3. And the race leader is . . . Lasagne with Chips
For an air race commentary to go well, there is a veritable pond full of ducks which need to be lined up in that proverbial row. So much so that if you were trying to line up real ducks in a real row it would take four Peter Scotts and a couple of David Attenboroughs to give you a fighting chance. The odds against can be of that sort of magnitude. Yet sometimes they manage to get by, despite the unpromising circumstances and challenging restrictions.
I remember turning up at Haverfordwest to find that the PA equipment had been set up in an old double-decker bus. Well at least it was on the top deck, but next time you find yourself on the upper deck of a bus (honestly Royal Aero Club, there are such places), note just how much sky you can see. Even if it were possible to sit on the floor, just think – in a race, aeroplanes approach from one direction, turn overhead (the most interesting bit) and then depart in a different one. Can you imagine trying to view all that successfully from a bus seat? I couldn't, even when I was doing it, but somehow it seemed to go OK.
I love Haverfordwest. Headed there one year for commentary, we got weathered out on the Friday evening and had to overnight in Swansea. Craig and Ali were there too. The following morning was sparklingly beautiful although there was still some mist here and there so we followed the Pup low level along the coast past the Gower and Tenby until we could see a clear route into Withybush – what a great name! It was one of those flights of a lifetime that I'll always picture.
At Compton Abbas, if Swainey and Trev weren't there with the gear, it was all down to the reception PA, normally used mainly for calling out the order numbers of lunches, when the waitresses couldn't find the customer who was waiting to eat out on the terrace. This meant that the commentary could be punctuated with interjections like "customer for lunch 79, please." Such a request for relay would be passed up to me by one of the reception staff coming outside and attracting or distracting my attention, according to your view of priorities; or sometimes one of the waitresses herself would shout up herself in desperation.
I say "up" because the preferred place for commentary at Compton was from the flat(tish) roof above reception, up the steep iron ladder, before the days of the first-floor extension. The microphone
lead was fed through the reception window to our viewpoint. We would take up a couple of chairs, "we" assuming I could pressgang someone, usually Jane Wilson, to climb the ladder with me to keep a lap chart, and generally things worked, provided that there were not too many would-be lunchers so enthralled by my attempt at explanation of what they were seeing that they became impervious to the delightful young ladies shouting "Number 15". Sometime race numbers and lunch numbers became interchanged, as if things weren't complicated enough.
One year, not only was there no one available to perform the logging, but on reaching the roof to set up I found that the connecting lead was shorter that year and that the only way to get close enough to the microphone to pass my helpful gems of information on the progress of the race (and of course those other digits relating to the progress of lunch) was to lean forward uncomfortably through the guard rails, my body taking up the shape popularly attributed to King Richard III. Holding the mike took one hand and strictly speaking, keeping myself alive required another. That tended to have used up my full allocation of hands, which made reference to notes or anything more than a single sheet of Runners and Riders a total non-starter.
This commentary would be busked from start to finish, if I could avoid falling head-first onto the terrace. Busked it was – but apparently I got away with it yet again. In fact I think it went rather better than on some occasions when there has been the opportunity to surround myself with papers galore, stopwatches, binoculars, airband radio, the lot. Being well prepared and organised, it seems, is no guarantee of success.
I know that most air racing pilots and crews would, comparing their efforts to some of their results, almost certainly say the same.
Next time in the final part of Confessions of an Itinerant Commentator:
Air Racing on the Riviera. You didn't know we did? And . . . An Embarrassing Sequel.
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.