First Hurricane Flight
Although I was training to ferry planes there was no letup in my efforts to get on an operational squadron but it was plain that, as yet, there was no chance. Sneh took a pretty dim view of my wanting 'to kill myself' so I had to play my cards pretty close to my chest. At the Poona (now Pune) refresher course we were first flying Harvards with which I was pretty familiar and then we were instructed in the cockpit drill of Hurricanes.
At first glance the Hurrybird seemed to be so much larger and more clumsy than the Spitfire although the wingspan was only 3ft greater than the standard Spit. To cap it all one literally had to climb aboard compared to just stepping up onto the trailing edge of the wing. There were two or three of us being laboriously taken through the details of how to handle several aircraft. Some instructors seem to enjoy a captive audience and droned on and on. I found myself silently saying "Yeah!" "Yeah!" "Yeah!". The Hurrrybird was obviously to be our most important machine. There was not the slightest sign of the great affection that I was finally to feel for the aircraft. After all, this was the aircraft that really won the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffen's bombers in spite of the glamour of the Spits.
It seemed almost at once that I was in the cockpit running through the "rosary" of HTMPFFTS (Hydraulics, trim, mixture, pneumatics, fuel, flaps, trim & switches). She strained against the brakes and seemed to lumber down the runway but there was a comfortable feeling of stability in the wide undercarriage. She lifted off easily and I raised the undercart, eased off on the throttle adjusted the propeller pitch and raised the flaps from the 15º that I had tried for takeoff. There seemed to be more room in the cockpit but much of it felt so familiar and although I truly missed the old Spit it was wonderful to be behind a Merlin engine again. The cockpit felt very familiar with an almost identical flying panel to the Spit. Yes! You will do.
In the Hurry, the engine cowling dropped away much more quickly than with the Spit giving far better forward visibility and the four 20mm Hispano Suiza cannon looked pretty menacing. It seemed that I had been airborne for a few moments but a quick glance at the clock showed that I had better land because my allotted time was only 30 mins. I tried to land exactly as I had the Spit but found that I was undershooting but it should still be OK. NO! It would certainly not, I was dropping in far too quickly, she would need more throttle. I jammed it forward and the engine died. Christ! I was going to prang! She floated idly over some pretty unyielding looking rocks - the runway was dead ahead - I dared to pull gently - Oh so gently back on the stick and she stalled and dropped like a stone. Luckily she did not drop a wing and I was down.
The landing was heavy but not so bad as I deserved. Damn! By slamming open the throttle after a long idle I had choked her. There was just enough speed to let me roll onto the grass. A worried looking engine fitter was in the first of two 15cwt trucks that came to collect me. "What happened Sir?" "Dunno" I lied, "she just died on me". "Is this your kite?" I asked. "Yessir. You did pretty well Sir, Not to prang her I mean". I managed a pretty impressive nonchalant shrug. Being rather proud of it (I mean the shrug) I tried it in front of the mirror but never quite managed it again.
Back at the mess I reluctantly accepted the congratulations of those present and my few muttered explanations were taken as modesty. The actual explanation will never be known. I will bet my second best bed that the fitter increased the idling speed a tad. For my own future in Ferry Command it would have been stupid to have cast aspersions on my flying ability but as rumours grow, it grew. One version had me bringing the aircraft to a perfect deadstick landing after an engine failure at 1,000ft or so. Oh! Well! No one came to any harm.
The car was waiting to take me back to the bungalow and Sneh. I did not mention my rescued reputation to her but the driver had been told about it by some of the Indian ground crew. As is the wont of women she wanted to know everything about what had happened. I wanted the best job that I could get so once again I held my council.
My posting to Ferry Command was confirmed but alas it was not to Santa Cruze but to Mauripur which was on the outskirts of Karachi. This was a great blow. Sneh and I had hardly been parted for more than a day or so since we met on my arrival in India but it had to be. I had been trying to prepare her for such a parting as soon as we had realised our mutual feelings but the time had arrived. As usual, it is always the partner left behind who suffers the more. Every item in daily life becomes a reminder of the departed one. Sneh had been used to getting her own way and just could not understand the stupidity of the military mind, after all she did not ask for much!
