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Geoffrey Wellum and First Light

“First Light” by Geoffrey Wellum was a book I read in 2006 on a family holiday when I was a slightly disenchanted teenager who had all but given up on my childhood dream of flight. Finishing the book I felt a shift; my desire to fly was rekindled and I said there and then – I’m going to learn to fly. Years prior I had wanted to join the RAF but had been put off by some poor career advice and the teenage urge to “be cool” and fit in. I now made it my mission to gather the correct information and set about applying, properly. First Light, or rather Geoffrey Wellum, made that happen and it is right to say that the book changed the direction of my life. Three years later I walked through the gates of the RAF College Cranwell, to begin as a trainee pilot.

Completing officer training in July 2010 was an honour. A few days later I attended the Battle of Britain 70th anniversary commemoration at Capel-le-Ferne, not in any official capacity, just as a civilian. Through the open door of one of the VIP tents I could see none other than Geoffrey Wellum. I asked the chap on the door very nicely if he could pass a message on, that I’d just like to say hello? Thinking I might be allowed in very quickly, under close escort, out comes the man himself, almost bounding over as much as any man his age can do.

 

“Hello old boy, how are you? Nice to see you!”

I was gobsmacked, he was my hero and here he was, saying it was nice to see me. I’d never even met him before. We had a lovely few minutes together, chatting. I told him about how his book had made me get my act together and how I’d graduated from Cranwell, just three days prior. He was made up by that, and asked me a million questions about it, before we had a photo and he got back to his lunch. His parting words were “don’t let the bastards grind you down” with a cheeky grin on his face and twinkle in his eye. I was on cloud nine.

 

Next stop after graduation was a four-month holding position at RAF High Wycombe. Whilst in this post, the then Group Captain who was my boss four times up the chain, took me under his wing. I was just an Acting Pilot Officer at the time and a lower form of life did not exist. He asked me to plan a Battle of Britain Commemoration in the town of Chichester. It was a slightly extra curricular activity, but Chichester was local to where he lived, and also local to my home. During the planning we decided we would like a VIP guest, and I thought of writing to Geoffrey Wellum as I’d heard he attended the odd event. I wrote a letter, mentioning how his book had inspired me, and the event we were planning. I also included a copy of the photo taken back in July and mentioned our meeting, thinking it wouldn’t hurt to jog his memory, and then passed it to the Media and Comms cell to forward on. Naturally they couldn’t give me his address, and I thought little more of it, not really expecting anything in return.

A few weeks later, to my amazement, a letter arrived for me. My hero and inspiration had taken the time to write back. I couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, he said, he couldn’t attend the event as he was busy travelling around to lots of other events and couldn’t quite fit it in. But I almost didn’t care. I had a letter, handwritten, from Geoffrey Wellum. I read it over, and over, and over again. There was a familiar phrase that he signed off with, “don’t let the bastards grind you down”! Even better, it was on headed paper with his address. I wrote back and so began almost eight years of correspondence, on and off.

Some months later, just after I had commenced Elementary Flying Training at Church Fenton, I received the devastating news that I, along with one hundred and eighty or so of my colleagues, was to be made redundant. After all avenues had been exhausted it appeared there was nothing that could be done about it. I was leaving and that was that. I wrote to Geoffrey again, having met him once more since Capel-le-Ferne, at the film premier in London for the dramatisation of his book, where he was attending as guest of honour. He was still full of beans there, and once again, signed off to our group of young air force officers with his familiar catchphrase. This time my letter explained the situation, how I was disappointed, but that I wouldn’t give up and asked if he had any advice.

A short while later, as I was standing in the car park of my local gliding club, I received a call from an unknown number. Here we go again, I thought, more PPI.

 

“Hello old boy,” came the voice at the other end, “it’s Geoff Wellum”.

Just as when he had written to me the first time, I couldn’t believe it. Here he was, calling me. We had a great chat during which he let me know that he’d received my letter, and that he was furious. He was going to “bend every ear he could in Whitehall, the Air Ministry” as he said, “and anyone else who would listen. How dare they treat young chaps like this who had signed up to serve.” This wouldn’t be the end of it, he promised. As ever, he told me not to let the bastards grind me down and wished me well. Clearly there was nothing he could do. I knew that, and he probably knew that, but the very fact that he had called me cheered me up in what was quite a depressing situation.

