A life in Flying
I was born in North West London near Hendon shortly after the end of the Second World War. I grew up in Herga Court, Harrow-on-the Hill, a secluded estate of flats set in gardens and woods off Sudbury Hill, which leads up to Harrow Village. Many of the owners were young families, with babies in prams and children all growing up together. It was an idyllic place where mums would park the kids in their prams and children could play outside in the gardens without fear of danger.
Our neighbours were of mixed backgrounds and professions, and many were employed in military or civil aviation, including RAF, USAF, Polish aircrew, and new airlines. On the third floor above our flat lived Air Vice Marshal Sir Maurice Heath, who was Commanding Officer of British Forces Arabian Peninsular and later Chief of Staff Allied Air Forces Europe. In the next building were, among others, a Jordanian family relative of King Hussein who was at Harrow School, the actor Edward Fox, and Captain Willie (Rooftop) Johnson.
Captain Johnson became famous for landing a DC-3 immediately after take-off on the roof of a family house at the end of Northolt’s Runway 07 with no injuries to passengers, crew or the people in the house who were eating dinner. It was later established that snow was responsible.
St Mary’s Church is at the top of Harrow on the Hill and is the highest point in London, 440 feet above sea level. It is a landmark about 4 miles North East on the final approach to Runway 25 at Northolt Airfield, which was the busiest London Airport just after the War.
Hendon Aerodrome was located 5 miles North East of Harrow on the Hill, on the same runway axis as Northolt (And later, almost the same axis as Runway 23 at Heathrow – more later!)
There was a continuous flow of piston-engine airplanes passing overhead our flat, from Avro Ansons, DC-3s, Vikings to Lockheed Constellations, Douglas DC-6s, all of which would have been about 1,000 feet above my pram in the garden. At some point, I suppose, I started speaking; my mother swears that my first words were ‘Mummy Plane!’
Soon I started to recognise the different types both by their shapes and the sound of the engines – I was hooked! As I grew up, I found two perfect places to watch the aircraft passing by. The flats had 4 floors and a flat terraced roof which gave me a view from East to Southwest; perfect to watch Northolt and Heathrow arrivals when the wind was from the Southwest. The other place was at the top of a 60ft Beech tree, which was perfect to watch Hendon activity, although there was a lot less traffic there in 1955. It was a bit precarious in a stiff breeze, but that was more of a challenge.
They were there until 1957 and the last large aircraft to land in 1968 was a Blackburn Beverley Transport, intended as an exhibit at the new RAF Museum. No. 617 Volunteer Gliding School of the RAF Air Training Corps was established at Hendon and continued to fly there until the airfield was sold for housing.
My connection with Hendon now moves forward to age 16 when I was at Merchant Taylors School and was a RAF Cadet in the school CCF. The RAF allocated a few Gliding Courses to the school every year, and in 1963 I was fortunate to be chosen to attend weekend training to get my A and B Certificate, which entailed completing three solo take-offs and landings in a Kirby Cadet Mk 3 glider at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire.
We had training in the T21 Sedbergh and Kirby Cadet Mk3 aircraft until we were ready to go solo. On the day of our first solo flight there was a stiff breeze blowing. I was No.2, strapped in ready to take off and watching as No.1 launched, turned downwind and then disappeared behind the hangars. There was a general panic as the too low glider tried to get over the hangar, and then stalled onto the apron behind me. Fortunately, the poor guy was only shocked, shaken and stirred. Now it was my turn and realising that the wind had carried him too far away from the airfield, I turned in early and made a reasonable landing.
In 1961 we had moved to a new house in Hampstead, London NW3. I used to see gliders flying at Hendon Aerodrome, and as soon as I had my A and B Certificate I borrowed my Mother’s car and drove to the Aerodrome where I had to pass through the security sentry to get to the launch point.
The Commanding Officer of 617 Gliding School, Flt Lt Adams did not appear too welcoming since I was on Government Property without permission.
However, when I introduced myself as ‘Flight Sergeant Bruh, Merchant Taylors CCF ‘ and asked him if I could do the next Qualification, Soaring and Silver C Certificates, he was dumbfounded. ‘You can’t just drive into an RAF Airfield and ask to do a flying course!’ I could only answer the obvious – ‘But I just did, Sir’. At this point he must have seen a way to get some free labour, so he relented and agreed on the basis that I had to work as a Staff Cadet, moving the gliders, helping the students into the aircraft, helping the launches, signalling the winch drivers etc.
Anyway, I worked hard, enjoying every minute, was able to fly aerobatics over the A41 at Hendon and got my Soaring C Certificate. One Saturday afternoon I was in the orange and white Signalling caravan, looking down the runway to the winch driver ready to launch a glider. Behind me I heard a deep aircraft noise and turned around in time to see a huge 4-engine Douglas DC-4 just over the railway line about 100 yards from the caravan, and about to land on top of me and the gliders on the runway in front of me.
Fortunately, Flt Lt Adams saw it and ran to the caravan, grabbed a red flare pistol which he fired just in time. The aircraft belonged to the Spanish Air Force and, apart from ending my flying career, it would have ended up in Colindale Hospital at the end of the runway. At the last moment, the pilot realised the mistake and climbed away, leaving a trail of shaken cadets and instructors.
