Categories
Ecological education Electric Transport English Culture Environment Motoring Science shipping Technology Transport Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?

Traditionally, the predominantly male operators of any form of transport craft confer a female personality to their vehicles. Down at a south coast yachting marina recently, I heard a proud owner boasting to a friend, saying “She’s truly beautiful”.

Pilots, including me, refer to their aircraft as “She”. “She flies nicely”, or “She doesn’t like being thrown about”, “She needs a touch of power when rounding out to land”.

Who could argue that She is beautiful. Supermarine Spitfire showing her elegance. Image courtesy Airwolfhound under CCA SA 2.0

It’s the same with cars, and it’s common to hear people, including women, referring to their cars as “She”. Before I get angry comments from my lady readers – yes, I am aware that many women own male cars, some that I know even name them.

The tradition of referring to a vessel as “She” goes back to ancient times. Nowadays, people may consider that this is somehow sexist, and objectifies women.

I prefer to believe that it’s more fundamental than that. Our early mariners were a superstitious bunch, and believed that the ship in which they sailed would offer protection and guidance, in much the same way that a mother or goddess would.

I refer to my aircraft as a “She”, as in my eyes she is elegant, pleasing to the eye, and demands to be treated with respect.

Today, there appears to be another reason.

Now, be honest. How many of you chaps out there believe that you don’t understand the woman in your life? How many long-suffering ladies out there are stupefied with their blokes’ methods and logic?

I have been happily with SWMBO for over three decades, but there are times when I am truly and utterly baffled by her. I know for sure that she experiences the same sense of bewilderment with my behaviour.

You may be wondering where this is going, but stay with me, dear reader.

If, like me, you own and operate, say, a five-year-old car, it will be fitted with some basic driver assistance systems. My car has rear parking sensors and steerable headlights. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It has standard Cruise Control, and an anti-lock braking system, like the one fitted to my previous 2002 Skoda Octavia.

If you decide to invest in a new car today, be prepared to be a little baffled by its behaviour and systems. (New cars are definitely female!).

In a previous article, I mentioned the Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are fitted to modern vehicles.

It’s likely your new pride and joy will be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assistance, Blind Spot Monitoring, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Avoidance Systems, Driver Alertness Monitoring, 360º Cameras and Intelligent Parking Aids.

To make the best use of these systems, drivers need to fully understand how they operate.

A few months ago, I decided to evaluate electric cars. I arranged to test drive cars provided by three of the main manufacturers, Kia, Nissan and MG.

Now, bearing in mind that all the vehicles I tested were fitted with some sophisticated systems, you would have thought that a full tutorial or some guidance would be offered by the salesmen before they let me loose on the road in one of their expensive cars.

Not quite.

All the dealers involved were more than happy to show me the boot space, and the clever stowages and storage areas, and gave me a very brief explanation of how to interpret the instruments and how to use the infotainment system, but not one discussed any elements of the ADAS in any real detail at all.

Luckily, I had conducted quite a bit of prior research, so I had a reasonable idea of how to change the level of regenerative braking, and how to use the different driving modes. However, there were many systems that, whilst I knew they were there, I had no idea how to configure them.

I have several friends who have recently purchased new cars, and when picking up their new vehicles, each one received no real training on how to use the systems correctly and effectively.

I have considered this, and it seems that this presents a bigger problem than I initially thought.

After collecting their new car from the dealer, proud owners will drive their new vehicle home, and maybe they will find the time to sit and wade through the Driver’s Handbook or Owner’s Manual. The onus is very much on them to gain understanding of the plethora of safety systems that their car is now loaded with.

More mature drivers, such as myself, will fall back on our “What’s to learn” mentality. We have grown up with cars fitted with few safety systems – maybe embryonic energy absorbing crumple zones, and collapsible steering columns. This is flawed thinking!


