Friday, 28 December 2012


The following is a brief feedback from one of my family members who was sitting in First Class on BA38, when the Boeing 777 crashed on landing at London's Heathrow airport after suffering a double engine failure.

I too have experienced a double engine failure but on a far less complicated aircraft, a PA31, but more on that event later.

The following is a link to a video of the ATC transcript, which is very interesting.

Very briefly, and from the horse's mouth.........

The flight appeared totally normal, the touchdown seemed a lot firmer than normal. There was no panic even after the aircraft came to a standstill. There was no evacuation initially ordered over the Public Address system. The cabincrew opened the forward doors and deployed the slides. Still no panic, passengers stood up in the First Class compartment and started to retrieve their belongings from the overhead bins before deplaning/evacuating. He stated that prior to leaving the aircraft he never heard anything from the pilots.
It was then that the cabin crew started the evacuation in earnest. He went down the slide and the only BA cabin crew member was just standing at the end of the slide but in tears. He put his arm around her to try and console her. Shortly afterwards the fire service arrived and he was led away, leaving the distressed cabincrew member behind.
It took several hours before he was able to leave the airport as the British Airways groundstaff were unprepared for such a situation.
He subsequently suffered back problems from the vertical component of the impact, bills which BA paid, they also paid for him and three family members to travel club class and pay for the hotels on any British Airways holiday around the world....a nice gesture in my opinion.

I mentioned the above a year later when doing Safety and Emergency Procedures training at British Airways Cranebank training centre. The instructor vehemently stated that the above was totally untrue and that the above never happened. I insisted that this was a true and factual statement and I was again rebuked...............Ostriches?!!!


I suppose you found the travel bug, and desire to be a pilot from bumming around Goa with your school buddies or trekking around Nicaragua whilst on a gap year? 

A sarcastic question I know, but my straight faced reply would be made as nonchalantly as possible, “No time for a gap year, I went straight to Oxford,” and with a faraway look in my eyes add for good measure, “Used to love punting with Billy, Simon and Oliver followed by a liquid lunch on the banks of the Isis!” 

Of course, anyone who knew me well would spot the obvious holes in that pompous, tongue in cheek statement except for the liquid lunch part!   

So it was on a sunny August afternoon and with my parents’ good grace, I was on my way. The summer after my stunning ‘A’ level results promised the start of a new chapter in my life and I was off to begin my fabulous adventure. 

The drive to Oxford from my parents’ home in Surrey took me along the recently opened M25 and my first experience of being alone in a traffic jam that had no reason for being. Whilst waiting patiently for my turn to use the accelerator feature of my car, almost an unnecessary option on this stretch of road, I watched in awe as plane after plane roared above my head, scrambling to become airborne from one of London Heathrow’s westerly runways.  

So with no driving to concentrate on, I found myself daydreaming. Back then, in-car entertainment was limited to a cassette deck with a voracious appetite for the tapes themselves or a row with your passengers. The multi tasking required to text on mobile phones whilst delving under your seat for your latest CD and packet of wine gums was still only in the imagination of science fiction writers and travelling salesmen. At that moment I was probably one of only a handful of motorists not cursing and chain smoking, but actually enjoying the view, fantasizing that I was the pilot in the cockpit of one of those planes. 

Driving for another hour and heading further west, I passed Windsor Castle on my left, crossed over the Thames at the historic town of Henley before joining up with the motorway system again and the last part of my journey. Up to now I had been immersed in my own little world, seeing sights that were all new to me. I realised that I was not just leaving my old life behind at a steady seventy miles per hour, but more importantly I was heading into my new life at the same speed. Traversing the crest of the hill through the deep cutting near the village of Turville and looking down as the County of Oxfordshire revealed itself in what appeared to be its entirety, I realised the actual reason for my journey. My sense of excitement heightened as I realised the enormity of what lay ahead - I was to become a pilot and a sense of wonder returned. Prior to this moment the thoughts and reasons for why I was making this journey had been pushed towards the periphery of my subconscious. I felt incredibly lucky and considered that now would be the time that maybe I should pinch myself! 

Leaving the motorway several miles to the south of Oxford, its continuation to the colourful city of Birmingham still a figment in the eye of some yet to be promoted spotty town planner, I followed the sign posts through the urban villages on the outskirts of the city of Oxford, Summertown and Kidlington, finally crossing the hump backed bridge over the Oxford canal which led to the perimeter road around the college’s airfield.  

You probably would not be surprised to learn that the college was not part of ‘Oxbridge’, the world famous Oxford and Cambridge universities. Instead, it was a residential flying school, O.A.T.S. or, to give its full name, Oxford Air Training School. Their advertising could, in my opinion, have honestly boasted, ‘probably the best flying school in the world!’ The airfield was tucked away between the small Oxfordshire villages of Kidlington, Summertown and Woodstock, the nearest neighbour of any standing residing at Blenheim Palace. The location truly made for a delightful setting, chocolate box villages, olde-world pubs and once back in Summertown, girls; girls on bikes, girls on buses and some girls just walking. I had never seen so many girls and from so many different countries - yes, a kid in a sweet shop with a gold credit card would be an apt description of how I felt!  

Just over two hours since leaving home, I arrived at the entrance to what would be my new residence for the next year. I felt like getting out and kissing my car in the manner of a visiting Pope, but decided that it was probably not the first impression I would want of me should I be spotted. I was unprepared for what I imagined lay ahead and with the minimum amount of worldly goods, everything I had which I felt that I would need could be found wedged into the boot of this ‘super car’ of mine, a pensioner’s Volkswagen Derby.  

There could be found a suitcase of my smartest clothes, a cardboard box full of dried food, assorted tins and a box of tea bags which would have been sufficient for an army of builders, along with what my Mum obviously deemed to be necessary as survival rations for an expedition outside the protected confines of the M25. I also had the princely sum of twenty pounds in my pocket and a look on my face of impending panic and excitement. To the casual observer it probably looked as if I had had a stroke! 

I slowly turned off the main road, stopped the car and wound down my window to admire the billboard sized black and orange O.A.T.S. signs which flanked the entrance. The signs, coupled with the serious looking security gate and the sound of a jet engine whining close by, brought a quick slice of reality back to my situation. I had arrived. I could only wonder as to what would lie in store for me, what I could expect, what would be required of me and who my new friends would be. All would be swiftly revealed no doubt. 

“You can’t park there young man!”  A voice bellowed from behind me.  

Startled, I wound down the window, a concept alien to anyone under the age of thirty and peered backwards to see an immaculately dressed security officer. It was immediately obvious from his appearance that this guy took his job way too seriously, except for the soldiers participating in the changing of the guard, you would have been hard pressed to find any other man in uniform smarter and those soldiers, they were trying to impress the Queen. No-one should be that immaculate outside of royal circles. He looked as if he had just come from an audition for ‘Dad’s Army’ but had not won the part as he had been wearing too many medals! His dark blue uniform decked with two rows of military ribbons creased to within an inch of its life, announced a proud man. A man I just knew I was going to have trouble with and who I would later find out had a phobia about ducks! 

