Jeremy’s War: Chapter 3 "Kershaw’s Chicks"

Posted on March 5, 2008

Ch.3 KERSHAW’S CHICKS

The next few days were exciting and stimulating beyond anything Jeremy had ever experienced before in his young life. Unbelievably, incredibly, he, Jeremy Armstrong, rumored stay-at-home-Pansy, was learning to fly. Haltingly at first, with many surprises, and much bemused wondering why it was that on occasions the R.E.8 – nicknamed Mathilda – would suddenly take on a mind of her own.

Because turning the aeroplane in any direction was delightfully easy, Jeremy assumed ‘steep turns’ would be just more of the same. His mind was already leaping ahead to more advanced exercises, and he regarded steep turns as nothing to worry about. Jeremy was not to realize it until much later, but he was lucky to have in Captain Kershaw a conscientious and capable instructor, who took his duties seriously. A man with active combat experience, he was typical of the front line pilot sent back to teach – and recuperate. He was untypical in his sincerity, and his desire to teach the little darlings how one day they might just be able to save their little lives.
Thus Kershaw, having announced the purpose of this particular sortie as ‘the exploration of steep turns’, was at pains to brief beforehand what he required to see:
no height loss, constant angle of bank, and smooth flying with the aircraft ‘nicely balanced’. Jeremy puzzled at the emphasis on ‘nicely balanced’. He had by now flown several times, and he was coming on in leaps and bounds, but ‘balance’ was something he just ‘felt’, rather than something he understood or analyzed.
Once again, the students, now numbering ten, three having departed, gathered in a group to watch the show, and await their turn. They were becoming more relaxed and less self conscious. The three drop outs were the topic of animated conversation. Nobody quite knew what had happened, as it had been dealt with quietly and behind closed doors. One chap was rumored to have panicked, becoming frozen with terror. Kershaw had dumped him out over nearer the mess. Everybody wondered why.
Jeremy by now was totally enraptured with flying, and awaited his turn with rather more impatience than apprehension.
Climbing into the cockpit with relish, his nostrils were suddenly assailed with the unmistakable smell of vomit. The previous student, a plump little fellow from Bolton, had got out slightly pasty, and Jeremy cursed him mentally.
They sailed up into the sky, and Jeremy suddenly longed for the day he could go and explore the clouds by himself. To escape from the narrow confines of Hendon and its immediate environment, and to go wherever he wished.
The thought of flying over his home, and waving at everybody, and seeing Emmy waving back, worrying about him, had occupied his mind a number of times. This day, that thought seemed powerful, and he realized how much he wanted the dream to come true.
Kershaw demonstrated the normal turn once, and then, as agreed, waggled the stick and handed over to his student for him to practice ordinary turns once again. This Jeremy accomplished with increasing skill, and after about ten minutes, Jeremy was not surprised to feel the stick waggle in his grip. Kershaw took over, and demonstrated first, as always, what he wanted his student to emulate. It was a much steeper turn, quite exciting, and the aircraft seemed even more alive and powerful.
Then it was Jeremy’s turn, and, thinking back to the briefing, he entered the turn confidently enough. He remembered to note the position of the nose relative to the horizon, and for a moment felt all was nicely under control. Then the R.E.8 decided otherwise…
The nose of the aircraft seemed to fall away from the horizon, and the sound of the wind increased quickly and alarmingly. He was also being thrown against one side of the cockpit. An invisible hand was pressing against him, and his whole grip on the situation was lost. From a relatively confident frame of mind, he had moved in a matter of seconds through a stage of puzzled bewilderment into a state of astonished disbelief. Still the aircraft continued downwards, the noise of the wind deafening.
He was expecting a waggle of the stick, but none came.
A lot of his brain seemed now to be shutting down, and he found it hard to think. The portion of his brain that was still at work suddenly decided that this was getting damn silly. He leveled the wings, and started to pull out of the dive. Immediately, the stick waggled, and Kershaw took over. They eased out of the dive, and climbed back for height. Kershaw repeated the manoeuvre once, and Jeremy tried to follow his example. It was slightly better this time, but still the exercise felt strangely wrong. They returned to the field, and Jeremy felt low. A fear had entered his mind that he might be axed.

