Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A truth about flying

A sad week for flying.

Firstly - they have downgraded the search for Steve Fossett. To some people he was just another rich idiot playing with aeroplanes - but in the short, short history of manned flight it has tended to be people like Fossett who have made those leaps or conquered the unconquerable in the name of either riches, adventure, fame or fortune. Afterall - Allcock and Brown didn't fly their Vimy across the pond just so we could get to New York - they did it for the prize money - and because it was there. Bleriot wasn't trying to get duty free either.

Fossett made his own money and set out to achieve things after his commercial career, so in my mind - fair play to him.

As a Glider pilot - one feels a certain affinity with Fossett. He flew from Omarama - where I have flown - he holds records in the sport - and is well known as part of the sport's aristocracy - should such a thing exist in a sport as egalitarian as gliding - a sport as yet untouched by drugs, sponsorship, television deals and the like. It is one of those past times where money, influence or the like counts for nothing. We fly gliders manually- without autopilots and largely without many instruments other and an airspeed indicator and an altimeter.

Every time we set out across country in an unpowered aircraft or go for our own personal best in altitude or endurance - we are touching the same part of our spirit as he was the day he went missing. When I run the launch control at the end of a day and as dusk colours the sky, I still get sweaty-palmed as we count back the cross country flights and fervently hope as the stragglers come home we count them all in. I have been on airfields (albeit sky-diving ones) when 10 people get out of an aeroplane but only 9 parachutes are counted. And the cold creeping horror is much the same. I also dread the day if, on my watch, someone doesn't come home.

Hopes fade into impossibility that he should wander out of the desert alive. My thoughts go out to his family and friends and I am sure that aviators of all shades send their condolences.
One another more horrifying scale we see what happened to that MD-82 in Phuket. Current talk is of wind-shear - with survivors telling of an aborted landing to boot.

I'm an early amateur pilot and all I have to say is that my most terrifying experiences have been cross and tail wind landings in turbulence. A single thought goes through your head - there is no getting away from gravity - I have to land this thing.

We are reminded about the wonders of modern technology and sat in comfort in the middle of 747 we can feel as safe as houses whatever the weather.

But despite instrument landings, weather radar and powerful computers there is one fundamental truth at stake here:

Most of the time, flying is perfectly safe. It is safer than crossing the road. But then there are a few tiny times when it is totally reliant on the skill of the person at the controls - often wrestling with them in near impossible conditions and there are going to be moments of extreme danger.
Ultimately every pilot has to fly as some time by the 'seat of his pants'. That hasn't changed since Wilbur and Orville flew a distance shorter than a 747 in the Kittyhawk. It is dangerous and sometimes it goes wrong.

Reports are sketchy of the final moments - but they could been brought down hard in a squall or run out of runway - but they were orbiting the strip - which could mean they knew this was going to be hard. The pilot had requested an abort to go around but by the sounds of things too late. The chances are - he saw, and knew, what was going on and did what he could to save the lives of the passengers - full in the knowledge that if you are going down - you - as the pilot are probably going to be killed in saving those lives.

When we see footballers being described as 'courageous' or celebrities talking of their 'struggle' my mind turns to people like these pilots I mention today who attempt to wrestle 150 tons of wet steel to the ground in a storm facing almost certain death to save a few lives - or the two guys at the exit pulling other out at their own risk.

My thoughts to the families - and to the crew - like those who have gone before - you have slipped the final Surly Bonds.

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