So there you are, waiting to board your flight, and through the airport concourse walk two people with four gold bars on their shoulders. One of them is smartly dressed with his cap sitting squarely on his head and he is wearing designer aviation sun glasses. And in his monogrammed brief case there are the Company Standard Operating Procedures, Flight Information Circulars and up-to-date Instrument Approach Charts. The other character is a bit paunchy, no shades, hat askew, packet of fags in his shirt pocket, and carries a sling bag over his shoulder containing nothing but a book and a bottle for the night stop, and a change of underwear. Which one would you choose to be the commander of your flight? The answer may seem obvious, but there is a strange anomaly here… because all is not what it appears to be.
What makes a man (or a woman) want to defy gravity as a career? Commercial pilots belong to a group of people, not unlike any other group, except they have this strange desire to ‘slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings’, as the old poet says. Yes, they have to be reasonably well-coordinated, their eyesight has to be fairly good (not colour blind for obvious reasons) and they need a modicum of common sense, some education and good general situation awareness. They come in all shapes and sizes, ages and abilities and it is not always easy to spot, at first sight, who are the ‘good’ ones and who are the ‘bad’ ones. Herein lies the anomaly; some of the best pilots in the world fit the description of pilot number two walking through that departure lounge because, you see, they have ‘good hands’. That’s what it’s called in the flying game; it’s the mysterious ability to make wings and engines become responsive and obedient and to make the whole collection of nuts and bolts fly in tight formation. It’s a bit like a golfer with ‘soft hands’.
Not everyone has this hidden talent and, oddly enough, those who have, don’t often know it. But it is always a pleasure to be in the same cockpit as one of them and watch them weave their magic spell. That’s where dress and appearance can be so deceptive. It’s like an absent minded professor at work with scruffy hair and dandruff on his shoulder. The very last thing on his mind is sartorial elegance. Granted, the captain of a B747 passenger airliner should look the part; neat and tidy and professional. A DC8 freighter captain, on the other hand, does not have to be quite so presentable, but his flying abilities are unquestionably the same.
I have met crop dusters with good hands who would go to work wearing shorts and sandals and a bone dome, and nothing else. But watch them at work and it is poetry in motion. The trouble with ag-pilots though, is they tend to have a wild, irresponsible streak in them and will often end their day’s work water skiing a Thrush Commander in the local dam, or rattling the corrugated roof of the sugar factory with their wheels.
Military pilots with good hands bring a very different dimension to flying. They tend to be very disciplined and precise because their lives are strictly regulated by their military domain, and this is revealed in their carefully honed flying abilities. They convert a flying machine into a fighting machine; extreme multitasking! But catch them after work, when the job is done. Watch out! I have observed that all their discipline sometimes becomes a thing of the past!
Second World War military pilots, with whom I had the great privilege to fly in Air Rhodesia days, were in a class of their own. Some had flown Lancaster bombers, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Typhoons, Swordfish, Blenheims, Mitchells and Wellingtons. Many had DFC’s, AFC’s, DSO’s and the King’s Commendation. One had the Virtuti Militari, the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross. A few were members of the famous Caterpillar Club and one was a guest at Stalag Luft 1, until his escape. What can you say about these men? It was a truly humbling experience to have known them and flown with them. These war-hardened men joined Central African Airways (1946 – 1967) which became one of the world’s best-known and most efficient smaller airlines. CAA operated de Havilland Doves, Vickers Vikings, Douglas Dakotas and the indomitable Vickers Viscounts. Their good hands were usually gloved; it was the custom in those days for the captain to wear white gloves. All very ‘old school’ and formal, but not always, for often there was mischief in the air. One old skipper was known to open the cockpit door periodically in flight and let empty beer bottles roll down the aisle, just for the fun of watching the reaction of all his passengers! And on another occasion he boarded his flight wearing dark glasses and carrying a white stick, assisted by a flight attendant! A terrible prankster, but he had good hands.
But if you really want to know who are the good the bad and the ugly in the cockpit, ask a flight engineer. Engineers and pilots enjoy a bond of mutual respect, a kind of symbiotic relationship. They are the ‘menders and the benders’ who keep the whole show in the air. Any young pilot who does not understand this age-old code of honor between professionals will be put firmly in his place by an engineer. A black mark on the shoulder of a pilot’s white shirt sends a very loud message to the world about what an engineer thinks about him. It’s amazing what a bit of grease on the underside of a shoulder harness will do!
Sadly the era of flight engineers (FE’s) is coming to an end with new developments in aviation. Strange words like ergonomics and cockpit resource management are the order of the day now. But give me a pilot with good hands and good mender in the engine room any day.
William Stirling (Mitch) spent his early days as a pilot with Air Rhodesia, which became Air Zimbabwe. He writes to remember those golden days of central Africa and to share those memories. It was a wonderful time.
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