Before he had a licence to drive a car, Melbourne-born Edward Fleming was learning to fly Tiger Moths with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
By 1944 the then 19-year-old flying officer was piloting Lancasters with Bomber Command in England during World War II.
Next month he will return to where he served, joining 14 other Australian veterans at the official opening of the International Bomber Command Centre and Memorial Spire in Lincoln.
It honours the million aircrew and support staff from 60 countries who played a key role in the Allied victory.
Now 93, the retired Canberra surgeon looks back on his RAAF service as one of the most significant times of his life.
“Flying anything is an enjoyable experience … the Lancaster in particular because it was such an iconic aircraft.”
More than 55,000 Bomber Command members were killed during the war in raids over enemy-controlled Europe, training exercises and accidents on the ground.
Dr Fleming joined 550 Squadron (RAF) two weeks before the end of the war after several months in operational training units.
Though initially “extremely disappointed” to have missed out on taking part in bombing missions, he later realised his good fortune.
“I think you have an indestructible complex at that time of your life,” Dr Fleming said.
“In retrospect, I have absolutely no doubt we would not have survived.”
On one occasion he and his crew lost their way at night during bad weather over the English Channel. The flight almost ended in tragedy.
“I had an instructor on board at the time and he broke the rules and gave a mayday call,” Dr Fleming said.
“A little airfield … put on lights for us and we landed virtually out of fuel at about four o’clock in the morning and got away with it.
“We’d been circling around … totally lost in the dark … a terrible feeling.”
Commemoration trip a moving experience
Dr Fleming was one of 10,000 Australians who served with Bomber Command; more than 3400 never returned.
Last year, with his son and daughter, he attended a commemoration for his squadron at its former base in Lincolnshire.
“There were about five or six … fellow people from the squadron of a similar age group and that was a very moving experience,” Dr Fleming said.
A Lancaster bomber flew in tribute at one of the ceremonies they attended.
“It was very exciting for me to hear it again,” Dr Fleming said.
“But in particular, for me to think my children were hearing the same thing and seeing the same thing that had been so familiar to us.”
The trip to the memorial opening for veterans and their carers is being organised by the Bomber Command Association in Australia, supported by a $200,000 Commonwealth grant and community fundraising.