Flying by the book
A power cut this afternoon in the British air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire caused substantial disruption of flight times and schedules. There were stories of passengers sitting inside aircraft on the tarmac for three hours with the cabin doors open, and of flights circling and circling, and of others being diverted to other airports. It is hard to imagine air travel at it once was, when pilots could make choices, exercise discretion, and were not operatives in a computer-controlled network.
There used to be a book at home called En Route, it was an out of date edition brought by my father from the air station at which he worked. It was a handbook of airports and aerodromes and airfields and airstrips; a comprehensive directory of all the places where it might be possible to land an aircraft. It had details of the lengths and directions of runways, of the landing surfaces, of what lights there were, of what radio facilities there were. When you are an awkward teenager with limited social skills, the book was a treasure trove. It was possible to imagine being a pilot in some part of the country having to make an emergency landing and taking out his faithful copy of En Route to decide where best to attempt to put the plane down. I would leaf through its pages, searching for those old wartime stations where on the the wind one could almost discern the sound of returning Lancasters, or for those remote locations where Cold War “V” bombers waited silently for the orders to scramble.
The book is probably no longer published; most of the places are probably now under the tarmac of new roads or the gardens of new houses. A friend in Dublin used to have a twin engined plane, losing an engine over the Irish Midlands one day, he asked permission from air traffic control to make an emergency landing. Diverted from the commercial airports, he was instructed to land at the airstrip of a flying club. He did so – just. The runway was too short and as he overran, his undercarriage collapsed and his propellers were mangled in the grass. When he told the story, there was a temptation to say, “There used to be a book . . .”, but what use was something in another country, forty years ago?
It’s all on computer now, maybe as you fly along you get updated details of where you can land nearby. It would be nice to think so – nice to think the captain doesn’t have to say, “does anyone know where I put the book? We’re in a spot of bother”.
Of course, when the computer fails . . .
Having recently read The Little Prince to our 8 year old, I am now reading Wind, Sand & Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and only this morning, just after his commentary on the hum-drum life of many, he and you were in the same corner – although his was published 65 years ago:
“The squalls of rain no longer trouble me. The magic of my profession is revealing to me a world where within two hours I shall confront the dark dragons and the crests crowned with a mane of blue lightening: and then, set free by the coming on night I shall chart my course in the stars.
That was the form of our professional baptism, and we began to fly. More often than not those flights were uneventful. Like divers, we sank peacefully into the depths of our domain. Today it has been thoroughly explored; the pilot, the engineer and the radio operator aren’t embarking on an adventure now, but shutting themselves in a laboratory. They respond to instrument needles, not to the unfolding of a landscape. Outside their capsule the mountains are immersed in darkness, but they are not mountains no. They are invisible powers whose approach is reckoned mathematically.”
Just as ‘there used to be a book…’, there used to be a life of adventure to be lived before the world of today where everything is known and everything you do is recorded somewhere……
I knew nothing about Antoine de Saint-Exupery until a few days ago. Watching Michael Portillo on one of his continental rail journeys, one from Paris to Marseilles, he visited the home of de Saint-Exupery and revealed the story of an amazing man.
Adventures now seem confined to the world of virtual reality games.