must have greatly improved in the final few days and the sergeant had let down his guard.
Jesus. How had I done?
Chris slunk in and reappeared with the inevitable news. His grades were awful.
Then it was my turn, the moment of truth. The Flying Wing Chief Instructor, the Chippie Chief Instructor and a high-ranking, big cheese AAC officer were all ranged behind a table in front of me. I came to a halt and saluted. I could see my heart pounding through my shirt. This was it. This was my one shot.
‘Corporal Macy, how do you think you have done?’ the Big Cheese asked.
I wasn’t prepared for a question. Don’t be cocky, don’t be an introvert either, I told myself. The result was jumbled nonsense. ‘Er, I think I could have done better, because I put myself under a lot of pressure and, well, if I was to be given a chance, I—’
‘Passed,’ the Flying Wing Chief Instructor snapped. ‘Congratulations.’
A big grin split my face. ‘Really? You’re sure?’
‘You had the highest score. You’re free to go.’
‘Thank you, sir, sir and sir.’
I gave them a salute that nearly broke my wrist. I spun on my boots, slammed my left heel into the floor, deafening the old codgers, and marched out, quickly dropping my head as I emerged.
Outside, a marine corporal called Sammy was about to go in. I raised my head and said sombrely, ‘Mate, I failed. Good luck…’
His face fell.
Naughty, I knew, but Sammy was a Royal Marine Commando – the time-honoured arch enemy of the paratrooper. He was in on my spying game and had been tracking his performance through my daily updates. He knew he had eight fewer points than me at my last peek.
He’d find out he’d done all right soon enough.
When he reappeared a few moments later I was running around the corridor with my arms outstretched, humming the ‘Dam Busters March’. He chased me out into the summer sunshine.
‘Maroon machine one, cabbage head nil,’ I shouted gleefully.
Later, I went to see Colonel Edgecombe. Colonel Greville Edgecombe was – and still is – an Army Air Corps legend. He explained the AAC’s ethos, how it was all about tapping into the army’s skills base, so that each flying squadron had a resident expert for each task. There were engineers, tankies, infantry, artillery, medics, signals operators, chefs and clerks. I wasn’t sure what skills the clerks would be able to bring to the table – our pay was always getting cocked up – but I was happy to hear that we’d have a few chefs on board. Para food was great and I wanted it to stay that way.
The colonel told me that only four out of the fourteen candidates had passed with flying colours and had been formally accepted for training. My pilots’ course was set for November, four months’ time.
On my way out, I heard that Mr Palmer was in the building. I darted into the bogs until I knew he’d left.
By now, I knew that he wasn’t plain old ‘Mr’ Palmer at all, but Darth Vader, the most feared instructor in the Army Air Corps. Knowing I’d be back in a few months’ time, I couldn’t afford another brush with him.
I had been given a reprieve. I was determined to become a pilot – and not just any pilot. I was going to fly for the SAS, and nobody, not even the Dark Lord of the Universe, was going to stop me.
SKYLINED WITH NO B ACKUP
Fremington Camp, Devon
Fremington Camp was a miserable blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape. Its huts had been built during World War Two and looked as if they’d been through the Blitz. The windows dripped with condensation, the frames were rotten and a number of the panes were cracked or broken. The wind whistled between the gaps, bringing the moist, salty tang of the sea into the improvised Ops room. If I’d been based here I’d have slit my wrists long ago. Thank God we were only passing through.
The Gazelle was the army’s training helicopter. I loved flying the nimble little single-engine machine with its huge perspex bubble canopy. I’d been taught how to ‘autorotate’ so I could carry out an emergency landing if the engine failed, and how to do basic night-flying. I’d then gone on to more advanced techniques: flying low level, landing in confined areas, advanced navigation and instrument flying.
I was six months into the pilots’ course. I’d done another thirty hours on Chipmunks, passing ‘Basic Fixed Wing’ and the ground-school exams that went with it, which allowed me to transition to ‘Basic Rotary Wing’: learning how to fly a helicopter.
From the very outset we operated under a ‘three strikes’ rule – three mistakes and we were out. From an initial twenty students on the course, we’d already lost four guys during the fixed wing phase, then three more during my fifty hours of instruction and solo practice during Basic Rotary Wing.
We were now on the ‘Advanced Rotary Wing’ or ‘tactical’ phase of our training: learning not only how to fly a helicopter, but how to fight in it.
Tim, a 2 Para mate on the course ahead of mine, had introduced me to the ‘cheat-sheet’ routine. Ground school involved exams on fourteen different subjects, from basic flight principles to meteorology and navigation. As there were only ever three different papers set for each subject, the drill was for students to acquire these papers – and the answers – from students on earlier courses. No one ever failed a ground-school exam; the challenge was not to get 100 per cent and give the game away.