by Andrew Foote
Throughout this story real organisations and real people are mentioned by name. Their place in the tale is in the author's imagination. No thoughts, words or deeds attributed to those people or organisations are real, nor have they ever happened. This is a story! It's fiction. The people and organisations, even when they interact with the characters, are presented in an entirely imagined and fictitious manner, and no discourtesy is intended to them by the author nor by the web site.
Life for us carried on in much the same way as before with our training never letting up although it was good when the summer holidays rolled around and an opportunity for some 'us' time.
We both had assignments to complete before the start of the Autumn Term but in truth these didn't involve that much work or rather there was nothing that couldn't be done at our leisure.
Lorain, Paul and Benny were all pulled out of competition for the duration, very necessary if they were to avoid burn-out but they continued to train with and socialise with us. We had this massive garden so most weekends we'd barbeque weather permitting but it was on one such occasion, Lor quizzed all of us regarding taking a vacation somewhere.
"This last six months has been manic. It's all well and good travelling around and competing but actually, the only time we get to see any of the country's we visit is in the taxi to and from the airports, in fact the last time we actually explored was when we were in Guam……..now that does seem like a lifetime away!"
We all agreed with her comments and set about discussing where we'd like to go.
Certain criteria had to be met such as having access to training facilities all be it just general fitness stuff, none of us could drive so it would mean that wherever we decided to go would either have to be compact enough for us to explore on foot or by bikes or have decent transport links.
The other issue to be taken into account was our age. Paul was nudging seventeen, Lor, Lucas and I had not long turned sixteen and Benny only fifteen. In the past we'd been accompanied by our coaches so there wasn't an issue but travelling unaccompanied might.
Should we invite one or more sets of parents? My Dad definitely wouldn't come as his firm had recently floated on the stock exchange and as a director, his workload was huge. My Mum and Julie were almost joined at the hip with their volunteering work and Lucas doubted his Dad would leave her behind which left Benny, Lor's and Paul's folk.
Lor was pretty adamant that her folk wouldn't be interested saying that her Mum was very much a home bird, Paul's Dad hated flying and Benny?
"They'd probably tag along but I was rather hoping to take Millie with me and given I'm only fifteen……..well you know…….it might prove to be awkward! I do have one idea though? What about Jo and Simon? I'll bet they could use a holiday?"
I thought about this then answered him.
"Yeah I bet they could as well but they're like full time saving for a house."
"So?? We'd be paying for them shit for brains? Not only are they twenty-two years old, they're or rather Jo is our business manager so isn't it tax deductible?"
"Nice work Benny……..nice work! I'll put it to her but it still leaves us with the problem of deciding where to go."
Lucas chirped up.
"I don't mind but please? No long haul flights?"
"Okay so it has to be Europe somewhere. Preferences guys?"
It was eventually narrowed down to Crete, Sicily, Nice, Yugoslavia's Black Sea resorts or the Faroe Islands, my choice.
Sicily got it on the short straw. Rather too hot for my taste hence my Faroe Island idea but we had all agreed to go with that pull of the straw so there were no arguments. All I had to do now was invite Jo and Simon and we could make our plans, that is, so long as they accepted.
"Are having a laugh here? You are kidding right? Of course we'd love to but the only problem might be Simon and I being able to coordinate our holidays. How long do you need before we can give you a definitive answer Andy?"
"Just time enough to book the flights and hotels I guess. So long as we're back before term-time in September, it really makes no odds."
"What about competing? None of you involved in anything?"
"Nah. We're all going away in October for the European Games then nothing until December when we're supposed to be in Adelaide but how the hell I get Lucas onto a twenty-four hour flight beats me, we might not even go given his hate of long-hauls."
"Wouldn't you insist he goes?"
"What would be the point? What condition would he be in when we arrived Jo? Definitely in no shape to compete!"
"Why not talk to Lauren. She might be able to get him into some sort of therapy, fear management or something? It has to be worth thinking about hasn't it?
He's told me often enough about how much you mean to him and how scared he is of letting you down so give it a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained brother."
"I would hate myself for going to Lauren behind his back. One of the things we always promised each other was that there would be no secrets between us."
"Laudable enough so bloody-well tell him that's what you intend to do! He's hardly likely to go off on one is he? He has a phobia about long haul flights, so fucking what? I hate sex but I still do it!"
"That was supposed to be a joke already! Talk to him, reassure him you're there to help him and he'll be okay about it."
"Worth a try I suppose. Thanks Jo."
"Yes, I know you're right. I'm such a pussy when push comes to shove but I really hate being cooped up in a cigar tube for any length of time let alone for twenty-something hours."
"You managed Guam and back?"
"I know, I know but outbound we were drinking which put me to sleep then the inbound I was just so damn tired, well, it was easy."
