Friday, December 02, 2005



Regular readers will already know that much of my youth was spent as a member of several quasi-military youth groups, preparing myself for a life of crushing the working classes under the jackboot of military-industrial oppression. Or to you, the Scouts and the Air Cadets.

Both of these fine institutions had their headquarters in run-down local halls, which went unused from one-day to the next, except on one evening a week, when they were filled with a handful of uniformed idiots, who sat there, freezing, learning how to tie a knot or find their way about on a map. In other words, the whole thing needed spicing up a bit, and tying the new boy up with his own string had lost its charm the day night we went home forgetting about little Pauly in the storeroom.

In the Scouts, we had found out about a thing called round-the-pole flying, which combined the saddest elements of model-making with all the insanity that comes with playing with 240 volts of mains electricity and the added joys of projectile motion.

Technical bit: What you had was this: a burning desire to build and fly model aircraft, but limited space to launch the thing into the big blue. Like, say, a freezing cold Scout hut. So, you went out to a specialist shop and bought a five foot high pole, held in the vertical by a heavy base, with a ball race type-of-thing at the top. You then tethered your plane to the ball race at the top of pole by a long length of copper wire, which is then connected to the plane's electric motor. Then, the whole affair is connected up to a transformer, a scalextric handset, and then the mains, and you watched as your balsa marvel flew round and round in circles on the end of its wire until the cows come home.

And to prove I'm not making this up - a picture of a bloke with no face and his simple friend finding the whole experience far too exciting.

"Wheeee! This is fun! What d'you think, No-Face?"
"Mmmf mmmmff! Mmmmmmfff!"

All well and good for the easily pleased, or those under the watchful eye of a qualified Scout leader. However, after the first thirty seconds, we found that the whole concept needed a bit of jazzing up. After all, it soon became apparent that model-making skill was not required in the slightest, and even a housebrick could be made to fly with a powerful enough motor. And that bit older, that bit stupider, and with our Air Cadet leadership out bullshitting and spoon-bending somewhere, we were left to our own devices.

This would, as any student of these stories will be able to tell you, lead to only one thing: doom. Doom and woe. Two things, then.

We invented “stunt running”. With a plane zooming around the hall on a ten-to-fifteen foot diameter circle, a “volunteer” would be made to run a complete circuit of the pole without being hit by the plane or decapitated by the wire. Extra points were scored for touching the pole, jumping over, or ducking under the wire, multiple circuits and even running anti-clockwise to the aircraft’s clockwise, all the time risking something hideous in the way of high-velocity cheese-wire.

There were regular plane-up-the-arse moments as an ill-judged run went horribly wrong, often to the great hilarity of the spectators. The true classic was for the pilot to catch some poor bugger round the ankles, leaving him wrapped in wire and face down on the floor. This was made all the better if it was someone on an errand who had walked into the hall completely oblivious to the dangers of a wide-opened space surrounded by grinning idiots.

And still we wanted more. Rigging up a second ball-race, we added a second plane for twice the danger, and with a bit of a tweak, you could actually get two planes flying in opposite directions, which led to true carnage, and the death of my previously bullet-proof Spitfire.

So, we added spikes and razor blades to leading edges of wings, and cranked the transformer up to fifty volts and then the fun really started on the Run ‘O’ Doom. Shredded shins were seen as a badge of honour. You did, however, tend to lose marks of full uniform inspections.

“And this,” said Flt Lt Tipping, a genuine WWII Bomber Command veteran, “is where the lads fly their electric planes.”

“How very interesting”, replied Air Vice Marshall Maisner CB CBE AFC, veteran of the Free Polish Air Forces in WWII, and now senior officer in charge of everything, ever. “It’s good to see the youth of today so fascinated in flyi….”


Corporal Hackett would never walk again. Luckily, however, the blood stains came out.

We were told to stop.

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