Friday, 28 December 2012


I suppose you found the travel bug, and desire to be a pilot from bumming around Goa with your school buddies or trekking around Nicaragua whilst on a gap year? 

A sarcastic question I know, but my straight faced reply would be made as nonchalantly as possible, “No time for a gap year, I went straight to Oxford,” and with a faraway look in my eyes add for good measure, “Used to love punting with Billy, Simon and Oliver followed by a liquid lunch on the banks of the Isis!” 

Of course, anyone who knew me well would spot the obvious holes in that pompous, tongue in cheek statement except for the liquid lunch part!   

So it was on a sunny August afternoon and with my parents’ good grace, I was on my way. The summer after my stunning ‘A’ level results promised the start of a new chapter in my life and I was off to begin my fabulous adventure. 

The drive to Oxford from my parents’ home in Surrey took me along the recently opened M25 and my first experience of being alone in a traffic jam that had no reason for being. Whilst waiting patiently for my turn to use the accelerator feature of my car, almost an unnecessary option on this stretch of road, I watched in awe as plane after plane roared above my head, scrambling to become airborne from one of London Heathrow’s westerly runways.  

So with no driving to concentrate on, I found myself daydreaming. Back then, in-car entertainment was limited to a cassette deck with a voracious appetite for the tapes themselves or a row with your passengers. The multi tasking required to text on mobile phones whilst delving under your seat for your latest CD and packet of wine gums was still only in the imagination of science fiction writers and travelling salesmen. At that moment I was probably one of only a handful of motorists not cursing and chain smoking, but actually enjoying the view, fantasizing that I was the pilot in the cockpit of one of those planes. 

Driving for another hour and heading further west, I passed Windsor Castle on my left, crossed over the Thames at the historic town of Henley before joining up with the motorway system again and the last part of my journey. Up to now I had been immersed in my own little world, seeing sights that were all new to me. I realised that I was not just leaving my old life behind at a steady seventy miles per hour, but more importantly I was heading into my new life at the same speed. Traversing the crest of the hill through the deep cutting near the village of Turville and looking down as the County of Oxfordshire revealed itself in what appeared to be its entirety, I realised the actual reason for my journey. My sense of excitement heightened as I realised the enormity of what lay ahead - I was to become a pilot and a sense of wonder returned. Prior to this moment the thoughts and reasons for why I was making this journey had been pushed towards the periphery of my subconscious. I felt incredibly lucky and considered that now would be the time that maybe I should pinch myself! 

Leaving the motorway several miles to the south of Oxford, its continuation to the colourful city of Birmingham still a figment in the eye of some yet to be promoted spotty town planner, I followed the sign posts through the urban villages on the outskirts of the city of Oxford, Summertown and Kidlington, finally crossing the hump backed bridge over the Oxford canal which led to the perimeter road around the college’s airfield.  

You probably would not be surprised to learn that the college was not part of ‘Oxbridge’, the world famous Oxford and Cambridge universities. Instead, it was a residential flying school, O.A.T.S. or, to give its full name, Oxford Air Training School. Their advertising could, in my opinion, have honestly boasted, ‘probably the best flying school in the world!’ The airfield was tucked away between the small Oxfordshire villages of Kidlington, Summertown and Woodstock, the nearest neighbour of any standing residing at Blenheim Palace. The location truly made for a delightful setting, chocolate box villages, olde-world pubs and once back in Summertown, girls; girls on bikes, girls on buses and some girls just walking. I had never seen so many girls and from so many different countries - yes, a kid in a sweet shop with a gold credit card would be an apt description of how I felt!  

Just over two hours since leaving home, I arrived at the entrance to what would be my new residence for the next year. I felt like getting out and kissing my car in the manner of a visiting Pope, but decided that it was probably not the first impression I would want of me should I be spotted. I was unprepared for what I imagined lay ahead and with the minimum amount of worldly goods, everything I had which I felt that I would need could be found wedged into the boot of this ‘super car’ of mine, a pensioner’s Volkswagen Derby.  

There could be found a suitcase of my smartest clothes, a cardboard box full of dried food, assorted tins and a box of tea bags which would have been sufficient for an army of builders, along with what my Mum obviously deemed to be necessary as survival rations for an expedition outside the protected confines of the M25. I also had the princely sum of twenty pounds in my pocket and a look on my face of impending panic and excitement. To the casual observer it probably looked as if I had had a stroke! 

