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……..