When I was a child, we mainly holidayed in Scotland. I didn’t actually leave these shores until I was 18 – and then it was by boat. Lift-off didn’t happen until I was in my early 20s and working in a radio newsroom.
I was rather delighted, if a little nervous, therefore when an invitation to join the RAF Falcons parachute display team at the local air show arrived on the editor’s desk and I got the gig. My first experience of flying was in a noisy Hercules, piloted by chaps who spoke evah so naicely. The display team members were lean but not mean, and harnessed we observers to the side when they dropped the plane’s immense back door and leapt out into the wild blue yonder. I was given a headset and went to the flight deck (not cockpit) to watch them, before the plane climbed then dived at a frightening rate of knots to swoop along the coastline and elicit gasps of awe from the crowd on the ground. My gasps, however, were of agony: I had never encountered ear popping before. The professionals handed out tiny cans of pop and boiled sweets. Sipping and sucking are supposed to alleviate the pain.
I had another interesting airborne experience at another radio station. As I finished an early shift, the engineer asked if I fancied flying to Bristol with him to collect some equipment. As he was a former RAF officer whose nickname was Wing Commander, I had no qualms climbing into the two-seater plane. Fingers of fear, however, began to prod my intestines when he sat with a book on his knee checking the instruments before we took off. I didn’t think much of his chances of getting us up – and more importantly down – if he had to consult a manual. Later I discovered that he hadn’t been a pilot in his previous life, but an RAF engineer.
My best flight, however, was in a balloon. There is something truly magical about floating along in a big wicker basket with the roar of the burners above you and people enjoying the sunlit evening below. Voices and laughter drifted up through the warm air like a lullaby; children shouted and waved; feeling like Phileas Fogg, I waved regally back. This was one experience that truly deserves the accolade of awesome. I returned to earth with a bump though: the balloon landed, the basket tipped over and the pilot’s binoculars smacked me smartly on the back of the head.