An Irishwoman's Diary


“There is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.– Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

THE LAST testimony to Jimmy Chadwick’s art or knack of flying was declared when a Cessna plane swooped low over his native village of Borrisoleigh in Tipperary and did a loop-the-loop as he was being brought to his final resting place one golden day last autumn. It was the ultimate salute to a man whose love of flying was infectious, who talked planes and altitude till the day he died, whose final words were “I want to fly home” and his motto throughout much of his 88 years was, “fly by the seat of your pants but be sensitive to the air”! Born in the village of Borrisoleigh, North Tipperary, in the turbulent early 1920s Jimmy Chadwick became fascinated from an early age with this “combination of proximity and separation” – as Charles Lindbergh defined flying – with the ground just seconds away, yet thousands of miles away.

His earliest days were marked by drama and no little tragedy. His mother Nora died just six weeks after giving birth to him and he later recalled hearing a story of how gunfire on the streets resulted in mortar falling from the ceiling onto her bed as she lay gravely ill in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. It was the day Michael Collins was shot dead in Beal na Bláth.

From the time he was a young child being reared by his Aunt Gretta Finn in Borrisoleigh, Jimmy built squadrons of flying objects with folded sheets of paper and one day, when he was 10 years old, his Aunt Gretta took him to the fairground in Thurles where she won a raffle; first prize, a flight in a small plane.

Gretta was too scared to contemplate the skies in so fragile a machine but wild horses wouldn’t stop Jimmy from careering boldly into what he later referred to as “the freedom of the sky”. He was away on Gretta’s ticket and learned the first fundamental lesson of flying. . . the sky is blue, the ground is green and brown; avoid the ground at all times unless landing.

He became engrossed with all things mechanical – planes, cars, ships, bicycles (when he was just 16, he cycled all around the Irish coast). He graduated from building go-carts and bicycles to reconstructing motor-bikes, cars, lorries, trucks, engines of all sorts. Jimmy had become a kind of engine-whisperer, a man to whom people brought broken things in an Ireland that could ill-afford to throw away and buy new. Later he would open a business in the village that provided unparalleled services, from selling petrol to televisions.

But, all the time, his head was somewhere in the clouds and filled with dreams of building planes.

WB Yeats’s “lonely impulse of delight” drove him to that tumult in the clouds and opportunity presented itself shortly after the second World War when Jimmy and a cousin tendered for a number of decommissioned British airforce planes. They purchased six aircraft in all, including a Major Gypsy and two Tiger Moths. The deconstructed planes were shipped to Ireland and Jimmy’s labour of love was at last at full throttle.

He rebuilt the planes but, before he took to the skies, he had to learn to fly. It was almost a case of strapping the plane to his back and taking off. He fashioned the frame of a glider, covered it with canvas and drove five miles to the Devil’s Bit mountain from where he undertook his maiden flight and managed to successfully defy the force of gravity.

In order to fly his hybrid plane, now built from the old RAF models, he searched out an appropriate “airfield”. A short distance outside the village of Borrisoleigh is a large and flat 100-acre field, uninhibited by ditches, hedges or trees, bordered on one side by a river and resplendent with a lake. It is called Graan, and was owned by the Cooke family; it was to be his perfect runway – the only preparation involved ushering Cooke’s grazing sheep and cattle away before take-off and landing.

Jimmy Chadwick’s plane became part of the Tipperary sky and landscape, as did those of his many flying friends who came to visit by air. The purr of the aircraft being piloted by him over the trees was a familiar sound on summer evenings and few locals were nonplussed at the sight of his plane being refuelled at the petrol pumps outside his shop in the village Square.

He made his first solo flight at Weston aerodrome and Coonagh, a small aircraft flying club outside Limerick, became a regular haunt for him and his family. His seven children would be taken there practically every weekend, as well as to air displays all over the country, and some of them eventually took flying lessons themselves.

He and his many aviation-obsessed friends would spend hours discussing aerodynamics; nothing from the kite to the turbocharged piston was beyond the reach of their fascination. He was absorbed by the history of flying, by the earliest pioneers of flight to the inter-war period called the Golden Age to the post-War era, or the Jet Age.

In spite of his passion to get into that sky, Jimmy never traded luck for skill. He took immense care, always insisting that the number of his take-offs would equal the number of his landings. And, happily, they did.