All I can remember about my first day at school was sitting in the hall awaiting our form allocations next to John Woodhouse whose brain I was instantly impressed by and with whom I have been friends ever since.
I guess I was a bit of a loner at school as I tended to give my hobby priority over establishing relationships. When I was about 10 I took up Amateur Radio and at the time became the youngest person in the UK to pass his Radio Amateurs Exam (technical) and Morse Test at 12 words per minute to obtain a full Amateur Licence under the call-sign G3PRT. Where other boys were out discovering life at places like the 'Iron Curtain Club' and doubtless experimenting with 'Purple Hearts' and girls, I spent my evenings in a haze of soldering smells, building my own transmitters and trying to contact other amateurs all over the world from my bedroom.
Apparently our house in Elmstead Lane Chislehurst was sited 100 yards too near (or maybe too far) for me to qualify for a bus pass for the full journey to school. I had to walk half a mile to the first bus stop and then change buses at Chislehurst War Memorial. When the 229? hit the top of the Sidcup By-Pass I had to get off and walk again all the way down to the School at Crittals Corner, whereas other pupils, because of where they lived had the luxury of continuing through Sidcup High Street and all the way to the School. Good exercise I guess but in the winter, it was a very chilly walk. When we moved to Lancing Road Orpington in 1961 the journey became much easier, just a 200 yard walk to the High Street and the 61 bus took me right outside the School.
My party trick at school was to stand in front of the class before the master arrived and do impersonations of the various teachers who all had their particular idiosyncrasies. Someone would keep a lookout for the master who would come down the corridor from the staffroom end but one day I was caught out when Mr Bradley sneaked up from the opposite direction whilst I was in full flood doing an impersonation of himself, much to the amusement of all.
I guess this lead on to my desire to act and I became involved in a number of plays over my time at school. After taking the lead in A A Milne's 'The Ivory Door' I decided that despite my love of electronics and radio I would become an actor. How different things work out? The part of King Perivale demanded memorising a huge number of lines and on the opening night it was the very first time I had actually gone through the whole play from beginning to end without a single prompt. To this very day I still have a recurring 'anxiety' dream where I am getting ready to go on stage and I haven't even learnt a single line. What's that all about?
Read the press cutting
One year, when John Woodhouse was in charge of sound and sound effects at either a concert or play we were just behind the big red curtains on stage and playing the background music whilst the parents filed in and took their seats. I decided that Elvis Presley may be a good choice but within minutes 'Joe' Kingsland came storming down the hall, gown flowing, trotted up the stairs clutching a bunch of old records in brown paper covers. "Take that stuff off immediately - Does this thing play seventy fives?". John and I could hardly contain ourselves and have never forgotten his numeric inaccuracy.
I always had a huge respect for the school masters but I think my favourite was probably Leo Walmsley. He was so different to all the others with his amazing mane of hair and his great attitude to life: "It's not how long you live but what you do with that life and the intensity with which you live it". An attitude I have adopted to this day.
Most respect of all was probably reserved for Joe Kingsland who taught me so much about attitude to life and work. I always remember him saying, "When you see an old boy who has left school, studied at university and has embarked on a rewarding and successful career, don't say 'There goes lucky old so-and-so' say 'There goes plucky old so-and-so' " . 'Stickability' was another of his famous bywords. I was fortunate to have Joe as my only headmaster whilst at Cray and I look back fondly and think that we would probably not have had a better education if we had gone to a public school. His teachings stood me in good stead when I started at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell where 90% of my year's entry had been public school educated.
I joined and help run the School Radio Club and one year set up G3PRT/A as a two day exhibition of amateur radio trying to attract new interest. We used mainly 'borrowed' equipment from a Dartford supplier and the show coincided with a visit by the now historic scaler of Everest, Sir John Hunt.
By the summer of 1963 I had gone away on holiday for the first time without parents and met a girl who lived in Blackfen. My interest in amateur radio started to dwindle as the 16 year old's hormones started to kick in and my major priority became one of getting from Orpington to Blackfen on a regular basis without two changes of bus and a long walk!
