A while ago I promised to post some pages from my book. At last I’ve done so. I hope you enjoy reading these extracts so
much that you’ll buy the book. Remember it’s written to entertain fearful flyers on a flight, so it isn’t a story, it’s not all advice either … just something that I hope you can be entertained by. As I point out at the start it’s a great book for missing out chapters and not losing the plot. Dip in dip out … read the bit about take off when you’re taking off. The bit about turbulence when … you get what I mean.
You can start reading from anywhere once you’ve read the first chapter or two, in fact it might make more sense like that! And if you’re in any doubt or hope, yes there are lots of sideways swipes at “things” like airport terminals and coffee shops and car parks and …well, everything really. There’s stuff about my early years as a pilot and whilst there are no dare devil stories I hope I communicate my love of flying well enough. By contrast there’s a paragraph about my last flight as an airline Captain with an airline called British Airways when there wasn’t a single person to meet me when I got off the plane. In fact I ended up being chastised by a transport manager for asking a favour. Still brings tears to my eyes, in a metaphorical way.
If you’re a retired pilot, especially a Concord one you’ll need to miss a couple of chapters. Most important thing is that there’s nothing in it that will scare or alarm you. There are , or at least I think there are some interesting people mentioned, Brad Pitt, Her Majesty The Queen, The Rolling Stones and so on but not because I met them but because I didn’t. I met a few famous people but I’m not giving them free publicity because of my success.
Why did I write it is not the question, it’s more like how on earth did I end up writing it? All the world’s a stage as you’ll find out.
Buy Captain Keith’s great book here. But of course that link doesn’t work, why would you buy anything without having some idea of what you’re getting … especially something like this.
“Safe Air 123 You’re now cleared for Take Off.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF FEAR…A PILOT’S LIFE
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Junior
After a long career as a professional pilot, I stumbled into helping people to overcome their fears about flying. It has been a stumble that has brought as much to my appreciation and love of flying as the actual piloting of planes itself.
This book is a sideways view of how I see commercial air travel and amazingly my lack of influence upon it. I hope, in a funny way, that this book helps to normalise flying for anxious fly-ers.
Every fearful flyer should have a strategy for dealing with their anxieties in flight and one of the things I suggest they do is entertain themselves with music, puzzles, facts and other ‘things to do’.
One of the ‘things to do’ that I recommend, is to start reading a book before the flight, and on reaching an interesting part, to close it and then restart it if and when they become anxious in flight. A simple but engaging story is likely to be more helpful than trying to get into the charac- ters of War and Peace while the noise of the flaps being set for take off is distracting you.
If this book has any semblance of organisation and order it is not the result of conscious plan- ning. You can fall asleep, wake up, forget which page you were on, pick it up and just carry on reading from anywhere, and not lose the plot or pilot.
Some minor subjects are repeated but from different viewpoints so if you get a feeling of déjà vu it’s because you really might have heard something vaguely similar before.
All the rest is stuff that might encourage would be authors to get on and write the book they’ve been unsure about writing. Or it might even put people off ever picking up another book. But in the best case it will help to make fearful flyers less anxious while they are flying and be an engag-ing and unusual read for anyone interested in the life of a pilot.
This book is written in a way to make it possible for it to be discarded at any point without giving the reader a sense of loss, and this is probably its most consistent strength.
The use of the words ‘him’ or ‘he’ rather than ‘her’ or ‘she’ is intended for historical accuracy. Either would be more accurate nowadays.
Thanks go to Vivienne and my children for their unconditional love and without which I might have been a better person but, however improbable that is, it’s still more likely than being in- volved in any sort of incident on a plane. Yes, you probably do need to read that again.
The consequences of clicking links in emails is generally well known, but a few weeks ago when an actor friend sent me an email I had no reason to be cautious. This book is the consequence of that lack of caution. His email linked me to a book written by a pilot. The book was a series of aeronautical dramas where apparently the author’s extraordinary flying skill was used to save himself, everyone on board and many people on the ground.
My friend’s email ended, “Why don’t you write about your life as a pilot to help fearful flyers?”
