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East African Wedding – Part Two

We stood outside the hotel at 0900, with our bags by our sides, waiting for Pious and Gospel to collect us. Marvellous names! Pious and Gospel were two of the bride’s cousins, who had generously agreed to pick up the British contingent and drive us up-country.

It had been decided that we would stop en-route at Thika, so 40km (25 miles) to enable us to stretch our legs, and to enjoy the scenery. 

Some of my British readers of a more mature age group, may remember the TV series in the early 1980s, “The Flame Trees of Thika”, which was based upon the autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Elspeth Huxley. She was raised on a coffee plantation in this part of what was then known as Colonial British East Africa.

Thika lies northeast of Nairobi, and sits pretty much astride the main A2 highway.

Standing in the morning sunshine, we were enjoying the remains of our breakfast coffee, and chatting quietly amongst ourselves. The relative peace was suddenly destroyed, by the sound of straining car engines and grinding gearboxes heralding the arrival of our transport.

My heart sunk, as I looked at the two MoT[1] failures that pulled up in a swirl of dust and grey exhaust smoke.

Our transport…although this one is in much better condition

I glanced at SWMBO, and we shared a conspiratorial look, as she shot me a smile. “Oh, well”, I thought. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

By this time, Pious and Gospel had opened the boots of their respective cars, and were now greeting us, with much smiling, shaking of hands and slapping of backs. They boke spoke excellent English, which they proudly explained they learnt in school.

Like most of the local Kenyans that we had met, they were happy, generous, and deeply religious, hence their names.

SWMBO and I gingerly climbed into the back of the battered old Datsun[2] Cherry, and the lads jumped into Gospel’s old Datsun 120Y, and with a mechanical groan, Pious started the thing up, crashed the transmission into gear, and we lurched off down the relatively well-maintained tarmac road.

I knew that it was relatively well-maintained tarmac, as I could clearly see it through the very large hole in the footwell, where the floor had rusted out over time.

It was a tribute to Datsun’s design engineers that the car was still driveable in such a hostile environment.

We continued to motor north, and we chatted amiably with Pious, who drove at a steady 55 miles per hour, regardless of the road surface, camber, or bends. The car therefore rattled, banged, jolted, and lurched alarmingly and we were soon pulling a rooster-tail of dust and smoke.

I had to supress the urge to giggle, as I didn’t want to offend Pious, who was obviously very proud of owning a car. He had a job at one of the coffee bean processing plants locally, and his brother Gospel worked in the plantation as a supervisor.

I admired them both greatly for their pride, joie de vivre and happiness.

We eventually arrived in the town of Thika about an hour and a half later. The journey wouldn’t normally have taken so long, but Gospel needed to stop his car every five miles or so and top up the radiator with water from an old Coke bottle. Pious also stopped to lend moral support, mainly in the form of laughing, and clapping him on the back, and everyone seemed happy to potter our way north in a very gentlemanly fashion.

I had heard of the Flame Trees of Thika, and was a little deflated to see only a light scattering of the bright red blooms locally. I asked Pious if there were places to see the Flame trees, and he laughed, explaining that the trees only came into bloom in the spring, and that we were a week or two early.

The Flame Tree – Fantastic!

It didn’t really matter, as Pious had excitedly explained during the journey that they would be taking us to see the Chania Falls.

The Chania Falls are truly beautiful, and the smell of fresh oxygenated water purged the dust and car fumes from my head. We wandered up and down, taking in the splendour of it, finally sitting on some convenient rocks to enjoy nature at its best.

The Chania Falls.

Eventually, we decided that we should press on, up into the foothills to our destination, as we needed to get there for three o’clock for the wedding.

I glanced at my watch. It was already almost 1100, and we still had a couple of hours to drive.

We boarded the cars, and re-commenced our drive northwest, towards the Aberdare Range, to the tiny village where Njambi’s family lived.

The Aberdare Range from the Highway…

As we left the main highways, I looked down onto the road beneath my feet as it changed… first to broken tarmac, which gave way to old concrete, and finally, red earth. We were also climbing steadily – the Aberdare Range has an average elevation of 11,480 feet (3,500 metres), and it was noticeably cooler.

Passing a solitary and forlorn-looking roadside shop, both cars pulled over. Gospel needed to refill his water bottles, we needed a drink as well, and more importantly, I needed a pee. Returning to the cars, we started off, and all was well for about three miles, when Pious’s car suddenly started making some alarming noises from under the bonnet, and the smell of very hot oil permeated the cabin.

Gospel’s car was already out of sight, disappeared round the bend and probably halfway up the steep and winding hill that we were ascending.

Pious brought the car to a stop on the edge of the road, and opened the bonnet. Looking into the engine bay, we could see tendrils of vapour coming from the oil filler and dipstick, and steam was hissing from the radiator cap. Not good!

Pious clearly had limited knowledge of the mechanical working of his car, so I took over.

Pulling the dipstick from its port, I could see that the engine was almost totally devoid of lubricant.

Turning to Pious, I said “Do you have any spare oil?”

He looked at me blankly.

“It needs more oil, or it will seize up completely”

I saw the understanding on his face, and he explained that there was a garage in the next village, about a mile away, just over the crest of the hill that we were climbing.

Looking at the still smoking car, I doubted that it would make it the required mile, especially if it were carrying both SWMBO and I, and our hand luggage, so I told Pious to let it cool for ten minutes, and then he should get it to the garage. I stuffed a wad of shillings into his hand, despite his protests, and SWMBO and I started trudging up the hill.

Within 100 yards, I was wheezing like a Victorian steam locomotive. The air was so thin, and I was already drenched in sweat, despite the temperature being only 20°C.

SWMBO was also enjoying the same level of discomfort. I suspect that hefting a flight crew cabin bag behind me didn’t help too much.

Five minutes later, we could hear the old Datsun grinding laboriously up the road, and it passed us, belching smoke, exhaust, and red dust. It vanished around the bend, and we continued to plod very slowly up the steepening slope.

A few minutes later, I could hear another vehicle approaching us from behind. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a very old, split windscreen VW Camper van come round the bend.

A VW Kombi Camper van, similar to the one that rescued us…

It passed us, slowed, and pulled to the side.

An elderly, grey haired local man hurled open the nearside passenger door, and yelled, “Where you goin’, man?”

I briefly explained our predicament, and he roared with laughter, and waved us into the passenger compartment of the old minibus.

We climbed aboard, and I pulled the doors shut and took a seat. Our new friend chatted to us constantly as we drove sedately up the rutted highway. When I say chatted, I really mean bellowed.

I don’t think it occurred to him to change gear, and the engine was howling in protest at being abused so badly. He must have picked up on my thoughts, as he slammed the old van into second gear, and we were jerked against the seat backs as he dropped the clutch heavily. 

The VW Kombi was made in VW’s Wolfsburg factory, after being designed by Dutchman Ben Pon. As a utility van, they were immortalised by the counterculture of the 1960s, when the minibus version became the vehicle of choice for young hippies all over the globe.

This one somehow survived in East Africa, and whilst rusty and clearly worn out, was still providing stalwart service over some of the roughest roads on the planet.

Five minutes later, we crested the hill, and followed the winding track into the small village, where, as expected, stood a garage.

Standing outside, under the corrugated iron roof, was Pious’s Datsun, with the bonnet open.

Thanking our good Samaritan profusely, we climbed out into the sunshine, and walked over to Pious with our bags.

Pious greeted us warmly, and explained that the engine was okay, and that the mechanic had just finished filling it. He looked sheepishly at the one-gallon oil can that stood in silent testimony as to the amount of oil that wasn’t in the engine.

We piled our bags back into the boot, and with a cheerful wave to the mechanic, Pious gunned the engine, and we pulled away, now lagging Gospel by a good half hour.

After a good distance, we swung left into a farm track, and looking out of the window, I could see a vast coffee plantation. Way off in the distance, I could see some farm buildings, and a large metal storage facility.

The car shook and rattled as we drove up the ever-narrowing farm track, eventually coming to a stop outside a very small, single storey building, constructed of breeze block.

Tiny, and made out of Breeze block….

Shutting down the engine, Pious grinned, and said “Welcome”

We thanked him, and got out of the car, which was now ticking like a cheap alarm clock as it cooled down.

Gospel’s car was already parked up, and we were shown into the tiny house.

The house only appeared to have two rooms; a bedroom and the room that we were in, which was crammed with people. Having only two small windows, it was very warm, and despite the breeze, was stuffy.

I looked around, and spotted the lads squeezed up into a corner of the floor, so we picked our way over the congested floor and squatted down with them.

Pious and Gospel came over to sit with us, carrying four large glasses filled with water. I was wondering if it was fresh water, and whether I should discretely pop a purifying tablet in it, when Gospel proudly told me that it was fresh spring water, as they had a pump in the garden.

Cautiously, I took a sip, and was surprised. Cold and with a pleasant flavour – not like the fluoridated treated water at home.

