Thursday, 17 December 2009

How my father shot himself down

Second Lieutenant Randall transferred from the Royal Army Medical Corps to the Royal Flying Corps for reasons given in my post of 14 December. This would probably have been in 1916, and probably in Egypt, where he learned to fly.

In my RAF diary there is an entry on Saturday, May 10, 1952 describing the first day of a 48 hour pass from RAF Kirton in Lindsey. My father and I set off early for a round of golf.

It is difficult to get George [the family nickname for him] talking about himself, but this morning he told me a lot about his days in the R.F.C. He told me that he made his first solo flight after five hours and that he got his 'wings' after only twenty hours. Then twenty per cent of the pupils on his course were killed, mainly because of their training on R.E.8s, flying death traps. They stalled frighteningly easily, and it was reckoned practically impossible to get out of a spin in one under a thousand feet. I would have put line-shooting past George, but he told me how he pulled out at ten feet from the deck [RAF slang for the ground], having stalled at eight hundred.

I can remember nothing of this talk on Woking golf course, other than the aircraft name, which he might have mentioned to me on other occasions. I know flying training was brief in the Great War, but this is common knowledge and I could have learnt it anywhere, not just and only from him. What a shame I did not record more of what he told me that day!

For the record, I got my wings after 12 hours on de Havilland Tiger Moths, 60 hours on de Havilland Chipmunks and 140 hours on Airspeed Oxfords. Certainly, aircraft in my day were more complex than in his day, but a ratio of ten to one in training time between me and him shows how woefully unprepared pilots then were for operational service.

There is just one other entry in my diary about my father's flying, in the entry for Sunday, April 12, 1953.

He produced photographic evidence of an incredible escape when the wing of his R.E.8 caught the top of the hangar on take-off. There wasn't much left of the flying machine, but he and his passenger climbed out with scarce a scratch.

I have some recollection of that photograph, and also of one showing him smiling as he climbs into the cockpit of his aircraft. These photos may still be lying overlooked in some shoebox or album: I’ll ask a couple of relatives to have a good look around so that with luck some personal pictures can replace what’s here.

If he finds them it may help clear up what type he was flying when he had the misfortune alluded to in the title of this piece. It seems that he was flying by himself over, presumably, the Sinai desert as part of the air support given to General "Bull" Allenby commanding the British drive into Turkish-controlled Palestine from Egypt. The aircraft was armed with a machine gun mounted on top of of the engine cowling in front of the pilot. A cunning device, the Constantinescu Gear, connected the propeller shaft to the firing mechanism which only permitted the bullet's percussion cap to be struck midway between the revolution of the propeller.

My father is flying fairly low, say at five hundred feet above the scrubby desert. He sees a beast grazing below, perhaps an antelope. He thinks he will try some target practice and points the aircraft's nose at the animal. He pulls the firing toggle and – you've guessed it, the Constantinescu Gear is on the blink. Off spins most of the prop, away scampers a startled antelope, down glides the aircraft, out clambers a disconcerted young man.

This is the kernel of the story, hallowed by family tradition. Alas, none of us thought to ask him, What were you setting out to do that day? What did you think when you saw your prop shot to firewood? Above all, how did you get back: some wandering bedou carries you on his camel, a fellow pilot sees you and picks you up, you trudge for days with no water: how?

It's too late to find out now, of course: there's nothing more to add.

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