Chris Oldfield – My personal history in aviation
My love for aviation started, like so many others, in my early childhood. I was born on an RAF base in what was West Germany. My father worked for the Air Ministry as a surveyor and as such could always be found on an RAF station somewhere in the World, theodolite and charts in hand. When permitted I would follow him around, snooping into every nook and corner, letting my natural curiosity get the better of me. With the heady aromas of mess rooms and aviation fuel in my nostrils I was hooked.
Having undertaken a number of assignments in places as far afield as Singapore, Cyprus and West Germany my father shipped the family back to the UK choosing to settle in leafy West Kent. Life developed a familiar routine; school term-time, exams and holidays. I wasn’t entirely sure if becoming a pilot or astronomer was more important but both disciplines required a strong leaning towards physics and mathematics so I forged ahead regardless.
My mind was made up for me by a chance event, as is so often the way. The nearest village to our home had, amongst its many amenities, a petrol station which had recently been sold. I would cycle there to buy bits and pieces and most importantly my father’s Sunday papers. The new owner was a middle-aged gentleman who possessed a quiet almost humble countenance. He introduced himself as Bob and invited me to sit with him, which I did as often as I could. He would give me a bottle of pop and regale me with stories about the War, flying, racing cars in fact everything that I loved. Bob turned out to be Wing Commander Robert ‘Bob’ Doe DSO DFC, fighter pilot and joint-third most successful flying ace of the Second World War. I was in the presence of a God and hadn’t realised! His words of encouragement would for ever inspire me and to this day I regard those encounters as the most significant and cherished chapters of my life.
First hands on flying experience
My first real hands-on flying experience was at the controls of a glider aged seventeen. I was packed off for a weeks’ intensive flying training to Tibenham in Norfolk, the WWII home of the 445th Bomb Group, part of the mighty US Eighth Army Air Force and where James Stewart had been station commander from 1944-45. I arrived on a Sunday and by the Tuesday of the following week I had flown my first solo sortie. I had caught the flying bug. I also found time to learn freefall parachuting at Biggin Hill. It was a most stimulating experience all be it one that I had no intention of pursuing, much to the relief of my parents.
Having completed my schooling, a master plan was forming in my mind. I would complete my under-graduate studies in Astronomy after which I would start my commercial flying training. I worked every hour in my downtime to raise the finances, which, even in the 1980s were substantial. I chose a flying school in the US, partly because I would get ‘more bang for my buck’ and partly because of the favourable flying conditions. My instructor was an eccentric to say the least. He played drums in a jazz quartet, often into the early hours, and would turn up at the school in his drop-head Chevy Corvette bleary eyed ‘ready for action.’ He was however a phenomenal instructor and always found a way to simplify even the most complex problems using his easy, laid-back Southern charm. He could also be a demon at times. He wouldn’t think twice about cutting your critical engine at decision height whilst shooting an ILS or simulating total electrical failure on take-off whilst throwing in an engine flame out for good measure and all the while grinning and chuckling to himself.
The start of the beginning.
Following my graduation and with my hard-earned FAA Multi-Engine CPL/IR in hand I started looking for flying jobs in Florida. After a few false starts I was hired by a small cargo operator in the Miami area flying right seat on the Beech King Air. Most sorties were intra-Caribbean and often at night carrying a wide variety of commodities. What developed over the subsequent three years still gives me sleepless nights to this day but that is definitely another story for another time….