First Solo

“I’ll always remember my first solo”

-463 Sqn navigator Don Southwell in conversation, October 2010

There is a certain mystique about a pilot’s first solo. It is one of those moments that separate them from the common ground-dweller. Quite simply, there are those who have flown solo, and there are those who have not.

I remember my own first solo well. It was 28 November 2002, in a Cessna 152. It didn’t take long – just one circuit, taking off from Runway 16 at Wollongong in NSW. Flying downwind, I distinctly recall the euphoric feeling as I looked at the empty seat to my right, where my instructor had been sitting just a few minutes before, and realised that I was flying the aeroplane – all by myself. I ballooned slightly in the landing flare, but at least it was a reasonably soft touchdown.

World War Two provided many aircrew with the opportunity to join that elite ‘solo’ club. Phil Smith flew alone for the first time on 28 November 1940 (exactly 62 years to the day before I did so myself). He flew a Tiger Moth from No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Despite the achievement, Phil’s letter to his father written later that day is in the same measured, almost formal language as all the rest of his correspondence:

“I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time” (A01-132-001)

Don Southwell was originally chosen for pilot training. He was posted to 8 EFTS in Narrandera, NSW, and before he was scrubbed and re-mustered as a navigator, he managed to go solo in the Tiger Moth. His solo flight was not entirely uneventful however. He told me the story when I visited him in October 2010. Don was at one of Narrandera’s four satellite fields, which he described as ‘a paddock with a hut’. Shortly after he took off the wind changed. His instructor came up beside him in another Tiger Moth, gesticulating wildly and pointing to the windsock, but Don couldn’t work out what he was trying to tell him. So he simply landed in the same direction that he had taken off in, in a significant crosswind – and made a ‘pearler of a crosswind landing’. I commented on this because I know from experience how much Tiger Moths do not like crosswinds – Don admitted it had been a ‘bit of a fluke’!

Amusing anecdotes aside, however, some aircrew did see their early solo flying as special. In his memoirs published posthumously in 2009, 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon described his first solo cross country flight in slightly more descriptive terms:

“On 17 June 1943 I flew my first solo cross-country. It was magic. The thrill of sitting alone in an open cockpit with the wind in your hair floating above the earth is something to be experienced.”

I can only say that the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself – in April 2010 – I knew exactly what Brian had been getting at. To look forward and not see the back of the instructor’s head in the front cockpit, to hear the wind through the wires and to feel its force on your face is to experience in a small way something of what it was like for so many aircrew of the Commonwealth air forces of World War Two.

Brian’s writing encapsulates a lot of how much it means for pilots to join a very special club:

“They say that flying is as close to heaven as you can get in this life. I think it is so, for you could not help wondering at God’s greatness as you flew around flirting in and out of the clouds with the earth stretched out below, its cultivated squares looking like a quilt. Up there I had a feeling of detachment from all the petty squabbling in society and could not bring myself to believe that all was not right with the world below.”

If there was one good thing to come out of World War Two, it was the opportunity for so many to experience that joy of flight that Brian writes about.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

So Far from Home

A recent article in Sydney’s Sun-Herald, 02JAN11:

Flying Officer Lindsay Page Bacon, a couple of months before the end of the war in Europe, returning from a bombing operation in a 7 Sqn Lancaster which is damaged in combat and struggling to keep height. He manages to avoid crashing into a small town, but in the process destroys what little control he has over the aircraft. All on board perish in the crash.

65 years later, digging at a construction site in Nieuwdorp, the Netherlands, uncovers remnants of F/O Bacon’s aircraft. The town goes on a search for information about the crew, with an aim to build a memorial near the crash site. With the help of the newspaper they eventually find F/O Bacon’s sole surviving brother in Ulladulla, NSW.

People have many motivations for becoming involved in this sort of research. For myself, like many others, it’s about that dusty photograph or logbook, and wanting to know more about someone who shared your name. For others, it’s the technical aspects of the aircraft, or the tactics, or the strategies.

But for people like Hans van Dam, the Dutchman who contacted the newspaper in Sydney, it’s about remembering the men who came from the other side of the world to fight in the defence of his little village – and who never got the chance to go back home.

Painting Complete!

Here is the completed painting, now framed and hanging on my wall. I reckon it looks pretty damn fine:

painting-007 copy

Avro Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, of 467 Sqn RAAF, sits on its dispersal at RAF Waddington on 11 April 1944. Its crew has just arrived for a bombing raid on the German city of Aachen.

This painting serves as a tribute to the crew of this aircraft:

S/L DPS Smith

W/O RW Purcell

Sgt KH Tabor

Sgt J Parker

F/Sgt AD Johnston

Sgt ER Hill

F/Sgt GF Pate

These men were shot down in this aircraft on an operation to Lille, France, on 10 May 1944. Only the pilot, Phil Smith, survived.