"Forget it! No way am I boozing for twenty-four hours straight!
Alright already! You talk to Lauren!"
"There really is no need to shout at me you know? I'm only trying to help?"
"I'm sorry. I know you are and I appreciate it. Tell you what? Let me put it another way. Please will you talk to Lauren for me Andy?"
"Will you go along with anything she might come up with?"
"Yes. I've got to conquer this problem otherwise I might just as well kiss competing goodbye. The next Olympics is in Tokyo so long as we're selected and I want us to be there."
One week later and we were on the train bound for RAF Lynham in Wiltshire.
I had been told what was going to happen but Lucas was still blissfully ignorant, more to the point, he'd asked me not to tell him just in case he freaked.
We were met at the security gate by the base commander and were immediately taken to a small briefing room where we were introduced to a Flight Lieutenant Swan who would be overseeing the day's events.
"So Lucas, you don't like aircraft, am I right?"
"Aircraft I don't have a problem with, being up in one for any length of time is my problem."
"Even short haul flights?"
"No. I can keep my nerve during those, just long haul but the issue here is that we have to make lots of them and I just can't bring myself to do it."
"Any particular reason for that? Is it the fear of crashing?"
"Partly I guess. My imagination goes wild and once I reach that point, there's just no stopping."
"Did you realise that flying is statistically the safest mode of transport known to man? There are more people killed on Britain's roads every year than there are fatalities due to plane crashes the world over? The only reason you hear about them is due to them grabbing the headlines the way they do, so safe are they in fact, that I'd rather fly any day rather than drive somewhere. An aircraft might appear big and heavy but they're designed to be very aerodynamic and if you look at the old four engine 747, it can happily fly and land even if three of its engines have conked out but if you have just one tyre on your car blow out at speed, it could spell disaster. Are you worried about pilot error?"
"That is another factor. Yes."
"Okay then. Follow me please."
We were taken through into a hanger. There were no planes, only what we correctly guessed we a flight simulator which bore an uncanny resemblance to a robot or killing machine out of Star Wars.
"This gentlemen, is a simulator that we use to train our pilots. We have a total of four on this base and this one is for all the world an exact copy of one of our large transport aircraft although with slight modifications, we can also use it to simulate the type of aircraft we use for mid-air refuelling however for today's little exercise, let us pretend it's a four engine cargo aircraft not dissimilar to our friend the Boing 747.
Let's go inside and get settled shall we?"
He took the pilot's seat on the left, had Lucas sit in the place occupied by the co-pilot and I sat where the flight engineer would normally be.
He showed us how to buckle up then walked us through all the pre-flight checks that would generally be done.
"This is pure habit for me boys! This is only a simulator but our students and even seasoned pilots coming back for update training have to do everything by the book or they fail."
Next we were shown the engine start-up procedure, rudder and flap checks, - it seemed as if the entire aircraft had to be checked and double checked but then with everything completed, he turned to Lucas and said
"Which airport would you like us to fly out of? You choose one."
"Birmingham Alabama or Birmingham England?"
F.L. Swan hit a few keys on a computer and all the screens which represented the cockpit windows suddenly came to life. This wasn't a computer-generated graphic display but a video of the actual airport showing vehicles trundling around the place, trees swaying gently in the breeze and airport personnel wandering around.
"Right then. From here on in, all instructions to the pilot are random. We do this so returning pilots can't second-guess anything so now that we're ready to take off, we must inform Air Traffic Control that we're okay to go.
Tower? This is RAF 503 requesting permission for take-off."
The reply was almost instant.
"RAF 503. Permission to begin push-back then move to bravo alpha four, hold and await further instructions."
It was so weird! No matter how hard I tried to convince myself we were in a simulator, the screens plus the sense of us moving told my brain something completely different.
F.L. Swan broke my concentration.
"See that indicator light on the consul that's blinking green? That tells the pilot that the push-back has been completed and the aircraft clear of vehicles so now we drive this baby to the position as asked and then we sit and wait further instructions."
We followed the indicators to BA4 and came to a stop where F.L. Swan went into more detail.
"To get to this point we have to use the aircraft's own thrust. No one is towing us, we're on our own. Here we have to wait before we can move again."
It wasn't long before we received our next message.
"RAF 503. Move to CAT 5, hold and prepare for take-off."
We moved off again and circled around until we saw the CAT 5 board on the end of a runway.
"RAF 503. Incoming flight on your runway ETA three minutes. Hold please."
Suddenly a deafening roar of jet engines seemed to pass overhead and then we saw a plane going over us before making a neat touchdown and once it had taxied to one side towards the airport buildings, we had another message.
"RAF 503 you are cleared for take-off. Have a good flight."
F.L. Swan turned to Lucas.
"You're taking her up pal, not me but I'll show you how."