We had relatively unsophisticated in-car entertainment – maybe a push button radio, or a radio cassette player if we were driving a more luxurious model. I can remember being delighted with the fact that my first company car was fitted with a proper heated rear window and a fitted rear wash/wipe system.

Our cars were so simple that we just picked up the use of what systems we had as we drove. I think my biggest challenge was remembering on which side of the steering column the indicator control was located. The first few days of driving was always entertaining, with me switching the wipers on before making a turn!

So, for drivers of my generation, it is possible that we have a degree of complacency about the new systems, and maybe we don’t bother to sit down and read the book. (I do, but then I’m a bit geeky, having been a flight technical instructor for the past two decades!).

That may not be a good attitude to have these days.

In my world of professional aviation, we frequently refer to human factors, and even have training sessions on how simply being human affects the way in which a pilot interacts with an aeroplane.

There is a lot of automation on a modern aircraft flight deck. Autopilot, Auto Throttles, Flight Control Computers, Flight Management Computers, Automated Anti-Collision Systems, Ground Proximity Warning Systems, and Electronic Checklists and Diagnostics.

All of these systems must be understood, reacted to correctly, and effectively managed by the flight crew.

Despite high levels of safety-related automation, there are still incidents involving the crew falling asleep in flight, and flying past their destination. We still hear of aircraft being landed at the wrong airfields.

The same human factors will come into play in our increasingly automated cars.

There have been numerous reports of Tesla cars being involved in colliding with emergency vehicles whilst the Autopilot was engaged.

Most definitely human factors incidents, as the drivers simply assumed that the car was infallible, and therefore mentally disengaged and stopped supervising the on-board equipment.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly showed that once drivers had engaged the Autopilot (or Adaptive Cruise Control) their focus of attention changed, and they spent much longer looking inside their cars, than paying attention to the road ahead.

Sometimes, drivers disengage to the point of falling asleep!

See this video of a Tesla driver, cruising and snoozing!

As a result, Nissan, at least, has incorporated what it calls an Intelligent Driver Alertness System. This system monitors the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, and, using algorithms, it can predict the onset of tiredness and inattention. As arousal levels reduce, the chances of an accident increase, so the system suggests taking a break.

Screenshot of the Arousal Monitor. Wish my car would invite me for a coffee…

When I learned to drive, before making any manoeuvre, the mantra was “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. That has become ingrained behaviour, reinforced with 44 years of driving and in the region of 1.1 million miles travelled.

Wow! I have never worked that out before.

As a result, before lane changing, I always throw a quick glance in the door mirror. I have also ridden motorcycles for many years, so I can’t get out of the habit of looking over my shoulder as well.

If all is clear, I change lanes. Lots of people don’t do this and I have had to brake heavily to avoid being sideswiped on several occasions.

Interestingly, the Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems being fitted to cars now are really good. You may be lucky enough to drive such a car, and, in many cases, the door mirror contains an indicator that turns amber when another vehicle intrudes into the safety zone, and turn red if a collision would result in the driver changing lanes.

Another piece of research studied the rates of lane-changing accidents across 26 US States. It found that accidents causing an injury were reduced by 23% in vehicles fitted with BSM systems.

If every US vehicle in 2015 had been fitted with BSM, it is estimated that 50,000 accidents and 16,000 injuries could have been avoided!

The other aspect of Blind Spot Monitoring is that used when parking or reversing. Now, I use all three mirrors, even though my car has a rudimentary parking aid that sounds a tone with increasing frequency as I reverse closer to a solid object – including a person, although I have never tried this.

Now, a further study has shown that the drivers of cars fitted with rear view cameras and sensors do not look to the sides of their vehicle before commencing reversing manoeuvres

Surprisingly, the use of rear-view monitoring cameras only reduced accidents involving “reversing into or over something” (maybe a person??) by 17%.

Still, a 17% reduction, is better than no reduction at all.

So, it all boils down to training and gaining an understanding of the equipment fitted to our cars.

