In the long distant past, we owned an aircraft. Well, not exactly we, but he. The horse was mine, the plane was his. But as we have always regarded all our personal effects as equally shared, let’s call it our plane.
Once a year we went on a club holiday to France with six aircraft of similar breed (Beagle Pup), setting off in a merry little group to cross the Channel to our favourite country.
The particular year of which I’m writing ‘our’ plane had been resprayed, and she was not quite dry at the appointed mid-morning departure time. We would follow on later in the day, and catch up with our fellow flyers at our first destination, Bordeaux.
It was after 4.00 pm by the time the paint was dry, and off we set into a cloudless blue sky. Loosely speaking I was the navigator, and sat holding a very large crackly plasticised map with chinagraph pencil marks all over. Once we’d crossed the Channel – always a slightly unnerving episode when the engine invariably sounds rough and you wonder how long it will take to clamber out when the plane falls into the water – we were both relaxed and looking forward to a good meal once we reached Bordeaux.
TOH was following a navigational beacon, so I tucked the cumbersome map out of the way and drowsed in the pleasant warmth of the cockpit, until suddenly a great menacing line of black appeared on the horizon. Weather! We were heading directly into a fierce storm.
“I’m not flying into that,” I announced. We’d flown through enough storms for me to know it isn’t much fun unless you are an adrenaline junky, which I am not.
“OK,” TOH replied, “we’ll land at the next airfield. Where are we?”
“I thought you knew.”
“No, I’m following a beacon. You’re meant to be watching the map. Tell me where we are and find the nearest airfield.”
I unfolded the crackly map and stared at it, seeking some resemblance to the ground beneath us. Hm, there was a railway line; a river; a town; a motorway. Calculating the distance we would have covered in the time we’d been flying, it all made sense, even if the terrain didn’t precisely correspond to the map. I don’t remember the name of the town, but I said: “We’re here, and there’s an airfield there,” pointing to the map.
As the black band of weather surged closer, we circled until TOH spotted the airfield, which was not quite where the map put it, but who cared? It was an airfield.
The runway was particularly wide and long, and marked with much white paint. Touching down, the wheels bumped gently onto the tarmac, making a funny noise and giving a little shudder. Once we had rolled to a halt, TOH switched off the engine then climbed out and crouched down to look under the plane.
“We have a problem,” he said, straightening up. “We’ve landed on a military airfield.”
“Is that bad?”
“Let’s just fly quickly away,” I suggested, as a gendarme cycled towards us and climbed off his bike.
“Hello,” he said, in perfect English. “Why are you here?”
“We made a precautionary landing due to approaching bad weather,” TOH said.
We all gazed up the sky. Crystal clear. Not a wisp of a cloud.
“You should fly quickly away,” said the gendarme, confirming my suggestion, “because otherwise you will be in a lot of trouble. You must go now.”
“We have a damaged wheel,” said TOH. “We can’t take off.”
“Oh, la vache!” exclaimed the gendarme. “If you could get your plane the other side of this fence, it is the aero club. It will be very bad if the military find you here.”
A large camouflaged truck came speeding towards us and parked itself on the nose of the plane. Out sprang half a dozen camouflage-clad soldiers with guns, and a German Shepherd dog wearing a camouflaged muzzle. The soldiers surrounded the plane, pointing their guns at it and us. The dog stood and stared,
The gendarme explained to them what we had said, and then he turned to us. “I am sorry for your problem. It is a military matter now. Good luck.” He climbed on his bike and cycled away.
…. to be continued
This post is linked to All About France