It was towards the end of a bright day this past summer. Our west facing windows are open. I am watching the sun as it blazes through the clouds. The view is punctuated by a plane every few minutes on final approach to Glasgow airport. Their flight path is a few miles away. The planes as well as the sun are low on the horizon. Their sound is muffled, more of a distant hum than a roar. Not the harsh noise that airliners make when you are right under their flight path. Observing these heavy machines defying gravity yet slowly descending is strangely enjoyable. A smooth and steady end to travel. The end of a day merging with the conclusion of people’s journeys.
I wonder about the occupants of these planes arriving from many places. Is this their first visit to Glasgow? What are their initial impressions? Are some returning after years away to a new, uncertain future? Who, if any, are meeting those anonymous passengers? A family, a friend or a business contact? Maybe the more faceless, formal greeting of a sheet or board held by a driver with your name. These descending aircraft contain the hopes and fears of many.
In arrivals everyone wants to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. I don’t know anyone who savours hanging around in arrivals. There might be the joy of meeting a loved one but even then you don’t linger. You leave as soon as practicable. Yet to arrive one has to leave from somewhere. Going through departures is usually slower and encourages use of shops, cafes etc. In spite of decades of increased hustle, bustle and security the departure hall of today’s airports still hold a vestige of excitement. In the 70s and 80s it was different. For the most part air travel felt more special and luxurious then than today’s typical budget airline experience. However, even nowadays, once through check in, customs and immigration, the departure experience is usually not that bad. Yes you are in limbo waiting for your flight but not feeling you are in a queue. There is also the prospect of leaving one world to emerge a short time later to a different one. The reason for a journey of course determines how one feels about the whole experience. In that there may be a multitude of joys and sorrows. Saying goodbye to home and family, starting a new life or job, facing up to responsibilities.
I notice how much more often we ask “When do we arrive?” than “What can I see on the way?”
Disguises of Love p34. Eddie Askew
Commercial air travel however does not lend itself to savouring the actual journey. Travel in an aluminium tube is not very aesthetic. Any ‘in journey’ experience for me nowadays is more likely to be internally, in my head. Of course it may be different if you were flying the plane. However I speak here about a ‘seat 21E in a crowded 737’ experience.
Here is one personal recipe for a more absorbing journey. Become a passenger, not a driver, in a car travelling slowly through quiet countryside. It’s a bright day with clear views. There is little or no other traffic dictating your speed. No rush to arrive anywhere. The destination may even be the same place as the trip’s beginning. Happy even to just stop the car on occasions and take a closer look at something. Especially helpful to have knowledgable fellow passengers/ driver who know the area and its people well. Small villages, isolated houses and the occasional walker passes by. Fellow travellers have stories to tell with each passing scene giving a sense of connection to what or who you are passing by. “So and so’s building has a new fence round it.” “‘Mrs. ‘X’ passed away last year but her son now lives in the house.”
Of course enjoyable journeys do not need modern means of transportation. We live in a restless world. I guess air travel can sometimes be a symptom of that malaise. One of the things that Covid lockdowns brought to me, a city dweller, was a better awareness of what is in my neighbourhood. This was through the simplicity of leisurely daily walks or cycles in our neighbourhood. Even in an urban environment there are things of interest and beauty on my doorstep. Lots of wild raspberries and blackberries (to eat) growing along hedgerows. Herons and ducks on their daily movements up and down the canal. Hidden streams in local parks, wildflowers by the roadside. These scenes were always there but I often did not have eyes to see. It took a pandemic for me to be less distracted. To become more aware of the rhythms of life that are always around me.
“The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.”
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!
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.
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.
In an earlier post I related some of my flying training with the University Air Squadron. One of the perks was that once or twice a year cadet pilots went on camps to Royal Air Force (RAF) bases. You could be assigned to operational squadrons for a week or two. It was often a time to get more intense flying training. However you could occasionally also get rides on other aircraft. In June 1975 at RAF Marham I got the opportunity to go for a flight in an air to air refuelling tanker, the Victor K2. Initially they were bombers but most had been subsequently converted to tankers.