I was directed to pull forward 3.4 yards and marshalled to a stop with the precision of a Swiss border guard. I introduced myself as Mr. Carter, which sounded strangely alien to me. Up until now there had been no Mister, only Carter, “Come here Carter! It was you wasn’t it Carter?”  

I added that I was a new student, chucked in a ‘Sir’ or two which I found usually did the trick, but on this occasion softened him not a jot. After a couple of moments whilst I was being sized up, I was duly rewarded with directions towards the administration office and it was clear from the look he gave me that he considered me as yet another nuisance that he would need to deal with! Unbeknown to each of us, he would be the bane of my life and those of my friends and, in turn, we would be his for the next twelve months. A fair arrangement some would agree!  

“You’re the third one today. Follow the road to the end, then park.” 

Not too complicated I thought. Failing to return the salute, I released the hand brake and stalled making a mental note to use the clutch pedal in future! I kangarooed a couple of times but I did not care, I was in. 

Having taken control of the car, I weaved my way at a leisurely ten miles per hour along the narrow road, soaking up the atmosphere of the moment and taking in my surroundings. I slowly drove past the school’s haphazardly scattered buildings, my head moving in a slow motion imitation of a Wimbledon umpire who was trying to follow a particularly long rally.  

I was trying to decide what my first impressions were and I was starting to become a little concerned. From what I could gather, the buildings seemed to be spread over most of the airport’s eastern side comprising the architectural splendours of both military and penal design from the last fifty years. There were single storey classroom blocks with windows in need of painting. Large out of proportion lecture halls with doors you could drive a tank through, halls of residence designed with a POW theme in mind and sign posts pointing towards a restaurant that I did not hold out great hopes for.  

Most importantly to me, I could see large hangars holding a promise of aircraft within and the reason why I was here. More disturbingly, I noticed that all of the uniform bedecked students were obviously not of this country; it appeared that I had come across a small part of England devoid of the English. It would not be until much later that I would find out the location of the most important building, the bar and the location of a fellow student, a guy called Oliver who would become my new best friend. 

After half a mile of zigzagging along, I came to the end of the road as had been so accurately pointed out in the bellowed directions from earlier and found a parking space outside the administration office. Locking my car, I turned around and studied the scene ahead of me.  

Across the other side of the car park and beyond a small grassy area were rows of precisely parked training aircraft, all with the white, yellow and orange CSE Oxford logos adorned on their fuselages.  

Now CSE Aviation was part of the Guinness group, but for us students it would be forever known as ‘Cash Swiftly Extracted’ which my Dad later agreed as being very apt! It was beyond these stationary aircraft where the real action was taking place, for every couple of minutes another aircraft would land or take-off, some wobbling, taking flight like an immature duckling whilst others were controlled with what appeared a practised ease. I had no illusions, even with my grand total of twenty seven flying hours under my belt I knew I was on the duck side of the scale. 

“Alan Carter?”  

A question asked in the same tone of voice as if enquiring after Dr. Livingstone but much softer, brought me back to reality and a quick realisation that I had no need to be nervous of my situation any more. Turning back towards the offices and the source of this enquiry I was met by the sight of a smartly dressed woman whose attitude and demeanour immediately put me at ease, but that would not last. She turned out to be the senior administration secretary; known simply as Sally and the lady to whom I should turn to if I had any problems. 

“Yes, I’m Alan Carter, one of your new boys and I have no idea where I should be!” I managed to stammer out. 

“Well, you’re starting in the right place. How about I give you a quick tour, show you where you need to go tomorrow for your induction and then leave you in Matron’s capable hands! You’ll be staying in Langford Lodge.” 

I assumed that Sally had been warned of my imminent arrival by her officious colleague at the airfield’s entrance, well that added to the fact that I did stand out, not being in the dark blue uniform suit of the other students and much pastier in appearance!  Matron?  I was conjuring up thoughts of ‘Carry On’ films and strict public schools, certainly not flying schools! 

My new residence, Langford Lodge, conjured up pictures in my mind of quite a pleasant establishment, maybe a country house style of residence I thought. Wrong! 

My five minute tour complete, I learned very little except that Lord Waterford had a Learjet unlike Lord Chelsea, and during the previous week whilst Waterford’s jet was catching up Chelsea’s jet on coming into land, it was suggested that the Englishman break off. The immortal line, ‘An English Lord will never give way to an Irish Lord!’ was broadcast over the radio. Now Sally just threw this into conversation. Was it just a throw away anecdote to put me at ease or maybe she thought I was a trouble making Lord? Feeling a little concerned over my first impressions maybe now was a good time to form an escape committee and start on Tom, Dick and Harry!  

Tour complete and back to the car, waving good bye to the slightly eccentric Sally, I followed the brief directions which she had given and found myself a couple of minutes later in a car park full of vehicles apparently held together by rust and prayers. More disturbingly than the lack of these cars resale value was the fact that I was now in front of one of the POW style barrack blocks which I had passed earlier. 

Standing at the entrance to this building was a stick thin woman in the most ridiculous flowery dress, definitely no Hattie Jacques! Alongside her and ramrod straight stood her husband, the security guard from the entrance. Worse news was to come! I found out that they both lived in an annexe attached to my halls of residence and both patrolled the building with an unnerving and quite worrying passion. Over the next few months she would reveal herself as simply being the mother hen type, which I suppose is what we lads needed initially.  

With the briefest of introductions completed I was led inside, though I had the feeling that her husband, such was his demeanour, would rather have frog marched me in and up the stairs to my room. The once red and now dark maroon carpet was threadbare at best, the walls pot marked and the white paint chipped.  

My old school back in Croydon was in better condition than this and my enthusiasm was taking a big hit. Now I have to admit that I was probably feeling slightly homesick, well at least for the small luxuries I had taken for granted such as wallpaper and carpet that had not been manufactured with a life on a British Rail carriage in mind! Further along the passageway we passed several dusky looking guys, all of whom were in a hurry not to say hello, looking straight past me as if I was of no consequence; another friendly welcome! Then we reached number 36 and Matron pointed out that this would be mine, conveniently located as it was opposite the toilet and bathroom, home to a thousand different smells and no doubt germs!  

Scanning up and down, my door looked as if it had been used in a police training exercise. The lock had obviously been replaced on more than one occasion and the previous occupants must have lost the use of their arms judging by the cracks, dents and shoe marks at its base. 

Matron unlocked the door, handed me the key and stood back allowing me a glimpse through the doorway into what at first appeared to be a cell! 

“Breakfast will be at eight o’clock, and I’ve been told that you’ll be collected from the restaurant at nine for your orientation. If you have any questions or problems, our flat is on the ground floor. Bill and Simon are two other British students and their rooms are at the end of the corridor. Oliver is next to you in 37.”  