I decided to check what the UK Driving Syllabus includes for cars and light vans (Class B Vehicles).

What I found was of interest.

As the document is undated, but is on the government’s assets publishing service site, as at October 2021, I assume it is a current piece of guidance.

I quickly reviewed it, and found two main concerns.

Firstly, it only mentions one Automatic Driver Assistance System, and that is Cruise Control.

Secondly, it focuses totally on driving a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Not a single mention of electric cars.

I do understand that they haven’t been around for very long – I mean, the Nissan Leaf has only been on the road since 2010, and what’s eleven years when you are setting the standards for people to learn to drive?

Sarcasm aside, there must be a need to teach new generations of drivers about the features, advantages and benefits of their vehicle’s on-board safety systems.

Maybe they should also be teaching students about the limitations of both those very same on-board systems, and their limitations as a human being.

You decide…

Go Well.

Categories
APPRENTICE biographic accounts Driving education English History Motoring Society Travel Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Was it That Long Ago?

Exactly 44 years ago today, I passed my driving test.

I was seventeen, and was being taught to drive by my Father. This was for two reasons. Firstly, in order to wean me off motorcycles, he offered to do it for free, and secondly, I had bought a car in which to learn. 

My first car was a twelve-year-old Morris 1100 saloon. It was, in many respects, a great car to learn to drive in.

Not my car – but the same model and colour

It was a simple machine, with no clever safety systems – apart from old fashioned lift latch buckle seat belts.

It didn’t even have any real “comfort” systems if you exclude the two-speed fan assisted heater.

Its front wheel drive made it easy to drive round the country lanes of Sussex where I grew up. 

The Morris 1100 was quite revolutionary when it rolled off the production line in 1965. It used the new space-saving BMC-designed Hydrolastic suspension system. 

To put it simply, this system replaced the springs and shock absorbers used in conventional cars with rubber bladders known as displacer units at each wheel.

The front and rear bladders on each side of the car were connected together with pipes and valves. When the front wheel encountered a bump in the road, it would force fluid from the front bladder to the rear bladder, which minimised the pitching of the car over bumpy roads.

It also had a brilliant side effect for a learner. It made hill starts really simple.

On a hill, with the parking brake applied, all one had to do was engage first gear, cover the brake pedal, and let the clutch up slowly. The vehicle would then gently rise up on the rear suspension. As soon as this happened, the handbrake could be removed without the car rolling backwards.

I must say it helped me considerably!

So, back to the point. 

I had applied for my provisional driving licence and got it back in time for my 17th birthday. I had to buy my very first driving insurance policy out of my meagre apprentice pay, so it was a third party only policy. 

The good old paper driving licence, showing provisional driving entitlements. Not mine though!

I guess this was a bit of a calculated risk. I assumed that it was a little unlikely to spontaneously combust, and any self-respecting car thief would be horrified to steal such a shabby looking car – especially one that had a slightly Miss Marple image.

For my first lesson, it was decided that we would leave the house very early to avoid traffic as much as possible. We agreed that we would use quiet country roads to start with and then progress to busier streets and towns. 

I jumped in the passenger seat, and we drove sedately to the south west edge of the town, heading for the village of Turners Hill. 

Dad pulled over onto a layby at the right, and we swapped seats. 

After 44 years, the lay-by is still the same…

Crunching the gears, I kangarooed off on the start of my driving adventures – and all without the aid of dual controls!

An hour of driving up to the village, turning around, and driving back to the layby resulted in me being able to change up and down the gearbox, and smoothly pull away.

So, it continued. Practicing reversing into a parking bay on the Imberhorne industrial estate, reversing around a corner, and three-point turns. Hill starts without the car rolling backwards and crushing the matchbox that my father had placed behind the rear wheel.

Eventually, after a few months, Dad pronounced me ready for test, and so I applied. Crawley was the closest test centre, so in preparation I regularly drove the family over to Crawley for Saturday shopping, and was reasonably familiar with the place.

