Taking flight: Red Arrow hearts and the art of perfect timing
Sarah Morgan Jones
Years ago, Dad, a keen photographer and cyclist, used to go to air shows, interested in the planes, probably as befit a man of his age in that age, and he would ride far and wide to combine his passions.
In fact, it wasn’t limited to air shows – steam engine rallies, scrambling meets, car shows and big ships also…er … floated his boat…and they continued all through my childhood.
But at some air show in the 50s (possibly at Farnborough – I wish I’d listened to his endless stories, but for inexcusable reasons, and because there were just so many of them, it became quite normal to glaze over when he was ripping yarns, a lasting regret), he caught an air crash in his camera, two fuzzy, amazing pictures, two horrifying pictures, catching the early impact and the ensuing smoke cloud that signified the end of a life.
Pouring over those pictures when I was a child, my awareness of the tragedy of this event, someone dying for a mere display, shocked me.
Our day out
Fast forward 60 years…
When my parents returned to Wales in 2015 it is fair to say that they did so grudgingly.
With memories of hard times in health and finances overshadowing the good times that they spent here, and declining health prompting the last move back – compromising their independence and a fairly certain future ahead – they packed their long marriage into a tiny flat with many layers of reluctance.
And indeed, it was the start of a rollercoaster.
But we made the most of things, had nice days out, went for a spin whenever possible, morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea.
By far the highlight of the day-out calendar was the Swansea Air Show, late June, or early July.
A controversial day in Swansea, clearly a recruitment and propaganda event, a spectacular display of might and posturing (weather permitting), and creator of carbon, you name it…
Met in equal measure with delight and dismay, it is, nonetheless, An Event and for all the divided opinion, my own feelings became mixed with their sheer pleasure.
In contrast with the vagaries of the weather in previous years, as soon as they arrived in Swansea, the air show was henceforth blessed with blue skies.
I don’t think so.
So, when the folks arrived in town, it was a free, exciting and accessible thing we could do, something in which Dad had expertise, and of which Mum happily partook, if for no other reason than a sit on the bench in the sunshine, with her shades on and nothing expected of her but to watch.
From 2015 to 2017 we had a go, finding a bench on the sea front or optimistically heading down to Mumbles pier thinking we’d have a good view.
It was not so good, but Mum and I did take advantage of Dad nattering to a fellow by-pass scar-wearer and had a giggly, silly walk along the pier, during which she momentarily stepped out of her dementia while she gazed down at the sea and gave me herself in her true form.
A year later, in 2018, I watched the show alone from her nursing home room, in what were, it turned out to be, her last hours. Dad was the other side of town in hospital with a broken hip, and she was out for the count, and had been for days.
Downstairs in the nursing home garden, a party was going on, relatives getting tipsy, residents topsy-turvey, the lady who used to break codes at Bletchley Park, now quite alone in the world at the end of her days, barking out commands and incantations every time the planes roared overhead.
Slipping down for the odd vol-au-vent, a slice of Victoria sponge and a cheeky Vimto, I wandered amongst them making the appropriate oohs and aahs as an elderly hand grabbed mine on the way past, and I smiled as fellow relatives cheerfully enquired of Mum, upstairs, snoring softly.
It felt like the end of an era, I felt tiny and alone, like I was underwater, watching the whole event through a diving mask.
Mum had been teetering in this state for days now, and like many who find themselves in the rather impolite position of waiting for someone to leave this world, I was feeling restless and impatient.
I had been sleeping on the floor in her room for a week, and it was the hottest of hot June days: I felt stretched to the max and just wanted to go home.
The evening before, a pod of porpoises was reportedly seen in the bay, visible from her room.
My own myopic eyes did not see them, but the carers excitedly pointed them out, telling Mum with urgency what they could see, ignoring her silence and indifference.
I turned to her and appealed to her sense of drama… ‘look Mum, dolphins, full moon – almost – it’s a magical moment, it’s time.’
She remained silent and indifferent.
So as the day of the air show dawned, I resigned myself to the status quo and thought I would probably just go home later, as this could carry on for weeks.
Going back up to her room, I took a deep breath and went in to find her still there, freshened up, silent and indifferent.
I stood at the window and watched as the Red Arrows picked up for their final hurrah, the long straight trails, the colours, the heart, and told her everything that I could see.
As the last vapours fizzled and the sun began to fade at last and the real full moon rose, I saw that her indifference had gone: she looked serene, and at last I understood.
She had been waiting for a moment, a sign, the perfect time, and really, for a woman like her…only a Red Arrows fly-by would do.
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That’s so lovely! Beautifully written and expressed – and images are fab too 😪
Beautifully written. Had me in tears. Also brought back memories long gone of family trips to airshows and how people pick just the right time to say goodbye
Images are heartrending but the subject and it relevance to me will be expanded upon shortly…
I suspect that one photo shows the last second of Squadron Leader John Douglas Derry DFC’s life as he was burnt to a crisp flying the DH 110 a week after I was born…he was one of Britain’s leading test pilots…back then this country was in the van of jet powered aviation…my early years were spent making Airfix models and playing ‘best for dying’ with my friends and later joining the Air Cadets. Others of my age group joined the Army or Sea Cadets, we were all being groomed to fight the next war. In fact there was a war… Read more »