|Ingrid maintains that there is a bit of Icarus in us all but, in the ‘elf & Safety age, is she really a good role model? Should flying be confined to the simulator?|
When Icarus took to the wing and soared high above the earth he was making a statement. A statement that has been lost in the generally accepted idea that he was a bit of a nerd who didn’t have the sense to realise that his wings, constructed from wood and covered in wax and feathers, wasn’t man enough for the job. But Icarus had spent his youth doing his father’s bidding. Back home in Crete father Daedalus had been responsible for building the labyrinth to keep the half man, half bull minotaur away from the juicier members of the royal household. Which wasn’t easy as the Minotaur was the off-spring of King Minos’s wife and his prize bull. If seems that Daedalus was more than a little interested in Minos’s bull-bait missus and as a result had to make a hasty retreat from the island when the king got to know about it. Daedalus didn’t do it by the easy, scheduled ferry route. Instead he fashioned some wings for himself and son Icarus. Before they leapt off the cliff-top into mythology Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too near the noon-day sun. Icarus, being young and spunky and tired of his life in the labyrinth cleaning up after the Minotaur, wasn’t listening. He was fascinated with the world spread out beneath his soaring body and dreamily circled higher and higher until the sun melted his wings and he crashed to earth. It can be painted as stupidity but I think I understand the lad totally. There is something so fascinating about flying that it is easy to forget practicalities. I still sit in an aeroplane and feel exultant as it rolls down the runway and lunges into the air.
My fascination with all things aeronautic began at the end of WW2. I was about 8 at the time and living with my mother in a Polish forest waiting for news that the war was over and we could return to a life I couldn’t remember. I was out gathering firewood with Yuri, a boy a couple of years older than me who was the love of my young life. There was a roar as a giant plane passed low overhead and then the crunch as it ploughed into the trees. We left the little cart we were pulling and ran in the direction of the crash. The huge plane, which I later learned was a Lancaster, was broken in two and wedged amongst the trees. We stood open mouthed and then simultaneously turned and ran back towards the camp. We met some of the men half way and took them back to the crash site. They went into the ruins and at first thought everyone was dead. There wasn’t much of use to us on board, a few pistols and some warm clothing. There were probably machine guns but I can’t remember ever seeing them in our camp. As we were about to leave one of the men found a member of the aircrew in the rear of the plane a little distance from the rest of the fuselage. He was unconscious but didn’t appear to be badly hurt. Back at the camp a broken leg, a dislocated collar bone and multiple cuts and bruises were diagnosed. My mother cared for him and he soon began to mend. My father had lived in England for 30 years before the war and he and my mother had been determined that I should learn to speak English. It was great. I was able to sit and talk with Mike, the airman, for hours while his body mended. Shortly after that the Red Cross came and told us the war was over and took MIke away. But he had done enough to turn me into a Aero-freak, a condition which is still with me.
The Avro Lancaster and the Supermarine Spitfire are my favourites. The Lancaster because of the special memories it evokes of a cruel yet more simple world and the Spitfire because I think it is the most beautiful aeroplane ever made. I have oil paintings, photographs, models and even autographs of famous airmen like Dougie Bader and Johnnie Johnson. One of my all time disappointments was that I arrived twenty minutes too late to meet Bader at Manston Airfield in Kent. I was doing a promotional tour for my latest film Who Dares Wins with Lew Collins of The Professionals and leading man on the SAS saga. We had just had lunch on board the HMS Fearless at Portsmouth and were scheduled to fly by helicopter to meet the great man at Manston. Lew got carried away with his stories of derring-do and I couldn’t get him away from the sailors. We arrived too late. Dougie Bader had left. And who can blame him. He died shortly after and I never again got the opportunity to meet. But I do have one treasured possession. Before he left Manston Bader signed a picture of a Spitfire for me. Another of my heroes was Johnnie Johnson. Johnson arrived on the scene too late to take part in the Battle of Britain but made up for the late start by becoming the pilot credited with downing the most Luftwaffe planes in the War. An autograph dealer gave me a photograph of a Spitfire signed by the legendary Johnson and I keep it on permanent display. What attracts me to him in particular is that he learned to fly at Stapleford Tawney in Essex. When I was learning to fly I took a lot of my lessons there and the thrill of landing on the same runway that he had used never diminished.
When I left the Polish forest I wandered around Europe with my mother, going from Red Cross Refugee camp to refugee camp looking for my father. We finally caught up with him in West Berlin. Although it was great finding my father, Berlin was not a nice place to be. It was made even worse when, in June 1948, the Russians put up the blockade and food supplies could not get into the city. I was 11 now and beginning to have a more settled life. That all went up the spout. The Allies began to fly in food but it was hard for them to maintain the airlift at an adequate level. To help ease the situation they started taking people, and in particular children, out of the city to more settled areas. And I drew a short straw and had to leave. I was terrified. I didn’t want to leave my parents. My father tried to calm me down. Told me how much he would love to be in my position. To have the chance to fly in one of the beautiful aeroplanes. He didn’t convince me totally and I was miserable as I was loaded aboard a Dakota. As the plane leapt into the air I looked out of the window and got the full Icarus effect. For the whole of the journey I stayed glued to the window, all other thought obscured by the beauty of the view below. I was bitterly disappointed a year later when the blockade of Berlin was lifted and I was returned to my parents – by bus.
