Do You Have Life Insurance?

“The Big Picture”, by Elisabeth Grant**

In other blogs I relate my flying experience with the Royal Air Force Special Reserves for 2 years 1973-75 (Kicked Out of The Nest and Come in Number 6!). During that time I loved the romance of getting on my modest little Honda 50cc motorbike and riding the 6 or so miles to Glasgow Airport. This was where the squadron was based. One day I arrived to be greeted by my flying instructor with “Do you have life insurance?”. As an 18/19 year old it was not anything I had given any thought to and replied in the negative. ‘Good’, he said, ‘we are going to do spins today’. Now as part of aerobatic training we had to practice inducing spins and usually did maybe 4 or so ‘spins’. It is a procedure that puts the aircraft completely out of control. You are basically falling out of the sky with each ‘spin’ losing several hundred feet in height. Thankfully the Bulldog T Mk 1 was a training aircraft and was designed to get out of them but we had to learn the procedure. The Flight Lieutenant said today we were going to try as many spins as possible, maybe 8 or more. Inherently risky as we would come out of spin very close to ground. I guess that explained his earlier question to me. 

Off we went. We climbed to the maximum height possible for this small single engine plane, about 10,000 feet. Then we flew straight and level but shut the throttle. This meant our forward speed was slowing. The aim was to reach stall point which as I recall was about 60 knots. As we approached this speed in order to maintain our height I had to have a steeper inclination (attitude). The breaking up of airflow over the wings causes the plane to shudder. This is the telltale sign the plane was about to stall i.e. lose lift. Just as that happens I pull the stick fully back and put-on full right rudder. The plane then is induced into a nose dive spin, falling at a tremendous rate. It was extremely disorienting and the sky needed to be clear. The only way to gauge how many times you had turned was by counting each time the sun flashed across your eyes. Cannot remember how many turns we actually did on that occasion. I do remember the traumatic regaining of control of the aircraft. Stick fully forward and full left rudder. She would then come out of the spin. However the disconcerting thing then was that having the stick fully forward meant we came out of the spin perpendicular to the rapidly approaching ground below. It was then a blood draining pull back on the stick to come out of the dive, only applying full power when nose crossed the horizon. It’s not for the faint hearted and glad I always did this with an instructor.

I was cleared to do solo other aerobatic manoeuvres like barrel rolls, stall turns, steep turns and loops. Loops were great fun when you would line up the plane’s nose with a straight line ground feature such as a road or motorway. Then dive at full power to 140 knots and pull hard up on the stick to go up and over. A good loop meant that the nose would return to the same point you had started with. I also liked doing a half loop and then doing a 180 degree roll at top of loop. It’s a handy way to go in the opposite direction!

The local flying area, Loch Lomond area and the Trossachs.

A lot of the training involved practicing emergency procedures. One such was a fire or engine failure where I practiced forced landings. Some instructors took delight in pulling the throttle back just after take off at less than 500 feet. For a few seconds as the plane was descending you then had to verbalise to instructor where and how you would land. Runway was not an option at that height as couldn’t turn. Could only hope it never happened for real as other choices are very limited beside a busy airport. Once satisfied he would then tell you to return to full power. From my notes I see it was always being drummed into you that flying was 90% looking out of the cockpit, not at instruments

Most of the time though engine failures were practiced at considerable height and I was cleared to practice this solo. One such time I shut the throttle at several thousand feet. I had to gauge the rough wind direction on the ground. Then find a longish looking clear field I could land into the wind. Make sure there’s no pylons or other such structures nearby. Once committed to your landing spot do not change on way down! Easier said than done when you are looking at fields maybe a few miles away and other, seemingly better options, start to appear. 

All seemed well. I was gently gliding down in a slow spiral and at about 2,000 feet working out just where I would turn for final approach to my chosen field. The idea was to descend to a few hundred feet and then full throttle again. On final approach with field ahead I then applied full throttle. Nothing happened, instead the engine started to cough and splutter. For a moment I thought this was going to be a real emergency landing and it didn’t look very pleasant. With probably only a few seconds before impact the engine kicked back in. What had happened? I had neglected a key check on way down. Clear the engine every thousand feet on descent. Being so caught up on other procedures I had forgotten the fact the engine needed caring for. The fuel/ air mixture is very different at 10,000 feet than at ground level. I can’t remember if I reported this near accident. Suspect not as it would not have looked good. A chastening experience and ever thankful that the engine fired up.

My scrappy flying notes from this time. Hope it was not indicative of my flying!