The answer came via a kind gesture from Mr Matthews, my engineering master, who kindly agreed to sell me a delapidated old 1953 Vespa scooter for the princely sum of £5. (probably worth a fortune now). I named him 'Olley' and remember pushing it all the way home to Orpington. There followed a few weeks of de-coking and cleaning up and eventually I got the machine on the road. The third party fire and theft policy cost me another £5, no MOT in those days, (it would never have passed), a new tax disc and I was ready to fly. However, I can remember with horror the numerous times that the rusty exhaust pipe either blew a hole in the side or fell off completely. It was always a race for home before I could be stopped for noise pollution. Most of the time the exhaust was held together with bits of wire and a prayer. Later, after coming off on a bend in Sidcup I decided that four wheels would be better than two - but one probIem, I was not yet 17. However, 16 year olds were allowed to drive three wheelers and within weeks the Vespa had gone to be replaced with a bright yellow Isetta 'bubble car'.
By 1964 my geeky days of radio were behind me and the latest 'bee in my bonnet' was an incredible desire to fly. I used to be a regular visitor to Biggin Hill at weekends when I would watch in awe at the private club pilots who took to the skies for their aerial adventures. However, my chances of ever getting airborne were slim as I couldn't even afford a pleasure flight and it was not until another Cray boy, Peter Smith who was due to go to Cranwell, offered to take me up in a Tiger Moth for a trip over the local area. It was about that time the RAF started to offer Special Flying Awards, which was a scholarship open to any pupils with 5 'O-levels' who could show an aptitude to fly and who had the eventual intention of joining the RAF as aircrew. After my first airborne experience with Peter I was smitten and made an application for the award. The selection procedure took place at the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre at Biggin Hill. It couldn't have been more convenient for me. A three day stay and seemingly dozens of aptitude and intelligence tests, medicals and interviews later and the long wait to hear the results started. Only one in 100 applicants were successful but those who were earned themselves a full-time, 30 hour course culminating in a Private Pilot's Licence. A month or so later and the letter arrived telling me I had secured a place on a PPL course, again at Biggin Hill starting in July.
The course was thrilling for a 17 year old boy and I took to flying like the proverbial duck to water. I got my licence in August 1964 but during the course I was struggling all the time with a dilemma. Acting or flying? I didn't need a careers adviser as these were my only two choices. I had decided concurrently to apply to RADA and the RAF. The Royal Academy as that was considered the best drama school and the RAF College Cranwell as there I was certain to get the best possible flying training available anywhere in the world. However, it was a chance meeting with a well known television star whilst on my flying course which helped me finally decide.
It was a hot and sunny July day and I had just returned from a solo cross country exercise to Ipswich. In those days we had to queue up at the bowser to refuel our aircraft and there were two planes in front of me. I was sitting on the grass enjoying the sunshine when a twin-engined Piper taxied up behind me, switched off and the pilot got out to stretch his legs. It was none other than the great comedian Dick Emery. I introduced myself and told him of my problem and almost word for word this is what he told me. He said "Look, you recognised me because I'm on the telly a lot. You see me pitch up in a nice twin-prop executive plane and assume that I am not only famous but rich. Well, I can tell you now that i just love flying but that plane was hired for the day and sometimes I don't know where my next hot dinner is coming from. The acting profession is a very dodgy one and I just don't know whether I will be working this time next month let alone this time next year. If you want to get into acting you need to eat, sleep and drink the stage. Day and night, total dedication. No question. Your chances of success are less than 1% and if you want any security at all in your life then acting is not the route to take"
The die was cast!
I withdrew my application to RADA and decided to hotly pursue a coveted place at the RAF College. Only two boys from Cray had been 'plucky' enough to be accepted there so far, Ben Brown and Peter Smith. The stakes were high and the competition quite fierce during the selection procedure, again at OASC Biggin Hill. This time it was a five day ordeal during which we were put through an amazing number of trials, like getting yourself, three other team members, two 40 gallon oil drums and a larch pole across a 20 foot wide 'shark infested' river, using only your wits and a few lengths of rope. Daily interviews, more medicals and seemingly endless aptitude and initative tests. No wonder I suppose because RAF officer pilot training in the 1960s cost the British tax payer around £100,000 (£1.8m today).
Fortunately I had done well in selection but I had a major problem hanging over me which was standing in the way of acceptance. Between the age of 5 and 13 I had suffered from bad attacks of migrane and having declared this at my medicals the RAF needed to give me extensive EEG (Electro Encephalogram) tests to decide if I was completely clear of the problem. After being bombarded by loud noises and high-intensity strobe lights whilst wearing a 'wig' of wires coming out of my head connected to their equipment they could detect no neurological problem which would prevent me from becoming an RAF pilot and within a few days the letter arrived - I was in!
