Facing home in the west but heading east. It’s early on Sunday morning, and I’m on an empty train weaving my way out of Austria. My route home today is a direct flight from Bratislava to Birmingham, so I’ll be home before tea on my first off day. Not a bad result considering I’m finishing a week of lates.
While I’m heading away (physically not metaphorically) from home, this train feels like it’s travelling to its origins in the east: it’s sparse, grey and blocky, an efficient uncompromising machine marching through borders. It’s noisy in the way trains used to be - the way I remember them from childhood, or India. The unrhythmical motion and percussion of knocks and bangs and hisses of pneumatic doors is soothing in the way an old song is. The land outside also has a familiarity: It’s flat arable country with occasional borders of rowen and birch. Willow flanks the odd meandering brook that separates crops. It’s mid July and the wheat and barley have been harvested already. There’s no cooling in this train, and despite the early hour the heat is stifling - a point which is visually represented outside by a haze rising, aiding a Kestrel that’s hovering over the freshly cut stubble. Hares lie flat on their bellies near the hedgerows, basking in the morning glow. It’s so familiar. I know what it smells and sounds like out there. Even though It’s 800NM from home, in my mind I’ve arrived back already and am on an adventure with Bella and the kids, searching out Sweet Vernal grass and chewing it for it’s aniseed taste.
As I stare blissfully out of the window, the flat land gives way to the wooded hills that mark the border between Austria and Slovakia. As if on cue, to stamp my passport proving passage into Eastern Europe, at the first stop on the border of this new country, 6 soldiers get on the train and wake me from my reverie. Five blokes that look like Action Man figures and one bird who looks like Lara Croft. If it wasn’t so amusing it’d be imposing. I don’t know why they’re here… They seem to be looking for someone; fortunately it’s not me. This uniform is great, (we have to wear it to dead head) it’s an invisibility cloak in that it allows you to be overlooked when people are searching for someone that might not of bought a train ticket and at the same time allows you to breeze through airport queues and protocols because you stand out as someone important that’s gotta go somewhere (Mostly)…
Two days ago, on the train to the airport, a lady interrupted me from my preflight routine of checking weather and notams etc to offer me her train ticket; she had seemingly assumed I was the conductor taking five. Maybe it was the first time she’d bought a ticket in a while and desperately wanted to prove she’d paid. I remember the feeling.
Another perk of the uniform you may assume to be true is that it’ll make you infinitely more attractive… That now, if you’re single, you’re gonna be fighting them off - men or women, whatever your preference, and no doubt those that aren’t your preference, too - they’ll all want a piece! If you’re happily married, you’ll be imagining waftily batting away hourly advances from the all comers, whilst at home be instantly thrust back into the heady care free, child free, worry free, wild abundant days of your early relationship… Maybe we both have that idea, we’re just too tired to do anything about it.
There are other misconceptions about being married to a pilot, Bella may feel obliged to tell you about (whether you’d want to hear them or not), but, I insist, you should hear them, regardless. If you’re reading this as an aspiring pilot, selling the dream to your spouse either with actual words or just by subtly enforcing a stereotype, then I urge you to exercise a degree of caution and temper that burning excitement; if possible knock the ‘pilots wife’ title slightly off the lofty pedestal it currently sits.
Fortunately, luckily, amazingly, gawd knows how I’ve ended up this lucky, but my incredible ‘Pilots wife’, Bella was laughing about the ‘glamour’ of this tag as she was half way through a week on her own with 3 kids: one of which was gnawing her boobs off, another was spending her last week of school at home in self isolation, and the other had to go to school but couldn’t be taken by her. All this while, she tried (and succeeded) at growing her own business and taking care of the daily chores and relentless chaos caused by our three cherubs, whilst I watched helplessly, gormlessly on from a phone propped against a half empty glass of squash. It ain’t all Duty Free Chanel, and Champers in St Tropez y’know.
I’m now heading south. 48 hours at home has passed. It was Bliss and spent mostly in the paddling pool. I won’t yabber on about it mainly because right now it feels too sacred to share.
My Journey back to work today is: Bristol airport > Palma de Mallorca > Vienna. 11.5 hours travel time door-to-door. Loads of time to prepare for the coming week. I have only 1 standby day this week so it’ll feel really busy. To prepare, I’ll spend some time reading the airfield briefs for Athens, Paphos and Stansted - which I‘ll visit twice.
The Greek destinations are great because there is little to no radar coverage at low level, or ILS facilities, so very often you’re flying full procedure VOR or RNP approaches.
Generally, I wish we flew more non precision approaches, so I love seeing Greek islands on my roster for this reason, as much as their beauty. The truth behind my somewhat sadistic wish is that I know I’ll learn something, get more proficient and ultimately more confident in control of the aircraft. I’ve heard people say you need 800-1500 hours to really know the Airbus and others say you need at least three years. What I’m sure of is that if you just flew ILS to ILS with radar vectors every day for 3 years you’d find yourself with a scrambled noggin the moment the ATIS informed you to expect the VOR for runway 32 in Kos. Flying full procedures with no Radar helps you really understand the STAR and approach charts, they make you think about what you’ve got to do, when, and how, you’re Gonna do it. You, as a pilot, have to take a little more responsibility for the aircraft configuration and energy management, rather than simply doing what ATC say (and hoping you can comply and configure). Non precision approaches also require slightly different ‘Standard Operating Procedures‘ during descent prep and an increased level of crew coordination at an insanely busy stage of flight. When they are done well it is a beautiful thing to participate in: a perfectly choreographed dance played out to the beat of times and distances that usually ends with a greater portion of free flight in which the Pilot flying gets to really show off their skill, demonstrate their artistry, their true worth, and then flourish this dance and divine demonstration with a soft kiss onto a baking strip of tarmac a stones throw from the Azure Aegean Sea. Ahh, how we hope and dream! Just as an aside and a need for self flagellation on this subject, or maybe more accurately a desire for confession and hope that this will purge my soul of the obvious evil within me, I absolutely buried the last plane I flew into the runway! One of my worst, so bad I apologised to the crew on the bus home. They smiled, courteously, and rubbed their necks.
Stansted is also a treat to see on my roster. I absolutely love flying to the UK. This may surprise you, but our European contemporaries hate British ATC. They can’t understand us for love nor money - it’s usually a great relief to a Latin captain to find a Brit next to them on a trip to the UK. Honestly, I can’t see the problem because London Info is the best… the worlds best in mine and many others opinion… It is radio telephony as it was originally written.
However, like the sight and smell of freshly cut wheat stubble, what I love most about British ATC is it tells me I’m home… London Information casts me back to so many of the hundred hours I spent buzzing round our green island. Of all of my early lessons and moments of new found freedom and confidence in the air on my own in command of my little Warrior. It reminds me of cruising above the Shropshire countryside as the sun got low and coordinating a five past closure landing time at Kemble airfield. Of accurately giving ‘time at’ predictions all the way from Perth to the Cotwolds. It reminds me of the feeling of nearly completing a channel crossing and knowing it’d been navigated safely; it is the voice equivalent of a welcome home hug to a long travelled and weary soldier.
Yes, this week I will gleefully tune London CTL over the North Sea and check in with my very best and accurate RT so that they know one of their boys is coming home.