Another engine failure procedure is to practice glide landings onto runway. Again I was permitted to do this solo. On the downwind leg of runway I ease back the throttle before making an early turn into the final approach. The difference from a much shallower powered approach is that it feels as if you are almost looking down at the runway, not along it. The attitude is very steep and quite disorienting height-wise. Normal landings you were told to flare (round out just before landing by lifting nose) when you ‘feel the grass around your ears’. On a glide the steepness means that the flare needs to be got just right. Too early and you would loose lift and drop to the ground (stall). Pull up too late and you would ram into the ground. This time I flared much too soon, stalled and dropped the last 30 feet or so onto the runway. I violently bounced 3 times before regaining control. Still I had landed(!). My main thought naively was that the control tower had not seen. No word was said to me initially but this time be sure my sins would find me out.The squadron engineer reported that the g meter*** had recorded 8g. Was fortunate that I hadn’t knocked myself out. Wing rivets had popped and the plane would be out of service for a week or so, all because of me. From my notes it seems my fault was not to practice glide landings in a very strong headwind. My guess is flaring is then even more difficult to judge.

You might think that the flying instructors were a steely, cool bunch of pilots. Indeed they were accomplished, one had done a tour as a Red Arrows**** pilot. However instructing me could frighten even them. On one occasion I was first learning glide landings with an instructor. So focussed on what I had to do that I didn’t hear my instructors repeated, increasingly frantic order for him to take the control stick. We sat tandem with each of us having a control stick. He later said I was rigidly holding it and not moving. For a time he couldn’t wrest control until I snapped out of what was a kind of frozen fear. 

Most of the above manoeuvres were inherently dangerous and required quick thinking. Mixing this with my lack of skill and experience did result in errors or omissions on my part. Thankful that these did not lead to accidents. You the reader are probably thankful I never became a commercial pilot! Did other trainee pilots make similar mistakes or have near misses? I don’t know as the macho atmosphere of an aircrew mess did not lend itself to admitting any mistakes. My guess is instructors had a few stories to tell but they weren’t saying. Despite my giving perhaps an accident prone impression it was anything but. Safety was drilled into everything. It was a highly disciplined training environment in which those learning were being equipped. Better to learn to feel the fear, cope with stress and make decisions quickly with no regrets. Backing that ethos with a tough little aircraft that could take a lot of abuse I think made for the best form of equipping.

Looking at the bigger picture of my life I have made mistakes. Sometimes I hide them, sometimes I am found out. I make errors of judgement, regret things and occasionally feel I have crash landed. All too often I am focussed on the instrument panel of daily routines and feelings. Neglecting to care regularly for the engine of my life has led to spiritual and physical exhaustion. I fail to look out of the cockpit of my own little world at the bigger picture outside. I need direction, orientation and encouragement. 

Do I have life insurance? Well, a document assuring me of provision for loved ones in event of some accident befalling me is one thing. Having someone always sitting tandem and guiding me through this wonderful and puzzling life is another.

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’.

John 14 verse 6 (NIVUK)

** See Instagram @elisabethgrant.art

*** A g-meter measures the amount of acceleration or deceleration (-ve) force. Someone experiencing 2g would feel twice their weight due to gravity.

**** Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team

To Be or Not To Be

Pastoral scene

The other day I sat outside for a couple of hours and just enjoyed being. The late summer sunshine was warming but not so much that it became uncomfortable. There was a freshness to the little wind that there was which gently made it’s presence known in the rustling of the trees. There was no electronic gadgets or books to hand that could distract. All very pleasant yet tinged with some disquiet. A voice in my head said I was doing nothing. 

I was in the countryside and my only companions apart from my thoughts were the sheep in the adjacent field. They were busy. Sheep seem to want to frenetically eat every bit of grass as if it were their last. 

Especially interesting to sheep is the grass on the other side of the fence. In fact 2 years ago when staying in the same place one job was watching out for one sheep who would regularly jump over the fence. Short-term she might enjoy it but after a while would start to feel lonely and desperately try to get back over or through the fence. Outside the fence there was also the danger of getting lost or becoming prey. 

Plums tastier than grass

Sheep also know when to sit down, relax and chew the cud. They have a good work/ life balance. 

Chewing the cud

The drive to keep busy is not healthy. Being at peace and content with myself is far more challenging. One of the most precious yet elusive things in life is to savour the present. Each day I am challenged to live in the here and now. It seems to me contentment lies in the present moment, whether it is busy or not. It is a life’s work but the tools are always there. The way I regard my memories (good or bad) and think of my future directly influences how I view the present.

