This was my starting point, I’m sure of that and one day, there will be a closing chapter to accept. But in the meantime, I’ll keep building and keeping reading about the aircraft that I love today, every bit as much as I did as an 8 year old boy, 45 years ago.
Despite being an obsession for almost all of my life, I really can’t tell you when, specifically, my love of aircraft began. Was it a chance experience? The sight of a machine in flight? A visit to a museum or airshow? I have no idea. One thing is for sure though, a picture book, bought as a present for my 8th birthday, may well have had something to do with it.
I was born at the end of the 60s, my parents finding themselves in South Wales, due in no small part to my father’s role in the Fleet Air Arm. Aircraft, jets in particular, must have played a small part in my life, our close proximity to RNAS Brawdy, then a FAA station — before being home to the RAF’s Tactical Weapons Unit (TWU) and now Cawdor Barracks, the hub for 14 Signal Regiment – undoubtedly drip-feeding a small boy’s imagination, if not one that can readily be brought to a conscious mind some 50 years later.
Having spent the first few years of life in the rugged landscape of Pembrokeshire, I found myself in a small village in Shropshire, a close-knit collection of families that was yet to become the affluent commuter community that it is today. These families seemed to all know each other, often working the land, wages earned from the many farms that ringed its location. I liked living there. It was quiet and though hardly of interest to a small boy, there were a couple of pubs, a general store, a post office and school. As an illustration of how times have changed over the years, one of the pubs and both the shop and Post Office are distant memories. The school though, remains, despite many of its children now being bussed in from surrounding areas, rather than being from the village as in days of yore. Summers were warm, winters cold and when not indulging in anything to do with building models (which was if I’m honest, most of the time) days were filled with misguided play, hanging around and football, jumpers obviously replacing goalposts when spring moved into summer, cricket pitch replacing football, before welcoming once again the joy of autumn and the return of the footy pitches and posts. It seemed idyllic and in many ways it was. I had time on my hands and for a very shy young boy, there were periods to nurture growing interests, the subject of which forms the basis of this cathartic essay. Little did I know that much of what interested me back then, for many, all-too easily forgotten in a rush to adulthood, would mould almost all of my adult life and the journey that that would take me on.
Though my memory of first seeing a Hercules is dimmed by the passage of time, my recollection of how it was described to me, has most certainly not been, nor indeed has the way it looked, those meandering flights forever etched in my memory.
As you might imagine in a small village far from anywhere of note, the sight of an aircraft, let alone enough to spark the imagination, was less than frequent — but in this case, that wasn’t entirely so. Though they weren’t exactly frequent, we were treated to a number of aeronautical events, rare as they were exciting, that initially sparked an interest that would be enough to make the gift of an aircraft book to a small child, worthwhile.
Perhaps I should explain a little further…
The village I grew up in was — and indeed, still is — surrounded by a large number of airfields that were used during WWII. Many of these are still identifiable thanks to their extant buildings, hangers that once echoed to the sound of military machines, now reverberating to the clank of forklift trucks and storage pallets. Many can still be looked at Online, the history of each, Sleap, High Ercall, Tern Hill, et al, being readily available should you take the time to search for each one. Indeed, it is astonishing to see just how many were used and how densly populated with airfields this part of Shropshire really was and not just RAF bases, either. Shropshire was home to a number (such as RAF Atcham) that were used during WWII by the US Air Force (or USAAF as it was back then) all manner of exotic types, from Lightnings to Thunderbolts and beyond, being seen on training flights over this county during the war.
But I digress.
Back in the early 70s, the army would use one of these to practice parachute jumps, the RAF offering a taxi service, Sunday morning runs drifting not only over their chosen target, but also almost literally, our village and most pleasingly, the house in which I lived.
RAF Pickstock, or the ‘Chetwynd Airfield Helicopter Training Area’ as it is now known (https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4255695) was used regularly throughout the 1970s as far as I can remember as a jump site, its large open area of grassland being perfect for the Army’s needs. Each drop would involve a number of runs, the aircraft carrying the soldiers, flying an extended loop that would take it over our house a few miles from the intended target. Given the need – I guess — for high visibility, these drops always seemed to take place in bright sunshine and that meant that the aircraft could be admired in all of its low-level glory.
Though my memory of first seeing a Hercules is dimmed by the passage of time, my recollection of how it was described to me, has most certainly not been, nor indeed has the way it looked, those meandering flights forever etched in my memory. Though I would eventually discover its actual name, my father never referred to it by its god-like monicker, choosing instead to call it a “Charlie One Thirty Kay” a name that I didn’t really understand at such a young age, but liked nonetheless. It seemed exotic, technical even. Who needed a name, when such a cool-sounding group of words and numbers, could be used instead? Even today when I recall those machines, bedecked in desert camouflage the likes of which Roy Cross would immortalise for his classic Airfix box art, I still immediately say those words out loud: Charlie. One. Thirty. Kay. I even do it with other variants, such was the impact that the very first aircraft name I ever learned had on my psyche.
