THIS IS THE most engaging book about flying I have read for quite a while.

THIS IS THE most engaging book about flying I have read for quite a while. I know next to nothing about Army flying, either as it is now all drab painted helicopters filled with menace or as it was at the time of Alex Kimbell’s account, in the 1950/60s—the last days of British Army fixed wing aircraft. RAF pilots of that time viewed Army pilots in a rather patronising light, imagining that flying those small, slow piston engined aircraft called for the same low level of skill as that achieved by a civilian private pilot (yes, we were foolishly patronising about them as well).

Well, now I know better. If I was asked to fly a light aircraft across several counties, keeping below treetop height throughout and below hedge top height for most of the time, I should reject the request out of hand as being far too risky even to contemplate. Yet this is what Army pilots of the day were trained for and executed on a daily basis. In addition to the substantial risks of unseen cables and sudden wind shear, the pilot on operations also had to conceal his arrival and departure points from enemy observers, spot for the guns and make straight in approaches to strange and highly marginal landing strips. Require every pilot to hold a full instrument rating, add enemy fire (plus friendly fire sometimes) to the hazards, and my admiration for Army pilots is now considerable.

Alex Kimbell trained on the Chipmunk and the Auster AOP.9. He then converted to the DHC Beaver and was posted to Aden, where, flying some of the last fixed-wing operations of the British Army, he took part in one of the last colonial campaigns of the British Raj. He has many a gripping yarn to tell and enough ‘There I was…’ stories to entertain a flying club bar through many a long winter’s night.

Where this book stands out from the general ruck is that Alex Kimbell can not only fly, as can all the other authors of flying books, he can also write, which most of them cannot. He is described in the publisher’s blurb as a full time writer, although there is no record of what else he has published. His writing skills make a world of difference to an account which would, in any case, be worth reading by any pilot for its sheer content. In addition he has the rare ability to make the ordinary and routine hold your attention, and he uses various literary devices to achieve this. But devices aside, he has divined what so few writers of flying books have divined, which is that aeroplanes are nowhere near as interesting as people.

So this book will tell you plenty about the Chipmunk, the Auster and the Beaver, but what you will remember, after you have closed the book, will be Mr Summers, Sergeant Bateman, Roger Wilson, Harry Harrison and many others in a large cast list, all lovingly described and celebrated. I greatly enjoyed reading about all of them and, as the book deals with only the first few years of what has apparently been a long flying career, I am earnestly hoping for a sequel. Nigel Everett.