There are lots of reasons not to, but I’m not the sort of person who’s put off that easily. I will admit, but I won’t be deterred by the fact that there’s a shocking arrogance in writing about your- self. Everyone has an interesting life but only a few people have lives interesting enough to enter- tain others, and even fewer can tell their story well enough to make it worth reading. The autobi- ographies of celebrities are often so tedious that it’s only constant reference to other famous peo- ple that gives them any interest at all.
Years ago a I read the autobiography of a well known British film star. It’s true that his story was moderately interesting but no more than the life of the shopkeeper in our local village. The main thing that seemed to make his life different from the shopkeeper’s was that he only ever be- friended, bumped into, went to parties or did things with other famous people. It was just that he mentioned knowing and meeting Brad Pitt and the Queen that gave him and his story any interest at all. And then when I read Brad Pitt’s autobiography the single thing that made it half interest- ing was that he attended one of the Queen’s garden parties where he met a famous British film star. So biographically speaking, they’re all at it (mentioning famous friends). As the most famous person in the world, the Queen’s autobiography would mainly be about meeting famous people, but just less famous than she is. So given half a chance I suppose she’d be at it too, if you think about it.
At work, pilots don’t get to meet famous people for long enough to invite them round for tea or to meet the kids, let alone be on good enough terms to mention them in an autobiography. When they do come to the flight deck it’s for publicity, to know when we’ll be landing or to see if we can arrange a cab for them when we land.
When the pilots I know tell stories they usually over-dramatise: the winds are stronger, the storms more violent, the clouds thicker and the aeroplanes more difficult to fly, every situation they fly in needs bravery, skill and their particular expertise. Exaggeration is normal to them and, I suspect, they do it to impress because, in truth, commercial flying is pretty routine.
We suspend our disbelief when famous autobiographers exaggerate because we know that it’s just a story. No-one really believes what they say or what they’ve done because it’s a book that you read to pass the time on holiday or when life has hit a new low. A pilot’s story has a very lim- ited readership. Few pilots would read it for fear of feeling inferior and much of the public won’t be interested because they think that pilots are steely-eyed prima donnas who get too much credit for very little anyway. There’s not the demand. No one normal and clinically sane would model their life on anything they read in an autobiography, would they? Even less likely on a pilot’s life.
I remember a pilot telling a story of such derring-do that the audience and I were spellbound. It was only at the climax of the story that I realised that I had been his co-pilot on this epic adven- ture. My recollection of the flight was very different and certainly less interesting. They say a poor story told well, is better than a good story told badly, and that one, was certainly well told.
After a lifetime of tests and checks, where failure could mean temporary or even permanent unemployment, you’d think, of all people, a pilot would know better than to take a chance. Maybe I didn’t learn much during my flying career. Maybe I did and that’s why I’m writing this? We’ll only know when I get to the last full stop, but that might be a destination that we won’t share.
I’m expecting to miss the literary jackpot by telling an ordinary story, honestly, and without famous names, but in truth, I don’t want to disappoint my friend.
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Why The Other Side Of Fear: A Pilot’s Life? When fearful flyers describe ‘things’ that have hap- pened to them, I ask them if they think I would describe those experiences in the same way? Would I use the same words? Would I come to the same conclusions? Why are they fearful while I remain calm?
On one side – the fearful side – there are strong emotions and many misunderstandings. On the other side there is confidence and there is knowledge. Neither is right or wrong. They are view- points. Personally, and like many other pilots, I don’t like heights. Heights aren’t dangerous in themselves but I can scare myself by thinking about slipping, falling or even jumping. Steeple- jacks don’t think like that. So it’s how you think about something that puts you on the fearful side, or on the other side of fear.
“…’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet.
Generally speaking, when we’re anxious we don’t laugh. So I hope that by including the flip- pant side of my life as a pilot I can encourage nervous flyers to associate flying with being re- laxed and entertained, rather than being in a constant state of anxiety. In this book I want you to see the amusing and unusual in the important and the familiar. I haven’t deliberately included anything that might result in hysterical laughter. If I have, the book will have failed its target au- dience. Smile, even laugh if you’re amused but, if hysteria takes hold, ask the cabin crew for a drink and then get them to ask the pilots to land immediately.