I honestly think that she enjoyed her role as surrogate mother and I believe that she genuinely wanted to help which obviously rankled with the views of her husband who, with a trace of a scornful smile on his lips added, “The other Brits, Bill and Simon have the largest rooms.” I sensed that he was trying to add some unpleasantness to his wife’s jollity. I could not be sure but was he trying to say that the others were more important than me? 

“Bill and Simon?” I asked. “Are they newbie’s like me?” 

“No, Billy’s been here a while, but Simon’s just starting like you. Oliver said that he’d head for the bar; he’s a really polite young man. I’m pretty sure that Billy’s popped into Oxford for dinner.” With that she headed off. Her husband followed behind, equally balanced with a chip on both shoulders! It all started to make sense. Matron kept him under her thumb, so to exact revenge, he would try to take it out on us and reassert his diminished manhood!  

Left on my own there was nothing for it, time to acquaint myself with my new home. Nothing could have prepared me for the meagre and gloomy sight contained within. The musty smell of old furniture and the aroma of stale cigarettes did not add a welcoming feel to the place. My room was neither functional nor cosy, not by a long way. There was a single bed made up in the style favoured by the British prison service, a small wooden desk that can only be described as distressed and a sink which was not quite flush with the wall. First impressions were not good! Taking three steps forward I had crossed the expansive floor area of my room to the window. I pulled one of the thin yellow curtains aside which had obscured my view out towards the airfield beyond the flat roofs of the buildings opposite. I gazed out and was rewarded with the sight of a Learjet, a small American business jet, roaring into the sky and a smile appeared back on my face. It was then that I realised I did not need luxury, I just needed to fly. 

It would be a couple of days later when chatting to Sally, that I would find out that this particular Learjet belonged to the racing driver Ayrton Senna and that it was flown by one of the most pleasant and kindest men in aviation, Mark, who would be my friend and colleague for the next twenty five years before sadly succumbing like so many to the big C. 

Right, unpack later. Beer, definitely time for a beer and try to find another of my inmates. If he had just arrived from the States then I was sure that he would probably be feeling the same as me, in need of a medicinal pick me up. Time to find Oliver, compare notes and share our first impressions! 

He was not a difficult person to locate. Standing six foot five tall and, as I was to later find out, an ex-American college football player, part Nigerian, part American with a little bit of German on his grandmother’s side, Oliver was quite an imposing figure, but seemed like a really cool guy. 

“Hi, Alan isn’t it? Thought you’d be along eventually, knowing you Brits and how you like your beer! I took the liberty and even ordered one for you!” Now I really like this guy I thought.  

“It’s a bit warm now, but that’s how you like it I believe!” Oliver added whilst handing me the first of many beers that night.  

We had bonded and I knew then that we would be friends for life, especially as only a year later he would help save the lives of my family and closest friends. 

Oliver and I staggered back to our ‘lodge’, cutting a path across the apron where some of the privately owned aircraft were parked and over the less than manicured lawns of earlier. We were just like any other normal guys staggering back from a boozy Friday night out, the two of us tracing a path like a couple of drunk crabs, but managing to successfully make our way back. 

We crept in through the main door and ran up the stairs with exaggerated and unsuccessful quietness in our drunken state, noisily shushing each other as we went. On negotiating the top of the stairs, Oliver knocked over the fire extinguisher, in what can only be described as a ‘slow motion’ moment, the metal canister toppled end over end down the staircase. The thudding noise of the escaping fire extinguisher as it hit each stair echoed around the walls like bombs dropping. We froze to the spot; our mouths wide open in horror. The only sound we could hear were our hearts thumping loudly inside our chests. It reached the bottom with an almighty crash. We waited, hardly daring to breathe, preparing ourselves for the onslaught of recriminations that would be hurled at us once Matron or her sour faced husband appeared. Time passed – and what seemed like eternity. Nothing, nothing stirred.  

Closing my door behind me I held onto the wobbly sink for support.  At least now I knew how it had got that way. Fumbling with the belt to my jeans and giving up, I emptied my pockets of accumulated rubbish and frighteningly little in the way of cash. I realised with some despair that I had knocked a sizable hole in my twenty pound monthly allowance, but more importantly, what the devil was going on with my ear? According to my small digital clock on the obviously distressed bedside table, I had been in Oxford for six hours and sober for two of them. More disturbingly though, I could not work out why my left ear hurt so badly and where was this blood coming from?   

I realised I was alone again and my anxieties returned. I was wondering if I would be able to cope with this new emotion, one that I was not enjoying and could probably be attributed to far too much beer. Lying down, I prayed the room would stay still long enough for me to make myself both comfortable and safe. In my time I had fallen out of many beds finding myself on the floor staring at the ceiling; but this was one carpet I had no intention of forming any close relationship with. In my sorry state I contemplated whether it would be best to get undressed before I fell asleep or just wait until the morning. I opted for the latter on health and safety grounds.  

With the amount of alcohol that I had consumed, I was stupidly feeling a bit sorry for myself, ‘bloody baby’ I thought. I knew from experience that sleep would not come easy, not with my sozzled mind working overtime, my emotions somersaulting between exhilaration and panic with everything in-between. I just hoped that I could keep ‘everything’ inside - at least until the morning! 

Waking up on the first day of the rest of your life with a major hangover and a bloodstained pillow is not ideal, however, that is what happened, courtesy of my new best friend Oliver and a yet to be identified Libyan. What was important, I had a buddy and I am very lucky to say, thirty years later he still is.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


‘Sharks prefer women who wear brightly coloured bikinis.’ A great tag line!

No, I have not been at the Absinthe again! It’s actually a statement of fact to do with how the profile of the body is broken up; a statement which rather loosely was involved in how I chose my future career whilst I was at school. Let me explain…..

It all started on the first day at my senior school. I was sitting at the table in my class of thirty pupils next to my new best friend Peter, someone whom I had known for almost forty minutes. This was how long it took for him to try and convince me of where my future lay. 

When the teacher went around the class asking us eleven year olds what we would like to do when we left school, Peter kept saying, “You want to be a banker like my Dad, he makes lots of money!” Now I might only have been eleven years old, but it was obvious to me that I would have way more fun being a pilot than working in a bank.  

Thinking about the choice for a second or two, I replied, ‘Pilot, Sir. That’s what I’d like to be.’ This was met with the same sigh that was meted out to the first boy who said he wanted to be an astronaut. But it was the truth, and would prove to be rather prophetic, even if it did disappoint Peter, my new ex-best friend.  