He took Lucas' right hand and placed it on top of the throttle controls telling him to keep his left hand on the um........steering wheel then placing his own hand over Lucas', he pushed the throttle controls forward then motioned him to let go so both hands were on the joystick or whatever it's called.
"Watch the air speed indicator and then once it reaches the green level, I want you to firmly but gently pull the controls towards you."
For his part, Lucas looked really scared! I tried to tap in to his thoughts.
"Settle down? It's only a fucking simulator you dickhead?"
He heard me alright as I could sense his laughter!
Slowly we felt the plane move forward and rapidly gain speed until the airspeed indicator turned green where upon Lucas pulled back on the controls and the nose of the aircraft lifted. A couple of bumps and we were airborne and I could feel Lucas relax.
"We're not done yet Lucas. Radio the tower and confirm take off and await their instructions. Only they know what else is in the air and where they are so we need them to act as our eyes and ears until we're on a recognised flight path but even then we do as we're told. They're in charge, not us so if you always remember that, you'll be safe. You had better radio in now!"
"Tower this is RAF 503. Take off successful and we await your instructions."
"RAF 503. Assume holding pattern Hotel 67 at an altitude of seven thousand feet and hold."
Lucas looked confused.
"What? Where is that?"
"Easy Lucas. This is where computers come in useful. Pull that keyboard out so it's directly in front of you, hit the button 'HP' followed by the number 67 then press 'Apply'."
Just then the plane banked to the left and started gaining altitude but then straightened out and levelled off.
"Look at your altimeter. What does it tell you?"
"Height seven thousand feet and holding but also we're turning, is that right?"
"Yep. The computer is now flying the aircraft so it took us to the required height and locked us in to a holding pattern. If we get further instructions then all we have to do is enter them in exactly the same way and we leave the plane to its own devices.
This little exercise will eventually take us up to a cruising altitude, turn us and bring us down for a landing so nothing too dramatic whereas our guys have to undergo all manner of exciting things like engine fires, loss of cabin pressure, hydraulic failures, well all sorts of things that could potentially go wrong so they understand how to deal with them should the need arise."
"Oh okay but what happens if they screw up in practice?"
"A certain number of points are deducted and if anyone doesn't improve then they're side-lined and their pilot's licence suspended."
"RAF 503. Ascend to thirty-five thousand feet and hold present course. ACT1 please acknowledge."
"Well go on then? Hit ALT then tap in 35000 then hit ACT1 and ACTION. Well done, now we're climbing so you better acknowledge the tower."
"Tower, this is RAF 503. Required action acknowledged."
"Excellent! We'll make a flier of you yet! By the way, your radio procedure is absolutely spot on."
Lucas also brought the aircraft safely into land but I have to admit I was ever so slightly jealous. I would've loved to have a go but this wasn't about me so I sat on it.
For his part, he couldn't wipe the smile from his face.
"That was nothing short of awesome! I never realised……..I mean I never knew about all of that safety stuff! Thank you!!"
"No problem son. Did you learn something as well Andrew?"
"Definitely. I always assumed that it was like getting a drivers licence. Pass the test and that's it but understanding about all the regular training is very comforting, not that I had an issue with flying in the first place but……..you know what I'm trying to say."
"Yes I understand. Not many people realise that professional pilots spend almost as much time training than they do flying. Anyway, are both of you up for the real deal then?"
Suddenly Lucas looked terrified.
" What!! Actually fly an aircraft like for real?? Not a cat's chance in hell!"
"No!! I'll take you up in a training jet while my number two takes Andrew. You can get a feel for some real speed that way. Up for it then?"
Fast or what??
No sooner had we got clearance for take-off we were hurtling down a short runway then once airborne we tilted almost vertically and sped skywards. My pilot whose name was David was very reassuring.
"Okay Andrew, we're going up to fifty-thousand feet then we'll decide where we're going but I know the boss very well and my guess is we're going up to Scotland."
"Scotland? That's a long way to go just for a demo run isn't it?"
"Not really. We'll be over the border in around thirty-five minutes but then we'll head to the west coast where it's thinly populated so we can have some fun."
"Fun? This is fun already!"
"As the man said, you aint seen nothin' yet! Let me talk with Steve.
Tango Juliet two from tango Juliet one. Scotland Steve?"
"Roger that Dave. Clean pair of heels time! Let's do it! You lead the way."
As if we weren't already travelling fast enough, David hit something he called the after-burners, the plane seemed to come to a halt before throwing itself up into the stratosphere at an alarming pace. I felt as if I was going to puke but that soon passed as I began to enjoy the ride. I could see the contours of the world. It wasn't flat anymore but curved and really beautiful.
"How high are flying David?"
