'I wanted to get into the Air Force and fly'

It wasn't exactly Pushing Tin. Mike Newell's film of macho, alpha-male air traffic controllers juggling with waves of modern airliners was some way from the 1945 reality of a couple of 17-year-olds in a Nottingham airfield.

In fact, if three or four planes landed in one day, that counted as congestion. If it was foggy, there would be no air traffic at all, leaving the young Alan Sillitoe free to practise on his Dalton "computer", a crude device for calculating the course to steer in different wind directions.

Sillitoe made his mark with gritty urban tales like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But, just after the end of the Second World War, he was working in the village of Langar, 12 miles from Nottingham. As the planes were completed in the Avro factory, they would fly from the adjoining airfield, under the guidance of the two teenage Ministry of Aviation civil servants, supervised by a grown-up in the shape of a (possibly retired) squadron leader.

"It was very easy. One of us would be in the control tower and one on the runway in a caravan with a turret for observation. If it is my turn to be in the caravan, the pilot gets on to me with the radio telephone. I have to make sure that the control tower knows and that the blood wagon – ambulance – is ready." Once the plane had landed, he would guide it (walking backwards and waving a table-tennis bat in each hand) to the "dispersal point" where it would park.

There were no crashes. The only medical emergency was an epileptic fit suffered by a squadron leader. Occasionally, a twin-engined Anson would fly in with an executive from Manchester. Before it took off for home, Sillitoe would climb on to the wings and crank the engines into life.

The training took a mere two weeks, although Sillitoe stresses that he had been in the Air Training Corps, which provided pre-service instruction for the RAF. While his factory experiences leapt into fiction a decade later, it was three decades before his experience as a radio operator in the RAF, for which the air traffic controlling was a prelude, fed into a novel (The Lost Flying Boat, 1980).

"A wonderful time," is how Sillitoe remembers it. "From 14, my ambition had been to get into the Air Force and fly." He never took off as pilot or air crew, but for three years he was with the RAF in Malaya.

Never having forgotten the dots and dashes learnt in his youth, he still listens to Morse transmissions on the radio – mainly French, for some reason; they start slowly on Monday and speed up through the week – and is never lonely.

'Gadfly in Russia' by Alan Sillitoe has just been published by JR Books (£8)