Norfolk pilot reveals how ladies’ knickers helped him learn how to fly

The photograph of the dashing pilot on the front cover of his book is very different to the frail figure today.

But while the passage of eight decades and an horrific air crash which left Ray Blyth in hospital for two years with 27 bone breaks have taken their toll, the indomitable spirit which pervades his life story remains.

Despite the monumental effort it takes these days, he unhesitatingly offers to show guests to his study, hauling himself painfully to the top floor of his converted wind pump on the banks of the River Bure at Mautby near Great Yarmouth.

The room is a jumble of pilot's log books, old photographs and flying suits that tell a story far more exciting than the serene Broadland views out the window.

It is here that he wrote his 750-page life story, Only the Maker's Name, which started out as a humble project 'to put together a few things for my grandchildren'.

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'I wanted to give them the feeling of what it was like to fly old Tiger Moths,' he said.

The title is a reference to the moment before his life-changing crash when an aerobatic manoeuvre reduced his air speed to the point 'only the maker's name' showed on the airspeed indicator, Ray set out to capture the raw excitement of flying in the post-war era.

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But his work, subtitled 'The true story of the ups and downs in the life of a flying instructor', is also an inspiring story of how children from humble and difficult backgrounds can realise their dreams.

At the age of 81, Ray still vividly remembers detailed events and emotions growing up during the second world war in King's Lynn.

Born at number five Wellington Street (a small terraced property long since demolished), he recalled the two very small rooms on the ground floor 'known in those days as the 'front room' where no one was allowed to set foot except on Sundays and Christmas Day, and the living room'. A small outhouse attached to the back of the house served as the kitchen and doubled as a bathhouse.

Ray's interest in flying began when 'my mother brought me a cut-out aeroplane book back from the local grocer's shop where they were given away to customers who bought a certain brand of biscuits'.

Then during the summer of 1934, 'things changed forever' during the three-year-old's one annual day trip with his parents to Hunstanton.

Arriving by steam train and armed with a bucket and spade and banana sandwiches, he recalled: 'As we reached the concrete steps that led down to the sandy beach, we were startled by an ear-splitting roar that caused us to look up and see a brightly coloured aeroplane flash low over our heads'.

Despite the fierce objections of his mother Maggie, he managed to persuade his father Len to take him up in the biplane – the pilot was offering joy flights from behind the beach for five shillings.

Closing his eyes during the dusty take-off he remembered opening them to discover 'the indescribable grandeur of flight', gazing down on the miniature-sized world of tiny houses, cars and trees.

He said: 'Although I was only three, the experience of flying reached through to the very heart of me, and even though there were very few private cars and even fewer aeroplanes around in those days, I somehow knew I would one day fly an aeroplane myself.'

The family had moved to a bigger house in Holcombe Avenue before the outbreak of the war. The bombs began falling on Lynn in August 1940 and Ray recalls a terrifying air raid on September 17 when a deafening explosion 'rocked and twisted our shelter like a broken shoebox'.

'The corrugated iron roof of the shelter was badly cracked, allowing sand, earth and rubble to fall on us,' he said.

Venturing outside, they found a neighbouring house belonging to a Mr and Mrs Curtis had received a direct hit and was ablaze.

'Several of the neighbours were forming a human chain and started to pass buckets and bowls of water from a nearby kitchen tap to the blazing house,' he said.

Another of Ray's abiding childhood memories was his pride at passing the scholarship examination to King Edward VII Grammar School.

He said: 'I loved the atmosphere of learning. The whole atmosphere of the beautiful building reeked of knowledge and sophistication. The masters looked regal in their gowns as they swished their way along the corridors and into the classrooms where we would stand in silence until given permission to sit.'

But then came the crushing heartbreak when his parents' split forced him to leave school.

Running away, but without sufficient money for the fare to London, he ended up in the small town of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire where he was helped by a kind policeman to find lodgings in a lorry driver's pull-up.

But throughout the time of his first job sweeping factory floors, his stint doing National Service and a fledgling career selling drinks to the licensed trade he never lost sight of his childhood ambition.

And during the early 1950s when he was living near Oxford a headline in the Press caught his eye: 'Learn to fly at Kidlington Aerodrome.'

Despite flying lessons costing �4 an hour at a time when his weekly wage as a sales rep was only about �6, he made the bold step of visiting the aerodrome and still recalls the excitement of watching a Tiger Moth land as he arrived.

His first lesson on January 19, 1957 included some advice about the switches on the Tiger Moth – 'Think of it as ladies' knickers old boy; when they are down they are off and when they are up they're on, OK?'

After learning to fly and badgering his boss for as much practice time as possible when an aircraft positioning flight came along, he moved towards his ambition of qualifying as an instructor and working for Oxford Air Training School.

Ray relives the take-off of his new career through such landmark moments as sending his first student solo and eventually being offered the position of chief flying instructor.

Several hair-raising dramas he recounts, including the time he saw one of their experienced instructors and a student miraculously escape from the wreckage of a crashed Chipmunk. And while airborne on one occasion, he witnessed a female parachutist on the wing of a plane alongside his plunge to her death when her chute failed to open,

The defining moment of his life –and one that ultimately ended his time as a flying instructor and started him on a new career path taking him from the Midlands to Jersey and Wales in roles rising to airport manager and managing director – happened on May 5, 1968.

He recalled his father was watching when he took off in a Zlin to practise a five-minute aerobatic routine.

Three quarters of the way into a roll the aircraft gave a sudden lurch and 'from that point things went wrong very quickly'.

Having stopped rolling for a second, it then inexplicably started rolling in the opposite direction at the same time turning slowly to the left.

Losing height rapidly, he recalled the last few seconds before impact were rather blurred.

He said: 'We were almost inverted and my last memory was seeing this enormous area of jet black hangar roof rushing up to meet us, then nothing. When I first regained consciousness, I was hanging upside down in a jungle of twisted wreckage embedded in the top of a hangar saturated in petrol and blood.'

At the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, he was taken down dark green corridors to the anaesthetic room, 'then nothing'. He said: 'My first memories must have been a few days later when I was crying out in agony and a nurse was wiping away the sweat from my face. Little did I know that this was the beginning of two long years in hospital.'

Ray, who has just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary with his second wife Carol, remembers a doctor telling him that one more fracture may have been 'too much for your body to take'.

The monotony of life in his hospital bed was punctuated by heartening moments such as an encounter with war hero Sir Douglas Bader who reassured him: 'You'll have a bit of a struggle on your hands at first old boy, but stick with it, never give up hope, and you'll come through with flying colours'.

Ray still has the flying bug, venturing into the air occasionally as a passenger alongside his son Eddy, 55, who is also a keen pilot.

The one regret Ray has is that he was not born a generation earlier as he said he would have loved to take his chances in the Battle of Britain.

Only the Maker's Name is available online at retailers including Amazon and Waterstone's for �24.99.

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