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Trigger warning: This essay contains reference to eels. Eels are notoriously slithery and may cause distress in some younger readers. That said, give it a go, and see how you get on!
You probably weren’t expecting the following opening sentence, and that’s the point of this essay, but thanks to some men with very long beards in the mid-nineteenth century we now have a more grown up understanding of the natural world, and it’s one based on likelihood and probability rather than certainty. Must do has been replaced by might do. You see, what the beardy men, William and Ludwig realised back around 1850 was that there is absolutely nothing at all preventing the ice that was melting in your gin and tonic five minutes ago from spontaneously freezing again in front of your eyes. It’s not impossible, just extremely unlikely, so ice usually melts. Stick around long enough, so the theory goes, and you might see it misbehave and refreeze. (*)
And that’s why, the reason four pilots and four engineers are sitting under canvas in the desert rather than flying, on a Friday afternoon in November is so unusual. Would you believe it? The Pope has just arrived by plane at Sakhir, the King’s very own airfield in Bahrain. Hands up if that’s ever happened to you? No. Well there you are then! The irony is not lost on the team, who’ve travelled a very long way from England to participate in the Bahrain International air show, and are keen to start flying again. The universe had to be around for quite a long time for something like this to happen, but it has, so they sit around and think about what’s on the menu for tonight’s dinner, tea, supper, wondering whether they’ll get a brief glimpse of his holiness. Is he tall or short, have a funny walk or what?
Look there, it’s him, there on the walkway! And there he is too, just across the tarmac, the mere suggestion of a pope, bound for the palace and afternoon tea with the King. It could of course be a tribute pope, or a “popeagram” or maybe the King is having a fancy dress party tonight and someone has chosen to come as the pope. Nah, that’s just. Silly, yes, but not impossible, just unlikely. No, that is the pope, and that’s why the whole area around the airfield has ground to a halt. So rather than prepare for the first Bahrain air show since 2018, one by one the team drift off into reveries and speculation about whether the pope’s room has a mini bar, and what’s in it? Vimto possibly? You’d be surprised, Vimto is very popular in Bahrain! There it is on the supermarket shelf, blimey! Will he spend what precious little time he has on his own channel hopping on satellite telly? Does he have a man to do this for him? Cut to an image of the pope cursing the tv ponger because the battery has gone flat! “Monster Trucks, Nazis and Sharks! That’s all you ever see on here these days!” We now know for a fact that his predecessor, Benedict XV1, was a big fan of Patricia Routledge in the BBC comedy Keeping up Appearances. Who’d have thought? Maybe this one prefers The Good Life, Dad’s Army or Are you being served?: Not impossible, but a bit unlikely.
Don’t worry, there’s always tomorrow, bags of time, except there isn’t, and it doesn’t happen because there’d be far too much noise for the pope who is still trying to work out which light switch does what in his room, and is now doing popish things. Popish, hope that doesn’t sound too much like Oliver Cromwell.
There you are, William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, Ludwig Boltzmann, Hitler, the Pope and Oliver Cromwell, and we’re only on page one. The kind of thing you do for a bet.
Anyway, this is all a bit frustrating because there’s a lot more to do before Tuesday and the team’s validation flight in front of Display Director Les Garside Beattie and his Flying Control Committee. The team’s last big outing was to Hyderabad in March 2020, where they escaped home by the skin of their teeth, having flown solely for the press and exhibitors thanks to a global pandemic: Who’d have thought that was possible? Probably best not to think about that one.
We each of us have our own vivid memories of lockdown, tea-time briefings from number 10, with JVT, Boris and Matt Hancock, wondering how good Professor Chris Witty might be at telling Mother-in-law jokes or singing hits from the musicals: Again, not impossible, just a bit unlikely. Later on, after the news, tucking into your mini Chicken Kievs watching artist Bob Ross paint the same picture in BBC4’s The Joy of Painting on five consecutive nights. Bob gained quite a following during lockdown, and there’s probably a sizable mid-West Bob Ross Appreciation Society and monthly newsletter for people with big hair and a liking for fuse wire.
Bob’s main problem was that he couldn’t just say to himself “Right, f-ck it, that’s it done. Time for a cartoon” No, he had to fiddle about with the foreground, put in a bloody ski lodge or a waterfall with a bridge over it occupied by a man balancing an eel on the end of his nose. Turner wouldn’t have done this. He couldn’t give a monkey’s. With him you were just an eavesdropper who happened to be there at the time. Have a look at Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth and see for yourself. And nature is the same, preferring a keep it simple code of conduct. Physicists think of this as the principle of least action. A sort of Occam’s razor: getting the job done with the minimum of faff. With Bob, the spectator is always indulged and given an extremely unlikely, privileged, God’s eye view in the hope of keeping them interested and on-side: Art for people who don’t like art you might call it.
The same goes for flying displays, yes those, and that’s what you were expecting when you started reading this: just stay with it. It’s really all about managing people’s expectations. There is an irresistible urge in the industry, as in many others, for some of Bob’s eel balancing, doing the extremely unlikely; but just because you can or might, doesn’t mean you have to. And that brings us back to our modern view of the natural world, one in which nature has the good taste to do what’s simple and straightforward. Formation flying, flying two or more aeroplanes very close together, is hardly an obvious thing to do. What started in wartime as a means of getting a group of aeroplanes through clouds for a scrap at the right place and time, is now part of our global flying display culture. There are pressures, often from within, to make an act ever more elaborate, unexpected and unlikely at the expense of good taste. Sometimes the unlikely turns out to be vulgar or just plain daft, and all because you were aiming for a display performance for people who don’t really like air displays.
The Global Stars pitch it just about right. The team have done very little flying as a four-ship since 2020, and had only managed a brief practice in the week before flying out. They haven’t flown a public display for almost three months. Their aim then: get up to speed fast, fly their normal display sequence, if possible, in the little time that remains before show day. Flying two or three times each day comes as a great relief, and progress is rapid. Mark and the team are satisfied that they’re competent enough and safe with lots of spare capacity, and are very pleased when Les signs them off for Thursday and the first show.
Team engineer Tom Bootyman has done an excellent job of putting together a short film that you can see on Youtube: The Global Stars-Bahrain 2022. Have a look at it and see for yourself. Good formation, excellent solo, some nice mirror flying and not even a whiff of an eel being balanced. There you are, well done, didn’t hurt a bit!©©
Thanks to Lord Kelvin, Ludwig Boltzmann, Oliver Cromwell, Patricia Routledge, the Pope, JVT, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Prof Chris Witty, Bob Ross, JMW Turner, William of Ockam, Les Garside Beattie and Tom Bootyman. An unlikely combination, but not entirely impossible.
(*) Thankfully, nature has the ultimate and most impeccable universal accounting system. The currency is entropy,and it has to increase on a universal scale whether we like it or not. From our very limited experience we learn that the ice always melts and with that we’re blessed with the arrow of time.
© Steve Carver: January 2023