It was the summer in which the skies seemed fixed permanently fair. With each new day the sun defied Britain’s usual unpredictability and shone with renewed strength, baking the earth of her airfields hard and drying their grass a dirty yellow, and blurring the outlines of distantly parked aircraft behind a shimmering veil of haze.
On such an airfield in the south of England, grounded airmen lolled in the shade of an improvised shelter, reading, or staring to the blurred horizon, or occasionally raising their voices to compete over who’d survived the worst heat in the past. The Far East, one claimed, had been a very uncomfortable posting. But not, it seems, as horrendous as Aden, where another had served – a dire, boring, miserably sweltering outpost by his account.
Had a sharp telephone ring interrupted these ramblings of colonial misadventure, and the ramblers been sent tearing across the field to waiting Spitfires by the exhortation to “SCRAMBLE!” – I think I would have accepted it as the natural course of the afternoon. For the setting last week on that ex-RAF Second World War-era airfield was so reminiscent of the sunny summer of 1940, when men far younger than these gentlemen ramblers idled away precious minutes between stints squaring off against the Luftwaffe in the skies, as to be almost surreal. In fact, the setting was so unavoidably reminiscent that the same said gentlemen ramblers amused themselves by nurturing the impression among their visitors.
“Are you all ex-RAF?” I asked one. “I am,” the One replied. “I flew Lancasters. And he was a tail-gunner.”
My idle fantasy only lasted as long as my idling. For after nearly two hours of lounging in 1940 with my gentlemen ramblers, the Duchess of Marlborough, as they were by then calling me, was finally called forward for her flight: my first unmotorised flight, a flight in a very modern, very much not-1940s glider.
Once comfortably ensconced in the front seat of the aircraft – the only proper seat for a duchess – with my back against the comforting padding of my parachute and with the myriad of dials before me briefly explained, my thoughts for the first time turned to the winch launch.
“Do people often scream?” I asked Nick the Pilot as duchessly as possible. “Sometimes,” he said.
In the event, I didn’t get the chance. When a glider is launched by winch it goes from standing still to rocketing up nigh-on vertically into the sky within three, stomach lifting, breath-stealing seconds. I could not have screamed if I wanted to, and I did want to – not through fear, but sheer, overwhelming exhilaration. Once the thrilling climb was over, almost as suddenly as it had begun, and breath had re-entered my body, all I could manage was a laugh and a “wow!”. And then, after the rush there is the serenity: it was a beautiful day to circle silently over the plump English countryside, hardly aware of the 50 or 60 odd miles per hour or so at which you’re soaring. The only other craft in the sky were a pair of fellow gliders, winking in and out of view as they caught the sun’s rays, silver blades slicing through the sky.
Our first flight did not last very long. Nick the Pilot couldn’t find a good spot of thermals and although we rose a bit we did not rise enough, and so we landed and subjected my stomach to another launch. This time, we turned the glider towards our fellow flyers and quickly rose up to 3,000 metres on the thermals they had found. It was at this point, once we’d appeared to reach the crest of the wave, that Nick suggested I become the pilot.
I had been reluctant to take control at a lower altitude. Gliding unpowered through the sky may be serene but it is also precarious. The absolute necessity of finding rising warm air adds a touch of tension to the whole experience, and knowing full well that we would rapidly lose altitude once I’d gotten my grubby hands on the control stick I was keen to put off seizing that stick for as long as possible – for the dual purposes of extending the length of the flight, and avoiding making an undignified emergency landing in a cow pat. It was embarrassing enough that instantly upon the first take-off I’d forgotten all the protocol I’d just been taught and instead, for instance, of warning Nick that “there’s another glider coming towards us at 2 o’clock”, I’d cried “Oooh, look up there!”
Yet for all my trepidations this was an opportunity not to be missed, and so at around 3,000 metres I actually took control of a glider. And watched as the dial before me recorded a rapid decline to 1,000 metres. But it was a descent in which I turned us right and turned us left and accelerated forward and lifted the nose and fought to resist the urge to attempt a wild stunt with all the happy self-satisfied glee of a child who’s just taken the stabilisers off their first bicycle. What is more, according to a surprised-sounding Nick the Co-Pilot, I actually did it all rather well.
I sometimes feel like I spend half my life in airport terminals, waiting to board yet another boring jumbo jet, and consequently the joy of a commercial plane ride has long since been forgotten. But as Nick the Pilot wrested back control, made a joke about Biggles, and took us in for an impromptu formation landing alongside another glider, I rediscovered how much pure old-fashioned fun flying can be. Even if the landing was a little too bumpy for this particular duchess.