Jeremy’s War: Chapter 23 "Check ride"

Posted on March 29, 2008



They were at 9000 feet, and had been patrolling up and down their sector of the line for some forty five minutes. Jeremy was flying formation on Baxter’s right, whilst a funny Scotsman named Mac Robertson formated on Baxter’s left. Occasionally Baxter had waggled his wings, and pointed to principal landmarks. A railway line, a viaduct, a triangular lake, and various sundry major features. This familiarization mirrored the thorough briefing of the morning, during which Baxter had taken pains to acquaint Jeremy with the lie of the land. Jeremy had appreciated the long briefing, and had thought back several times to his early days at Breuve-sur-Pont, and his disastrous landing in the potato field. If only he had received such a briefing off McAllister!
Jeremy’s respect for Baxter only increased as he slowly came to appreciate that Baxter missed nothing. On one or two occasions Jeremy’s mind had wandered back to Breuve-sur-Pont. Maybe a slight glazing of the eyes had betrayed him, but each time Baxter had brought him back with a sudden question. "So tell me, Armstrong, if you’re here…"
(the pointer would stab the wall map, and maybe there would be a slight emphasis on the ‘if’), "…and you wanted to come home in bad visibility, how would you arrange your track?" Each time Jeremy would be forced to hurriedly concentrate his mind on the navigational problems involved. On one occasion he had drifted off sufficiently to be stumped by the question. Embarrassed, he had been forced to admit it.
"Errr… sorry Sir, I missed that."
He had expected a telling off. A McAllister style stream of sarcasm. He was wrong. Baxter, without a trace of irritation, explained it all once more. Jeremy breathed again. However, at the end of the lecture, Jeremy had been minutely examined on his new knowledge. The re-examination had been startlingly testing, and Jeremy was left with no illusions: with Baxter around, student diligence and one hundred per cent participation were an absolute necessity.
It had been a relief to get airborne. And actually quite interesting to follow Baxter’s outstretched arm, and try to identify the feature indicated. He also learned to appreciate Baxter’s funny methods. Baxter made his people rely less on the compass and more on using line features.
There were numerous examples. A long driveway up to a posh chateau, also pointed straight at their airfield. To distinguish it from other driveways, Baxter had pointed out the ornamental lake half way down. There was also an interesting curved lake, with what looked like a dam across the middle. Baxter referred to the lake as the ‘bow’, and the dam as the ‘arrow’. Follow the arrow, and you arrived at… the chateau. Clever stuff. It was a whole new way of approaching the problem of low level or bad weather cross country navigation.

Jeremy’s respect for Baxter’s caution increased when they spotted what were almost certainly enemy aircraft in the distance, across the lines. Five little dots, in loose formation, heading south. Baxter had specifically briefed that he wished to avoid combat unless the aircraft were engaged in reconnaissance over the British sector. "Until we’ve had a good look at your formation and dogfighting skills". Considering that Jeremy was no novice, fresh out of training school, he appreciated the concern for his welfare. Contingency plans existed however for the event a scrap was inevitable. Again, Baxter had briefed astonishingly thoroughly in this aspect, and covered all the possibilities. In the event of a large force, Baxter would signal Jeremy to return to base immediately, and then engage the enemy with Mac. In the event of a single scout, or a single photo observation aircraft, then Jeremy would tag along, observe Baxter and Mac engage, whilst keeping a respectful distance, and a sharp lookout. In the event he spotted approaching aircraft, and Baxter and Mac, engaged in combat, did not, then, for that eventuality too, he had been briefed. He was to turn and face the approaching aircraft, waggle his wings, and fire his guns whilst pointing vigorously.
In the event, once the enemy force was spotted, Baxter kept a safe distance. The opposing formation was staying firmly over on their own side.

