Celtic Illumination, part 155, Riverdance, Feet of Flames
Most elite or special units, in the armed forces, will have some sort of initiation ritual. Normally, as it is the armed forces, these are extreme. For those of you who have read the tales from my mountain rescue days I can promise you that at times you do actually wonder if you are going to die. If you remember I said that there were only two positions in the air force. Fast jet pilot and failed fast jet pilot. The whole air force is geared to make sure that the fast jet pilot is able to function effectively, nothing else matters.
As you may expect, as the most famous squadron in the air force, 92 Squadron had a very special initiation ceremony. And as you may expect, from the most famous of all squadrons, this initiation would be something exceptional, however, the only people who had to face it were baby pilots. Baby pilot may give you the wrong idea about new pilots arriving on the squadron, but that is what they were referred to as. These guys would have been trained to perfection and a baby pilot was a young pilot who would be taking up their first operational role.
If you can imagine a fighter squadron may only get one baby pilot every two years. The older, more experienced pilots would be posted to other squadrons or sent to fly desks at the MOD. One of our navigators, Al Green, briefed me on what was going to happen, and I can assure you I would not want to go through what this poor fellow did. For three or four days, before his arrival, we were asked to collect empty beer cans and empty bottles of booze. Many of us were smokers and even the contents of the ashtrays were collected.
On the day of his arrival we received a telephone call to say that he was being interviewed by the station commander. Well; he thought he was being interviewed by the station commander. He was actually being interviewed by the families officer, who I believe wouldn’t stop talking about his model railway collection and the suspicions he had that his wife was being unfaithful and wasn’t at all interested in the young pilot. We were busy on the squadron. Ash trays were filled to overflowing, empty cans and bottles were left everywhere and Al Green even sprayed a can of beer, like an air freshener, to give the place that authentic public house smell.
The dentist came over and sat in the wing commanders officer with a glass of whiskey. And so we waited. In came this new pilot, Dom Riley. He was as smart as a new pin. He came to the desk and saluted. Al Green, unkempt and unshaven, took a slurp from his can of beer and asked what the fellow wanted. The new pilot explained himself, name, rank and number reporting for duty. Al explained that he was not interested. If he was new on the squadron he should go and see the boss but if he wanted to fly he should go see the engineers, if they had any aircraft that worked.
Poor Dom, still reeling from his mad interview with the family’s officer, goes to meet his new squadron commander. Graham the dentist put on another show pretending that he wasn’t interested but that the young fellow should go away and settle into his room in the mess as he would go flying with him the following morning to see if he was any good. Now I know if I had arrived on a squadron, or a station, even as a newly qualified fighter pilot and had been treated like that I would have been concerned.
That evening Dom was welcomed into the mess, with people still pretending to be someone else. A pretty young lady, pretending to be the station commander’s unfaithful wife, clamped herself on to Dom saying that her husband didn’t satisfy her anymore and she liked young fit pilots. Now add to this mix lots and lots of very strong booze. It was a total ploy to wrong foot the young fellow who woke up in a bed the following morning with his right leg in a full plaster of Paris cast.
Unable to remember anything, the young pilot is now tortured with tales of how he couldn’t fly with a broken leg, was no use to an operational squadron and as he had tried to hump the station commander’s wife the previous evening, he should return, immediately, to the UK in disgrace. Within twenty four hours this poor young man has gone from recently qualified fighter pilot to complete failure with his life and career in tatters.
What he didn’t know was that they had taped two marbles tightly against the bone of his leg and then encased it in plaster of Paris. No wonder Dom actually thought he had broken his leg. It was only as he arrived at the terminal to fly back to the UK that the squadron members revealed themselves and welcomed him on to the squadron. That is what happens to every freshly qualified fighter pilot when then arrive on their first operational squadron. Different squadrons will have their own variation on the process, but the main thrust is the same all over the air force. You may think that young Dom Riley would perhaps need many months, if not years, of psychological help to get over such an event but Dom was a fighter pilot, and not just any fighter pilot, but a 92 squadron fighter pilot.
Did it affect him, I wouldn’t have thought so, in fact he went on to join the Red Arrows formation display team and actually ended up as the leader of the Red Arrows and I will not tell you what they did to new members of the Red Arrows. For us, the oiks, we faced nothing more rigorous than having to buy a crate of beer if you spilled some of your drink. There was always the standard shaving of eyebrows and drawing on faces. The most common trick to play on people, was when someone fell asleep if tired, or more commonly, when drinking.
If you ever walk in to an air force crew room you will notice that they all have grey floor tiles. You will also notice that there will often be a series of black marks, resembling the tread off shoes and boots, all over the place. This is because if you fell asleep the buggers would set alight to the soles of your shoes, or boots, and sit and watch you twitch as the heat permeated through to your feet. Of course a certain point would be reached where the heat would be enough to cause you pain and wake you up or bring you back to consciousness. (Check the picture with this blog.)
Once awake, or conscious, you would be drawn to the area of pain and see twelve inch flames leaping from your shoes, or boots. Your natural reaction would be to jump up and stamp out the flames, therefore leaving black rubber marks all over the floor. Some people say that this is how Riverdance was invented, I’m not sure, although there might be some truth in it.