We all have things that make us anxious. For instance being six foot four doesn’t stop you be- ing scared of spiders. Being a free fall parachutist doesn’t stop you being scared of dead fish. Be- ing a first violinist doesn’t stop you from disliking the dark. It’s normal to be fearful of things, but the downside of having a fear of flying means you have to be good at long distance driving or reading train timetables.
THE SURLY BONDS OF EARTH
Fearful flyers make up almost 40% of the travelling population. It’s hard to believe that so many people are nervous about flying. The most important things for an anxious flyer to know is that flying is normal and so are you. You are allowed to be anxious. There is nothing in the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights that says you must enjoy flying. Despite what you may think, planes aren’t balanced on a knife-edge when they fly. They are not potentially seconds from disaster. The passengers’ lives don’t depend upon split second judgements and actions of pilots. Commercial aviation is remarkably routine.
In my years as a pilot, I suffered no emergencies. Nothing happened that was beyond my skill to manage. I didn’t pay any extra insurance premiums and when I told the kids I was off to New York, their reaction was “Whatever”. On good days they looked up and said, “See you later.” On the days they thought that I might bring a present home, they’d give me a hug and kiss me good- bye. Other than that, Dad just went to work and came home from every flight.
Aviation has a normal-ness and an ordinary-ness about it that the public just doesn’t get the chance to see. It’s so ordinary that you’d be amazed. While anxious flyers struggle to know what to do in-flight to occupy themselves, when I’m a passenger I struggle with what not to do. I sup- pose the rigid discipline in the cockpit makes me react when I’m out of it.
When I’m a passenger, my first choice of ‘things to do’ is to …
TO BE AN ACTOR OR NOT TO BE A PILOT
Given my lifelong intention to fly planes it was never likely that I’d actually end up on the stage. But as my career progressed, and I met a few actors I realised that the two jobs weren’t very dif- ferent. There’s a lot of learning to be done, there’s a need for technical precision, you don’t know how your performance is going to be received and your reputation is only as good as your last performance or your last landing.
My friend, the actor, wasn’t keen on flying. In fact he had avoided it for the best part of thirty five years. We met, we chatted. He agreed to join me in a flight simulator and, since then, he’s never stopped looking down. Although he’s unlikely to take part in the Red Bull Air Race, he’s doing fine.
He used to think that flying was unpredictable and always on a knife-edge. Like many fearful flyers he didn’t realise that every circumstance we were likely to encounter in flight had a defined procedure. If this happened – do that. And if that happened – do this. Simple to me, unknown to him, indeed, unknown to many.
He’d invited me to see him in a play in the West End. We’d spent the day together, recording my fear of flying CD, so shared a car journey across town to the theatre. During the journey my friend didn’t mention the play, he took no time out to rehearse lines or think of stage directions, it was, just a drive across town. I didn’t pursue any line of conversation particularly, I just followed whatever he chatted about and left it at that. I thought that his mind was surely on that night’s per- formance. We arrived at the theatre, he signed a few autographs at the stage door and I followed him into the dressing room where we carried on chatting. I wondered if he needed to prepare, look at his lines and concentrate. Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask, “Don’t you need to have a quick look at your lines before you go on?”
“If I don’t know them already, looking at them now won’t really help me!” he answered. It was a very good answer, and unsurprisingly didn’t sound rehearsed. Subsequently this has given me the perfect reply for fearful flyers who wonder how prepared I am for things that might hap- pen when I’m flying. “If I don’t know what I’m going to do in a plane if ‘something goes wrong’ by now, then I shouldn’t be flying.”
But, the difference between the two of us is that …
For some old pilots there’s an obsessive nostalgia about old planes. I happen to love the Tiger Moth aeroplane because I learned to fly in one. If one flies overhead I stop what I’m doing and look up. I enjoy the sight. I love the sound of the engine and I spend a moment remembering times past. But that’s it, I don’t spend the rest of the day wanting to re-live the days of my youth.
