He who dares...
As you may of guessed about me: I love an underdog. I love tales of people, who, with an Iron will, and sense of adventure, forge great futures from positions of adversity. My own great grandfather escaped from an orphanage, changed his name (reportedly after seeing a Gibbs toothpaste billboard) and joined the Army at around the age of 15.
Today, at the flying club, I met an incredible person... A fascinating man who I could of listened to for days. Brynley Fussell eventually retired as an experimental officer at Swansea University chemistry department. By this time, he was one of the worlds foremost technicians of a Mass Spectrometer machine: a wonderful instrument used in scientific research to measure the masses and relative concentration of atoms and molecules. His journey to this point is littered with other remarkable achievements and compelling tales, but the beginning of his Journey blows my mind, and it sets the tone for a life of self-belief, courage and defiance of obstacles.
In 1949 Bryn was down on his luck; he was 19 and in and out of trouble. Home was South Wales, until he found himself held at Borstal, just outside Northampton. Events had brought Bryn to the conclusion that the UK was no place for him, he needed a new life, a fresh start. Twice he escaped Borstal and attempted to leave via boat, stowed away in the hold. Once he was discovered, and the second time he ended up in a worse part of blighty, I won't say where. Desperate and undeterred Bryn escaped again.
He had spent some of his time in Borstal reading a book about flying: a how to manual, a forerunner for Pooley's Book 1. This was the extent of the young man's interaction with aircraft, until a crisp January night, when Bryn found himself alone on Bywell airfield at 2am refuelling an Auster Autocrat - a single engine, high wing tail dragger. There was not a soul in sight. Only the moon bore witness to this desperate young man siphoning fuel from another aircraft; the illuminated steps led Bryn home to a cockpit for the first time in his life. Well aware of the possible consequences of what he was about to do, Bryn took off into the English night.
There was a bright moon, but not enough light to see the instruments clearly in front of him - let alone his height or direction. After a while, he became sure he'd have to land. France was his intended destination, but he had no clue as to wether he was on the correct bearing. In the sparkling black velvet night sky, Bryn silently descended until he could make out the shadowy land he was accustomed to. Travelling inexorably towards earth, he reminded himself of the process required to land a plane. At not very many feet, he decided this was not the spot, and performed his first go-around: something many experienced pilots have failed to do when it was the correct course of action. Sometime later - sensing a better spot - Bryn descended again. He recalls that he could see very little, but knew that as he sensed the shadows of hedge-tops grow tall around his head, he must gently pull back on the stick. He was down. Safe. Alive and bloody cold. There was a parachute beneath his seat which he wrapped himself in and waited for dawn.
When he woke, he discovered that his landing run was five feet from a drainage ditch; fortunately, it mattered not - the plane was in perfect order. With no clue as to his location, Bryn investigated his personal airfield and found that it neighboured a truck stop alongside a busy road. He approached one of the drivers and asked in his thick Welsh accent, "where am I to, butt?"
"On the A5, mate. Just north of London," answered the bemused young cockney driver.
Encouraged, the fledgling aviator pressed on, this time taking off with a clear view of the instruments and the ground below. He quickly ascended to 3000ft and headed south. After not very much time, Bryn looked down at the sprawling city of London and spotted that he was directly above what was then London airport - Heathrow, in its infancy. He marvelled at all the planes on the tarmac and then set his sights on the horizon. At Beachy Head, having been in command of an aircraft for an infinitesimal amount of time, Bryn descended from 3000ft to 30ft and slowed the plane down as much as he dared. "I wanted to go low and slow over the channel you see, so if they did pick me up on radar, they'd assume I was just a fast boat."
I cannot begin to imagine where that young man's mind was during the crossing. I guess that although he was 'literally' flying by the seat of his pants, he was no doubt wrestling demons of fear and doubt. But there must also have been an incredible sense of empowered freedom and joy to be in command of his escape from the lands and past he had longed to leave behind.
Soon he could see the continent flying towards him. As his plane moved from a steely grey backdrop to one of green pastures, Bryn attempted his third landing. Friendly French fields welcomed him with open arms as he put his steed down with obvious natural skill. Quite quickly, he was descended upon by curious locals, and he equally quickly remembered he spoke no French. Using the age old language adopted between Brits and our closest neighbours, Bryn got out his map, pointed at it, shrugged his shoulders, and said in his finest accent, "huh?"
"Dieppe, Dieppe, Dieppe," responded the expressive ensemble.
Once again, encouraged that he was on the right track, and on course for Marseille, Brynley thanked the Frenchmen and took to the skies for the last time for a stretch.
After a few hours, the Auster was finally running low on its pilfered petroleum. The bold, fledgling pilot surveyed the fields for a suitable spot to put her down again. I'll quote the wonderful man here as it cracked me up: "they're so lovely and so many, those French fields; you couldn't help but land her well."
That was his third completed landing; not bad for his fourth attempt! I'm yet to land a plane well on a runway with an instructor next to me, which make his achievements all the more remarkable.
Looking to preserve his prized possession, Bryn attempted to hide the plane in some shrubbery, but, during the process, he hit a divot, the nose went down and it suffered a prop strike. With no gas, this was to be the end of the relationship between the Auster Autocrat and its liberator.
A farming couple had spotted the commotion and nervously approached Bryn, who, in that moment, was also feeling nervous about the situation. Naturally, he attempted to avoid the inevitable exchange and scuttle off, but before he could do so, the woman called after him, "manger!" and kindly gestured the action of eating. Having not eaten for some time, Bryn accepted food, a bed, and, he tells me, some typically French reading material.
The next day, Bryn left the farm on the outskirts of Orleans, mid France, and attempted to hitch the last leg to Marseille. His cover story was that he'd missed his boat in Dieppe and was trying to catch it at the next stop on the south coast. However, by this time the story was all over the radio waves, and he was soon picked up by the authorities.
This may well of been the end of that particular adventure for young Bryn. Someone so desperate and determined to fly himself to a better life. In reality, it wasn't the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning... An incredible lifelong adventure, defined by determination, courage and a truly inspiring 'can do' attitude.