Les was a tall, heavy-set fellow who reminded me of my deceased father-in-law. He was polite to a fault like most Englishmen I've known. But there was a traceable veneer over him that I couldn't put a name to yet. What was it? I would find it in a moment of future insult and resultant liberation of fumes, but not now; not quite yet. There was no time for me to ponder the flaws of a person I had just met, as the chill in the morning air had a bite to it, and he had to show us around the simulator school, show us the emergency exits and most important to my coursemates, the smoking area.
The simulator looked fairly accurate, with most of the flight and engine instrumentation in all the right places. I was thrilled to be using a daylight simulator, as for 3 courses in Norway, I had used a night only simulator, very awkward, and not good for judgement when executing a crash-landing with only runway edge lights as depth perception guides. I was scheduled for the first sortie, as Major Azman put on a face that said hey, I've been here 3 times already, you guys jump in anytime you like. Come to think of it, I admit that's how I felt when I had done my simulator course in Norway for the third time. Okay, Azman, I apologise. I have misjudged your character.
When Les was briefing us on Cockpit Resource Management, and the bad press it had received as The School of Chummy Smooching, I had dismissed it as hyperbole. Here was my first error. I had assumed that this Englishman's humour was just that: humour. But I had been utterly deceived.
We clambered into the cockpit, with Azman playing the role as crewman and Wan Hafizul as copilot. It was an instrument flying sortie, departure from Labuan airfield, and the simulator projected the images with less conviction that Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. But the air traffic tower was immediately recognisable, even if completely lonesome-looking without the accompanying civil terminal building!! For those unfamiliar with simulators, they do not always produce realistic images, nor do the controls have the correct "feel", or motion have the centripetal/centrifugal physical sensations of real flight. This leads to many a pilot experiencing motion sickness, and I have watched as they unharnessed and dashed out with their hands over their mouths after three minutes in the cockpit.
We were supposed to carry out an Instrument Flight Departure out of Labuan and return for a locator letdown. The sortie started out predictably and uneventfully, and I executed the take-off, raised the undercarriage upon passing 200 feet and handed over the controls to Capt Wan. I noticed that he began flying off heading and off airspeed, going way beyond the limits of his "C" category. So I remarked, "Wan, if you can't do this I will have to on your behalf."
Wan replied with an apologetic "Yes, sir!" and continued to struggle like a newbie copilot. The sortie continued amidst much prompting and reminding till finally, the instrument letdown was executed and we landed. Les suggested a safety debrief in ten minutes in the classroom.
I wasn't prepared for what Les did. He began by asking who sets the tone for the sortie. We all knew the answer to that one: the aircraft commander. He then went on to ask what happens when the aircraft commander says something in the cockpit-and I wrote it down, he said-to the effect of if you can't do this I will have to . You alienate that crew member, he diagnosed. The crewman in the rear will immediately say that he wants nothing to do with this aircraft captain, and the copilot would have withdrawn into his seat.
Nothing secretes the bile in my mouth more than a presumptuous expatriate, though in this situation, the lines of what constituted an expatriate and local employee were not as definite as was necessary to make staging a rebuttal feasible. He went on to deplore how a dictatorial commander would not be conducive to drawing out the best in the crew.
That's when it hit me: Les did recite the disclaimer in his opening pitch: The School of Chummy Smooching. So this is what it really meant. Far from exaggeration, it was the truth in that now the psychologists had jumped on the bandwagon of flight operations to dictate how a crew was to interact and be productive. This smacked of the prevalence of ambulance-chasers in elevating the quality of life in America.
"Ruffled a few feathers there didn't we?" Les said in conclusion to his debrief. How tempted I was to gun down this misplaced holier than thou crowd-pleaser, the utter disappointment he was in my eyes for having been an ex-RAF helicopter pilot, now trying to teach the mollycoddling method of grooming copilots for operations. But I hesitated on account of averting being the kettle with less water and thereby boiling faster, and continued to gaze upon Les with a look reserved for the flotsam in a cesspool. I decided one thing: I would not be cowed into resigned silence by a bulldozing old know-it-all shielded behind his geriatric anecdotes in guise of wisdom, be he an instructor or no. As it was, I found his analogy of cockpit interpersonal dynamics too pre-school for the pressured environment of military operations. I was not dismissing his ideas, as I knew they would be useful the day I became a civil pilot. His input though, was less groundbreaking than it was cliched and forcedly humorous. Yes, the word I was looking for to summarise what I thought of Les's attitude was colonist. Sometimes I wonder to myself if I hadn't in fact meant it anatomically.
