My girlfriend, Valerie, had two brothers, Robin a year and a half younger and Loved, a half-brother who was ten years older. When I was eight, Lovat was eighteen and learning to be a pilot of a small plane. He loved flying and planned to run a commercial small flight operation for cargo and a few passengers.
Having qualified for cargo and as a solo pilot, he now needed victims for his “passenger” test. He asked Valerie and Robin when I was there and they looked at him in horror, shook their heads, and said ‘no’ with conviction. I put up my hand and said, ‘take me, take me.’
Lovat’s step-mother insisted that Lovat get my parents’ permission before agreeing to this. I was on tenterhooks because they usually said no to anything my mother thought dangerous. But, for some reason, she agreed. My first flight.
It was fabulous and Lovat, being eighteen, was happy to show off his innumerable skills. We flew across the River Tay and I looked down as the town of Dundee gave way to a patchwork of fields, then the mouth of the river with its incoming tide and cargo ships coming to port.
Before I knew it, I was whirling, the pressure in my head shifting as Lovat looped the loop. ‘Down’ now meant the sky. The river was up — until we completed the circle. We looped a few times until Lovat decided to fly between the stanchions of the rail bridge. At that time, there was only a rail bridge over the River Tay, not like today with its road bridge.
The rail bridge in place when I was young had been built after the disaster of December 28, 1879. There was a violent storm and the first bridge collapsed as a North British Railway passenger train on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen Line passed over it. Everyone died, some sixty or seventy people (figures vary).
The new bridge was old by the time I came along, having been build by 1887. It’s still in use, although strengthened and refurbished In 2003. In 1958, it was good and sturdy. No small plane had any business flying under the bridge and between the stanchions, but who was to know? Lovat flew low and we passed between two of them. I could see the water hit the stanchions, hear the rumble of a train overhead, and experience a moment of dark as we passed through.
In the end, Lovat got his passenger license. I don’t know if he ever told anyone about his derring-do, and I got one of the thrills of my lifetime. When I first got into a commercial prop jet to fly from Scotland to Canada, it was tame by comparison, not the thrill my mother thought it would be.
After my mother died, I found a box full of old photographs. One of them depicted my mother in a leather jacket with a leather helmet, and a long white scarf. Seated in a plane from what looked like the late 1920s or early 1930s, her smile was broad and her eyes, even in black and white, sparkled. I knew why she’d let me go on my own first flight.