Soon, they were on the way home. Here once again, the incredibly detailed Baxter briefing came to fruition. At a signal from the leader, a nervous Jeremy took over to lead the formation home. He had never led a three ship formation, and was both excited and frightened by this new challenge. He had been warned to concentrate on navigation, and not to study the aircraft formating on him. Even so, he could not resist a sneak glance at the aircraft on his right, which seemed to be trying to stuff its propeller though Jeremy’s favorite starboard aileron. It was so close, that he could hear the Wolseley Viper engine above the racket his own made. It made him nervous. He glanced quickly. It was Baxter’s machine. Immediately, he saw a hand come up, jabbing a forefinger in a forwards direction. Eyes ahead! Baxter missed nothing!
On the way home, Jeremy made one mistake. He caught it after a few minutes. Again, the briefing had covered this eventuality. He had been told that if he made a mistake, the others would follow him for a limited period of time, typically no more than ten minutes. Then, one or other would slide forward and take over the lead. Jeremy, well past a turning point, realised he was heading well out of their area, and panicked. Far too keyed up, he swung his nose around in a hurry, forgetting for a moment that he had an aircraft following him closely. For one brief second in time he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a silhouette floating towards him. Situational awareness flooded back to him, and he flinched, his brain whirling. He had been briefed to perform all turns gently, and now he had broken that cardinal rule! Within a split second, the silhouette had gone, and Jeremy rolled out on his new heading. Forcing himself not to look back, he concentrated fiercely on his navigation. But it was some time before his breathing returned to normal. He arrived back at the airfield, and, obeying the briefing, he orbited the field at five thousand feet. He saw Mac’s aircraft peeling away to land, and watched Baxter distancing himself at the same altitude. Jeremy thought back to the briefing, and licked his lips nervously.
He now had to demonstrate to Baxter that he could fly all basic manoeuvres well. He had to start with steep 360 degree turns, both to the left and to the right. He had been briefed not to lose any height.
The left turn went quite well. But he lost height in the right turn. That meant he had to do it again. He climbed back to five thousand feet, and tried again. Better. But he was out of balance, and wrestling with the controls. He seemed to lose a lot of airspeed.
He moved on to stalls, and flew half a dozen recoveries, with and without power. The powered recoveries were quicker, with virtually no height loss, whereas recoveries without power resulted in a loss of two hundred feet or so.
Then came deliberate spins. He had not practiced spinning since he had come to France, and the prospect frightened him. His first attempt was a rushed affair. He closed the throttle, and eased the stick back to prevent the nose dropping. The aircraft slowed down quite rapidly, and he watched the airspeed needle fall towards the danger area.
Then, as he slowed to the stalling point, he continued to pitch the nose up by exerting more and more back pressure on the stick. The aircraft wallowed and buffeted, and nodded its nose. Still he maintained the back pressure, awed at the slowing propeller blade, and the unnatural feel of the stick in his stomach. Abruptly the nose dropped, indicating a stall, and in that precise moment he kicked on full left rudder. As well as dropping down, the nose of the aircraft also started to slither off to the left.
This indicated the start of the spin, and was too much for Jeremy. Before the nose had yawed very far at all, he rushed straight into the recovery technique, without waiting any longer. Full opposite rudder to stop the nose sliding away, stick forward to get the air moving smoothly over the wings again, and full power.
The Wolsely Viper roared into life again, and the SE5a accelerated easily away from its unnatural attitude.
Jeremy realized he was trembling like a leaf. How he hated spins! Baxter had told Jeremy he wanted to see one good spin recovery. More, "if he felt like it".
Jeremy wondered if he would leave well enough alone. It had been a feeble little spin really. Would he do one more for luck? He decided not to. Then changed his mind. Then became angry with himself. In this unhealthy frame of mind, he closed the throttle roughly, and watched the airspeed indicator needle dropping back. Instead of easing the stick back, counteracting the tendency for the nose to drop with smooth application of elevators, he abruptly hauled the stick back into his stomach, and then, -determined bravery overcoming caution-, he booted on full left rudder.
The results were amazing. The aircraft seemed to take on a will of its own, and the sequence of events of the next several seconds blurred together. It appeared that the aircraft reared nose up for a split second, before tipping dramatically over onto its back. It seemed to rotate around a full circle upside down, before the nose dropped away, and the aircraft continued spinning wildly to the right. Jeremy, open mouthed, long since a passenger and no longer the pilot, could only stare in wide eyed amazement as earth and sky chased one another around. Only when the aircraft adopted a reasonable erect spin, with the horizon somewhere reasonably where he expected it to be, did Jeremy’s brain slowly unfreeze.
Haltingly, he went into recovery mode. He applied opposite rudder, feebly at first, then more firmly as he felt the aircraft responding, and the spin slowing down.
The stick went forward, and, once the aircraft was no longer spinning, but diving in a straight line, he pulled back on the stick and leveled out. His heart beating madly, and blood rushing in his ears, he was aware he had forgotten something. It took him several seconds to remember to open the throttle again. The reassuring beat of the Wolsely Viper returned, and he checked his altimeter. 4300 feet! He had never lost that much height in a spin before. Baxter would be furious!
Slowly he climbed back to 5000 feet, knowing he was in for a big dressing down. Why practice spins anyway! It seemed a pointless exercise to him. He could not ever imagine accidentally entering a spin. So why bother?
He searched and found Baxter’s aircraft, and imagined cold eyes following his every move. He groaned, wishing he could go in and land. He could imagine no better place to be than in his room, with the door locked, shut away from everyone. He felt sick.

