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Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside!

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”

Over the next few weeks, I was to work closely with Ben, learning how to fit everything from direct line phones, small private exchanges, and office extensions. 

However, in line with the requirements of apprentice training, I was to move to a new duty within a few days, and would be working with another section of installing engineers.  

It was a bright, sunny morning in early January, as I cycled into the yard, whistling cheerily. I had enjoyed a very drunken and debauched Christmas, culminating in me ingloriously puking my guts up in the toilet at one o’clock on Christmas morning. Needless to say, my parents were somewhat unimpressed with the conduct of their sixteen year old son.  

I had risen very late on that day in order to make a very feeble and half-hearted attempt to eat some Christmas lunch. Unlike my parents, my younger brother found my delicate state very amusing, but I rose above it in a very dignified manner, and retired to my chambers as soon as I could excuse myself from the table. 

I think Mum and Dad forgave my transgressions by New Year’s Day, and I subsequently launched myself enthusiastically into 1976. 

The morning of the first of January dawned, and I woke to find myself in a strange room, laying on a strange sofa. Next to me was a strange woman, and by our nakedness, and the way she was draped across me, I can only assume that we had shared the New Year’s celebrations in a very favourable fashion.

I gently disengaged myself from her sleepy clutches, and pulled my jeans and sweatshirt on.  After a good deal of silent searching, I finally found my beaten up old trainers in the oven.  This was somewhat bemusing, as I could have sworn I left them in the fridge. 

I spotted my mate, in whose parent’s home we had been partying. He was still unconscious, clutching a bucket and was semi-naked. 

The lounge looked like a scene from a B-Grade zombie movie, and in the gloom, I could make out several bodies, laying in the debris of our partying. I had never seen so many empty beer cans and wine bottles. The ashtrays were overflowing, and the place would take forever to clear up.

I eased the front door open, and recoiled from the bright, crisp, sunlight of the day.  Squinting, I unsteadily tottered up the garden path, trying to remember how I got here. 

More importantly, where was here?  

I was in a strange part of the town that I was unfamiliar with.  I finally remembered that I had ridden here on my bike, and that I had dumped it in the garden shed.

I pulled the shed door open, and disentangled my bike from the couple asleep on the floor. It looked like they had both passed out whilst on the job, and I grinned, regretting to hell that I didn’t have a camera. 

I did have a paintbrush though, as it was laying on the shelf, so I quietly opened a tin of paint at random, and proceeded to decorate the chap’s buttocks.  He didn’t even stir.  I wondered how long it would take to remove.

With a chuckle, I swung my leg over the bike, and pedaled precariously up the road, hoping to find a familiar landmark from which I could navigate back home.

Getting to a junction, I spotted a house that I recognised from my paper round many years ago.  Having gained a mental fix of my position, it took me a further twenty minutes to pedal my way groggily home.  

All in all, my start to 1976 had been great fun.  I had enjoyed a great party, had a very good time with a not unattractive woman, and managed to cycle home without either falling off, spewing up, or being killed. 

Still thinking these thoughts, I strolled into the yard office, to see Ben talking with Nick Nixon. Nick was to be my new mentor, as Ben was attending a training course at Bletchley Park. Nick was plump, tousle-haired and very loud. In my opinion, he was also a certifiable lunatic.  

“What Ho!” He said, noticing me, “Grab a tea, and meet me by my van….it’s the Bedford HA parked by the bike shed”

Bedford HA Van – A True Gutless Wonder

I made a quick cup of tea, and stood by the window, idly watching the traffic meandering up and down. I smiled. I could see my old school across the road, and I smugly imagined the glum faces on the kids as they filed into their classrooms for registration. A few short months ago, that was me.

I swilled my cup out, dumping it on the draining board, and strode out to the car park, collecting my toolkit from my locker en-route. 

When I got to the van, Nick was leaning against it, rolling a cigarette. “Help yourself lad” he said, throwing me a battered tobacco tin, and some green Rizla papers.

Old Holborn, My Go To Tobacco… Golden Virginia as a Reserve!

