Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A time of reflection (been there, done that)

It was recently brought to my attention that the RAF had scrapped its fleet of Lockheed TriStars and I have to admit to having felt rather sad about it, especially seeing videos on YouTube of them being broken up for scrap like this one:


I started my apprenticeship at Marshall Aerospace in 1987 to train as an airframe fitter, and after spending the first year in the training centre honing vital practical skills under the tuition of two amazing guys who worked the 'good cop, bad cop' routine like seasoned veterans, I ended up out on the shop floor - specifically Hangar 17 which was the TriStar service centre.
During my time there (through my apprenticeship and beyond) I got to work on all aspects of the airframe and systems (apart from electrics, 'cos that's a sparky's job), developing the sort of familiarity with the aircraft that you have with a car that you've had to bits on a regular basis over an extended period of time - and I've had a few cars that have needed that level of love and attention...
There were many TriStars passing through that place - some for relatively quick jobs, and some for extensive major servicing involving a total stripdown back to virtually a bare airframe. The occasional commercial one came in, such as those operated by Air Canada and Air Transat, and from time to time we got to work on King Hussein of Jordan's personal TriStar which was an incredible piece of kit; a flying palace which beggared belief. The first time it came in was rather unnerving though, because the King's security guys were constantly wandering around, looking over your shoulder to make sure you weren't trying to steal the gold fixtures and fittings, with pistols hanging in shoulder rigs under their jackets. Eventually the amount of complaints of feeling intimidated led to airport security taking away the guns until they left which made us feel about as good as one can with a muscle-bound meatball with no sense of humour glaring menacingly at you while you're repairing the motorised table in the state room. As undeniably cool as that plane was, we were always glad to see it go.


 Another interesting TriStar was the one bought by Orbital Sciences Corporation which was converted to an airborne launch platform for the Pegasus rocket. The Pegasus is used to deploy satellites into orbit.
The conversion was a major feat, because apart from the modifications needed to hang the rocket from the belly there was an immense amount of weight that had to be shed from the plane to enable it to get off the ground with a fully fuelled and equipped Pegasus mounted underneath.


For the most part though, the TriStars that came through that hangar were those belonging to the RAF, and you'll have to forgive me getting my anorak on at this point. There were nine in total - six were ex-British Airways and were converted to tanker/transport planes (ZD948 - ZD953), and the other three were ex-PanAm (ZE704 - ZE706).
ZE706 spent years sitting on the pan outside the hangar being robbed for spare parts and generally rotting away. It was known amongst the fitters as the 'DeathStar', because if someone was sent to work on it their next stop was often the personnel office to collect their P45. The trouble with 706 was that it had been purchased in error. It was intended that it would be converted to a tanker, but the conversion couldn't be carried out due it being the wrong variant which lacked the necessary third cargo door.
So there it sat, sad and unwanted while the MOD decided what they were going to do with it.
Eventually, they decided to simply use it as a troop transporter, and so began the arduous project of reviving that sorry state of an aircraft from a corroded piece of crap into what ended up as probably the best TriStar on the fleet. There was a distinct feeling of pride amongst those of us who worked on ZE706 during this phase of its life, and all thoughts of the 'DeathStar' were banished when we watched it take off again, which made it all the more sad for me to know that at the end of its service life it was just ripped apart to be weighed in for scrap metal.
By the time I left Marshall Aerospace in 1996 I had spent my time on TriStars, C-130 Hercules, Boeing 727 (royal Bahrain), Boeing 707, Gulfstream G2, Andover, and HS125. I knew I had to get out of there because as much as I liked the fact that I was doing the job I'd dreamt about throughout my childhood, the way the company operated was sucking away my very soul, leaving me in a permanent state of misery.

Even though there were some seriously unpleasant aspects to being an airframe fitter like crawling around in wet fuel tanks, decorroding the internal skin of a TriStar's s-duct (the number two engine's intake) with a vacu-blast machine, stripping out a filthy bullet-ridden Hercules from some war-torn African shit-hole, getting smeared with all sorts of sealants and chemicals that have since been found to be highly carcinogenic, and getting your head addled by methyl-ether-ketone fumes, I can still look back at that period of my life and smile to myself.
It wasn't all bad. There were a lot of good blokes (and a few wankers of course but that's the same everywhere), I got to spend a few years doing what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I learned a hell of a lot of skills including the ability to swear profusely which I never did before I left school, and like all bad habits has proved to be impossible to shake off.

Now I work in aerodynamics at Cambridge University's Department of Engineering - a world away from the demands and unreasonable behaviour of industry and I know that the only reason I'd go back to working on planes is if I'd retired on a big lottery win and wanted to do aircraft restoration at a museum as a means of preventing myself going insane with boredom.

ZE706 - rest in pieces.