I did not allow him to whitewash (sorry, absolutely no pun here) the jet-lagged Malaysian crew with inaccurate perspectives, and provided a difference of opinion whenever I saw it as being warranted. Anytime the shoe did not fit, I called for a resize. The stick in the mud did not yield either. Thus we stood till the end of the course, each on our figurative steed, surveying the other with unflinching readiness to launch at each other's throats should half an excuse for hostilities be proffered. But alas, the occasion never came to pass, as the Englishman in Les always started each day with a cheery morning greeting to pave the way for his opinionated sermonising for the rest of the day. I do not regret to say that we parted not as declared adversaries, yet not as admitted friends. But what more could I have possibly expected of Les?
Along for the ride to ensure that instructional sorties did not end in sudden death without a youthful successor to the Empire, was our other instructor, David. David was more accepting, and open to suggestion that each person's experience was unique. It was easy to like David, as he had the looks and mannerisms of Austin Powers's Mini Me. We had fairly good banter, and he would try and top my jokes with some last word in humour.
Two different instructors, two different styles.
Well, that was the simulator side to my week in England.
What else was there?? In the evenings, after class, Azman would drive with the mind map of a local to the shopping complex which housed Argos, ASDA, Marks & Spencers and Sainsbury's. Here, we'd get whatever we needed for our meals...breakfast and dinner. Lunch would have to be survived at BI's simulator. The guys soaked instant noodles in boiling water and made like they were content with that. Perhaps they were indeed. I too, in moments of desperation, did succumb to the same prescription to stave off hunger till evening when I would cook dinner.
Part of the joy of being in any foreign country is checking out their grub. Walking through the supermarkets showed me that the pickings were good indeed. The choice of cheeses, fish and meat assured me that I had no real excuse to be hungry in England. Browsing through Sainsbury's, I could see the meals I would be having in the evenings with a few brave adventures in the kitchen.
The trouble with meals is, it's better with company. I know what I have said about my coursemates, but I harbour them no ill when it came to enjoying a meal together with me. They, for obvious reasons, were always concerned about whether the food was kosher or not, so that ruled out eating as a group, period.
Azman, however, did not fuss about joining me for fish n' chips and peas at Flyte Bytes, the canteen some 300 yards away from British International Simulator Centre, out in the frigid autumn air.
Wan, in comparison, proved to be a snivelling tyke. He complained that the rice I had microwaved was uncooked. He griped that the trout I fried was still raw, gaping in disgust at its pastel-pink flesh. Without hesitation, I told him that he wasn't being force-fed. I felt like Samwise Gamgee being chided by Gollum over his cooking methods.
That aside, we didn't suffer over meals.
The course drew swiftly to a close. Before we could shop, it was already Friday. Our log books were signed and confidential reports were recorded. Les did ask in his parting brief, where on earth I learned to speak English so well. I clipped the conversation short by replying that I hadn't the foggiest idea. I had a feeling that there was no compliment in his question; rather that he would have preferred the dominance of language to remain his. Maybe I was being biased but I do believe that having been abraded sufficiently, I had earned the right to be so.
We rushed to the house to get our things. Chris was there, puffing away and chatting with the waiting driver, his teeth ever a matt yellow that would make marigolds pale in comparison. I had already packed the night before, knowing that little time existed between the course closure and shuttling to London for a night stop before our flight home. I dragged my bag out to meet the driver, Brian, who again, was such a polite chap and wanted to take my bag for me. I insisted that I do it myself, but that instead, he stop by Cafe Shore on the way out so that I could down a quick pint of cider.
"Oh, you don't have cider in Malaysia do you?" he asked sympatheticaly. "I'll stop for you at Cafe Shore, and still carry your bags into the car, how's that?" Well, that was good.
Cafe Shore was the kind of place that made you want to spend all day drinking and yarning. It had the comfortable feel of a hobbit-hole: the lights were low, the seats were plush and arranged in cosy and friendly circles, and of course, everyone was right about English-brewed cider. It was delicious, the true Ent Draft, which I know made me feel I had gained a few inches in notional height. Chris did assure me that the home brews were better, the ones with stuff at the bottom of the glass. These were supposed to take me to the floor in an instant. Well, this pint of Blackthorne was heady enough, and I savoured the pint to its end before admitting to a smug Brian that yes, the cider was heavenly. He guffawed victoriously at my remark and waved me into the front seat.