by | Feb 27, 2024 | Stories | 0 comments

THE VIRGIN PILOT – by Will Roe 24th February 2024

The first light of dawn had barely lit the sky over the airfield on that August morning when the orders to scramble broke the reveries, personal dreams and crafty cigarettes of the pilots stationed at the RAF base. 1940 had been a crucial year for the Royal Air Force and would go down in history as The Battle of Britain. For these pilots it was another day in a crippling war. In their mad rush to the dispersal, pilots of varying ages were running while still fastening their flying gear.

The Hurricane’s awaited, the ground crew had already been at their tasks for some time, fussing round the aircraft like they were demanding children. These would be the unsung heroes of the future. Tending to these instruments of war, seeing they were ‘fed and watered’, or refuelled and re-armed, they made sure the pilots had the tools to do their job in the air.

The two worlds collided, pilots eager to get in the cockpit and into the air, ground crew automatically doing their jobs, at least seeing the pilots left the dispersal and ground in record time.

This one young pilot was going through the ritual for the first time, pumped up with adrenaline, infectious from his comrade pilots running along with him. Most of them were still barely known to him and here they were in this one collective stampede, personal thoughts and training all jumbled together.

He’d hardly had time to settle in on the base or make friends. The enemy raids had been increasing, the news was never good. Even as a newcomer, he had huddled round the billets radio, the wooden walls seeming to absorb the sound. A presenter with an Oxford University accent gave grave reports on the latest raids. The pilots listened in silence, ponderous looks on their young faces.

Jim Corrigan had been in the process of writing a letter home when the panic of scramble was announced. He dropped pad and pencil, his eyes darting round to take in his fellow pilots, recalling his training and partly following their example. He didn’t know it was going to be like this. His heart was racing, his fingers nervously trying to adjust his flying kit. They all tried to get through the door at the same time, spewing out into the morning light but not losing momentum.

The ground under his feet seemed to reverberate, his legs almost like jelly. Before he realised it he was at his aircraft. It was parked there before him like a steed raring to go to war. The ground crew, like ants toiling away, were busy at their tasks like automatons. One ground crew airman was with him, helping him up, buckling him in, talking to him in an unheard voice.

Was this real? Was this finally happening? He felt numb, his thoughts jumbled with his training overriding his panic and fear. All around him the deafening noise of engines bursting into life, the sound of Merlin engines splitting the morning, drowning out the shouting voices. There was a smell in the air of burning fuel so alien to that of the open countryside in which the airfield was set.

This was so different to his days of training. The tight enclosure of the Hurricanes cockpit being so unlike the Flying Training station, where each day he watched his flying hours add up. There was no urgency then, no threat of an enemy as yet unseen. A thousand thoughts went through his mind while at the same time he automatically went through all that he had been taught. At the age of nineteen he felt more like he was ninety. Did age really matter? There were some that were even younger than him and also some who were older and had seen it all before.

Before he realised it, he felt the wheels leave the ground, he took his place in the swarm of airborne planes making up the squadron. The countryside fell away below him, people would just about be waking up yet unaware of what was about to take place in the skies above them. The radio interrupted his thoughts as muffled sounds of issued instructions by the leaders came through in his earphones. They spoke the words of battle, pilots responded in the proper way. He felt free, tension left him and was replaced with excitement of the unknown. Up here he was both alone and yet part of a team. Mixed with the excitement was a sense of dread of what lay ahead for him. After all, this was his first time in combat.

Authors note: – This is just my fictitious version of what it might have been like for a similar pilot at a time that I lived through as a child. I could imagine a scene something like this at the Essex RAF base where I served during the 1950’s, a station that was part of the Battle of Britain.


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