As I am sure both Ben and Peter before me would confirm, life at Cranwell was like entering a wholly different world after Cray. Mixing with mainly public school boys who were used to fagging and the vaguaries of life at boarding school, not only had a profound effect on my accent but quickly prepared me for Cranwell's infamous 'Crowing'. At any time of the day or night (and sometimes it really was three in the morning) a member or members of the senior entry, some three years ahead of us in the course, would come down to our huts in the 'South Brick Lines' for a little crowing fun. For their own sadistic enjoyment this consisted of entering our accommodation and demand that we perform whatever ridiculous task they dreamt up at the time. From being made to strip bare, climb onto the roof and shout 'I have a lovely arse' at the top of our voices to being made to sing 'The Aim' over and over again to the tune of 'Everyone's Gone to The Moon'. Once I was made to perform the death throws of an ant, but as I didn't make enough noise I was made to perform 'restrictions' the Cranwell equivalent of detention.
How does a headmaster select a Head Boy and his Vice? In my final year at Cray David Baker earned the top spot and for once in his life Mr Kingsland must have had a mental abberation because his choice of David's second-in-command fell on me. I have no idea how this happened, maybe it was because I must have displayed a certain amount of organisational skills and the London to Brighton Walks come to mind. President Kennedy had stated that the average American could not walk 50 miles in one go unaided and thus threw open the challenge worldwide. It is 53.25 miles from Westminster Bridge to Brighton seafront all the way down the A23. For our first attempt I was joined by two others and the course was completed in about 17 hours. I then decided to organise a mass walk for up to 100 boys from the school. Everything was going well until the authorities stepped in and cancelled the event for safety reasons leaving just 7 of us to attempt the walk. Second time around I was joined by Brian Rodgers and Pat Acock and another two hours was knocked off the time. Five miles is my limit nowadays!
I left Cray Valley in July 1965 and on 5th October that year had most of my hair brutally shaved off, signed the Official Secrets Act, swore allegiance to the Queen and formally started my time on No. 93 Entry RAF Cranwell.
'The aim of the Royal Air Force College is to provide the Service with officers of character and ability whose education and service training will meet the demands of the highest ranks'
And in a few words - this, for me, turned out to be the problem with Cranwell and my ultimate reason for wanting to leave!
We hardly went near anything which flew during the first six months at the college. All training was purely theoretical; aerodynamics, meteorology, military history, Air Force law, drill, PE, more drill and even more PE. Martin Carr prepared us well for what we had to go through at Cranwell - bless you Martin. So, on March 31st 1966 I took to the air in a Jet Provost for the first time and went solo the next month. However, by July my plans had changed completely. The official entry, marked in red in my Pilot's log book states: 'Withdrawn from flying training at own request w.e.f. 20-7-66'. What went wrong? Well, one clue is in the 'The Aim' above - "to meet the demands of the highest ranks'. I joined the RAF to fly and it didn't take 6 months to realise that Cranwell's main purpose was to groom the RAF's future leaders. Quite frankly that minor part of the deal didn't really interest me - I just wanted to fly but I found the military bit was just getting in the way!
After much deliberation and dissapointment for my parents I made a formal application for transfer to a Direct Entry General Duties Commission, which meant for me that I could leave the service at age 35 instead of 55 and the flying side would occupy a more prominent part for me than any pursuit of a high rank. I was told this had never been done before and those in command were reluctant to accede for fear of others following who may be of a similar disposition. Not good PR for them. The only way I was to achieve this was to leave Cranwell and the RAF and re-apply for a Direct Entry Commission, which again had never been done before.
Air Commodore Sir Neil Cameron, who was in overall command at the college, spent an hour on the phone to my father asking him to try and persuade me to stay on but Dad knew me well enough - I had made up my mind and by the end of July I was back out in Civvy Street, enjoying the freedom and growing my hair back!
I spent the rest of the summer 1966 working for a friend of John Woodhouse, learning to respray cars and re-wiring houses, but by September I was already thinking 'what have I done?' One minute I am learning to fly jet aircraft with the cream of the Air Force, the next I'm crawling around in some guy's basement poking wires up through his floorboards.