Pious leaned over, and whispered to me that most of the family spoke no English, and he would attempt to translate as and when needed. That was just as well, as my Kikuyu wasn’t up to much.

I had learnt the basic greeting “Ní Atía” and thank you (Ní Ngatho) but that was my limit.

In due course, the door opened, and Duncan appeared, wearing a brightly coloured ceremonial robe, and he walked slowly into the middle of the room. The packed room immediately fell silent.

Golden shafts of sunlight penetrating through the corrugated steel roof and simple awnings over the windows illuminated him as if he were a celestial being.

A soft click as the door to the bedroom opened, and Njambi appeared, looking quite radiant in a white gown.

Standing next to Duncan, they awaited as the minister came forward.

I was surprised to see that he was a Christian minister. That struck me as odd, as many of the guests spoke no English.   8 million Kenyans speak Kikuyu, and we were slap bang in the middle of Kikuyu territory.

And so it was, that we witnessed our friend marry his beautiful bride, in a tiny little cottage high up in the remoteness of the Aberdare Range.

The foothills of the Aberdare Range, Kenya

After the simple ceremony, all the guests went into the tiny garden, where the bride’s family had laid out a simple buffet of chicken and local foods.

SWMBO and I had several silent conversations with the family and guests, mainly with much signing, gesturing and laughter.

I personally enjoyed a silent, yet very rewarding conversation with the bride’s mother, who was clearly delighted that we had come. I managed to compliment her on her cooking – the chicken was delicious and had been coated with some subtle spices, and the vegetables and salad were full of flavour.

I even received a hug!

Eventually, the shadows started lengthening, and Pious and Gospel appeared at our shoulders, murmuring that we should be setting off for our hotel.

It was as well that we were leaving, as the house had no electrical power, and no lighting except for that of oil lamps. These lovely, gentle people had virtually nothing in the way of the creature comforts that are deemed as essential in the so-called developed world. No TV, cell phones, washing machines or even a refrigerator.

However, they were all happy. Proud, kind, decent. Maybe we were missing a trick, surrounding ourselves with material possessions.

Saying our goodbyes, we left, and our two cars clattered off down the track, into the African dusk, heading back to the road that would take us to our hotel.

We were staying at the Green Hills Hotel, some 15 miles (25km) from the village, and looking out of the car windows into the gathering gloom, we could see miles of coffee plantations.

Coffee Plantation, Aberdare Range, Kenya

Looking up, we could see millions of sparkling pinpricks of light – shards of celestial glass, strewn across the black velvet tablecloth of space.

The Green Hills Hotel

Green Hills Hotel had only been opened thirty or so years before, so was relatively new, but the area in which it was located was the setting of the infamous unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol, an expatriate Brit living in the area.

Later, the murder was dramatised in the 1987 film White Mischief.

Having settled into our room, we enjoyed a late supper, and drinks out in the grounds, listening to the sounds of the creatures of the night as they scurried around in the bushes.

Back in our room, we fell asleep to the rhythmic pulse of our ceiling fan, wafting the African night over us.

Waking up early, I decided to go for a walk around the place whilst SWMBO was still dozing, so pulling on my shorts and a bush shirt, and my boots, I made my way quietly out of the room, into the covered walkway. I enjoyed a half hour of wandering, returning to the room via the restaurant so that I could take a steaming mug of finest Kenyan coffee to SWMBO, to ease her gently into the final day of our holiday.

Having packed our hold baggage the night before, it was a fairly quick process to just finalise things, and then head for breakfast.

As our flight didn’t depart until almost midnight, we had decided that once we had checked out of our rooms at noon, we would relax in the hotel grounds, until our cab would collect us at about 1830.

We whiled away the afternoon chatting with the lads, reading, and, as soon as the sun was sufficiently over the yard arm, (about 3pm) we ordered Gin and Tonics all round, to officially draw our East African break to an end.

The Garden, The Green Hills Hotel. Just time for a large G&T…

Six thirty arrived far too soon, and the minibus cab was already waiting outside when we left the hotel, having paid our bills.

Our cab driver wasn’t the talkative type, so we quietly chatted amongst ourselves in the back as he drove us back down to Thika, and then on to Nairobi.

The airport terminal was quite full, despite the hour, and we patiently queued for check in and passed through security with delay. I think the fact that they spotted my crew tag on my bag helped, and we were waved through immigration swiftly.

Once airside, I felt I could relax a little. I love flying, but the stresses of getting onto the flight always made my stomach churn.

Standby travel is a wonderful privilege, but carries with it the risks of being “bumped” off a flight should a fare-paying passenger need the seat.

Furthermore, at some airports, they operate a policy of not allowing standby staff travellers through to the departures lounge until the check-in has closed, which gives very limited time to get through immigration, security, and out to the gate.

Being bumped is a very real possibility, and it has happened to me before. On a previous flight from Los Angeles, I had stowed my cabin baggage in the overhead, and had been happily quaffing the pre-flight champagne, when I heard a cabin announcement “Would passenger Charlwood please make himself know to the cabin crew”

This could mean one of two things.

I was either being upgraded to first class, or I was being offloaded.

The look on the crew-member’s face as she approached me told me it was the latter.

I was asked to collect my bag, and follow her.  Gloomily, I had followed her up the cabin, and was met at the door by a ground agent, who told me that they needed my seat.

On that occasion, I was lucky, as there was another flight departing an hour later, and it was going to use the same gate, so I was immediately checked in, and later enjoyed my flight, meeting SWMBO in London.

But that night, the universe decided that all four of us would get on the flight, and all of us were able to have Club class seats, so a good result all round.

Night departures are always interesting. Nairobi is extra interesting.

To put this into context, I need to explain a little about aircraft performance.

Aircraft operate more efficiently in denser air. Air density reduces as altitude increases, so the higher the elevation of the airport, the more the aircraft performance is reduced.

The other factor that reduces air density, is temperature. The warmer the temperature, the less dense the atmosphere. In my profession, we refer to such airfields as “hot’n’high”

Many equatorial departures are scheduled for as late in the day as possible, in our case, 23:50. At this time, the local air will have cooled to its lowest, so the aircraft will perform marginally better.

Jomo Kenyatta airport is 5330 feet (1624 metres) above mean sea level, so during summer, when it’s at its warmest, there is double the impact on the aircraft’s performance.

This means that flights may be weight-restricted, and there is less scope for carrying non-revenue standby travellers.

It also means that the aircraft will need a much greater runway length to reach safe flying speed.

Our B747-400 used up a huge amount of Runway 24 which is 4,200m long (13,570 feet, or 2.6 miles) to get airborne, and the ground roll seemed to last forever. Even as an experienced flier, I was starting to get a bit concerned, when finally, I felt the nose lift, and the pounding rumble of the gear reduced, and finally stopped. shortly thereafter, I had the whines and clunks of the gear being retracted.

Eventually, we dipped a wing, and entered a climbing turn, and looking out of my window, I could see the lights of Nairobi slipping away below.

The rest of Africa disappeared into the dark, mysterious night, as we winged our way home.

Footnote: For those of you that would like to see the view from the flight deck during a sunset landing at Nairobi, watch this video clip of a KLM/Martinair B747-400!

[1] MoT – Is a legally required annual roadworthiness inspection of any vehicle over three years old in the UK.

[2] Datsun was the brand under which Nissan cars marketed vehicles into emerging markets such as Africa.

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Greening Aviation – Not as Simple as it Sounds

According to recent research conducted by the University of Reading in the UK, many tonnes of fuel could be saved by airlines, (and therefore many tonnes of greenhouse gases) if they planned to always fly in favourable winds whilst crossing the Atlantic.

The study found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude.

New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

The report stated: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to”.

“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”

Boeing 747-400 pulling Contrails at high altitude. This fabulous photo was taken by Sergey Kustov

This needs to be put into context.

Way back in time, I used to create flight plans professionally. This was done by hand and was sometimes quite time consuming, and required careful study of aeronautical charts, upper air weather, including icing levels, and any forecast areas of turbulence.

A Transatlantic Chart showing the Entry and exit waypoints for the North Atlantic Track System

The charts would also be checked to see the locations of forecast Jetstream activity.

A quick explanation here about Jetstreams.  Jetstreams are caused by two factors. Firstly, solar heating, which causes massive air movements, combined with the effects of the earth’s rotation (The Coriolis Effect).

Image courtesy of NASA

At lower levels, these air movements are known as Trade Winds, and two hundred years ago, clipper sailing ships used them very effectively to transport goods relatively quickly around the globe, hence the name.

Most weather phenomena is generated in the troposphere, which extends from the surface up to high altitude (30’000 feet at the poles, and 56,000 feet at the equator), and it is at these upper levels that we find the jetstreams.

Jetstreams are defined as winds with a minimum speed of more than 70 knots (80 mph), and often they may exceed 220 knots (250 mph) and so it makes economic sense to make use of them.