My culture gives value to being busy. To admit to others I am not doing much implies some kind of failure. Also when told someone is busy implies he/she is unavailable. It also conveys that whatever they are doing is more important than giving me the time of day. Their time is more valuable than mine. A world filled with busy people is a lonely one. 

Writing this I am conscious of those whose days are filled providing food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. For many it looks like being busy is not a distraction but a necessity. However being busy ‘for busyness’ sake’ is not something I ought to strive for. I’m told that boredom is a sign of questioning the meaning of doing certain things. It is not having nothing to do. I can be very busy but also bored because I question the value of what I am doing. 

There is a healthy ‘busyness’ that comes from  being engaged in something absorbing. It probably involves interacting with people, nature or things in a creative way. Such times are a blessing. Instead of a tiring activity I am refreshed and experience a sense of fulfilment.

Someone has been busy
Picking mushrooms

Like sheep I am tempted by what I think is greener grass. Not content I wish to move outside of the fence and away from the fold. 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”

Matthew 11 verse 28.

City of Many Faces

MV Logos berthed in river Hooghly, Calcutta.

There are many great world cities each with their own character and peculiarities. All shaped by its history and people. To spend several weeks or months in any metropolis leaves a lasting impression from the particular time visited. One such place for me is Calcutta (now named Kolkata) in West Bengal, India. 

My first visit was for a few weeks on board the vessel MV Logos in Feb/Mar 1978 (see my bio or another post here for more background if interested). I was working as a seaman and our ship was berthed at the ‘man-of war’ jetty on the river Hooghly which runs through the city. The river as an arm of the Ganges has religious importance to Hindus. It was a strange experience to watch garlanded dead bodies on rafts floating up and down the river on the fast flowing tides. The crows sitting on them were doing more than hitching a lift. On one occasion a body got wedged by our vessel. As a deckhand it was not a nice experience to dislodge. 

My second time in the city was to prepare for a visit of the said MV Logos for about 3 months at end of 1981. The work involved getting permissions from government and port authorities for the public to visit what was then the ‘world’s largest bookship’. It also included publicising and organising many types of events both on board and on shore such as conferences and meetings with churches and civic organisations. With the ship’s crew of 140 from about 25 nations there also were a lot supplies also to arrange. It called for interaction with a wide range of people at all levels of society.

Actually living in the city instead of on board a ship meant you experienced life as a local. My accommodation was in the grounds of the Carey Baptist church and Calcutta Bible College. Both were in the same compound in the heart of the city. Initially I stayed in the church manse and later got a room in the Bible college. The church was named after William Carey, said to be ‘the father of modern Protestant missions’. A one time shoemaker from England he went to West Bengal in 1793 where he had enormous influence as a Bible translator, educator and social reformist. His life example subsequently inspired many missionaries to go to far flung places. In the Carey church is a plaque stating that Adoniram Judson was baptised here on his way to Burma (Myanmar). Like Carey he was a pioneer, one of the first American Protestant missionaries. Anyhow enough church history. Suffice to say that living there almost 200 years later impacted on me. 

The church pastor and his wife were very hospitable. As well as leading a busy church with many programmes and outreaches they also hosted a constant stream of visitors to the city for both meals and accommodation. In addition they had a radio programme broadcasting in Bengali which generated interest in Bible correspondence courses.  

In my Bible College accommodation the principal asked if I would do Bible studies with a Thai Buddhist monk named Pariyat. Thus began several weeks of studies in the gospel of John with this man who was on a pilgrimage to find the truth. It was a special time exploring the Bible with our very different backgrounds and worldviews. There was something very challenging and sincere to me about his forsaking everything to travel in search of the truth. I pray he found the ‘Word made flesh’. 

When I moved out of the manse of the Carey church I had to fend for myself much more as far as meals were concerned. My favourite was a Tibetan restaurant a short walk away from the compound. Not too spicy and with more Chinese type food it suited me. At times I was the only customer in this small restaurant which also appeared to be home for the family who ran it. It made for familiarity. Having a fixed menu and becoming a regular customer for evening meals helped both the family and me.

Aside from buses the main public transport around the city was the trams. I don’t recall using trains in the city, only out of town. The trams were a carryover from colonial times. In ramshackle condition it was amazing that they lasted so long in a bustling city of then 9 million. During my time there a metro underground was being built. It took many years before completion. It was disconcerting to see major infrastructure projects like that where the excavation was being done by hand. A human chain of women carrying soil in baskets on their heads.

