Book review by Fred Lane
Litchfield, G. Fly Boy. 278 pp plus index. Self published, 2002, Eltham Vic. $36. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is a tragedy, some might argue, that the RAN and various Australian governments let down so many brilliant young men who dedicated a good part of their lives, and some even that, for so little return. What a waste it was to see nearly all of the most able of the brilliant young RAN aircrew opt for job security and professional recognition in Qantas, TAA or some other airline in the 1950s and 1960s. Many lost even that in 1989 in yet another political imbroglio.
Geoff Litchfield was one of the many young aircrew who should have made flag rank in the RAN. Responding to the first of the erroneous Menzies statements about abandoning the Fleet Air Arm in 1960, he elected to retire and join TAA. It is perhaps ironic that he also fell foul of the Hawke-inspired AFPA pilots dispute in 1989.
To close the circle on tragedies, it is disappointing to see such an engrossing book as Fly Boy not edited and promoted by a mainstream publisher. It would be hard to imagine such a book about a USN pilot not being snapped up by an American publisher. This means that while the yarns are riveting, there are also a number of errors that a good professional editor would have caught.
Visual hook check?
For instance, it seems highly unlikely that Freddy Sherborne would have forgotten to lower his hook and conduct a mutual visual hook check before entering the carrier Charlie pattern (page 1). Damaged concrete heads might have made the three-inch rockets a little unstable (page 87), but usually it was broken cordite, that was more to blame. Bill Dunlop’s fatal crash was in a Vampire Trainer, not a Sea Fury (page 117), and its cause was a stray “Murphy” dinghy lanyard ferrule fouling the backwards movement of the control column. Finally, Peter Seed’s “rocket attack” on the New Zealand cruiser was not a deliberate pass in a Sea Venom in 1957 (page 121), but an accidental launch more than two miles outside the screen from one of Sydney’s Sea Furies off Tasmania in 1951.
There are many other minor errors of fact and style, all of which detract from the book’s validity. However, there are one or two errors of omission that seems strange.
Phil R… effect
No mention is made, for instance, of the famous “Phil R… phenomenon” at a cocktail party. In his younger days Phil was the ultimate “chick magnet”, long before that phrase was coined. All Phil had to do was to stand around at a mixed function and all the eligible women flocked to him. “Until Phil made his choice of the evening clear, it was a total waste of time and effort to try to cut out one of those women,” Bill Vallack avers.
Geoff also fails to mention the famous “Huski duck-shoot” when a load of relatively senior aviators climbed into a Sycamore with shotguns in 1954 to put a little duck meat on the table. Unfortunately, they hunted in what turned out to be an animal sanctuary and in any event the RAN Sycamore helicopter had not been cleared for the highly politically sensitive task of firing shotguns from it. To make matters worse, the entire crew had taken up postings to different corners of the Earth within a week or so of the incident. In a final twist, they only bagged one decrepit worm-ridden shag, they claimed.
Still, there are enough hard data and rollicking good yarns here to more than justify the book. Let us trust that our local publishers one day will see the commercial opportunities and give such books the editorial and other support they so richly deserve.