I caught them adroitly, and opened the tin, relishing the rich smell of the moist tobacco. I pulled a paper from the case, and rolled a fairly inexpert tube, and ran it across my tongue.

I was a recent newcomer to smoking, and had smoked a few Players No 6 with friends at school, but was always short of money, so was not a smoker in the true sense of the word. 

Now I was earning money. £18.35 per week to be precise. After tax, this was about £14.00 a week. I gave my Mum £7.00 a week for keep, leaving me £7.00. From this, I was able to buy my lunches, and clothes, and still have enough to buy a book, or a music cassette. Beer was only 32p a pint, so I could afford to go out on a Friday night with my friends and have a very good evening.

I was also able to afford to smoke. I started off buying tailor-made cigarettes, mainly Guards or Embassy as they were cheap.  However, most of the blokes at work rolled their own. 

Now just a memory, but back in the 70s, I was getting through 20 a day…

I soon came to see the logic of this. Ready-made cigarettes are treated with chemicals, and once lit, they continue to burn all the way to the filter. 

As engineers, we are frequently using both hands – wiring up equipment, and building up systems. Tailor-mades tend to be wasted. Roll ups on the other hand, go out if they are not being actively smoked. So, you can Stoke up, have a couple of drags, put it in the ashtray, and continue working. Ten minutes later, you would have finished a task, and could relight the Rollie

So, now I had my own ‘baccy tin, and could roll a cigarette. Not a pretty one, but I had finally learnt the correct amount of tobacco to roll, and how tightly to roll it.  Too much tobacco, and it won’t draw.  Too little and it burns like a forest fire, and is done in 2 minutes.  Just enough, and it’s ideal.  

However, I had yet to perfect the neat cylindrical tubes that my workmates could roll, some using just one hand to do it. – whilst driving I might add!

Having rolled a ciggy each, we jumped in the van, and Nick fired up the engine, and hurtled in reverse out of the parking space. Flinging the wheel on full opposite lock, he gunned the engine, and we screamed out of the yard, accompanied by the sound of skidding wheels. I could hear equipment being thrown around in the back. 

I was soon to discover that this was Nick’s normal driving style. Everything was full acceleration, and full braking.

The Bedford HA was truly gutless, and he had to really work at it to get it to 50. Ben’s Ford Escort van could run rings round it. 

At this point in time, I was about to start learning to drive. I would be 17 in May, so I was observing all I could about how a car was operated. So, as Nick was driving, I was trying to anticipate his gear changes, mimicking his use of the accelerator and clutch pedals, moving my feet around in the footwell. 

I had been doing this for a few days, and thought I was being discrete, until Nick yelled “Not yet, lad, I’m still accelerating”. He laughed as I squirmed with embarrassment. “When do you start learning?” “May” I responded. “Ok…….when we get on farm tracks, dirt roads and lanes and such like, you can have a go” He glanced across at me, still smiling. 

We chatted amiably as he drove us to Copthorne.  We were due to fit a House Exchange System 4 into some of the buildings at the Copthorne School. The job was big enough for us to be there two days in a row.

The HES 4… Cutting Edge Technology back then!

We pulled up outside the main school building, and the caretaker wandered out from the gloom to meet us.

The self contained exchange equipment was to be fitted in the cellar, with the main switchboard phone to be located in the school secretary’s office. Further extensions were to be fitted in the staff room, the kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and the caretaker’s office. 

As I hadn’t attended the course for wiring up the exchange yet, Nick suggested that I run the cables to the various rooms, so I spent the next few hours running cream cabling around the building. It was undemanding work, and I had two of the runs neatly pinned to the walls by lunchtime. 

Once we had wolfed down lunch, kindly provided by the school, Nick and I settled down to a post prandial cigarette. Eventually, we could avoid it no longer, so we went back to work.

I had the time-consuming job of bringing a cable to the caretakers house. This was a long run, and I needed to suspend a span of cable across the playground. I’m afraid that this took the rest of the afternoon. 

Well, until half past two anyway. 

We had to be back at the yard for 1500, as we both needed to do a bit of shopping. So we threw the tools into the back of the van, and went back to East Grinstead. We were coming back tomorrow anyway. 

