It was a blinding flash of sunlight that forced my eyes to squint into the distance and my heart-rate to soar – but it was no good…
I’d lost her.
The dim outline of a fighter jet, that I’d been pointing at head-on just a couple of seconds ago, was now gone.
It’s the biggest fear of any pilot, losing sight of the aircraft you are about to fight – you can’t fight what you can’t see.
The temptation was to frantically search the sky in the hope she’d reappear but I knew it was futile.
‘Ninja Two – confirm ‘tally’?’ I called, checking that my student could see me.
‘Negative,’ came the reply.
I checked my instruments – 0.76 Mach – I knew she’d be the same and that meant a closing speed of over 1,000 miles per hour – fifteen miles per minute.
One mile every four seconds.
We’d only been five miles apart when we’d turned to face each other so quick maths told me that I only had two and a half, maybe three seconds before we’d collide. And, in the world of military flying training, an instructor killing their student is generally considered to be a ‘bad thing’.
I started to climb.
‘Ninja One is also ‘no joy’, levelling 15,000 feet… SANCTUARY GO!’ I called.
And, as I steadied my jet and dipped a wing, I saw my student flash past me in a hard right-hand turn – I’d failed to keep sight of her and had done something about it.
‘Roll out North.’ I called, ‘It’s a low sun today Beth, and visibility is poor – I think we’ll try that again.’
‘Sanctuary’ is the home of the lost fighter pilot – a place to go when things go wrong.
When we practise air combat, each aircraft is allocated an individual ‘sanctuary’ height which the pilot commits to memory. Then, should anyone lose sight of another aircraft whilst engaged in very close, high-energy manoeuvring, they have somewhere to go where no other aircraft should be.
As a fast jet tactical weapons instructor, I’ve trained a lot of young men and women in the nuanced art of aerial jousting and air combat doesn’t come naturally to anyone; it takes time to be able to recognise rapidly changing ‘pictures’, manage the aircraft’s energy and understand your opponent’s mindset.
But, there are two things that separate the top fighter pilots from the rest…
…they know themselves and they know when to leave the fight.
Knowing your opponent is essential if you want to win at air combat but, knowing yourself and your own limits will go so much further in saving your life.
KNOWING WHEN TO LEAVE THE FIGHT
When I was a pilot on the Tornado GR4, a heavy bomber that was most at home flying fast through the deep Scottish valleys, I knew that being engaged in air combat was a place that I really best avoid.
I knew my aircraft, its strengths and its weaknesses. It was quick and tough – birds and occasionally the odd missile, would happily bounce off its tough exterior but it wasn’t ‘agile’.
More to the point, I was an all-weather, night-attack, low level bomber pilot trained to fly at the height of telegraph poles and hit targets deep into enemy territory.
A few years ago I was involved in an exercise in northern Europe where the enemy were being played by F-16s from several different nations. The ‘war’ would often start out up high where the airliners flew, to keep us above the height of ground based missile threats. But, it wasn’t a great place for my heavy Tornado, especially when loaded with fuel and bombs. Because of this, we’d bravely ‘step around’ any incoming hostile aircraft and hide behind our own fighter escort as we made our way to our target.
Sometimes we’d reach it, sometimes we’d bravely run away.
Occasionally, our mission controllers would tell us that the ‘picture was clear’ meaning that all the bad guys were probably dead and the airspace was ours. At this point we’d put on some light jazz, pop the Champagne corks and enjoy a clear run to the target – grateful to survive another day.
But, mission controllers can make mistakes and this would often only become clear when my windscreen was filled with a hostile F-16 pointing right at me.
‘Whoa, where’d he come from?!’ would be the cry from the backseat.
There’s only one way to react to such an ambush – throw the variable geometry wings back to full sweep, punch the throttles into the reheat range, roll inverted and pull hard for the dark earth below.
As we passed the enemy fighter we would be nearing the speed of sound and descending at a phenomenal rate back into the low-level environment…
…our own ‘sanctuary’.
’10,000, 8, 6, 4, that’s 2,000 feet, Tim!’ would called my Weapons Officer.
I’d acknowledge him and as I’d level the jet behind some hills, I would dip the wing to look out back for our new playmate.
‘He is way behind us, I expect he thought we were going to stay and fight,’ would offer my nav.
‘No way we’re playing with an F-16,’ I’d say, ‘I’m not a fighter pilot.’
Many people know their boss, their husband, their kids, their parents or their business.
But, most people don’t know themselves.
When I got hit by a depressive episode whilst the senior instructor on the largest fast jet squadron in the Royal Air Force, I thought I knew myself.
- I knew I could put in 12 hour days continuously and never need a holiday.
- I knew I could fly three high-energy sorties a day whilst fighting email fires to satisfy a boss who was aligning himself for promotion.
- I knew I could shut out the stress with a few beers every evening, eat poorly, get minimal sleep and still perform at the highest level the next day.
But the truth was, I knew nothing about who I was and what that even meant.
I didn’t know what I wanted out of life because I didn’t have anytime to think.
‘You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.’ – Maverick, Top Gun
I’d forgotten the lessons that I’d learnt on my front-line jet – ‘knowing yourself will keep you alive’.