I loved those days, of course, but I love these retirement days much more. In retirement nowa- days you can idle your days away looking at social media and joining forums. Not wanting to be different, I decided to join the forum for the retired pilots of my old airline. Unfortunately, rather than being an uplifting experience, it was a constant drain on my spirit. Most of them rambled on about inconsequential things that won’t change, and indulge in endless exchanges along the lines of “wasn’t like it in my day.” Well, of course it wasn’t like ‘it’ in your day, because we’ve moved on over half a century. They spend a lot of time discovering and communicating discounts, deals and other penny pinching schemes. The sad thing is that, in the main, they were all decent blokes when they were flying. “The devil makes work for idle hands,” is what their wives say. So now they go sailing instead, which presumably they’re happy to accept as not being like it was in the days of Christopher Columbus or Lord Nelson.
I’m not much of sailor so my interest hits rock bottom when they brag about their exploits and achievements. I really can’t see much difference in sailing across the Atlantic Ocean or the Eng- lish Channel. It’s cold, it’s wet and there’s absolutely nothing to see. Neither can I see much dif- ference in doing it in a custom, ninety foot brigantine or a dinghy bought from BoatsRus, apart from winning the veiled ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ email swipes. On a different tack, if one of these guys broke with tradition and got themselves a submarine and crossed the Atlantic under it rather than on it, then it would be worth a few submissions to the notice board. On reflection though, this may encourage stories rivalling Jules Verne’s epic so I’ll keep quiet about that.
I was once interviewed by a BBC radio station when I published my first book ‘Flying without Fear’, the interviewer asked me if I missed flying. I said that I didn’t, that I had enjoyed my ca- reer, flown everything I’d wanted to fly and now it was over.
So, he asked “Didn’t I want to have my own small plane?” “No.”
“Didn’t I miss the excitement?”
“No I don’t. Sorry to be a bore, but needing to be at the controls of a plane is now over for me.”
He said that all the pilots he knew had planes and had carried on flying. I pointed out that, had I been a retired undertaker, I wouldn’t be expected to carry on digging holes in the ground so why was an airline pilot’s job any different? The interview had finished by the time the next track fad- ed. There must be something in how I talk to, and about people that makes them want to shun me.
WHEN IS THE PILOT ALLOWED TO TAKE OFF OR LAND?
There’s a feeling amongst fearful flyers that the success or failure of a flight is down to the judgement of the captain. While this may have been the case many years ago, flying is so routine now that almost everything is enshrined in safety rules and strict operating procedures. There are no circumstances where one aircraft, of a company would be able to take off or land and another plane and of the same type, under the same conditions, wouldn’t.
If the weather conditions prevents a plane from taking off then there’s no reason that any pilot would ever override these limitations. The weather restrictions concern the wind direction, wind speed and visibility. Each different type of plane has defined limitations, if the wind limitation for take off is thirty knots across the runway and the wind is thirty-one knots across the runway… you can’t take off. If it’s twenty-nine knots, you can and that’s that.
The plane will have been tested, by test pilots, as being capable of taking off in stronger winds across the runway, but if the rule for passenger flights is thirty knots, then thirty it is. Not one knot more. The wind direction and strength has to be within the limitations at the start of the take off run and be reasonably expected to stay that way during the take off.
Visibility is important during the take off because the pilot needs to be able to keep the plane in the centre of the runway. On the flight deck there is equipment to assist us to maintain direc- tion. We can be sure that the runway is clear of traffic because the ground radar controllers moni- tor all airport traffic particularly near and on the runway. It helps that the runways are long and straight. Nothing would be harder to do than take off along a runway that has bends, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. It means that in a plane the forward visibility can be almost zero and we’re still far safer than you would ever be in a car in foggy conditions.
For landing, the situation is slightly different because a plane spends five minutes or so ap- proaching. So, for those five minutes, the wind and visibility could be constantly changing and might occasionally be outside or within the landing limitations during that time. A pilot preparing to take off can wait for conditions to change while the pilot of an approaching aircraft needs to account for the conditions at the exact time of making the decision to land.