This has been recognised by the aviation airspace regulators, and specific routings that take advantage of the jetstreams have been in place for many years.

Typical Jetstream activity over Euope.

Each night, weather data for trans-oceanic flights is analysed, and tracks are optimised to use the flows sensibly.

Flights crossing the Atlantic use a system known as NATS (North Atlantic Track System). In simple terms, a number of tracks are generated for both easterly and westerly traffic that will enable aircraft to benefit from a tailwind, or at least a reduced headwind.

These tracks will move north and south over the Atlantic according to the weather and the predicted positions of jetstreams; sometimes tracks will start to the north of Scotland, and terminate in the far north east of Canada.

On other occasions tracks will run to the south of the UK, and cross the southern part of the north Atlantic joining the continental air route systems as far south as the Canadian/US Border.

Typical NAT Tracks. Westerly tracks, showing available flight levels for each alphabetically-identified track.

So, flights across the Atlantic already have some basic fuel saving principles built in advance. The same system operates for flight crossing the Pacific Ocean, known as PACOT tracks.  They run between the western seaboard of the USA and Japan and Asian destinations.

However, times move on, and grey-haired aviation expertise has been replaced in almost every arena with technology.

Modern computer-based flight planning systems are extremely sophisticated, and use some advanced algorithms to plan with even better accuracy.

Consider this.

Every nation has the right to charge a fee to every aircraft that uses its airspace. Airspace charges may be based on the time that the flight remains within that state’s territory.

So, modern flight planning systems will look at every aspect of the flight. It will perform calculations that compare fuel burn with overflight charges.

Sometimes, whilst flying in a Jetstream will burn less fuel, it may mean that the flight will pass through airspace with relatively expensive overflight charges. If the overflight charges amount to more than the cost of fuel, then the system will plan to use the cheaper route, and therefore save money overall.

Airlines also use a system known as Cost Index to further optimise the flight costs.

This is basically a system that compares the direct operating costs of the flight, with the cost of the fuel being used. If the direct operating costs (crew wages, navigation charges, cost of galleys and airframe hours – affecting the amount of maintenance required) are more than the cost of fuel, the system will plan to fly faster, burning more fuel in order to get on the ground faster. Conversely, if the fuel is more expensive than the direct operating costs it makes sense to fly slower, burning less fuel.

Airlines are extremely cost conscious, and low-cost carriers will do everything they can to reduce and eliminate costs wherever possible. For example, Ryanair removed paper safety cards as they wear out and need replacing. Now, their safety information is riveted to each seatback.

Ryanair Boeing 737 – and Safety Cards riveted to the seatbacks!

Some carriers do not serve peanuts, as if they drop into the seat mounting rails, they take time to remove, and time is money.

So, persuading airlines to always optimise their routes and use high speed Jetstreams to the fullest extent may take some time.

Stay Safe…

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The Happy Commuter

Not many people can say that they enjoy their daily commute with any degree of truth.

I am an exception to this rule.

Yesterday morning, I softly shut the front door, and swiftly double locked it. As I walked briskly to the car, I noticed that it was cloaked with water droplets from the previous night’s heavy rain, and they shimmered in the alabaster cold moonlight, ruffled gently by the almost imperceptible breeze.

I looked up the field, and could just about make out the old farmhouse through the light mist. The sky overhead was as black as tarmac, and the stars glittered like shards of broken glass.

I smiled to myself.

It was 0445, and I was about to drive from rural Hampshire to Heathrow Airport for my early shift.

The car was chilled as I started it up, and I decided to be very self-indulgent, and switch on the heated seats, as it was only 0.5°C. By the time I reached the tiny hamlet of Bramshott, the warmth was permeating my back nicely.

The back lanes had treated me like royalty this morning. First, an unscheduled stop to enable a family of Muntjac deer to slowly amble from one side of the road, to the nature reserve on the other.

A Muntjac deer, Shy and beautiful. Photo courtesy J J Harrison

A few minutes later, I found myself driving parallel with a barn owl, sweeping effortlessly along the field to my right.

Photo courtesy Peter K Buriam. Barn Owl in flight.

Fantastic!

Accelerating up the slip road to join the A3, a quick glance in the mirror showed that there was no evidence of other vehicles heading north – not even a headlight beam.

Once the car was comfortably at the legal limit, I engaged the cruise control, tuned in my favourite radio station (Greatest Hits Radio) and took a sip of coffee.

Oh, the joy of fast cruising on an empty highway. No vehicles, and just the occasional truck heading south to Portsmouth to dip my headlights for.

The tarmac was damp, but not slippery, and I managed to get all the way to Guildford, some 17 miles before I spotted another vehicle heading north.

By Ripley, his headlights were just bright dots in the mirror.

The M25 was equally quiet, relatively speaking. Busy with articulated lorries, many bound for the airport, and some diving off down the M3 to head to the docks at Southampton.

In some respects, this was a bit eerie. In the past, even at this early hour, the western segment of the M25 would be busy with cars; airport workers and passengers, all heading for the terminals.

Lockdown was having a huge effect. The airport was just about surviving, but with so few movements, staff were either on furlough, or redundant. On the upside, air pollution was significantly reduced, and my journey time was reduced by twenty minutes.

Once off the motorway, my drive takes me through Staines, Ashford, and Bedfont, all of which are pretty deserted.

At this time of day, the lunatics and muppets are not about – still asleep I guess. Most of those that I encounter are driving safely, at the limit, and are courteous and helpful.

This doesn’t happen at 0445 on the A3… All the loons are in bed.

I pass through the security checkpoint at work very quickly.

Well, to be fair, I am the only vehicle in the queue.

My shift start time is conveniently placed between the end of one shift and the beginning of another, so there is rarely a wait before driving through the massive security gates, and onwards to the staff car park.

Early shifts are a pleasure. Definitely the best time of the day.

According to my mother, I have been an early riser since I was an infant.

I went through a phase as a grumpy teenager when I would sleep in until lunchtime, but that was more as a result of imbibing vast quantities of alcohol with my friends, until late in the evening every Friday.

I would get home, and crash out, on many occasions still fully dressed, not to be seen again until the sun was very much over the yard arm.

Despite the amount of beer taken on board, I was lucky to have never had a hangover either!

Leaving my teenage years behind, I became an early riser once more.

Working in the aviation industry, for a major airline I was a shift worker, and enjoyed a variety of start times, varying from 0500 to 2200 starts, and other shift starts between these two extremes.

0500 starts have always been my favourite though.

Summer “early-earlies” would see me quietly leaving the house, walking down the garden path in the pre-dawn glow of a brand-new day.

At the time, I was living in West London, about 5 miles from the centre of London Heathrow Airport, so it was a short drive to the staff car park.

In Spring, I would revel in the cool stillness of the morning. The sun would be shyly peeking over the gardens to the east, gilding the slate roofs of Bedfont with a golden glow, doing far more for the houses than a complete renovation would achieve.

Summer would offer somnolent dawns, warm, dappled and filled with birdsong and I would drive the deserted roads around the perimeter of the airport, usually not seeing another vehicle until I was within the airport restricted area.

Standing at the staff car park bus stop, it always surprised me that so many of us early shifters looked so tired, disengaged and sleepy.

I was, and still am, one of those awful people that are immediately ready for the day ahead as soon as their eyes are open.

Poor SWMBO, with whom I have shared my life for over 30 years, is a night owl, and doesn’t function correctly until the correct number of coffees have been emptied into her!

So, I would bask in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, whilst the others round me were slumped against the glass walls of the shelter.

The buses back then were a climate activist’s nightmare. Operated by the British Airports Authority, they were probably ten years old and to be frank, were knackered. Originally painted in bright traffic yellow, they were battered and grimy, both inside and out.

They rattled, creaked and generated more diesel smoke than an ocean liner, and would grind their way round the airport perimeter road, making only one stop at the staff bus stop in the central area.

I would then enjoy a brisk walk to Terminal 3 check in for work.

Autumn 0500s were enjoyable too, but in a more melancholy way. I would still leave the house at 0430, but now the sun was reluctant to welcome the day, and I would walk through the crispy leaves to the car in the half light, now needing to wear my light bomber jacket, thoughtfully provided by American Airlines.

As the seasons marched on, I would have to leave the house at 0420, to give me sufficient time clear the ice or snow from the windscreen.

Whilst I used a de-icing spray in the hardest weather, I often had to scrape the ice from the car, and the sounds would be amplified throughout the quiet residential street, reverberating and bouncing off the houses, and shattering the stillness.

I used to feel guilty about this, until I realised that most of my neighbours were shift workers as well, and we all took it in our stride.

I stopped working at the airport in 1997. I had been lucky enough whilst working with American Airlines to see many aspects of airline operations, Passenger Services, Passenger Security, Special Services, and Flight Operations.

I had sat in a deserted ops room, watching the flights departing the US, and plotted their arrival times, and planned the parking stands for the day.

