First Published – June 2012
The Armchair Pilot suggests …. flying in the Army
The frosted glass of the office door looked dark except for the globule of light, enough to see the words “P Gripton – Editor” in silhouette. I’d been summoned, and as I leaned forward to knock the voice inside shouted in a New Jersey drawl “Get in here!”, a bit out of place for Thirsk I thought.
he smell of cigar smoke hit my nose as the door inched open, and through the haze I could just make out the man himself, eyes hidden in the shadow cast by jauntily placed trilby on his head.
“Hey, youse da literary editor, review dis for da Boise and Goirls” he said throwing a tome over the papers strewn across his desk, “I wantz it in da nooosletter pronto”. The melange of empty Jack Daniels bottles on top of the filing cabinet chinked together as the book landed on the floor with a thud.
“But chief”, I protested, “I’ve already done this month’s piece. It’s about Schismogenesis and Weltanschauung. I thought the club members would like Gregory Bateson”
“Bateson – Schmateson! Get dis ‘Think like a Boid’ read & reviewed or you’ll be filing da old nooosletters in da archives down at da clubhouse”. With a wave of his hand I was being dismissed, or was he reaching for the shot glass?
As I paused to pick up the now spent missile, I recognised the cover and the words writ large: ”Think Like a Bird: An Army Pilot’s Story” by Alex Kimbell. But what was that noise, sounded much like the alarm clock calling me from my slumbers….
In the interests of journalistic balance I must declare an interest: I have read this book several times, and like it so much I have put it on my web site as a recommendation.
There are flying books that you can read that pass you by, and there are flying books that draw you in and make you interested like “Sweating the Metal” by Alex Duncan with description enough that it left me wanting to try flying a helicopter (there, I’ve said it fellow fixed & flex wing flyers).
Then there are the rare gems that pull you in completely, and Think like a Bird is one of them, written by a pilot for pilots.
The top story is simply Alex Kimbell, crash landing a Beaver during the Aden conflict while carrying Army top-brass, and having to defend themselves against local rebels. Behind it, each chapter is a flash back, from the day when a Skeeter helicopter landing next to his platoon first drew his attention to army flying all the way to that desperate fire fight in the desert and his return to base in the aftermath.
Kimbell’s writing takes you along with him all the way in the flying and in Army aviation in general. Different to today, the Army Air Corps had few members of its own, and was staffed by members taking a secondment from their regiment. As an officer, doing one tour with the Air Corps would most likely allow your return to unit in time to get back to your career progression. Stay for a second tour and you had lost all chance of promotion back in your unit, as Kimbell’s flight commander in Aden knows only too well yet he enjoys the flying too much, but his eventual return to his regiment is a sad affair.
Kimbell himself takes us through his basic flying training, then eschewing the new helicopters he goes to artillery spotting training in an Auster AOP.9. We meet his instructor Mr Summers for the first time as, flaps down at the first position for control, he learns to fly just a few feet off the ground. The writing is so good that you are left not just wanting to try flying an Auster yourself, but to fly the “hidden approach” to a field, not giving its position away by flying miles at hedge height before popping over the hedge and into the field itself to refuel.
We fly the artillery spotting training, using large scale OS maps as they show where you need to climb over the telegraph wires when the weather is bad, and then dodging the RAF Hawker Hunters sent on shoot the Austers on the exercise out of the sky. Handy hint if you find yourself in the same position: forest fire breaks come in useful.
As he completes his training he is transferred to a transport unit, as well as being put on the staff of the corps. We join in the conversion course to the DH Beaver, meeting his mentor Mr Summers for the second time before Kimbell is sent to Aden, flying into battle zones, winding up RAF Staff officers and being sent on desert survival training where a camel train is diverted for fun somehow incurring the wrath of the local nomads.
The flying in this book is so vividly narrated, and the lessons from Mr Summers presented so well, that the joy of reading it is matched by the learning it presents. I can’t recommend this book enough.
If you’re in the clubhouse at Baxby, and you see the copy on the shelf, then give it a whirl. But be warned, it has a tendency to engross you and all too soon the ending comes.