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Final Approach: My Father and Other Turbulence by Mark Blackburn


The games pitches behind the boarding houses on the hilltop were called ‘Wilderness’, for good reason. The boys were shepherded into position along the touchline by the Housemaster. And then we waited.

On this drizzly, sullen 70s day, out of the east a buzzing speck appeared and grew larger. It was a small helicopter, more a tangle of glass and tubes than any integrated machine. It was coming towards us, on the descent; no one knew who was inside. Its forward progress halted at the centre of the pitch. It hovered for a moment, the chopping whirr of the engine faltered, and the helicopter dropped slowly to the ground. The whine subsided, the blades slowed until they were individually discernible, then they too stopped. There was complete silence; the boys, the helicopter, the world. After a few moments, the side of the glass canopy cracked open, and out climbed a tall man in a long black coat with an astrakhan fur collar. My father.

The Housemaster stepped forward to shake hands. The other boys were allowed to disperse, and my father and I went to take tea with Mr Norwood. Afterwards I was told to fetch my things and then we went back to the helicopter. No crowd in formal attendance this time, although once I’d climbed in beside him and he’d started the engine, a steady flow emerged to watch our departure.

No sooner had we taken off than the low cloud curdled down to suck us up; the already poor weather was deteriorating. My father was no expert pilot, quite the opposite – he’d only just got his licence and this was his maiden solo flight. He had no experience of instrument flying. He flew by visual flight rules, and therefore was totally dependent on what his eyes could tell him, or in this case, our eyes. The cloud ceiling was about 500 feet, barely higher than the electricity pylons puncturing the skin of the flowing Berkshire countryside. All he could do was use the compass and head east, flirting with the base of the cloud while praying that he was above the wires and turrets, and able to react in time to any sudden rise in the terrain. I had instructions to watch out for these hazards, as well as any other craft also foolish enough to fly in the conditions, and any landmark that might help to guide us. Then I had to shout at him over the crackly intercom and tell him, the cockpit being too noisy for us to hear each other naturally despite being only inches apart.

He flew as slowly as he could without stalling the helicopter, a very basic Bell 47, just our two seats side by side in the glass bubble. The tension was as thick as the cloud, our progress negligible. Nothing familiar below, just field after field, lane after lane, the occasional higher ground or communications mast to swerve around. Then a miracle: we passed over a runway, the husks of three ancient helicopters, one of which was a skeletal 1950s Westland Dragonfly, ominously lined up at one end.

We set down on the grass on the other side of the tarmac strip. More by luck than judgement, my father managed to make contact with the control tower over the airband radio, and it turned out we’d come down at Blackbushe Airport in Surrey – at the wrong end of the runway away from the tower and the basic terminal. We’d already been incredibly lucky even to get to the airfield, and we were lucky that due to the weather it was closed, so there’d been no aircraft movements on the runway.

Luckier still that a few staff remained in the control tower, vainly awaiting an improvement in the weather. My father fired up again, and under their guidance we taxied up the runway from our isolated spot and parked beside the terminal. Nobody said anything as we trooped in to report our arrival, but my embarrassed teenage self could tell they thought we were idiots who were lucky to be alive.

We sat there for several awkward hours in one of those lounges with furniture no one would ever buy for themselves – battered wooden foam-cushioned chairs with peeling covers and chipped coffee tables littered with aviation magazines. A couple of bored air traffic controllers across the counter listened to their crackling radios and looked out into the wet grey blanket. Would the weather break to allow us to take off again? It finally did; a mere ten minutes later we arrived at our original planned destination, Fairoaks Airfield at the other end of Surrey. 

We swapped our seats in the helicopter for those of our waiting car, with me receiving explicit instructions to keep my mouth shut and let my father explain to my mother why we were several hours late home.

Every flight with my father should have carried a health warning, but I took no heed. Flights, literal and metaphorical, they were all risky. At that age, I had an excuse, I was still in the unqualified worship phase. I have less of an excuse for repeating the mistake in my adult years.

Final Approach is available for purchase in paperback and ebook

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