I had sat with my heart in my mouth in the early hours of July 18th 1996, after hearing reports that an American aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast near New York.

It turned out to be TWA flight 800, and not one of “my” flights, but still a tragic loss of 230 human beings.

I had searched aircraft, operated security equipment, and interviewed suspect passengers.

I had escorted celebrities and VIP as they transited both Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Flight operations was my element though. It was what I was trained for, what I enjoyed, and what I understood.

However, promotion in the Flight Operations sector normally requires the transfer to a job that is no longer practical and hands on, but is more of a specialist desk job.

So, after many years with the mighty American Airlines, I started work with British Airways, working out of the fantastic Compass Centre.

The design of Compass Centre makes use of curved glass external walls on the south side, which overlooks the airfield. Curved glass walls were chosen as glass does not present a large radar signature, and the curved walls reflect radar energy onto the ground.

This reduces the building’s radar reflection on the ground movements radar used at the airport. The building is also thermally efficient, and summer afternoons caused the air conditioning to run at full power, despite the floor to ceiling blinds.

I was very privileged, as my department occupied the middle floor of the eastern-most block, and overlooked the runway. My desk was three feet from the glass windows, so my viewpoint was superb.

Compass Centre, My office was the middle floor of the module nearest the camera.

My job was now a standard day job, with working hours of 0800-1600. I now had to drive on roads that were filled with other commuters, some of whom appeared to have forgotten the most basic driving skills.

Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and I soon transferred to the Flight Training School, where I began working as a Flight Crew Instructor. Not only was the job hugely enjoyable, but luckily, I was back on a shift roster.

My office… I could never be an accountant!

Most of the instructors weren’t keen on early starts, so I happily swapped out their earlies, and off-loaded my late shifts. Every day was an 0630 arrival, so I was normally out of the doors at 1430, and was able to use the rest of the day for my pleasure when the rest of the world were slaving away in their offices.

I am now getting towards my personal Top of Descent, and I am thinking more and more about retirement.

If you ask people what they like most about their retirement, the most common response is “Not having to do the daily commute”.

I think that I will miss my enforced dawn patrols, when the day is new, and you can smell the freshness of the dawn.

What about you?

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Aircew airlines Airport APPRENTICE aviation College education English Culture Flight Nostalgia pilots Technology Training

Flight Operations and Steam Punk Hats

A few days ago, I decided to have a clear up of my home office. Not an especially huge task, as the office isn’t especially huge. Being a writer and pilot, my office has been filled over the years with books. Lots of books. There are many technical ones related to the science of aviation; books on meteorology, aerodynamics, instructional techniques, instrument flight, and aircraft systems. I also have books on human factors, crew resource management, psychology, and airline economics.

Books. Books. More Books.

The shelves are further filled with books on aviation warfare, history, and fiction covering a wide variety of subjects from science fiction to comedy.

The tops of the overcrowded bookcases are laden with aviation related objects that have sentimental attachment for me, such as the very large model of an American Airlines 767, presented to me when I was Special Services Manager for the Company at Stansted airport.

Tools of the Trade…

There is the large-scale model of Concorde, which I bought when the Queen of the Skies was retired in October 2003. The vintage Sailplane barograph, the steam-punk top hat.

Steampunk top hat? 

Well. That’s it. Bang goes my credibility. The Duke in Wyrd Sisters.

Yes, you did read that correctly. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics for virtually all of my adult life, taking many roles from an Ugly Sister in the pantomime Cinderella, to Billy Liar, and more recently the Duke in Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett’s adaption of Macbeth.  The play was further adapted by our Producer, and all costumes were steam punk, hence, the steam punk top hat.

I digress.

Amongst the variegated items of aviation clutter, I came across a small figurine, a dumpy little effigy of a schoolmaster, complete with a mortar board and cane.

Any comments that it resembles me will be deleted!

I smiled, as I was instantly catapulted back about 25 years, back to the time in which I was lecturing in Aviation Studies at East Surrey College, in Redhill, UK.

The little figurine had been shyly presented to me by a member of my class, on the final lecture prior to the end of course exams – in this case the City and Guilds technical examinations in Flight Operations and Despatch, which included modules on fuel planning, flight planning, aircraft performance and load and balance.

The students in my class that year were an eclectic bunch. Two cabin attendants, Jo and Abby, three check in agents, one aircraft engineer, a ticketing agent, a flight operations agent from a ground handling agent, all in their early thirties.

Then there was Bill.

Bill must have been in his late fifties, and collected baggage trolleys at Gatwick airport, a job that he had done for years.

Due to the relatively intense and practical nature of the course, student numbers were limited to ten, so prior to the course, I would go through the student application forms and weed out those that didn’t have the academic qualifications or vocational experience to do the course. I made a point of having a private chat with every student, to discover their motivations, aspirations, and prior experience. Almost every one of them were doing it for promotional or career advancement.

Except Bill.

Bill quietly explained to me that he woke up one morning, and realised that he had done nothing with his life, was in a dead-end job, and at his age had no hope of doing anything better. He loved aeroplanes, and when he saw the course advertised, he applied.

He looked me in the eye, and said “I know I’m probably not good enough to get through the course, Mister Charlwood, but I would like to give it a go, if you would be willing to accept me onto the course.”

When I reviewed the applications earlier, I had read his submission, and his simple request to “give it a go”.

I had already decided that I would enrol him into my class, and would review his progress at the end of the first term.

“OK Bill,” I smiled, “Let’s see how you get on. You’re in!”

He gave me a weak smile, and thanked me profusely.

So, there we were, a few weeks later, on the first session of the 32-week course. and the room was filled with the happy buzz of expectant chatter. I looked round the class. Nine. I only had nine students. Everyone was present except Bill.

I was filled with disappointment. He had seemed so keen, but had obviously got cold feet, and decided not to attend.

I was just commencing the introduction to the course, when the door opened, and Bill appeared.

“I am so sorry I’m Late Mr. Charlwood, I got held up leaving work”

“Not a problem, Bill, take a seat, you’ve missed nothing so far. And it’s Mark, not Mr. Charlwood”

He quietly made his way to the back seats, sitting as far away as possible from the other members of the class, and pulled a notebook from a battered rucksack.

I continued with my introduction, and it wasn’t long before we were exploring the fundamentals of Flight Operations, and the basics of the multitude of things that must be done correctly and efficiently in order for just one aeroplane to take flight.

Over the weeks, I came to know and respect my class, and to enjoy their company. They came to enjoy my bad jokes and my irreverent approach to academia.

Judy, the flight operations agent was a real live wire, and having a lot of practical knowledge had already started the course with an advantage. Curious, and with a blunt approach and a sharp sense of humour, she was already showing a good understanding, but sometimes had trouble combining academic requirements with the practical exercises.

Airline flight planning and despatch was conducted predominantly with computers and there was little requirement for manually planning a flight, and I think she found learning the secrets of what the computer did in the background a bit challenging.

On the other hand, she would often ask deep questions related to why her company’s flight planning and despatch system did not precisely follow the ICAO rules or CAA requirements. This sometimes led to me doing significant amounts of digging and the calling in of numerous favours from friends and contacts across the airline.

My course required that students could completely plan a flight without the use of a computer, so I was teaching the manual way of doing everything, and this did cause a few problems for all of the class from time to time.

The weeks flew past, and everyone was making good progress, and seemed to be enjoying themselves (as I was) and nobody had dropped out. I hadn’t had to flunk anyone either, so a win-win all round. I considered this a good sign.

On the final lecture of the first term, I had set a mock exam, which was very similar to the final exam. Everyone trooped in, and there was a glum atmosphere. None of the usual light-hearted banter.

I placed a paper on each student’s desk, and gave them their instructions. I had given them an hour to complete the paper, and then they could go a grab a coffee from the cafeteria, and I would quickly mark the papers, and give them their marks and a feedback session in the second hour. I would also give them some reading to do over the half term break, and brief them on the subjects to be covered in the next term.

The room fell totally silent, and I reclined my chair, and propped my feet up on the up-turned waste bin, observing the bent heads, listening to the scratching of pencils on paper.

Jo was chewing the end of her pencil as a dog would gnaw on a bone, and Abby was writing rapidly, silently dictating her words as she wrote. Everyone was concentrating and I wondered how they would get on. One of the guys from check-in was gazing at the ceiling with rapt attention, and the other was staring out of the window. Bill was head down, writing. The aircraft engineer had phoned in sick, and the reservations agent was on a late shift. These guys could do the paper at home, and send it back to me for marking.

It was no surprise to me that Judy finished first, with fifteen minutes to go. She dropped her paper on my desk, blew me a kiss, and made her way silently from the room.

“Fifteen minutes left” I announced, and picked up her paper to review it.

I swiftly marked it. 85%. Not a bad mark, but silly mistakes. Failing to read the question is a common problem. Also, maybe a bit of rushing involved? Inaccuracies in interpreting a meteorological forecast may seem minor at college, but in real-world operations, lack of attention to detail in such things could lead to a flight encountering dangerous conditions.