I always knew that what I wanted to fly was not the frontline fast jets of the modern RAF, or airliners, but Spitfires. Joining the RAF, I thought, would be the way to achieve that because I could volunteer to join the BBMF once I’d flown the Harrier, Tornado or, new as it was then, Typhoon. Obviously I’d succeed at that, why on earth wouldn’t I?! Being forced to leave the RAF put a serious spanner in those works. However, I was still committed to making it happen. As I was becoming considerably less naive than the teenager who had applied to join all those years ago, I was starting to learn that the RAF and then the BBMF was not the only way to fly warbirds, far from it.

Reading First Light, it was clear what I needed to do. From what I could make out there were three rungs to the warbird ladder. It started off with smaller taildraggers, like a Tiger Moth, or a Cub, then the middle rung was the Harvard, and then finally the top rung, the Spitfire. So I took a gamble and set about making it happen.

One year on and I was a flying instructor based on the south coast. I had finally achieved my commercial licence after the first training organisation I went to after the redundancy had gone bust. I was at a small school, flying the Tiger Moth, amongst other types.The Tiger Moth, I knew from his book, was what Geoffrey had first flown in his RAF service back in 1939. So I wrote to him again, asking if he’d like to come for a ride, my treat. He politely declined,  mentioning that at his age, he was finding the travelling difficult and that he was very busy with engagements, but noting that he was glad I was flying a “real aeroplane” and wished me luck with it.

 

A few more seasons of instructing, moving to another school just down the road, at Goodwood, and things were starting to come together. My gamble to go into instructing first in an effort to gain a lot of tailwheel experience in a short space of time, rather than to the airlines and more money, was starting to look like it might have been worth it. At Goodwood I was able to move one more step up the warbird ladder by flying the Harvard. This was the second aircraft that Geoffrey flew, as described in great detail in his book. In three years I flew more than 200 hours on the Harvard, mainly taking passengers for experience trips. During that time I obtained my Display Authorisation under Cliff Spink, a contact I had made four years earlier whilst training for my PPL in 2012. Along with guidance from the team at Ultimate High I achieved the DA in 2016.

 

At the beginning of the same year I co-founded the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group, a charity established to raise the funds required to rebuild Hawker Typhoon RB396 to flight. Incidentally, it was around this time that I learned my grandfather flew the Typhoon during WWII and that his last flight was from Goodwood. This was part of my incentive to form the charity. Therein came another link to First Light; in the epilogue Geoffrey writes about getting back into flying after his return from Malta, as a test pilot for Gloster, in none other than the Typhoon.

I felt that warbirds were getting closer, but still so far away. I had met John Romain, the founder of the Aircraft Restoration Company, a number of times, through my DA flying with Cliff and as part of the Typhoon project. I was spending time with warbirds, I was recognised in the ARCo hangar as a familiar face, and I’d met a number of other operators. Yet still the warbirds eluded me. Reminding myself that I’d only flown solo around five years ago at this point and I picked up my well thumbed copy of First Light any time I felt I needed a boost. I knew that patience was required and that this was not a sprint but a long game, one that could take me ten or even twenty years.

Then in May 2018 it happened. I was due to fly to Duxford on the Friday before the May airshow to renew my DA, then exhibit for the weekend with the Typhoon project. The flight didn’t happen so I drove up instead, meaning I was there for dinner that night and went to the local pub where many owners and operators were known to hang out, especially on an airshow weekend. I walked into the pub on my own, saw John Romain, James and Anna at a table round the corner, waved, went to the bar and thought nothing more of it. Then, he came over and apologised for not recognising me in the light and invited me to sit with them for a beer as they were leaving soon. A little small talk, then, out of the blue he says “How many hours do you have on the Harvard, Sam?”

 

“About 200…”

“And you have a CPL?”

“Yes…”

“Good. I want you to fly my Spitfire.”

