Mission Aviation Fellowship

Battening down the hatches – Tad Higher

In the world outside Sinking-in-the-Marsh organ transplants are still taking place. The teams of surgeons, the patients and the life-giving organs still have to travel long distances for lives to be saved. Social distancing, keeping clean and the increased demand on our NHS, add to the workload already required of pilots, handling staff and ambulance crews. Not type rated, I can’t be one of them, but Mark, Eraticus, Maximus, Coleridge and many others are. As in many industries, the key workers aren’t the highest-paid. Often they are the lowest.

On that Thursday at 8pm, we clapped for them as well as every other medical worker. For Coleridge, our handler, flight follower, fueler, hangar door opener… everything-er, I have tried hard to show my continued appreciation. I ring him up. When he answers, I just clap down the phone. I don’t say anything, only clap. Just to show my appreciation. I do this often and at random times. Often he is working through the night and so I sometimes ring him in the early hours, to show my gratitude. I have noticed he usually sounds stressed. So I think I should keep on trying to encourage him. I think it’s these small considerations, shown to others, that will help us through this difficult time.

“Well, that’s one way to solve the pilot shortage.”

Walter’s smiling face took the sting from any inappropriate humour. Also, we couldn’t argue with facts. As we understood it, a half-cooked bat had wreaked a terrible revenge on us all. There was a brief silence in the reception while we all pondered the genuine tragedy and chaos surrounding us.

“It’s those students who have paid up and now have nothing to fall back on, who I worry for.”

He added, “I’ve always said it.”

Darth, Tarquin and I wondered what of the many things Walter had always said would now be uttered by the prophet of old. Then he said something we had never heard him say before, but which suited his sage-like exterior.

“If you try to be too efficient, you give up all your strength and resilience.”

Surprised by this almost pithy statement, we remained silent during his pause for breath. Mistaking our surprise for frank admiration, Walter was encouraged to elaborate.

“I’ve seen it before, thousands of times. You push everybody, try to get everything out of them, pay them as little as possible. Profits increase and everyone’s frightened of losing their job.”

He continued: “We’ve all seen it in the NHS ‘n’ railways. Well paid bosses, then come winter, crisis, every year.”

We agreed. It had been the same for decades, part of the air that we breathe. Before Tarquin had the time to ask ‘Tea?’ Walter started again.

“You can’t have an airline industry based on no job security and huge debt.”

Lars had come in towards the end of this speech. Just as Tarquin was about to ask ‘Tea anyone?’, possibly the most rhetorical question ever asked, Lars proclaimed, “Economic life must be socially rooted if it is to be sustainable,” adding by way of apology, “My parents were hippies and venture capitalists.”

Darth and I were stunned into open-mouthed silence by his eloquence. Tarquin wasn’t, commanding, “Tea, Tad, kettle.”

I obeyed, without hesitation.

As we gratefully sipped our tea, we, as in many workplaces, began to express our amazement and concerns over the extraordinary situation that we found ourselves.

“Of course, you lot will have to shut.”

Walter, too kind to avoid the truth, was saying it for us. Strangely, his words felt like permission to talk it all out. As part of the so-called Gig Economy, we knew we were providing a professional service with lower-class pay and conditions. Zero contract, zero hours, zero security. It was efficient, served those at The Top well and had no resilience. We indulged our self-pity again.

My wife is an NHS worker and had kept me in the industry for years. Likewise, Tarquin’s wife was a retired primary school headteacher and had a pension. Darth had a pension from Western Electricity. He, like circus owners of the depression-era, regarded breaking even as a good season.

“At seventy-five, I am in an at-risk group. So I expect to be rounded up with others and left to my fate.”

Walter looked as if he was relishing the prospect. Despite a gentle exterior, we knew he was more robust than all of us. In a meeting between Walter and a hideous virus, I knew who my money was on. Lars, Fiso, Tower Captain, the product of a Scandinavian romance, had his Grandad. A working-class pension wasn’t much, but it was more reliable than the promises of the airfield owner Robert Feigns-Sanity.

“We’ll be OK,” he said.

“I read someone is building an aircraft out of Hemp,” Walter said, attempting to lighten the atmosphere.

“Someone in Canada. Your aircraft are held together with hemp twine, aren’t they?” he asked.

We took comfort from the shared adversity, present good health and custard creams. We spent the next hour mocking each other.

As time marched on, rumours of social distancing became a reality. They closed our local pub, The Right to Bare Arms. I don’t usually wear T-shirts, and my alcohol intake involves taking communion once a month. Old Doc’ Shakyhand refused to allow me to claim half a unit on my medical and accused me of being a disgrace to my profession. So, I sympathised with those in mourning, but couldn’t say I knew their pain. Then they shut down Costa. I wept. Grown men, hard men, held me in their arms and were silent. Then, we lost our village chip shop, The Contented Sole.

