Flying Blind: A Memoir of Biplane Operations Over Waziristan in the Last Days of British Rule in India, by Wing Commander Geoffrey Morley-Mower, Yucca Tree Press, Las Cruces, N.M., 2000, $25.

In 1937 a 19-year-old youth, infatuated with aviation, bluffed his way through a Royal Air Force physical examination. By peeking through his fingers and using two eyes instead of one to read the eye chart, he hid his myopic eyesight. So began the RAF career of Geoffrey Morley-Mower, who 31 years later–after many thousands of flight hours–retired with the rank of wing commander. In his book Flying Blind, Morley-Mower recounts his early days in the RAF, serving as a subaltern protecting the outer reaches of the British empire in the Northwest Frontier province of India (now Pakistan).

How the would-be pilot managed to hide his deficient eyesight from his flight instructors (flying solo wasn’t a problem, since he could wear his glasses then) is a fascinating story told with self-deprecating good humor. Flying Blind speaks to a simpler time, when such a deception could still be possible. It is also a testament to Morley-Mower’s determination and self-assurance, characteristics that would prove so important in his later flying career.

It was the beauty of flight and the glamour of emulating his boyhood heroes–the aviators of World War I–that attracted young Morley-Mower. It didn’t seem likely, even in 1937, that the RAF would again be fighting a war. “I just wanted to get airborne and see the world,” he explains. “Our generation had grown up in the aftermath of the ‘War to End War,’ and it was an article of faith that the mistake would never be repeated.” Oh callow youth!

Morley-Mower fell in love with the Westland Wapiti he flew in Waziristan. “I wanted to go back into the past,” he writes, “The more primitive the better.” It was the perfect aircraft for subduing insurgents in the “proscribed areas”–areas, usually grazing lands, that the British authorities declared off-limits to the population in retaliation for rebel activity. The locals were warned beforehand to stay away, and any livestock found in those regions after the proscription date were killed. Proscription was often enforced from the air.

Ground operations in the mountainous Northwest Frontier could be very dangerous, as could a forced landing in hostile territory. Some indication of how hazardous it was is reflected in a popular barracks song of the day, which had the refrain, “No balls at all, No balls at all, When your engine cuts out you’ll have no balls at all.” Morley-Mower honed his flying skills in those difficult regions, landing on mountainside airstrips at locations that nowadays would be served only by helicopter. He marveled at the rugged beauty of Waziristan while periodically dropping bombs on proscribed tribal areas.

With the onset of war in Europe, Morley-Mower transitioned to modern aircraft. He went on to fly Hawker Hurricanes in North Africa and had a distinguished wartime career, which is described in another book, Messerschmitt Roulette: The Western Desert, 1941-1942. Not until after the war did the RAF discover his substandard eyesight. They grounded him, of course. With the characteristic self-assurance and determination that had gotten him into the RAF in the first place, Morley-Mower appealed to King George VI and regained flying status.

Flying Blind takes us back to a simpler time, to an age of innocence–when air power could be represented on the fringes of the British empire by an antiquated biplane piloted by an adventurous young man reveling in the beauty of flight. The empire has since faded, and the Wapiti is a museum piece now, but even after 60 years the author’s joy in flying is clearly undiminished. In Morley-Mower’s own words, “Flying is such an ungraspably beautiful thing, superior to its technology–somewhere between a skill and an art and a pure exercise of the imagination.”

Henry S. Siegel