‘WOLF 3 DEFENDS SA-11 BEARING 020!’ came the call from the back pair of our low-level 4-ship of Tornado GR4 bombers.
Our formation had stumbled upon the enemy Air Defences and they were not happy to be disturbed over their lunch hour.
‘Well, there it is!’ proclaimed my Navigator confirming what we’d both been expecting; ‘I told you they’d get themselves killed!’ he laughed.
I chuckled with him as I hugged the valley floor, pressing on towards our target which was now only 2 minutes flying time away.
‘Wolf 4 defending SA-8 bearing 270, egressing to the east!’ came a call soon after.
‘That’s the back pair out, that’s not good.’ I said, noting that there were just two of us left to hit the target.
We thundered on as low as we dared, trying to use the undulating terrain for cover. The wind over the hills buffeted our 26 tonne war machine making it hard to plot the enemy’s systems onto my kneeboard.
‘Mike,’ I called, ‘I’ve got an SA-6 looking at us right 2 o’clock – make it go away.’
Our Radar Warning Receiver was displaying the familiar lines associated with a particularly aggressive Surface to Air Missile system. I pushed the throttles forward marching the speed up towards 500 mph in an attempt to progress us away from the threat.
‘That 6 wasn’t in the brief,’ he replied, ‘Come left 30 degrees to put him on the beam.’
I passed the information to our wingman, Wolf 2, who was a steady 2 miles to the west of us.
‘Wolf 2, we’ve got a 6 out to the east here, how’s the west looking?’
‘We’ve got an Early Warning radar on the nose,’ came the reply, ‘I’m suggesting a right 30 when able.’
It was starting to get busy. We weren’t expecting so much hostile activity and my mind was quickly becoming saturated with the amount of threats that we hadn’t planned for.
‘Mike we’ve got to find a way through here, let’s push up against the Early Warning radar, see if we can’t overwhelm it.’ I called, secretly hoping that he had a better plan.
‘That SA-6 is still illuminating us, I’m working my magic but if we don’t do something soon it’s going to launch.’ said Mike.
I knew he was right – all his technical wizardry would only keep that missile on the rails for so long; we were going to have to come up with a better plan.
The GR4 dominates the low-level environment and with two Electronic Warfare Instructors (EWI) onboard, such as we had today, it was a formidable place to be even in the high threat arena we now found ourselves occupying.
‘Wolf 2, Tac 30 left go!’ I called in an attempt to put the SA-6 down to our right aft quadrant and placing the formation nose on to the Early Warning radar.
‘You know that this is likely to be a trap, don’t you?’ said my Nav, calmly.
We both did.
Then suddenly the radio came alive.
‘Wolf 2 defends SA-6 left 9 o’clock aborting south!’
Wolf 2 was now out too as, like the others, defending against a SAM at this late stage meant that he wouldn’t have the time or fuel to reach the target.
We were alone.
Out of four Tornados we were the only one left and now a mere 30 seconds to target, a target that we had spent 3 hours planning for and another hour briefing.
This wasn’t going to be easy and we were quickly running out of options. As we approached the target I ran through my checks.
‘Switches are live.’ I called.
‘Roger, you have the stores…WHOA! Break right! Missile launch left 10 o’clock!’
‘Coming right with flares,’ I said disappointedly as a smokey SAM trail appeared over my left shoulder.
‘Wolf 1 aborts south.’
There was silence as it finally sank in that none of us would be reaching the target today. We knew the target area thoroughly but our routing had been poorly briefed and had caught us out.
‘I told you that they’d get us all shot down.’ said my Nav.
‘Yes Mike,’ I replied, ‘Yes, you did.’
I’ve started to window shop more than I used to and when I walk somewhere I take more time to take in the view; it’s because of this that I think I’ve worked out why old people drive so slowly.
You would have thought that, what with them being a bit closer to the pearly gates than many of us, they would want to race back to their homes so that they could have more time to enjoy their hydroponics, Antiques Roadshow and the pet Chiwawa.
But I’m not convinced that they actually want to get home all that quickly.
Recently I was in a supermarket car park in a busy town centre when I noticed that everybody seemed to be in a huge rush, and not just those going into the store but those coming out too. I watched the scene in front of me with an inquisitive gaze.
The young women hastily walking in front of traffic with her eyes glued to her phone.
A Dad dragging his reluctant three year old by the arm, cursing at the child’s unwillingness to walk in a straight line.
The 40-something mom in business attire racing into the store to get supper for the family on the way home from work.
It was then that I made the decision to not rush but to take my time, maybe even appreciate the placing of one foot after another, to look around and enjoy the scenery.
I’d just travelled there in a warm chair surrounded by glass which had been put in place so I could appreciate the view without getting cold. All the while I was being entertained by the delights of the newest pop diva on a device on which I could choose any musical entertainment I wanted. My chair travelled at 70 mph and could take me pretty much anywhere – I could just climb on and go – it was quite remarkable, really.
We really are spoiled.
As I stepped out of my car I felt the tarmac beneath my feet and the wind in my hair; it was a humid wind as you’d expect at this time of year and I felt the sun’s warming glow on my face. I took care over every step I made for soon I would be in the supermarket and this moment would be over.
Let’s not rush.
I imagined that I wore a dressing gown and was just out to pick up a newspaper off the front lawn on a lazy Sunday morning. I ‘lounged’ as I walked – I was a contrast to the hustling hoards and I liked it.
I was enjoying taking my time but my mind still shouted – ‘Just get in there!’
‘Not stopping to appreciate the moment is one of the biggest regrets of the older generation.’
You see, it’s not normal for us to take our time over things anymore. We’d much rather rush home so we can sit in front of the TV for an extra 5 minutes or eat something that’s not very good for us.
