An Unhappy Incident

By Sqn Ldr G Hawthorn DFC DFM

In the far off days of the year 1938, our early Blenheim bomber aircraft had cockpit glazing manufactured out of thick celluloid, a material which had many limitations. It soon discoloured, it developed cracks and various panels were prone to cave in during high speed manoeuvres.

Much thought had been given to the danger of crews being trapped in the event of a take off crash and our instructions were to leave the sliding roof canopy in its open position until a safe take off was reasonable in prospect. The Air Observer was then required to reach backwards and, using his left hand, slam the canopy firmly shut, something which could not be achieved once the aircraft was fully airborne.

On one occasion when I was dutifully attempting to perform this function, I was surprised to find the canopy would not budge. A little more exertion was called for; to my astonishment the bulky metal handle and front framework came away in my hand, the rest of the canopy disappearing backwards. My arm, suddenly relieved of all its burden, shot forward out of my control and the poor old pilot received a terrible blow on the back of his head when we were doing over 80 mph but not quite airborne. Our twin-engined bomber performed some marvellous evolutions as the dazed man abandoned the take off and we came to rest only a few inches from the airfield boundary.

Within minutes I was following him into the Flight Commander’s office. “I can’t be expected to fly aeroplanes if people are going to do this sort of thing to me” he wailed. The barrage of fury which met me was of unbelievable intensity, especially from the formidable technical Flight Sergeant. As was so typical in those days, no one asked me for an explanation. I reflected that there was little profit in escaping death on the airfield only to find it in the Flight Commander’s office.

I cannot truly assert that I have always been able to retain perfect composure and to silence my critics with a few well-chosen words, at the same time producing irrefutable evidence of complete innocence. But I did so on this occasion. Behind my back my left hand was still clutching the offending piece of canopy and embedded in the framework was a long tell-tale piece of celluloid. A casual glance was all that was required to see the aged yellow crack which extended for three quarters of its width, a fault which should have been picked up on any one of a dozen routine inspections by the much vaunted technical staff of the Flight Sergeant.

I left the office safely in one piece. There was never any apology but that would have been far too much to expect.

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