The painting, by Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator.

Steve advises that prints of this painting will be available in the future – details on how to get one will be posted here in due course.

How many operations?

Gilbert Pate’s logbook is not held by the part of his family that I am in touch with. It appears that it was sent to his wife, who fairly quickly remarried after the war and then dropped off the radar. So I’ve been trying to ‘recreate’ his operational flights through other sources like the Operational Record Books of the two Squadrons he was part of. Here are the ones I found:

1. 03NOV43: Dusseldorf JB467 EA-T with Sgt WEBB – this as far as I can tell was his only operaion with 49 Sqn.

All the rest in this list come from the 467 Sqn ORB.

2. 28JAN44 to Berlin with Phil Smith in DV372. Tabor, Johnston and Hill also on this op; Purcell and Parker were not.

3. 15FEB44 to Berlin with Phil Smith and entire crew in EE143

4. 19FEB44 to Leipzig in EE143 with Phil Smith and entire crew

5. 24FEB44 to Schweinfurt in EE143 with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie

6. 01MAR44 to Stuttgart in EE143 with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie

7. 09MAR44 to Marignane with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

8. 15MAR44 to Stuttgart with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie in LM475

9. 18MAR44 to Frankfurt with Phil Smith and entire crew less Jerry Parker in LM475

10. 22MAR44 to Frankfurt with Phil Smth and entire crew in R5485

11. 24MAR44 to Berlin with entire crew in LM475

12. 26MAR44 to Essen with Phil Smith and entire crew less Dale Johnston in LM475.

13. 30MAR44 to Nuremburg with entire crew less Jerry Parker in LM475

14. 11APR44 to Aachen with Phil Smith and crew in LM475

15. 18APR44 to Juvisy with Phil Smith and crew in LM475 – G/C Bonham-Carter came along too

16. 24APR44 to Munich with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie in LM475

17. 28APR44 to St Medard en Jalles with entire crew in LM475.

18. 29APR44 to St Medard en Jalles with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

19. 01MAY44 to Toulouse with Phil Smith and entire crew plus second dickie in LM475

20. 03MAY44 to Mailly le Camp with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

21. 06MAY44 to Sable sur Sarthe with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

22. 10MAY44 to Lille with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475. MISSING.

Crossreferencing with Phil Smith’s logbook confirms that Gil was on the operations noted in the ORB that he flew with Phil. 22 operations represents a significant contribution to the war effort. But, as is usual in this sort of thing, the picture isn’t as simple as that. I have a letter that Gil wrote to his little sister Joyce on 01MAY44 (A01-443-001) – the eve of his Toulouse trip – that contains the following list:

JOYCE – trips so far are:

BERLIN – 3 times









PARIS (La Chapelle) 1







Remember this list was written on 01MAY44 and so does not include the last four on the list I found in the ORBs. So if we include those, it appears that the Lille operation was Gil’s 26th.

Further muddying the waters is a transcript (via his wife Grace Pate) of a letter Gil sent to her on 02MAY44. It reads as follows:

Last night we went to Toulouse and as we only landed at 7am we have the day off. April was a very busy month for me and I managed 9 trips which were all that we were on. (A01-348-001)

The ORBs only show that Gil was on 5 operations in that time.

In total I can only find 22 in the ORBs – which leaves four ‘extra’ ops:

  • One extra to Schweinfurt
  • Paris-La Chapelle
  • Tours
  • Brunswick

Assuming the letter to Grace wasn’t being exaggerated, there’s a good chance that April 1944 is the month where the inconsistency lies.

The La Chapelle operation could be 21APR44, though 467 Sqn had a ‘make and mend’ day on that date and did not operate. The Brunswick trip is possibly 22APR44.

One other option is that I also have a letter Gil wrote to Joyce on 20AUG43 (A01-381-001) that says he was “on a sortie over Paris recently but things went off smoothly”. This was while he was at 17OTU at Silverstone, so I’m trying to find the ORB of that unit which might reveal a nickelling raid that he could have counted.

I need to do a little more digging to see if I can find his name anywhere else.

(c) Adam Purcell 2011

Incidentally, while I was working on these lists my research database file corrupted itself overnight. I had to redo a little bit of work that I’d done the previous evening but I was able to recover the file from a back-up that was only a couple of days old. Shows the value of having an effective back-up regime in place while doing any irreplaceable work with computers! Since the file died I’ve now got a daily back-up going automatically to secure online storage and I manually copy the file to a USB stick, in addition to the usual weekly backup that my computer carries out.

Paranoid, me???