At my five-minute call, the rest of the class quietly placed their completed papers on my desk, and left the room.

All except Bill, who was still head down, writing.

“Times Up” I called softly, and Bill handed me his paper, and he too silently left the room.

Opening my thermos, I poured myself a large coffee, and steadily marked the papers. I was pleased, as everyone had hit at least 80%.

Except Bill.

Bill had scored 100% in his first test.

Fifteen minutes later, the class filed back in, this time chatting animatedly, flushed with post-test relief.

I leaned back in my chair, and informed them that they could all congratulate themselves, as everyone had achieved far more than the required 75%, and read them their marks.

I think that Judy was a little shocked that she had been beaten into second place – but not as shocked as Bill was, when he realised that he was the top of the class.

The UK CAA Specimen Performance Tables. Modern instruments of torture.

At the end of the class, I wished them all well, and told them to go away and enjoy the half term – a fortnight of not having to listen to me drone on about the black arts of meteorology or the selection of cruising flight levels. I warned them that the next term would be equally challenging, as we would be happily delving into the joys of fuel planning.

I was touched that each one of them came by my desk, and thanked me.


Except Bill.


He was still slowly packing his books into his rucksack. I strolled over to his desk.

I grinned, and said “So, Bill, it looks like you have done very well this term. I trust that I will see you in a fortnight?”

“Mr. Charlwood” He began.

“It’s Mark”

“You will always be Mr. Charlwood to me” he said quietly. “I can’t believe that I am still here. I never dreamt that I could do this. It’s been so fascinating. I will be back”

He diffidently proffered his hand, which I shook warmly.

Over the following terms, every individual confronted their own impenetrable problems. Abby had a blind spot about load and balance, Jo finally understood the difference between track and heading, and Judy had really struggled with calculating some aspects of aircraft performance.

An ICAO Drop sheet for calculating aircraft weight and balance – a DC-10 in this case.

Over the years, I have always tried to create an environment where students feel encouraged to challenge, question and share their own experiences. Within the first two classes, the ice had been broken and the students had become a group of friends, who would happily ask questions, and get involved.

Except Bill.

Bill had developed slowly over the course. Initially, he rarely put his hand up, either to ask a question, or to answer one. By the middle of the third term he was a regular contributor to the course, and showed that he had good understanding of the topics.

In the last four weeks before the exam, I had conducted revision sessions, with some mock exams, and I was happy to see that all of the class had a reasonably good chance of passing the exam, and most would get at least 80% and be awarded a pass with credit.

Except Bill.

Bill’s marks were excellent.  He had made virtually a clean sweep in my mock exams with an average mark of 96% – enough for a Distinction.

So, provided that none of them had a serious problem, I calculated that my class would get 2 Distinctions, 6 Credits and 2 Passes. Not a bad score.

I gave the class their marks, together with some individual feedback on how they could improve, and told them that the next time I would see them would be on the day of the exam.

We then mutually decided that a trip to the Flying Scud would be in order, and the end of term celebration was a happy occasion.

Exam day finally arrived, a bright, sunny June morning, so wishing them good luck, I watched them troop into the exam room, and then wandered out to sit on the bench outside to catch up on my book, and enjoy a coffee.

One by one they came out, each one looking relieved. I asked every one of them how they felt they did, and did they feel that they were adequately prepared. I felt very relieved when they all said yes to my last question!

8 weeks later, I dropped by the college in order to open the securely sealed envelope containing their marks. I would have the pleasure of calling each one of them before sending the slips out.

It seemed that my prediction was wrong. 8 Credits and 2 Distinctions!

After making the phone calls, I smiled to myself.

I had got my students through a pretty tough course; sometimes gritting my teeth in frustration as they stumbled through the science of meteorology, or the witchcraft known as scheduled performance. The look on a confused face when understanding was finally achieved.

I was proud of all of my class. They had all done very well, and would make good progress in their chosen careers.

Except for Bill.

I regarded Bill as my true success story. He was the hero of my class, as he came onto the course with virtually no hope, and had already consigned himself to the scrap heap. I still have the hand-written letter that he sent me, thanking me for getting him through the course, and telling me that I had inspired him!

If only he knew.

It was Bill that presented me with that little figurine of a portly, moustachioed teacher – nothing like me I assure you. I heard from Bill a few years later, and he had got himself a job in Flight Operations and had reinvented himself completely.

Oh, and in the two years that I worked with him, I never did manage to break him of the habit of calling me Mister Charlwood.

So, now, I had better get back to the original task of tidying the office, which I interrupted to write this.

Now, where did I put that duster?

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Aircew airlines Airport aviation Flight Humour pilots Poetry Transport Travel

Boeing 747-400 Preflight

Aviation is fixated, quite correctly, on in-flight safety. From the humblest sailplane or microlight to the mightiest 747, safety procedures have to be completed, to ensure that aircraft don’t drop out of the skies like confetti.

Before any aircraft takes flight, it’s crew must conduct a thorough inspection to make sure that it is in a fit state to fly. Cabin attendants will check every door and overhead locker, and ensure that all of their required safety equipment is in place. 

Their pilot colleagues will also be checking all flight systems thoroughly. There are two elements to this – the internal cockpit checks, and what is known in the trade, as the “walk-around” or the exterior preflight inspection.

Each item to be inspected is laid out in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, or FCOM, and follows a carefully planned and logical sequence so that no item is left unchecked.

As an instructor, strict adherence to procedures is part of my everyday working life.

Here is my lighthearted look at the external walk-around procedure for the Boeing B747-400.

I think it’s a little better than writing about the procedure I follow on my own, much smaller aeroplane.

Jumbo Pre-flight

Whilst our Jumbo’s on the ground,
Before each flight, we must walk round,
And carefully check so many things,
Are engines fixed, likewise the wings,
Are panels shut, are windows clean,
Do nav lights work, do lenses gleam,
And as a safety-conscious fellow,
Be sure to wear your vest of yellow,
To help you check before night flight,
Be sure to use your bright flashlight,
Do just what the FCOM says,
Check the tyres, and gear door bays,
Check the cowls, and drain mast pipes,
Inspect the engine pylon stripes,
Look at the fin, and check the slats,
The lightning wicks, and Fowler flaps,
For safety’s sake – what could be worse?
Than looking forwards whilst in reverse!
Check the brakes and steering too,
The vacuum outlet for the loo,
The outflow valve, the pitot head,
Oh boy – you should have stayed in bed,
Cos whilst you check in pouring rain,
The captains in the warm – AGAIN!

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Aircew airlines Airport aviation Flight Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Transport Travel

We all Know that ONE Person…

Flying is a serious addiction. It needs feeding, and a sufferer will need to get a regular fix if he or she is to remain happy. Denying any aviator their flying fix will result in massive mood swings, irritability, loss of sense of humour, and a restlessness that is impossible to shift.

Having passed my written examinations for my ATPL in the UK, I needed to build my flying experience, and amass a considerable number of hours in a relatively short time.

Working in Flight Operations for a major British Airline, meant that I had access to heavily discounted airfares, and in some cases free tickets and as flying light aircraft in the USA was half the price of flying in the UK, it made sense to go to America.

Readers of my previous posts will know that I learned to fly in Fort Worth near Dallas, however, I wanted to do my hours building in an area where I could partake of other leisure activities when not flying.

This left me with two choices; Florida or California. I did a lot of research on the two states, and their flying schools, and decided to go to Southern California, initially to Fullerton Municipal (KFUL) and then to Long Beach (KLGB).

As I had friends in Southern California, I frequently combined flying with chilling out in either Rancho Santa Margarita or Dana Point. This naturally involved drinking beer, shooting the breeze, and in some cases, shooting firearms on a friends ranch.

Which brings me to the point of this article. There is always one person that you will meet in aviation who is a true professional and leaves a lasting and indelible impression upon you, stamping their ethos onto your soul.

I met that man in February 2002, at Long Beach Airport.

I had landed at LAX the previous afternoon and planned my stay in such a way as to maximise my flying time. I booked a hotel near Long Beach Airport and drove there from LAX so that I could be at the flying club first thing the next day.

Walking into the flying club, I chatted with the ops desk clerk and told him that I wanted to book an aeroplane and an instructor. I had decided that I would use the hours building opportunity to do the differences training onto a new aeroplane type, and I was offered a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. I was told that Harry was available and that they would ring him for me to discuss times with him.

When the call connected, I explained to Harry what I wanted to do, that I wanted to convert onto a new type and to undertake my biennial flight review.

“Sure,” he said, “The airplane is booked at 1500, for a two-hour slot. So, meet me at the club at 1430, we’ll go through the paperwork, and briefing. Then we will go and sit in the airplane for an hour, going through the drills and talking about the performance. You gotta pay for my time whatever, but you only pay for the airplane once the engine is running, so better to do the classroom stuff on the ground, then we can concentrate on having fun and flying”

Putting down the ‘phone, I smiled. Harry sounded a nice bloke. He’d saved me a good few dollars, so I decided to invest in a new checklist, a chart, and other bits and bobs in the pilot shop.

