Mr. Len Sales. Photo by Susan Trent, Gasbag Studios

Len Sales has spent the last 60 years with his head in the clouds. Now he is teaching UNSW students about the joys of flying. By Dan Gaffney.

Eighty-three-year-old WWII veteran and aviator Len Sales fell in love with the idea of flying as a young boy.

During the 1930s he and his father attended the annual Royal Air Force (RAF) air shows at the historic Hendon Aerodrome, North London, where Len marvelled at the daring aerial feats of British fighter planes like the Bristol Bulldog and Bristol Fighter.

In September 1939, British PM Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany and two years later 17-year-old Len enlisted in the RAF. For the next four years he flew bombing flights as a wireless operator with the No. 37 Bomber Squadron out of Italy, Egypt and Palestine until the war’s end.

Before Len’s enlistment, Britain was on the military defensive, following German advances in Europe and the collapse of France. In the Battle of France of June 1940, the RAF’s losses were appalling: nearly 1,000 aircraft destroyed, 320 pilots killed or missing and 115 pilots taken as prisoners of war. In the ensuing Battle of Britain from August 1940 to May 1941, the RAF lost another 1,023 fighter planes and 524 bombers.

“In the long run, nearly two-thirds of the men who took to the air never returned,” says Len, who also flew 30 bombing raids over Italy, Yugoslavia and the Middle East in four-engine Avro Lancasters and twin-engine Vickers Wellingtons.

“For me, bombing raids would bring up feelings that ranged from great excitement to sheer fright, and I always took it hard when I heard that friends and colleagues had been shot down and killed in action.

“I suppose we became hardened to these losses – it was a way of life and we accepted the prospect of death as an unavoidable hazard of duty.”

As a radio operator, Len was next in line to take over gunning duties if an air-gunner was killed in action. “Thankfully, that never happened and I‘ve lived long enough to tell the tale,” he says.

He did have a few close calls, however. He escaped injury in 1943 when a bomb-laden Wellington he was aboard crashed and caught fire on take-off. In 1962, he escaped injury once when a Super Constellation he was navigating crashed on take-off in Mauritius. “We overshot the runway and the undercarriage collapsed, resulting in the fuel tanks on the wings catching fire and blowing up,” says Len.

“We managed to get everyone off pretty safely with a few broken legs being the main injuries.”

Retiring from the RAF in 1946, Len did further pilot training and was a navigator and senior radio operator for the start-up carrier Malayan Airways.

Demand for air travel started to boom in the post-war period and Len flew twin-engined Airspeed Consul aircraft between Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Penang, Singapore, Saigon, Bangkok, Penang, Medan and the Borneo Territories.

Joining Qantas in 1954, he settled in Sydney and for the next 35 years flew or navigated on DC-3s, DC-4s, Viscounts, Constellations, Super Constellations, Boeing 707s, 727s and the 747 Jumbo series.

For the past decade he has headed UNSW’s airline transport pilot’s licence (ATPL) program. The ATPL provides provisional qualification for people who want to fly as a pilot-in-command of a multi-crew aircraft.

”The program covers advanced theoretical study in advanced aerodynamics, air law, advanced navigation, performance, loading, flight planning and meteorology,” says Len. “To be issued with an actual airline transport pilot’s licence, graduates of the program need to log at least 1,500 flying hours, with specified time as pilot-in command. The program is highly respected within the aviation industry and our graduates go on to fly with Qantas and international carriers around the world.”

A father of three and a grandfather of six, Len isn’t content to sit around on weekends playing grandad. “I’m a member of the State Emergency Service in the Ku-ring-gai area. I love it and it keeps me young,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

This article appeared in the UNIKEN magazine, Issue 43 Sept/Oct 2007.