Situational Awareness

I was asked to write a few words about my experience of work and faith for a mag. Difficult for me as my certainties have increasingly disappeared, but the sense of the mystery me hope.

airline pilot, erm, hmm, chucking out on average 60 kilos of partially burned atmosphere busting hydrocarbons way above the clouds every passing minute… oh dear.

I never dreamed of being a pilot, it didn’t ever cross my mind. I was given a trial lesson when I was in my mid 20’s, and I just got hooked. It was extraordinary, exhilarating, and totally beautiful: solitude, stillness and motion at the same time. To potter around the edge of cotton clouds of brilliant whiteness and all the hues of gold and blue, one wing touching, the crystal clarity of the sea and patterns of fields and communities below is a true privilege. I did my hours building in a 1943 Piper Cub, an air craft whose groundspeed was slower than my mother’s 2CV when flying into wind.

Whilst keeping on at my day job over the next 10 years I got my private pilot’s licence and then my instructors rating, and finally as my day job moved away from me and I needed to reorient myself, I took the plunge and did my Airline Pilots exams. I have been doing this job for 15 years, and currently fly both Boeing 757’s and 767’s taking people on holiday for a charter company.

Flying always seems to me a wonderful mixture of the rational and the miraculous. One hour ago, sitting at the end of the runway at Tenerife, I knew from my sums and the science, that the enormous weighty creature in which I sat, weighing 95,000 kilos, would want to fly once we were going faster than 160 mph, and sure enough, when we reached that speed and I pulled back, it did.. oh joy. According to the science and the mathematics it is perfectly sound that we should be able to be held aloft here, six miles above the sea, by air so thin we could not breathe… watching the sun set on the western horizon and the shadow of Earth gently creeping up in the East, deep purple below and pinks above. I remember a conversation about the existence or otherwise of God with a colleague last winter: we were flying over the north Atlantic on our way back from the USA to Scotland in the middle of the night, nothing but the black ocean everywhere below and infinite depths of a million stars above, the gentle glimmer of the instruments and hum of the engines. I love night flights over the ocean, there is total stillness and vastness.. despite the 250+ people only a few feet behind the flight deck door, most of whom are oblivious to this encounter with infinity.. and wouldn’t want it thank you very much. Being a very long way from the nearest useable runway .. it requires situational awareness.

The other side of this piece of glass beside me it is -58 degrees C. We are burning over 3000 litres of fuel an hour.

Situational awareness is something we talk about a lot in flying. Losing situational awareness is life shortening. Knowing where I am, what is going on, and in what direction I am heading is what situational awareness is all about. Is this right, if not I need to do something about it.

The other day on our way back to the UK I asked a passenger if she had a good holiday? She sighed and said she had cried all the way to the airport. She told me she and her partner look forward all year to their two weeks holiday in the sun: they leave their phones and computers behind and truly detach and rest in a resort where they feel cared for completely. The only mitigation for her grief at it ending was the promise they had made themselves that as soon as they got home they would book next year’s escape immediately. Last year I met a couple from Birmingham staying in another all-inclusive resort, this time in the Cape Verde islands off the coast of West Africa. They had been married for 32 years and this was their first holiday alone together, they had been abroad before but always had their children and grandchildren with them. So this was different and very special, after 32 years they were learning how to be alone together, there was a lot of love and laughter. They kept repeating how wonderful the staff were, how clean everything was and the food, swimming pools, and pampering of the resort was fantastic.

In the nearby town to this hotel locals watch the airplanes arriving overhead, aware that 1000’s of tourists come and go from their island each week. They also confront the reality that hardly any of these relatively wealthy people will visit their shops, purchase their handicrafts, or eat in their restaurants. They wonder how they will pay their rent without any customers. Locals are employed to work in the all-inclusive resorts as groundsmen, cleaners and kitchen staff, and last summer I was told the monthly wage for these menial jobs is about 250 euros, not enough to rent decent accommodation on the island. But being on the edge of West Africa, close to some of the poorest people on the planet, there is no shortage of people willing to work for a pittance so there is no need to pay higher wages.

Customer feedback is that people are choosing more and more to stay in all-inclusive resorts: they can budget with confidence, they can rest completely, and they feel safe. What does ‘feel safe’ mean? It means that they won’t be bothered by the people whose land they are visiting and who are trying to make a living from the tourists.

Situational awareness. Where are we, what are we doing, where are we going?


Border Agency to stop the weather coming in

Now that MONEY IS NO OBJECT, as mandated by the Prime Minister, it would be good if the Border Agency got to work and did something useful.  After all, it is quite clear from the imagery in UK Passports that keeping the weather under check is part of there role:

WEather FrontsThere is the British Isles and there are 2 birds and a wapping great cold front morphing into an occluded front at the top end.  Why doesn’t the Prime Minister instruct the Border Agency to do its job properly and keep unwanted weather out.