Ends and Beginnings

I visited the office yesterday – for the first time in four months. A flying visit to empty my desk, and collect a monitor and an office chair. The company I work for is finally following the example set by the likes of Automattic, and doing away with the office entirely – at least for the moment.

The convergence of ubiquitous fast internet connections, Office 365, Microsoft Teams, and the Corona Virus opened everybody’s eyes to the realisation that we were able to carry on operating very much normally while working from home. I imagine the focus of the management naturally turned to the office, and the question  “why do we have an office?”.

I now have a much better chair in the junk room at home.

I imagine in time the company may end up hiring somewhere more suited to meetings – and we will perhaps gather every few months – mostly to remember what we all look like. While in lockdown I have been the instigator of several “Zoom Quizzes” – open to all staff, and their families. The next quiz happens in a couple of weeks time. After we all emerge from lockdown, I imagine the quizzes might turn into group meals – picking local bars or restaurants to catch up with each other.

It seems strange to think I’m not working in an office any more. I’ve been sitting at a desk most weekdays for the last twenty five years. I suppose I still will – just not in an office. There are already murmurings at home about finally decorating the junk room. If I have to sit here all day every day, it would be nice if it was a little more habitable.

I better turn running and cycling into a much more regular thing too – if I’m not cycling to work and back every day, my backside will develop its own gravity.

In other news, my middle daughter has started studying to become an air traffic controller. It’s surprised all of us. Since discovering the entire damn fool escapade while accompanying me on a virtual flight on the simulator, something switched on in the depths of her brain. She has already enrolled on a training course, and is studying books. Before long, I’ll contact London Centre, and be greeted with my daughter’s bossy voice, instructing me to “maintain flight level two hundred”, and to “put the kettle on Dad”.


Virtual Flight

This “virtual flight” thing is addictive. While most people have been reading books, and watching TV shows during lockdown, I have been learning how to operate and fly a Boeing 737.

I’m not even sure why.

I’ve always been interested in aircraft. I grew up next to one of the busiest Air Force bases in England, so they were unavoidable really – always in the air overhead, or rumbling away in the distance.

Perhaps it’s to do with the complexity – the challenge of mastering something complex. Taking a commercial airliner from cold and dark on the tarmac to a humming, hissing, roaring, fifty ton lump of metal thundering down the runway and into the air – and navigating across contintents via GPS, navigation beacons, and radio communication requires a certain mindset.

In many ways I suppose the attention to detail, following of procedures, planning ahead, and working through scenarios have parallels with my real-life work. My real life work doesn’t involve travelling at thirty six thousand feet with a few hundred people’s lives depending on my skill though.

While talking to some friends about my idiotic new hobby earlier, they asked if flying an airliner was actually pretty straightforward then – given that I had learned it in a few weeks. I responded that yes, it was pretty easy – as long as everything went as planned. I have learned just enough to operate a perfectly working machine. If anything untoward happens though, I’m in trouble.

Have you ever seen a pilot being tested in a simulator? The only time they really use simulators is to throw Kobyashi Maru style tests at them (unwinnable situations) – to test their decision making skills – to find out if they follow procedures when under stress.

There’s a wonderful moment in the movie “Sully” – about the landing of the plane on the Hudson in New York – where the air accident investigation board suggested that pilots in simulators had been able to get back to a runway in the city after the bird-strike that wiped out the engines. They had one crucial advantage – they knew what was going to happen in advance.

One unexpected outcome of playing around with the simulator is taking friends on virtual flights. I’ve done a couple now. This morning I flew from Melbourne to Canberra in Australia – while being watched both by my teenage daughter (sitting next to me), and a friend on the internet (sitting at home in Melbourne, Australia).

If you would like to tag along for the ride, sit in the virtual cockpit with me, and fly from and to somewhere in the world while talking about anything and everything, let me know – all you’ll need is Zoom. If you’re scared of flying, it might even be a good way of “pulling back the curtain” – seeing what the flight crew do, and how the plane really works.


Coffee. I need another coffee. I think I might be continuing from Canberra to Sydney a little later this evening.


Heathrow to Bastia

After a few days preparation, I joined my Dad and his friends online last night for my first experience “flying” online. Twice a week the group meet up to fly between two locations around the world, using a variety of flight simulators – which through the miracles of modern software and connectivity, allow them to appear within each other’s games, and to talk to one another.