When I say bits and bobs, I mean a new Noise Cancelling Headset and a RAM mount for my GPS navigation unit.

I read the club rules, signed the books, and reviewed the departure procedures and any long term NOTAMs that would affect me the next day. I decided that I would leave the route plan up to Harry, and just see what happened.

Long Beach. Not for the chicken hearted. Mixing it with C-17s and Stealth Flighter, and the odd DC3.

The next morning was gloomy and foggy, typical LA Basin weather, but if it was true to form it would have burnt off by about 1400, so happy days.

I grabbed a quick hotel breakfast, and glugged back a mug of coffee, and then drove to the airport.

Parking up, I walked up the stairs to the club, grabbed another coffee, and went and sat on the balcony overlooking the ramp. On the far side of the airport, the Sheriff Department’s helicopter sat forlornly on the parking, and I could see a C-17 being towed into the McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) hangar.

I killed the time reading the Pilots Operating Handbook for the Cessna C172 SP Skyhawk and chatting with the other students and club pilots. After a relaxed lunch of a grilled sandwich washed down with Sprite, I went back into the ops room to meet Harry.

Harry, Chilled out as normal. My Check flights in SOCAL will never be quite the same.

Harry wandered in at 1430, carrying his clipboard, headset, chart and a small case. About my height, but with at least ten years seniority on me. He had a luxuriant moustache, which emphasised his happy smile.

We shook hands, and after a few pleasantries, went down to the aircraft, where he patiently went through the controls with me, paying special attention to the fact that this was an injected engine – different to the normally aspirated models that I had flown previously.

He conducted a brief questions and answers session with me, then briefed for the departure out of Long Beach. It was as I remembered, straight out, a left turn at the Los Angeles River, and down to the Queen Mary, where we would turn south.

Long Beach Airspace

The route was down to San Diego via Mount Palomar. Cool. I swiftly drew lines on the chart, and calculated times and headings, corrected with a quick call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF for an en-route weather briefing.

Then it was back to the aircraft.

N137ME taxying at Long Beach Daugherty Field

Harry leaned back in the right-hand seat, looked across at me, and said, “OK, It’s your airplane, I’m just here for the ride.”

So saying, he looked out of the window, as I called Long Beach ground for taxi clearance, and requested a squawk for SOCAL approach Southbound to San Diego.

I frantically scribbled the clearance down, together with the Squawk; I was surely not used to the machine-gun-fast radio in the US.

We taxied out, number two to a Douglas DC-3, and stopped at the holding point to do the vital actions and pre-flight checks.

Once the DC-3 had departed, I lined up and asked Harry if he was happy and good to go.

“I’m good” was his laconic response, and I eased the throttle to the stop, and we accelerated down the tarmac, lifting off cleanly, and climbing away into the bright sunlight.

I smiled to myself. My prediction was correct – the maritime layer had burnt off nicely, and the sky was bright blue.

I changed frequencies to SOCAL approach, and they immediately had me identified on radar and cleared me to the south as filed. Crossing the LA River – which flows through a concreted canal, I rolled into a left turn and then left again to parallel the coast, gently climbing to my planned cruise altitude.

The Los Angeles River at Long Beach

Interestingly, the Los Angeles River has been used in several movies, with probably the most famous ones being Grease, Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight Rises.

Racing for Pink Slips in the LA River – Grease

I could see Emmy and Eva the two oil platforms out ahead near the shoreline and some large cargo ships entering the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach.

Harry seemed quite happy with my performance so far and once I had the aircraft trimmed out for straight and level flight, Harry came to life, as if energised by a switch in the cockpit.

He asked me to demonstrate several manoeuvres and spotted a number of areas where he thought I could improve my flying. Climbing a little higher, he had me stalling in every configuration, steep turns, timed turns, slow flight and practice engine failures.

At the end of each feedback session, he would get me to repeat the manoeuvre, and if I did it to his satisfaction, he would murmur “There ya go” If not, it was more practice required.

Having performed all of this he asked me to plan a diversion to Los Alamitos Army Air Base.

This made me work hard. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich and can of Sprite I scoffed earlier was conspiring against me, aided and abetted by the turbulence. I had to be head down in order to plan the divert (No Sky Demon moving maps then!), and I was grateful that the planning didn’t take too long, as I really didn’t want to toss my cookies in the aeroplane.

I rolled the aircraft onto my calculated heading and guessed at a wind correction, and we flew inland towards Los Al, descending at a pedestrian 500 feet per minute.

Harry leaned over and stared hard at my chart and the planned diversion, and then peered at the Direction Indicator. “That oughta work,” he said softly. After a few flights with Harry, I came to recognise this as high praise.

He leaned back into his seat, idly tapping his fingers on the glareshield.

“Hey, Y’know what would be good here… You done a talkdown before?”

I had never undertaken any Precision Approach Radar approaches, even during my instrument training, so this was going to be good.

Harry then said that he would take the radios and that I should concentrate on flying the aircraft.

I continued to descend, and Harry took control briefly and told me to put the hood on.

Once I was wearing the hood, he relinquished the controls. “She’s all yours” he grinned.

For the non-flying types that may be reading this, the “hood” is a smoked plastic visor designed to prevent a pilot from looking out of the windows, thus forcing them to fly using the flight instruments as their sole source of reference to navigate and control the aircraft safely.

I was now working at the extreme boundary of my performance envelope if I am honest. I was jet-lagged, and mentally tired, bearing in mind that this was my first flight for about a month.

Listening intently to the stream of instructions from the Radar Approach controller, I was constantly adjusting the power, rate of descent and heading. We were also getting lower and lower until finally the controller called “Radar Service Terminated”

Harry flipped my visor up, and there ahead of me was the main runway of Los Alamitos right under the nose.

“Will ya look at that! That came together nicely. Now, Go Around, and take me back to Long Beach, and we will have a coffee and a chat about what we should do tomorrow.”

The rest of the flight was almost routine, and I made a standard approach to Rwy 30 and an uneventful landing.

Switching to Long Beach Ground, we were cleared back to the flying club parking and as we taxied sedately back, Harry was giving me more feedback.

Pulling onto a vacant pan, I slowed the aircraft to a halt and performed the shutdown checks.

As the propellor jerked to a stop, the cabin became almost silent. I say almost, because the whine of the gyros spooling down and the ticking of the engine cooling reminded me that I still needed to secure the aeroplane.

We both got out, unplugging our headsets, and chatting amiably in the early evening sunshine.

Popping the control locks in, and removing the key, I made a final check that the master switch was off, before slamming the door and locking it.

I swiftly snapped the tie-down chains onto the lugs under the wings and walked around the aircraft tail to help Harry.

As I approached him, he held out something to me in his hand.

I took the item; it was a C90 cassette. I must have looked at him blankly, because he clapped me on the back, saying “Its an audio cassette, feller”

He reached back into the rear seat area and pulled out a small tape recorder. He had plugged it into the intercom jack in the rear cabin, so I had a complete record of the entire flight; his training, my responses, and the Air Traffic conversations.

He did this for every student that he took on an instructional flight. He made no charge for this. Not only was he an excellent instructor, from whom I learnt so much, but he was generous of spirit, and we flew many subsequent flights, where I was to enjoy his skilled instructing and excellent sense of humour.

His comedic muscle was well-developed. I remember that a few months later, I emailed him from England before my next arrival saying I wanted to do some interesting, longer navigation exercises, and he sent me a reply by email with a number of airfields to visit, together with web-links.

The suggestions were:

Las Vegas Muni, Santa Barbara, and the Chicken Ranch in Nevada…

I duly checked the links, to discover the Chicken Ranch was a brothel with its own airstrip.

I called him from the UK to explain that I didn’t think that SWMBO would be too enamoured of me visiting the Chicken Ranch.

He was roaring with laughter, as he said that he was thankful that I didn’t want to go there because his wife would be equally unhappy.

So, we went to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story.

Sadly, my mentor, instructor and friend died when his parachute failed to open at Perris Field in Southern California in October 2008.

After all these years, I still have four of Harry’s C90 cassettes, which I need to get digitised. I am sure there is still information that I can learn from.

Blue Skies Harry.

See you at the bar in the Big Flying Club in the Sky.

Go Well…

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Aircew airlines Airport aviation English Culture Flight Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Poetry Transport Travel

One from My Back Catalogue

Artwork Fantastically provided by Bev Pook, Friend, Pilot, Motorcyclist and Bon Vivant…

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Aircew airlines aviation English Culture Flight HEALTH pilots Transport Travel Work

So – You Think You Want To Be Cabin Crew? (Part One)

We have all seen them walking through the airport terminal as we have been departing for our own trips – a group of smartly uniformed and elegant men and women, all dragging the ubiquitous wheelie bags behind them, as they head off to check-in for their flights.