In those days September every year saw the RAF Battle of Britain Display at Biggin Hill. The newly formed Red Arrows were then flying Folland Gnats and were only in their second season. It was their thrilling display that year at Biggin which eventually tipped me over the edge and with great emotion I can remember looking up at them and saying to myself "Christ, I should be back up there with them - that's where I belong".
Within three months, guess what? I was back for a third time at the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre doing my best to explain why had I forfeited my place at Cranwell, having cost the tax-payers a fortune and why it was a good idea that the RAF take me back and give me a second chance. Thinking about it 50 years later I guess they must have been mad to even consider the prospect. The interviews were tortuous, and I really worked very hard at selling myself to them, after all I was now an old hand at all the tests and trials but after fours days having given of my best I felt I had little chance of success.
Wrong! Just 10 months after leaving Cranwell I was signing the Official Secrets Act for the second time and once more they took all my hair away. This time there was an initial training of just four months at RAF South Cerney in Gloucestershire. The course was intensive and physically demanding but it was the 'Summer of Love' and the short breaks into Cirencester from hard work to 'flower power' were very welcome. It was also the time of the Six Day War and this was brought right to our doorstep as we had two fellow cadets from Gaza who huddled round the communal radio for news of what was going on back in their war-torn country. It made the hostilities very real to the rest of us.
I proudly 'passed- out' as a freshly minted Acting Pilot Officer on 15th September 1967 and was more than ready for my flying training which was due to start within the next few months at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire.
This time I applied a liberal dose of Joe Kingsland's 'stickability' and completed the course, earning those coveted 'Wings' in October 1968. Monty Sunshine was the band at our 'Wings Ball' and the atmosphere was heady. Another 30 or so young men with their future in the skies ahead of them and ready to do business. But before we could start work in earnest we all had to convert onto operational aircraft and learn the nitty gritty of our future jobs, not just the easy bit - learning how to fly.
During the whole Wings Course I was adamant that I didn't want to kill people, so for me Bomber and Fighter Commands were both a no-no. I didn't want to become a taxi driver in the sky, so Transport Command was ruled out so that didn't leave much at all. I wanted to have fun, flying close to the ground and doing something useful like saving lives rather than ending them. So, for the last 8 months of the course I had been chalking up on our daily 'fight board' -'Cadle for Choppers'. I left so many not so subtle clues and made it so well known that my main instructor, a three times veteran of the Vietnam war Captain Ken Redding, must have got the message.
Ken was a magnificent instructor, never happier than when we were upside down at 20,000 feet and always very gung ho. When it was time to fly he used to come into the Flight Room, look at me and say "OK kid, let's go kick the tyres, light the fires, dangle those Dunlops and get the show on the road". When I finished flying training he presented me with one of his bright orange combat flying suits which I subsequently wore on all my operations. I auctioned the suit for charity in 2004 and it is now with a collector in Hong Kong.
After flying F100's in Vietnam Ken must have thought choppers a bit sissy but he respected my choice. At the end of the course I was delighted to hear that my posting was to be helicopter training at RAF Ternhill in Shropshire and I started there in the freezing winter of 68/69.
The Wings Course involved all types of flying for a total of 200 hours in the air but forget aerobatics and close formation, my love was flying close to the ground and in choppers it was de riguer. This was the fly anywhere, land anywhere (almost) mode of transport and I just loved it. The first few months was spent trying to master an aircraft which did not require forward speed in order to remain airborne. Below a certain speed in a fixed wing aircraft you stalled with inevitable disastrous consequences but in a chopper you could go in any direction and at any speed right from the standing hover. Eventually I felt the chopper become a part of my own body as I learnt to manipulate it under all conditions and in and out of all sorts of tight spaces. The whole experience was thrilling.
After basic training on the turbo-charged Sioux (Bell 47G) helicopters, made famous by the children's TV series 'The Whirlybirds' I moved on to the much larger Westland Whirlwind and began search and rescue training at RAF Valley in Anglesey. Here we learnt the basics of rescue from the sea and the mountains in Snowdonia. Life in the RAF always seemed to be a succession of never ending courses and there was one more to go on before being let loose into the real world. This was the course to convert onto the even larger twin-engined Westland Wessex 2 which took place at RAF Odiham in Hampshire. Much of the training there was linked to the Army and its troop manoeuvres. Finding and landing in obscure and narrow clearings in the jungles near Basingstoke, casualty evacuations from a simulated Vietcong village on Salisbury Plain and almost no further search and rescue training. At the end of the course I received notification of my first official posting as a working pilot - I was to join the Search and Rescue team with Comsar Squadron at RAF Muharraq in Bahrain.
