Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Churchill Series - Feb. 3, 2009

(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

On July 18, 1919 Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, completed his day’s work at the ministry and then went to Croydon airfield on the edge of London for another flying lesson. He traveled with a WW I air ace, Colonel Jack Scott, his flying instructor. After the lesson Churchill was scheduled to return to Parliament where he would host a dinner in honor of General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force.

Clementine and many friends had been urging Churchill to stop taking flying lessons. Piloting was a risky business in those days; already Churchill had had a number of close calls. But he was determined to earn his license and conquer a fear of flying.

Once at Croydon, Churchill and Scott climbed into a plane with dual controls. Churchill’s biographer, Martin Gilbert, tells us what happened next:

Churchill took the machine off the ground himself, but when he had risen to seventy or eight feet the aeroplane began to lose speed, and to fall.

Scott took over the controls but could do nothing. “We were scarcely ninety foot above the ground above the ground,” Churchill later recalled, “just the normal height for the usual side-slip fatal accident, the commonest of all”

The aeroplane fell swiftly downward. “I saw the sunlit aerodrome close beneath me, and the impression flashed through my mind that it was bathed in a baleful yellowish glare. Then in another flash a definite thought formed in my brain, 'this is very likely Death.'"…

The aeroplane struck the ground. Churchill was thrown forward but his safety belt held him: it broke only when the force of the crash was over. Streams of petrol vapour rushed past him from the engine, but in the few seconds before the aeroplane hit the ground, Scott had managed to switch off the engine, preventing an explosion.

Churchill was safe but bruised. Scott, knocked unconscious, soon recovered.
After the near fatal accident, Churchill agreed to give up taking flying lessons. Gilbert adds:
Although [Churchill] would never obtains a pilot’s license, Clementine would have peace of mind.
In time Churchill did conquered his fear of flying, even reaching a point where he would often sleep for hours during long flights.
Martin Gilbert,
Churchill: A Life. (pgs. 412-414)