I eventually got my test date, which was the 2nd of February 1977. This was a Wednesday, and Dad couldn’t get leave to get me to the test centre.

Luckily, one of my Air Cadet friends who had passed his test the previous summer offered to take me.

My test was as simple as my car.

Upon arrival, I reported to the receptionist, and she asked me to take a seat. In due course, I met my examiner; he looked a little like Sherlock Holmes, complete with a deerstalker hat.

Having checked my provisional driving licence and my insurance documents, he asked me to read a nearby car number plate, which I did with ease. Not sure I could do it today without my varifocals!

Without further conversation, we got into my car, and I drove around Crawley, following his directions. 

The emergency stop was for real, rather than him banging on the dashboard in accordance with his briefing.  I was “making good progress” and driving at just under the posted 30 MPH limit, when a car suddenly pulled out of a side junction.

I slammed the brakes on, and the car rapidly came to a stop, without me locking any of the wheels up and skidding on the cold damp tarmac.

The deceleration forces were impressive. His clipboard shot into the footwell, and he pitched forwards. “Oh god” I thought, please don’t let the examiner break his nose on my car”

Luckily, he didn’t. Leaning back into his seat, he turned and smiled at me. “That was very good. I shan’t be asking you to do a further emergency stop.”

Having completed all the required test items, we drove back to the test centre, and he fished a folder out of his battered briefcase.

Flipping through the folder, he randomly selected road signs and marking and asked me what they represented.

I obviously answered correctly, as he ponderously got out of the car and trudged back to the warmth of the test centre.

He gravely started filling out a document. Was it a failure or pass certificate? 

“Well done Mr. Charlwood. You have passed. Congratulations!”

So – I was one of the 40% of test applicants that passed their test first time!

I thanked him, and went to see Andy who was waiting patiently. “Well?” he enquired. “Am I driving back, or are you?”

“I am” I said proudly. We went to the car park, and ceremoniously ripped the L plates from my car, and I nonchalantly tossed them onto the back seat for disposal later.

We then drove to Brighton and back on the busy A23. 

Just because we could!

However, things are very different now. 

The driving test has metamorphosed into something much more complex. Hill starts and reversing round corners have been removed from the test, and navigating whilst driving using a GPS Satellite Navigation system has been included. 

The almost casual theory questions used by my examiner in his ring binder are gone – replaced by a formal theory test, which is computer based. 

The theory test also includes a hazard perception test, using 14 short video clips to establish whether the candidate has good recognition of developing hazards and risk assessment skills.

Bizarrely, (in my opinion) candidates may use vehicles that have hill start assistance systems.

In my world of professional aviation, skills tests are conducted using the equipment fitted to the aircraft, but candidates still have to demonstrate navigating or performing the required manoeuvres with the enhanced systems shut down, thus demonstrating that they can control their aircraft in all situations.

Having said that, my car is fitted with a hill start assist system and there is no means of disconnecting it. I guess thats the same in most current cars. Unless you know better?

I must add, somewhat smugly, that it never activates, because I was taught how to do a hill start using blended clutch and brake control.

The driving syllabus and the test upon which it is based unfortunately lags considerably behind the rapid development of Autonomous Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).

To illustrate this, new drivers are not currently required to be taught the use of cruise control, or to recognise its limitations, and how to use it safely.

So, where do YOU place your feet when the cruise control is active and engaged?

I keep my foot over the accelerator. Some people I have driven with place both feet onto the floor.

I find this a little startling. 

Simple risk assessment shows that it is possible to lose spatial awareness of where the pedals are in relation to the drivers’ feet. In an emergency, do you really, instinctively, know where the brake pedal is?

New vehicles are loaded with ADAS, and whilst many younger drivers may not be able to afford new cars, they should still be aware of the types of systems available. New drivers may be renting cars to which these devices are fitted, or be given a company car which has many safety systems fitted as standard.

