Under the B

Why did I learn to fly?

Well, it all has to do with the letter “B.”

Don’t worry. I’m not mad (well, not that mad), or superstitious. But I am fascinated by the number of places and people, whose names begin with the letter “B,” that have played such pivotal roles in my life.

I was born in England, shortly after the end of WW2. My family’s house – 212 Brockley Road – was just below the big bend in the River Thames; the landmark used by Luftwaffe bombardiers as their default aiming point during the Blitz.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, during the latter part of the war, our part of London – Deptford (a.k.a. SE4) – was hit by more Flying Bombs than any other area of the sprawling British capital.

Our family home was one of the few on our street to be spared. Every house across the road was destroyed by a V-2, and my Uncle, who lived a few blocks away, was killed when his house suffered a direct hit. My Aunt lost an eye, but survived … though it took two days to find her … buried as she was beneath the rubble … and the body of her dead husband.

I have no memory of our Brockley Road home as we moved to Bromley, Kent before I was two. But Bromley was just down the road from Biggin Hill Airport  – which had taken the brunt of the attack during the Battle of Britain – and that did play a significant part in my love of flying.

As a matter of fact, my first memory is of being lowered into the cavernous cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire at Biggin Hill’s “Battle of Britain” Open House in 1952.

As a child growing up in post-war England our heroes weren’t sports figures, they were “The Few,” those legendary fighter pilots who had saved our Island home from invasion. And though I was too young to truly understand the meaning of war, I knew something terrible had happened because of the huge piles of rubble I saw all around London … mountains of bricks, where houses should have been.

Brockley, Bromley, Battle of Britain, Biggin Hill … lots of “B’s” in those early days.

Douglas Bader

But my first “B” – people-wise – was Douglas Bader, the legendary WW2 fighter pilot, who just happened to have no legs!

I read “Reach For The Sky,” Paul Brickhill’s biography of Bader, as soon as it came out. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I viewed the movie version, starring Kenneth More (though it must be well over 100 by now).

As a matter of fact, Bader’s phenomenal courage – fighting his way back from the brink of death after the 1932 airplane crash that cost him his legs – helped save my own life when I was rushed to hospital with an agonizing pain in my stomach in the fall of 1955.

The Doctors were mystified by my problem. All they knew was, I was dying – and dying fast! But, as in Bader’s movie, a Nurse thought she recognized my symptoms and caught a Specialist just as he was climbing into a cab. Dr. Greening grudgingly returned, but as soon as he saw me, the Doctor ordered emergency surgery and I was rushed into the operating theatre.

I was later told I came within hours of dying and that Greening didn’t hold out much hope for my survival. After all, I was only six. But when I finally slipped back into consciousness, I can remember thinking how similar this felt to Bader’s own close call. And how, after hearing playful nurses being scolded because “There’s a boy dying in there,” Bader’s mantra became, “We’ll see about that.”

I made that line my own as I clung to life – repeating it over and over in my head … refusing to “let go.” And as I began to recover I clearly remember thinking, “If I get through this, I’m going to be a Pilot some day” (a fact I can prove by the entry in my 1955 Diary.  Beside “Name”, I had scrawled “pilot Glenn Norman.”)

Glenn Norman's Diary, 1955

When the “Suez Crisis” threatened to trigger WW3, my parents decided one war was enough and moved our family to Canada (by ship, so I still hadn’t flown). And it was there that the second “B” came into my life in the form of my schoolmate Paul’s father.

I knew Paul’s dad worked for Toronto’s de Havilland Aircraft, knew he took Paul & his friends flying each year for his son’s birthday party.

I don’t remember the date when I walked to Paul’s party; sometime in the late fifties I believe. I do remember praying all the way because I knew I was about to fly, and knew – with equal certainty – that I was about to die.

For in the intervening years I had developed a textbook case of Acrophobia. I was utterly, absolutely terrified of heights. (Still am. Though, like many pilots, it doesn’t affect me when I fly. Go figure.) But I had to fly, had to know what it felt like to be “up there” … and if I had to pay for that with my life – so be it.