The next day, we completed the job, and were back in the yard by ten o clock. After a cup of tea, and a cigarette, Nick phoned control for our next job.

In the mid nineteen seventies, Post Office Telecommunications operated a simple work allocation system. Faults and job control was located in HQ in Tunbridge Wells, and every morning, the engineers  would call in and would be given a job number and details of the nature of the work, and the tests that had been carried out. Each job was allocated a number of units. 

Each unit was one man hour. So, a simple job, say, fitting a single exchange line into a suburban terraced house would probably carry 1.5 units.

Naturally, larger jobs would carry more units, so a big installation at an office could carry maybe 16 units.  One man for two days, or two men for one day.

It was a simple and effective system.

On this occasion, Nick came off the phone looking glum. “It’s a biggie lad” he said, “Empty offices in Church Road. Recover a private exchange system and 18 extensions. It’s 8 units. That’s all day. You don’t count” he said.

That was true. As an unqualified apprentice, although I could assist, my labour wasn’t included in the calculations. 

“Let’s go and check the job out then” he said. He dug around in his pocket, looking for his lighter. I proffered mine, a shiny new Zippo – we all used them, as they were better in outside windy conditions.

Zippo – Able to light a roll up in a 30 MPH wind, on top of a 40 foot Telephone Pole…

Stoking up, he wandered to the van, with me following on. We drove up through the High Street, and cruised slowly past the war memorial. 

I have always loved the “top of the town” as it has a feeling of permanence, and is steeped in history, with many of the buildings going back to the Middle Ages. The old jail goes back to the early 1400s. We turned left into Church Road, and screeched to a stop outside the empty office.

We were on double yellows lines, and I mentioned it to Nick. He laughed, and said that “Happy Jack” would be ok with it, but to be on the safe side, he asked me to switch on the bar.

I looked at him blankly. “Bar?” I repeated…….

“Yes. – Bee Ay Ar. Beacon, Amber, Rotating”. Ahhh.  Now I understood. 

I reached back into the cab, and switched on the beacon, and could hear it’s motor grinding away on the roof.

We opened the dull red door to the old four storey building, and wandered around, looking at the wiring we would have to recover.  The exchange system was downstairs in a grimy cold and damp cellar, and the last two extension phones were located in tiny offices up in the eaves. 

Nick sucked his teeth, and sat down on an old box, fishing his cigarette kit out of his jacket pocket.  Swiftly rolling a cigarette, he tossed it at me, and rolled another. We lit up, and after snorting twin plumes of smoke, he said

“We’ll go back to the yard, have lunch, and then come back and make a start…..if we work quickly we can get most of it completed by close of play, and just finish off tomorrow.”

So saying, we ambled back to the van, and drove back to the yard, quite slowly, as Nick was obviously preoccupied with his thoughts. 

When we arrived at the yard, it was empty. We were obviously first back. 

The phone was ringing as we wandered into the office. “Bet that’s control” said Nick, picking up the phone.

I lit another cigarette, and put the kettle on, knowing that a brew is by far the most important activity that a good apprentice should master. 

“Well I’ll be fu*$ed!” Exclaimed Nick, putting the phone down.

“What” I asked.

He shot me a look, and waved the pink flimsy that he had jotted the next job upon under my nose. 

I read it out “Supply fit and install private exchange with 18 extensions, Church Road, East Grinstead………..isn’t that where we’ve just been…..” Nick clamped his hand over my mouth “SHHHHHSH!”

He leaned towards me, quietly explaining that we had both flimsies. That means we had the decommissioning and the re installing. A total of 16 units. Two days. 

Two days when we can account for our time. Yet need do nothing.

The penny dropped. I grinned. “so, what will we do tomorrow?”

“Pick you up from the end of your road at 0830. I reckon a day or two in Brighton would do us the world of good”

Brighton Seafront from the Palace Pier – Photo Courtesy of Benreis under CCA-SA 3

Let me know what you think… Is it worth me bashing out more chapters? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Thanks for dropping by…

Stay safe…

Go Well!

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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?

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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?