I slowly turned off the main road, stopped the car and wound down my window to admire the billboard sized black and orange O.A.T.S. signs which flanked the entrance. The signs, coupled with the serious looking security gate and the sound of a jet engine whining close by, brought a quick slice of reality back to my situation. I had arrived. I could only wonder as to what would lie in store for me, what I could expect, what would be required of me and who my new friends would be. All would be swiftly revealed no doubt. 

“You can’t park there young man!”  A voice bellowed from behind me.  

Startled, I wound down the window, a concept alien to anyone under the age of thirty and peered backwards to see an immaculately dressed security officer. It was immediately obvious from his appearance that this guy took his job way too seriously, except for the soldiers participating in the changing of the guard, you would have been hard pressed to find any other man in uniform smarter and those soldiers, they were trying to impress the Queen. No-one should be that immaculate outside of royal circles. He looked as if he had just come from an audition for ‘Dad’s Army’ but had not won the part as he had been wearing too many medals! His dark blue uniform decked with two rows of military ribbons creased to within an inch of its life, announced a proud man. A man I just knew I was going to have trouble with and who I would later find out had a phobia about ducks! 

I was directed to pull forward 3.4 yards and marshalled to a stop with the precision of a Swiss border guard. I introduced myself as Mr. Carter, which sounded strangely alien to me. Up until now there had been no Mister, only Carter, “Come here Carter! It was you wasn’t it Carter?”  

I added that I was a new student, chucked in a ‘Sir’ or two which I found usually did the trick, but on this occasion softened him not a jot. After a couple of moments whilst I was being sized up, I was duly rewarded with directions towards the administration office and it was clear from the look he gave me that he considered me as yet another nuisance that he would need to deal with! Unbeknown to each of us, he would be the bane of my life and those of my friends and, in turn, we would be his for the next twelve months. A fair arrangement some would agree!  

“You’re the third one today. Follow the road to the end, then park.” 

Not too complicated I thought. Failing to return the salute, I released the hand brake and stalled making a mental note to use the clutch pedal in future! I kangarooed a couple of times but I did not care, I was in. 

Having taken control of the car, I weaved my way at a leisurely ten miles per hour along the narrow road, soaking up the atmosphere of the moment and taking in my surroundings. I slowly drove past the school’s haphazardly scattered buildings, my head moving in a slow motion imitation of a Wimbledon umpire who was trying to follow a particularly long rally.  

I was trying to decide what my first impressions were and I was starting to become a little concerned. From what I could gather, the buildings seemed to be spread over most of the airport’s eastern side comprising the architectural splendours of both military and penal design from the last fifty years. There were single storey classroom blocks with windows in need of painting. Large out of proportion lecture halls with doors you could drive a tank through, halls of residence designed with a POW theme in mind and sign posts pointing towards a restaurant that I did not hold out great hopes for.  

Most importantly to me, I could see large hangars holding a promise of aircraft within and the reason why I was here. More disturbingly, I noticed that all of the uniform bedecked students were obviously not of this country; it appeared that I had come across a small part of England devoid of the English. It would not be until much later that I would find out the location of the most important building, the bar and the location of a fellow student, a guy called Oliver who would become my new best friend. 

After half a mile of zigzagging along, I came to the end of the road as had been so accurately pointed out in the bellowed directions from earlier and found a parking space outside the administration office. Locking my car, I turned around and studied the scene ahead of me.  

Across the other side of the car park and beyond a small grassy area were rows of precisely parked training aircraft, all with the white, yellow and orange CSE Oxford logos adorned on their fuselages.  

Now CSE Aviation was part of the Guinness group, but for us students it would be forever known as ‘Cash Swiftly Extracted’ which my Dad later agreed as being very apt! It was beyond these stationary aircraft where the real action was taking place, for every couple of minutes another aircraft would land or take-off, some wobbling, taking flight like an immature duckling whilst others were controlled with what appeared a practised ease. I had no illusions, even with my grand total of twenty seven flying hours under my belt I knew I was on the duck side of the scale. 

“Alan Carter?”  

A question asked in the same tone of voice as if enquiring after Dr. Livingstone but much softer, brought me back to reality and a quick realisation that I had no need to be nervous of my situation any more. Turning back towards the offices and the source of this enquiry I was met by the sight of a smartly dressed woman whose attitude and demeanour immediately put me at ease, but that would not last. She turned out to be the senior administration secretary; known simply as Sally and the lady to whom I should turn to if I had any problems. 

“Yes, I’m Alan Carter, one of your new boys and I have no idea where I should be!” I managed to stammer out. 

