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“Nor the Years Condemn” by Justin Sheedy – a flying excerpt

4 June 2011



April 1942

In full flying kit, Quinn hobbled along on the heels of his new instructor, a diminutive Brit by the name of Griffon, though with the rank of Flying Officer, one above Quinn.

It was a hostile sky at mid-morning, dark clouds above allowing in none but a steely light from low on the horizon – Quinn hadn’t been sure whether they’d be able to fly or not.  By the time they reached the aircraft, however, he knew nothing could have stopped him.  For, close up, the Supermarine Spitfire would have to have been the most beautiful man-made thing he’d ever seen.  Just standing still, it looked like it was moving fast.

He surveyed its lines from stem to stern: overall, olive and grey-blue camouflage paint on a form sleek and elegant, tail-wheel down on the grass, gentle nose-up attitude.  Brighter colours punctuated: white propeller nose, its three black blades yellow-tipped.  Three black exhaust pipe stubs each side of the engine cowling attested to the V12 Merlin under it, the cowling long and straight back to the clean perspex of the cockpit.  Its neat little windscreen was freshly polished, Quinn noticed, as was the canopy, now slid back and waiting open for him.

Aft of the cockpit was painted the RAF roundel – red, white and blue with yellow corona, either side of this, the OTU’s identification letters also in bold yellow.  The fuselage slimmed back to a white recognition band round it, RAF colour stripes on the tail.  The Spit’s trademark elliptical wings lifted in a subtle ‘v’ to their tips, underneath them, narrow undercarriage spars pale grey down to black rubber tyres.

For a moment, Quinn was struck with a comment he’d caught some months ago, a pilot’s ‘rule-of-thumb guide to aircraft’, an old one, ridiculously simple, yet religiously held:  If it looks right, it IS right.  This form that seemed to dare him…

‘Get in.’

He did so, an airman ‘rigger’ leaning in to secure his straps and plugs.  As this was done, Quinn looked ahead at the instrument panel, and narrowly all around him at the cockpit interior.  The Spit’s reputation had preceded it and felt immediately justified:  As an aircraft, you really did ‘strap it on’ – Just how a pilot any larger than Quinn’s medium build managed to fit into one, he couldn’t imagine.  In any case, they said the ‘snug fit’ only made this fighter feel ‘part’ of you, until it became a mere extension of your own body in flight.

The airman pointed out a few of ‘the taps’, as he called them, and was gone.  The ‘fitter’, an old-hand RAF mechanic, hadn’t said anything to Quinn when he’d arrived; just sized him up.

Quinn went through the drill of checks, dials, switches and pumps which, from the classroom hut, he could reel off by now like a mantra.  He then looked over the cockpit rim of the Spitfire – at long last, his own. 

‘Clear Prop.’

‘Prop Clear,’ came the reply.

Quinn had flown the Wirraway solo, but only after the first three months with Bob Eastwood in the instructor’s seat.  Now, Quinn’s first ever time in a single-seater aircraft, there was no other way to do his first ever take-off in the Spitfire except alone.

He pressed the Starter button, the propeller turned, exhaust stubs flaming momentarily as the engine settled into a comfortable roar.

Making the two-handed signal for the wheel-chocks to be pulled away, Quinn saw Griffon’s Spitfire draw ahead, and placed his hands back on the controls.  There’d been a tremble in his hands, but only until he drove that throttle forward.  Then – he’d never felt anything like it – such acceleration, such throbbing energy all around him, and all at his fingertips.  As far as Spitfires went, the Mark II in which Quinn sat was considered ‘last year’s model’ – last year’s model with a Rolls-Royce Merlin XII engine putting out 1175 horse-power.  As the speed built, it felt to Quinn as if every single one of those horses was straining to pull him left and clean off the runway.  He’d been told to expect it, but had never felt torque-effect like this.

Canopy still open, he kept it straight and true, tearing down the runway behind Griffon.  You kept the canopy slid back on take-off as jumping for it and breaking every bone in your body was considered better than being trapped and burnt alive if everything went wrong.  Yet it hadn’t, the Spit’s wheels left the ground, before they were even retracted Quinn seeing the earth moving quicker, much quicker than he was used to.  The Flying Officer clearly knew the territory, banking them low-level inland about a hundred feet up at three-hundred miles per hour.  Quinn pulled the canopy forward and shut.

