Fast Jet Performance

Why Pilots Think ‘BIG’ and Why You Should Too

(The above image is from a Hawk T2 but flying the same profile and at the same height that my student went to initiate the ejection sequence.)

‘EJECT, EJECT!’ screamed my student from the front seat of our military training jet.

That got my attention.

Now, there’s probably not a situation that requires more of an immediate ‘ownership’ of a problem, than in the precise moment when a pilot calls for an ejection to be initiated from an aircraft they are flying.

If we were to break down exactly what would happen in the next few seconds, it might help us to understand the magnitude of my student’s decision.

Initiating the ejection sequence is done by an aggressive pull of the ejection seat firing handle which detonates explosive miniature cord that is embedded in the canopy above your head.

This canopy now explodes into millions of razor sharp fragments only a few inches from your face.

Simultaneously, a telescopic tube with two explosive charges is fired at the rear of the seat which starts to move it up the guide rails activating an emergency oxygen supply. Personal equipment and communication leads are automatically severed. Leg and arm restraints rapidly draw your limbs in towards your body to minimise injuries that will be caused by your sudden projection into a exceptionally violent airflow.

As the seat moves up and out of the cockpit, a rocket pack is fired by a lanyard attached to the cockpit floor. You are now subjected to 25 times the force of gravity which is so brutal that often your head will impact your knees should you not have time to adopt a proper ejection posture.

A steel rod, known as the drogue gun, is now fired and extracts a small parachute to stabilise the seat in its new environment. Above 16,500 ft a barostatic mechanism prevents the main parachute from opening as the thin air will render you unconscious if your oxygen supply was to run-out at this height. A time delay unit deploys the main parachute below this altitude once it has calculated that it won’t be ripped apart due to the high wind speed.

​The seat then automatically falls away allowing you to enjoy what is left of your parachute descent.

The whole thing is over in about 2 seconds and often, if still conscious, you’ll get a privileged view of a very large fireball where your once exceptionally valuable, but completely uninsured fighter jet, has just parked itself into the nearest orphanage.

Now you just have the rest of your parachute ride to come up with the most convincing story you can think of as to why you have just reduced your nation’s war fighting capability by one very expensive asset.


When a friend of mine ejected from his aircraft it was at the last possible moment and he was lucky to survive.

His jet was brand new and had only just been delivered to the squadron but, if that wasn’t bad enough, it ended up crashing into a police car that was luckily unoccupied at the time.

He told me that, as he hung beneath the parachute, he actually had to look away from the fireball, such was the dawning realisation of the magnitude of the destruction that he was now responsible for.

And that’s just covering the ejection sequence itself.

What comes next is the bit the pilots really dread; the cutting away of the flight gear, the trip to the civilian Accident and Emergency department where, if not handed over by an experienced Search and Rescue crewman, the doctors will look at you in bewilderment at having little idea about what to make of your new found spinal compression. The following lonely days are punctuated by the boss who comes to tell you that ‘everything is fine’ and to ‘just take your time’ and, whilst desperate to get home, you find yourself unable to leave as you don’t have any clothes to wear.

Apparently a naked pilot on a train is largely frowned upon by those not familiar with the post-ejection ‘get you home’ process.

Then comes the Service Inquiry which is the investigation that is done into the utter mess and destruction that you have just delivered onto a once peaceful world. Having been on one of these, the best advice that I can give you is to just be as honest as possible. It will take months and months and the questioning will feel like it will never end. But it will end, and normally by being publicly criticised about the performance you delivered when in a highly dynamic and volatile flight regime which was all captured over the space of a nano-second. What makes it worse is that this is done by people who have spent many months in a warm office poring over your flight data records whilst drinking excessive amounts of tea and having the luxury of something called ‘hindsight.’

‘I’ve had 40 years in the air but in the end, I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds.’ – Captain Sullenberger (US Airways Flight 1549 emergency landing on the Hudson River) on how, despite his four decades as a pilot, this will be his legacy. ​

So when my own student called for us to eject, in all honesty, it came as a bit of a surprise and mainly because, in my mind – there was absolutely nothing wrong with the aircraft.

But, as he was quite excited, I thought I’d give it some attention and I began to rapidly run through the implications of his actions on the next few months of my life.

