Ghosts of the Air Age
Harald Penrose was born at the dawn of the aviation age, his very first flight as a boy being with the pioneer aviator Alan Cobham. His career spanned the Second World War and the advent of the jet and helicopter age.
One of my favourite bits of his writing is from the chapter “A Forgotten Air”, Cloud Cuckooland, which describes a visit to an air display at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, presumably in the early 1950s :
“..I was standing by the 1915 Farman biplane, thinking how readily we communicate with the past by occupying the very place where great events have occurred and famous men have lived, when a quiet voice broke into my thoughts:
“Do you remember how the wind used to hum in those wires?” said a tall man standing beside me. Nobody else was near. He was elderly but very erect, clasping an umbrella like a sword, and behind his gold-rimmed glasses the eyes were quick and bright. He was holding his bowler hat.
“Yes,” I answered, though I was only a small boy when I had seen Graham Gilmour and Gordon England flying a much cruder version, and had later watched similar pre-Great War training biplanes make a wobbly circuit before nosing steeply down to land.
“It was wonderful,” he added quietly, “We used to get up at dawn and fly our Boxkites all around Salisbury Plain while the morning air was calm…There was a kind of music in the wires when we switched the engine off.”
In silence we continued standing there, the tall old man with a stranger of a later generation, both gazing at the ancient, dilapidated Farman while, further away, a great crowd watched a display of jet fighters flashing past in a din like the breath of vengeance. But we had no eyes for modern aeroplanes.
“Upavon it was…They made me one of the instructors. Delightful days…Do you remember the smell of the burnt castor oil?”
I remembered as though it had been the nectar of the gods: the puff of blue smoke as the rotary engine fired, the glitter of spinning propeller, the slow drift of exhaust across the meadow, and its intoxicating, pungent perfume. Oh, did I remember!
The tall man pointed with his umbrella. “That one has got a nacelle. We used to sit in the open on seats bolted to the lower wing. There was a marvellous view.” He glanced down quickly to see if I understood.
“Yes,” I said.
We reverted to silence, looking at the slender struts and the thin steel piano wires boxing the long and shallow wings whose scalloped trailing edge was like a bird’s. How aerial, how delicately fragile, and though not particularly controllable, how responsive to every nuance of the air were those early aircraft - not projectiles hurtling through space, but aspiring to the skies like butterflies in the sunlight.
Presently my companion stirred from his reverie: “Well, I’d better say good day and not stay talking of the past.”
He strode away - a distinguished, tall, spare figure - but perhaps, after all, a little bowed about the shoulders despite the upright military impress. I watched him heading towards the distant crowd, a lonely old man who had shaped the past: a great man almost forgotten, but known to his generation as “Boom”, and in history as Marshal and Father of the Royal Air Force, Baron Trenchard of Wolfeton in the County of Dorset.”