Smoke On Go

The flights that shape you as a pilot – and a person

All pilots have a collection of memorable flights, which often include your ‘firsts’ such as your first solo or first airshow. These flights could be great achievements like winning a national title or even taking a proud parent up for a flip just after getting your licence.  

The dramatic flights

Memorable flights also take place when a notable adversity is overcome. One such moment for me was the time I sat petrified for over an hour expecting an extremely rough-running engine to quit. A magneto had packed up (as they tend to do occasionally with Gypsy Majors) two thirds of the way between Francistown and Victoria Falls over of Hwange National Park. There was absolutely nowhere to land.

Also memorable are the kaleidoscope of powerful emotions from denial to sheer terror, exasperation to resignation I once felt while battling to find a way out of some mountains. When you’re trapped while scud running beneath a lowering cloud base, with all escape routes blocked, your ultimate feeling is one intense self-loathing. Why was I so stupid?! When the light is fading as fast as your fuel reserve, getting to your destination is no longer the objective, simply surviving is. 

Whether triumphant or traumatic, these moments are so powerful that they become etched into your psyche. They change you as a pilot and as a person. You don’t need to look at a logbook to be reminded of these flights because you’ll never forget them.

The beautiful flights

Then there are those flights that are significantly less momentous, so you don’t readily remember them off-hand.  However, when paging through your logbook, you’re suddenly able to recall them with great vividness. You remember the things that you saw, the subtle light shades, the sounds, the smells, and how the airplane felt in the calm air that day. You smile as you realise that these more placid flights may, in a way, be more profound than all the moments of drama.

Like that Sunday afternoon a few years ago when it had been raining hard all day. Suddenly, at about 4pm, the downpour stopped and the clouds dissipated a little. Nothing else was planned for the day, and so I wandered out to the airfield. The roads were quiet and everything was wet and clean. No-one else was at the airport, no doubt because the consistent rain put paid to everyone’s flight plans.  

Alone in the quiet afternoon, I took the aircraft out of the hangar and recalled times when the place was full of life and laughter and friends, pilots who are no longer with us.  

After an unrushed, almost Zen-like preflight check, I strapped in. The stillness of the apron is broken by the click of the magneto switches (no keys in a 1946 vintage airplane). There’s no need to call “clear prop” in this temporary ghost town of an airfield, and the silence is shattered by the sound of the engine.  

The tower took an age to respond to my call. Who can blame them; no-one was expecting anyone to be flying that day and they were probably getting a coffee or engrossed in a book.  

The controller and I seemed to be the only people in the world. With some non-regulation banter about the weather, a warm personal connection was established between me and the electronic voice in my headset. The solitude was broken for a moment.

I taxied past drenched airplanes, water droplets still dripping from trailing edges. After take-off, I changed frequency and made a call. No-one answered. I was the only pilot in the area that evening and the joy of solitude returned. 

The air was still − eerily so. It felt like I was sitting still in a stationary metal box with the world slowly rolling by 500 feet below you. I felt every tiny vibration of the engine and airframe in a way I never had before. 

The instrument needles were as static as they would be if the airplane had been sitting in a hangar, except the airspeed needle was pointed at 110mph and not zero. The trim was perfectly set. I had a little fun by leaning forwards and backwards in my seat to change the pitch of the aircraft. It was so calm that I could even bank by leaning to the left or right.

And the view! The landscape was so green and fresh that it felt as though I was flying over Europe rather than Africa.  

Soon the Vaal Dam rolled beneath me and I saw the rustic chalets where I once spent a legendary long weekend with friends more than 25 years ago. One of them is now my wife.

The sun almost disappeared, and the low broken cloud was aflame with an incandescent red glow. The Vaal was like a mirror and I couild imagine the Imperial flying boats landing on it in the 1930s.  

Reluctantly I turned back for home because after all, this was supposed to be a short flip. There was no mission, no destination to reach, no specific objective, save to savour an impromptu flight for its own sake.

As darkness fell I basked in the soft red glow of the cockpit lights. No-one answered my radio call because the tower was closed. Years later, looking at the logbook entry, I remember that landing like it happened yesterday. It was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. Why do the best ones always take place when no-one is watching?   

The question…

I remember the night after I got my licence. An experienced pilot, also a great mentor, took me aside, away from the increasing revelry and asked me a strange question: “Do you want to have a thousand hours or do you want one hour a thousand times?”  

Being well into the celebrations and a bit foggy, I initially didn’t understand what he meant. Puzzled, I asked what the difference was?  I’ve never forgotten his answer: “To get a thousand hours, you have to appreciate the magic of every moment in the air, and you have to be constantly relentless in your pursuit of that elusive perfection.”

Every flight is, or at least ought to be, memorable − not just the dramatic ones. And like the dramatic moments, every flight has the potential to shape you as a pilot and a person, but only if you take the time to appreciate the details and be awed by the gift that is flight.




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