"Close on seventy thousand feet and at a speed of just shy of nine hundred miles an hour. Do you want to talk to your friend? If you do, look at the consul in front of you and press the toggle switch marked COMS to the right, that way you talk to him, not me. Say whatever you like as its short range communication only so the ground can't hear you."
I found the switch and shouted Lucas.
"Can you hear me Lucas? This is something else!"
"I left my brain somewhere back there I think but once I've found it, I might just agree with you! Bloody fantastic!"
"Still scared of flying?"
"Piss off? You have my permission to buy me one of these machines for Christmas! Today has been unbelievable although I'm told once we get up into the mountains, they're going to do a few stunts so I might just change my mind."
"Stunts? What stunts?"
"Low level stuff, following the valley's and shit like that. Mr Swan says it's exciting if we're not too sick!"
"Oh great. Now my breakfast might be making an impromptu reappearance. Thanks for the update pal!!"
Our conversation was cut short an F.L. Swan interrupted us.
"Okay, we're out over the Atlantic just south of Mallaig. Once we're there we'll be banking right and follow the line of Loch Nevis. We'll be flying at around one thousand feet so as not to frighten what tiny population lives up here but once we're east of Cammusrory, we'll dip down to around one hundred feet and follow the Kyle of Lochalsh, over the mountains and do much the same along Loch Morrar before heading north to the Great Glenn for some fishing then head back home. Any questions?"
"Just the one. What's fishing?"
"Oh right! Really low level work. We'll drop down so we're only about six foot above the ground. Only rabbits and feral cats live up in the Glenn so it's ideal territory to do this sort of thing. If you feel nauseous, don't worry. The cockpit will be pressurised so just let go of your face mask and use one of the sick bags down there to your left. There's no shame in chucking up, we've all of us done it so please don't be concerned."
He pointed out where the rough road that had meandered through the foothills ended at a sometime large granite-built house situated at the edge of the Loch. It looked for all the world to be uninhabited but there was what appeared to be a converted fishing trawler moored up against a rather rickety pontoon.
"That's Inverie where the local landowner lives. The old boy is as mad as a hatter and lives like a hermit despite the fact he owns just about all the land you can see from up here. I've met him once but I'm telling you, never again! He's seriously alcoholic and had me drunk as a skunk within about fifteen minutes of being there. The house is almost in ruins but either he can't see it or he couldn't care less, I mean it's not as if he can't afford its upkeep? Barking mad, poor old sod.
We're not far short of the head of the loch now. When we get there you'll see on your left Camusrory which used to be a croft but it's now used as an adventure training facility by Dr Barnardo's, you know, the children's charity. I've never been there but the boss has so we always say 'Hi' to the kids as we over fly them so hang on to your hat."
I could see the buildings in the distance and as we approached we went into a roll, levelled out and made a wide turn so as we could circle the place. The shingle beach below suddenly came alive with kids all waving at us so we waved back and continued on.
"Oh wow! That looks like a fun place to be!"
"Yes it is Andrew. They work the kids hard but it's a life-changing experience for them. Poor buggers have probably never been outside of Glasgow or any big city in their lives so to get the opportunity to pony trek, sail, canoe or go hill walking and climbing is something they'll never forget. There's a website so if you Google Camusrory, you'll find it.
We're almost at the Kyle of Lochalsh so brace yourself for an exciting run."
Oh fuck!! Exciting isn't a word I'd use to describe it! It was frightening beyond belief!
We hugged the contours of the mountains then just as I thought we were going to plough into the side of one of them, we banked so the wings of the aircraft were perpendicular to the ground as we screamed around the valley.
We did this for a while and no, I wasn't sick, I think I was too scared to notice what my stomach thought about it but then we rapidly gained altitude and once again flew north towards the Great Glen and a chance to go 'fishing'.
A slightly slower pace but equally as exciting as we scudded a mere six foot from the ground. No fly-by-wire this exercise, the contours of the land had to be very carefully followed to the extent that before we started the run, I was very politely asked to keep quiet unless I had a real problem. Ten minutes later and we were back at cruising altitude and on our way back to Wiltshire.
We landed and once all the post flight checks had been carried out we made to exit the plane and this is where it got interesting……..my legs refused to work……..I mean it was as if I didn't have any!
"Just leave it a few minutes Andrew, allow your muscles to readapt to the difference in gravity and you'll be fine. You'll most likely feel somewhat at odds with walking for an hour or so but there really isn't anything to worry about. Did you enjoy the ride?"
"Are you kidding me? Unbelievable just about says it all! I wasn't even sick which surprised even me……..I think I was too busy shitting myself! Sorry that was uncalled for but you get what I mean."
"Oh yes definitely! That sort of thing happens as well but eventually you become acclimatised to it. Let's join the boss and your friend in debriefing and then we'll find you a car to get you back to Trowbridge Station so you can get a train home."
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