My “posh” grammar school was built next to a rough South London housing estate. When my friends and I navigated our way through the local roads we always had to be on our guard because the local boys who came from other schools saw us as the enemy. On one particular morning I was rushing to get to school before our assembly, and running late as usual courtesy of British rail. Now I was not the biggest boy in the class, kind of wiry but could move when required, especially when being chased. As I was looking one way a couple of bullies from the local comprehensive pounced on me, one with his hand on my blazer collar, the other trying to snatch my schoolbag which contained my packed lunch and tuck shop money! Ducking a couple of well judged punches, I managed to break free and leg it, complete with schoolbag.  I ran like a whippet and my lungs felt as if they would burst. I made it to safety inside the school grounds and turned around to see my two adversaries standing at a distance, watching.  A wry smile and I was gone. 

For many years I would stare out of the classroom window, my eyes were drawn to the listed control tower of the historical airport where we were located, this protruded above the warehouses opposite. I dreamt of 35,000 feet not algebra! Often to break this reverie, an expertly thrown wooden board duster would arc its way above my classmates, bouncing off my head and sorely bringing me back to the present! I can honestly say that it was thrown at some speed and practiced accuracy by my psychotic class teacher. This was years before the words nanny state or political correctness could be found among the Daily Mail’s headlines and an action which I have a hunch would probably be frowned upon these days! 

To my delight and the possible excuse for my lack of attention, the school was nostalgically located on the site of the old Croydon airport. Steeped in history and legend, this is where the romance of flying with Imperial Airways on those pre-war routes promised adventure. The daydreams flooding my mind took me to destinations which took days and sometimes weeks to complete; to the once pink areas printed on the maps of the Far East and Africa, far flung colonies once literally belonging to the wealthy and the powerful of Great Britain.

A couple of years later, ideas for my future career took a swerve and changed to that of an Ichthyologist
, a long word which I liked immensely, not least because it sounded a lot grander than a fish-expert; a word which I took from the then blockbuster film, “Jaws”.  However, this was to prove to be a poor choice of career, as technically, I fell at the first hurdle. You see, I was to find out that the concept of diving and being submerged scared the hell out of me! You just never knew what you might meet swimming around down there. I had recently seen the science fiction film “The Abyss”, which raised many spooky concerns about the oceans within me. I still liked the idea in principal and I was not yet totally discouraged.   

It was after watching the film “The Deep” starring Jacqueline Bisset that I resolved to start putting into action some of my ideas. Being tasked with making something practical in my metalwork class, I became convinced that a life swanning around on boats in and out of the ocean was the life for me.  

For my metalwork project I decided to make a bang stick. This is a long hollow metal pole with a trigger mechanism, allowing you from a short but safe distance to discharge a shell or bullet into the fish of your choice, primarily to discourage it from turning you into lunch, but more likely an underwater pea shooter when faced with a twenty foot great white shark. If ever used in anger, “We’re going to need a bigger stick” would have been an apt phrase I should think.

It was another boy in the class who came to my rescue in putting the finishing touches to my project. Lawrence, who travelled back and forth to school on the train with me every day provided the most important piece. At weekends he often went shooting with his Dad on a local farm, and whilst he was definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’d always try to help you out if he could. I persuaded him to give me one of his shotgun cartridges which was necessary to test out my bang stick.

After a couple of weeks slow progress, my device was completed and ready for testing. Now even those with a poor knowledge of geography will not be surprised to find out that there is not a great deal of opportunity to come across a great white, or any other shark for that matter in Croydon, South London. I now know this sounds a bit foolish, but having no sharks to practice on, and discounting the idea of trying it out on Ian, the class bully, I wedged one end of my yet to be patented super-weapon into a vice to steady it. So far no-one was taking a blind bit of interest in me, so with the cartridge in place, I pressed my spring loaded trigger. Nothing happened. I resorted to plan B and did what any thirteen year old boy would do. I hit the trigger with a hammer.

Now I don’t know if you have ever discharged a firearm in a small school workshop, but it tends to be somewhat of an attention grabber! This was obviously pre Columbine, but any probation worker worth his salt would say that at that moment I was heading at great speed in that direction.

The plaster on the wall six feet away disintegrated and so did any prospect of my receiving a credit for my work. The other boys in my vicinity stared, stunned at the devastation that I had created. My teacher stared in disbelief, no doubt thinking one of his lathes or drills had self-destructed and that he would be personally to blame for any boys returning home minus an arm or two. On recognising that my project was still firmly locked in the jaws of the vice and giving the game away as it was still smoking, he realised that it was one of his idiot pupils who had inadvertently redesigned his workshop. My class was rapidly dismissed, all except for me.  I could see a new found look of respect in the eyes of some of my classmates as they passed me by, heading out of the door. My teacher, with a different look in his eyes, took me to one side, bent me over and gave me the caning of my life. Looking back, I think only one of us enjoyed this punishment.

This was the final nail in the coffin of me becoming the next Jacques Cousteau, that and the fact that I was also kicked out of all biology lectures for kidnapping the class gerbils. You see, I could not stand the fact that they were to be gassed and then dissected by us. My mission and I chose to accept it, was to liberate the two of them from their cage and give them their freedom, although it would turn out to be slightly premature. On the train home from school my furry prisoners were snuggled inside my blazer pocket. Seeing one of the girls who used to catch the same train, I told her to look in my pocket and see what she could find - this was said with all the innocence of a choirboy. Of course, this was too tempting for her but I was still not prepared for the scream and rapidly becoming the centre of attention. I quickly removed the gerbils to my less than secure schoolbag where they enacted their own version of “The Great Escape”.  

There were not many places for them to scurry to on a British Rail second class carriage, and after a quick search I found them hiding under the train carriage’s rear bench seat beneath the feet of an elderly couple. My “so called” friends abandoned me and changed carriages at the next station and I decided that it was probably prudent that I do the same. The two rodents were left to live out their lives feasting on discarded cigarette butts and dropped food scraps whilst riding on the number 37 train between London’s Victoria station and Epsom Downs. In hindsight, I am not sure which would have been the longer or better future for them, the promise of the school gas chamber or an unofficial season ticket for life on British Rail.

A change of career was needed and I decided to commit my endeavours from that moment on to achieving my new and more realistic goal, that of becoming an airline pilot. The rest as they say is history. Though my interest in brightly coloured bikinis never diminished!

Now that I knew what I wanted to do and I was approaching my ‘oh so’ important ‘O’ level exams, I was tasked with coming up with a plan for my future and decided to seek professional advice. My attempt at soliciting advice on how to become a pilot from my Careers Master was as successful as Vlad the Impaler lobbying to win the Nobel Peace Prize! I am sure that the thought of me piloting my alleged educational mentor and his family on his holidays at sometime in the future might not have been too far from the back of his mind and have some bearing on his lack of enthusiasm for my choice.

With as little assistance as he could possibly get away with, and trying to divert me away from my lofty ambitions, he suggested that a career in insurance or possibly the military could be interesting. Handing me a few leaflets on the R.A.F. I was sent on my way.  I considered the R.A.F. for the best part of ten minutes whilst in the queue for the tuck shop and discounted it for multiple reasons; discipline, cowardice, university attendance all cropping up on the con side of the argument.

