‘I stole a plane to get out of the Navy’
Theo Van Eijck’s little house in Somerset is a treasure trove of curiosities. Toy witches swing on tiny broomsticks from the ceiling of his sitting room, a family of ceramic cats peers down inquiringly from the higher shelves and a couple of skulls sit grinning on the sideboard.
But the most fascinating items of all are spread out on Van Eijck’s coffee table – Dutch newspaper clippings from 1964, with show-stopping headlines reporting the antics of a young sailor who stole a Grumman Tracker propeller plane from his military base in Malta and flew it to Benghazi, Libya.
“It’s me!” laughs Van Eijck, now white-haired and aged 76. “That’s me right there in the photo and I was just 21!”
His wife hands me a mug of coffee and shakes her head in mock despair as he translates the stories for me.
“Arrogant little man!” she jokes, wagging her finger at him. “Good job I didn’t know you back then.”
Back then Theo Van Eijck was just a young man who dreamt of flying. In fact, he’d had fantasies about flying since he was seven years old. He wasn’t, he admits, the greatest student in the world and feared he would never make the grades needed to join the Air Force as a pilot. But then he heard about a scheme in the Dutch Navy whereby a young man could enter the service as a trainee electrician, and if he did well could apply internally for the Navy’s pilot training course. Aged just 19 and full of optimism, Van Eijck didn’t hesitate. He signed up immediately for eight years.
He picks up a black-and-white photograph of himself in the cockpit of a small plane from the coffee table and hands it to me. From under a heavy dark helmet, I see a boyish face grinning in utter delight, impatient to stop posing and eager to take off.
“Oh, it started well,” he agrees, when I remark upon how elated he looks in the old print. “I got selected for the pilot scheme and I loved it.”
But in early 1964, with around 40 hours’ flying time-stamped proudly into his logbook, the exhilarated young Van Eijck went to a party at his barracks in Holland and got rather drunk. His commanding officer was at the party and also rather the worse for wear. He suggested to Van Eijck that they should talk frankly about the quality of the pilot training scheme (which was conducted jointly by the Belgian Air force and the Dutch Navy) and he invited Van Eijck to be honest. It was, he assured him, an off-the-record discussion.
And so, perhaps naively, 21-year-old Van Eijck spoke openly. He needed to be trained on a proper plane he insisted, a Grumman Tracker submarine destroyer that would be deployed on naval aircraft carriers, not the twin-engine training planes the Belgians were using to teach them. The planes they were being taught on were (Theo grins self-consciously as he remembers the words he used) “quite frankly, crap”.