Monday, 20 April 2020

Tangmere, a flight of fancy

Lysander Mk III

The volunteer staff are former RAF personnel and appear older than many exhibits; elderly gentlemen whose active careers are over yet still with the desire, and memories, to speak to the next generation. It was a quiet day and we were probably lucky, but all were ready to reminisce. There was the Canberra navigator who spoke of travelling long distances in the cramped cockpit, the ground engineer who proudly patted one of the planes he had cared for during service life then pointed to himself in a faded photograph of his former squadron. We discussed Cold War politics with another and were shown around the cockpit of a Hunter by someone who truly knew. The atmosphere was that of a convivial gentlemen’s club and we learned so much.

Work is well advanced on the next Fighting Sail instalment; I’m currently about a quarter of the way through the first draft and am aiming for a late autumn release. Meanwhile I am also hoping to add to the Coastal Forces series and, to this end, recently paid a visit to Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. This was partly for research – I had heard there was an informative air-sea rescue display – and partly pleasure. And it was excellent, with a good range of aircraft, displays and memorabilia. But the true magic of Tangmere lies in its attendants.

But there was one short incident that will always stay with me. Tangmere has a fast jet simulator; the cockpit of a Lightning having been wired up with screens and sound to allow amateurs some sensation of being in control while a patient former fighter pilot gives guidance. We enjoyed our twenty minutes and moved on to other exhibits, then the peace of a quiet afternoon was broken by the “engines” of the simulator roaring into life once more.

I quietly returned to the room; another elderly man was at the Lightning’s controls and ‘flying’ it expertly. I think the term is “stooging about at nought feet” but his level would have aroused an angry response from local residents had it been for real, while the speed at which he tree-hopped and banked was truly breath-taking. I watched, transfixed, while this elderly gentleman handled his terrible machine in the way young men have been encouraged to since chariots were invented. He wore glasses and a hearing aid, but neither were needed for the simulator was now a time machine. In my former life I mixed with some top musicians (makes me sound like a drummer) and was fortunate to be present when they practised or improvised; it was a similar sensation: he played that aircraft with an innate talent that surpassed age and I felt honoured to be a silent witness.

Should you find yourself in the South East of England (and when the current crisis is over) do come to Tangmere. It’s a brilliant museum and a great day out; the kids will love it. And there is more; oh, so much more.