The next stage called for Baxter to simulate an attack on Jeremy. Jeremy was to take all evasive action he thought appropriate, with only one overriding consideration: he was expressly forbidden to dogfight below two thousand feet. "On pain of death", Baxter had said, wagging a finger in front of Jeremy’s nose. "Pretend the ground starts at two thousand feet".
A wing rock from Baxter would indicate the duel was over.
Jeremy found himself wishing the fight was over now. He longed to land, and walk away. Forever, across the horizon, never to return to France. What insane urge… had driven him to want to fly in the first place?

He leveled at 5000 feet, and with a sick lurch of his stomach, he noticed Baxter breaking off his watchful orbit, and heading straight for him.
Obeying what training he had received on the subject of dogfighting techniques, Jeremy turned to face his attacker. He was surprised how quickly Baxter seemed to close the gap, and how long it seemed to take to complete the turn to confront him. He realized his airspeed had bled off a bit in the turn. He was down to 65 knots, but before he had much time to do anything about it, Baxter was on top of him, filling the sky.
With eyes widening in horror, Jeremy wondered what to do, until suddenly Baxter seemed to climb up incredibly quickly. Jeremy watched the other SE5a appear above his top wing, and, not knowing what to do, flew straight on, whilst staring in amazement at the other machine. Baxter did something, and his aircraft responded crazily, going from high speed to low speed very quickly, and from a nose up climbing attitude to a nose down dive almost instantaneously. Too late Jeremy saw the danger, and tried to turn around. He was only too well aware that Baxter now had both height and speed in hand to coil round onto Jeremy’s tail.
Try as he might, he could not prevent Baxter from securing a good position.
By now the spirit of the hunt had gripped Jeremy, and the fear that rose in him at being the hunted was sufficiently real to shake him into frantic action. He tried to tighten the turn to slip away, put, although he had the stick in his stomach, a quick backward glance showed Baxter now glued to his tail. His airspeed was also bleeding off rapidly, and he shoved the stick forward into a dive. His speed increased, but he knew without looking that Baxter would not be troubled by such a simple manoeuvre. His brain raced, and he hauled back on the stick again. His machine zoomed into a steep climb, and simultaneously Jeremy tried a steep turn. He turned through 180 degrees in a climb, and then shot a backwards look: Baxter was still there.
Jeremy cursed. He rammed the stick forward, picked up speed again, and tried the same evasive manouevre once more.
A steep climb, followed by a tight turn. He went the other way this time, but fared no better. Baxter was still there.
By now anger was setting in. The fear and foreboding he had felt earlier was being replaced by a flip reaction: aggression. He dived once more, a steep climb this time, picking up plenty of speed, and then entered the steepest climb he ever had. He seemed to shoot up almost vertically. Then he tried to turn steeply again, but in his haste his coordination between stick and rudder was poor. He applied right stick but forget to match it with right rudder. What made matters worse, he still had some left rudder applied. The aircraft seemed to hang in an unnatural manner nose up for several seconds, before it fell away to the right, rolling partly upside down before the nose swung down, the fields came up, and he found himself pulling out of a screamingly fast dive. The acceleration forces working on his body were more than he remembered experiencing, and they seemed to want to crush him down in the cockpit. He wondered if the wings would hold, and was relieved to find himself flying along straight and level. He looked around, just in time to see Baxter pulling out from behind his tail, and manoeuvering into a position alongside. The other SE5a’s wings rocked, and Jeremy, hot with battle nerves, wasn’t sure if he was relieved or sorry. He followed down, and allowed Baxter to get well ahead.