Paul’s Dad was/is a very smart man (the 91-year old is still very much alive.) My terror must have been obvious because he put me into the co-pilot’s seat of the “giant” de Havilland Beaver we were to fly, stuck a “huge” pair of earphones on top of my head, muttered a few unintelligible words into a microphone then – with a reassuring wink – pushed a big lever, and a wave of sound like I’d never heard before seemed to overwhelm my very being.

After a very short run (it felt like a few feet), the big Beaver eased off the ground and – for the first time in my life – I was flying!

I was actually in the air … and I clearly remember feeling an overwhelming sense of Peace flow through me.

Flight was nothing like I had expected.

There was no sense of speed, and the farther away we got from the ground, the more it felt like we were just hanging there … suspended in the sky … halfway between Earth & Heaven.

Or perhaps this was Heaven?

Because as I sat there, looking down at the world floating by below me, I felt – for the first time in my life – that I had come home.

Glenn Norman with Russ Bannock

I would be in my fifties before a friend who had worked at de Havilland asked if I knew the name of the man who had taken me up; said he knew most of the pilots from that “era.”

“Russ Bannock,” I answered. And the man had to stifle a laugh when he said, “Russ wasn’t just a Pilot, Glenn. He was the President of de Havilland”!

That information was enough of a shock, but what followed really “blew my mind” (in the parlance of my teenage years). Because I learned Bannock was a member of the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame! During WW2, he’d discovered how to knock down V1 Flying Bombs, and after destroying nineteen and a half V1’s, he’d been given the moniker, “The Saviour of London.”

So this man not only took me up for my first flight, he’d been protecting my family (and, therefore, me,) before I was even born!

I consider that first flight with Russ Bannock to be one of the greatest honours of my life.

(Sidebar: In 2007, I got to meet Russ Bannock when I flew one of The Tiger Boys’ Moths to the annual “Wings & Wheels” fly-in at Toronto/Downsview’s Toronto Air & Space Museum {located in the very same de Havilland building where Russ had taken me for my first flight.} And not only did I get to thank him for starting me on my long journey into the sky, I also got to thank him for my life! It doesn’t get much better than that.)

I wasn’t good in school, and once I turned 16 – and had a driver’s License and a car – that was the end of my formal education. I pumped gas, then worked as a shipper for a Film company, and spent most of my weekends drinking more and more alcohol.

I know the exact date when my life turned around. It was January 1, 1967.

I awoke with a terrible hangover after my “New Year’s revelries” and realized, as I lay there, that I was drifting aimlessly and was well on my way to Alcoholism. What I needed, I realized, was “a quest” … a goal so unattainable it would take everything I had to achieve it.

But I couldn’t think of a single thing.

So, I staggered out of bed, made my way to the car, then drove down the deserted streets of 1960’s-Toronto until I found the one-and-only, open “Convenience Store.”

I walked inside, crossed to the magazine racks, and started looking at the long line of titles.

Skin Diving … Done it. Nothing special.

Fast cars … Had one. Didn’t really care.

Motor cycles … Too dangerous. You could fall off (a hilariously, ironic observation in retrospect).

Model building … Done it.

Sailing … Back and Forth. Back and forth. “Oh look, we’re half a mile out.”

Flying …

Photography … Interesting. Perhaps, but-

WAIT A MINUTE!

BACK UP!

FLYING!!!

I snatched a copy of the 1967 Flying annual off the shelf and the magazine fell open on a random page – a page containing the story, “Aviation or Flying? Take Your Pick.”

It was penned by an Aviation Writer named Richard Bach. (Hmm … another “B.”)

I stood there (wobbled there?) reading the article with utter fascination, until the annoyed owner’s coughing reminded me I had to buy or get out of his store.

But the Annual was expensive ($1.50) so I bought a regular issue of Flying instead ($.75 {which was still expensive, as that represented 2 imperial gallons of gas!}).  Besides … it had a biplane on the cover! And I really liked biplanes.

I took the magazine home, read it from cover to cover, then – a few hours later – was back at the store, (with the last of my money), to buy the annual … and Richard Bach’s story.

As my childhood dreams of becoming a Pilot began to reawaken, I started haunting the Aviation section of our local, public library. “Weekend Pilot” and “Flights of Fancy” by Frank Kingston Smith got me started, followed by Molly Burnheim’s “A Sky of my Own.” Then I discovered this Bach character was also a published author with three books on the shelves.

