Am Bratach No. 329
March 2019

by Kevin Crowe

Bill Innes, “Flight from the Croft”, Whittles Publishing, 2019. Paperback, £18.99.

When, in 1940, aged 7, the author’s father died and his poverty-stricken mother had a nervous breakdown, there were no thoughts of becoming one of the country’s most experienced pilots.

And when Bill Innes and his brother were fostered by a crofting couple in South Uist who lived without electricity, plumbing and running water, there was little time for anything other than ensuring day-to-day survival.

They might not have had facilities we now take for granted, but there were good quality schools, the young Innes was an excellent student. His ambition to become a primary school teacher on the islands was encouraged by his foster parents. He describes thoughts of flying an aeroplane as being at that time an “impossible dream”.

All that changed at Glasgow University which, like other universities at the time, had an RAF reserve air squadron.

He applied, passed all the tests and was accepted. Many of the other applicants had the dubious benefit of private education, but a combination of an excellent state education system and Innes’s own enthusiasm saw him through. However, he still thought his future lay in teaching and after graduating went to a training college.

All that changed with national service, which was then compulsory for most young people. Because of his experience with the university’s air squadron, he was able to do his national service with the RAF and, much to his delight, was stationed for most of the time in Canaableda, which he describes as a pleasant alternative to the austerity of post-war Britain.

After national service, he joined BEA (British European Airways), rising to the rank of captain. When BEA and BOAC were merged into BA (British Airways) he became one of their pilots. He also experienced piloting air ambulances and not only became a representative in the airline pilots’ trade union, BALPA, but trained others who wanted to become pilots. Even after retirement he was persuaded to take other piloting posts. The pleasure and satisfaction he gets from flying aeroplanes shines through every page of this fascinating memoir.

The book contains a wealth of stories from the hilarious to the heart-warming to the tragic, and includes some of the pranks he got up to with others in his early years as a pilot. At the time he was on national service in Canada, it was common for those on leave to cross the border into the USA where car manufacturers in the north were looking for willing people to drive the vehicles to customers in the south. Innes and some friends took advantage of this, ending up in Florida, a holiday they certainly enjoyed but which also opened their eyes to the racial segregation that existed as that time in the southern states.

He also includes stories of some of the characters he met during his long career.

At one stage in his career he flew Tiger Moths, a classic biplane originally developed in the 1930s, and other classic planes in his spare time, sometimes taking part in air displays. He describes two crashes he had in these. In the first, his engine failed and he was forced to land in a field, with the plane’s nose in a hedge. The other was more serious and he has no recollection of the last moments before the plane crashed into the ground at 130 mph. Although the plane was a wreck, it didn’t catch fire and though badly injured he survived. On his recovery, he continued to take part in air displays for some time.

He has much to say about the inadequacy of training in his early days as a pilot: he argues that the methods used led to some trainees losing confidence in their own abilities. When he himself began to train others, he attempted to learn from this. Although he doesn’t himself suggest this, it does seem to me that he was able to put into practice some of the transferable skills he learnt when he was at a teacher training college prior to national service.

There is also a chapter on those who suffer from a fear of flying and an interesting appendix on early aviation in Scotland.

The book is not without its flaws. In particular, the author makes clear his dislike of multi-culturalism, “political correctness”, nationalisation and progressive income tax and his support for the deregulation, privatisation and lower tax regimes that were features of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister in the 1980s (all things this reviewer disagrees with).

He is of course entitled to his views, but it might have been better if he had argued a case for them rather than spoiling the narrative by inserting them in the text without adequate justification.

However, apart from this caveat, his memoir is a fascinating, informative and entertaining story, with the inevitable and necessary technical descriptions tempered by an easy-to-read style. Anyone who can rise from a life of poverty without basic facilities to become one of the country’s most successful airline pilots deserves our admiration. 

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