The wind was westerly, and Jeremy faced into wind at 800 feet. He was a bit high, and closed the throttle to increase his rate of descent. Below he could see Baxter taxying in. Doubtless he would watch Jeremy’s landing carefully.
Let this be a good one!
Mentally he clicked through the landing drills. He had to remember not to float too high. He could see a lot of folk around.
His first landing at his new squadron! It just had to be a good one…

The approach felt good, and he sailed over the hedge feeling comfortable. At the right time he eased back on the stick to round out. Not too much so he would hurtle skywards again, not too little so he would fly into the deck. His speed was rapidly decaying now, and it felt just right.
Gently now…
The wheels were sinking closer to the ground.
Unhurriedly, he allowed her to settle down, resisting all temptation to rush things, or to make violent stick movements. She settled down nicely, with only the very slightest of bounces, and stayed running smooth and straight. Just before she stopped, he applied a burst of power plus a boot ful of rudder, and turned towards the hangars.
He grinned.
It was one of his best ever landings.

* * * *

As he switched off, and climbed out stiffly, he saw that Baxter had already moved off. A very ancient looking groundsman, who looked as if he should have been in a rocking chair, inserted the wheel chocks, and then bent up, stretched painfully, and looked at Jeremy.
When he spoke, it was a quiet,slow, thoughtful voice.
"Major Baxter will see you in his office, Sir."
Jeremy nodded, and tried to keep the mixed bag of emotions he felt out of his face.
"Been here long?", he inquired, with his usual kindness to the lower ranks.
The ancient groundsman looked at him thoughtfully, and seemed to study him a long time. Jeremy, his thoughts muddled, and preoccupied with his flight, was about to turn away, when the groundsman spoke. He was even quieter than before, and had the air of a man who said very little.
"Long enough, Sir, long enough."
There was a pause.
"Nice landing, Sir."
Jeremy looked at him sharply, then grinned. He was pleased with the compliment. Then he was serious again, his face changing abruptly back to reveal his worries.
"Thanks. I wish the rest of the flight had been as good. Major Baxter decided to put me though my paces."
The ancient groundsman studied him quietly again.
He seemed to complete his observations, nodded slightly, and looked into the distance.
Jeremy slung his scarf over his shoulder, brushed his hair back from his forehead, and started walking away.
A voice floated softly behind him.
"You’ll be alright with Major Baxter, Sir".
Something made Jeremy stop in his tracks, and he turned around, smiling. It was unusual for the lower ranks to make such comments about superior officers.
The old man’s face was serious.
When he spoke again, his voice had an earnest ring to it.
"He’s a good man, Sir."
Jeremy nodded, and walked on.
Funny. The Old Man had sounded almost as if he had been defending Baxter…

* * * *

When Jeremy entered Baxter’s office, he was not sure what to expect. He was quite sure he was in deep trouble over his sudden turn whilst leading the formation, and his second spin. He guessed he hadn’t done that wickedly bad, considering, on everything else. Then again…

Baxter was writing, and in the thirty seconds or so while he was finishing, Jeremy’s morale started to dive. Maybe… maybe he had made a right pig’s ear of it. Maybe…

