Happy Birthday Dad.


An audible ‘ping’ on my smartphone alerted my attention to a change of my roster at work.

I have been here now for 4 months learning about the company, learning the technical aspects of the Aircraft they want me to fly and sitting yet more exams to prove it has sunk into this Guinness addled, shot to bits, pushing a Half Century brain. The last month has been spent perspiring, cursing, shaking, stressing and working like a Trojan in a moving sweat-box 20 feet above ground on large hydraulic stilts. The ‘Simulator’ is not fun; it is certainly not fun when your 25 year old, wizz kid student partner is finding it all an absolute doddle having an ‘inside track’ with the company and having flown this machine before. After everything that had led to me being here in this horrific torture box, I simply couldn’t give up now and as soon as the signatures were all dry on the multitude of paperwork and certificates from the final ‘Sim check flight, I wandered down to a local bar in this quiet, unassuming mid European town, found a pub – and in absolute sheer relief, sank far to much alcohol to remember that I was returning back to the UK at 0700 the next morning. I left the bar at about 0300 with the strange sounds of a 1975, dutch pop song still ringing in my ears. Needless to say, my alarm on my phone was not set and my wizz kid partner ensured I was up and about with repeated phone calls at 0500 – Good lad. I’ll never forget the absolute sheer, unbridled relief I felt listening to that song as I walked back to the hotel and an unpacked pair of suitcases.

I acknowledged the ‘ping’ and looked at the roster change and there it was scheduled – my first live flight in a real 70 Tonne Jet passenger aircraft. The adrenaline started and I had a moment of anxiousness before the happiness set in and the smile on my face became an ear to ear event. I hit the books immediately, no point failing now.

I met the Instructor/Examiner a week later, on the evening before my first live flight and after a thorough briefing and a probe by him into my level of knowledge, I was pleasantly surprised when he returned to the table in the hotel with two pints of the black stuff. Prior to flying on a live commercial aircraft, you have to carry out what is known as ‘Base Training’. This simply involves an empty flight from your home base airport to another airport, (usually within the UK) where you will carry out 6 take offs and (hopefully) 6 landings. This not only clears up the training deficiency in ‘feeling’ that the Simulators cannot recreate, but enables you to gain the confidence to safely enter the next stage of company training – another 3 months of being checked, tested and watched like a hawk. I’ll worry about that training once the Base Training is complete. Tomorrow however was a relatively simple affair, take off and fly to Prestwick in Scotland, land 6 times and take off 5 more times without compromising safety and sticking to Standard Operating Procedures.

The simulator training had failed immediately as I climbed into the right hand seat of this Boeing 737 aircraft for the very first time, it simply does not prepare you for the height you are above the ground in my new office chair. I looked down at the ground staff scurrying around the nose of the aircraft, connecting power units and a ‘Tug’ to push the aircraft off the stand. Cones were being moved, fuel trucks were loading fuel into the wings and there was constant chatter on not only the Air Traffic radio, but also on the intercom to the ground crew chief. It was a whirl of things that the Sim cannot teach you how to assimilate. A few seconds later the training kicked in as all thoughts of panic and apprehension disappeared, and I started the endless lists of pre flight checks and started to prepare the aircraft for its relatively short voyage to Prestwick in the hands of a 47 year old, Ex Bankrupt, still broke, still sleeping on the floor and living out of bags, pilot virgin!

The trip to Prestwick was uneventful and as our green planet below spun, our beautiful sun began to come into view as the earths horizon sank away at 15 degrees per hour. The man who sat to my left and who bought me a Guinness the night before said virtually nothing during my first landing and the subsequent rotations; until rotation 4. At approximately 2000 feet and while I was busy turning the aircraft right and getting it ready for flying parallel with the runway ready for landing number 5, he sat up in his seat using the armrests to take his sizeable 6 foot 3 inch frame up, back and left. His right arm sank backward to the rear of his armrest and he turned his body and head toward me on the opposite side of the flight deck. I glanced across to see him staring at me and my mind raced and tried to pre-empt what heinous error I had just made. His pristine white shirt shouldered with 4 Silver bars and his dark blue tie only served to compound the seriousness of what was about to be said. I sat like a guilty witness in the box at Crown Court awaiting the very first question from the prosecuting Barrister. My *rotation rate was steady and at the correct angle, my speeds were near perfect in take off and in the climb. My *flap retraction schedule was as accurate as I could be. My landing gear is up, my altitude for the turn is spot on, my speed now is exactly as it should be and the After Take Off check list is completed. So what have I forgotten …?

The answer came in a heavy Irish Accent from the massively experienced veteran of 10’000+ hours of flying big jets all around the globe but it was not what I was expecting. “There’s fuck all wrong with that Son – your not supposed to land it better than I can!” he proclaimed. His entire demeanour changed in his seat and it was as if he had just finished his days work. The last two landings went as the preceding ones but with a much more relaxed feeling to both him and certainly I.

Moving my left leg around the centre console and ducking my head away from the myriad of switches and gauges on the overhead panel, I pushed the seatbelt aside and climbed out of the seat. I unplugged my headset from the overhead console, on the taxiway, to allow a new student into the hot seat for her go, he shook my hand with a grip like a free climber and said “Helicopter hands, well done Son“. “Who’s next?” he shouted.

This Day in October 1937 was the day my Dad was born, he passed away on the very same day in October 2015 and three years to the day from that, I’ve just flown my first live flight on a big jet, and it appears to my surprise, I did it rather well.

Happy Birthday Dad.

  • *Rotation rate – Simply the rate at which you bring the aircraft off the ground, too slow and you can over run the runway safe distances for climbing. Too quick and the tail of the aircraft can strike the ground.
  • *Flap retraction schedule. The wing flaps which change the lift produced by the wings, must be extended or retracted at or before certain speeds so as not to over stress the wings. A set schedule for retraction of those flaps is taken into account for accelerating and climbing.

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