2. Of Lap Charts - and Dancing
A number of people need to keep a lap chart of some description during the course of an air race. In the most obvious category are members of the turn point teams. As missing a turning point earns an automatic disqualification, an official at each one needs to be sure that every aircraft competing passes by on the requisite number of occasions. It happens. Some years ago a crew that will remain anonymous, in a Schneider held in unusually grim weather conditions, inadvertently missed out a couple of turns. Despite cutting some 16 miles from the race distance, they still didn't come anywhere near catching the leaders.
Then there was the spooky, almost Marie Celeste-like case of a debutante overseas competitor, who arrived, was checked out and completed race practice. The flag-drop at her appointed handicap time was not however a prelude to an illustrious racing career for the story goes that her aircraft then went un-noted on any turning point judges' sheet. She had, to all purposes, disappeared. Investigation eventually revealed that following her first-ever race departure, she quickly set course for Germany and home, never to be seen at a race meeting again.
Of course with the advent of super-accurate GPS, the Mk I eyeball looking up the pole and pen-held-in-human-fingers ticking the passing traffic on a copy of the start list are readily double-checked post-race by an on-screen or printed read-out which reveals the slightest transgression, let alone the blatantly obvious departure from the prescribed track. But for one group, the commentary team, the lap chart continues to retain its traditional importance. When there is a commentary, the whole point of it is to make sense of the procession of aircraft visible to the spectators at the airfield. Competitors in view can be on as many as four different laps and unravelling this tangle and spotting any position changes and trends (who's hot and who's not) – and conveying this information clearly and with luck entertainingly is no mean feat.
In the golden days of commentary Messrs Ellis and Swain, I seem to recall, managed to scale this peak without keeping a formal lap sheet, at which achievement I can only genuflect in respect. A field exceeding about ten entrants starts to become hard to keep track of, even if you or a press-ganged helper are attempting to fill in a chart – and close to impossible if that's not happening. It's made worse if there are aircraft of the same types or having similar configurations and escalates to double-digit trickiness if the sky conditions make it hard to see colours or impossible to read racing numbers. The raising of race minimum height in recent years has only made matters more challenging under adverse "spotting" conditions.
Ken and John were always high in entertainment value whatever the race weather, and however little newsworthy activity there might be to draw to the spectators' attention. Their description of a rare Formula One race, run at Bembridge, was a comedy masterpiece with much repetition of lines similar to "Oh and there goes the yellow one again." Occasionally we would all work together and I would attempt to keep the lap chart and punctuate their flow of banter and description with an occasional discovery or prediction. This could work very well, or alternatively incredibly badly, as witnessed at the 75th Anniversary Schneider Race, which thanks to brilliant work by Pete Earp and others had attracted a field approaching that same magic 75 number. Due to the density of the competitors turning overhead, my sheet had deteriorated to a meaningless jumble even before all the entrants were airborne. I quickly realised that I had nothing constructive I could possibly contribute to the commentary, which Ken and John were now busking admirably.
Noting that no one was using the rather splendid video camera which Steve Ollier had brought along to record the weekend, I silently 'signed off' leaving my colleagues to continue – and played newsreel cameraman for the remainder of the race - which reminds me, I have never seen the edited film of that memorable, and very damp, race meeting.
That Schneider was one of the last times, if not the very last, to feature what was usually a big feature of the 3Rs season - dancing to a live band. Even the discos, dodgy or otherwise, seem to be more or less extinct these days, but at one time a group or even a dance orchestra was a fairly regular feature. I am an appalling dancer and rarely enjoy the practice, so I'm not entirely sure why I find myself remembering the live music era with a degree of nostalgia. It's probably fond recollection of the whole experience of those evenings, and part of that will be tied in with memories of a roll-call of faces which we now see rarely or not at all.
Mention of faces that we don’t see reminds me of another long running feature of 3R's past life, namely the Shobdon Fancy Dress Dinner. Again, I am not particularly enthusiastic about dressing up in uncomfortable costumes, but, as with the dancing, I quite enjoy seeing other people doing it well. And sometimes it was done very well indeed; in fact I can remember once walking into the bar at the Talbot and encountering a sea of faces all belonging to people I knew perfectly well, but not being able to identify a single one of them.
So, I've just written that I can't sort out pilots and navigators at a distance of six or eight feet. We established earlier that I find identifying competing aircraft difficult in any but ideal conditions. And last time I admitted that speaking to an audience doesn't come at all easily. I know I headed these jottings "Confessions" but this is turning out way more revealing than I expected.
Those of you who expected this episode to include lap dancing, take a 15-second penalty!
Next time: When it works, it works.
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 reinvestigates Lockerbie and contains much flying, is now available - details on www.paddycarpenter.com and links or check it out on Amazon worldwide.