Baxter’s opening round took Jeremy by surprise.
"Well, what do YOU think?"
It was a neutral question. Nothing could be divined from the way Baxter had expressed it. Jeremy found himself at a loss for words.
He would have to get used to Baxter’s style. McAllister would never have started a debrief like that.
He played for time, trying to marshal his thoughts.
"I know I made some bad mistakes."
Baxter’s eyebrows rose up, and a slight angling of the head seemed to say: "Really? What were they?"
Jeremy decided to play straight.
"I turned to the right too sharply when I was leading the formation. That was dangerous. It happened because I realized I’d got lost. The second spin…"
What could he say about the second spin? He was completely confused about it. He shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"The dogfight… I guess if you’d have been a Hun I’d have been dead." He paused, wondering whether to go on, and decided to leave it at that.
Baxter eyed him with interest. When he spoke at last, his voice was cold but calm.
"Yes, you did make some serious mistakes,and,yes, if I had been a Hun, you’d have been stone dead."
Jeremy’s heart sank. The cold, clinical voice proceeded with a very detailed debrief on the entire flight, punctuated with lots of questions. After an hour, Jeremy was very tired, and feeling the effects of a long hard day. He was also mystified. He had expected a drubbing over his second spin, but that had only been mentioned in passing. Baxter had said he ‘liked it’. Nothing else.
Jeremy was relieved when Baxter asked him if he had any further questions. Jeremy had shaken his head. He had been dismissed, and got as far as putting his hand on the door handle, before he remembered the second spin.
He paused, wondering whether to bring that subject up again. It was inviting a telling off, but still…
He turned around, and saw Baxter was observing him closely.
"Sir, there was one more thing…"
Baxter’s eyebrows rose up questioningly.
"That second spin…"
Jeremy stopped, unsure how to continue. Baxter seemed amused.
"So you HAVE got further questions?"
He motioned Jeremy to take his seat again.
Jeremy, confused, sat down again. His discomfort was not eased when it became obvious that Baxter expected him to proceed with his question. He felt a fool.
"Sir… I have to be honest and say I haven’t really got a clue what happened."
There. He had blurted out the truth, and now he was in for it. Still…
To his surprise Baxter did not seem remotely surprised. Or angry. He just seemed to be nodding his head gently.
When he spoke, it was a soft murmur.
"No, I dare say you haven’t."
Jeremy was now completely confused. If Baxter suspected that, why hadn’t he brought it up?
Baxter grabbed a piece of chalk, and walked over to a blackboard. Jeremy tried to imagine McAllister’s stylish office with a blackboard.
"Tell me, Armstrong, what is a spin exactly?"
Jeremy groaned inwardly, and tried to remember back to flying school.
"Sir, it’s a… simultaneous rotation around all three axes."
Baxter eyed him.
"And what does that actually MEAN, lieutenant?"
Jeremy winced. He tried to explain, with hand movements, but got quite confused. Baxter patiently let him dig himself into all sorts of holes, asking questions based on Jeremy’s explanations, which only confused Jeremy further. Baxter had a funny knack of taking everything his student offered to a seemingly logical conclusion, which on closer examination however turned out to be a quiet mockery of Jeremy’s explanations.
Jeremy was pretty sure that his first definition was right. Something he had learned parrot fashion at flying school. But to Baxter’s logic he had no answer.
"If the aircraft is rolling around all three axes, does that mean it ends up upside down?"
"Errr…no, Sir".
"Come come now. You just told me that the imaginary line running through the aircraft from propeller tip to tail is the longitudinal axis. Yes? No?"
"Errr… yes, Sir".
"Well then. If the aircraft rolls around that axis in a spin, then surely it must end up upside down?"
Baxter had picked up a model, which he proceeded to roll upside down with gusto.
Jeremy wished he had never asked. He was now completely confused.
At length, Baxter seemed to relent, and sat himself down.
Jeremy wondered if he was being laughed at. His suspicions deepened when Baxter suddenly flashed a huge big beaming smile at his victim.
"You give up?"
Jeremy nodded.
Baxter was suddenly all serious again.
He placed his fingertips together, and eyed his student severely.
"Let’s get one thing straight, Armstrong."
Jeremy winced inwardly.
"You will never, repeat NEVER, get into trouble for asking questions when you don’t understand something. I want you to learn. It’s difficult to learn when you’re afraid to ask in case you get your head blown off."
Jeremy thought of McAllister, and found himself nodding in agreement.
Baxter eyed him closely.
"But. You WILL get into trouble for NOT asking questions when it’s obvious you haven’t got a clue what’s happening to your aircraft…"
Jeremy knew Baxter was referring to the second spin.
"I was hoping you would ask me about your little adventure…"
Jeremy wondered if ‘little adventure’ was an apt description.
"…because now we can make some progress."
Jeremy was baffled. This man’s logic was totally different from what he was used to. But… he liked what he heard…

There followed a detailed analysis of Jeremy’s ‘little adventure’.
By the time he left Baxter’s office an hour later, it was as if a great light had gone on inside his head. So THAT was what had happened.
Very interesting.
He walked to the mess, musing quietly to himself.
Somewhere, deep down, he had a feeling he had been put to the test that day. And he had not failed.
The Old Man’s earnest words came back to him:
"You’ll be alright with Major Baxter, Sir."
Jeremy thought it over.
He rather suspected the Old Man might be right…

* * * *

Baxter smiled to himself as he studied Jeremy’s file again. He read and re-read the entry he had just made.
"Honest fellow. Admits his mistakes. Tries hard. Willing to learn. Will make a good pilot one day."
He replaced the folder in the filing cabinet, slid it shut with a bang, and headed off for a bath.

He was humming quietly…

* * *

The next day, Jeremy’s long awaited leave came through,
and he found himself packing for two weeks of home.
He had been waiting for it for so long, that it now took on
on an unexpected dimension: he found that part of him
was sorry to go. The emotion puzzled and perturbed him.
It made no sense. He shook his head as he debated what he wanted to do most when he finally got home. Oddly enough, no one thing stood out.

He decided he was probably just tired. A rest would do him good. It would be terrific to see the old gang again.

He convinced himself that he could hardly wait…


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