A pilot isn’t prevented from…
I’ll make a prediction that you looked in the contents, saw this heading and came straight to it. The best advice I can give you is to tighten your seatbelt as much as you can to ensure that you move with the aeroplane, and as you settle into your seat tighten it again and again. Keep saying to yourself that, “Turbulence may be uncomfortable but that’s not the same as dangerous.” K Godfrey
You can’t concentrate on anything if, rumbling away in the background there’s something wor- rying you, and I know from all the years I’ve been helping fearful flyers that turbulence is the number one worry. When you’re happy that your worries and doubts are answered, I hope you’ll get on and enjoy the rest of the book.
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BEING A PASSENGER
I’m not a backseat car driver so when it comes to flying as a passenger, it really doesn’t concern me. But fearful flyers always ask me if I’m a good passenger and whether I get nervous about the skills of the crew. It’s only when they ask me, that I even think about it. Apart from the pure love of it, I think nothing more of sitting on an aeroplane than sitting in the garden.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I took my first flight, but I know that we were on holiday in Bournemouth, England. Taking the train there was about as far as we could afford to go. The flight cost Mum and Dad ten shillings, which was nearly a morning’s work for Dad. Four hours work spent in ten minutes!
The plane we flew in was an Auster which, I’ve since discovered, was registered G-AJEP. Registration marks are important to pilots, because we can later claim to have ‘flown that one’
The flight was from Christchurch Airfield, Dorset coincidentally, where the horse freighter that I flew in later years was built. Mum and Dad kept it as a surprise and pretended we were all going to sightsee in Christchurch rather than play on the beach that day. Not much of an alternative to kids who were only interested in the beach. I don’t think that springing surprises on children is the best way to get a positive reaction. I remember being particularly grumpy until I saw the plane and realised what we were going to do.
Dad let Mum share the ride with me so that was another ten bob gone. Nearly a whole day’s pay gone in ten minutes now! I don’t think there was enough money left in the holiday fund to let my brothers have a ride as well. But I never heard a word of resentment from them, ever.
When we were airborne I remember Mum pointing out, in disbelief and amazement, a field of cows appearing to come up the side of the window. As I remember it, the pilot was sullen and dis- interested in everything, including my Mum’s enthusiasm to show me what, she proudly an- nounced, was to be my career. He didn’t welcome us, explain anything to us or even say goodbye. If I think of all the joyriding (in the old sense of the word) pilots I met subsequently, this guy was no different, he was just building his flying experience at someone else’s financial and emotional expense, and no doubt destined to be one of those awful training pilots that I flew with twenty- five years later in our national airline.
ONCE UPON A THURSDAY
I know that “Once upon a…” should be at the beginning of a book, but I’ve written the beginning already and I couldn’t fit it in, what with all that stuff I needed to explain. And because this isn’t a story that has a logical timeline I’ve decided to squeeze it in here. I don’t suppose that it’ll matter too much either if I insert the ending here either because it turned out that we all flew happily ever after…
The next bit of this tale is about getting my flying licences, and, though to me and my Mum, it’s a wonderfully inspiring story, to everyone else it’s less than ordinary. But if you think about the title and reason for this book it’s immediate inclusion is logical, if not vital. It’s an in-flight time waster.
We had always lived in, or near West Wickham in Kent. I passed the 11+ examination and went to the Beckenham and Penge Grammar School for boys. This was an important achievement if you were working class but, as I discovered later, would not get its alumni into the government, judiciary, the BBC or any other job where connections were essential.
I suppose the best things you learn at any school other than at public school is that ignorance is bliss, especially when you are the one kept in ignorance. At least it helps you to remember and keep your place. When I was almost sixteen, we moved to Shoreditch in London where the high- light of living there for three years was being stabbed in the stomach by some low life villain whose friend I had offended at an Air Cadet meeting. Mum insisted that I went to hospital. Dad insisted we went to the police station so another domestic row broke out. I should have gone to the Police and reported them all.