It may well have been the excitement of seeing the Hercules over the house, that sparked my interest. It may even have been the sight of RAF Shawbury’s Westland Whirlwind helicopters all shiny, their red and white training plumage glistening against the clear blue skies that seem to always dominate my memory of those now forgotten machines. It may even have been odd ‘Flight’ magazines that were laying around the house. Or it may have been all of these things. But somewhere, somehow, the seed of my interest was sown and that book remains to this day, the only tangible link I have to my formative years and where all of this, my hobby and latterly my career, began.
So why bring this up now?
Well, this week has seen me spend more than a little time up in the loft sorting out my kits, books and other paraphernalia that I’ve collected over the years. I like to say that this was entirely my idea, but that would not necessarily be the case, my wife being a driver to this plan, having tried and failed to find something she wanted amongst the detritus of my junk. “I’m not one to nag” she opined (and she’s not) “but do you really need all of those kits?” (the answer to which is of course, no) “how on earth can you find anything in those dusty boxes?!” Fair enough. So, comment in the air, I realised that something had to change, so up the loft I went…
My loft is like an Aladdin’s cave. It’s filled with all manner of goodies from our time in this house, but also from my previous home and my time living with my mother, filled boxes that go back a very long way. As you can imagine, that is a lot of clutter to go through, so I decided that the only way I could deal with it all was to start at one end and then slowly work my way around the loft to the same starting point, opening every box, collecting what I needed, destroying what I didn’t and then organising the rest. And that’s when I came across my very first aircraft book, there, sat at the bottom of a packing box, as it had been for almost 30 years…
“Aircraft, An All Colour Story Of Modern Flight” by David Mondey is a large format book that covers many facets of aviation, superb photographs acting as aeronautic dream catchers as the author tells his tale. Opening the rather threadbare cover — that I described as worn out, only for my wife to describe as loved, which I admit, tear in eye, described it more accurately – I found the inscription in pen:
“Happy BIRTHDAY Spencer. From NAN & Grandad. UNCLE JOHN. XXXX XXXX.”
A couple of things stood out when I first saw the birthday inscription. Firstly, the odd mix of upper and lower case letters (which in all honesty, I do to this day) and then secondly, almost as an afterthought, written in pencil, was the date: “1975”.
I remember getting this book, but I could not have told you when. It’s not a particularly important point in time, but given that for one reason or another too personal to describe in an essay such as this, my memory of those years is simply too hazy to piece together with any particular clarity, it was a welcome addition. Now, thanks to this little inscription I have an idea of when my love of aircraft perhaps started to take hold, this book allowing me to at least hazard a guess as to when that happened and that then allows me to guesstimate when I was first introduced to modelmaking. You see how this is all starting to complete the circle?
Though I knew that I had not thrown the book out, I really wasn’t sure where it was, so finding it after all these years really was welcomed with a whelp of delight! Opening it once again, I was bowled-over by how fresh it all looked, every single page, every image, every word of text being as familiar now as they must have been exciting when I first gazed upon them 45 years ago. Slowly leafing through the contents, I couldn’t help but wonder what I must have thought back then, as a far younger version of myself gazed in awe at the wondrous shapes and beguiling colours that leapt off every page. Today, I began to wonder if I could build some of the machines, but back then, that was way off into the distance. I may have seen the odd airfix kit, but that was it. Magazines, portals to a world hidden from me, were still at least 3 years away, so what did I think? Maybe it was enough to simply absorb the information and enjoy the sight of the aircraft without ever needing anything else to help make the journey more exciting. Who knows?!
Though I can’t recall with anything like certainty what I was thinking when I read the book for the first time, there are some tantalising hints that point to its use after it became mine in 1975. For instance, there is a small cross against the B-29 entry in the technical date section that forms the last five pages. Why did I mark that out? There are no other marks, so what made that particular aircraft so fascinating? Some of the pages are marked with ink, or pen, or both, smudged lines pointing towards artwork, traced forms that I may have created for my own amusement. One page in particular features the Mirage III-V VTOL prototype and then Mirage G8, both aircraft that I must have been as attracted to as a child as I am, very much so as an adult.
Over the years far better books have been published, many of which have found their way into my library. None though is as important as this now long surpassed edition. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it would lay the foundation stone onto which would be built not only my interest in aviation, but a full-blown career in modelmaking that would develop as a result.
As you can imagine, now that I’ve found the book once more, I’ve returned it to my bookcase and not back to the loft. I’ll enjoy reading its contents and looking at those pictures and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get around to building some of the aircraft from within its pages. This was my starting point, I’m sure of that and one day, there will be a closing chapter to accept. But in the meantime, I’ll keep building and keeping reading about the aircraft that I love today, every bit as much as I did as an 8 year old boy, 45 years ago.