This left me at an impasse, but fate was to deal me a surprising ace. A month of twenty four hour, seven days a week cramming before my exams worked and I passed eight of them. This surprised everyone, especially my teachers and parents and led to my receiving an award at my schools prize giving ceremony. This could have been a bit ambiguous as it was an award for the most improved student, which I believe most people took to mean the award for the student least likely to succeed. However, I carried my book token around with the reverence attributed to an Olympian’s gold medal.  

My parents, believing that I had turned the corner, offered me a carrot that no one could refuse. If I carried on into the sixth form and did reasonably well in my ‘A’ levels, they would sponsor my pilot training. At least their expectations were being set at a realistic level and I needed no bigger incentive.

My Mum and Dad decided to see if I would enjoy flying, so they kindly set me up with a trial flight out of a small airfield west of London at Booker, which at the time was home to the airplanes from the film, “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”. I was to fly with the son of a friend of my Dad’s. The flight was to be on a small single engine Piper aircraft belonging to the British Airways Flying Club. The aircraft was even painted in the British Airways colour scheme! I was amazed when told the reason for flying from here was because my instructor was a chap called Jock Lowe, a British Airways Concorde pilot, and future Flight Operations Director of the company. You could say I was suitably impressed! My Dad certainly did not do anything by halves!  

The flight was everything I thought it would be, the take off from the grassy airfield made all the more special as I was allowed to do it myself, and on my first ever flight! I was shown what to do; how to make the aircraft go up and down and turn. Heading south, I could see London’s Heathrow airport in the distance ahead of us, a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet climbing out on some unknown but soon to be faraway journey. This was what I wanted to do and from then on the only thing I wanted to do. My time airborne with Jock seemed to disappear in an instant. In no time at all I found myself coming in for landing and this part of my adventure was over. The next day I would be back at school grappling with logarithms and football whilst my instructor would be piloting a Concorde to Singapore. This was a concept so farfetched in my young eyes that I could barely grasp it. 

I was now one hundred percent bitten by the bug and decided that somehow I would try and complete my Private Pilots Licence whilst at school. This meant that some evenings I would be working as a barman in my local pub and on Saturdays as the man in the booth at our local multi-storey car park collecting payment from the drivers. I came to hate the phrase ‘tickets please’ with a vengeance! But this work allowed me to save enough money to accumulate the flying hours and learn the basic skills which would eventually lead me to my first pilots licence, though gaining the final certificate was some way off. I had so much to learn whilst I slowly logged the hours to achieve the minimum magic number of forty five; the minimum required by the authorities before giving me permission to terrorise pigeons and my future passengers.  Only then would I be granted a Private Pilots Licence or PPL as it is more commonly known.   

Amongst the multitude of subjects that I had to cover, both in the air and on the ground, I would be required to learn how to take-off and land, basic aerobatics, the correct way to speak on the radio and aviation rules and regulations. It was also important to be fully trained in what to do in an emergency; “Inshallah” would not work for me! But a scenario which would arise in the then not so distant future.  

I would also need to learn how to navigate using a map to help in distinguishing the landmarks around me, there being no signposts at two thousand feet above the ground and extremely difficult to stop and ask for directions, especially for a man! Though this did not stop me from getting lost on several embarassing occasions during cross country exercises! Most importantly, I would need to learn what to do if my engine or engines failed, which they did on more than one occasion and at the most inconvenient time, but more on that later.

Being only able to pay for a one hour flying lesson every fortnight, initially at a flying club called Kingair at Biggin Hill and then at the Biggin Hill School of Flying, meant it was slow work achieving my goal, but great fun. The chief flying instructor, a kind hearted moustachioed character noticed my enthusiasm for all things to do with both the club and aviation, offered me a part time job, which was perfect as it allowed me to quit my high powered job as a car park attendant! I had had my fill of glue sniffers who were convinced that they could undertake their own flying lessons, leaping from the roof like lemmings and without the aid of any winged device I might add. 

So I jumped (but not like the glue sniffers), at the opportunity of spending my Saturdays as general gopher and dogsbody at my flying club, cutting the grass, painting and cleaning out the aircraft. It was a feeling of belonging to the aviation community and whilst I did not realise it at the time, the first step in the quest of my dream.

It may have taken almost six months but that just goes to show my perseverence, so you can imagine that I was chuffed to bits as I achieved my first goal - going solo by my seventeenth birthday, a flight which like other ‘firsts’ I will never forget. On this day my instructor never told me that I was to go solo.
I realised afterwards that this was so as not to make me nervous. After a quick couple of circuits where I once again practiced my take-offs and landings, he instructed me to pull over onto a taxiway and with the minimum of fuss left me to it and, more importantly, left me alone.  

Now I remember very little about the intricacies of the next twenty minutes, the procedures and the checklists, only the euphoria once it was over. The adrenalin which flowed through me and the excitement I felt was as if I had personally piloted that Concorde to Singapore and not just flown two square circuits around a small Kent airfield. Fortunately my Dad once again saved the day as he had filmed it using his super 8 video camera, and I could relive the experience as many times as I wanted. Well, I could many years later when it had been converted to DVD! 

After that fabulous day I continued my stop-start flying training, however, there was one small downside as I was unable to finish my PPL before leaving school because I did not have the resources and ran out of time, especially as I had to study for my now ever so important ‘A’ level exams.  

Looking back, maybe I tried to juggle too many balls as I was always busy, trying to fit too many things into too short a time; studying, girls, flying, girls, working and finally girls! All whilst trying to be a model student at school which we all knew was never going to happen! My teachers never knew I was training to be a pilot whilst studying at school and to be honest, I don’t think they would have believed me if I had told them!

The final twist in the tale of my school experience led to me being suspended on the last day of term for some overly enthusiastic celebrations. My friends often ‘borrowed’ my car, an antiquated but much loved Ford Anglia, as it could be started with their school locker key!   

Much to my amusement, I would frequently watch the car disappear out of the school gates without my being asked and often without being invited! To celebrate the last day of term, I volunteered to drive a group of friends to the pub at lunchtime! On our return there were seven of us crammed into my tiny car, six drunk and three still smoking. Being slightly late, I decided to test my road rally skills. This involved overtaking what turned out to be an unmarked police car on the inside, a manoeuvre which allowed me to swerve into the school car park. With the yelling, screaming and ‘words’ of encouragement from my friends, I was convinced that my Ford Anglia had the performance of an F1 car which in hindsight was akin to entering a poodle, complete with jockey into the Grand National. 