“Well, you’re starting in the right place. How about I give you a quick tour, show you where you need to go tomorrow for your induction and then leave you in Matron’s capable hands! You’ll be staying in Langford Lodge.” 

I assumed that Sally had been warned of my imminent arrival by her officious colleague at the airfield’s entrance, well that added to the fact that I did stand out, not being in the dark blue uniform suit of the other students and much pastier in appearance!  Matron?  I was conjuring up thoughts of ‘Carry On’ films and strict public schools, certainly not flying schools! 

My new residence, Langford Lodge, conjured up pictures in my mind of quite a pleasant establishment, maybe a country house style of residence I thought. Wrong! 

My five minute tour complete, I learned very little except that Lord Waterford had a Learjet unlike Lord Chelsea, and during the previous week whilst Waterford’s jet was catching up Chelsea’s jet on coming into land, it was suggested that the Englishman break off. The immortal line, ‘An English Lord will never give way to an Irish Lord!’ was broadcast over the radio. Now Sally just threw this into conversation. Was it just a throw away anecdote to put me at ease or maybe she thought I was a trouble making Lord? Feeling a little concerned over my first impressions maybe now was a good time to form an escape committee and start on Tom, Dick and Harry!  

Tour complete and back to the car, waving good bye to the slightly eccentric Sally, I followed the brief directions which she had given and found myself a couple of minutes later in a car park full of vehicles apparently held together by rust and prayers. More disturbingly than the lack of these cars resale value was the fact that I was now in front of one of the POW style barrack blocks which I had passed earlier. 

Standing at the entrance to this building was a stick thin woman in the most ridiculous flowery dress, definitely no Hattie Jacques! Alongside her and ramrod straight stood her husband, the security guard from the entrance. Worse news was to come! I found out that they both lived in an annexe attached to my halls of residence and both patrolled the building with an unnerving and quite worrying passion. Over the next few months she would reveal herself as simply being the mother hen type, which I suppose is what we lads needed initially.  

With the briefest of introductions completed I was led inside, though I had the feeling that her husband, such was his demeanour, would rather have frog marched me in and up the stairs to my room. The once red and now dark maroon carpet was threadbare at best, the walls pot marked and the white paint chipped.  

My old school back in Croydon was in better condition than this and my enthusiasm was taking a big hit. Now I have to admit that I was probably feeling slightly homesick, well at least for the small luxuries I had taken for granted such as wallpaper and carpet that had not been manufactured with a life on a British Rail carriage in mind! Further along the passageway we passed several dusky looking guys, all of whom were in a hurry not to say hello, looking straight past me as if I was of no consequence; another friendly welcome! Then we reached number 36 and Matron pointed out that this would be mine, conveniently located as it was opposite the toilet and bathroom, home to a thousand different smells and no doubt germs!  

Scanning up and down, my door looked as if it had been used in a police training exercise. The lock had obviously been replaced on more than one occasion and the previous occupants must have lost the use of their arms judging by the cracks, dents and shoe marks at its base. 

Matron unlocked the door, handed me the key and stood back allowing me a glimpse through the doorway into what at first appeared to be a cell! 

“Breakfast will be at eight o’clock, and I’ve been told that you’ll be collected from the restaurant at nine for your orientation. If you have any questions or problems, our flat is on the ground floor. Bill and Simon are two other British students and their rooms are at the end of the corridor. Oliver is next to you in 37.”  

I honestly think that she enjoyed her role as surrogate mother and I believe that she genuinely wanted to help which obviously rankled with the views of her husband who, with a trace of a scornful smile on his lips added, “The other Brits, Bill and Simon have the largest rooms.” I sensed that he was trying to add some unpleasantness to his wife’s jollity. I could not be sure but was he trying to say that the others were more important than me? 

“Bill and Simon?” I asked. “Are they newbie’s like me?” 

“No, Billy’s been here a while, but Simon’s just starting like you. Oliver said that he’d head for the bar; he’s a really polite young man. I’m pretty sure that Billy’s popped into Oxford for dinner.” With that she headed off. Her husband followed behind, equally balanced with a chip on both shoulders! It all started to make sense. Matron kept him under her thumb, so to exact revenge, he would try to take it out on us and reassert his diminished manhood!  