When the inevitability sank in she wanted me to want for nothing and I found myself warding off countless items that would have rendered the life of a peripatetic flying man almost impossible. There were few days to prepare us for train travel. Those few days reminded me of having said 'Goodbye's all round on a railway station and then finding that the train was delayed for an indefinite period. The rail warrant was issued and my photograph was pasted into one of the most extraordinary documents I have ever seen. It was 'To whom it may concern' and demanded that I be issued with travel facilities to return me to my home base with the highest priority and if the means of transport were fully booked that I be given a first class accommodation regardless of the status of other travellers.
It seems, on the face of it, a little like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut but it was vital that the planes were not delayed in getting to where required. I must admit that my greatest joy would be to have a high-ranking headquarters wallah complete with red lapel flashes yanked off a train to let a lowly Pilot Officer take his place. It remained a dream! Most of my return flights were by cadging a lift on a plane flying in the right direction or in a plane sent to take us back to base.
Sneh was in the middle of a film and I dreaded the thought of making our farewells at the railway station but fate took a hand. I had to go from my base to travel up with several other young officers so we parted at the bungalow. She to go to Bombay and I to spend my last night at R.A.F.Poona. I was glad to be travelling up with a young Canadian officer, P/O Picken with whom I had been since landing. He also knew Sneh who 'asked him to look after me!' The journey was without event; we arrived and found that our Head Quarters was quite efficient but pretty primitive by the standards we had known.
Camel trains must have been travelling this spot from the dawn of history. There was nothing glamorous in their appearance. Just a long line of heavily laden animals and their drivers who trudged in single file past the end of the runway. They passed incredibly rickety structures that boasted a few chairs and tables that looked like refugees from a scene in a film of French slums. Their names, painted in lurid colours on large boards or pieces of corrugated iron were the ultimate in surrealistic irony. "British Raj Hotel", "Taj Mahal Hotel Bombay" etc etc. Being written in English conferred on structures, some boasting no more than two or three chairs a sense that all was not of this world.
We were given the unnecessary advice never to use them. They were probably toddy shops but one had the feeling that one could buy anything from a Parker 51 fountain pen to a Tommy gun although there was nothing on display. The Parker 51s were a highly prized item and I had one. To get it I had to go to see someone's uncle who was an official of some sort. He was aware that I was coming and reluctantly filled in a form that I had do take to a firm of stationers. I felt that both the 'uncle' and the clerk in the stationers had expected baksheesh but I gave none. It looked very sleek after the old type.
My first trip was to fly a Hurricane from Mauripur to Allahabad via a refuelling stop at Jodhpur. I was to be shown the way by another chap flying another Hurrybird. At about 6,000ft he waggled his wings and I closed formation. He was making excited hand signals. He pointed to his dashboard and indicated that one of his instruments was at zero and then pointed back to the airstrip. I gave the thumbs up and pointed similarly. He dropped away to land and after seeing him land I resumed my calculated course for Jodhpur. I was well aware that I was supposed to follow him down and abort the flight but what would be the sense of that and I was more experienced than he was even if he had made the trip several times.
I landed at Jodhpur and as I was refuelling a messenger ran up with an envelope for me which I stuffed into my pocket. I took off and after flying for about two hours I opened and read it. As expected I had been told to return to base. I reported to the control tower at Allahabad who greeted me with "Who's been a naughty boy then?". A Hudson was being sent to take me back. "What? A whole Hudson for little me?" Much chuckling all round. After a few days during which I enjoyed the facilities of a permanent mess my transport arrived. As soon as we landed I was told to report to the Commanding Officer. Just as I was about to enter his office some papers were handed to me.
"You must have been aware that when P/O X returned with oil failure that you should have returned with him". "Well Sir, by his hand signals he seemed rather excited. I realised that his oil had dropped off the clock. I just saw him in and continued". "Why did you not return from Jodhpur as instructed." "I really am extremely sorry Sir but by the time I read the message I was two thirds of the way and since Allahabad was the nearer I went there". Then followed a traditional ticking off and the interview was terminated. The C.O. was a thoroughly decent chap and although I should have aborted the flight someone's dignity had been dented!
I rapidly sorted the two letters and three telegrams in date order. Sneh was arriving by train at Karachi station and would I book *us* into a decent hotel! There were barely two hours to spare. There was no room at the best hotel --- I placed a ten rupee note on the register and the clerk snapped it shut. Suddenly a suite had become available.
Next: - Karachi
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002