If needing private transport it was either by taxi or by rickshaw. India’s economy at the time was quite closed to the rest of the world. This included cars and so taxis were nearly always of one type, the ubiquitous Ambassador car. Indian made and based on a 1950s style Morris Oxford. In Calcutta there were no cycle rickshaws which was common elsewhere in India. Instead it was men running barefoot pulling the rickshaw by hand. Sometimes with two passengers and trips could be for several miles. The rickshaw pullers who did this gruelling work through the choking fumes of grid locked traffic did not live long. The cost for taxi or rickshaw was roughly the same. Due to that I preferred to give custom to the rickshaw wallah as thought they were the neediest. After a while I was convicted when one fellow couldn’t pull me over the long Howrah bridge that crossed the river. Hopping off I walked alongside and didn’t take them any longer.

The tension of living with the injustices of poverty was not easy to adjust to. I would carry coins and give to the continuous stream of beggars that a foreigner attracted. The margins between life and death for many were wafer thin. At times the sheer desperation of people affected me. The following is an extract from a letter I wrote at the time…

It’s  10pm  as  I  sit  here  in  my  room  in  Calcutta  Bible  College  –  all  day  it  has  been  raining causing  the  streets  to  become  more  chaotic  than  usual.  If  one  wants  to  study  humanity  or 
different  social  conditions  then  Calcutta  must  be  an  ideal  place. The  other  day  a  small  boy and  his  mother  were  crying  out  in  the street  and I was moved  to  give  them  something. I hesitated and  when  eventually I  reached  their  area, they  had  gone. The  Lord  seemed  to  say true  charity  must  be  spontaneous, without  reasoning.  Who  should  one  give  to  if  confronted by a dozen beggars daily  from  the  deformed  and  limbless  to  tiny  children?  My  observation  is that  most  foreigners, myself  included, after  a  few  months  develop  an  insensitivity  to  our environment. The  majority  of  us  live  our  own  lives  oblivious  to  the  real  needs  of  those around.  In  many  evangelical  circles  social  action  is  not  a  very  popular  word  but it  seems  to be  a  desperately  needed  element  in  our  gospel  message  and  witness. These  issues  I  share  with you  as  they  weigh  on  my  heart  at  the  moment.  (How  do  you  respond  to  a  ragged  man  with one  arm  and  no  legs  rolling  along  the  street?).”  10 Dec 1981

The city’s needy has inspired many works of compassion with the best known being Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. During my time there I also encountered some less famous but just as worthy charitable works. Years later I found reading ‘City of Joy’ (by Dominique Lapierre)** helpful in describing the city’s economic and social conditions.

During the day I was based in the magnificent offices of the esteemed shipping agent Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. It was built on a grand scale with cavernous high ceilings. It felt like working in St. Paul’s cathedral. One of many beautiful buildings in the city that were a legacy of fine, yet usually crumbling, colonial architecture. Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911.

I had a big desk in the open plan ‘cathedral’ area as it was deemed to be safer from theft. Without my arranging I seemed to have been appointed a dedicated ‘chai’ (tea) wallah. Unlike the normal sellers of chai on the streets these men were dressed in finery appropriate to the office surroundings. Elaborate turbans and bright uniforms with lots of braid. My appointed man stood at a distance along with others but would often be looking my way. It made me nervous as the slightest expression on my part would instigate action. He would then appear with a tray to serve chai. If I had visitors that of course necessitated chai without any prompting on my part. His aim was to wrestle as much tips from me in the day as possible. That was his job and I had mine. 

Preparing a visit of MV Logos to a port or country was at times high profile. To gain maximum publicity we would try and invite some VIP to officially inaugurate our visit at an opening ceremony. To this end one of our local committee arranged for he and I to have a half hour audience with the governor of West Bengal. It felt intimidating being escorted in a golden lift by another resplendently dressed individual. The governor put us at ease in the sumptuous surroundings and was happy to officiate at our opening on board ship.

It was not all work and it was good to find places to relax. One such was the Maidan. A large green park space near the river where cricket mad inhabitants would practice and others like myself stroll. Away from the heaving humanity of the built up areas. To watch cricket as the day cooled provided a haven. 

Kolkata, city of many faces.

** There is also a film of same name, based on the book.

*** If on Instagram you can see more of Elisabeth’s work at elisabethgrant.art

Valley Thoughts

Aiguille du Midi

Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.

Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.

It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else. 

My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.

All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.

St. Michel Church, just before starting the 2012 UTMB
Cross, overlooking Vallorcine at north end of the valley.

The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…

We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment. Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.

Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more. 

Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference. 

This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special. 

Coffee table inspiration!

** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.