Statistics show clearly that the highest risk groups for accidents are very young drivers (17-21), and the elderly (80+) both of whom may not have sufficiently developed judgement to ensure their safety. 

Both groups are unlikely to be driving the latest cars which have the additional safety systems.

So maybe those that need a good understanding of ADAS and would benefit from the additional safety, are the drivers most unlikely to have a car fitted with it.

At some point the driving syllabus and the test will address these issues.

Until that time, all I can say is…

Drive defensively and learn as much as you can about the systems that YOUR car is fitted with.

Go well, and be safe!

Categories
Driving education English Culture Motoring Science Technology Training Transport Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Autonomous Vehicle Safety Devices – Do you turn YOURS off?

If you drive a fairly recent car, it will, in all probability, have a number of added features to make driving not only a more enjoyable experience, but also a safer one.

When I started driving in the mid-1970s, driver safety systems – apart from the most basic, were virtually non-existent.

I started my driving career at the age of 16 with a 1965 Austin 1100.

Same colour, same condition – different registration! This is a 1966 model

Minimal controls, no radio to distract, and hydrolastic suspension, which for those of you that are not familiar with it, made performing hill starts a simple manoeuvre.

A four-speed gearbox, and a disproportionately large steering wheel by todays standards. (This was to compensate for the lack of any sort of power assisted steering).  

My parents believed this to be an ideal car for a learner.

But was it?

It had absolutely no safety features. Not even a collapsible steering column! In vehicles without such a device, in a frontal crash, the impact and subsequent deformation of the body shell and chassis could drive the steering column backward, in many cases impaling the driver to the seat.

Austin/Morris 1100. Simple, uncluttered, yet maybe deadly!

Interestingly, a patent was filed for a collapsible steering column way back in 1934, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Mercedes Benz fitted them to its MB W111 Fintail. We had to wait until 1968 before Ford fitted them as a standard item to all new cars.

My car did have one quite advanced feature – it was fitted with disc brakes on the front wheels, and drum brakes on the rear wheels, making it almost unique for a small, mass-produced car in the early sixties.

Let’s move on to crumple zones. My little car was built quite simply, and any energy created in a crash impact would be transmitted throughout the whole car until it dissipated. Modern cars are now designed with front and rear panels that deform in a controlled manner, spreading the loads and therefore dissipating the energy to survivable levels before it reaches the occupants.

Volvo introduced longitudinal steel bars to protect the occupants from side impacts, a system that Volvo imaginatively called SIPS, Side Impact Protection System. That was back in the early 1990s, and now all modern cars are built with a rigid passenger safety cell which, amongst other things, prevents the engine from being forced into the passenger compartment.

Losing control of a vehicle causes many accidents. The moment that wheels lock up under heavy braking, is the moment that the driver effectively becomes a passenger, and the skidding car has an uncontrollable trajectory, potentially leading to an impact.

The aviation industry has been using anti-lock brakes since the 1950s when Dunlop invented the Maxaret system, which was fitted to various aircraft types. By preventing the wheels locking up, aircraft landing distances could be reduced by up to 30%, and the use of the system extended the life of tyres considerably.

Vehicle engineers weren’t slow to recognise the opportunity to enhance car safety, and in 1966, the Jensen FF Interceptor became the first production car to be fitted with mechanical anti-lock brakes.

Jensen FF Interceptor – 4 Wheel Drive, and the first production car with Anti Lock Brakes

Modern systems are fully electronic, and are so sophisticated that they can work in conjunction with electronic stability systems to reduce brake pressure on one wheel, or even redistribute the brake effort from front to rear, or even side to side to ensure that the driver remains in control.

Other safety features are less glitzy, including the humble padded dashboard and flexible sun visors, to head restraints and laminated windscreens, but I am sure they have all made a positive contribution to reducing post-impact injuries.

