Here’s to the last time
There is a neat television ad around just now that asks ‘when was the last time you did something for the first time?’ Somehow (it must be my age) it made me think of doing things for the last time. This is different, apart from the obvious, because when it’s the first time, you know. Last times can be planned and intentional or unconscious and not recognised as such for perhaps years afterwards; breaking off a relationship or quitting a job on the one hand, the final meeting with a friend or the last time you break 90 on the other.
Cecil Lewis was to my mind one of the great airmen and one of the most interesting figures of the twentieth century, though The Daily Telegraph Book of Airmen's Obituaries condemns him of having ‘accomplished rather less than he promised’. Some failure. Aged five when the Wright brother first flew, he was a true pilot, in soul as well as in skill. He flew and fought with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, having left school at sixteen to join up, won the MC and then went to Peking, as it was, as a flying instructor to the Chinese government. As his contract came to its end he unconsciously made his last flight, in a Vimy bomber of all things, beautifully described in Sagittarius Rising. He landed and went home ‘untrained for any other career’ to become, among other things, an author, notable playwright and one of the first three employees of the BBC. In 1966 he wrote, presciently and sadly, that ‘Computers steer the pioneer . . . Reliability is on the Altar and Risk is in the Crypt’. What would he have made of the Health and Safety Executive, the cotton-wool culture and the modern TV ‘adventurers’ with their backup teams and cameras going on ahead to film their arrival?
I empathise because flying is my passion too and I learned to fly, at nineteen, on gliders. In a glider you never know when you will have to land and in the machines of those days the answer was usually soon. The sport was exciting, cavalier and intellectually testing. We experimented, without formal instruction, in cloud flying and aerobatics and frequently made forced landings away from base. All very character forming but a passion that had its inevitable effect on my exam results. Many years later I bought a share in a powered aircraft and, as befits a responsible husband and father, confined myself to visiting France, Ireland, Belgium and Germany, always in clear air and the right way up. It’s a wonderful way to tour because you see all the scenery and the journey is part of the holiday, indeed the point of it. I could reach the south of France in a day, or cross from Germany to Wiltshire in less than four hours, stress-free.
Now I have had to accept that this freedom and therapy cannot continue into retirement. As free time goes up, so disposable income comes down. My log-book shows that I last flew over nine months ago and my medical and currency have both expired. If I suspected it then I’m forced to recognise it now.
Lewis made his last flight on a perfect autumn day over the Great Wall, the Ming tombs and the royal palaces of Peking. Mine was in January, in haze, confined within a few miles of base by the task in hand, for it was a test flight following renewal of the certificate of airworthiness and in one of those quirks of the Air Navigation Order the aircraft was not oficially airworthy until someone had flown it and found nothing wrong with it. There was a set of tests to do, results to record and no time to admire the scenery. At least I made a decent landing.