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)

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*** 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