“Stranger to the Ground” was wonderfully written, but a little too military for my liking. However, Bach’s next book, “Biplane” was the extraordinary story of how Bach had purchased an old 1929 Detroit Parks P2A Biplane and flown it across the continent.

HUH?

You could do that?

But if Biplane caught my imagination, it was Bach’s Nothing By Chance that sealed my future. “NBC” was a sequel to Biplane in which Bach decided to see if it was still possible to live like the Barnstormers of yesteryear. Flying from town to town … landing in fields … putting up your “Fly $3 Fly” sign … calling out, “Hya, hya, hya, Folks. See Your Town From The Air.”… then taking people up into the sky. You’d fly until you ran out of passengers, or daylight, then fall asleep under the only roof you’d need – the wing of your biplane/time machine.

WOW!

ALL RIGHT.

THIS WAS DEFINITELY IT!

I had found my quest.

Now all I had to do was learn to fly and purchase a biplane.

For reasons I still don’t quite understand, my 18-year-old self was absolutely certain I could achieve both goals.

Cessna Ad, 1967

So on March 4th, 1967, I clipped the “$5 introductory lesson” coupon from my Flying magazine and headed off to Buttonville Airport, a small – but growing – airfield north of Toronto.

I couldn’t believe how small the Cessna 150 trainer was, and I remember being particularly horrified by the “piece of tin” that jokingly passed for a “door.”

My first flight was a nightmare of mind-numbing sound and terrifying, unexpected motions. I clutched the seat frame so tightly, my fingertips turned black.

This wasn’t the life-changing experience I had shared with Russ Bannock. This flight wasn’t beautiful – wasn’t magical. This flight was terrifying.

All I wanted to do was get back on the ground (a feeling I would have many times in the decades to come <g>). And once we were back down, all I wanted to do was get as far away from Buttonville as possible before I, inevitably, broke down in tears. Because it was now obvious … there was no way I could ever become a pilot.

So you can imagine my surprise when the Dispatcher asked “Would you like to book a lesson for next week?” and a voice answered, “That should be fine.”

And imagine my total shock when I realized that insane answer had come from … me.

I had nine hours in my log book when I quit. I’d tried – oh, how hard I’d tried – but there was no getting around it; each flight was more terrifying than the one before. So after a flight with a particularly unpleasant instructor (which climaxed with three blown landings), I got out of Buttonville as fast as I could … and sobbed most of the way home.

1967 was the fabled “Summer of Love.” But for me, every sunny day was just another excuse for some annoying little airplane to buzz over my head. The sound was driving me crazy, and I couldn’t understand why my friends didn’t hear it. Those damn aircraft appeared to be seeking me out.

So, on September 5th, 1967, I decided to drive back out to Buttonville – just to remind myself how stupid this whole “pilot idea” really was.

But as I stood there, staring out the terminal window at the long line of airplanes, I couldn’t make sense of my actions. I had accepted that I couldn’t fly. I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a pilot, so why was I doing this to myself? Why was I really there?

When no answers were forthcoming, I realized I had to stop torturing myself and get out of there. And I was actually turning to leave when a familiar voice called out, “Glenn Norman! Is that you?”

The Dispatcher came out from behind his desk, shook hands and said it was great to see me again. I quickly explained that I’d just dropped in to grab a cup of tea – on my way to someplace else. But as I didn’t have a cup of tea, and as I was obviously preparing to leave, the Dispatcher wasn’t buying my excuse.

He was a clever man. He knew – better than me – why I was there. So instead of going into a sales pitch, he simply said, “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” I reluctantly followed him to a table full of Instructors, overseen by a cherub of a man with a rollicking laugh and a sudden broad smile that lit up his face.

“The loud one’s Mike Brandon,” said the Dispatcher (another “B”!!!) Then, with a look that spoke volumes, the Dispatcher said, “Glenn used to fly with us, Mike.” Brandon looked up at the Dispatcher, then turned to look at me with what can only be described as piercing eyes.

I felt he was examining my very soul, x-raying every nook and cranny of my being to find out why I was there. For a heartbeat, I thought I was about to be humiliated again. But instead, Brandon seemed to come to a conclusion, flashed that sudden smile and said, “Glad you came back. I’m your new instructor.”

