Father’s approach to my persistent adolescent dithering over careers was simple, offer a stark choice: either follow his footsteps into aviation or opt for veterinary medicine. To be fair, these were the only two ways of life that appealed to me upon leaving school at 17 years of age, and it was time to opt for flying school or vet school, to commence that very September.
“So, here’s the deal,” he announced at breakfast that fateful morning, while Mother masked her maternal concern and feigned indifference and the sisters giggled. “We will go up together at 12 noon and come home for lunch and you can tell us all what you have decided.”
“Up” meant go flying with him. Many would have killed for the privilege. He began by flying gliders as a 16-year-old and like many others from our dear green Irish island in the Atlantic, then joined the wartime RAF to be dispatched for flying training in the USA. Father later joined Bomber Command’s Main Force, volunteering for the elite Pathfinder Force, flying in the first Battle of Britain Memorial Fly Past, and the legendary 35th Squadron Goodwill Tour of the U.S. After initially retiring from military aviation to join Aer Lingus, he rejoined the military as a highly trained and experienced flight instructor.
Some record, some pilot! I had always been interested in aviation, and like many other schoolboys, could not read enough about it. By the day we were to go “Up,” he had flown nearly 40 different types of aircraft in a flying career of more than 30 years and had been responsible for many hundreds of young men gaining their “wings.”
“Up” meant a pre-flight safety briefing like that given to every student pilot and donning a parachute before waddling out across the tarmac to the two-seater trainer aircraft. Waddling is the only way to describe getting to the plane. The parachute clipped over my shoulders banged against my posterior with every stride and seemed to weigh a ton. A kindly soul lifted this would-be airborne decision-maker onto the wing and strapped me into the cockpit. The student sits behind, mercifully out of eye contact with the Instructor, who sits in front, both enclosed in the Perspex dome that forms the canopy. The engine is gunned into life, the propeller whirls into action and bites that air, which pulls it forward as the all-clear is given, brakes are released, and the taxi to the runway begins.
The surge of power that accompanies clearance for take-off is familiar to every civilian airline passenger. The same is true of two-seater trainers—with one very big difference. The noise! We roared down the runway and ascended into a clear, blue sky, mottled with occasional puffs of cloud. The horizon unfolded gradually as we climbed and the excellent visibility meant that every detail of the locale could be seen clearly.
I was just beginning to relax and think that this could be an enjoyable thing to do and that perhaps it might make for a lifestyle choice. Then the reason why my father had gotten fed up with civilian aviation became apparent.
“This is boring,” says he. “It’s a lovely day. Too good to waste like this. Let’s do some aerobatics.”
Aerobatics. That most spellbinding of spectacles. Graceful. Artistic. Inventive. When viewed from the ground, that is, but not the same story on your maiden flight! We began with a loop, a full circle through the air, climbing before attaining the zenith, then a brief moment of upside-down suspension before gathering speed in the downward part of the arc. Next came a “Barrel Roll,” the same as the loop but with a full rotation at the top of the loop, followed by a stall turn in which flight is lost monetarily before being regained.
My father was just beginning to enjoy himself. I was not.
The restraining harness seemed dangerously inadequate as blood rushed to my upside-down head. He continued through his repertoire, whistling to himself as he did so, loudly enough to come across the intercom, the airborne equivalent of happily singing in the shower. I was glad, however, that breakfast had been light and had been a long time ago.
Then came the totally unexpected: “You have control” crackled into my helmeted ears. In each and every one of the many movies of airborne heroics that I had ever seen, the pilots swung the joystick with careless abandon, as their winged steeds rose, plummeted, and soared again, banking left and right to evade or attack. Replicating the movie version was not a good idea. The finesse of fine movement is all that is required. This ham-fisted novice was shocked to discover how sensitive this thing was, how the slightest flicker of movement of the controls brought instant response.
I froze into terrified inactivity. The next 35 minutes seemed more like 35 hours, and as it all became a little more familiar, some measure of confidence was gained despite the frequency of corrective advice emanating from in front of me. I could, as in my dreams, see myself as a potential “Ace.”
“I have control” was the final instruction prior to a demonstration of just how smooth a landing can be attained by those whose flight count runs into the thousands. We taxied to the apron without further ado or comment and wordlessly returned home to Mother for lunch. After a few forkfuls, came the inevitable post-flight questioning:
“What have you decided to do?” he asked. I had reflected on this deeply since landing.
“I want to be a vet,” I replied, thinking that effectively ended any further involvement with flying.
“Good,” said he, “because I formed the impression this morning that you had the ability to kill us both!"
About Dr. Des Leadon
Des Leadon is an Irish veterinarian who specializes in horses, especially racehorses. His work has taken him around the world, literally, from. Sligo to Stansted and from Siberia to South America. This collection of stories (all true) explores that world in a series of adventures and misadventures, which are factual and sometimes frightening, but always humorous. They begin with a stark career choice, then move to airplanes that ran out of fuel, to an aria sung by a frustrated opera singer in a blizzard on the tarmac in the Russian winter, then, bizarrely, to a letter written to Vladimir Putin. Shergar is here, too, as he features in an attempt to raise him, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The unexpected hazards that occur in race riding are also captured in these tales from a self-confessed and most highly unsuccessful amateur jockey. It’s not all about horses, though. It also has stories of things such as calvings and greyhounds that suffer from depression.
Leadon is a prolific author in the scientific literature. He also has appeared on radio discussing a variety of issues and was featured in the BBC TV documentary Flying Horses, which attracted an audience of more than 9.5 million viewers when first broadcast.