You might think it would be enough for them to operate the ridiculously accurate aircraft together and have some fun chattering while doing so – and you would be wrong. Two of the group work as air traffic controllers during the evening – alternating between the various hats involved in directing the big jets around the world – from ground, to departures, to control centres, to arrivals, tower, and back to ground.

I hadn’t planned on doing any talking at all over the radio while joining them for their flight – I was no more than an interested onlooker. Sure, I put some time into learning the systems of the plane I was flying to make sure I could get it from A to B (a Boeing 737-800 – in the picture accompanying the post) – programming the route into the on-board computers, and operating the autopilot – but other than that it was all pretty much “seat of pants” stuff.

I think I got away with it. It’s amazing how quickly you can learn quite a lot when thrown in at the deep end. Operating the aircraft wasn’t the problem (well, it kind of was, but I’ll get to that) – talking on the radio was. There is a very specific language used in communication with air traffic control – and the people I joined knew it, were practiced at it, and were comfortable with it. I kind of did my best, and it wasn’t that good. I’m tempted to read up on the correct phraseology ready for a “next time”, but in reality I don’t know when next time might be – work and home life have been all consuming recently.

I had a few glitches with the plane on-route – mostly because I’ve paid the absolute minimum to get to where I am. The plane I used came free with the simulator, and it has some – how can you put this – idiocyncracies?

The flight management computer crashed while sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow, causing me to re-load the entire simulator while everybody else was busy chattering among themselves, and re-input the entire flight plan. While on approach to Bastia airport in Corsica at the end of the flight, it went on the fritz again – turning half of the cockpit into a fruit machine, and somehow stopping the airbrakes from deploying, and the wheelbrakes from engaging at all. Long story short – I arrived very fast, and went on something of a gardening expedition.

I’m going to use a different aircraft next time – possibly a commercial one that’s – you know – been tested…


Here are some photos of the flight, which took about four hours, end-to-end:

Could this be a new hobby? Maybe.

For those that are interested, the simulator is X-Plane, the ATC voice software was TeamSpeak, I used a route planner called LittleNavMap, and a piece of software called JoinFS enabled us to see each other’s aircraft across three or four different flight simulator platforms.


Pretending to Fly

I’m not sure that I have written so little for quite some time. Perhaps years. I haven’t so much fallen off the blogging horse, as taken the wheels off the wagon, and re-purposed the chassis for some other purpose (firewood springs to mind).

There are all sorts of thoughts swimming around my head about the future. Is this the end of my writing a daily journal? Perhaps. Is it a reflection on life slowing down, and realising that some things might be more important than telling a daily story where nothing much happens? Probably. Perhaps I’m finally realising that I don’t have to be out here, scribbling incessant posts every day – recording anything and everything. Perhaps a little now and again is enough.

In other news, I have more evidence that I’m living in a TV show.

I went for a walk with my daughter this morning – along the river to a nearby town, across the hills, and home again. We saw very little evidence of other people until we reached a road junction not far from home – a junction where I have always joked about unwittingly starring in my own show. Having not seen any cars for several hours, we approached the junction, and my daughter announced “cue the cars” – and out of nowhere, we coud not cross the road – four cars passed in a train – one behind the other. I burst out laughing, and pointed into the distance in all directions – there were no other cars in sight for perhaps a quarter of a mile in any direction.

If I AM starring in my own TV show, it would explain a LOT of things.

In yet more news, I’ve been playing with pretend aeroplane simulators again. I was talking to my Dad the other day about the fun he has “flying” online with his friends, and it sparked something inside me. Over the weekend I have taught myself how to navigate via GPS (I already knew how to use VORs, NDBs, DME etc), and had all sorts of fun pretending to fly from pretend airport to pretend airport in a light aircraft.

So there you have it. While not writing endless platitudes about very little, I have been pretending to pilot light aircraft, and inventing challenges for myself. When I finally get around to flying with my Dad’s friends, somehow I don’t think they’ll find my radio skills very humorous – “Heathrow Control, would like to order a deep pan pepperoni for pick up – approaching from the south west at 100 knots, ETA 30 minutes. Juliet Bravo 73 Over.”…