It was therefore with relief that Kershaw had seemed quite jovial at the debriefing. He had sounded quite pleased, and the reason manifested itself as being the fact that Jeremy had ‘stuck it out’, righted the aircraft, and not ‘given up’. The reason for everything going pear shaped, was ‘insufficient back pressure on the stick’. Jeremy, relieved, found himself listening with fascination to what Kershaw had to say, and asking questions with the spiritual hunger of the determined seeker of Eternal Truth. Moreover, Kershaw enjoyed the questions, and the interest his pupil displayed.

The R.E.8 also seemed to behave remarkably oddly at low speeds through the air. Kershaw seemed to regard it as essential that his pupils fully grasped the dangers of slow flight close to the ground. He briefed often and fully on the warning signs. Jeremy found invariably that Kershaw was right in everything he said, and was increasingly fascinated by the exploration of all the characteristics of flight. Certain ideas Kershaw promoted seemed a bit far fetched, but turned out to be remarkably useful. The stick forces and ‘feel’ could actually tell you a lot about what was happening. If the aircraft was traveling at high speed, the controls through the stick felt delightfully ‘crisp’ and sensitive. There would be plenty of air flowing across the ailerons on the wing and the elevators on the tail. Small control surface movements had a big effect. However, if the aircraft was going very slow, the controls felt ‘sloppy’ and ‘spongy’. This, Kershaw never ceased to hammer home, was a warning that the aircraft could be about to stall. If you stalled low… Jeremy had discovered a scrapyard behind the furthest hangar, and his initial joy had soon turned to horror at the realization of the destruction wrought by an aircraft contacting the ground out of control. Splintered spars, scraps of torn fabric, and unrecognizable cockpits had set him wondering what had happened to the unfortunate occupants. Nobody seemed to know however, or be willing to tell him.

This experience had the effect of tempering his out and out wild beginner’s enthusiasm, and some innate cautious streak prompted him to listen seriously to Kershaw’s warnings, and to ask questions when he was puzzled. Sometimes he felt that the others were content to let him do the all the asking. Either that, or they were extremely smart,Jeremy decided wryly.
There were other warnings an alert pilot could pick up if he had inadvertently let his air speed drop very low. Apart from the ‘sloppy’ controls, there was an odd sort of ‘buffeting’ that took place. His first experience of that occurred early on, at the end of an exercise on ‘climbing and descending’. As promised beforehand, Kershaw had chopped the power, whilst in a gentle climb, and Jeremy had tried to maintain the nose of the Avro for as long as possible in the same position relative to the horizon. After a while, it had been as if some giant had been secretly grabbing the aircraft by the tail and shaking it. This shaking had become increasingly vigorous. Kershaw had opened up the engine again, and inquired of Jeremy’s impressions afterwards on the ground. Jeremy had relayed these, and in particular the idea of a giant shaking the tail, to which Kershaw’s only comment had been:
"Good. That warns you that you are about to stall. More of that later!"

At the same time that Jeremy’s group was being instructed by Captain Kershaw, another group of a dozen odd pupils were receiving the attentions of a Captain Fisher. He was a solidly built man, of a very determined bearing. He shouted a good deal, and Jeremy formed the impression his charges feared him.
There was not a lot of intermingling between the two groups, who were accommodated and briefed separately.
Mealtimes were the same, however, and a great deal of good humored rivalry took place. Jeremy’s group showed different progress, but all were now receiving circuit training, having gone through the stages of learning to climb, descend, turn, maintain height and speed, and recognize the warning signs of slow flight. They had also practiced stalls, where the speed was made to continue to drop off, until the wings stopped flying, and the nose of the aircraft suddenly dropped down. It was surprisingly easy to recover from a stall, and Kershaw laid much emphasis on practicing this, whilst stressing that a good pilot never stalls accidentally.
He never tired of repeating:
"Don’t fly low and slow!"
The circuit training however was where everything got pulled together. They would take off, climb, fly a rectangle around the airfield, descend, and land. Without stopping, they would then take off again, repeating the whole process. There was much to learn, and it was astonishing how a good landing could be followed by an out and out ‘bummer’. Jeremy learned as much by watching others as by flying himself.
The rivalry at mealtimes intensified, and the race was on as to which group would have a man go solo first, with everybody pretending to everybody else that they were very keen to go solo, and couldn’t wait.
This challenge became more real as the likely day approached. Jeremy felt pretty certain it would be his group, as his faith in Kershaw stood at a high level. The man could be sharp, and demanded high levels of concentration, but his pupils respected him, even if they didn’t all warm to the man.
It was a disappointment when one of Fisher’s charges went off first. The rowdyism in the mess reached new heights, and Jeremy shared his group’s disappointment. The next day two more of Fisher’s group achieved the magic first, and the crowing delight from the Fisher brigade knew no bounds. Jeremy was more than surprised, and for the first time began to have doubts about Kershaw. The following two days were rained off. When flying again resumed, Jeremy felt pleased with his landings. Kershaw had sorted out one of the last problem areas. On the initial touchdown, if things got a bit bouncy, Jeremy would try to sort things out by moving the stick back and forth. Kershaw sternly forbade it. Once the aircraft was down, he wanted to see the stick hard back. It seemed a funny idea, but it worked. It prevented a strange series of bunny hops and bounces.
The day came to an end without anybody going solo in Jeremy’s group, but he himself felt more confident than ever. He knew he was worried and apprehensive, but he was also confident of his abilities. If told to go, he knew he would not hesitate.
It came as yet another nasty surprise to hear that three more Fisher men had scored the bull’s eye. That made it six out of eleven, as against nil out of ten for the Kershaw side.
The Fisher team seemed to be willing to graciously impart their new found knowledge to the common plebs, and it was remarkable, Jeremy ruminated, how full of themselves they were.

