It was wartime, and all around the world momentous events were changing the course of history. I was then an experienced pilot in the Royal Air Force (having entered the Service a year or so before the outbreak of hostilities), and was stationed at an aerodrome on the wintry Vale of York in the bleak northeast of England.
On 16 January 1944, I prepared to make a routine flight to carry passengers to St Eval in Cornwall, some 300 miles away.
Our aircraft, an elderly Airspeed Oxford, was a versatile, twin–engined training–cum–transport monoplane of medium size. Built largely of wood, it was noisy, and a pig to fly on one engine, but reliable and fairly fast. Significantly, she was also fitted with Lorenz Blind Approach Radio to facilitate landing in conditions of poor visibility.
The day of departure dawned fine, with unbroken sunshine which soon burned off the last remains of the overnight fog. By mid–morning conditions were as near perfect as could be for the flight.
Then, just minutes before take–off, the port engine began to leak oil. This was a serious set–back, made worse by the fact there was no standby aircraft, and we had to wait for our machine to be repaired. As precious minutes ticked away, my impatience mounted, for I knew that any delay in take–off would have serious consequences, for the fog was sure to return later that day.
The telephone rang. St Eval was now fog–bound. I was advised to fly to Weston–Super–Mare, some twenty miles to the southwest of Bristol, instead.
While hurrying to chase up the repair, I caught sight of another Airspeed Oxford. This was the personal aircraft of the Air Officer Commanding, the most senior of our officers. Nodding towards the immaculate aircraft I said, half jokingly, to the Sergeant in charge of the ground crew, “How about if I took that one instead?” Back came an equally jocular “Why not? He's away on leave – he'll never know!” By now consumed with impatience to be on my way, I rashly decided to chance it.
The sacred aircraft was wheeled out of the hangar, engines were started, run up and tested, and I signed the Serviceability Certificate, making me solely responsible for the aircraft, its passengers, and my own neck.
I picked up my passengers. Then, heedless of the consequences, I opened the throttles and roared off down the runway.
We made a fast flight, with no trace of the forecast fog, and landed at Weston–Super–Mare aerodrome in warm sunshine. I had planned an immediate return to Yorkshire, but the summer–like weather, together with the fact that I now felt quite hungry, overcame my better judgement. I left the aircraft in the care of a ground party and went for lunch.
My second mistake of the day.
Before departing I checked the latest weather report – thick fog was now forecast for the entire country. I took off in haste and set course for Yorkshire. By the time I had reached the Midlands, barely midway to my destination, mile upon mile of dense fog blanketed the ground, glowing pink in the light of the setting sun. Not even the sight of this dented my confidence in my ability to handle the situation – with the comforting thought that the Lorenz Radio Beam would keep me out of trouble – I flew on.
It was not until I drew near my home aerodrome that I became conscious that all was not well with the Lorenz. The signals in my earphones grew weaker and weaker, then faded into mind–numbing silence. Cockpit instruments revealed no reason for the failure. Dumbfounded at the loss of my lifeline, I sent out a call to base – there was no reply.
I was now in serious trouble – thousands of feet above the fog–covered Yorkshire Wolds, late on a winter's day, aboard an aircraft with no working radio aids, less than an hour of daylight left, and not a lot of fuel in the tanks. Only a madman would have attempted to land in that fog. It seemed there was no alternative – I should have to bale–out.
Simple in theory – fly towards the coast, point the aircraft out to sea, engage auto–pilot, then jump – and possibly end up in the fog beneath being impaled on a church spire, incinerated among electricity cables, or maybe drowned in a river. My mind searched desperately for some other way to escape the dangers now before me.
Thick fog, no wind, and no gaps in the fog. Lessons in meteorology learned long ago flickered through my mind. Then sprang the germ of an idea. Might it be possible that air currents generated by the difference in temperature between the cold land and the relatively warmer sea, could have created holes in the surface of the fog? Perhaps if I were to fly immediately to the nearest coastline, some 60 miles away, I might be fortunate enough find such a hole. I glanced at my watch, checked the fuel gauges and looked at the sun, now low in the sky. There was just time to test my theory before approaching darkness drew the final curtain. The sun was still shining brightly at the height at which I was flying, but I knew that down at ground level it would soon be dusk. Grimly aware that my fate would be decided within the hour, I altered course and set off with all speed for the coast.
The sun was just scraping the western horizon when some miles ahead I saw, staining the white quilt of fog that covered the ground, a darker patch with a ragged outline. With rising hope, I dived headlong towards the middle of the dark patch and peered downwards – and there, to my immense relief, I saw the black waters of the North Sea.
There was no turning back. I screwed up my courage, put the aircraft into a steep bank, spiralled tightly downwards through the tiny gap in the fog, and flattened out just above the waves. Then I saw I was flying straight towards an unbroken wall of towering white cliffs.
Adrenalin kicked in – I heaved back on the control column – seconds later the Oxford swooped up the face of those monstrous cliffs, and by the grace of God, skimmed over the top with only feet to spare. I had not thought things out too well.
This article was written by former wartime pilot the late Peter French and originally appeared in a magazine called ‘The Seadog’ of which Peter was Editor. A Seadog is a type of small, centre–cockpit ketch–rigged motor/sailing boat and Peter was an enthusiastic owner and sailor of one of these handsome vessels. Thanks to Peter’s daughter Christine French for kindly granting permission for reproduction here. Peter’s wife Olive lived locally in Christchurch and was a member of the society committee for a short while prior to her untimely death.