After I got married and went to live in America I became a little jaded flying around in 707’s and D.C’s of various numbers. The buzz of taking off and landing was still there, it was the boring bit in the middle that I wasn’t too keen on. Then my hang-up with flying returned with a bang when I got the job of Heidi on Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. The aircraft they used for the flying in and flying out bits that topped and tailed the film, was a Junkers JU-52. I wasn’t too keen on the Swastikas painted all over it but as I was well over my wellie tops with Nazis on a daily basis I turned a blind eye. I got friendly with the pilot and talked him into giving me a trip. I knew the producer would do his nut over the insurance, he had already banned Clint from riding his motor bike, so I sneaked aboard while nobody was looking . It was wonderful soaring above the mountains and flying between high columns of rock that seemed close enough to touch. Thirty years later I met the pilot who had given me the clandestined flight at a Dealer’s Convention in Westminster Central Hall. It was wonderful to chat about old times.
That flight through the mountains rekindled my love of aviation. This burst into flame when I met my future husband, Tonio, on board a 737 en route to Geneva. He was just back from the motor racing season in Argentina and going to a mate’s chalet for a spot of skiing and I was about to start an episode of a TV series called Ski Boy. Initial contact was a bit frosty but I warmed to him when I learned he was a pilot. A couple of weeks later I was zooming over the fields of Essex in his Piper Arrow, keeping a wary eye out for Huns in the sun and wondering if it was possible to get a mile high in a single engined plane. Flying became a regular part of my life for a while. If I had to go any distance the Arrow would be wheeled out and off we’d go. Tonio would laugh at me because I insisted on flying the thing myself. His attitude was: there’s an autopilot – use it. That wasn’t good enough for me, I wanted the hands on thrill of it all. I even went to a glider school just outside Luton to get some experience. Didn’t like that much. It was more reassuring to have an engine and a whirling propeller in front. Finally I was persuaded to take proper flying lessons and the enjoyment increased exponentially with my expertise.
The flying thing came in useful when we found ourselves in the middle of a full blown revolution in South America. Friends in the know gave us the proverbial midnight warning to get out of town and we went to the Ezeiza Airport. The airport was over-run with troops. Luckily they hadn’t been given any hard and fast rules of engagement yet. Even the Ambassador was sitting in the lounge with his wife and luggage. I had my daughter Steffanie with me and I didn’t like the way things were shaping up. Tonio left us in a corner and went off to see what he could do. In General Aviation he found a pilot about to leave for Montevideo with a Brittan-Norman Islander. Tonio couldn’t believe his luck. He had been demonstrating Islanders for Roger Frogley, owner of Stapleford Tawney Airfield, ex-Dirt Track Champion and one of the backers of Brittan-Norman Aviation. Tonio pushed the old pilot button, told his new found buddy about his close connection with the origins of the Islander and reluctantly the Uraguayan bloke agreed to take us. We picked up our luggage and scooted across the tarmac, scrambled aboard and within minutes were winging our way across the Rio de la Plata to sanctuary in Uraguay.
We stayed in Uraguay for about six months before returning to Buenos Aires but everything had changed. The military had taken over the film industry and the Admiral in charge had strong ideas about what movies should be about. And vampires, nudity and women overthrowing governments was not it. In fact, at this time, Hammer films were banned as being degenerate. So it was back to England. The Arrow was getting very expensive to run but there was a Piper Seneca for sale that matched my golf bag, shiny black with gold piping. I thought it was a must have when I discovered the price was £11,000. The Arrow was worth £17,000 and only had four seats and one engine. The Seneca seven seats and two engines – no contest. So we sold the Arrow and rang up about the Seneca. It had been sold to a dealer and he wanted £24,000. Goodbye Seneca. But we weren’t outcasts from the world of aviation entirely. An aircraft manufacturer approached Tonio and asked him if he would like to try for a pole to pole record in a Microlight. The little aeroplane was beautiful. It had two Westland 5 hp engines and was called Fire Bird. Initial testing went well. I was even allowed an experimental pole but I was aware that it was not favoured in certain quarters so didn’t push my luck. My part of the deal was that I would follow on land with the mechanics in a couple of Land Rovers. Just when everything seemed set to get underweigh the epoxy resin on the solid beam fuselage gave way and the plane crashed. Tonio was unhurt but severely embarrassed. He thought the crash had been his fault until he was told the real reason. This was around the time of the Westland Aviation problem fostered by a head to head between Maggie Thatcher and Tarzan Heseltine. Westland had promised the project twelve engines but now had to pull the plug. The alternative was the Lotus Aeronautic engine. A beautiful little beast but too heavy to use as twins. That was the end of the deal and the end of our private flying on a regular basis.
It wasn’t the end of my interest in flying. In fact the acquisitive side of my nature kicked in andI began to collect bits and bobs on flying. News of my interest got about and I received wonderful presents from people I didn’t even know. An aircraft historian, Craig Dearden, gave me models of a Lancaster, a Spitfire and a Hurricane. Artist Jim Bailey presented me with a number of oil paintings of Spitfires and Hurricanes in action. At my annual Fan Club Reunion most of the fans turned up with wonderful gifts based on aviation. The most surprising present I ever had was from a man at the launch of my autobiography, Life’s a Scream in the now defunct Hollywood Super Store. He came up to the table where I was signing, waited patiently until I had finished then he handed me a small brass replica of a Spitfire. His Grandfather had made it out of an old penny piece when he was a prisoner of war in Germany. It was incredible. I examined it in wonder. When I looked up my benefactor had gone. I put out an all stations call and luckily contacted him and was able to thank him properly. His name was Melvyn Stinson and he is now a member of my fan club.
If there is a chance of a flight I’m still up for it. I was half promised a flight in the Lancaster that is hangared at RAF Duxford for most of the year but the year went by without getting a chance to climb aboard. But I haven’t given up. I have been promised a flight next year in May when the RAF Memorial Flight’s flying season starts. This time they ain’t getting out of it. The Icarus Effect still burns brightly and I don’t care how near I get to the sun.