"Mountains My Lab" Part 5

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on May 28, 2019

Jim Milledge has been one of the UK's leading figures in mountain medicine for many years. In 2018 he completed a long awaited memoir entitled -  "Mountains My Lab". Although Jim's intention was not to widely publish the book he has granted us permission to reproduce extracts on our blog. Over the course of the next year we'll bring you images and text that describe Jim's extraordinary life. 

Part 1 includes an overview of Jim's life. Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 can be found in earlier posts.

In Part 5 Jim describes his time at medical school and some early flying adventures...

I was just 18 when I went up to Birmingham University. In some ways I was quite confident. Being away from home was no problem; boarding school had been a good introduction to the hall of residence, Chancellor’s Hall. The work in the first year was not too demanding, since I had covered some of it already in the Lower Sixth Form at school. But in other ways I was very naïve, especially in respect of girls. However, with the help of a succession of girl friends I learnt the exciting, frustrating and curious ways of dating in those far-off and innocent times. It was clearly understood that there could be no question of any permanent relationship until after we graduated in six years time, if all went well! I quickly made many friends, played some rugby, joined a small church choir. We went to “hops” at the Students Union on Saturdays and I joined the University Air Squadron.

University Air Squadron.

This became an important part of my University life. We attended parades, lectures on airmanship, weather, aero-dynamics, engines both jet and internal combustion and, most exciting, were taught to fly. Our airfield, all grass, was out at Castle Bromwich on the east side of Birmingham, that is, down-wind of the city. It being the days before the clean air act, this brought the polluted air of the city over our airfield most days of the year. That didn’t bother us much; it was the accepted order of things. Our planes, at first, were Tiger Moths, wonderfully primitive bi-planes, (see photo). They were designed in 1929, with two open cockpits, one behind the other. We had no radios, only speaking tubes connecting instructor, in the front cockpit and pupil.

Tiger Moth - the type of plane in which I learnt to fly. Photo taken in August 2000

Towards the end of my first term at Birmingham University I went solo for the first time after nine flying hours, a never to be forgotten experience. I had been practising “circuits and bumps” with the instructor for some time. That is, you take off climb up, turn left, level off, left again start a descent, turn left again, line up with the runway and land. Suddenly the instructor said, “OK I guess you’re ready” and got out. I was thrilled to be considered good enough to go solo and excitedly taxied out and took off.  Now suddenly I was on my own with no friendly helmeted head in the cockpit in front of me! Added to the thrill was more than a twinge of anxiety! But all went well though the landing was not one of my best.

Me in the rear cockpit. My wife, Pat, gave me a flight in this restored Tiger Moth as a 70th birthday present. I am in the student’s place and am obviously enjoying it!

I have many happy memories of flying with the squadron. On cold winter days when we dressed up in padded inner one-piece and outer windproof suit, plus fur lined boots and inner and outer gloves, leather helmet, goggles and mask. Provided you were warm to start with, you stayed warm for the 30-40 minute flight. Often in the winter there would be inversion conditions. This meant that the haze hung over the city and airfield. You climbed up through it then, suddenly, ping! And you came out above it, into brilliant sunshine and the haze formed a pencil sharp horizon. The ground was just visible, hazily in a tight circle below. These were perfect conditions to practice aerobatics which I loved doing. However, after doing a series of loops, slow rolls and stall turns, you didn’t know where you had got to. With no radio, you were on your own and had to find your position by flying down into the murk and picking up some landmark. It was said that if the worst came to the worst, you should find a railway line, fly along it until you found a station and fly low enough to read the station name! I never had to resort to this tactic but did have some anxious moments.

In the summer vacation we went on camp for two weeks to an RAF base. Though called “camp” we were not under canvas but in quite comfortable officer’s mess accommodation. These were great times with plenty of flying and parties in the mess etc. I remember my first long, solo, cross-country flight from Aston Down in Gloucestershire to Oxford and back. It was such a warm day I flew in shirtsleeves in the open cockpit of the Tiger Moth, over the beautiful green countryside and the spires of Oxford. At these camps we linked up with two other squadrons and pooled our planes and instructors. If we couldn’t go to our own camp we could go to one of the other squadron’s camp. One year I went on the Queen’s University, Belfast Squadron’s camp. These Irish students were full of stories; here is one of them.

Their airfield was called Nut’s Corner (which I thought amusingly appropriate) and of course they also flew Tiger Moths with fixed undercarriage and no radios. The Flights, the place where the planes were parked, was in the middle of one side of the field. One was supposed to taxi down-wind to the end of the field, turn into wind and take off. However, they often didn’t bother but just taxied into the field, into wind and off! At the end of the field was quite a high stonewall. One day when the wind was light, a pupil and his instructor did just this and barely got off the ground by the end of the field. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite clear the wall and knocked a wheel off. The watching pupils and instructors were horrified. They knew that it was not possible to see the undercarriage from either cockpit. There was no way to warn them of this mishap so that they could make a pancake landing rather than a wheelie one. A pupil had the bright idea that taking a spare wheel, he and an instructor could go out, find them and formatting close to them, indicate by signs, their problem. So they grabbed a spare wheel, rushed out and off. Unfortunately, in their hurry they also did not taxi down-wind but just took off straight away and barely got off the ground before the wall. They too touched a wheel on the wall, knocking it off! They found the first plane, moved alongside it and lifting up the spare wheel gesticulated vigorously. The instructor in the first plane shouted to his pupil, “Well, that’s a bloody clever trick! I wonder how they’ll get it back on again?” A typical Irish tall story.

After a couple of years flying tiger Moths we were reequipped with De Havilland Chipmunks. These training planes had closed cockpits and radio. So now we could be recalled by the control tower if, for instance, the weather was about to deteriorate. Also if I got lost we could call up the Tower and ask for a “course to steer”. Using my radio signal they could get a “fix” on me and give me a compass course to follow and get me back to base. So some of the fun of flying was lost!

Part 6 can be found here.

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