‘Are we going to die, again?’
That’s all my Weapons Officer (WSO) said to me when I asked him for the time.
‘Bro, the CHECK-IN-TIME, when is it?’ I repeated as I yanked an ejection seat strap from it’s housing and towards my lap.
There was no reply.
It was obvious he was busy in the rear-seat of our Tornado bomber and heavily pre-occupied with the complexity of this evening’s flight.
It really was a ‘dark and stormy night’ and our plan was going to take us into some of the worst weather we would ever see on the West Coast of Scotland.
The rain was pouring down and the winds were fierce.
I was soaked to the skin from the ‘walk around’ of the aircraft I’d done pre-flight. The winds drove the freezing rain through my flight gear, rendering all of my paperwork unusable.
‘A bit wet are we, Sir?’ laughed my engineer as he helped me with the straps.
I flashed him a quick smile as the raindrops dripped from my nose and onto the cockpit floor; his humour would keep me warm at least until we got airborne and the real work began.
I realised that this is the side of the job the careers office doesn’t tell you about. How well-used flying gloves will develop a slippery veneer when wet and will find any excuse to slide off your hands when flying. Or, the sheer focus you’ll have to find when aviating on such an horrendous night when everybody else in bed and all you want to do is go to the bar and talk about girls.
I dug deep into the pockets of my g-pants, searching for the rain-sodden piece of paper with the information I needed.
‘It’s OK, we’ve got two minutes until check-in – let me know if you have any snags.’ I shouted over the din of the external ground power supply that we would use to start the engines.
‘We are SO going to die, again.’ came the reply.
In all honesty, he had a point.
The previous night’s weather was so bad that the aircraft’s sensors had given us poor returns and we’d come close to hitting another jet whose crew had lost situational awareness. There were four Tornados involved, all in a ‘square’ formation and flying within a mile of each other.
In the dark.
Timing was critical and all had been trying to stay at 250 feet but most of us had stepped it up to nearer 500 – we just weren’t getting the confidence through our sensors. The automated Terrain Following Radar was working well but I was constantly having to disconnect it to fly hard defensive turns against the distant air threats that were trying to kill us.
It had been a real challenge and most of us were hoping that tonight’s flying was going to be cancelled.
My WSO was new, straight out of navigator training and had been thrown into the Squadron work-up for Iraq. He was known as a hardworking guy, just inexperienced – nothing I hadn’t seen before.
‘It’s OK, I checked with the station meteorological office before we walked – she said that the weather should be clearing to the south of our route; I reckon tonight won’t be too bad.’
It was a lie, I’d done no such thing.
But, I knew we were going to be straight into the poor weather again but had to do something to get my WSO back into a positive mindset.
I could feel myself also getting dragged down by his negativity. I was cold, wet and entirely under-confident about what we were supposed to go and do and if I let it show, he’d get worse.
We knew that the training objectives we had failed to achieve the night before, would need to be achieved tonight.
‘Pressonitus’, poor weather, distracted aircrew – ‘Yes’, I thought to myself as I started the first engine, there is every chance that we are, indeed, going to ‘die, again’.
Civilians who get the chance to visit a Squadron will often comment on the black humour of the aircrew they meet. Jokes will fly about with some serious banter and most aircrew will give as good as they get. But, because of this dark humour, it can often seem like there is a lot of negativity on a Squadron but this is rarely the case.
In order to get into the aircraft to fly the sorties, aircrew must believe that it is achievable – there has to be a genuine belief or people die.
It’s that simple.
Aircrew understand the power of positivity in mission success.
They also understand that they need to be able to accommodate pain in order to achieve that success. Learning only comes through the experience of being stretched – sometimes you just have to do things that you don’t want to do.
‘Going for second engine start.’ I called, my hands sliding wildly over the protruding metal switches.
One of the uniques things about us humans is that we can generate stress in our bodies just by thought alone. This stress can go onto lower the immune system and make us physically ill.
When I was struggling to teach instructors on the RAF’s largest fast jet Squadron, I would be permanently fighting off some bug and it was only when I fully left the environment that I realised the detrimental effect of constant stress on personal health and wellbeing.
My self-generated negativity, whilst under stress, is all I would focus on and I would look for answers in any place I could.
If I could get a more predictable working day for my instructors, would it ease their pain?
Maybe I could streamline the syllabus so as to make our output more productive?
Could I improve the synthetic training elements so as to reduce the airborne content and the workload on the team?
Often we feel that all our problems can be solved by the examination of this external stimulus. We think people will like us more if we buy a new car or when we get a bigger house; it then confuses us when we get these things and nothing changes.
We still feel negative, lonely and unfulfilled.
In the same way that I thought I would have less stress if I solved some Squadron problem, we fail to understand that the change must come from within us and only when we change ourselves will we see change in others.
