I arrived at the RAF Elementary Flying Training School at South Cerney, near Cirencester, at the end of February 1966 to start my pilot training. I was feeling a little apprehensive because, in recent years, so few aircrew officers had been allowed to convert to pilot from another aircrew category. At the time I thought I was the first, but I later learned that at least one flight lieutenant navigator had preceded me by a few weeks. I was also very much aware that all my former AEO colleagues would be watching my progress with interest from afar.
Above: An informal course photograph at RAF South Cerney. I am the one 4th from the left wearing an old-fashioned flying suit.
This was a period when the RAF had been trying for some years, and with less than 100% success, to train new pilots entirely on jet aircraft. It was seen in high places as desirable to be able to claim that the RAF was the first air force in the world to train its pilots entirely on jets. Inevitably some student pilots failed early on in their flying training and this wastage was proving expensive. Eventually someone realised there were many under-utilised Chipmunk aircraft still in service, mainly used to give Air Training Corps and Combined Cadet Force cadets air experience flights. Since most cadet flying was at weekends, using the Chipmunks during the week to run short 'grading' courses for newly-commissioned officers before they moved onto the main flying training schools seemed like a good idea.
Each flying hour on the single piston-engine Chipmunk cost just a fraction of an hour in a Jet Provost so the RAF chiefs, without publicly abandoning the all-through jet training scheme, were looking to see if a short course on the Chipmunk was a reliable way of assessing a student's potential. Official figures I remember being quoted at the time were £4 per Chipmunk flying hour and £40 per Jet Provost flying hour. Makes you think, doesn't it? Mind you, my diary records that en route to South Cerney from Mildenhall I filled my Mini Cooper car to the brim with four gallons of 'Super' and got a few pence change from £1. Those were the days.
As far as I know, the RAF never acknowledged that the Chipmunk courses were designed for 'grading' purposes. However, when I arrived at South Cerney rumours about just that were rife. The instructors were putting it about that they were not allowed to fail anyone which, if true, seemed to negate the reason for the courses. Unsurprisingly, the students at South Cerney were not entirely convinced and they considered the system unfair because some of their contemporaries had gone straight onto Jet Provost courses, bypassing the Chipmunk course entirely.
I had learned quite a few things about the training of new pilots from my short period as the P2 Staff Officer at Mildenhall, especially in the weeks after my colleagues on the Staff heard of my impending selection for transfer from AEO to pilot. There had been considerable gossip amongst the Training Staff at Mildenhall about the high failure rate at the flying training schools. It was said that a certain star-ranking officer had recently asserted that: "There is no such thing as a bad student pilot, only bad instructors." The same officer is alleged to have justified his assertion by pointing out that before being accepted for pilot training in the RAF, every applicant had been through a very thorough selection and scientific evaluation process. The 'system' had, in effect, declared that the successful candidates were capable of being trained as RAF pilots; if they failed along the way it could, presumably, only be the fault of their instructors. Not an inference likely to go down well with the instructors at the RAF's flying schools.
On my first day at South Cerney, I remembered all that with not a little consternation. When I walked into the classroom on the first morning of my course, I found the rest of the students, very young, newly-commissioned Acting Pilot Officers, were already sitting down quietly. Their reaction at my entrance completely surprised me. They immediately sprang to their feet and one of them called out smartly, "Good morning, sir". At first, I thought an instructor had followed me into the room but then I realised that the greeting was for me. For the last few months they had been taught that flight lieutenants were God's gifts to the Royal Air Force. They had assumed that because I was a flight lieutenant and wearing a flying badge on my uniform (albeit an Air Electronics Officer brevet) I must be a member of the Directing Staff. Seating myself at a vacant desk in the middle of the room I said, "Do sit down, please - and relax. My name's Tony, no need to call me Sir. I'm a student on your course."
They looked unconvinced but they did sit down - only to stand straight up again, as did I, when the class instructor walked in. It took some days for the rest of my course to accept me as one of them. Eventually, they confessed that they had thought I was a plant - a spy for the staff. That may sound far-fetched today, but it was perhaps understandable bearing in mind the fact that the students already thought they were under special watch because they had been sent on the Chipmunk course instead of direct to a Jet Provost school. I explained to them how someone with many years of service, and 10 years older than most of them, came to be on a course with them. I assured them that I would get no special treatment.