I have never been so hot so quickly as the day I stepped off the Transport Command VC10 in Bahrain on 28 July 1969. 120 degrees and 98% humidity. Not exactly everyone's idea of fun for the next 13 months but it was an exciting new adventure and I was about to start my first real job.
The three Wessex on our Flight were there in support of No.8 Squadron, who were in Bahrain to protect Kuwait against Iraqi aggression. It consisted of a dozen or so Hunters but during my whole tour there were no accidents and no calls for our help from No. 8. In fact I had to wait almost five months before I actually did my first rescue. We were scrambled to the aid of a seaman on the BP oil tanker 'British Liberty' some 62 nautical miles into the Persian Gulf. The rescue was exciting being my first but uneventful and the casualty was safely delivered to Muharraq Hospital. We later found out that he had cut his wrists in a failed suicide attempt and I learned a year later that ironically the same guy had sadly finally succeeded.
I must admit that living in Bahrain made me very homesick but I managed to wangle a number of what they called 'indulgence passages' which enabled me to escape back to the UK every couple of months. This was not necessarily always in the comfort of the 'Sky Rocket', our nickname for the VC10 service between Bahrain and Brize Norton. On more than one occasion I slept on top of the cargo in the back of a Hercules C130. Once my only other travelling companions who were not crew were three dead bodies on their way home from Hong Kong and on another I was told on arrival in the UK that I had been sleeping alongside one million pounds worth of Gold bullion. I wonder why they didn't tell me that at the start of the flight?
There were three other pilots who manned the SAR Flight and our shifts worked out at one day on and two days off. One day meant 24 hours and we were on call for the whole of that time. I can remember during day one of training on the Wessex helicopter it took exactly 45 minutes to go through all the checks before take off. However, on an operational scramble we were required to get out to the pre-checked aircraft, do final essential checks, start up engines and get airborne within just 120 seconds.
During the two days down time there were many sporting activities made available to us. As I have never been interested in sport in any way I used to quite enjoy sitting around the officers' swimming pool and reading. I can remember the headlines from a UK newspaper at the time hailing "LONDON SIZZLES IN 90 DEGREE HEATWAVE". With an outside shade temperature of 120 degrees and the water temperature hotter that 'sizzling' London at over 100 degrees, entering that water was like jumping into an Arctic pond - freezing.
Another free time activity I took up was to have my own radio show on MRS - The Muharraq Redifusion Service. This was not strictly a 'real' radio station but the content was pumped through speakers in all the living quarters throughout the base and because you couldn't receive pop programmes from the UK it became very popular.
I had always loved the pirate radio stations from the day they fired up at Easter 1964, so I decided to do a show called 'The Revived Radio London Show'. MRS had an extensive library of music and we recreated the Radio London jingles from a copy of The Who 'Sell Out' album. The show was very popular (probably because the jingles were familiar and reminded homesick listeners of the UK and what they were missing). So, I didn't get to RADA but this gave me a small opportunity to 'perform' - and it also gave me other ideas....
I have to say that after only a few months in the Gulf I was really missing home, and to some extent missing freedom. I used to fantasise about having a really nice sports car when I got back to the UK and I wrote off to all the top marques to collect their glossy brochures. It was easy to save out there as there was little to spend my money on. I returned to the UK a few months before the end of my tour and in a moment of madness blew my life savings on a 3.8 Litre fixed head, metallic blue E-Type. I bought it through the Evening Standard and paid just £968 for it. I loved that car and can smell the interior now. In a straight line it was amazing but round any bend it could be lethal. I rented a neighbour's garage to store the car whilst I completed my tour in Bahrain and my father drove it round the block for me once a week until my tour was over and could come back and claim it in late August 1970.
This is when things started to get very interesting and purely by chance it involved another ex-Cray Valley boy and a Chislehurst pub. I was just 23 years old and already a career change was in the air....
To be continued....