But, I was lucky.
Another officer on the squadron came to me and said that he’d also been finding life tough. He said we were too busy to keep ourselves safe and that he’d taken himself off to see a military psychologist which had helped.
Although he never said it, he was nudging me to do the same – it was to be the break I needed.
Since that time I’ve been asking myself ‘Who am I really and who do I want to be?’
Self-reflection is the willingness of individuals to learn more about their purpose and values through the examination of their conscious thoughts and feelings.
When kids are young they don’t know to pretend to be someone else, it just doesn’t occur to them that they might need to moderate their behaviour – they’re just kids zooming about having a great time! Then, as they grow, we tell them to stop running around, to be quiet and to sit still.
And, after a while, they do.
They then spend the next 70 years or so conforming to society, trying to be similar to other people so that they are ‘liked’ and accepted.
Eventually, if they are lucky, they reach an age when they no longer care. The realise that they are nearing the great pearly gates and just say whatever they feel like – they’ve finally re-learnt to be comfortable with themselves.
It’s understandable and important – it’s evolution.
When we were cavemen, back when the dinosaurs were trying to kill us (it’s analogous, the dinosaurs were dead – just go with it) we’d have to belong to a group in order to survive. If, for some reason we were thrown out of the group, we’d die – hunted down by Sabre-Toothed Tigers or a Pterodactyl who’d forgotten to be extinct.
We couldn’t survive alone.
And, because of this evolutionary fear of ‘being alone’, we craft inauthentic, fake personalities which are just the parts of us we put forward to the world to keep us safe. We don’t want to expose our vulnerable bits incase our friends don’t like us and we end up all alone.
We are fascinated by our own life expectancy but rarely do we ask ‘what do we expect from our life?’
We lie to ourselves and others because we feel that we can’t tell people what we are really thinking because if we do then they’re going to reject us.
‘How can I continue to be accepted, what stories must I continue to tell?’
Just as a fighter pilot will lose a combat engagement if they don’t understand their own strengths and weaknesses, so too our own vulnerability comes from not knowing who we are. But, we don’t know this and we happily go along with the ‘facade of fakery’ hoping that people will think we are like them and we can ‘belong’ in their group.
The need for approval is so debilitating, it holds us back from getting what we really want out of life. It forces us to live our lives by someone else’s agenda, by constantly acting as if we are being watched.
This means that we are just copies of what we have seen being successful elsewhere; we’re not genuine, not real, we do not reflect our core values and this is because we’re living an inauthentic life and are not even sure what our core values are.
But we can change all of this if we can find our sanctuary to embrace living an honest existence where we don’t have to lie to ourselves anymore.
‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’ – George Orwell
Authenticity is when, what you feel on the inside is what you present on the outside.
Authenticity is admitting your vulnerabilities, being and accepting yourself – flaws and all, and being comfortable with not being perfect.
‘Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Everyday I now try and find time that is mine alone – the early morning is a good time for this, nobody will email you at 5.30 am. It allows me to be on my own, in my ‘sanctuary’ where I can concentrate on four things that also make up the first four letters of the word itself – SANCtuary.
Spirituality – 10 or 20 minutes of meditation can order your mind allowing it to be ready to absorb the day ahead. Writing a short entry in a gratitude diary also helps to understand how fortunate we really are to be living the way we do.
Activity – Getting out in nature for a walk or light run reconnects us to the world of which we will probably see little of from our office desks. Our stress levels reduce in nature but increase when we are surrounded by the city landscape – we are designed to be outdoors, it relaxes our minds. I use this time to think about who I want to be, about doing the right thing in any issues I might have and how I could live a more honest and content life.
Nutrition – I start the day with something ridiculously healthy, maybe a green smoothie, freshly squeezed lemon or anything else I find that is uber-nutritious. This wasn’t always the case for me but don’t worry – you’ll soon see this as a critical part of your day, too. If I start my morning that way, I’m more likely to continue making healthy food choices throughout the day.
Commitment – This is where I commit to things that I ‘must’, ‘should’ or ‘might’ do. I plan them out, it takes just 10 minutes and means that I’m much more likely to do these things than if I just hope I remember them. Make a plan and act on it – you’ll be amazed at how this creates structure to your day.
My whole sanctuary time takes just an hour or so but makes an incredible difference to my day. I plan what I’ll do in the sanctuary hour the night before, laying out any food or gym kit I might need – it takes me just 10 minutes.
When I was flying fighter jets, I wish I knew that it was OK to plan ‘white space’ or alone time. To have somewhere to go away from the noise of work, to understand that it was alright to have a sanctuary where I could recuperate and recharge.
Your sanctuary is the place where you can go to be undisturbed by other people’s perception of you, where you don’t have to hide, don’t have to pretend. It’s where you can meditate, read, exercise, learn, grow, develop and start your day on your terms and at your own pace.
Just as a pilot’s sanctuary is somewhere they can go to be safe, learn from what has happened and apply it to what will happen next, your sanctuary is where you go to do the same – to focus on embracing authenticity, creating structure to your life and to be honest with the only person that will ever truly matter.
‘The great majority of people are ‘wandering generalities’ rather than ‘meaningful specifics’. – Zig Ziglar