It’s a meditation prompted by the image of a Royal Navy Hawk jet which crash-landed in Cornwall this week. The plane probably suffered engine failure at low-altitude, which gave the pilot and navigator only seconds to make a big decision. Shall we try and coax the aircraft back to the runway, or bale-out, leaving the fully-fuelled jet to land who knows where?
They took the latter option. Mercifully, their Hawk blew up on a remote hillside and there were no casualties on the ground. Both aircrew sustained only minor injuries.
I have a good idea what those injuries will look like, having once been for a joyride in a Hawk, as the guest of the Red Arrows aerobatic team. Part of the pre-flight procedure is to sit in a mock-up of the Martin Baker ejection seat (7,615 lives saved and counting). The ejection seat has rockets beneath it, which are activated by a handle swathed in black and yellow tape. The handle rises, unignorably, from just in front of your crotch. I was shown a video of what happens when pilots pull the handle.
It looks like an intensely violent experience, but to paraphrase Groucho Marx, better than the alternative. The g-forces acting on the body of the pilot are immense — up to 20g — and spinal injuries are common as are burns, not least from the explosives used to shatter the cockpit canopy as the ejection seat rises clear of the ailing aircraft at supersonic speed. So, all in all, quite dramatic.
Also, very different from how things used to be, in the days when the science behind the Martin Baker ejection seat was yet to ride to the rescue of young men with seconds left to live or die.
I think, in particular, of one marvellous book published in 1941. The author was a young British hurricane pilot called Paul Richey. The first run of Fighter Pilot – 75,000 copies – sold out within days. Many more would’ve been sold were it not for wartime paper restrictions. It was subsequently re-printed eight times and remains a masterpiece of understatement and Catholic sang froid.
Whenever Richey shot down a German aircraft he would try and find a church to say a prayer for his fallen adversary. At one point he movingly describes going to a church which is locked up and kneeling on the steps to pray for the soul of a man who, had the aerial dogfight ended differently, would have taken the author’s life.
Yet, for all that Richey was devout and compassionate, there is also a searing honesty to Fighter Pilot.
He describes the ‘savage thrill’ and ‘primitive exultation’ when shooting down German aircraft. And the panic. The kind of panic we can’t begin to imagine. His plane on fire over enemy territory. The breathless questions as the brain somersaults. Is my fighter about to disintegrate or explode? Can I free myself from the cramped cockpit? Will my parachute open and work? Might I be machine-gunned as I dangle from it?
Is there time, in those moments, to see the face of God? How many men snatched a half-second of peace before violent oblivion took them? How many others had time to say a Hail Mary, or call to mind the soothing image of a child’s face safe at home?
There’s another question. Did it make a difference if you had time to dwell on your fate? Richey was the eponymous fighter pilot, but another, more famous Catholic had many opportunities to consider his mortality as the pilot of a heavy bomber aircraft.
His name was Leonard Cheshire, a figure now fading from memory, but a British wartime hero like no other.
Cheshire won the Victoria Cross and the youngest ever promotion to Group Captain for his World War Two exploits. His survival itself was fairly miraculous. More than 55,000 men died while serving in RAF Bomber Command. The odds of dying — not just getting injured or captured, but dying — were about 44 per cent. Unlike fighter aircraft, bombing missions took many hours to complete with all the time that gave for the contemplation of Last Things.
Cheshire converted to Catholicism after the war when he was nursing a lapsed believer who rediscovered his faith as death approached. He spent two years in a sanitarium with TB in the 1950s and used the time to study theology and discern a vocation. That vocation was the care of others and there are now getting on for 300 Leonard Cheshire care homes around the world. A cause for his canonisation was opened in 2017.
Interestingly, for a man so devout he would say a prayer whenever he picked up the telephone, there is no mention of his Catholic faith on the website of the charity which still bears his name. Air-brushing, aptly enough.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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