Am Bratach No. 329
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Bill Innes, “Flight from the Croft”,
Whittles Publishing, 2019. Paperback, £18.99.
When, in 1940,
aged 7, the author’s father died and his poverty-stricken mother had a
nervous breakdown, there were no thoughts of becoming one of the country’s
most experienced pilots.
And when Bill Innes and his brother were
fostered by a crofting couple in South Uist who lived without electricity,
plumbing and running water, there was little time for anything other than
ensuring day-to-day survival.
They might not have had facilities we
now take for granted, but there were good quality schools, the young Innes
was an excellent student. His ambition to become a primary school teacher on
the islands was encouraged by his foster parents. He describes thoughts of
flying an aeroplane as being at that time an “impossible dream”.
that changed at Glasgow University which, like other universities at the
time, had an RAF reserve air squadron.
He applied, passed all the
tests and was accepted. Many of the other applicants had the dubious benefit
of private education, but a combination of an excellent state education
system and Innes’s own enthusiasm saw him through. However, he still thought
his future lay in teaching and after graduating went to a training college.
All that changed with national service, which was then compulsory for
most young people. Because of his experience with the university’s air
squadron, he was able to do his national service with the RAF and, much to
his delight, was stationed for most of the time in Canaableda, which he
describes as a pleasant alternative to the austerity of post-war Britain.
After national service, he joined BEA (British European Airways), rising
to the rank of captain. When BEA and BOAC were merged into BA (British
Airways) he became one of their pilots. He also experienced piloting air
ambulances and not only became a representative in the airline pilots’ trade
union, BALPA, but trained others who wanted to become pilots. Even after
retirement he was persuaded to take other piloting posts. The pleasure and
satisfaction he gets from flying aeroplanes shines through every page of
this fascinating memoir.
The book contains a wealth of stories from
the hilarious to the heart-warming to the tragic, and includes some of the
pranks he got up to with others in his early years as a pilot. At the time
he was on national service in Canada, it was common for those on leave to
cross the border into the USA where car manufacturers in the north were
looking for willing people to drive the vehicles to customers in the south.
Innes and some friends took advantage of this, ending up in Florida, a
holiday they certainly enjoyed but which also opened their eyes to the
racial segregation that existed as that time in the southern states.
He also includes stories of some of the characters he met during his long
At one stage in his career he flew Tiger Moths, a classic
biplane originally developed in the 1930s, and other classic planes in his
spare time, sometimes taking part in air displays. He describes two crashes
he had in these. In the first, his engine failed and he was forced to land
in a field, with the plane’s nose in a hedge. The other was more serious and
he has no recollection of the last moments before the plane crashed into the
ground at 130 mph. Although the plane was a wreck, it didn’t catch fire and
though badly injured he survived. On his recovery, he continued to take part
in air displays for some time.
He has much to say about the
inadequacy of training in his early days as a pilot: he argues that the
methods used led to some trainees losing confidence in their own abilities.
When he himself began to train others, he attempted to learn from this.
Although he doesn’t himself suggest this, it does seem to me that he was
able to put into practice some of the transferable skills he learnt when he
was at a teacher training college prior to national service.
also a chapter on those who suffer from a fear of flying and an interesting
appendix on early aviation in Scotland.
The book is not without its
flaws. In particular, the author makes clear his dislike of
multi-culturalism, “political correctness”, nationalisation and progressive
income tax and his support for the deregulation, privatisation and lower tax
regimes that were features of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister in the 1980s
(all things this reviewer disagrees with).
He is of course entitled
to his views, but it might have been better if he had argued a case for them
rather than spoiling the narrative by inserting them in the text without
However, apart from this caveat, his memoir
is a fascinating, informative and entertaining story, with the inevitable
and necessary technical descriptions tempered by an easy-to-read style.
Anyone who can rise from a life of poverty without basic facilities to
become one of the country’s most successful airline pilots deserves our