The 30 miles west to the village of Callander flashed in minutes, Quinn’s focus darting systematically between Griffon’s Spit just ahead, his instrument panel dials, the countryside speeding just beneath them, and the navigational map taped to his knee.  The conscious effort of keeping this juggling act a smooth one compressed the minutes to moments, the exhilaration of his senses, extreme – a sensation he’d also been drilled to expect: Time Distortion.

Quinn remained aware of the fact he was still being tested.  It never stopped.  Test after test after test, handle a million new things at once and keep thy cool.  They could still wash him out at any time and – his instructor from Mascot had been as good as his word – Bomber Command held perpetual vacancies for rear gunners.  Always welcome: another ‘Tail-end Charlie’.

As Quinn mirrored the lead Spitfire’s shallow climb over the village, the beginning of Loch Venachar and the mountains far to the west came into view.  But ahead, directly ahead loomed the mass of Ben Ledi, the ‘Hill of God’, as subtitled on the map.  As one now they flew at its summit, elevation, 2800 feet.

Though the pull-up had been a long and graceful curve, with their sheer forward velocity, the G-forces pulled Quinn’s face downwards within his oxygen mask.  Through his goggles he saw the mountain quickly filling the windscreen, its peak slightly to the right, then the Flying Officer’s wingspan rolling slowly toward it.  Quinn matched precisely, pressed hard in the seat once again.  Harder – They were banking round the summit, its peak straight down now at Quinn’s right shoulder and all the way through the turn, until, heading back the way they came in, they levelled out.  Though not for long…

Griffon flipped inverted and pulled steeply into a dive, Quinn following suit.

‘I gotcha,’ Quinn breathed into his mask – Shit, too CLOSE!  The Spitfire ahead filled his windscreen – Throttle off, throttle off in the dive…


Quinn knew he’d made a bad mistake.  Yet a mistake that had fallen short of disaster:  His propeller hadn’t fanned off his leader’s tail – no time to think about it – his leader was still there and rolling upright again in the dive.  As was Quinn, and following his long, banking curve down to the left, airspeed needle climbing. 

Until there, there it was ahead:  Their target – the beginning of Loch Lubnaig…

*          *          *

Jamie Callum should have been in school.  On the bank at the head of the loch, his collie stopped wagging its tail.  The boy turned back behind him to the forest, and looked up.  He’d heard snatches of aircraft a minute ago.  Then they’d seemed to disappear.

Over a rise of pine-trees up the bank the Spitfires scythed directly at him.

He ducked under their twin demon noise, spun around to see them straighten, and hurtle away, lowering to the loch and breaking the still of its surface as they did.

*          *          *

Quinn pushed full throttle again to keep up with Griffon.  The pines of the valley on either side flashing past, he checked the map:  They were headed north through the Forest of Strathyre.  Their speed had come way down since the dive, now settling at around 320 miles per hour. 

In seconds they closed the mile and a half to the north-west bend in the loch, Griffon lifting them slightly before the sweeping curve – only so as not to dip a wingtip in the water, cartwheel, death in a thousand pieces.  It had happened here, Griffon had warned. 

Levelling out of the turn, Quinn checked the map: a spot aptly named, it seemed.  He hadn’t seen it, but the map said they’d just passed a graveyard by the shore to the left, a mile or so further inland from that, something called the ‘Little Loch of the Dead’.  Yet they were already climbing away over the end of Loch Lubnaig, Griffon right banking them wide back around to the east – towards home base once again.

*          *          *

Having come in at a conservative distance behind his instructor, Quinn at last heaved out of the cockpit, stepped down off the wing root, and onto the grass.  The airman rigger promptly stepped up past him with a quiet ‘thank you, sir’ – Just like at home, Quinn noticed:  He had pimples.  The fitter, very much the career Flight Sergeant, enquired as to any mechanical problems Quinn may have experienced – none – then tramped his way round to the engine.  Quinn pulled off his leather flying helmet, and turned round for another look at the Spit as they went about their work on it.  Now it was theirs again.

‘There.  Enjoy it, boy?’  Griffon approached across the grass from his own.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.  But you just remember.  It’s a job of work.  If you don’t do it well, you’re dead.’


‘And even if you do make it to your next birthday, get yourself a Wingman, mess it up, then he dies.  Understood?’

‘Understood, sir.’

‘Right then.  I could use a beer.  Coming?’

‘Be glad to.’

‘Good.  You’re buying, boy…  That was a blood-y close run thing between your propeller and my tail.’

*          *          *



Author Justin Sheedy

Author Justin Sheedy

To read excerpts of Nor the Years Condemn from the beginning, CLICK HERE.

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