If we want something we can just order it online and it can be here tomorrow, we no longer understand the meaning of ‘delayed gratification’.
Social media means we can chat to friends in real-time even if they are thousands of miles away and catch-up TV means we never need to be worried about getting home on time anymore.
But I feel that in getting what we want so conveniently, we are losing out on the journey and maybe the elderly know this which is why they take their time to appreciate the scenery when they are driving home.
Maybe they are onto something with their cruise holidays after all.
‘In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.’ – Abraham Lincoln
As humans we’re designed to always be dissatisfied, to always be looking for the next big thing. If we weren’t then we’d lose our competitive edge which wouldn’t help us survive in a pre-historic environment. As a caveman it would be crucial to always be out hunting so as to build up supplies for the times when you were wounded by a Sabre-toothed tiger and had to sit in your cave to heal for a few days. You never see a squirrel just bury a day’s worth of nuts!
That’s why we crave the 70″ TV, the new car or the new house – it’s just built into us.
And something that I’ve come to realise during my time flying jets, is rarely do you ever have time to appreciate the view. There’s always a mission to achieve or a target to hit – you never just get ‘given’ an aircraft to fly about in.
A bomber pilot is concentrating on defeating enemy Air Defences so that he or she can get to the target and drop the bombs.
A fighter pilot tends to be occupied with the radar so that they can find the bad guys and shoot them down.
Even a Red Arrows display pilot spends the majority of the time staring at Red One or trying to stay in formation with the other eight aircraft.
Yes, appreciating the view is something that never really happens in military fast jet flying.
This means that we become very outcome focused and everything we do during the flight just adds up to create the desired aim or result. The first thing we ask when we debrief a sortie is ‘did you hit the target?’ or ‘did you kill the hostile aircraft?’
All other elements of the sortie are largely ignored until this question is answered because the only reason that the aircraft was sent flying today was to achieve the aim.
Did you achieve the aim?
And in our lives it can be the same. In order to create success we are told that we must have ‘goals’ so that we can measure our performance. In fact there is a phrase that is used – ‘You cannot manage what you do not measure.’
Whether it’s weight loss, drug cessation or sporting prowess we are told that, without goals, we will not achieve our aims.
But there is a problem with goal-orientated success.
If I am focusing on the outcome then I’m not really appreciating the journey.
‘When You Have One Eye on the Goal, You Have Only One Eye on the Path’ – Zen Master
Often I see a disconnect and an opportunity missed; a focus on the end goal and a reluctance to embrace the moment.
Even when working in the office I’ve noticed that everybody is focused on the results.
You’ll often hear ‘It’ll be alright when we get the contract signed’ or ‘We’ll sort it out at the meeting in June.’ People will put off work until they get to the Monday, Tuesday – insert any day of the week here – meeting where they’ll ask for clarification on their task and promise to get it done by next week.
Where’s the focus? If you put too much attention on the goal and not enough on the route to get there, you won’t achieve anything.
‘Now they have got what they have always wanted, but they’re not happy because they’re not living their own life, they’re doing what they believe others expect of them.’ – Life Coach to the finance sector, Karin Peeters, on coaching high achievers.
Sometimes it seems that everything is directed towards the end state with little thought for analysing the process of arrival. There is often no debrief when things go wrong or indeed right, and no accountability or acknowledgement of the decisions that have been made.
Learning does not take place.
‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ – attributed to George Santayana
In 2013, when the Squadron was very new and finishing its development phase, various contractor agencies held a forum in which the Squadron pilots could ask questions about what they had just been through. It had been a difficult time for many so the questions came thick and fast but one question stood out from the rest.
‘How are you going to learn from the mistakes that have been made so that you don’t make the same mistakes again?’ asked a young pilot.
It was a good question that would provoke a poor answer.
The recipient of the question said that they didn’t need to write anything down as the team understood the issues and would not make the same mistakes again.
Unfortunately they forgot to acknowledge the transient nature of their workforce in recognising that the learning points were probably going to be lost.
It made me realise that people often neglect to note the history of a difficult project; on this occasion nobody had kept a diary or action points that they could learn from. As far as they were concerned it was over and that was that – ‘It will be different next time.’ they said.
They hadn’t paid any attention to how they had got to where they were – only that they had got there.
As in business, military flying often produces similar results and this was why we were all killed on the Electronic Warfare range.
Our Squadron’s two Weapons Instructors were the first to get shot down. In running the plan they had concentrated more on the desired outcome of the sortie than the process. They had spent the entire planning and briefing time concentrating on how they would best destroy the target without much thought of how they were going to get there. My Nav and I had tried to brief them on the Electronic Warfare environment we were going up against but the threats, to them, were just not as important as the prosecution of the target.
We are told that the target is the outcome – it is the culmination of all of our efforts. If you cannot hit your target then you may as well go home.
But there are many things that happen in the sortie that determined whether we get to the target and this is why we brief and debrief so extensively. We recognise the importance of ‘the journey’, the eventuality that got us the results we desire and this is where the most learning material is to be found.
This is where the majority of learning takes place.
And it is also where we analyse our strengths and more importantly, our weaknesses.
Ask anyone who is truly successful and they will tell you that they learned more from the journey than from reaching a goal.
Too many of us put off our lives until we reach one of these goals – when the kids have left home, when the mortgage is paid off or when we retire with our pension.
It is precisely at this point we realise that we have neglected to enjoy the journey.
And more importantly, that we have forgotten to live.
‘All that money you made will never buy back your soul.’ – Bob Dylan
Dedicated to Muhammad Ali (17 January 1942 – 3 June 2016)
“Live every day like it’s your last, because someday you’re going to be right.”