I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t anything I could say. So when Brandon told the Dispatcher to set up an appointment for the following weekend, I simply nodded my smiling consent and let myself be lead off to the booking desk. Brandon resumed his conversation with the other instructors, his booming laugh dominating the room. And as I signed up for my first lesson in four months, the main question in my mind was, “What the hell am I doing?”

Mike Brandon and Glenn Norman, 1995

When I returned the following Saturday, there was no sign of Brandon. The friendly Dispatcher welcomed me back, said Mike would be along any minute now, then gave me the registration of the plane I was going to fly.

Ten minutes later, Brandon still hadn’t arrived, so the Dispatcher said I’d better give the airplane its pre-flight inspection “to save a little time.” I knew what he meant. My hour appointment was beginning to evaporate, so I’d better be ready to go when – and if – Brandon turned up.

“Oh, great,” I thought as I headed out the door. “I’m stuck with another loser.”

I opened the gate, spotted my plane at the far end of the line, and was hurrying off towards it when a booming voice yelled, “STOP.”

I froze in my tracks and turned to see Brandon – hands on hips – glaring at me.

“What’d I do? What’d I do?” thought I.

Brandon followed my eye-line to the distant Cessna and said, “Which plane’d they give ya?”

I told him the registration.

Brandon grimaced and shook his head. “We’re not taking that piece of crap,” he muttered as he waved me back inside the terminal.

I stood in front of the booking desk and listened in disbelief as Brandon blasted the Dispatcher for giving me “…such a shitty airplane.” “Don’t you know this kid’s spending half his weekly salary for an hour of flying? Give him a decent plane, for God’s sake.”

Brandon’s confrontational tactics appalled me, but the Dispatcher must have been through this before because he just held up his hands and said, “Okay, Mike. Which plane do you want?”

Brandon glanced outside and said “VKE.”

The Dispatcher’s eyes flickered, and for a moment, I thought we were in for a real fight. But the man seemed to know he couldn’t win with Brandon, so he grinned in defeat, nodded and said “VKE it is.”

As we headed for the door, Brandon said I should always arrive early, then tell the Dispatcher which plane I wanted. “What you need is one of the planes they park in front of the restaurant.”

“Okay … Why?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” said Brandon. “Number one – they park the new planes in front of the restaurant. Number two – it’s the only place where the girls can see you.” I looked around and was shocked to discover a group of teenage girls in the restaurant were watching us as we headed for the ramp. I grinned at Brandon then noticed the time and started hurrying towards the plane.

Mistake.

“STOP,” Brandon barked again.

Now what?

Brandon just looked at me and shook his head. “Pre-pubic” he said, (using the nick-name he gave me for the first time,) “you’re not going to get anywhere…” (nodding surreptitiously towards the girls in the window) “… if you don’t slow down and enjoy the moment. C’mere.”

I walked warily towards him, wondering what on earth he was going to do now.

What he did was give me a lesson on attitude!

“Okay, first thing you do is – when you come out the door – while you’re still in front of the restaurant – give it one of these …” Brandon sauntered confidently up to the ramp … stopped … took off his aviator sun glasses  … then looked up and examined the sky. A long, thoughtful moment later, he nodded with the wisdom of ages, put his sunglasses back on, then turned to look at me and said, “Like that, okay?”

I nodded with a grin.

“Got a pair of Aviator sunglasses?” he asked. I shook my head.

“Get some,” he said.

I nodded, grinned again then hurried off towards the plane.

“STOP.”

Oh, for the love of … now what?

Brandon was shaking his head again.

“Never, Pre-pubic … never, never hurry.”

I glanced at my watch and tried to explain. “Mike, we’re already 15 minutes late for our lesson–“

“-Which means the next guy’s gonna’ be 30 minutes late for his,” Brandon cut in.

“Right?” he asked with that sudden smile.

I nodded.

“So when you’re heading out to your plane – fearless and intrepid conqueror of the skies that you are – I want to see you saunter … saunter … like this …” Brandon finished up with a self-assured walk that would have put John Wayne to shame.

He made me do it – over and over – until I got it right.

