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Memories Of My Days In The Air Force

Category Articles
Date June 6, 2006

During my service in the R.A.F. the night-fighter squadrons took turns, usually a month at a time, flying a daily mission for the Meteorological Office. This was an ascent over a position ten miles offshore to record temperature and humidity beginning at 50 feet (15.24 metres) above sea level, then taking readings every 50 millibars to 300 mb. (Sea level is approximately 1,000 mb, 300 mb 29,000-32,000 feet (8,840- 9,754 metres) subject to the pressure gradient.) We were kept in position by the R.A.F. area controller by calling for distance and bearing from the position. This was necessary as wind variation with height could be considerable. The worst I ever experienced was a westerly ‘jet-stream’ wind of about 215 mph at 20,000 feet (6,096 metres). This is what my father would have called ‘the setting of the subject.’

Although I enjoyed my job as a pilot, I was not happy with service life. It seemed so separating from my upbringing and continually reminded me that I was out of my spiritual environment. At home, Sundays and chapel had been normal and week-evening services, as possible. My teens were almost all war years; I was 14 years of age when war was declared, and not very aware of the world at large. I was quite shocked when I quoted a proverb in a discussion and was asked for its source. When I said ‘Solomon’ it was dismissed as Religious Education (a subject one could opt out of, and did!) Once it was known that I was ‘religious,’ my opinion was asked, only to be refuted! At Coltishall I was able to attend Norwich or Brooke Chapels, duties permitting, on weekends I was unable to go home. The point I am making is that although my flying was on course, my soul was ‘uncertain of position.’

One day, even the weather seemed to agree with my inward feelings – dark, cloudy, poor visibility, depressing. There was no flying training. In 1949 aircraft were not so well-equipped as nowadays, and we had no radar landing facility at Coltishall. The Meteorological Flight had to be done regardless. My navigator and I were detailed for it and prepared, and went knowing that we might have to divert away to land on completion. We flew below cloud to the coast, followed the coast to Southwold, flew out to sea to the designated spot on time; there the sea and cloud almost met, dull and grey. We were glad to begin the climb. We followed the routine to 300mb, at that time 30,000 feet (9,144 metres), still in cloud, although much lighter. My navigator said: “Pete, having come so far, couldn’t we find the top?” I agreed, signed off with the controller and turned homeward, still climbing.

About 32,000 feet (9,754 metres), we broke cloud and made 500 feet (152.4 metres) more – brilliant sunshine, beautiful dark blue sky, almost snow-white cloud below. The sun on clouds makes these beautiful, too. We enjoyed perhaps five minutes and, reluctantly but necessarily, sunk back into the cloud. After giving me a course to fly, my navigator laughed and said: “Pete, we are the only sunbathers in East Anglia today.” I agreed, but my sunbathing had been different to his. The flight had been a parable. I needed my two Merlin engines to power me through the physical clouds, but I believe a greater Power had worked on the clouds within. The sun is always shining, although clouds and night obscure it.

We emerged from the bottom of the cloud at about 400 feet (122 metres) over the sea, east of base, and remained at that height the rest of the way home, at least one of the crew doubly thankful.

This happened well over fifty years ago, and I need to be careful not to attribute subsequent thoughts to the time of the experience. I had much to learn still (and still have).

Many times Scriptures and hymns have taken me back into my Mosquito cockpit, e.g.:

“Burst though the clouds, O Source of Light!”

“Saviour of sinners, deign to shine,
On this benighted soul of mine.”

“God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4. 6). “But unto you that fear My name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4. 2).

The thoughts regarding the sun’s effect on the clouds bear enlargement. Some days we see clouds which are black underneath and white above. Where there is no sun: black; where there is sun: white. Proper clouds, cumulus or cumulonimbus, thunder clouds, when seen from above are white, beautiful; from below: dark, threatening. I like to think it is how God in heaven looks on sinners: in themselves they are black, sinful; in Christ they are white, cleansed. The same thoughts may be applied to God’s appointed ways for His people:

“All His dealings, wise and good,
Uniform, though various;
Though they seem, by reason viewed,
Cross, or quite contrarious.’

Sometimes the ‘parable’ has taken me further: the sun on the cloud reflects the glory of the sun: “Whom He justified, them He also glorified.”

[Taken with permission from the Friendly Companion, June 2006]

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