Here’s an unusual little anecdote.
For 3 years I was an instructor at a helicopter training school for Iranian military pilots. It was situated at the small airfield of Ghaleh Morghi to the south of Tehran. This was in the days of the Shah, long before the current regime. The students’ basic training was done on Bell 47 G2s (think MASH TV programme), which were underpowered at that altitude (3,500ft). They then progressed to the Bell 206 Jetranger, and after that some took on the Bell UH1H Huey, the iconic Vietnam war chopper.
Most of the students were from the Gendarmerie, some were from the army and a few were from the navy. I don’t think their selection process was particularly robust. It was most likely based on who you know rather than ability.
One of my students was a short, thin young man of about twenty. He always flew in his naval uniform, rather than a flying suit or fatigues. I’m convinced about the selection process, because this chap was absolutely useless as a pilot – but his father was an admiral. As an example, I allowed him to fly down to the training area one day without any intervention from me, just to see what would happen. He let the helicopter wander off to the left without correcting it, and we completed a full wide turn back onto our original heading without him being aware of what he had done (or not done).
Flying solo for the first time is a nerve wracking experience for many students. They’re controlling a machine they haven’t fully mastered in a hostile environment – and it’s a long way down. But there can be no progress until this hurdle is out of the way, and they’re all keen to become hot-shot pilots.
I would have been irresponsible to send my eager little navy chap solo. He might have made it back and landed safely, but he wasn’t capable of handling an emergency, and if something had gone wrong … I wanted him taken off the course, but daddy was an admiral and that wasn’t going to happen without serious intervention from one of the Iranian company directors (generals and members of the royal family). All the other students had gone solo, and the pressure on my sailor was intense.
One day we were meandering around the training area going over basic flying exercises and emergencies for the umpteenth time, when he fished in his jacket pocket, ignoring the helicopter’s increasingly dangerous descent, and pulled out a half bottle of whisky (alcohol was legal in Iran in those days). He pushed the bottle across the seat, looked at me with puppy eyes and said, ‘Please, can I go solo, please?’ I told him to go back to the airfield (but had to tell him what direction to take in spite of the aiming point of the 13,000ft mountain in the background).
On another occasion, he tried to bribe me in a totally different fashion, which should not be repeated here. It was at this point that I insisted he was not pilot material and finally managed to get him off the course.
If all the instructors wrote down their stories about that training school and we put them in a book, we would have a highly amusing, if unbelievable, volume.
As you know, if you’ve read the last few emails from me, my latest novel, Thirty-Four, has been published at the opening price of US$0.99/£0.77. That price will be increased to a more realistic level soon, so if you would like to read it, now is the time to order.
Here’s to overcoming the pandemic!