Fatty Flies Again!                                                          11 June 2011

After months of planning a highly classified, covert mission behind enemy lines, operation "Fatty Flies Again" was ready to be implemented.  Under cover of darkness, ahead of what should have been a lovely sunny, summer afternoon in June I was driven in my van to RAF Halton, an airfield near Aylesbury.  There I met my brothers Bob and Andy, and also Rupert "The Bear" (Rachel's godfather) and one or two (thousand) others.

RAF Halton is the venue for an annual get-together of the de Havilland Moth club, celebrating over 75 years of flying these iconic aircraft.  It is also an occasion when members of the public can pay to take a ride in something like a Tiger Moth, with all proceeds going to charity.  There was also going to be a short flying display featuring a Spitfire and Hurricane and some aerobatics.  The Battle of Britain Memorial flight were also scheduled to come past on their way back from the Queen's Birthday fly past in London.  The Bear has been helping to organise this event for several years since he had his midlife crisis and bought a Tiger Moth!  He and I have known each other since university days, and right up until I left the RAF our careers were never very far apart, we served on five or six different squadrons at the same time.  We were both out in the middle east during the first Gulf War, but on different squadrons and different bases.  I was at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia whilst he was in Bahrain.  The Bear was the last of the British forces to be shot down, captured, and made a prisoner of war.  When he came back to the UK he had decided to become a fighter pilot, rather than a bomber pilot, I wonder why?  He is still in the RAF as a Wg Cmdr, based at the RAF College Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

The Bear had assured me that the Moth club have a hoist which they think would be suitable for getting people with disabilities, like mine, into the aircraft, so that they too may still go flying.  I'm not sure though that they anticipated trying to get somebody with my very high level of spinal-cord injury and huge disability into one of the Tigers.

The stage was set, all the equipment was in place, and The Bear's aircraft was re-fuelled and ready to go, what could possibly go wrong? After a little difficulty trying to place a sling under my bum, the seatbelt was still on in my wheelchair, I was ready to be wheeled over to the side of the Tiger Moth.  It was still quite warm and sunny, although dark clouds were threatening on the horizon.  The purpose made hoist was ready to pick me up and several willing helpers were on hand to try and squeeze me into the front cockpit.  I was lifted what seemed a long way up into the air, providing an excellent view over the top wing of the other aircraft on the field.  After a few false starts, my legs were dangling into the cockpit and I was being pulled and pushed around various controls and other bits sticking out!  It wasn't long though before I was lowered in and ready for a few final adjustments, to make sure my feet and arms didn't cause any obstructions and then try and get on my flying helmet.  The helmet is very close fitting and was difficult enough getting it on before my accident doing it myself, having somebody else to do it was always going to be a bit tricky!  After a couple of minutes it was on and fitting reasonably comfortably, I wouldn't know until later whether my neck muscles would be strong enough to support it - and my head of course!  There is no headrest in the aircraft so I was going to be very much on my own.

 The Tiger Moth was moved away from the hoist, The Bear climbed in the back, intercom was checked and with a quick call of " switches on, contact " the propeller was swung round and the engine burst into life.  A quick check of the controls, a glance at the oil pressure gauge and we were taxiing out across the grass.  There was a bit of the queue for takeoff, didn't they know we were VIPs?  By now it had just started to rain!  With my tall sitting height, my head was a little above the windscreen, which in any case is a bit of a token gesture.  The blast of air from the propeller tends to make everything hit the front cockpit occupant right in the face!

We were first in the queue, the approach was clear, we turned into wind, the throttle was opened and we were off.  I was very grateful for my flying helmet, visor and oxygen mask as the rain by now was pinging off my exposed cheeks!  After a very short takeoff roll, despite the extra weight of Fatty in the front, I was in the air once more!  I'm afraid now that the list of superlatives fails me, unbelievable, awesome, fantastic, huge high emotion!   Who cares now about the rain!  We'll certainly The Bear did, after all it was his aircraft!


The temptation was very great to turn upside down again, but surprisingly, discretion played a big part and we flew around Buckinghamshire for a short while before it was time to return to the field.  The weather though had certainly changed from the sunshine when the team started to load me in the front.  What had started as a few dark clouds became an almost black overcast sky, and it was raining quite hard, driven by the propeller it was very hard on the exposed parts of my face!  The wind had also decided to be a little fickle around the storm clouds, and was bouncing the Tiger Moth around quite a lot.

For those that have never flown in an open cockpit aircraft, it is rather loud!  Despite the Bear and I both wearing "bone domes (RAF flying helmets)" it was only when the throttle was closed and we started to descend in preparation for landing that I could even speak and be heard over the intercom.  What I said is almost certainly unrepeatable!  Throughout the rest of the flight conversation was completely impossible.  Even with the very strong crosswind the Bear was able to very carefully pop the Tiger gently back on the ground.  The by now wet grass was surprisingly slippery, and a Tiger Moth has no brakes!  That combined with the now very strong, gusty wind makes a little tailwheel aircraft more than a handful on the ground, but we negotiated the other parked aircraft and came to a stop right next to the hoist.

Getting out was even more of a game than getting in, but in next to no time I was back in my wheelchair and ready, surprisingly for a warm drink rather than a beer!
What can I say, other than of course one or two (rather more) well-deserved thank you's:
The Bear obviously, for not only arranging everything, but risking damaging his lovely Tiger Moth having me dropped in it, and bits of me getting in the way of the controls.
Many of my old RAF colleagues, former students of mine, instructor of mine who all still, like me, love old aircraft, and made it to RAF Halton.
The amazingly warm welcome and help provided by all at the de Havilland Moth club, for whom nothing was too much trouble.  Getting me very carefully, into and out of the Tiger Moth and being tremendously patient with me.
My two brothers and their wives for joining me for the day.
Ross for helping with all the driving, and getting a little sunburnt!
Olimpia, my carer, for putting up with me and a very, very long day.
Unfortunately, my own family were all tied up with exams and couldn't make it.

 To all of you, a truly memorable day, I will be forever in your debt.