And this is interesting because the answer to this development comes from positivity, in its adoption and in its display.
‘The best way to fail to develop a positive mindset is by surrounding yourself with negative people.’
Our sub-conscious mind is a data-processing facility that takes in and stores everything we absorb through our five senses.
As it does this, the brain assesses the material and releases chemicals which we then understand as feelings or emotions.
And this is powerful because our feelings can and do define our personality.
Let me explain.
A ‘feeling’, left unattended for a couple days, can be seen by others as a ‘mood’.
A ‘mood’ left unchecked for a few weeks becomes a ‘temperament’ and, if that is not addressed then, after a few months or years it become…
So, everything, including your personality, starts at the atomic, molecular level of controlling how you ‘feel’ and, if you’ve ever tried to get yourself out of a bad mood, you will know that changing how you feel is very hard.
It’s hard because it has been caused directly by what you have experienced.
It’s even worse when you are the one who has caused the problem for yourself.
The guy who fails an exam because he went out partying instead of hitting the books or the girl who doesn’t look good in a bikini because she’s been over-indulging.
The way we change our personalities or mental state is through how we ‘feel’ and this is done by paying attention to ourselves on a daily basis.
There was a reason that we were both in a negative space on that windy and wet evening as our jet roared in the black Scottish sky. Research shows that our brains evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones – it kept us safe from danger back in caveman times.
If we were about to go out hunting Mammoths we’d need to be more sensitive to their being a Sabre-Toothed Tiger knocking about else it might eat us and ruin our day.
That’s why we evolved with negativity being detected more quickly and easily.
The amygdala — the brain region that regulates emotion and motivation — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news.
Why do you think the front page of a newspaper always has a ‘doom and gloom’ story on it.
So. That. You’ll. Read. It.
We are pre-disposed to being negative, it’s supposed to keep us alive but often we purposely allow negativity into our lives.
And, as I descended the jet into the darkest valley in the whole of Scotland, negativity played it’s role in helping us to remain cautious.
But, to get to the target and complete the sortie, we’d need to believe we could and, once the jet was safely sat at 250 feet at 7 miles per minute and flying itself, I started to lighten the mode with some light chat.
‘Look, those lights on the road are above us!’ I chuckled as the jet hugged the water filled valley floor.
‘That’s not helping!’ came the reply and we both laughed at the absurdity of what we had been asked to do.
The remainder of the sortie was uneventful and we eventually went home after we found ourselves sitting in a cloud for 3 minutes at night and whilst flying at the height of electricity pylons.
We’d been stretched and learning had taken place.
The lesson for me was to understand that we reflect the emotions we receive from others. If you surround yourself with negative people, you will also become negative. Surround yourself with the right people as it will ultimately play a huge role in your success.
Those who achieve great things, develop a focused mindset where they are able to compartmentalise negativity, they allow it to be heard as it can be valuable in certain situations, but they do not let it stick.
Slow down, get out into nature, eat the right foods and get some quality sleep. Do less and take time to appreciate things that you would normally walk past and ignore.
‘Food creates your mood.’
Participate in things that bring you joy.
Have a morning routine that sets the tone for positivity to belong in your day. Get up thirty minutes earlier, do some light exercise, have your favourite coffee ready to go and your favourite book to read a few pages of.
Inspire yourself to inspire others.
Be present in their lives – there is nothing like knowing you’ve helped another person to make you more positive about life.
Take time to just ‘be’ with yourself, we are ‘human beings’ not ‘human doings’.
Keeping a gratitude diary is a great way to help you stay positive – focus on the good things in life.
‘Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things.’ – Robert Brault
Stop the gossiping, take more interest in your own life and not those of people who you can do nothing about. Spend less time with toxic people, you don’t have to cut them out of your life but just understand that their negativity will reduce your ability to be positive.
Remember that everybody is tied up in their own little world – you can choose to let them effect you or you can choose to put it down to them having a bad day. Ask yourself, ‘Will this even matter in a years’ time?’
‘Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.’ – William Shakespeare
‘If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?’ – Rumi
Think about what three things in your life make you angry, sad and create negativity in you and then look at how you might minimise your exposure to them. It might be a website, person or TV show, think about how you might might be able to spend less time with them this week.
But, most importantly, have a real hard think about who you are on the inside.
Try and get comfortable with you whether through some alone time, a new hobby or maybe some meditation. Your brain needs time to process all of that data it takes in and, especially in today’s ‘attention economy’ where everyone wants a piece of you – it just needs a break.
Stay positive and understand that, unless you are a jet pilot descending into a Scottish valley, at night and in the depths of a freezing winter, having negativity in your life will do you no good, whatsoever.
Unless, they re-introduce Sabre-toothed Tigers, of course.