Ex Libris

Pilots don’t read very much.

Just ask any chief pilot or flight ops head and they’ll tell you that pilots don’t read NOTAMS or memos – or e-mails, for that matter!

However, when it comes to recreational reading, it may be a different story – certainly in my case.

I have a veritable library of “flying” books, ranging from the whole set of Ernest K Gann’s books, to many biographies and histories. I must have indicated as much somewhere in one of my posts, as about two years ago Pen and Sword contacted me to suggest that I should perhaps read some of their publications for possible review. Their logo includes the heading “Bringing you Closer to the Past” – which explains their catalogues of special interest publications. Long story short – after battling the SA postal service, I finally received From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office.

A typical Pen and Sword offering, this is the memoirs of the late Air Commodore JF “Johnny” Langer, CBE AFC DL. A career Royal Air Force pilot, he joined the RAF towards the end of WW2 and, as pilots could wait for up to a year for a flying posting , volunteered to fly gliders in India, preparing for airborne assaults in Burma. Later in his career he would return to the far East in various postings – the final time overseeing the creation of the Singapore Air Force.

JF Langer book

Post war he served on fighters, first in Germany and later commanding No 43 (F) Squadron – the famous “Fighting Cocks” at Leuchars. As a Group Captain he commanded RAF Valley and later became Director of Flying Training. In this position he set up the original Red Arrows in Gnats and saw their transition onto Hawks.  Of particular interest is his co-chairing of the multi-national committee to bring the Tornado into service, and his responsibilities in introducing the Hawk trainer into the RAF (and the US Navy).

Retiring after 37 years of RAF service, he served as Civil Aviation Security Adviser to the UK Government.

That’s the very short summary.

The book itself is typical of a self-written memoir, full of minutiae and sometimes quite long-winded. Bearing in mind that he wrote these memories down over three years while already in his eighties, it is easier to understand where the sometimes quaint and often almost archaic descriptions come from. Be prepared to decipher many bits of “RAF-speak” and a military attitude to most situations described – the writing often reminds one of a staff paper, but at least with some typically dry British humour thrown in here and there! At times he almost touches on ribaldry (he quite bluntly lists some of his youthful sexual conquests), but constantly one senses an understated but very detailed approach to the typical peace-time career of an air force pilot. This said, he is never shy to make mention of some of his achievements as a pilot and sportsman!

One issue, about which he minces no words, is his dislike of military personnel who did not meet his demanding expectations. He is particularly scathing about some senior officers whom he regarded as obstructive to his career advancement. His aim was to end his career as an Air Vice Marshall (AVM) – something he did not achieve.

Air Commodore Langer remained active in retirement, still acting as a tour guide at Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds well into his eighties.

From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office covers a period from the end of WW2 to the first military jets, through the Cold War and the Victor series, to the modern fast jets and the security threats to modern airliners. If military and aviation history is your cup of tea – then you will thoroughly enjoy this book!

Featured Image: World of Aircraft Design; WordPress.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist politely agreed, quickly made a sketch and handed back the napkin adding that it would cost a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked, asking how it could cost that much: “It only took you a minute to draw this!”

“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”

It is the type of answer I am often looking for when faced with comments about my occupation as a pilot – the problem is that you only think of it afterwards!

You’ve heard these assertions before: “Does it not get boring? Surely you should know it all by now – why all the constant recurrent training? You’re paid too much for just reading newspapers, after all the autopilot does the flying! Glorified bus drivers…”

Just as any other older aviator would attest, the answer is that it has taken me almost forty years to hone my skill to its current level.

That smooth flight did not happen by chance – we checked the forecasts, decided on flight levels based on these and myriads of other parameters, drawing on experience. Then we adjusted en-route, flying around convective weather and climbing or descending just to keep our passengers’ coffee from spilling.

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A busy descent ahead when that massive storm is situated exactly where you need to go.

That smooth landing was also no fluke, it took planning and concentration and a large dose of experience to achieve a touchdown in the demarcated zone, at the correct speed (adjusted for weight, wind and surface conditions) staying on the centre-line and turning off the short runway without any uncomfortable, white-knuckle braking.

That experience did not arrive via the internet. It was achieved through the traditionally accepted years of hard work and dedication, endless training, and doing a variety of flying jobs to eventually land a seat in an airliner.

But now it would appear that the long-predicted pilot shortage is starting to bite. ICAO and the major aircraft manufacturers have warned about the predicted shortage of pilots and technicians for many years now, here is an ICAO position paper from 2105 which highlights the major contributing factors and the associated safety concerns.

Until such time as AI (artificial intelligence) can safely fly passengers around in airliners, a high demand for human pilots will persist, as the huge salaries now offered by (in particular) Chinese airlines prove.

My inbox is inundated daily with job offers from all over the world, where qualified B738 Captains are currently being offered salaries of US$40 000+ per month. For an expat pilot this would (taking into account the tax free benefit) immediately mean earning your current annual salary in just a couple of months. Any wonder that we are experiencing a drain of pilots from South Africa to these lucrative positions?

The situation is exacerbated further as entry requirements to international airlines are lowered to allow younger and less experienced pilots onto flight decks – so the traditional “stepping stone” regional airlines are now missing these pilots. No longer do you find pilots with contract experience in turbines or jets clamouring to get into the local airlines – they’re being snapped up directly by the international majors.

With no viable local cadet programmes currently in place, it may well be only a matter of time before local airlines have to park aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. Perhaps it is almost too late for airlines to consider recruiting kids from school to train from ab-initio to ALTP. Flying is no longer considered a glamorous occupation and the long hours and time away from home puts paid to the idea that its a desirable lifestyle. So the recruiters may have to look much deeper into their companies’ budgets to attract new candidates.

On the other hand, should a young aspiring pilot currently have access to funding of around R 1 million for an accelerated course, an airline position is virtually guaranteed.

So, next time you fly behind an older, more experienced Captain – be reminded of Picasso: They’re not being paid for that one flight, but for all the years of honing their skills.