Ten minutes later I was sitting in my usual seat outside the headmasters study, waiting to be summoned for what I considered to be the coup-de-grace. The door opened and I was called in. For some reason then unknown to me, I was shown mercy. The headmaster had spoken to my father and as it was the last day of term I was to be just suspended. This meant that I would be able to finish my studies. I know I was lucky at just a suspension - I mean they could have taken my book token away!  

Before I returned for my final term, my Dad said something strange to me. 

 “Be careful driving over those speed bumps when you go back to school!”  

How was he to know? Did he visit my school during the holidays because this was news to me? Unbeknownst to me, during the holiday period the school had commissioned speed bumps built along the drive into the school car park. This was the deal brokered for my suspension and not expulsion! My long suffering parents had come to my rescue again and put this latest escapade down to youthful exuberance. 

In the years to come they would rescue me more often than an RNLI crew in the North Sea, a fact which I am always eternally grateful for….

At the start of my final term I knuckled down in earnest. This implied studying as hard as I could, but in reality as hard as I deemed it was absolutely necessary to prepare myself for my upcoming exams. This meant that in my physics classes I basically copied everything Nick my lab partner did. This did not quite work as well as I hoped, for whilst Nick is now a highly respected Professor of Neurosurgery, I obtained a less distinguished grade E. Today this would not be described as a fail grade, but simply that I had deferred my success.

My second ‘A’ level, General Studies, was an exam which was almost impossible to fail, mainly because the teachers had no idea what to teach. For two hours on a Tuesday and a Thursday afternoon, half a dozen of us could be found in the groundsman’s house drinking beer and smoking whilst watching videos with his wife. Thinking back it could have been worse; they could have been videos of his wife! This was like our secret club, not quite along the lines of “The Dead Poets Society”, but it did release us for a short period of time from the stress of our impending final exams, made us feel that little bit rebellious, if only for a couple of hours.

I strangely managed to obtain a grade B in this subject which goes someway to pointing out how ridiculous this particular subject was, seeing as I cannot remember a thing about it. I suppose it was basically a “filler” in the exam system, similar to lettuce in a prawn cocktail, there to bolster the exam success rates and the perception of improvement in an underachieving schools’ performance. 

Now maths was a subject that I enjoyed but more importantly, slightly understood. I used to set about calculus and integration with an enthusiasm not unlike one of the spotty anorak bedecked oiks you could find on a platform at Clapham Junction when the new railway timetable was published. This led to a grade C and a triumph of perseverance over ability. 

It was geography where I turned it around, and realised that fluent waffle and highly complex and often absurdly incorrect technical illustrations would suffice to obtain a stunning grade B pass. So there I was with three ‘A’ level passes and I had the certificates to prove it. 

By now you have probably come to the same conclusion, that all in all, I was very lucky as a teenager.  Not only did my parents promise to sponsor my flight training, but they were also the reason for my having the travel bug planted in me. 

My family would take fabulous vacations during the school holidays and they would take me along too, regardless of how many animals I had liberated from the school’s euthanasia programme or holes I had blown in walls.  

Fortunately my experiment of brewing beer in one of our student lockers could not be directly attributed to me; my cunning idea to place the largest of the fermenting buckets in my buddy’s locker, who was sick in hospital at the time, had been a masterstroke. After one hot weekend and too much sugar, the frothy congealing liquid had oozed out and spread over the floor of the main hallway, giving the game away!  

Otherwise, once again after my parents had received their almost monthly newsletter from my Headmaster, our forthcoming trip to Los Angeles would have probably been in jeopardy! Our adventures as a family would cause us to visit many other places, ones as diverse as Lichtenstein, Hawaii, cruise around the Caribbean or head off on African safaris. Destinations which were both considered extreme and exotic some thirty years ago. 

Despite my schoolboy pranks, which were the cause of my parents’ worry and numerous reprimands, I found myself driving up to Oxfordshire to enrol at the UK’s premier flight school; CSE Aviation in Kidlington to commence my commercial flight training.

The real fun and my life was about to begin!  

I was one seriously lucky young man and to this day I can never thank my often despairing parents enough……..




Friday, 14 December 2012


No technical jargon or aviation procedures required. No names mentioned, just a big question. Why?

The following is about my  annual line check whilst flying for an Italian company some years ago. It was actually my check after initial company line training, and the primary reason why I decided to leave.

After about four weeks of line training I was finally scheduled for my line check. A check which every pilot has to undergo when joining a new company, well your name could be Frank Abagnale!
I was rostered to operate a four sector day from Milan to Ibiza, returning to Bergamo, before flying back to Ibiza and then home to Milan. Tiring enough without having your every action scrutinised by a training captain.

So I arrived at the briefing office nice and early at Milan’s Malpensa airport’s terminal two, to give myself enough time to go through the pre-flight paperwork and meet the rest of the crew. I was paired up with a co-pilot whom I had not flown with before, but had met around the office, a very nice and helpful chap. That was the good news; my training captain was infamous in the company for being a bully and difficult to work with. However, I had not met him before and was willing to make my own mind up and form my own opinions.

The briefing office was not huge, just big enough to contain one round table with space for five chairs, and a larger rectangular table, along with filing cabinets and pilots’ mailboxes. I sat down at the round table with my co-pilot and we started working through the paperwork, flight plans, weather, route information &c.

The storm was about to start, in walked my training captain, he looked at me and asked, “Why are you sitting there, come on the other tables better!” he tutted, shaking his head and started talking rudely in Italian to my co-pilot.

Great start I thought, I just stood up and offered my hand, and I suppose sarcastically opined, “By the way my name is Alan!”

Nothing I could do was right, and when he asked how much fuel I wanted to take for the first sector which was a tanking sector, he countered my suggestion. “No, come on you’re a professional, look we can expect up to twenty children, that’s at least another ton you can take.”

“Yes, but if this number of children is wrong, then we’ll be overweight for landing!” I replied. I was amazed at his reply, “So what we’ll just change the zero fuel weight in the FMC.” Incredible attitude I thought!

So pre-flight duties completed we met up with the rest of the crew, and headed off to the aircraft, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, my crew for today were literally in fear of this man, not good.

Anyway out at the aircraft the atmosphere just got worse. Going through my pre-departure procedures, this bully shouted at my co-pilot and I to hurry up because if we missed our slot I could pick up my bag and leave as I would be fired…his exact words. I replied. “What slot, no one has told me that we had a slot?”

“I know, so you should too,” was his answer, he had been told but decided not to pass on this information, great I thought, what ever happened to teamwork.

He started yelling at my co-pilot to ask for pushback clearance, I advised him that we were not ready, but he wouldn’t listen and started shouting in Italian at my co-pilot.

Pushback clearance was obtained and I hastily configured the aircraft and we pushed back without the necessary checklists being completed. By now I had had enough, and was planning my letter of resignation. During taxi out to the runway, all I could hear from this idiot behind me was come on hurry up, followed by more tutting and sighing.

Well, we made our slot and took off, once level in the cruise I handed over control to my co-pilot and took off my headset, and turned around to speak to this so called training captain that was sitting on the jump seat behind me.

