And by some bizarre twist of fate, here I was, about to make my first solo flight! Cpt. Andrews stood beside the B.E.2c, leaning over into my cockpit and pointing to the magneto switches. "Now, Campbell, remember! If the prop doesn't go, switch off!". I nodded in acknowledgement, but the stocky Captain needn't waste his breath. During my time at Oxford, for my pilot's classroom instruction, I had sunk my teeth into every scrap of information, procedure, and piece of knowledge that was thrown before me. I shot a glance to the weary-looking mechanic standing at the nose of my B.E.; his face was gaunt, and weary-looking, I supposed from dealing with the risks of swinging beginner pilots' props all day. Although, fortunately, I hadn't seen it, I had heard from one of my fellow rookies, one Lt. Doyle Weston, that just one week before my arrival some overexcited green pilot had forgot to switch off, and a mechanic had been killed when he failed to get out of the way of the propeller. How brutal!
But, I am getting off-track. By any means, now was not the time to dwell on such things! I had my instruction from Andrews to consider - 5 take-offs, 5 landings. Climb to 1,000 feet in between. I was nervous, but quite confident, although the idea of the landings put the wind up me a little! I had been amazed, when ferried up into the clouds by Andrews on my second day, just how precise and focused he was when coming back in to land. Suddenly I was snapped out of my daydreaming by a sharp pat on the back from Andrews, whom I only now realised had been instructing me all throughout my haze. "Got all of that, Campbell?" he boomed, and, in fear of losing my chance at a first flight, I meekly nodded. "Yes, sir". The Captain looked at me warily, then turned to the mechanic and nodded. Obligingly came the mechanic's voice; "Switch Off". I echoed him, and slowly he begun to wind the propeller counter-clockwise. With his hands raised above his head, gripping one propeller blade, the mechanic gave his next instruction, this time much louder. "Switch on!". I flipped the magnetos up, and turned back. "Switch on!" I responded, and the mechanic briefly exhaled, before shouting "Contact!" and bringing the propeller down with force. The engine of the B.E.2 roared to life, and I couldn't help but grin as I felt the machine vibrating all around me. This was it!
I pushed the throttle full forwards, and in response the B.E. lurched forwards, gaining speed with each second. Suddenly the harsh sounds and vibrations of the wheels and tail skid ceased, and I looked down to see the ground growing smaller beneath me. I was flying, all by myself! Elated, I gently banked to the left, and climbed to the North, looking down at the old Hounslow Barracks and waving like a fool. I was not even sure that there was anybody down there to wave back! Before I knew it, I was at 1,000 ft, and so I completed my half-circuit around the aerodrome and came back in to land from the East. I felt a surge of fear as the ground rushed up to welcome me back, but I mastered myself and kept control of the B.E, touching down smoothly. As I taxied back to the starting position, Cpt. Andrews gave me a wave, and a thumbs-up, which made me feel quite pleased with myself, and then, having gotten back into position, took off again.
This time I was up a little quicker, as I remembered to lift the tail-skid off the ground, and so I continued West this time, looking down at the landscape below with interest. A fleet of trucks had snaked its way out of the Barracks, and I now flew above and alongside them, keeping myself entertained by switching from their left side over to their right, and vice versa. They turned off towards London, and I felt cocky enough to wag my wings in farewell, before turning around for my second landing.
On my third flight, I went South. Looking towards the still-rising sun, I was surprised to see a small cluster of tethered kite balloons, hanging like great livestock grazing on the clouds. The eerie, silent masses were a disconcerting reminder that my country had been at war for the past two years. However, as I was feeling very good about myself, just having made my first two solos, this only spurred me on. Let me get over to France, I thought, let me have a crack at the Hun! If I'd only known then what an unhealthy outlook this was for a B.E. pilot! Regardless, I thought just that, as I completed my third circuit.
Westwards for the fourth flight - a direction I was to become all-too-familiar with in the future. But, again, I merely enjoyed the sheer elation that, at that point, flying held for me, before touching down again and embarking for my 5th trip around Hounslow Heath. I had taken my first step towards becoming an air fighter, but the war was yet to come for me. As I climbed out of the cockpit of the B.E., Andrews sauntered up to me. "Good work, Campbell. Your third landing was too fast, but the rest seemed good. You'll be doing the same tomorrow, at 8 AM. That's all!". Buzzing from the experience, I thanked him and walked towards the mess, removing my flying gear. Only when I saw myself in the reflection of the mess' windows did I realise that my face was black with exhaust fumes and castor oil stains!