I looked up at a jet trail in the sky last week.

A passer-by who’d spotted it too said, “it’s cool” and wasn’t talking about the weather!

Jet trails are scarce in these pandemic times and I miss them, having loved planes since first encountering Biggles, aka James Bigglesworth, my childhood hero and fictional daredevil fighter-pilot who featured in Captain W.E. Johns’ classic boys’ stories.

Over 100 were published between 1932 and 1999 and

I accrued dozens of them.

Similarly so Belfast-journalist, travel writer and prolific author Geoff Hill, my long-time friend and colleague.

Until recently, I wasn’t aware that he’d often dropped in to Enniskillen, from the sky!

Our paths first crossed in the early 1970s when Geoff was editor of Gown, QUB’s student newspaper, and I was attempting to compose coherent articles for his consideration.

Geoff now writes newspaper and magazine features, books and novels, the latter including Angel Street, Smith and The Butler’s Son.

His award-winning, globe-traversing travel books recount his epic motorbike journeys in Way to Go, The Road to Gobblers Knob, Oz and In Clancy’s Boots.

Many of his travel reports are compiled in Anyway, Where Was I? - billed as an alternative A-Z of the world - from Armenia’s ubiquitous brandy and churches to Zebedee, James the Apostle’s father, a meditative moment on Geoff’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

We met up in Belfast before the pandemic struck and nostalgically retraced our paths from Biggles to journalism. Geoff gave me one of his books that I’d somehow overlooked - This Way Up - the story of his boyhood dream to fly coming true.

Apart from the author and several particularly fearless flying instructors, Biggles is the book’s most regularly mentioned hero!

Subtitled ‘how a boy who longed to fly finally got his wings’, Geoff’s story begins with the loss of an eye in an oxygen tent as a premature baby.

While this later stymied his fervent childhood ambition to become a professional pilot, Geoff finally romped off a runway on his first solo flight after a lot of hard work, more than a few frights and lots of fun.

Broadcaster Martyn Lewis reviewed This Way Up as ‘brilliant writing, genuinely and originally funny, and a supremely entertaining read.”

Other reviews are populated plentifully with applauds like “laugh-out-loud funny, lyrical, lunatic, intensely moving and comic genius.”

Fellow-passengers on a pre-coronavirus Belfast-Londonderry train journey proved the reviewers’ conclusions, watching me read the book to and from the Maiden City, chortling loudly, occasionally uncontrollably, forgoing the unique sea-views for Geoff’s hugely distinctive view of life.

“The first book I can remember reading was Biggles of 266,” he admits on the second page, and like me he’s kept it “as well as every other Biggles book ever written.”

Desperately wanting to follow in Biggles’ flying-bootsteps Geoff dragged his parents to every air show held in Ireland, and into the first profoundly moving moment in the book.

“Mum, can I be a pilot without perfect vision?” he asked, after his primary school teacher had told him he couldn’t.

His mother looked at him “with that soft funny look that mums have sometimes”.

“No Geoffrey, I’m afraid you can’t,” she told him, adding “I’ve been meaning to tell you for some time, but didn’t quite know how to.”

Her solemnity was manifest - “she only ever called me Geoffrey when it was serious” - a poignancy accentuated by her boy’s sense of humour.

He “put away his plans” to be a pilot “in the box at the bottom of the bed that we all keep for such things and ended up, like most people who can’t do anything else, as a writer”!

Determined to prove that “I could do everything that I shouldn’t” Geoff played volleyball for Ireland, captained Northern Ireland at the Commonwealths, set a still unbeaten Irish caps record, motorbiked from Delhi to Belfast, fell down mountains “sometimes deliberately” and jumped out of aeroplanes “usually with a parachute”!

Without revealing too many of the hilarious and hazardous highlights of his cleverly-plotted course to the clouds, Geoff passed numerous aviation exams.

After spending a hard-earned combination of free-time and money on flights “which would have made a kamikaze pilot wince” he embarked on his General Flying Test.

On his final approach on the 90-minute flight Geoff noticed his partner Cate’s car in the airport carpark.

After an uncharacteristically smooth landing (with the wheels still on!) Geoff taxied to the clubhouse.

With the engine switched off he climbed out of the plane to be greeted with a congratulatory handshake from instructor Mark Holmes of Microflight Ireland.

Fellow instructor Victor Mitchell and Cate came out of the clubhouse.

A champagne cork “soared into the evening sky” and they celebrated.

“Good heavens” thought Geoff “I’m a pilot.”