“I have been flying for twenty five years, and deserve a bit more respect than what you are showing me. On our return to Milan I will decide if I am going to work for this company…..not you!” With that he shut up a bit, well until our approach into Ibiza anyway.

On final approach into Ibiza he said “You better do a smooth landing we carry people not animals.”

There was venom in his voice and attitude; fortunately my landing met his ‘high’ standards!

The next two sectors were to be flown by my co-pilot, but he was so nervous with being constantly bullied, that he screwed both landings up to the extent that I had to take over control and salvage the landings. His answer was “Good, this company can’t afford go-arounds”, a frightening concept to drill into pilots, and one that I considered wholly unacceptable.

On taxi out at Bergamo we were behind a Flightline Bae146, who my ‘training’ captain considered to be taxiing too slowly, “I hope he has an engine failure on take-off”, he shouted out…crazy, crazy, crazy attitude I thought. Do you know what, as this aircraft started its take-off roll, there was a large puff of smoke from one of its engines, and they rejected the take-off. This was met with the same glee from him as a cup final goal being scored in the 90th minute!

Well, I survived the day, but he never told me if I’d passed. This bully realised that I would not cowtie to him, and all he said was “Today I just wanted to see how much pressure I could put you under, and you did OK.”

****** I thought and flew home that evening to London. I telephoned my agent, and explained that I was considering resigning, but was talked out of it, as it was explained that I only had to fly with this guy once a year!

I have to admit it took me almost a week to calm down, and I am not exaggerating.

As a post note, we never exchanged Christmas cards!!!!!!


I hope there's a place, way up in the sky.
Where pilots can go, when they have to die.
A place where a chap can have a cold beer.
With a friend or a comrade whose memory is clear.
A place with good graces, no hook or slice.
While all landings are smooth and you never bounce twice.
Just a quaint little bar for a chat and a smoke.
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke.
The kind of a place where a lady could go.
Feel safe and protected by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go.
Where their plans are all finished and their airspeed gets low.
Where the whisky is old, and the women are young.
And songs about flying and dying are sung.
Where you'd see all the fellows you'd flown with before.
Who would call you your name, as you come through the door.
Who would buy you a drink, if your thirst should be bad.
And say to the others, "He was quite a good lad!"

And then, through the crowd, you'd spot an old guy.
You had not seen in years, though he'd taught you to fly.
He'd nod his wise head, and grin ear to ear.
And say, "Welcome, my Son I'm pleased you are here!"
For this is the place where true flyers come.
When their journey is over, and their life is all done.
They come here at last so far up above.
To be close to their pals and to those whom they love.
Where all hours are happy and old boys can rest.
This is heaven my son, you have passed your last test.

A wee bit sad, but happy too.....


Briefly, an explanation is needed; the Hajj is a five day annual pilgrimage made by those of the Islamic faith to their holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia; this is often combined with a less important stopover at the second most holiest city Medina, around 250 miles to the north of Jeddah. As a Hajj pilot based in the Middle East you would very quickly become very familiar with these two airports.

This was to be my second Hajj operation; two years ago I flew the Boeing 737-800 for NEOS, an Italian airline based in Milan, whilst subcontracted to Nasair in Eritrea. Great fun, but this year would be totally different. I would be based in Baghdad and flying the Boeing 747-400 on behalf of the Hajj Commission under Iraqi Airways AOC. Operating to Madinah, Jeddah, Basra, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah life as a contract pilot is seldom dull!

During the period which the Hajj operates, the role of the airline pilot is to primarily transport these pilgrims from cities all over the world to Jeddah, this being the nearest airport to Mecca, and site of the incredible Hajj terminal.


And secondly to the city of Medina which has, literally, as its centre-point the ‘first’ Mosque.

However, the role of the Hajj pilot involves operating in an environment which to most commercial pilots would be completely alien, especially when operating out of Iraq to-boot! Hopefully the following will highlight this ‘unusual’ operation.

Our hotel in Baghdad, though not in the protected ‘green Zone’ is nevertheless in a ‘secure’ enough area, being protected by three security rings which surround the Baghdad International Airport, formerly Saddam International Airport. Hints to this dictator’s past can still be found.


Our final line of defence is provided by a private security company which posts guards armed with their AK47s at the entrance and around the hotel’s periphery, as well as a multitude of closed circuit television cameras. Although this did not stop the American forces ‘raiding’ the hotel recently, ordering everyone out of their rooms at gunpoint as they believed that two al-Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the guests.

Also, there are the occasional mortar and rocket attacks where the insurgents’ fire in our general direction, primarily aiming for the large American airbase attached to the airport and their ‘Camp Victory’ facilities. One such attack took place just a couple of nights ago with the impacts occurring at ‘French Village’ located just over a mile from our hotel. The resulting explosions shook the hotel, which is why our beds are not flush with the walls, in-case anything becomes dislodged then this will not fall on our heads whilst sleeping!

Today’s flight is scheduled to depart at 0200 local time, however, as a crew we know that this will never depart on time; making our schedule of Baghdad-Medina-Baghdad a long day out indeed. Even though we will only be flying short sectors, with none of them more than two and a quarter hours each, however, it is what happens on the ground before departure and during the turn-around which takes up most of the duty day.

So with our crew assembled, comprising twelve cabin crew (the minimum legally required to operate our fully laden Boeing 747-400), one ground engineer who flies with us plus myself and my co-pilot we depart our hotel in its rickety old shuttle bus for the airport and the first of many security checks.

Our Iraq Airways identity cards are checked prior to entering the airport’s terminal area at its last roadside checkpoint and then after disembarking from the bus we are instructed to line all our crew bags up where the ‘K9’, the sniffer dog, checks them for explosives. We are given a cursory hand search, men in the open, women in a curtained off booth. With these checks completed, we are allowed to enter the airport terminal building itself, after our bags have been x-rayed and we’ve passed through a normal airport body scanner.

Time for the crew to split up with the pilots heading off to the Iraq Airways flight operations to collect the flight plans, weather and notams, our purser accompanies us to collect the General Declaration. This document allows us to retrieve our passports which are held by the airport’s immigration officers during our layover in Baghdad.  With the paperwork completed we repeat the x-ray and body search processes three more times before being allowed on-board our white tailed Boeing 747-400. As of yet the airline’s colour scheme has yet to be painted onto the fuselage, its registration YI-AQQ, an ex-JAL aircraft with a 420 seat configuration, 70 business and 350 economy towers over the other aircraft on the airport’s apron.


