Pilot and author inspired by Biggles
- Credit: Chris Crowther
Just a fortnight after pilot Chris Crowther finished writing a thriller featuring a lost plane and supernatural forces, parts of his plot played out in real life and he was arrested for espionage. His latest book is a children's adventure set on the Broads.
When Chris Crowther was eight his sister bought him a Biggles book – and Chris knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.
He wanted to fly and he wanted to write adventure stories.
The twin ambition has taken him from training air force pilots to assault missions against pirates, and from writing thrillers to being accused of spying by the Nigerian secret police.
'When my sister bought me Biggles in Blue my imagination was totally caught by this skilled pilot who flew around the world with his mates, having fabulous adventures while righting wrongs,' said Chris. 'I thought 'That's what I want to do.' But I was also inspired by Biggles' creator, Captain W E Johns, who lived in Swaffham before World War I. He'd been a Royal Flying Corps pilot and I thought that having an exciting flying life and then writing stories about it was a pretty good way to live your life.'
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Now 73, Chris's flying career has taken him around the world, and his latest novel his out this month. He grew up in Leiston on the Suffolk coast, joining the Air Training Corps as a teenager. When he left school he got a job on the farmland at Ipswich Airport. 'By picking potatoes all week I got some flying instruction, and in 15 months, had my licence,' said Chris.
He flew crop-dusting aeroplanes, returned to Ipswich as a flight instructor, and was recruited by the US Air Force. 'With the Vietnam war in full swing, the USAF turned all initial training over to civilian instructors,' said Chris.
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After eight years with the USAF he took a job piloting planes and helicopters from Norwich airport and combined his love of flying and writing by producing aviation articles for specialist magazines.
But despite the sky-high achievements he still dreamed of writing a novel – and felt he needed more life experience. So he is next job was as a helicopter pilot, patrolling oil pipelines, in West Africa. 'It was a bit like joining an aviation Foreign Legion,' said Chris.
Even the weather was an adventure. 'Out over the sea alone in pitch darkness, flying through an electrical storm, can be a pretty lonely and hairy place to be,' said Chris. 'You never flew through these electrical storms if you could help it, but sometimes it the only way to get back was to get right down a few feet above the waves and floor it. Not every helicopter came out the other side and I did lose some good friends along the way.'
He has also flown as part of assault missions to retake ships and rigs hijacked by pirates, or onshore installations overrun by bandits. 'Some of these ended pretty bloodily,' said Chris.
He began writing stories for a war comic magazine he had loved as a child and went on to write two thrillers for adults. The second featured flying, African politics, lost Nazi gold and witch doctors. 'To learn how the latter worked, I went into the jungle and spent a whole day with a village juju priest,' said Chris. 'But Africans go in fear of juju and my Nigerian colleagues were very concerned about my even touching on the subject. They felt it could create problems for me - and how right they were!'
His novel begins with an aeroplane disappearing during a flight down the Nigerian coast. It had crashed into a sacred lagoon angering the local juju goddess. 'Unfortunately, within two weeks of my finishing the story, a Boeing 727, flying down our part of the coast with over 100 passengers on board, completely disappeared. Our own helicopters spent over a week searching, but with no luck. Eventually, in desperation, the authorities consulted the local juju priests who said the reason it couldn't be found was that the aircraft had crashed into a lagoon that was the domain of a juju goddess. Divers were sent down into this lagoon and there was the aircraft on the bottom.
'Events I'd invented for the story had actually happened and when the Nigerian secret police got to hear of it I was arrested on charges of espionage.' said Chris. 'The charges were eventually dropped but I was forbidden by my employer from doing any more writing!'
Eventually Chris, of Hoveton, near Wroxham, retired as a pilot but, missing work, began skippering tour boats on the Broads. Writing his own commentaries revived his ambitions to write novels and his wife, Sue, suggested creating a murder mystery on the Broads.
It was the start of a series of murder mystery novels featuring Broads Ranger Jack Fellows as the sleuth.
They have sold more than 15,000 copies from Broadland shops alone.
But Chris still wanted to write book for children. '
Now he has finally written an adventure novel for children. 'I've never forgotten that I owe all I've done in life to that fabulous character, Biggles, who so inspired me as a boy,' said Chris. 'I think reading is so important for children because, unlike television, they have to use their imagination. And if, along the way, it gives them an insight into other worlds and what they might do with their own lives, plus learning something of the history of the broads, that will be great.'
Timecruiser follows the adventures of three 13-year-olds who are transported back in time during a holiday on the Broads and have to voyage through history as they struggle to return to their own time.
Chris, who was widowed in 2001, has one daughter with his first wife, and two step-children with his second wife, Sue. Her daughter, Sarah, did the cover art and illustrations for Timecruiser.
On Saturday, March 17, Chris will be signing copies of Timecruiser at Jarrold, Norwich.