For anyone who is interested I try to summarise below the real story of the crash, as opposed to the story told in the novel. In September 1946 a telegram was sent to our London home announcing the death of our father in a flying accident as he was training an Australian air crew. It was a tragedy for our mother, whose husband had survived five years piloting Liberators only to fall at at the very end of the war. For my brother Ted and myself the tragedy was muted. Children accept situations as they find them and we had scarcely known our father, who was away most of the time. Subsequently, normal life was Ted and me and our mother. Not having a man in the house was natural. Above my bed was a head-and-shoulders photo of a man looking very handsome in uniform. I knew it represented my father but the word carried no real significance. Later on I used to try and imagine his last moments in the cockpit. In fact we knew little about the crash. My grandfather 'wouldn't let' our mother see the body, and in those days women did what they were told. She was informed that there was only one survivor and he 'wasn't right in the head'.
When people are involved in a cataclysmic event they tend to shove it to the back of their memory, returning to the scene – if at all – many years later. It turned out there wasn't just one damaged survivor of the accident, as my mother had been led to believe. The first I knew of this was when, working in India, I received an amazing letter from Ted, who'd discovered where the plane crashed and visited the site with our mother. He described the appealing little church of Cockayne Hatley village in the Bedfordshire countryside and opposite it, Potton Wood, where our father had died. Even more gob-smacking, Ted went into a hall next to the church and found communications from two Australian airmen who'd revisited the UK 20 years after surviving the accident: Noel Gilmour from New South Wales, and Frank Doak from a town near Melbourne. What did my brother do next? Obviously – because he's like a bulldog once he gets hold of something – he wrote to the two Aussies.
Almost by return post he received two long letters that described the last hour of our father's life. Under his direction, the crew had set off on a training flight 'without parachutes and with an intercom system that we couldn't use'. To demonstrate flying on three engines our father had 'feathered the starboard outer engine halfway down the runway,' whereupon the aircraft 'lumbered into the air'. At about a thousand feet he'd also feathered the starboard inner engine so the trainee pilots could handle a craft with two engines stalled. Now things began to go wrong. As the plane lost height and Potton Wood loomed in the distance they tried to restart the engines, but the fuel mixture controls were still in 'idle cut-off setting' and wouldn't start. The Liberator continued to lose height and it became clear they were going to crash. Doak wrote: 'Noel and I glanced at each other in alarm but did not speak. In fact nobody in the cockpit said a word.'
In the crash our father was killed instantly, along with three other men. Frank Doak, though quite seriously hurt, managed to walk away. Noel Gilmour was thrown clear badly injured, and not found until a second search was conducted, and only then through the whimpering of the dead Aussie pilot's scotch terrier 'Bitsa', which of course shouldn't have been on the flight at all, but was, and which had slept during the flight and now stayed by Gilmour's wounded body.
Ted was nowhere near done. He had a memorial stone put into the Cockayne Hatley churchyard that named the dead and the survivors – 'and Bitsa the dog'. A designer carved the elegant slate head-stone in the form of a Liberator wing. With the help of the local vicar – who happened to be a flying nut – Ted arranged a service in the church. It was attended by a surprising number of people, including the extended Spiller family, a farm labourer who'd been first on the scene of the crash, other local residents, researchers who'd investigated the incident – and, another surprise, our father's flight engineer Roy Carling, who'd been grievously injured in the crash but survived and was tracked down by Ted.
During the service the vicar sprang a further surprise: he moved his congregation outside, where he'd privately arranged for a Spitfire from Duxbury airfield to fly over the church. Not a dry eye to be seen. More tears welled up when he asked the company to gaze towards Potton Wood as he intoned the famous words: 'They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.'
It sometimes seems as if this story will run for ever. After retiring I wrote the first draft of a novel called Pilot error. It was nine-tenths fiction but included an aeroplane crash and a memorial service in the Cockayne Hatley churchyard. While researching it I revisited Potton Wood, looking for scarred tree trunks and picking up bits of fuselage that had lain there for 20 years. The act of walking through the peaceful, deserted forest made a deep impression on me. I sent the draft novel to Ted, who made a lot of helpful comments, and several years later extensively revised the text and got my son Ben to put it up for sale on Kindle. At the time of writing it is much the most successful thing I've written. We're told that some of those who read it drive out to see the headstone in the churchyard. It is a decent book, I think, but its success is perhaps down to the spark of personal experience that informs the story – that and the passion for flying felt by our father and by generations of men before and since.