Left on my own there was nothing for it, time to acquaint myself with my new home. Nothing could have prepared me for the meagre and gloomy sight contained within. The musty smell of old furniture and the aroma of stale cigarettes did not add a welcoming feel to the place. My room was neither functional nor cosy, not by a long way. There was a single bed made up in the style favoured by the British prison service, a small wooden desk that can only be described as distressed and a sink which was not quite flush with the wall. First impressions were not good! Taking three steps forward I had crossed the expansive floor area of my room to the window. I pulled one of the thin yellow curtains aside which had obscured my view out towards the airfield beyond the flat roofs of the buildings opposite. I gazed out and was rewarded with the sight of a Learjet, a small American business jet, roaring into the sky and a smile appeared back on my face. It was then that I realised I did not need luxury, I just needed to fly. 

It would be a couple of days later when chatting to Sally, that I would find out that this particular Learjet belonged to the racing driver Ayrton Senna and that it was flown by one of the most pleasant and kindest men in aviation, Mark, who would be my friend and colleague for the next twenty five years before sadly succumbing like so many to the big C. 

Right, unpack later. Beer, definitely time for a beer and try to find another of my inmates. If he had just arrived from the States then I was sure that he would probably be feeling the same as me, in need of a medicinal pick me up. Time to find Oliver, compare notes and share our first impressions! 

He was not a difficult person to locate. Standing six foot five tall and, as I was to later find out, an ex-American college football player, part Nigerian, part American with a little bit of German on his grandmother’s side, Oliver was quite an imposing figure, but seemed like a really cool guy. 

“Hi, Alan isn’t it? Thought you’d be along eventually, knowing you Brits and how you like your beer! I took the liberty and even ordered one for you!” Now I really like this guy I thought.  

“It’s a bit warm now, but that’s how you like it I believe!” Oliver added whilst handing me the first of many beers that night.  

We had bonded and I knew then that we would be friends for life, especially as only a year later he would help save the lives of my family and closest friends. 

Oliver and I staggered back to our ‘lodge’, cutting a path across the apron where some of the privately owned aircraft were parked and over the less than manicured lawns of earlier. We were just like any other normal guys staggering back from a boozy Friday night out, the two of us tracing a path like a couple of drunk crabs, but managing to successfully make our way back. 

We crept in through the main door and ran up the stairs with exaggerated and unsuccessful quietness in our drunken state, noisily shushing each other as we went. On negotiating the top of the stairs, Oliver knocked over the fire extinguisher, in what can only be described as a ‘slow motion’ moment, the metal canister toppled end over end down the staircase. The thudding noise of the escaping fire extinguisher as it hit each stair echoed around the walls like bombs dropping. We froze to the spot; our mouths wide open in horror. The only sound we could hear were our hearts thumping loudly inside our chests. It reached the bottom with an almighty crash. We waited, hardly daring to breathe, preparing ourselves for the onslaught of recriminations that would be hurled at us once Matron or her sour faced husband appeared. Time passed – and what seemed like eternity. Nothing, nothing stirred.  

Closing my door behind me I held onto the wobbly sink for support.  At least now I knew how it had got that way. Fumbling with the belt to my jeans and giving up, I emptied my pockets of accumulated rubbish and frighteningly little in the way of cash. I realised with some despair that I had knocked a sizable hole in my twenty pound monthly allowance, but more importantly, what the devil was going on with my ear? According to my small digital clock on the obviously distressed bedside table, I had been in Oxford for six hours and sober for two of them. More disturbingly though, I could not work out why my left ear hurt so badly and where was this blood coming from?   

I realised I was alone again and my anxieties returned. I was wondering if I would be able to cope with this new emotion, one that I was not enjoying and could probably be attributed to far too much beer. Lying down, I prayed the room would stay still long enough for me to make myself both comfortable and safe. In my time I had fallen out of many beds finding myself on the floor staring at the ceiling; but this was one carpet I had no intention of forming any close relationship with. In my sorry state I contemplated whether it would be best to get undressed before I fell asleep or just wait until the morning. I opted for the latter on health and safety grounds.  

With the amount of alcohol that I had consumed, I was stupidly feeling a bit sorry for myself, ‘bloody baby’ I thought. I knew from experience that sleep would not come easy, not with my sozzled mind working overtime, my emotions somersaulting between exhilaration and panic with everything in-between. I just hoped that I could keep ‘everything’ inside - at least until the morning! 

Waking up on the first day of the rest of your life with a major hangover and a bloodstained pillow is not ideal, however, that is what happened, courtesy of my new best friend Oliver and a yet to be identified Libyan. What was important, I had a buddy and I am very lucky to say, thirty years later he still is.