I was now occasionally attending Dame Alice Owen’s Grammar School for Boys at the Angel Islington. It was Thursday morning and I hadn’t scored well in my inorganic chemistry test. I fi- nally had to accept that I didn’t understand a single thing about Inorganic Chemistry. Lots of C’s and O’s and H’s and short lines between them with numbers up to six or so alongside them but I couldn’t make a connection which, they tell me, is the point.
THERE ARE LOTS MORE INTERESTING CHAPTERS INCLUDING THE TALKING DOG, THE SCOTSMAN WHO NAVIGATED BY MONEY AND THE LOONY TUNE WHO FLEW THA ATLANTIC IN A PLANE NOT FIT TO TAXI TO THE OTHER END OF THE AIRFIELD,THE SPRINKLING OF ASHES AND THE BEST BARISTA THIS SIDE OF MILAN.
The point is this if you haven’t been interested in this so far, it’s very unlikely that more extracts will entice you. All I can say is, is that if you buy it and you really think it’s a swindle, write to me and I’ll reimburse you. Ok One more extract
THE AUTHOR’S TAIL
I suppose that all families have apocryphal stories. Whether or not a drunken Aunt Maude really did kiss an unwilling policeman on New Year’s Eve will never be known. The story that Uncle George was once a happy-go-lucky tearaway seems unlikely now that he spends all day slouched in an arm chair moaning about the drivel on the telly. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a story. It keeps our feet on the ground, and fills the otherwise quiet moments at family gatherings.
Our family’s story centred on me. It may well have been either of my brothers but it works better with me. Mum told everyone, including me, and more than once, that at the age of seven months I uttered my first word. The word I spoke was ‘Messerschmitt’, which, if true, was very clever of me, bearing in mind it’s a three syllable word and wasn’t in my native tongue.
Unfortunately being a British, wartime baby and, presumably, on the side of Churchill it wasn’t a very patriotic thing to say. Whether that was the root cause of my lifelong outspokenness can’t be known, but looking back it was a pretty dumb way to start a public speaking career.
Maybe it was prophetic, I’m not sure, but apparently Mum knew from that day that I was go- ing to fly. Presumably for the RAF and not the Luftwaffe. Neither of those careers materialised anyway. So much for being a child prodigy.
If motivation and enthusiasm is a part of learning then I was conscious of wanting to learn to fly at the age of nine. We had moved from a house on a road in the centre of a housing estate, to a house which backed on to a wood. If you walked to the far side of the wood there was access to a long and winding road that led to the wartime fighter airfield at Biggin Hill. It was a long walk as I recall but, having recently checked with the digital God on Google Earth, the distance was in fact a little over four miles. I used to make the regular journey with my best friend, Allen Harper. Allen’s dad was a window cleaner and his family owned a car. He was a good footballer and played for North Kent. He had a bike with ‘drop handlebars’ and the latest cut-away football boots. He was a good sportsman and was very polite to my Mum. Together, we won the three- legged race at primary school, and we were inseparable in many other ways too. But I was clev- erer than he, although I resisted telling anyone that until now.
In the twenty-first century it is unimaginable to look back and think that two nine year old children could walk, wander or cycle that far from home and back again, to spend the day without supervision, just watching planes going round and around. My recollection was that all I had to
say was where I was going, when I’d be back and then I was free to spend the day doing whatever I wanted.
A birthday present of a second-hand bike made the road journey easier but made the bit through the woods that much harder. It was a good metaphor for life: convenience isn’t always convenient, and that things you dream of don’t always fulfil your dreams.
Looking back, the mixture of the woods, the country lanes and the distant world of aeroplanes were the ingredients that brought about my love of both the open-air and planes. I didn’t recog- nise it at the time but, of course, they were perfect bedfellows. Later, during my career, my love of nature and of flying would put me in a perfect world. The unobstructed views from five miles up are, as you’d expect, spectacular. The cloudscapes awe inspiring and the freedom uplifting. My Yin and Yang were getting airborne. My Karma was on course. Life was good.
It’ll be even better if .. Buy some other Captain Keith’s books here