He had mistaken Hendon for Northolt, and it was not the first time that this had happened. Incidentally, because Hendon, Northolt and Heathrow are more or less in a straight line, there were several mistaken landings at Northolt when they meant to land at Heathrow. This included a PanAm Boeing 707 in 1960.
As a result, the Gasometer in Harrow was painted with a large ‘NO’ to identify Northolt, and the Gasometer at Southall was painted with ‘LH’ for Heathrow. The Southwest runway at Heathrow no longer exists, and nor do the Gasometers.
On my last day at Hendon, my mother came to collect me with the car. I introduced her to ‘The Boss’, Flight Lieutenant Adams, who, to my astonishment, invited her for a flight in the Sedbergh T21 glider. And to my even greater surprise, she agreed, and they flew for 20 minutes. I asked her recently if she remembers the flight; at 97, she just smiles!
I started a Motor Rally Club at School, and used to practise skidding, handbrake turns etc on the runway once flying had stopped and the gliders were in the hangar. My brother and several friends who I grew up with were all just 17, and I offered to teach them to drive since I had access to the Airfield. We could go through the gears up to 60mph, emergency stop, skid, reverse, park, and everything before they went onto the roads. Once they had confidence, it was a doddle to have them drive up to London and back, negotiating Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner.
In 1967, I was at the entry gatehouse and was puzzled to see several DC-3s parked on the grass airfield and several US soldiers on parade and a film crew with lighting etc. I realised the planes were cleverly painted screens and the ‘Soldiers’ were filming the Dirty Dozen. Watch the parade scene and you will see a glider apparently flying backwards – something to do with the editing I suppose.
One fine evening we were practising high speed cornering when six motorbike policemen came the opposite way up the runway. I gave them a wave, and they gave me a wave, but it was not very friendly, and we had to abandon training there.
I married Karin, a lovely Austrian girl in 1975 and we moved to Mill Hill, ever closer to Hendon. She did not seem to mind being taken to the RAF Museum with the kids every wet weekend once they were old enough.
In 1996 I had a big birthday, which began as a small group of friends going out for dinner. Unfortunately, people in our Company heard that it was a ‘Big One’ and wanted to join, as did all our customers – we were a well-known ladies fashion brand. Suddenly we were looking at around 200 people. Karin and I asked the Museum for the use of the Battle of Britain building to put on a period costume party, together with Jazz and Charleston bands, as well as a Disco. We asked guests to make a gift contribution to Macmillan Cancer Support.
The party was around the Sunderland flying boat, swathed in purple light, the tables were long trestle tables with green camouflage tablecloths. The plates and drinks were served on tin NAAFI –style tin plates and mugs. The food was served at stalls, fish and chips, bangers and mash, and chicken pot pie.
We created ‘Ration Books’ which guests had to buy for one guinea (£1.10) These were numbered and were the entry for a Draw for which friends and colleagues had offered generous prizes. The uniforms and costumes were fantastic; I was hard to spot, even though I stood at the door as guests entered – I was wearing a 40s policeman uniform! The result was a marvellous party and £8000 gift to Macmillans.
My career changed in 2001, when I moved into full time aviation, flying business jet aircraft. This was a new life for me, being ‘On call’ most of the time. As a result, I found that there were periods when I wasn’t flying or being away, and I felt that I had plenty of enthusiasm and ability to talk to people about aviation, so I went to the RAF Museum with the intention to volunteer.
As a result, I was inducted into the Vulcan and Cold War Team, where I met the very knowledgeable members and had my first encounter with the Phantom, ably supported by Dave Parkins. In order to talk meaningfully about the various aircraft in the ‘Tour’ we need to have a reasonable basic history and purpose of each. Then, to make it interesting we need ‘Insider’ information about what they could or could not do, how well they performed, what their competition was etc. In addition to volunteer Roger Wilkins, who only recently passed away and was the ‘Master’ of the Hawker Hunter, I am fortunate in having a number of colleague friends who flew these aircraft in their careers in the RAF who are very willing to tell us about the aircraft and their experiences.
An interesting occasion was the RAF Open Day; I had a guest in the Phantom cockpit; he asked how to raise and lower the seat, and I had not come across that one before. A voice from one of the people waiting said ‘I can show you’. It was Flt Lt Edward Smith, ex-RAF and now Airbus Captain. Edward was a Phantom pilot and happens to be the pilot photographed on the image standing in front of the aircraft. The RAF Museum has invited him to be interviewed and the result can be seen in this lovely video.
I am also fortunate to have flown some of the aircraft in the Museum, including the Grasshopper at the entrance of Hangar 4, the Kirby Cadet Mk3 Glider and the Chipmunk.
It is particularly important to get to know the guest you are talking to before launching into the ‘Patter’. Many of these people may have much more knowledge, so I usually ask them about their interest etc. One guest I asked – ‘What is your interest in Aviation? ’His answer – ‘None! My wife bought me the ticket for my Birthday!’
Although my wife would like to move nearer to London, I think we will be tied to Hendon for a lot longer.