We’ve all done really stupid things in our time. If I relate one, it’s not solipsism. There’s a point to it.
Briefly, on July 21, 1964, according to my logbook, I took off at 0700 one misty morning from an airfield near Romford without bothering to phone for a met report and flew straight into cloud.
No problemo. Breaking No. 1 rule of the circuit, I started a gentle 180, not having much in the way of flying speed, in order to land back whence I had come. Since the rule is to prevent colliding with other aircraft taking off and the airfield had been completely deserted, the rule was safe to ignore.
The only snag was that Stapleford Tawney airstrip had completely disappeared. Rolled up like a carpet. Pouf! All gone.
I thrashed about in and out of the treetops for a few minutes until I heard the German teacher in the back seat starting to be ill. Yes, I had put passengers’ lives at risk.
The only option was to go up. We broke tops at about 2,000 feet into brilliant sunshine.
“Lovely day,” said the headmaster (school principal) sitting next to me. Don’t start. High school principals are 10 a penny; good German teachers are gold dust.
I surveyed the situation. We were totally lost, non-radio, on the edge of the busiest airspace in the world (the London control zone), 8/8ths cloud as far as the eye could see, last known cloud base 150 feet.
Sensible Plan A was to fly east for a bit, let down over the North Sea, wave-hop back in over the east coast and look for one of the disused Second World War airfields whose distinctive ‘X’ runways still scar East Anglia.
Idiot Plan B was to head for home and hope for the best. I chose Plan B.
Before you curl your lip, ask any pilot who has been lost about the “press on regardless” and “head for home” instincts, then watch for a sheepish grin.
After 25 minutes and so well short of the Bedford radio masts, I selected half flap, three-quarter throttle and pushed firmly down into the white stuff.
Though I only had a White instrument rating at the time, I awarded myself a Master Green (sorry guys, this was for real) which allowed descent to 300 feet in cloud before going back up and trying somewhere else.
As it happened, we broke cloud at 700 feet and the rest was happy motoring. I spotted a railway line. We flew alongside a station. Tring, in Hertfordshire. Out came the Esso road map, the RAF half-million map being useless for low level stuff. Back along the railway line, north up the M1 motorway until a sign read A421, where I turned right and followed a winding country lane to the aeronautical establishment at former RAF Cranfield. I landed at 0805, apologized to the crew, bought them breakfast and flew them home. Just another day at the office.
If only. At Sunday evening chapel a few weeks later, it was the headmaster’s turn to preach. He chose to talk about the power of prayer, in particular how his prayers had been answered on a certain occasion. He described the incident. Embarrassing. All my Grade 10s were looking at me, grinning. I gave them the disdainful look that every teacher learns early on in their career, but knew that not a whole lot of chemistry or math was going to be taught the following morning.
After we got past the expected “Cor, sir, what was it like, sir? Did you think you were going to die, sir?” it developed into an unusually fruitful Religious Education class.
In passing, there seems to be undue panic in this country at the notion of RE, as if it must necessarily take the form of hard-sell evangelism, even indoctrination. From a purely practical point of view, you don’t teach any subject in a way that is going to alienate half the class. It’s perfectly possible to teach the Christian faith in an enquiring spirit and to treat agnostics’ honest objections with the respect they deserve.
I started low key: “Anyone here not said some sort of a prayer sometime in their life?” Note, not “prayed” — that would have been very churchy — “said a prayer” is softer.
No hands went up.
“What happens, do you think?” “Prayer changes things …at least it’s meant to.” “How?” We gradually inched our way to agreeing that people can influence other people’s attitudes and wills — whether by prayer or telepathy (“it’ll probably be measured on instruments in 100 years,” one boy said) — but that couldn’t change “things”, by which we meant the physical course of nature. This worried a couple of sons of clergy, until I explained that “the faith that can move mountains” was metaphor, not a force you could measure in a physics class. We agreed that prayer, like meditation, can change the person who prays, by refining their wish list. But if prayer can sometimes change the natural course of events, sometimes not, then this (God’s) universe would be whimsical, not orderly.
“Did you pray?” asked the class atheist. I replied no, explaining that I understood prayer to supplement human talents, never bypass them. That is, I did not pray for God to become an autopilot, causing supernatural “stuff” to flow down my arms and take over the controls, preventing the aircraft from crashing, or lifting the cloud base. Instead, remembering instrument flying procedures, such as resisting the natural urge to pull back on the stick, I watched the airspeed indicator and altimeter like a hawk, using my God-given eyes and brain, while using peripheral vision to watch for the whiteness outside to turn dark, indicating that we were about to break cloud.
Laborare est orare, says the Rule of Benedict. To work is to pray. Flying by the seat of your pants in thick cloud, without radio or nav aids, is certainly work.
May you continue to work at your faith with an honest, enquiring mind.
» Michael Skliros, a retired Anglican priest, has moved to England.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 26, 2012