Echoes of First Flight.
I could almost hear the echoes of my first solo flight, although the Bellman hangars and operations bunker pre-date me by decades as their roots turned soil in the dark days of World War Two. However, many of the landmarks that set the scene of my aerial infancy remain and stared back at me as I retraced the steps of my youth.
The old wooden barracks where I’d once slept are now condemned and seem to slouch upon the brick footings. The elevated platform where we would gather to watch our fellow cadets touching down and going around remains and the gated staircase was fortuitously left ajar. I climbed the steps after an absence of forty-one years and cast my eyes to the runway’s threshold. New hangars now obscure much of the view but in my mind’s eye I could clearly see Pete coming over the fence on that first solo flight. I could still see his grinning, boyish face looking up as he climbed those same stairs. Pete passed nearly twenty years ago and I recall his funeral with far less clarity.
Across the way, a small monument stands and is all but ignored by those that drive by. Upon it are the names of those that perished when their aircraft crashed while searching for a pair of young aviators that had gone missing. Two of those names I knew well and their faces too look back at me. As does the image of their wrecked machine with all its tell-tale signs of tragedy. Further on, the windsock hangs limp and the sun is sitting low on the horizon as a lone aircraft passes overhead before banking into the circuit in preparation for landing. I crane my neck and cast my eyes skyward as I have done a million times before, the novelty never seeming to leave me. I track the Cessna’s path noting the subtle changes in engine tone as the pilot throttles back and extends the flaps, slowing to reunite with the earth.
In 1981 I was executing the same manoeuvre to complete my first solo flight, passing through that same parcel of air and touching down on that same strip of asphalt. It was a time before headsets, where clearances were blurted through the overhead speaker and the clearance to land on final approach was achieved by using a hand microphone before fumbling to return it to its bracket.
I descend the stairs and wander back to my car, contemplating the 22,000 hours since that I’ve spent in cockpits of all shapes and sizes across oceans and distant lands. Still, that first solo flight stays with me like no other. Another hundred paces and faint echoes of laughter seem to escape past the peeling paint and cracking panels of our old barracks. It’s almost dark and the orders of cadet sergeants boom, drowning out my echoes. A new generation of cadets are marching…and occasionally laughing…and getting in trouble for doing so. I’m sure among their number is another pilot with a pile of log books ahead of them and another Pete. I like to think so.