War pilot returns to the skies

AS a decorated war hero with around 20,000 hours in the air as well as a pivotal role in the Second World War under his belt, you might think there is little left to achieve for this retired pilot.

AS a decorated war hero with around 20,000 hours in the air as well as a pivotal role in the Second World War under his belt, you might think there is little left to achieve for this retired pilot.

But an 85th birthday treat for Alan Martin, from Stanton, near Bury St Edmunds, was the realisation of a dream for the former flying officer, whose life has been witness to some of the turning points of history.

Mr Martin, who played a crucial part in the bombing of the German flagship the Bismarck, was thrilled to be given the opportunity to fly a glider 4,000 feet above his Suffolk home - 24 years after he last took to the air as a pilot in Zimbabwe.

“I loved it,” said Mr Martin. “The visibility was excellent - I could see for 40 miles or more.


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“We were only meant to go up for half an hour but we caught some thermals and we were up there for an hour.

“We were towed up to 2,000 feet before catching a thermal up to 4,000 feet - I even took the controls for a while making turns to catch the uplift and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

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The surprise flight on Saturday , arranged by his daughter Jan Smith, brought back memories of a life spent on the wing.

After joining the RAF in 1936 the young pilot soon saw action patrolling waters off Norway.

On a mission bringing Russian Generals from Archangel in the Soviet Union, his Catalina sea plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

For three days the survivors drifted without food or water before, using a mirror, the 22 year-old flying ace was able to signal to a passing convoy.

However, the glinting glass distress sign from the desperate survivors was mistaken for a U-boat periscope and it was some time before the frigate drew close enough to see the shipwrecked men. The young pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his crucial role in the rescue.

Then, in 1941, again in a Catalina, and unfazed by his earlier brush with death, Mr Martin told how he spotted the Nazi flagship the Bismarck.

The huge ship had been sent to choke off Britain's supply lines across the Atlantic and had already sunk the pride of the Royal Navy - the Hood - before evading allied search parties.

It was as a direct result of the eagle-eyed pilot's sighting that the legendary German ship was pursued and crippled below the waterline by a torpedo strike.

The flying supremo was transferred to Singapore and after the war flew commercial airliners as well as working in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But he retired almost a quarter-of-a-century ago and only took to the skies again for the 85th birthday celebrations thanks to the Rattlesden Gliding Club, of which he is a member. He was guided by instructor Nigel Clark.

Mr Clark said: “There wasn't much to teach him. He didn't reveal his war time exploits on the flight but I could tell he was an experienced pilot.

“He was very alert for a man his age, he didn't need any help and he flew for most of the flight. It was a very enjoyable flight flown well.”

Mr Martin added: “I always wanted to be pilot. I remember thinking when I first joined the RAF that this was the life.”

However, there are some flying dreams the veteran pilot knows will never come true: “I still have an ambition to fly a helicopter and go up in a hot air balloon but I have a pacemaker now and I would never pass the medical tests.”

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