Out of the Comfort Zone
If the rain hits us, as it seems it must – that squall you can see on the hills, sweeping towards the airfield – you know that whichever chair you’ve chosen, the hard plastic one or the slightly upholstered one, you're soon going to end up sitting in the equivalent of a puddle. Nevertheless, it can't be put off much longer; in fact even as you push the thing forward towards the edge of the narrow walkway you realise that you've left it too late. The first Lycoming or Continental fires up, not too many feet from the unprotected ears of the gallant audience dotting the lawn and lining the fence below. Whatever pearls of wisdom you might or might not have ready to drop – about the scratch man and the other early competitors – are going to be drowned out by the racket of their very subjects.
Picking up the microphone from the seat, the flex mysteriously and without any encouragement wraps itself around your leg and you can't disentangle yourself because you need your full complement of hands to move the chair and hold your folder and clip board. In your preoccupation, you hit your head on some component of the control tower's window framing, which of course is splayed outwards to fulfill just that purpose. Cursing mildly you almost instantly hear someone saying a rude word through the public address and realise that it was you. You have managed to flick the ON switch on the mike. Thank goodness you didn't on this occasion use your habitual comprehensive and colourful range of expletives.
Eventually settling onto the perch you open your red ring binder in which, if you have had time, you have placed all the runners and riders in race departure order, except that you haven't actually got the handicap times from the computer yet, so they are in a best-guess order that will have to do. The order turns out to be immaterial. As your single available hand attempts to turn to the one with the big number corresponding to that painted on the scratch man's aeroplane, a monster gust hits the walkway and is funnelled direct to the folder. With a rattle like an old electric typewriter, several pages of competitors' notes flap over, rip through their punched holes and take off in the direction of Leominster. Slamming the folder shut in the nick of time and creasing a dozen of the surviving pages permanently, you resign yourself to the fact that memory will have to suffice and that this year the scratchman's 3rd place success in the 1996 Battle of Britain Trophy will not be shared with or silently applauded by the crowd.
What crowd? You notice that no one is to be seen. Perhaps that's because they have appreciated just how close that squall now is and have dived into the bar or the café. With several minutes to race flag-down you wish you could join them. Why on earth do you do this?
It's all Ralph Burridge's fault. It was that day in October 1998 that he strolled out of the Alderney hangar and casually suggested that there was a microphone and PA set up and did I fancy telling the assembled spectators something of what was going on? Why he assumed I might know what was going on he never made clear. Thank goodness I didn't have too long to allow myself to worry about the prospect or it never would have happened – because, believe it or not, I have always been quite shy. I could quite happily go on stage and act, because acting is hiding, the sanctuary of the shy show-off. I could control a film set too, even with hundreds of people on it, because that is a form of acting too, but actually making a formal announcement was something else, and the idea of talking to people through a microphone for an hour was almost unbelievable. I still can't really take on board that I do it, and have been, on and off, for 16 years now.
In those days spectators at all the popular venues were entertained by the legendary duo of Ken Ellis and John Swain – and being within earshot of one of the PA speakers during a race was a must if you had a sense of humour, and who in the air racing fraternity doesn't have one of those? I used to feel sad for the officials whose duties kept them away from the fun and in the couple of seasons when I sometimes worked the turning points with Ken Chilcott I felt I was missing out. The commentators' caravan outside race time was a laughter-magnet with pilots, navigators and retired racers constantly dropping by for a chat and some banter.
There were places too distant or too sparsely attended to make it viable to take the trailer and equipment, which generally meant no star commentators, which is where I came in. Organisers at those venues, like Alderney, who had a PA and wanted someone to try and decipher for their spectators the strange and incomprehensible spectacle unfolding before and above them, would gravitate or be pointed in my direction and like Ralph before them offer a challenge I couldn't refuse. I joined the commentary team by degrees, even if the commentary team didn't actually know I was doing it.
Next time: Of Lap Charts - and Dancing!
Paddy Carpenter recently celebrated 50 years as a writer and filmmaker. He heard about Air Racing from Ken Wilson while he was in the earliest stages of his flight training at Staverton in 1980. He claims to be far too sensible to have ever raced or navigated although he is married to someone who isn't, so he can't be totally sane. As Ken also introduced him to Safaya, many years before they got together, that man Wilson has a lot to answer for! Paddy's recent novel, UNSAFE - The Script of One-Zero-Three which investigates Lockerbie and contains much flying, is now available - details on www.paddycarpenter.com and links.