Air Bags and Air Curtains, Seat belt pre-tensioners (to tighten the lap-strap within milliseconds of an impact being detected) and tyre pressure monitoring systems play a more active role in saving lives.

Air Bag Deploying during a Crash Test

Safety device development continues at high rate.

Due to the ever-increasing sophistication of vehicle on-board computer systems, and better understanding of accident causal factors, there are a now a complete suite of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are being fitted into new cars.

Lane Departure Systems that monitor the vehicles distance from lane markings warn the driver (and in some models will intervene to bring the car back into its own lane) of a deviation from the chosen lane.

Tesla instrument binnacle, showing lane departure system- Photo copyright Ian Maddox

Blind Spot Monitoring uses a system of sensors and cameras to detect vehicles in adjacent lanes and activates a warning – either in the external door mirrors or within the driver’s area of vision. Some of these monitors will also activate when the car is placed into reverse gear, and will warn of approaching vehicles or pedestrians. This enables cars to be safely reversed out of car parking spaces.

Blind Spot Monitoring System – Mirror mounted camera. Photo by Emancipator

Active Cruise Control (ACC) may be set up to automatically maintain a certain speed and distance from vehicles in front. and will automatically decelerate the car if the car in front slows down. If the spacing limit is breached, then the system will communicate with the braking system to apply the brakes. Drivers will also be warned by an audible alarm and a visual prompt to intervene and apply the brakes.

Adaptive Cruise Control Display. Image courtesy Audi AG

Driver Monitoring Systems can measure the level of arousal and alertness of the driver, using eye tracking technology, and driver steering inputs. If the driver begins to exhibit symptoms of drowsiness or incapacitation, the system will activate, generating a loud audible warning, and in some cases the seat or steering wheel may vibrate.

Should the driver not react to an obstacle under these circumstances, the car systems will intervene and take avoiding action.

Many accidents occur due to breaches of the speed limit, so ADAS provides another system – Intelligent Speed Adaption to assist in preventing a driver from exceeding speed limits.

These systems may either be active or passive in nature; passive ISA will simply warn of an exceedance, whilst active ISA will either exert a deceleration force against the accelerator pedal, or will reduce engine power and apply the brakes.

My current car was manufactured in 2017. It has standard cruise control, electronic stability control, ABS and is littered with airbags.

My only additional Driver Safety Systems are manually optimised…

I use the mark one eyeball and good driving practices that were ingrained in me during my driver training. Mirror Signal Manoeuvre when changing lanes or joining a motorway. A good habit picked up from being a motorcyclist – I actually turn my head and look over my shoulder when lane changing.

Despite all of these advanced safety systems being available, many people are ignorant of the systems fitted to their cars.

In part, this is due to sales staff at dealerships being either unwilling, or unable to explain satisfactorily how the systems work, the advantages and practical use of the systems, and the limitations of the systems when in everyday use.

Secondly, having checked the Driver Standards and Vehicle Agency website, and reviewed the UK Driving Test Syllabus, there appears to be nothing in the course to ensure that drivers have an understanding of integrated safety systems.

Unless Approved Driving Instructors teach the practicalities of Advanced Driving Assistance Systems, and their limitations, drivers will remain in ignorance of the benefits that these devices offer.

According to a recent survey conducted by Autoglass, 41% of drivers with ADAS equipped vehicles intentionally disabled safety devices such as Autonomous Emergency Braking and Lane Departure devices!

The survey further revealed that 24% of those drivers responded that they were not provided with any information about the importance of these features and how they work when they had the vehicle handed over to them.

55% were unaware that these safety-critical systems need to be re-claibrated following a replacement of windscreens of repair of panel damage.

67% stated that they believed that more education and training is needed before driving ADAS-equipped cars.

The best safety device in every vehicle is a well trained driver. A well trained driver would not disable safety systems designed to save lives.

Maybe its time to start the training?

Categories
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?