The Best Flying Badge I Ever Saw…

…was a round badge with a Planform F18 on it. The writing around the outside of it said, “Is it cool in here, or is it just me?”

An F18 Super Hornet aircraft takes off from USS Enterprise. MoD Crown Copyright 2012

I am not sure I qualify as cool anymore, but keep trying nonetheless. When the Aviation Gods decided it was time for me to give up flying, I thought I had lost the perfect vehicle to prove how cool I was, and have spent the rest of my life trying to find other ways to convince myself I am still in the game. I use the term “Aviation Gods,” because that is how we explain stuff we can’t figure out for ourselves – particularly when it seems unfair. In my case the Aviation Gods saw fit to land me with a serious heart condition that took away my flying CAT. My initial shock was definitely linked to the fact that I had now discovered I was not as indestructible as I thought I was, but that gave way to a further shock when I was told that the Aviation Gods were planning to put me out of service permanently had I not gone to see the Medics. Looking back, I reflect on the fact that my glorious flying career ended with a muted straight-in approach to land in a Tornado F3 – hardly cool. I was grounded straight after that flight, but probably deserved it – I mean…who does a straight in to land on a Fighter Squadron?!

A 111 Sqn Tornado F3 for illustrative purposes! MoD Crown Copyright 2006

Speaking of cool, this is something we ask our aviation students during our courses – if they think they are cool or not. I am glad to say that mostly the guys and girls are way too modest to own up to it, but we tell them that this type of self-belief is a good thing so long as it does not descend into arrogance (which is a real threat given the type of flying some of them will be doing). This “spark of creation,” as we call it, is crucial for them to be able to evolve as aviators. As a flying instructor, we would snuff out arrogance as soon as we saw it in order to prevent further problems down the line, but there is a fine line between self-belief in your professionalism and trying to do the lowest or fastest flypast on the squadron. I was lucky in that regard as my first tour was on the Phantom. Being one of the last dozen or so pilots to fly the jet, there was no way I was going to be able to challenge the old soaks on the fleet for any kind of supremacy in outrageous flying, so I concentrated on being as professional as I could in the air (yawn) and learnt all the dirty bar songs I could to get a good reputation in the crew room (ah that’s more like it!). My next tour was as a flying instructor so I matured pretty quickly during that time with only minor arrogance setting in I think. However, that maturity didn’t stop me almost causing a diplomatic incident on my next tour as an exchange pilot on the Hornet. I almost hit the GoodYear blimp at Indianapolis Airport during a lowish flypast, just before the start of the Indy 500 – but that is another story altogether.

But a few months ago I had the perfect opportunity to prove how cool I am to my youngest daughter. Laura is 21 this year and one of her presents was that I took her to see Iron Maiden play in Newcastle. There is nothing worse than an old rocker I know, but what better present for a 21 year old than to go and see her Dad’s favourite metal band? What made me Cool Dad was that I contacted the lead singer Bruce Dickinson beforehand and he arranged backstage passes for us both. By pure luck Bruce had visited Inzpire at the ABTC in Waddington a number of years ago and had spoken with the Inzpire team there about Human Factors and they put him in touch with me. Bruce is a guy who never stands still. In his youth he was an international fencer, and in between being an awesome singer in the WORLD’S BIGGEST METAL BAND EVER (sorry got carried away there) he went off and got flying lessons all the way up to a type rating on the Boeing 757. Then he worked as a line pilot for Astraeus Airlines and the idea of him flying the band around the world on tour came about. You can look up about their aircraft “Ed Force One” with the band’s logo and mascot painted on the side and see how they took rock music to corners of the world that would never have dreamed of seeing their heroes. More recently Bruce updated to a 747 rating and did the same thing all over again but on a grander scale. This is all while buying a company that services aircraft and provides 747 simulator training, launching an Iron Maiden beer and anything else he can think of to fill his time. He constantly reinvents himself, yet remains the absolute best at his primary role of being an awesome singer in the WORLD’S BIGGEST METAL BAND EVER. I met him shortly after his visit to the ABTC having invited him to the RAF Club in London for breakfast. They always say you should never meet your heroes – RUBBISH! He was everything I imagined and more. He arrived late having slept through his alarm after a big night out the night before. Normally I would have been furious as time keeping is one of my OCD issues. However, I stared open mouthed and said something inane like “Rock and Roll,” as he apologised. Thankfully my lack of cool was quickly forgotten and we discussed Human Factors over breakfast for a couple of hours. It was a magical moment for me as he was the epitome of rock star cool.

Back to the present though. Every day is a school day in the Wilson family and I an keen that we learn something useful from every experience that we have (a lot of fun in our house as you can imagine!). So I ask Laura what she learned from seeing the WORLD’S BIGGEST METAL BAND EVER. A lot of what she came up with matched what we try and do with our human factors training of course – otherwise there would be no point to this blog entry!

Myself and Laura wearing the colours!

Firstly Iron Maiden are great story tellers just like us. You might have heard some Metal before and just thought it was thrash music about hell, devils and dodgy practices. However, Iron Maiden tell stories about all sorts of things. Bruce is mad keen on the Military so there are songs about the Battle of Britain (‘Aces High’), D-Day (‘The Longest Day’), Nuclear Weapons (‘Brighter than a Thousand Suns’), the Crimea (‘The Trooper’) as well as other more cerebral things like Greek Mythology (‘Flight of Icarus’) and poetry (‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’). Ok, ‘Number of the Beast’ is about hell and the devil, but you get my drift. We bring our human factors courses to life using our own experience and stories, which we believe is a brilliant way to relate to our students and impart our knowledge on to them.

Secondly, Iron Maiden are customer-focused. They deliver exactly what the customer wants and then some more. Being backstage gave us the opportunity to meet Steve Harris – the bass player and leader of the band. He was mobbed by loads of fans wanting their picture taken with him and getting him to sign loads of stuff that no doubt was going to end up on E-bay. He must shake hands with thousands of fans every year, yet still gives a big smile and thumbs up on every photo – he even wished Laura happy birthday and she turned into a gibbering wreck after that! Everybody who meets him goes away thinking they have witnessed something special and that is what we aim for with our training courses.

Laura with Steve Harris

Thirdly, Iron Maiden put on a show. Well they are the WORLD’S BIGGEST METAL BAND EVER so are under constant pressure to entertain bigger and better than before. This year there were all sorts of props including a lifesize replica of a Spitfire flying over the stage with machine guns blazing to mark the 100 year anniversary of the RAF. Laura has been to concerts before, but nothing like this. The show was crammed with great music, breathtaking props, crowd participation and amazing showmanship that even bordered on pantomime. Our training is multi-faceted too, with stories, practical exercises, presentations, arguments and discussions – and if Inzpire will fund it, I will even buy Iron Maiden’s Spitfire and have it hanging from the roof!

Finally, this was the coolest band Laura had ever seen. Bearing in mind that all of the band members are over 60 years old, Iron Maiden prove that age is no barrier to brilliant performance and immense coolness.

And as to whether Laura thinks her Dad is cool or not? Come on…did you folks never see me in an F18?