Night fell in with a clear sky, and after eating, Jeremy fancied a stroll and a cigarette. He had hardly ever smoked before, but since everybody indulged at Hendon, he had found himself becoming a chain smoker. He saw no harm in the habit, and a ‘fag’ after dinner was a nice way to unwind and digest the events of the day. He also tended to wander off and explore the airfield, and see if he could poke his nose into interesting places. Although it was frowned upon to mix with the engineers, Jeremy found himself irresistibly attracted to the workshops, and the fascinating skills being applied in an almost casual manner to build or repair flying machines.

In this manner he passed an open window, from which a conversation drifted. He paid scant attention, until he realized somebody was getting told off in no uncertain terms. Curiosity made him listen closer, and it was with a start he recognized the voice that spoke stiffly in reply: Kershaw!
"For a start, Sir, I believe that my ideas are nothing new, but merely common sense. I just build them up gradually, so they understand why things happen the way they do. Understanding seems to me to be essential to the airman if he is to survive in France.
Most importantly of all though, I completely fail to see why the measure of good training should be the speed with which an airman is dispatched on his first solo. It is plainly possible to speed up the first solo by the simple expedient of cutting corners, but…"
He got no further. Jeremy listened in astonishment as a gruff parade ground voice interrupted harshly and forcefully:
"How dare you! How have you got the unspeakable nerve to insult the abilities of Captain Fisher! That has to be the most… the most…"
The voice sputtered as if at a loss how to continue. Kershaw cut in for a moment:
"Sir, I did not wish to imply…", but was drowned out by the unknown speaker.
"Captain Fisher is a most able, most experienced, most competent officer. Six of his eleven men are now soloed and close to being ready to depart for France. Or have you forgotten that there is a war on? Have you forgotten our losses over the last few months? Are you aware of the pounding the RFC has been taking? We are having trained pilots wiped out within days! I want men who can fly and fight, not pilots who are filled with fancy theories about why things happen…"
There came a crash, as if a table being thumped by a fist, and, at the same time, Jeremy became aware that if he was caught in his position, he might also face the wrath of the unseen speaker. A door slammed somewhere, and voices echoed back to him. Instinctively, he drew into the shadows, debating what next to do.
The unknown speaker was now almost bellowing:
"Damn your fancy theories, Kershaw! I want pilots who make things happen. As long as they can fly and fight, I don’t care a stuffed fig if they understand nothing else. Do you get my drift!!?"
The reply sounded stiff and formal. "Yes, Sir."
There was a pause, and Jeremy decided to make a quick getaway.
The voice of the unknown speaker sounded more reasonable.
"Look Geoff, I know you’ve had a lot of experience in France, and I know you’ve seen a lot of men die. I regret that. I accept I am no flier, but I’ve been in the army a long time, and I can tell you, Group are on the warpath. If we don’t put more men through faster, then heads will roll. Mine first. And I’ll take yours along, you can rest assured. Put it this way, you have to follow orders. The orders are to get them through, fast…"
There was another pause. Jeremy was torn between an urge to flee, and a fascinating, morbid curiosity.
Curiosity won.
Captain Kershaw’s voice sounded flat and clipped.
"Sir, I would like to put in for a transfer back to France."
Jeremy could stay no longer. Apart from an overwhelming certainty that he had no right to be listening to this conversation, he could hear voices in the distance again, heading his way. He dared not risk being caught eavesdropping. Crouching down, he scurried furtively away into the darkness.