I was completely blown away, I felt like warbirds were on the horizon, but never did I dream that they were this close. And the Spitfire at that. I had to tell Geoffrey. Soon after getting back from Duxford that weekend I wrote to him, and told him that I had some leave coming up and I’d very much like to come down to Cornwall and see him on one of those days, to take him for a beer and say thank you for everything. It had been a few years since our last exchange of letters and one day, after coming back from the gym I noticed a missed call from an unknown number and a voicemail. It was from the man himself. He was getting a bit frail, he said, and getting about was difficult, but he’d be in the pub on the days I was coming and hoped to catch me. That was great I thought and with about three weeks until the trip I was really looking forward to meeting him again.

Just about a week before the trip, I woke to see the terrible news that he had passed away. I was absolutely gutted. Reaching for my phone to listen to the sound of his voice on that voicemail, to make matters even worse, it had been automatically deleted.

A few days later we still made the six hour trip, my now wife and I along with our Cocker Spaniel. Going into “his” pub, in Mullion, his chair was laid out, with his picture behind it. I bought him his favourite drink, a Rum and Shrubs, left it in his place and wrote him a little note tucked underneath. I spoke to a few of the staff there, and a few of the locals, and I struggled to hold back the tears. I was genuinely gutted. I didn’t think I would be that bad, but his passing made me realise just how much of an effect he had had on my life. I just sat for a while, quietly, alone, and then left. Noting that the funeral arrangements had been pinned on the wall, it was taking place in around ten days’ time.

 

The night before the funeral I was back, making the journey on my own this time. In the same pub, a small army had congregated including the BBMF, many friends of his, family, people like me for whom he was their hero and of course the locals. There was a story doing the rounds that one of the local chaps started to tell me, that someone had told him and so on. It was about a young lad who had written to Geoffrey for years and who had arranged to come down and see him, but he had died a few days before, but the young lad came down anyway and was gutted.

 

“Yes” I said, “that was me.”

And we all commenced a great evening talking about just how bloody great Geoffrey was and what an impact he had had on all of us. This time there was a Union Jack draped over his chair and his spot at the bar had become a shrine full of drinks bought for him, with the landlord vowing to keep it that way forever. We all chatted until the early hours, each with our own stories. It reminded me strongly of the Officers’ Mess, the atmosphere of which is so well described in his book.

 

Next day, the funeral. Standing room only and as I was certainly not classed as a close relative or friend, I was outside with a few hundred others. Almost full military honours, with the BBMF in best blues bearing the coffin to the church. “Parky” gave the eulogy which was wired to a sound system outside, and afterwards “Disco” gave a more than fitting send off in the Spitfire. Back to the pub, a slightly more sombre affair this time, with photos and a book of condolence laid out. Quiet conversation with friends, Jonny, Mike, one or two of the BBMF chaps, and a few of the locals. I met Neil, Geoffrey’s son, and he seemed very grateful for hearing my story of how much his father had touched my life. Then, before long, and after a walk down to the village graveyard to visit his cross, I had to leave, making the long journey back to a prior engagement. I could not miss the funeral and to this day I am so glad I made it.

The next year, my Spitfire conversion was due to begin. Having done a few flights in the Harvard first, with Cliff and Rats, and a Spitfire engine start the previous October, I was itching to get going. The flights were something else, starting in the back seat first, then moving to the front, then eventually flying solo after a summer of delays to the training, in October. Every time I have been in the Spitfire, even for a ground engine run, my battered, bruised and well read copy of First Light, with my favourite letter from Geoffrey, comes with me in my leg pocket.

 

And so it was on my first solo flight, when it really hit me. The flight itself was a bit of a surprise as I wasn’t expecting it on that day, but when I was up there, I shared a few words with him.

“Well, Geoff, here I am. And it’s all thanks to you!” as I banked and rolled around the fluffy white clouds. Bringing the aircraft back to Duxford and taxiing in I thought immediately of a particular line from his book that stands out for me, where he remarks of his first landing in a Spitfire at Duxford, seventy-nine years before me.

 

Yes, I’ve arrived, no doubt about it, a Spitfire has landed at Duxford with me inside it.

Without my mother suggesting I read First Light for the first time, on that family holiday, it is quite probable that none of this would have happened.

RIP Geoff, and thank you.