I mean, I had a barbecue to attend at the weekend.

But, I’d been here before and, as my 1,000 hours of instructional time would later prove, I figured I kinda knew what he was thinking.

‘Stay with the aircraft.’ I replied.

The fact was, he was an inexperienced student fast jet pilot who, although wrong in his assessment of our survivability odds, had just made an exceptionally mature call and one that I was to later praise him for.

He’d become ‘big’ at a time when his current role demanded that he should have been ‘small’.

Everyday, people achieve great things. Sometimes we get to hear about them in the papers or on the TV but, more that often than not, we don’t.

I believe that there is one thing that sets people, who achieve greatness, apart from everyone else, and that is ‘self-belief’.

I talk about this a lot.

The building of confidence in the younger generations and those who have yet to discover their purpose in life, is something that I have a passion for and it can be difficult in a world where social media very often highlights an individual’s inadequacies.

I have a friend who is taking six months out to tour Australia with his family – shouldn’t I be doing that too?

Another friend who just bought a Lamborghini – where’s my fast car purchase?

A buddy who has just bought a mini-castle for a home, why am I not yet a ‘Lord of the Manor’?

“If I had a reality TV show about my life, it would probably be called ‘Keeping Up With The Accomplishments of People I Know On Facebook.’” – Found on Facebook…oh, the irony.

It can be difficult to build any kind of self-confidence when we only see the world from other people’s carefully curated view. In my mind, my social feeds are populated by people doing awesome things and who are living fantastic lives; a sharp contrast from where I often find myself – at work in an soulless office in the midst of a dark, British winter.

But, although I know that the reality is not as rose-tinted as my computer screen tells me it is, I can’t but help feel that I am missing out.

And that makes me sad.

And when I’m sad I don’t really feel like changing the world and this…

…is a bad thing.

This is a bad thing because, all of a sudden, I am starting to feel ‘small’. I am starting to not be a beacon of hope for my former self and I’m certainly not out there setting an example for others to follow.

And yet I can’t but help feel that we all have a responsibility to not react to how others, or their online content, makes us feel.

It is our duty to not remain ‘small’ because we worry that we’ll embarrass our friends if we go for that promotion or new job, what our partner might say if we decide to drop a bad habit or if we think we might upset others if we decide to change.

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone, and as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson, author.

Inside all of us there is potential, we are all meant to ‘shine’, it is there whether you believe it or not. But to get from where you are now to where you want to be, needs two things.

You must believe in yourself.

You have to do something.

Incredibly, doing the two things above is very difficult for most people. I once read about a self-help guru who said that the biggest problem he had was getting people to the stage of ‘doing’ something. He said that he could persuade people that they had the potential, the belief, but couldn’t get them to action anything.

Having thought about this for a while, I wonder whether the people who he was helping ever truly believed they could make any kind of real change to their lives at all. Had he really convinced these people that they could change or had he convinced himself that they could?

There is a girl in my village who, two years ago, decided to get fit. She was a little overweight but nothing noticeable but she was frustrated that, in her thirties, she had let herself go. As I drove to work one morning I saw her out walking on a familiar running route. For the next two years I would see her progress from that walk, to a walk-jog, then a jog-run and finally a run.

The other day I was driving home with a buddy of mine when we saw her doing some sprint training.

‘I get so jealous of these fitness types.’ he said.

I told him her story.

So why do more people not make the change that will ultimately get them what they want in life?

Under-confidence and a lack of self-belief.

We are all social creatures and allow people to talk to us as if we were, in some way, under their control. Bosses, parents, friends and spouses all contribute to our negative self-image and we listen to them because we feel, for some reason, that they must know what’s right for us.

Think about it, it’s true. Why do you ask someone if a piece of clothing looks good on you or ask your mates advice about a car you are thinking of buying? You want social validation, it’s natural, but we do need to recognise it for what it is – a lack of belief in our own ability to make the decision.

We are scared that if we make the decision then we alone are responsible for it, surely it’s easier to offload that responsibility on to other people? We abdicate the burden of our own lives to others because it’s easier for us to cope with when we fail to achieve our full potential.

We fear failure.

Our fear of failure is what prevents us from doing something that might put us out there in front of our friends, parents and the world.

