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I am a pilot.

A year ago, I decided I wanted to fly a plane. I did it because I have one leg… people assumed flying wasn’t an option for me. So of course I had to do it.

Going back to “school” at the age of fifty has been a learning experience in so many ways. I’m studying, sitting exams, studying, spending money, doing practical tests, and studying. I remember study; it’s that boring thing you have to do because they tell you to if you want that piece of paper, right?

A month or so ago, I took off for a routine flight along a path I’d flown so many times I knew it like the back of my hand.

Plane walk-around… check
Flight plan… check (pretty proud of overdoing the detail here…)
Fuel… check (full to the brim)
Weather… check (a perfect day)
NOTAMs (warnings)… check

We’re flying close to the army barracks – stay away from that – planes dislike artillery practice.

I’m not permitted to use GPS while I’m learning (as I have to be able to operate when technology fails). It’s a rule that drives me nuts. It’s overcooking things. Sure, stuff might not always go as expected, but you deal with it at the time. Pedantry.

Anyway it’s the rules so it means keeping accurate measures of speed and compass and time, but I’ll stay well clear of the base so it should be okay.

So we’re off. After about twenty minutes the instructor calmly says “you checked the weather?” “Yes!” I replied with pride.
…”Before I left home”
after a bit of silence… “how long does it take you to get to the airfield?”
“40 minutes.”
“so an hour ago?”
“can I see the printout?”
“sure!” and I produced it. A legal requirement is to carry it and I was hoping he might actually give me my license today if I crossed all the Ts and dotted the Is!
“did you get an update after this?”
“no… ummm why?”
“Those storm clouds ahead of us…”

An oops moment. But he was calm. no instruction to turn around. He shrugged. Clearly the clouds are no big deal and I keep going.

Another ten minutes pass.

“What do you plan to do about the clouds?”
“My heading is 260 so I’ll fly that”
“Okay… just letting you know if you fly me into a storm in this light aircraft I’ll never fly with you again.” Delivered calmly and matter of factly.

“Okay, I guess I will turn back?” I say

He grabbed the controls and spun the plan in a 360… just to let me see that in the time I’d been proceeding, the storm front had almost completely surrounded me. Then he handed the controls back; “your aircraft” he said casually.

“What are you going to do?” He repeated.

The panic was setting in. The only gap in the storm front was to the north. In the direction of the army base – or so I thought. After all, I had been planning to stay “well clear” of it. I’d worried about a fix on my intended destination, not the unintended one!

“Ummm I guess I should head north?” I say with rising panic.

“Towards the artillery fire?”
“I think I can maybe skirt that?”
“Okay” he shrugged.

By now there was almost no space between the artillery area and the storm. No visual navigational references. Just a clock and a ruler.

The calculations were complex and I was flying a plane while doing them. I summoned every ounce of brain capacity I owned while the instructor sat silently beside me, offering no hints.

I did it. Just. At one point I was apparently only a few hundred metres from the artillery range but I got home. I was so stressed and unable to think that navigating this tiny piece of metal was the extent of my capability. I have never experienced stress like it… and hope I never will again. That combination of horror, terror and a realisation that no-one will help me. That sudden understanding that all the confidence and cockiness I’d developed was unjustified – I’d merely been lucky but my luck had run out.

Back at the airport, I was mentally exhausted. My landing was horrible, but it got me down (bounce bounce…), just before the storms arrived there too.

Isn’t it strange? I’m a professional compliance consultant! I’d unquestionablycomplied with the letter of the law, sure. But I’d become comfortable and thought I knew what I was doing… even though I’d never had to put into practice anything I had learned in anything approaching an actual situation! I know I can get out of trouble… so long as there isn’t any…

Compliance is not just ticking the boxes. It is about best practice. If the rules say print a current forecast, get a last minute update regardless.

It’s not passing an exam in a classroom, it’s remaining alive at the coalface.

It is not learning the theory in the safety of your home, it is being ready when the theory breaks down.

That’s hard. Really hard; it takes effort and investment.

It’s hard for the learner who has no idea why it’s taking so long.

It’s hard for the employer who needs to meet targets.

It’s much, much harder for the teacher who has to be creative when it would be so much simpler to hand out a textbook and a multiple choice quiz. But then how does one sleep after one gets the phone call about that recently accredited student?

Back in the club house I received a debrief. The wind now howled around us, adding to my misery – I am just not able to do this. I will never get into a cockpit again.

He took pity. He outlined an almost identical situation that once had occurred to him in training – here was the most experienced trainer in the flight school and he too had been allowed to continue on a flight until he realised he was out of his depth, but not assisted. “The only lesson I remember vividly” he explained. “And like me, you will never forget today. Oh and by the way I was looking for a paddock for an emergency landing at one point…”

I needed a month or so to take to the air again. This time I had a forecast from that morning, and another redundant one taken minutes before takeoff. Both were clear, but I didn’t trust them. I was more alert than I had ever been.

As I say, the debrief had a note of sympathy, but it was unremitting in conclusion. “However… you now know one thing” he went on “No matter what happens… I will never tell you you are in danger, because I won’t always be with you.

You are the pilot.”