Another element of these camps was that you got to live in the officers mess. For a 19 year old it was an education to enter the traditional world of an RAF officer. Putting your shoes outside your door to be polished by a mess batman. Also strangely comforting to be wakened pre-flight with a cup of strong, sweet tea and a plain digestive biscuit by said batman. He was a superhero to me but not in the popular sense.
You had to be careful with manners at meal times. Never talk at breakfast, silence reigns. Instead read the newspapers laid out beside the food. I supposed it was that you should start the day well informed. Years later I wondered if it was a means of assessing your political leanings. The Cold War was still very much a reality. However I was naive regarding politics in those days. Whether a newspaper was left or right wing was not an interest to me then.
It required some training in order to fly as an extra (‘supernumerary’) with the Victor crew. The main bit was to learn how to get out of the plane in a hurry. An aircraft filled with nothing but fuel is hazardous. My seat would be between the captain and co-pilot. Sounds a good place but the catch was it was backwards facing. My view would be of the backs of the 3 navigators/ electronics engineers at back of cockpit. I understand that usual crew was 5 and suppose the seat I had was not normally occupied.
Back to the cockpit evacuation procedure. My seat was on a mini railway which basically meant I along with the seat would roll sideways out of the cockpit. Pilot and co-pilot had ejector seats. Theirs seemed like a better way of exiting than the mechanical method I and the other 3 crew had. However captain and co-pilot would be last to leave in any emergency. I imagine any fire would be catastrophic on a plane full of aviation fuel trailing hoses pumping fuel. Was best not to think about it.
Anyway with my seat training done I was ready to join in with a crew. Especially exciting as it was to be a test flight on an aircraft that had been serviced. We would be testing the flight envelope, the limits of the aircraft’s capabilities. Such as how high can it fly? How fast can it climb? How quickly can it descend? And yes we would be doing air to air refuelling!
The day came and pre-dawn I was woken by batman with the aforementioned tea and biscuit. Once ready I joined with the crew in an underground bunker facility. It was dominated by a huge map of the north east Atlantic. Indicators showed what planes were in the air and how many pounds of fuel the tankers were carrying. As said this was the Cold War and tankers were always in the air. Their job to keep the fighter jets up for longer. I understood captain and crew had no idea where they would go, orders only given at this last minute briefing.
Finally we were driven to the heavy, fuel laden aircraft. Soon after this lumbering yet immensely powerful machine was airborne. It was to be a long flight and not all filled with drama. My backwards facing seat meant for an uncomfortable twisting of the neck when wanting to see the view. All crew including myself wore oxygen masks which also didn’t aid comfort.
One view I didn’t miss was at max. height of 59,500 feet. Was that the curvature of the earth I was seeing or just my overactive imagination?
As supernumerary (basically passenger) I didn’t really have anything to do. I would listen to the crew chatter on the intercom and not always be engaged with what they were saying. Every 5 mins the captain did an oxygen check to ensure all crew were conscious. This was done by captain shouting “number 1” followed by each crew member in turn responding with their number. I am embarrassed to say that at least once I omitted to respond and say “number 6” when my turn came. This prompted captain shouting urgently to the effect of “come in number 6!” This would break my daydreaming. What an embarrassment at failing this my only duty. A minor one at that which was only for my own good. Ah well, at least I was living up to my supernumerary status.
When it came to refuelling a whole separate console of instruments was pulled down. The captain enthusiastically demonstrated how the plane could be flown with fuel pumps. Instead of steering he would pump fuel to either wing and the plane would turn. At one point without my being aware of what was going on the pilot said to look through the rear facing periscope. Quite a sight to see another plane thirstily drinking from the fuel drogue at the end of a hose. Like a bee sucking nectar from a flower.
This high altitude aerial dance was in contrast to the low level, high speed manoeuvres over land and sea. It was all in a day’s work for these crew but some 46 years later these memories still linger in the mind of a onetime 19 year old.