The Government announced more stringent social distancing, including the Stay at Home rules. Darth expressed all our fears.

“Now we are in trouble.”

We were. We had sucked up the financial consequences, talked about them, made plans, cutbacks. The social implications? Well, we had ignored them. Put them to the back of our minds, found some task to distract our thoughts. For many of us have sought refuge within the confines of Sinking-in-the-Marsh. We are not gregarious. We prefer solitude in a crowd. In a café, given a choice, we would choose the lonely table. We feel comfortable listening, watching the group; not being a part of it.

Of the more sociable of the club’s clientele, we would include Sarah, who can cope with any crisis except being told what to do. On the Saturday before lock-down, she appeared in reception even though she hadn’t booked any flying. She was looking flushed and quite pleased with herself.

”Hello, Boys!” she cried as she came in. “That was some journey.”

We all looked at her encouragingly.

She continued. “The Police stopped me and asked me ‘Was my journey essential?’ I said no, and they encouraged me to go home.”

None of us would have dared suggest any such thing to Sarah. It seemed a daft question, but I asked, “Did you go home?”

 “Yes. I felt I had no choice.”

 “A bit strict,” commented Darth.

“That would have something to with my tone,” she admitted.

We understood, but we didn’t say anything. The truth lingered before us all until I asked.

“So how come you’re here?”

 “Came across country.”

We were astonished. Not about disobeying the Police, but that she had driven across all those fields and streams.

“Your vehicle, it can cope with that?” asked Tarquin.

“Of course it can. It has intelligent four-wheel drive. The very best there is.”

Tarquin and Darth were fascinated. We went outside to have a look. Outside, tied to the railings, was a horse. It was huge, muddy and looked dangerous.

“You came on that?” I asked.

“Best four-wheel ride there is,” she replied, adding: “I’m thinking of taking it to work.”

 “But your work isn’t essential,” I dared to suggest.

“Yes, it is.”

 “You’re a locksmith.”

 “Exactly, a keyworker.”

Defeated, I went inside to put the kettle on.

To adhere to the new rules, many of the core members of our club realised we would have to increase our socialising. The many talkers, jokers, socialisers that also abound here, understand and sympathise with us. We much appreciate that. Prospect of separation from loved ones and being locked up with their families instead led to panic amongst many. That was the trouble referred to earlier by Darth.

The final weekend before lock-down was our most challenging. We caught members sneaking in sleeping bags, Bear Grylls survival packs and Mary Berry cookbooks. Darth opened one cupboard. An avalanche of toilet rolls almost killed him. We took five minutes to dig him out. Later, we found three cars and their occupants hidden behind some trees. Lars, in his tower, was kept busy scanning the airfield perimeter for refugees.

We were particularly suspicious of an Amazon delivery of a retro piece of gym kit. One of those wooden boxes gymnasts jump over. On closer inspection, Darth found Walter and Quentin concealed within it. As we bundled them out, we heard a dull thud from one of the toilets. Tarquin, Darth and I went to search for the cause. We opened the door to the Ladies. Suspended from the roof free-fall style by four wires was Pam, my ex-sister-in-law. The thud had been caused by a ceiling tile dislodged by Pam as she lowered herself down. She was dressed in special forces black and had a wicked-looking knife strapped to her ankle.

By four o’clock, we had forcibly locked the automatic doors. It then took us half an hour of searching to find two more hidden within the club. One in a filing cabinet and another under a suspicious pile of hay that had appeared in the middle of the lounge. Having barred the door, we turned to secure the rest of the club. Darth began by taking all the aircraft keys and placing them into a bag. Seeing my baffled expression, he explained.

“No one has banned light aircraft from flying. Some idiot’s bound to want to fly. Easier just to say ‘Sorry I’ve got the keys, and we’re behind an electrified fence, surrounded by hungry lions’ than trying to reason with them.”

“Light aircraft flights aren’t essential, surely…” I tailed off as he looked at me almost pityingly.

“Can you be reasoned with, when you are desperate?”

 “That’s different; my troubles are worse than everyone else’s.”

He secured the bag of keys with an ancient elastic band. After ten minutes we were finished. We stood for a moment in reception, not quite knowing what we should do, or what to say.

”Well, see you on the other side,” I said.

“Hmmph,” was Tarquin’s considered response.

“I’ll call when I know more,” said Darth.

As we approached the car park, Darth paused and asked, “Can you hear tunnelling?”

We stopped and listened. In the end we agreed that it was probably our imaginations.

“If they manage to tunnel in, good luck to them,” Tarquin concluded.

We got in our cars and drove off.

Author: FTN Editor

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