* * *

The days passed quickly. At night, Jeremy mostly fell into an exhausted sleep, awakened all too early in the morning by shouting, coughing, and doors banging.
His brain would clear quickly, and that quickening of the pulse, that sharp intake of breath, would bring him alive with the thought: I’m here. At Hendon. I’m learning to fly…
He developed a special fascination for the engineering workshops. The construction of the wings seemed so… creative. Strong, yet delicate. Beautiful.
He frequently wondered if he could build aircraft himself. If he could learn… then, maybe, after the war…

The day came he felt his landings were quite good. One after another.
A few more days like this, and he’ll send me solo.
He was excited, and looking forward to it.
When, two circuits later, Kershaw took control, preventing another take-off, Jeremy wondered why. Something was obviously wrong with the aircraft. This impression was quickly strengthened when Kershaw handed him back control, unstrapped and climbed out.
He’s going to inspect something…
The instructors were forever worrying about the undercarriage. That was probably it, thought Jeremy, although he couldn’t remember a really hard landing that day.
Oh, well…
He hoped fervently that it didn’t mean the end of the training session. He was enjoying himself far too much.
Kershaw, having looked around the sky, moved over towards Jeremy, placing his mouth close to Jeremy’s ear.
Above the noise of the engine, the words rang loud and clear:
"Okay, Jeremy, off you go on your own! Do me proud! Just one circuit…"
Jeremy’s face fell, so unexpected was the order. His brain whirled.
First solo!? I’m not ready! I need more practice…
The stern face that regarded him authoritatively suddenly cracked into a grin, and a hand patted Jeremy reassuringly on the shoulder.
Abruptly, Kershaw turned his back on his student, and strode off, leaving behind confusion, and a reluctantly emerging sense of command.
Right…
He swallowed.
Right… I’m in charge. Okay… well…
His stomach turned over. He looked around the sky, and checked that there was nobody else about to land. Then, reluctantly, he advanced the throttle, pushing the stick forward at the same time.
The tail rose up, and a whole new world started to open up for Jeremy Armstrong.

* * *

Mrs Armstrong had been busying herself frantically with all sorts of trivia, such as vigorously polishing the already resplendent shine of Jeremy’s school trophies. She had been mightily irritating Mr Armstrong, although he tried hard not to show it.
"I do hope Jeremy is all right…", she remarked for the hundredth time that day. "I just wish I could be certain that he is eating properly…"
Mr Armstrong busied himself deeper into ‘The Times’, hoping she would not require yet another comment from him.
It was not to be.
"What do you think, dear?" Her imploring tone was not be evaded.
Reluctantly, he lowered his paper slightly.
His thoughts were hostile.
Woman, he’s doing fine. The army have yet to lose a man due to starvation…
He twisted his face into a smile.
"I’m sure he’s having the time of his life, dearest. Probably just like being back at school. I should imagine the food is excellent…"
He didn’t wait for a reply, but drew up The Times again, as a defensive screen against all doubts, including in this case the worries of his partner.

* * *

The ground was falling away…
Now I’ve done it! Now I’ve really done it…
There was no going back. No canceling his first solo.
A bizarre exhilaration fought a pitched battle against terror, and won, handsomely. For the moment, anyway.
The only way down was by flying down. And landing.
Himself. Nobody else was going to do it for him.
He was in charge! It was good. Good to be climbing, climbing, up into the sky, which was suddenly even more alive, mysterious, beautiful, and beckoning. He looked around with a new found intensity; he had never realized it was possible to be so passionately alive, awake, and aware… Just to prove that the aircraft was indeed obeying his control inputs, and nobody else’s, he made tiny unnecessary stick movements, and reveled in his power as the nose responded with a gentle pitching.
Alive! Flying! On my own!
He felt like screaming at the top of his voice, wished his parents were there, Emmy, everybody; he thought intensely about them, just for a few seconds. There was a knowledge of a difficult thing to come, a first solo landing, but that was a long way away, and in the meantime he could and would enjoy and savor every moment.
He turned downwind, looking over at the airfield, wondering how many people were watching him. He had an insane knowledge that he could do anything he liked, and there was nobody to stop him. He was being trusted with an extremely valuable aircraft, and that knowledge made him proud.
Eat your heart out, Mark Donaldson!
He almost laughed out loud. This would shut his critics up very quickly. He was a pilot!