Cabin Crew – Off to the fleshpots and glamour of… Newcastle?


Once onboard, we take for granted the smooth and professional welcomes, and the brisk and efficient manner in which the aircraft is prepared for its trip.


The Safety demonstration is performed, choreographed beautifully to a disinterested audience, many of them studiously reading their newspapers, or playing games on their smartphones.


Once airborne, we don’t bat an eyelid as we are served drinks, meals, and hot towels, all with a smile and good grace.


We are treated to the spectacle of the swift collection of headsets, and the prompt stowage of equipment as the aircraft descends towards its destination.


Finally, we disembark, with the farewells from the cabin crew still ringing in our ears.


Leaving the airport, we will probably notice a crew outside, patiently awaiting the arrival of the crew bus to take them to their hotels.


What an easy life! Operate a thirteen-hour flight to Singapore, then enjoy three days shopping, and relaxing, and staying in a four-star hotel! And get paid for it.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fancy it as a career?

Must be an easy job, right?


Now let’s do a quick reality check, and see what is really involved in operating as Cabin Crew.


Firstly, we have to appreciate why the cabin crew are there in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, their primary function is not serving food and drink and making duty free sales.

Their primary function is that of safety.


Strangely enough, their principal concern isn’t bringing you some warm nuts and a gin and tonic, but ensuring that the required safety standards are being maintained, and for increasing your chances of survival in the event that something goes wrong.


All of these safety requirements are laid down by the relevant regulatory authorities; EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) in Europe, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in America, and are legally binding upon airline operators.


So, your average cabin crew member is actually a highly-trained individual who is capable of many things that the travelling public are not aware of. They are certainly not stereotypical “fluffy” airheads.


In an effort to discover what it takes to become aircrew, I enrolled on a new entrant cabin crew course with a major British airline. This course would take at least four weeks, which I admit, did surprise me, as I didn’t think it could have that much content.


How wrong I was!


My course was to be conducted in West London, at the main training centre for the airline, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I met with my fellow students, who, it seemed, came from all walks of life, and some from other areas of the airline.


We were all still milling about when a harried-looking instructor arrived and requested that those of us on course number 041 follow him immediately to classroom 6.


We all shuffled into the classroom and a minor hubbub ensued as we found somewhere to sit and stow our bags.


Our instructor introduced himself as John, and without further fuss, he launched straight into a briefing, giving us all an overview of what was to come in the forthcoming weeks.


He concluded by telling us that punctuality was vital to an airline operation, and that should we arrive late, we would be awarded a demerit point for each minute. Collect 6 points, and be washed off the course.


I realised then that this course would be no picnic. I did feel that this draconian system was primarily aimed at the younger members of the intake, young lads and lasses fresh out of school, who may have had a much more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping.

For an experienced man, punctuality was ingrained in my soul, indelibly stamped there by my parents, both of whom passsed on their work ethics to me whilst I was still a small child.

Our course was to start with a weeks worth of medical training, known in the flying business as Avmed.

We were all herded into our classroom, which was filled with medical equipment, including portable defibrillators, oxygen cylinders and resuscitation trainers. It all looked a little intimidating.

Our instructor, Louise, was an ex-nurse, and experienced crew, so she immediately commanded the respect of the class. The first thing we had to learn was our basic responsibilities – what we could, or couldn’t legally do.

Cabin Crew are trained to be able to handle lower level medical issues, and are more than capable of dealing with cuts, sprains, burns, and the like.

But normal workplace first aid just doesn’t hack it when the workplace is a pressurised aluminium tube flying at 38,000 feet – miles from any hospitals or medical centres.

Cabin crew may be expected to identify – and treat, diabetics with uncontrolled sugar levels. They may have to adminster therapeutic oxygen to a semi conscious passenger.

Possibly deal with epilepsy, cardiac problems, panic attacks, air sickness and in extreme cases, childbirth and even death on board.

Yes folks – not so glamourous now…

In order for crew to be able to perform these functions, every aircraft is required to carry a minimum level of medical equipment.

This normally consists of a number of small first aid kits distributed around the passenger cabin and one large suitcase-sized medical kit containing a much more comprehensive array of equipment.

A Full-sized Aircraft Medical Kit, one side of which is for cabin crew use, and one side of which is for Medical Professionals to use.

We had to commit to memory the contents of each type of kit, its location on the aircraft and the procedure for issuing medication and equipment.

It is important to realise that cabin crew are not trained medical practitioners, and as such are not legally entitled to prescribe medication, so a large proportion of the aircraft medical kit is prohibited for use by cabin crew.

That is why, in serious cases, cabin crew may make an announcement for any trained medical professionals to identify themselves and assist with the treatment of a sick fellow passenger.

There is also an unseen level of back-up available to help.

Many airlines subscribe to a service called MedLink, a specialist medical unit that is experienced in airline procedures and protocols, and whose staff are familiar with the type of medical intervention that maybe needed mid atlantic!

MedLink doctors and specialists may be contacted by using the aircraft’s satellite phone, the cockpit High Frequency radio patch or a specialist system called ACARS.

A Typical ACARS printer on a modern flight deck

ACARS stands for Aircraft Communcations Addressing and Reporting System.

This system is normally used routinely for the transmission and acceptance of flight clearances from Air Traffic Control, company operational messages, such as flight plans, fuel plans, aircraft performance calculations and load and balance plans.

In our case, as cabin crew, any developing medical emergency in the cabin may be swiftly escalated via the flight deck to involve a fantastic level of support and guidance for the treatment of a sick passenger.

We were given practical instruction in how to provide therapeutic oxygen, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator. We also had to demonstrate that we could make an accurate patient assessment, deliver CPR, and place an individual into the recovery position.

An Automatic External Defibrillator, similar to that carried in aircraft

This training was all delivered in a cabin simulator, with airline seats, and a standard sized aisle. We all had to show that we could get someone out of their seat, place them on the floor in the aisle, use the defibs, administer CPR and then place them into the recovery position.

Ressuci Annie, one of my closest associates during my Avmed Training…

I have been a qualified First Aider for years, but I still needed to make a huge amount of effort to remember the procedural and legal aspects of delivering healthcare in an aircraft cabin environment, so I was extremely pleased (and relieved) to have passed my first weeks training in Aviation Medicine.

I now had a complete weekend off in which to study that manuals related to operating the rest of the aircraft, including operating doors, firefighting, operating the emergency slides, ditching drills, and wet drills and security training.

No beers for me then!

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this thrilling account…

Go Well…

Categories
Aircew airlines Airport aviation Flight Old Friends pilots Society Travel

Around Cape Point in a Cessna Cutlass

Having worked for two major international air carriers, one US and one British, I consider myself a reasonably well-travelled person.

However, I am also a total aviation geek.

In the heady days before the world suffered its seismic shift, in the form of 9/11, the flight deck was not an impregnable citadel only occupied by the flight crew.

My partner was resigned to the fact that whenever we boarded an aircraft for a flight, I would always discretely pass my pilot licence to the senior cabin crew member, murmuring “Please pass my compliments to the Captain, and ask him if I may be permitted to visit the flight deck for the take-off”

This often raised an eyebrow and caused me to miss many welcome- aboard glasses of champagne, but I was always accepted into the “office” and would talk flying with the crew prior to departure.

I would be offered a headset and would sit on the jump seat, quietly, enjoying the takeoff and climb, only returning to my seat once we got into the cruise.

It was sometimes a bit bizarre, as the commander may have been one of my students only a few months prior, so an interesting juxtaposition of rôles.

Very often, I would be summoned to the flight deck just before the top of descent and would sit there happily until we parked at the gate, where I would eventually be reunited with the long-suffering girlfriend.

She is still a committed airfield widow, so she knows where to look for me if she hasn’t seen me for a few weeks…

I digress.

Whenever we go away on holiday, I always do some research into the local flying clubs, so that I can commit aviation around the world.

So it was on this trip.

May 2008 saw me visiting the Republic of South Africa, for the second time.

I had already booked an aeroplane from the Cape Town Flying Club – a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, so I was looking forward to conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the local area.

ZS-KSS Cessna C172 RG Cutlass. Cape Town Flying Club, May 2003

On a particularly gloomy and rain swept Wednesday, I drove my Toyota hire care to the flying club, leaving the better half to check out the the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town.

The amount of time I had available for aviation when on vacation was limited, so rather than getting a complete check flight, and sitting written exams, I elected to engage one of the club instructors to sit next to me as a safety pilot.

The flight was a simple route. Depart from Cape Town’s D.F. Malan International Airport, heading south to cross the coast at Rocklands, then turn onto a south-westerly heading to Muizenburg, where we would turn south to parallel the coast.

Just some of the route, down the South Eastern side of the Cape.

