Passed/failed: John Nichol

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The Independent Online
Flight-Lieutenant AJ Nichol (Rtd), 34, was shot down, captured, tortured and denounced on Iraqi television during the Gulf war. Now a writer and after-dinner speaker, he described his experiences as a prisoner of war in his first novel, `Point of Impact'. `Vanishing Point', his fourth book, came out at the end of last year.

Ready for take-off? I am the youngest of four children and we all went to the same primary school, St Joseph's in North Shields. I remember crying on the first day because I didn't want to go to school, but I was fine after that. I have never really had a problem with changes and still don't have a problem with being uprooted constantly. In the RAF I was in the Falklands - after the war - and in Cyprus, Belgium, Las Vegas. Think of a country, and we were there.

Spreading your wings? I am eternally grateful I went to St Cuthbert's, the Catholic grammar school in Newcastle. It was a good academic and sporting school, although there was no woodwork and metalwork, which I would have enjoyed. I did my homework on the train. I got a D in French O-level but passed all the rest: maths, physics, chemistry, English language, English literature, geography and economics.

Shot down in flames? Although I enjoyed school, I knew from day one that I was leaving. Most people stayed for the sixth form but I wanted to be an electronics engineer, which could be done either with A-levels and a degree or with an apprenticeship; I could study and earn nothing, or study and be paid a good amount of money, which is what I did - except that one of my first failures was that my results in the test for the RAF apprenticeship were not high enough.

Instead of doing that three-year course I was a "direct entry technician", which involved 18 months' training at No 1 Radio School at RAF Locking, Weston-super-Mare. You were in the Air Force: you had a gun and everything. I loved it: being let out after dark as a 17-year-old ... After 18 months' training I had 15 grand a year, a phenomenal amount for a kid in 1982. I emerged with something in Aerospace Engineering. At RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire I was JT (Junior Technician) Nichol G8204846. We were away for seven or eight months of the year, providing communication facilities for forces in the field.

Among the Few? In 1986 I applied to be an officer and to learn to fly. This involved an interview with your commanding officer, then an interview with your station board and then with the station commander. Then there are three days of tests at RAF Biggin Hill. At every stage, far more applied than passed. I was selected for the four-month course in which you learnt how to be an officer. This includes square-bashing - and which knife and fork to eat with. Out of 152, 83 people finished. Then you start learning to fly - for three years - and then you go to a squadron to learn to operate the aircraft.

Going like a bomber? Fast jets are the pinnacle of flying, and I ended up in 1989 on Tornados. There was a weekly exam: theory and practical. Even when you are qualified as "combat ready" you are tested regularly, sometimes by external examiners, some being provided by other Nato countries. My squadron flew nuclear bombers so we were tested even more rigorously; you had to reach the 100 per cent pass mark.

Wingless victory? Being paraded on Iraqi television was the start of my career outside the RAF. I had done no writing since English language and literature O-levels - and am now on my fifth book. I make a reasonable living out of being shot down; I have to thank that Iraqi soldier with his SAM missile.

Interview by Jonathan Sale