The downwind sector, parallel with the runway but opposite the direction of take-off, was a triumphant procession, the Roman General returned to the Capital of the Empire, cheered by tumultuous crowds.
He turned, and then, a minute later, turned again.
This it it. This is where I land.
He had sobered up quickly. There was work to be done. Serious work. He weaved the nose, and checked carefully for any other aircraft. Nothing.
Down now. Down towards the ground.
400 feet.
Steady. Steady.
Keep her coming. Airspeed?
300 feet.
He was nervous.
Steady, just keep on coming.
200 feet.
He was very nervous. Were they watching him?
Of course they are! Everybody’s watching! The word’s traveled like wildfire… First solo!
100 feet.
His mouth was dry. He felt breathless.
This is no joke. This is serious. I could crash here. Gently-does-it…
50 feet.
He knew he had only a few seconds flight left.
Keep cool, it’s looking good…
15 feet.
He eased back on the stick, and started to round out, unaware that his eyes were bulging now.
Suddenly the ground was racing up to meet him!
too fast!
He jerked the stick back further, overcooked it, and felt the machine balloon back up twenty feet into the air.
You’re ballooning!
He had covered this scenario with Kershaw so thoroughly, that the words came back, as clear as if Kershaw was speaking:
If you’re in doubt at all, go around.
If you’re sure you’ve got plenty of field left, then all you need is a quick burst of power.
He was sure he had plenty of field left. He throttled up, just a burst, just enough to smoothly cushion the long sink back towards the ground, and soften the landing. Then, once she was firmly down, just as he had been taught – over and over again – he hauled the stick back, and held it there, in the pit of his stomach. The machine bumped slightly, and then rolled straight and true, slowing down quickly.
Brilliant!
When he had slowed to a walking pace, he applied right rudder, helped it with a blip of power, and taxied to the waiting crowd. He could see Kershaw standing slightly in front, beaming.
Jeremy was aware his face was split in a huge grin.
Superb! I’m a REAL pilot now!
He climbed out, knowing a whole new chapter of his life was beginning. He patted the hot engine cowling affectionately, mentally thanking Mathilda for looking after him.
He would have liked to have gone straight up again.

The next day, one of Fisher’s students tried to land ten feet too high. Mathilda stalled, and started to hurtle towards the real runway with frightening speed.
The student tried to think of what to do next. He had not had the benefit of Kershaw’s vivid, repetitive drills.
He crashed, spreading his face all over the instrument panel. He was dragged out perfectly alive, but rather sore, and very unhappy. Humiliated even. It was a pity. He had good natural abilities.
Mathilda was a write off.
A week later, just as Jeremy was getting stuck into cross country flying, Captain Kershaw received orders to return to France. He packed his bags, and left, hardly noticed by anyone except his students, quietly, without a backward glance.
Several days after that, another student of Fisher’s bit the dust, writing off yet another aeroplane.
Fisher tore him off a strip, and had him chucked out of the Royal Flying Corps.

F.M.

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 6, 2008, 7:48 am


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1 response to Jeremy’s War: Chapter 3 "Kershaw’s Chicks"

  1. "This experience had the effect of tempering his out and out wild beginner’s enthusiasm, and some innate cautious streak prompted him to listen seriously to Kershaw’s warnings, and to ask questions when he was puzzled. Sometimes he felt that the others were content to let him do the all the asking."

    I am getting a better idea of Jeremy.
    Again, this chapter was somewhat technical. I imagine that pilots would love it, but I’m not sure about most lay readers. I quite liked it, because you communicate an intensity of feeling very well.
    The teacher, Kershaw, is well described. I imagine many teachers in all professions would warm to him.

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