The Old Blokes in the Corner.

Owen Zupp Ces Sly

The Old Blokes in the Corner.

I was fortunate in that the era in which I learnt to fly was populated by mentors with a wealth of experience. Back then, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) went through a series of name changes from the Department of Transport to the Department of Aviation to the Civil Aviation Authority. What did not change were the Examiners of Airmen who were both feared and revered in differing degrees at different times.

Most had substantial military experience and I recall the examiner who issued my instructor rating was Bill Scott, the first Australian to break the sound barrier over Australian soil. There was “Come again Col” at one end of the spectrum and then the gentlemanly Ces Sly at the other.

Ces was a former fighter pilot of my father’s era and on a number of occasions he was the examiner that renewed my instructor rating. Like my father, Ces was a quiet, unassuming chap, almost anonymous in the sea of young pilots with their shoulders bulging with gold bars. No, Ces and Dad preferred a business shirt, tie and shiny shoes.

At the time, my father had retired from commercial aviation, opting from time to time to instruct Qantas cadets at a small simulator facility or train fledgling pilots at the Schofields Flying Club. He would also fly charter flights in the venerable DC-3, often alongside Ces.

On one such day, my father had asked if I wanted to join the two of them at the Royal Aero Club of NSW bar when they returned from a flight to the Hunter Valley. Keen to accept the invitation, I signed off from my own flying tasks and headed over to the Aero Club. I found a table in the corner that was out of the way but still offered a view of the aircraft on approach through the massive windows that enclosed the bar.

Dad was the first to arrive, his grey Nissan Bluebird pulling up slowly and parking outside. Moments later, Ces parked next to the Bluebird in his own understated little Daihatsu. The two old fighter pilots then rose from their cars, straightened their ties and entered the bar.

They were nearly invisible as they walked through the door. Dad was 5 foot 5 inches  and Ces was not much taller, if at all. As Dad would relate, being short was good for “pulling Gs” in the days before G-suits as body didn’t have to pump blood far from the torso to reach the brain. And fighter cockpits were cramped places anyway.

I offered to buy the first round and true to form, they both ordered a lemon squash. Standing at the bar, I looked back at the two of them sitting there in a relaxed, quiet discussion. Between the two of them was well over 300 combat missions in the Korean War. Dad had his canopy shot off at low level and received shrapnel to the face. Ces had bailed out of his Mustang, hitting the tail on the way out. On the ground he had been dramatically rescued by helicopter while surrounded by North Korean troops. Both had been decorated. Now, here they sat, patiently waiting for their soft drinks.

By contrast, elsewhere in the bar, loud-mouth aspiring aviators were telling tall tales and true, their hands re-enacting a perfectly mundane landing as if they were Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1. As their alcohol intake increased, so did their volume. It aggravated me.

Setting the drinks down, I took my seat, not daring to interrupt. So much of what I learned of flying was gleaned from sitting in silence as the old hands spoke. At times it was difficult to hear their words as Chuck and his mates were making sure everyone in the bar knew just how good they were.

In frustration, I asked Ces and Dad in whether these blokes and their raucous rants bothered them. The two veterans looked at each other and shrugged. The consensus was , “No. They’re not hurting anyone and they seem to be enjoying themselves”. At which time they resumed their conversation.

It took me a good many years but eventually I understood. Ces and Dad were comfortable in their own skin. They had been there, done that but didn’t even bother to buy the T-shirt. Their military service and aeronautical experience was their business and there was no need to advertise.

On reflection, my frustration had stemmed from the competitive adrenaline of youth that was running through my veins at the time. With the years, those feelings have subsided and like Ces and Dad, I grew comfortable in my own skin – even if I didn’t possess half the experience of those veteran aviators.

And when they spoke, it was time to listen. When they spoke, it was not for any glory but simply to share the knowledge that lay within their multiple log books. That day I learned another valuable lesson. Don’t gravitate towards the crowd but seek out the old blokes seated in the corner.

Without Precedent Zupp