“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. With these historic words reverberating in our thoughts we set off for the east, though this time not the English Channel but a few miles along the M54 to RAF Cosford and the RAF Museum Midlands. Here an event had been organised to test the mettle of aspiring young people to see if they had the ‘right stuff’ to become a World War 2 pilot and obtain their cavorted Pilot Passport and their cavorted wings. Over the Easter weekend the museum are holding a ‘pilot training’ program aimed at children to “test their speed, brain and teamwork skills”.
On a bright and sunny Good Friday morning with the aspiring cadets and their mother aboard we enter the museum gates and drive past a number of retired aircraft parked on the grass with a Hawker Hunter on point duty and soon meeting examples of a Bristol Britannia airliner, Vickers VC10 refuelling tanker and the ubiquitous Lockheed Hercules transport. After parking up and dealing with the formalities we make our way into the field of battle and see immediately on our left a white gazebo with the two waiting mission controllers. It is here that our fearless trainees are given their briefing and their valuable passport onto which will be placed a record of their progress and allow them to hopefully earn their wings.
The first stop is the Dogfight training area, where the trainees don flying helmets, goggles and some foam wings (the austerity of the times means that real planes are not available), with British or German markings. Attached by Velcro to the wing trailing edges are three coloured streamers, green, yellow and red. The objective is to ‘fly’ around gathering green streamers from other flyers representing successful ‘hits’ and to deposit yellow and red streamers on other flyers. Yellow represents a hit, red a kill. At the end of the flight if the intrepid flyers returned with mainly green streamers then you can safely land and fight another day, if mainly yellow they are missing in action and if you are unfortunate enough to have mainly reds you were shot down and a casualty. However, it seems that our batch of trainees forgot about exchanging streamers so ended up with what they started with and were declared safe to ‘fight’ another day. Removing the accessories and claiming the precious stamp in the passports we move on to the next trial, ‘Formation Flying’.
Luckily we don’t have to travel far, next door actually, to learn all there is to know about flying in a large group and the need to fly close together in formation without crashing into one another and give mutual protection from enemy attack. Today the trainees were being taught three basic formations: Finger Four: Echelon and Line Abreast. Four at a time, the pilots don their aircraft wings, line up in each of the formations and attempt to ‘fly’ around the arena keeping in their formation and safely returning to their take-off point still in formation. It took a couple of circuits for them to get the gist of the task, but soon they were circling like true ‘Glamour Boys’ and were awarded their passport stamp, ready for the next challenge.
With our trainees flushed with success from their flying escapades, we move onto the next area to allow our young charges deal with the consequences of actions so far, that being dealing the UXBs (UneXploded Bombs). They were ‘expertly’ trained in dealing with a number of different ordinances: nullifying a butterfly bomb with two pieces of string and a pile of sandbags; an incendiary bomb with two long handled shovels and a bucket of sand and removing the fuse from a 50Kg bomb with nothing more than a steady hand and strong nerves. As there were no strange flashes, or bangs we assumed that they had passed the tests and duly received their third passport stamps.
This is supposed to be war time, so there is no room to dawdle as we need to find out how fast pilots can get airborne when they are scrambled. By way of comparison 3 variants have been set out representing different eras: WW1 represented by a Sopwith Camel; WW2 – a Spitfire and modern day by an English Electric Lightning with representations of the appropriate flying gear laid out on a chair in front. To add a degree of ‘realism’ the instructor included a number of activities the waiting pilots may have been doing to pass the time, such as saluting a passing senior officer, some P.E. exercises and even taking cover from a surprise enemy attack. Once the Scramble command was issues the ‘pilots’ had to don the appropriate flying gear and then rush to stand behind a picture of their plane (well there wasn’t room for the real thing). Once they had returned from their sortie they returned to their chair, removed the flight gear and waited for the next scramble, again carrying out random activities, before the scramble was called and off they went again. Returning to receive a hard earned passport stamp and the last task, which secretly was the one they had been looking forward to as it involved water. However, there is quite a queue so a break is called for at a handily placed refreshment van. As with this type of thing everywhere, it was more expensive than the main restaurant, but needs must.
Suitably refreshed we join the queue for the final task, training as a fire auxiliary putting out fires with real water, but with the aid of a hand operated stirrup pump which they found was harder work than it looked. The queue soon dissipates and our intrepid recruits enter the arena which consists of a bucket with the aforesaid stirrup pump with hose, and three miniature house facades with the windows cut out and wooden flame cut-outs hung on pegs. The object is to knock the flames off their pegs using the hose and hand pumped water, which according to the male grandchild is hard work to get a strong stream (oh the young these days). After extinguishing the two smaller houses the firepersons swap over and it is the young lady’s turn to expend some energy to build up a good head of water to allow the final larger house to be dealt with and give the male a chance to encourage her to pump harder.
Soon the final flame is dealt with, the final stamp placed in their passports and its off back to the gazebo to have their passports reviewed by the mission controllers and to receive their wings as suitably chuffed ‘fully qualified’ pilots. The aura however, soon wears off and our new pilots declare that they are hungry and so it’s back inside and head for the café for some well-earned lunch after a job well done.