By which time I was laughing so hard, I forgot I was afraid.

I laughed all the way through that flight.

And I was still laughing, thirteen days later … when I soloed.

Here I Go, Higher, Higher.

Here I Go, Higher, Higher.

Here I Go, Go, Go, Go, Go.

You Got To Get Me To The World On Time …

I sang The Electric Prunes lyrics at the top of my lungs as VKE sprung into the air and rushed up the sky like we had someplace important to go.

The little Cessna 150 climbed faster now I was on my own, and as I flew around the aerial racecourse circuit, I took time to glance across at the empty seat next to me. It looked so strange to see the crossed seatbelts lying on the cushion – and the instructors’ controls frantically mimicking my every move.

I looked around the sky, checking for other traffic, and it was right about then that it really sank in.

Despite all my fears, despite all the setbacks, I’d done it.

I’d flown an airplane on my own – or at least I would have, if I could get the thing back on the ground.

I turned VKE in to land … lined up my approach … slid down final …and greased it on.

Nothing to it. Piece of cake.

I was a pilot!

Glenn Norman December 7, 1967

Postscript

In the months to come, you’ll learn more about my adventures – and love affair with the sky. How Mike & I toured the Caribbean in an Apache, then started an airline in the British Virgin Islands, only to lose our shirts to an embezzler. How I met the love of my life, Michelle Goodeve … how we became friends with Richard Bach … got our first airplane … then – unbelievably – a Biplane … and another one … which we flew all over the continent.

But before I end this first story, I have to tell you that – despite the passage of time – I became absolutely convinced there was one more, aviation-connected “B” person I still had to meet; someone just as important as all the other “B” pilots who had such an impact on my life.

When it finally happened, I didn’t even put it together … not at first. It was Richard’s son, Jonathan, who suggested – no, insisted – that I get in touch with a friend of his named Hal. “It was as if,” Jon explained, “you two were brothers, separated at birth.”

I avoided the contact for as long as I could (these kinds of things never work out), until one day I sent an E-mail to this Hal-person, just to get it out of the way. But when he replied, I discovered – much to my shock – that Jon was right. Hal and I were like brothers (brothers who actually liked each other). And because Hal worked for Microsoft (as Flight Simulator’s globe-trotting, “Community Evangelist”), it wasn’t long before he found a good excuse to make his way to Canada’s annual “Aviation Expo.”

We bumped into each other – literally – in the hallway of a motel in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

We held out our hands and said, “Glenn Norman” – “Michelle Goodeve.”

Hal smiled back and said, “Hal Bryan.”

That’s “Bryan” … with a “B.”

Hal Bryan, Michelle Goodeve, and Glenn Norman, 2006

Photos

  • Douglas Bader
  • Glenn Norman’s 1955 diary (courtesy of Glenn Norman)
  • Glenn Norman with Russ Bannock (courtesy of Jonathan Soles)
  • Cessna Advertisement, 1967
  • Mike Brandon and Glenn Norman 1995 reunion (courtesy of Glenn Norman)
  • Newly-licensed pilot, Glenn Norman. December 7, 1967 (courtesy of Glenn Norman)
  • Hal Bryan, Michelle Goodeve, and Glenn Norman a few minutes after they met on June 23, 2006! (courtesy of Glenn Norman, photo by a nice waitress)

Note

Lyrics from “Get Me To The World On Time” courtesy of The Electric Prunes’ Thaddeus James Lowe, who also happens to be both Pancho Lowe Barnes’ cousin and Great Great Nephew to Professor Thaddeus Lowe (appointed Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps by President Abraham Lincoln, and generally recognized as the father of the U.S. Army Air Corps)! For more information, visit: www.electricprunes.com

About the Author

Glenn Norman  is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.

3 Comments

  1. Loved your article and the description of that first flight. There is nothing like watching the things of earth grow small and the sky grow large and beautiful. The sound of a plane is indeed music to ones ears and the beginning of a graceful dance.

  2. Beautifully put, Dianne.
    Thanks so much for your comment.
    GN

  3. Glenn,

    I’ve met you and Michelle at Guelph Airpark, but I really don’t know you. I am really looking forward to knowing you from reading all the other penned pages on this site. Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!

    Regards,

    Lloyd

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