For 2 years in my late teens I had the wonderful experience of training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force (see ‘Bio’). As a reservist in the Universities of Glasgow and Strachlyde Air Squadron I spent many evenings and Saturdays training. Flying was done from Glasgow airport. At same time I was studying aeronautical engineering as my degree subject so being a cadet pilot was the perfect practice for all that theory. In the beginning I trained on Chipmunks. Old machines where you started the engine with a ring pull device which detonated a shotgun cartridge into the chamber. The single engine aircraft was a 2 seater with a tandem arrangement. I as trainee sat in the front with the instructor behind me. Yes we had intercom but a more effective way of getting a trainee pilot’s attention was a whack from behind on your ‘bone dome’ (flying helmet).
Chipmunks had a tail wheel meaning that on the ground the aircraft tilted upward and the view from the front was of the sky. You could only see ahead by taxying in a zig zag fashion. Take off was an ‘act of faith’ as you put on full power without seeing the runway till you reached sufficient speed for the tailwheel to be lifted. As aircrew one had access to unexpected provisions. One was getting issued with a bar of chocolate for a certain length of time airborne (forget how long but think it was per hour).
After a few months on Chipmunks the squadron took delivery of brand new Scottish Aviation Bulldog T Mk1s. They were side by side trainers which made for more civilised interchange between trainee and instructor. During university term time training was only once or twice a week so during the university summer break we went on camp at an RAF base in England where training could be more intense.
Lest you think I was some kind of aspiring ‘top gun’ let me put you at ease. I was usually graded as ‘above average’ which meant what it said. Others were better and some were going solo with less training than me. There was therefore some pressure on me and assume on my regular instructor that I would soon achieve this milestone event for all pilots. I see from my logbook that for several days before the big day I changed from my regular ‘flight lieutenant’ instructor to that of the squadron leader (SL). Can’t remember why. I wonder if having the gravitas of the commanding officer’s attention helped my skill acquisition.
On 20 June 1974 at RAF Woodvale I was doing ‘circuits’ with aforementioned squadron leader. Circuits involved a, usually clockwise, rectangular route. This meant taking off and climbing to a certain height before levelling off, whilst at same time making two right hand 90 degree turns to face downwind. The runway is now to my right and I am flying parallel to it for a few minutes straight and level before then making two more 90 degree right turns whilst descending to line up on final approach to land. Once landed repeat the whole procedure again by immediately taking off. There were non-stop checklists to go through because of the constant change of maneouvers. These checks were drummed into you by memory and usually were verbalised to the instructor (it’s testimony to the quality of training that I still remember some to this day). Due to the repetitive nature of circuits there was the potential danger of forgetting if you had, for example, put on half flaps or full flaps this circuit or the previous one. Not a good idea on final approach to runway to remain on half flaps. The solution to this was to buzz away from the airfield for 10 mins or so every 3 -4 circuits giving a welcome mental break.
After about 8-10 such circuits we touched down on the runway and I expected the order to take off again. Instead was told to slow down and taxi past the control tower where I was ordered to stop. In what seems like seconds my instructor unexpectedly opened the cockpit hood and yelled at me to go ‘round again’ on another circuit. He then walked off to the control tower to observe. Suddenly this fledgling pilot was about to go ‘solo’! The strategy of surprise was I’m sure to make no room for fear or hesitation. I remember little of the subsequent experience which probably lasted only 10-15 mins. One memory shortly afterwards was the SL saying that he had been smoking the whole time in the control tower. He said he was not a smoker so hope my flying was not the start of a bad habit. Grateful for the confidence he put in me nevertheless!
I guess most of life’s ‘out of the nest’ experiences affect more than ourselves.
Going solo is celebrated by the tradition of my having to chose to pay either the squadron mess bar bill for 10 minutes or buy a barrel of beer. As a wise Scot I opted for what definitely was the cheaper option of the beer.