Passing the military base at Simon’s Town, we continued on at about 1000 feet, to remain clear of the cloud base.

Approaching Simon’s Town – Destroyers of the RSA Navy in clear view.

We were now descending constantly to remain in VFR conditions and eventually levelled out at about 500 feet above the sea as we rounded Cape Point.

The waters around Cape Point are treacherous, with very strong tides and localised currents giving rise to huge swells. I was thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking about having an engine failure at this moment.

Cape Point, descending to 500 feet – a grotty day indeed. Just a couple of orbits to get a photo of course.

So, having gone as far south as we could, we slid up the western side of the Cape, flying abeam of the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards, heading north.

The cloud was turning into water on the windscreen, the rivulets streaming backwards in the prop wash, and it felt as though King Neptune was reaching out of the deep to shake the aeroplane, as we bounced about in the turbulence.

We dog-legged back to the north-east at Pegrams Rock, and passed overhead the small town of Ocean View, then back to the east coast at Fishoek, then headed back to Fisantekraal, a small airfield north by north-east of Cape Town.

Fisantekraal Airfield, despite its location, it was still miserable and overcast.

Fisantekraal Airfield is an ex-South African Air Force facility that was built towards the end of World War Two. During the war, it was the home for Lockheed Ventura bombers.  A quick coffee in the ops room, and it was away back to Cape Town.

Having safely seceurd the aeroplane, and paid my bill, I sauntered out across the car park, whistling tunelessly. It had been a good flight, mixing it up on the taxi out with a SAA Boeing 737, and then having the challenge of flying marginal VFR/IFR in an unfamiliar aeroplane over some interesting terrain.

So, I left the airport, and headed up the eastern side of the Cape, to meet SWMBO, Mike and Carmen.

Mike, an old Africa hand, had spent many years in South Africa in the travel business, and as a result seemed to know all of the best places to eat.

He made sure that we weren’t disappointed. A short drive into Hout Bay saw us arriving at the Mariners Wharf restaurant – which served the most amazing food and the most excellent wines.

I retired to bed feeling very satisfied; I had flown, enjoyed superb company, ate a fantastic meal, and enjoyed some of the best wines from the Cape.

Maybe its time to do some more wandering…

Go Well…

Categories
Aircew airlines Airport aviation English Culture Flight Humour Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Security Society Transport Travel Work

That light bulb moment – a guest appearance from an old friend

The first time I met Pookie was in Summer 1991.

Blimey – that’s 29 years ago!

I was enjoying a cuppa in the baggage loaders rest room, catching my breath after working a busy departure in the gate room upstairs. I was working as a Passenger Security Agent for American AIrlines – my first airline job.

Security would’nt have been my first choice of job – I was already a qualified pilot, and had passed all of my Flight Operations and Despatch exams, but nobody gets hired into a blue chip airline in Flight Ops. The only way in is either as a Check In Agent, a Baggage Loader, or a Security Agent.

I chose Security Agent.

The decision was a simple one. After PanAm 103 was brought down at Lockerbie just two and a half years previously, security was uppermost in everyone’s mind. American Airlines were using the profiling system at the time, similar to that used by El-Al.

I learnt behavioural psychology, how to question, how to conduct a proper body search (NOT how Hollywood imagines that it is done) and how to use a security X-Ray machine.

I just thought at the time, that this would be more interesting than seeing a procession of faces, all demanding an upgrade, or doing my back in hefting overloaded bags.

Working in Ops is considered a plum job, as it is remote from the passengers, is conducted in the dry, and is intellectually demanding.

I found an empty space at one of the grubby tables, and sat down to enjoy my brew.

I saw a dark blue silhouette lurch to a stop outside the building, blanking the sunlight streaming through the window, plunging the restroom into a gloom that matched it’s decor.

The door slammed open, and a bearded bloke in his forties appeared. Walking over, he dropped an overstuffed clipboard onto the table, saying “Mind if I join you”

“Help Yourself” I replied, watching as he swiftly made a coffee at the small sink.

Returning to the table, he proffered his hand, saying “I’m Bev, I’m doing the Royal Mail”

I must have looked a bit blank, because he laughed, and said “Mail Sacks – You know, letters for air mail”

I shook his hand, telling him I was in security.

We spent about half an hour exchaning our histories, and it came up in the conversation that we both flew. He had a share in a De Havilland Chipmunk down at Shoreham, and I flew Piper Warriors and Cessnas at Popham.

We went our spearate ways, and it wasn’t until another three years had passed that I ran into Pookie again.

I was the new boy in Flight Operations. Having returned from eighteen months working as Special Services Manager at Stansted, I had finally obtained a position in Ops.

There, sitting at the main control desk was Bev, quietly and efficiently running the entire ground operation at London Heathrow for the 14 daily flights.

I worked with Bev closely for the next three years, and came to love his gentle humour and his ability to produce fantastic caricatures of his colleagues.

Thanks Bev… This is the only one that you wont get sued for!

Once we had got to know each other, we flew together on many occassions, and in any number of different aircraft. I have shared the sky with him in the delightful Chipmunk, pulling gentle loops, rolls and stall turns over the timeless, grassy south downs.

The DHC-1 Chipmunk at Goodwood… A six-gallon per hour Spitfire.

We pottered up and down the south coast of England enjoying summer in a PZL Wilga (A delightful Polish cross between a combine harvester and an aircraft).

PZL- Wilga. A very interesting aeroplane…

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in a Piper Warrior, and did a low pass at the small grass strip in Sussex appropriately named Kittyhawk.

Kittyhawk – an Appropriate place to do a low pass on the 100th Anniversary of flight, December 17th 2003

We have fooled about in the Citabria, and been school kids in the Stolp Starduster Too. And what can be better than flying in a Bücker Jungmann with a friend, whilst another friend formates on you in a Stampe?

Ahh yes, The wonderful old Bücker Jungmann, A lovely old Fräulein of the skies…

Anyhow, getting back on track…

Pookie’s sense of fun has often been unleashed on his poor, unsuspecting colleagues.

Below is his account of an episode that amused us all back in Ops whilst he was on holiday one year..

Thanks for all the laughs over the years Bev…

And as for the flying?

Well – that’s been a blast!

Good Friends, Beer, on an Airfield at Sunset… What could be better?

Over to you.

The following was written by Bev Pook, Pilot, Humourist, Motorcyclist, Bon Vivant and Good Friend.

Pookie – probably considering another practical joke, or wondering if he should bash out another quick caricature…

A Lightbulb On Vacation.

Back in the mid-nineties, I was working for American Airlines as a Flight Operations Agent, planning flights, briefing crews, and coordinating everything to ensure flights arrived and departed on time.

The flight operations room had few windows and was lit with harsh fluorescent lights, which are difficult to work with due to their flicker,  The flicker isn’t normally discernible unless you concentrate on your peripheral vision and it can then be sensed.

These lights are very good for office work as they cast little or no shadow, but if using a computer screen (which also flickers) they can cause sight problems as your iris struggles to cope with the flickering.

Enough of the technical details then.

Being heartily fed up with the eye-ache, I ferreted around for a solution, and during one very uneventful night shift, I found a battered old Angle Poise lamp which had been discarded into a dark and cluttered corner of an unused office.

What a find! My Eyeballs were finally happy!

Further investigating led me to a new bulb in a cupboard, and once wiped off with a cloth, the old lamp worked perfectly.

I placed it on the main Ops desk in and I would use it whenever I was positioned in that area. I found it particularly useful on night shifts when I worked alone and could turn off the fluorescents and enjoy a softer light emitted by an incandescent light bulb.

However, I found nobody else seemed to appreciate my light as when I returned on shift after a few days off, the lamp had been pushed back out of the way.

Just before I went on vacation the bulb blew, so I threw it away and departed for a fortnights tranquillity. No sooner had I returned from holiday, I was accosted by my work companions who accused me of taking the bulb on holiday.

Because of this, I decided that my next vacation would see me having some fun at their expense. This time I took the bulb out of the fitting and locked it away in my cabinet, leaving the office with the Angle Poise containing no light source.

After a long and boring flight, I eventually arrived in Muskogee Oklahoma and was met by my good friends, with whom I would be spending my vacation.

Over breakfast the next morning, I asked Terry if I could borrow one of their light bulbs, which was greeted by a strange look but I did get the light bulb.

I then started taking photos of the bulb and me on holiday. Each picture got more and more elaborate and set up to highlight (excuse the pun) that I had indeed this time taken the bulb with me.

Here are a few of those pictures.

I hope you enjoy my rather schoolboy humour.

light bulb 1
Me, the bulb and Elvis at the Muskogee Airshow. I caught him just as he was leaving…
light bulb 2
light bulb 3
The bulb playing a light-fingered bandit
light bulb 4
The bulb and I, about to go flying in a microlight
light bulb 6
Making light of wing walking

Sorry Bev, I would have published this as an “Illuminated” manuscript, but couldn’t find the correct keys.

Go Well…