The boy in the burning aeroplane

When one is as old and notorious as I am, one is constantly asked to write one's life story. People, Sunday paper editors, society gossip columnists, pester me daily for an account of my extraordinary life. Clutching their cheque books and winking painfully, they drool of the prurient public interest, imagining perhaps that a sparkling account of my slide into the depths of depravity might increase their flagging sales.

Generations alternate in their themes and motifs. For children nowadays cool is all. Cool is good. Cool is what you say to anything nice, unusual, interesting or extraordinary. Asked to help me install the new central heating, my young son cries out "cool" and reaches for the largest of my ceremonial blowlamps. Cool, apparently, is the hot word.

Decades ago too, there was a time when low temperature was fashionable. Who can forget Happy Days and Fonzie? Even today, aged airfield owners wear tee shirts and leather jackets as a small form of retrograde homage. But my formative years were trapped between these conceptual ice ages; ask me about England in those days and mostly I recall being cold. Struck by the first and second oil shocks, most of my youth was spent trying to keep warm. These were bleak times; sitting under harsh flourescent lights in cold pubs decorated like transport cafes we hunched over our glasses of watered beer. We shivered into anoraks but our dreams were of fire and energy. As Bruce Springsteen on the juke box played Born to Run we passed folded scraps of paper between us, fuelling our ambitions with whatever detritus we could find. Rarely lucid, my night-time ravings mixed flaming engines criss-crossing the sky with the dimly lit thighs of friends' sisters.

There, then, say the psychiatrists on the parole board, lie the beginnings of my downfall. A young impressionable mind was profoundly affected by a combination of deficient domestic heating and colour pictures of women chained to motor bikes. Twenty years later the effects would emerge in my new hobby of setting aircraft on fire. Even being forced to take a Physics degree, at one time seen as benign therapy for such childhood trauma, in my case only aggravated the condition. Exquisite knowledge of Bernouilli's equation and three laws of thermodynamics would only enhance my obsessive research into extremes of heat and cold.

The experts running the compulsory therapy sessions encourage us to speak out, to face up to our crimes as the only way to rehabilitation. But spurning the offers from major publishers for my story, I shall tell it here. Although I shall not reveal quite all, for despite the nightly interrogations there are things that my detainers in this institution have not discovered. There were earlier childhood influences, paper aeroplanes deliberately flown into the grate to crash and burn, experiments with town gas powered rockets. Nor have they yet linked me with S, who used to set fire to crisp packets in pub ashtrays, inhaling the fumes though a rolled up copy of the War Cry. He went to Borstal after the vacuum cleaner incident but I fled to North America, laying low for a year and frequenting snow covered airfields during the air traffic controllers' strike.

Once, trying perhaps to impress my daughter, I climbed into a small aircraft and set the Lycoming engine on fire. Coolly and calmy she spoke up "It's on fire, Daddy". But I was busy, as the burning fuel dripped onto the nosewheel, valiantly cranking the engine ever more slowly while checking the fuel pressure gauge. "It's on fire, Daddy, don't you think you should do something." Reluctantly, I yielded and emptied the fire extinguisher before taking her for cake and a cup of tea.

The police came, but I have friends in high places and they departed in their large helicopter, hinting that there were more important cases of immolation to attend to. Blades whirring and lights flashing, their hot turbine gas carved a vivid infra red swathe through the winter air. Spilling his drink, a tall ginger haired man at the flying school counter whispered "cool" and enquired about an Incendiary Rating.

But above all there is one thing that they have not learned; the nature of my greatest and boldest escapade. Tortured once again with nightly dreams and intimations of mortality, I realise now with burning clarity that I can have no peace unless I confess to my glorious crime. It is to my eternal shame and regret that, once, as the entertainment at a summer barbecue on a Dorset hilltop, I tied three children into an aeroplane, sealed the doors and then set it on fire.

A Doctor writes:

Dear Airfield Operator,

We have been running a creative writing course for our patients for some time now and occasionally something of note comes up. The extract above is from a journal kept by one of our more deluded inmates - he firmly believes PPL stands for Private Pyromaniacs Licence. He was recaptured on New Years Day driving a fifty year old open car and referred to us on the grounds of attempted suicide by hypothermia.

I offered the piece to the editor of Flyer but he turned it down. Apparently, if they were to run an article on engine fires on start up they would require more technical details. I understand that the most usual cause is a flat battery. In an attempt to start the engine, the pilot often overprimes the carburretor. The excess fuel can lead to a degree of external combustion if the magneto fires when an intake valve is slightly open. The standard procedure in all the books is to keep turning the engine so that it will start and suck in the burning fuel.

At the next session, I tried to get the patient, who I cannot name for obvious reasons, to address these issues. He became very abusive and shouted something about how on earth can you do that with a flat battery, clever clogs, before setting my tie alight and trying to push it into my mouth, all the while asking me to breathe in.

The piece therefore, remains a mere curiosity, but it does remind me of an interesting incident that I would like to relate. One evening last summer I visited Compton Abbas and while trying to avoid an extrovert northerner I found myself watching a father and his young son preparing a Beagle Pup for flight. The son, clearly, seemed familiar with the aeroplane and I imagined he had previously been briefed on the rather complicated door mechanisms and seatbelt fasteners favoured by British aircraft designers of the period. With the pair were two of the son's friends and these were being strapped into the rear seats. This complete, they were further entangled with headset cords before the father and son locked the front seats in position, strapped themselves in and began the complex door fastening procedure.

When I looked again from my hiding place beneath a Luscombe I noticed a small conflagration. The flames were beneath the Pup's engine bay and could not be seen by the pilot. Eventually he gave up trying to start the aircraft and sank back into his seat. Watching to see how the fire would progress I realised the pilot was gazing quizzically at the wisps of black smoke curling up above the cowling. Suddenly, he leapt from the aeroplane, trailing seatbelts and cables, and dived under the wing.

I had begun to take an interest now and was fumbling for my pencil and notebook when I heard the father cry "Get out Tom, and get the others out". He then returned to the front of the aircraft. Finding a clean page I looked up to find the aircraft empty. The three young boys were standing to attention a respectful distance away and the fire was out. The whole process could not have taken more than three seconds.

All I can say is that next time someone needs to stage a demonstration evacuation of an airliner, they should put a seven year old boy in charge.

Lastly, I want to congratulate you on a well run flying club. I am not able to visit as often as I like but is such a pleasant change, after long hours working at the asylum, to meet so many normal and well adjusted people.


Richard P Cyclist (Dr)

copyright 1998
N R W Long


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