Book Review: Aviation at the Edge

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Growing up in a rural English town just west of London, John Flexman knew early on that he wanted to be a pilot. He wasted no time, either, joining the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy at the age of 16, and earning his wings by the time he was 18. For the next 42 years, John amassed nearly 18,000 hours piloting all manner of aircraft, and built up a considerable stock of tales both amusing and harrowing along the way. In the years that followed his retirement, tales of his exploits were frequently met with the exhortation to put all these stories down in a book. In 2012, John published a book that does just that.

Aviation at the Edge is the story of a boy who took to the skies with a passion for flying, and thus grew to manhood very much in the cockpit, flying all over the world, from Europe, to Asia, back to Europe, to Africa, and even a lengthy stint here in Malaysia, where he was based in Miri, Sarawak.

I spoke with John about his varied career in aviation and his time in Malaysia, where he and his wife Janet lived originally nearly 30 years ago and where they now enjoy retirement. He remembers his time in Sarawak – the first half of the 1980s – with fondness: “Apart from a scary moment in Kuching one time, my memories of flying in Malaysia are pretty routine, but the memories of my experiences on the ground in Sarawak are ones I’ll never forget… the friendly people, the hospitality, the scuba diving, our longhouse friends, and all the activities at the Gymkhana Club there.” That keenness for Malaysia lingers: Ten years ago, John and Janet moved to Melaka and built their “dream house,” where they still live to this day.

Of publishing his memoirs of a life spent piloting his way around the world, John assured me that it wasn’t as difficult as one might think. “One useful piece of advice I got,” he said, “was just to start writing the incidents and stories that you remember, then as you do that, more will invariably come flooding back. And it’s true.”

One of the most-enjoyed anecdotes John recounts is from his time in Uganda in the 1970s, a posting that saw him piloting the aircraft of president and military dictator Idi Amin, whose regime was characterized by equal measures of brutality and ineptitude. John flew with the Police Air Wing for just under two years, but was probably fortunate to leave Uganda unscathed.

Unsurprisingly, the memoir of such a diverse and long-ranging career is bound to be extensive, and indeed, Aviation at the Edge clocks in at a hefty 328 pages. However, it’s an easy and enjoyable read, and John spins his tale with effortless forthrightness and engages the reader with stories of near-disasters, tragedies, and triumphs, all the while maintaining the thread of a normal workaday life… albeit in a cockpit rather than an office or factory. If you’re at all interested in aviation – or even the notion of living and working in exotic locales – this is an easy book to recommend.


Aviation at the Edge is available to order at MPH and Times bookstores.


Source: The Expat November 2012


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