But we must realise that it is not our friends or family who have to wake up each morning with the realisation that we still have to go to work at the job we hate. That we still have the hangover caused by the drinking that we need to do something about or that we are still overweight because we haven’t yet done the exercise that we promised we would do.

You haven’t yet accepted the fact that your life is yours and you alone are responsible for it and that’s fine…

…until today.

Successful people know that they are responsible for their life; no matter what their situation. Their weaknesses and past failures are all theirs – they ‘own’ them all.

It is just a poor image of yourself that is stopping you from making the changes you want to make. People won’t believe that you can do it, if you don’t believe that you can do it.

“Refereeing that World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand in front of 85,000 people and the millions of people watching at home, scrutinising every single decision you make under a huge amount of pressure, was nothing compared to the challenge of accepting who I was. Accepting who I was then, saved my life.” – Nigel Owens, International Rugby Union Referee, on coming out as gay in 2007.

If you believe that you are a certain something then you will do everything you can to uphold that ingrained image of yourself. You might believe that you can’t be a doctor because your background was working class, that you’ll always be a smoker because that’s just what your friends do or that you are happy to be overweight because that’s ‘who I am!’

You are reinforcing your own stereotype every time you speak negatively of your situation.

I failed all of my A-levels because I didn’t believe that people like me went to university.

Neither of my parents had gone, they both worked in the public sector, weren’t wealthy and we were just not that sort of family.

But, after failing academically for many years, I eventually ended up joining the RAF and becoming the most senior fast jet flying instructor at its top flying school.

All because I changed the way I looked at myself and learnt to believe that I could be successful.
In flying training we embrace the notion of failing fast and often as we know that considerably more learning comes from failure than from success.

“I consider our cola venture to be one of the biggest mistakes we ever made – but I still wouldn’t change a thing.” – Richard Branson, Virgin.

And if you are waiting until the stars align before you start, don’t. You will lose a lot of opportunities if you wait for the ‘right time’. Nothing will ever be perfect, no matter how hard we try – start now and start small.

Very small.

‘So I reached out and I grabbed a rock and I reached out as far as I could and I drew a line in the dirt in front of me. I said to myself, I’m going to crawl to that until my feet hit it, if I’m still alive, I’m going to do it again. And that’s what I did. I’d draw a line, crawl to it until my feet hit it, fall down a hill, crawl up another hill and draw another line. And I did that for seven miles.’

Marcus Luttrell, US Navy Seal, and author of ‘Lone Survivor’ on crawling out of a firefight after being paralysed from the waist down in an engagement during Operation Red Wings, Battle of Abbas Ghar, Afghanistan.

When my student called for us to ‘eject’ he did something that most students would never do. He challenged the authority of someone who, to him, was an exceptionally experienced and senior flying instructor and also the Captain of the aircraft.

The manoeuvre I was flying was called a Practise Forced Landing which is flown should we lose power in our single-engined Hawk T1 jet that I was instructing on at the time. This profile demands a high nose-down attitude in order to maintain airspeed. This means that, from about 800 ft above the runway, the rate of descent of the aircraft places it temporarily outside of survivable ejection seat parameters.

If my student had ejected, we would have both been killed and the aircraft destroyed.

The profile wasn’t taught to students at his stage of training. He had no way of knowing that, although it looked dangerous, it was actually quite safe.

And the reason he had no way of knowing it was safe was because I’d failed to tell him.

It was my fault and he’d done the right thing.

He’d ‘owned’ the situation, took responsibility for it and grew ‘big’ in a split second against overwhelming pressure. We’d taught him well and, in a different scenario, he may go on to save his, or his flight crews lives, in the future.

So, if you stay ‘small’, if you never try something new, never step outside your comfort zone and never take responsibility for your life, you will always just be ‘small’.

You owe it to those around you to be better than that – the world will never benefit from you staying where you are.

Think of all the people you care about, your ‘settling for a mediocre life’ is not helping them. You have to be the example that they need to see and only when you do that will you give them permission to do the same.

So, stop blaming others and take responsibility for where you are today. When you take responsibility for your life, something amazing happens…

…you get to choose the direction it goes in!

Don’t ever be afraid to fail and don’t fear the success that you are about to achieve.

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