It’s probably here somewhere, tucked away among my Dad’s books and papers. It is a book called En Route. It was an out of date edition brought by my father from the air station at which he worked. It was a handbook of airports and aerodromes and airfields and airstrips; a comprehensive directory of all the places where it might be possible to land an aircraft. It had details of the lengths and directions of runways, of the landing surfaces, of what lights there were, of what radio facilities there were. When you are an awkward teenager with limited social skills, the book was a treasure trove. It was possible to imagine being a pilot in some part of the country having to make an emergency landing and taking out his faithful copy of En Route to decide where best to attempt to put the plane down.
It was not as though I had ever been in an aeroplane; I would be 23 before I ever flew anywhere, and that was a British Midland flight from Belfast to Heathrow, hardly the stuff of adventures. The nearest I ever got to a cockpit was sitting in the front row of a KLM flight to Amsterdam in the days when the door could be left open and it was possible to see the crew at work. Yet, if I could find the copy of En Route, I would still leaf through its pages, searching for those old wartime stations where the wind still carries the sound of returning Lancasters and for those remote locations where Cold War V bombers waited silently for the orders to scramble.
The book is probably no longer published; most of the places are probably now under the tarmac of new roads or the gardens of new houses. A decade ago, an acquaintance in Dublin told the story of his twin-engined plane losing an engine and he asking permission from air traffic control to make an emergency landing. Diverted from the commercial airports, he was instructed to land at the airstrip of a flying club. He did so – just. The runway was too short and as he overran, his undercarriage collapsed and his propellers were mangled in the grass. There was a temptation to say, “There used to be a book called En Route”, but what use was something in another country, thirty odd years ago?
Maybe it’s all on computer now, maybe as you fly along you can get details of where you can land nearby. It would be nice to think so – nice to think the captain doesn’t have to say, “does anyone know where I put the book? We’re in a spot of bother.”