Once on-board one of the aspects of this type of operation which I relish is that the crew has to do everything, chase everything and organise everything, just to keep it all going. Our South African ground engineer not only completes his transit checks and refuelling of the aircraft, but also ensures that the baggage pallets have been loaded where we want them to be and that the cargo hold locks have been activated correctly. With the fuel we tend to uplift as much from Baghdad as we can, where it is six times cheaper than in Saudi Arabia. So 130,000 pounds has become our standard fuel figure departing Baghdad, which is sufficient to fly to either Jeddah or Medina and then still have sufficient remaining for the return sector to Baghdad, with full reserves and ‘some for mum’.

Our aircraft is in excellent condition and has been extremely well maintained but even so, as in any airline faults occur and at the moment our APU is not working, whilst we are currently waiting for a new starter to arrive. This condition throws up more operational considerations, as we need ground electrics as well as ground air carts for engine starting. We also need ground air conditioning units as even at this time of the morning the aircraft interior heats up rapidly during passenger boarding.

On-board our cabin crew have to complete their own security checks, liaising with me for a check of the PA and cabin evacuation systems, whilst also ensuring the aircraft is clean, the water and toilet systems have been correctly serviced and that we have sufficient catering on-board.

In the cockpit whilst managing the overall operation we have our own tasks to complete, such as completing the initial cockpit set-up where we ensure that all the switches are correctly set, loading the FMS (Flight Management System) with route, navigation and performance information for this flight, so this is literally both the heart and brains of the operation. We also have to complete the load-sheet in triplicate and the trim sheet too, this will confirm that the aircraft is correctly loaded and within all structural limits. Not such a big deal for us, because even with a full load and tankering fuel, we are still comparatively light for a Boeing 747-400 on take-off, around 650,000 pounds, compared with our maximum allowed take-off weight of 830,000 pounds. 


You have to keep on top of what is going on, or more often, not going on and realising that we were still not boarding passengers, it is up to us to find out why. So leaving the cosy environs of the cockpit I ascertain from our ramp agent that our passengers would not be boarding for another three hours as they had been held up by enhanced security checks entering the airport as a result of the multitude of bombs which exploded in downtown Baghdad this evening. The Hajj operation generally is a case of ‘Hurry Up And Wait’ and operating out of Iraq just exacerbates the situation.

Well eventually, with dawn threatening to rise and our 0200 departure time nearly 3 hours behind us, passenger boarding is finally completed. As I will be PF (Pilot Flying) down to Medina, I complete a departure and emergency briefing, covering discussion items relating to what will happen and what we hope will not.

With the calculated zero fuel weight (the weight of the aircraft, passengers and baggage) entered into the FMS we check our performance charts to see what power setting can be used. At this weight we can use a maximum de-rate, by using an assumed temperature of 55 degrees, this allows us to reduce the wear and stress on the engines and so prolong their life. We use the speeds calculated now by the FMS for take-off, V1 (decision speed in event of a critical malfunction occurring during take-off, defined as the maximum speed at which the initial actions to reject the take-off must be commenced.  Vr (the speed at which we rotate, initiate the actions required to become airborne) and V2 (the engine out target speed). Checking that both the V1 speed is annunciated on the PFD (Primary Flight Display) as well as the V2 speed also, once we’ve manually set it on the speed selector window of the MCP (Mode Control Panel).

With the pre-flight and before start checklists completed, it is time to review the supplementary procedures as the APU is inoperative for starting the first engine whilst parked on the gate using an external air supply. We need to start engine number four first then disconnect the ground services before pushing back. Then once the pushback is completed we can use the cross-bleed start checklist for the remaining three engines. This involves increasing thrust on the operating engine so that there is sufficient bleed air to start the remaining engines.

We have now been on duty nearly six hours and only just reached a position where we can call ATC for taxi clearance. Completing our pre taxi procedures requires selecting the flaps to twenty degrees and checking the full and free movement of the control surfaces against their display on the status page of the lower EICAS (Engine Indicating Crew Alert System). Finally, we complete the after start checklist, and we can depart under our own power.

Baghdad ground control issues us with our transponder code and clears us to taxi to the holding point of runway 33 Right via taxiways Yankee and Sierra. Now these are not denoted on the Jeppesen taxi charts, but having operated out of Baghdad now for the last couple of months we know the routing.

There is no need to increase engine thrust as we are so overpowered at this light weight that simply releasing the parking brake causes the aircraft to start moving, this brings its own concerns as we have to be careful with the brakes, not ride them and cause them to unnecessarily heat up. Tyres need to be nursed as well watching for a maximum speed of ten knots in turns and thirty knots in a straight line before slowing back down again. As with preserving the engines we need to also minimise the wear on the tyres and brakes due to the difficulty in getting spares and maintenance with the resultant high costs in this part of the world.

Having been advised by our purser that the cabin is ready for take-off we complete the before take-off checklist, being advised by ground control to change frequency over to Baghdad tower, we await our departure instructions

Looking over to my left, I can see to the south east of the airport the silhouette of one of Saddam’s palaces, a monstrosity surrounded by ornate lagoons and villas. Approaching the holding point at the runway’s threshold, I slow the aircraft down, anticipating that there will be no delay to our departure, just our ATC clearance to come.


Although there are SIDs (Standard Instrument Departures) prescribed for Baghdad airport, for obvious reasons it is best not to fly routes which can be planned for in advance and monitored by third parties who might have criminal intentions. Therefore just prior to take-off we are given a heading to fly after departure and clearance to climb to five thousand feet. The heading takes us away from the city and out over the desert and relative safety. The memories of what happened to the DHL Airbus A300 are always there, made more poignant as it is parked less than two hundred yards from the hotel we stay in here!


With the cabin crew notified over the PA system of our impending take-off I review our immediate actions when airborne. With the undercarriage selected up I remind us that all exterior lights are to be switched off to, the cabin crew have already been briefed to switch off all their cabin lights.

It’s very ghostly here as at night on the ground in Baghdad you can hear many aircraft and helicopters flying around, but it is impossible to see any of them, as nobody flies around with lights on here, again for obvious reasons.

With take –off clearance received and lined up on the runway’s centreline I advance the four thrust levers to 70%N1 and check for stable power indications before depressing the TOGA (Take Off Go Around) switches. Now the auto-throttle system automatically advances the thrust levers to our previously selected power setting, and our take-off roll commences.

With a call of ’80 knots’ to cross check airspeed indications and that neither pilot is incapacitated, we quickly accelerate to V1 and shortly after Vr. Initially climbing away at 165 knots and with a positive rate of climb confirmed, I ask for ‘gear up and lights off’. At four hundred feet above the ground I ask for the Heading mode to be selected to correctly direct the flight directors and following its commands bank the aircraft in the required direction to pick up our previously cleared heading.


Now flying outside the relative safety of the airport’s perimeter, we head south west and out over the desert. Our ND (Navigation Display) portraying many TCAS (Traffic Collision Alerting System) targets; helicopters, UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) and other random military traffic with fabulously imaginative call-signs. However, we were being expertly and assuredly looked after by the American Air Traffic Controllers and our day out was about to begin in earnest.