Sunday, 23 November 2014

Great Expectations

There are some things in life that people do because they've been programmed to do them. We go to work, get married, have kids, take out a pension plan, try and fail to eat five servings of fruit and veg every day, and have a few drinks with friends to celebrate being one year closer to death.
At the same time, we eat, drink, sleep and screw because these things are hard-wired into our DNA, but they're natural processes that we do without being told that we should.
The others have been drilled into our minds since we were pushed into this world in a whirlwind of screams, wet icky stuff, and possibly some rather good drugs. From the word 'go' we're conditioned to expect certain things of life, although there will be variations caused by our experiences during our early years. If someone's childhood involves parents who spend every waking hour shouting at each other and throwing things, then the idea of marriage will probably hold rather less appeal when they're grown up.

Personally I think it's a bit of a shame that many of these expectations of life become so important to some people that they feel the need to pressurise others into following these ideas.
Take marriage for example. There's much to be said for the emotional security it brings, but it's not for everyone. Some people may feel that they don't need a piece of paper to spend their life with another person; that it's an outdated tradition that they want no part of. This is absolutely fine and I have no problem with that viewpoint. Unfortunately there are those who feel it necessary to constantly badger someone in a relationship with comments along the lines of "So when are you going to tie the knot then?", and react with shock and horror if they're told that it's not going to happen. "But your children will be bastards!" will likely be the next thought in their heads, but so what? It's the 21st century for God's sake.
Besides, the person in question might not want to have kids at all, which causes further shock and palpitations in our one-man (or one-woman) fountain of moral outrage. Why would someone possibly not want to spend what amounts to about a quarter of their lives and the whole of their wallet raising offspring that leave you emotionally drained and looking forward to them leaving and setting up home by themselves, so you can sit peacefully in the corner rocking yourself gently back and forth humming the theme tune to 'Postman Pat'?
Don't get me wrong, kids are not without their rewards, but I really don't believe anyone should feel in the least bit guilty about choosing to not have them - in the same way that I feel sorry for those who consider their life pointless and tragic if they're unable to have them because there are so many aspects of life to be embraced - many of which are hard to experience if there's a small person hanging round your feet 24/7.

The same problem exists with the more trivial aspects of our lives.
I don't celebrate Christmas at all. I think it's a colossal waste of time and energy and I'd love it if we got all Oliver Cromwell and just banned the bloody thing.
It goes way back to Roman times and the feast of Saturnalia - a week of celebrations culminating in a day of feasting on the 25th of December, involving fir trees, holly wreaths, gift giving and lots of other traditions carried on today. Then the Christian church decided to have a celebration of the birth of Christ on the same day in an attempt to woo the pagans away from their 'ungodly' ways - "Our God's just as cool as yours, look, we're having a big piss-up too!". The excuse for it being JC's birthday is bollocks anyway as historians believe he was actually born in the springtime.
The thing is, most people think I'm weird not doing Xmas and can't understand what my problem is. Well it's simple really - I have no problem with people celebrating a religious festival if they follow that particular religion, but to do so when you don't is just hypocritical. Not to mention that the festival has long since been stolen from the church by the modern religion of commercial greed.
The reaction of others to this viewpoint generally varies between disbelief and toxic, but some do admit to wishing they didn't get involved either. So don't. It's quite simple. The fact is that when you get back to work in the new year, everyone will be saying stuff like "Thank God that's all over", or "How the fuck am I going to pay this credit card bill?".
It's tradition. It's nonsense. Yet it's expected.

You'd think that in these supposedly enlightened times people wouldn't be so afraid to make their own choices without fear of being judged by others who really should be looking more closely at themselves instead.
It wasn't that long ago that homosexuality was illegal, unmarried mothers were put into lunatic asylums, and nearly everyone went to church on Sunday.
The world changes, and with the exception of Sunday trading and rap music videos, mostly it's for the better. Maybe it's time for more people to feel free to do their own thing; living their life the way they wish without worrying about what others expect of them. As long as our choices don't have an adverse affect on others we shouldn't be afraid of judgement.



Sunday, 16 November 2014

Getting all moist again

The heating is now on, the windows drip with condensation in the morning, and that fusty niff is back in the bedrooms, so it can only mean one thing. Winter is upon us once again.
I don't really have a problem with winter itself. I prefer it to summer when it's baking hot and all I want to do is hide in the fridge with the beer and not come out until it's all over.
I love a cold crisp winter's day when you can wrap up in a big coat and a thick wooly hat that itches like hell and leaves a huge red band across your forehead when you take it off. I love it when everything turns white and you can go off for a walk feeling the grass crunch under your feet and icicles forming at the tip of your nose.
But as always there's the need to take the rough with the smooth.

My house is an absolute bugger for damp problems in the winter, and having talked to many people about this it would seem I'm not alone. Even those who live in modern houses have their tales of woe despite my assumptions that a more recent build would have been designed to counter such things. Apparently not.
The bedrooms are the worst affected, with great puddles of condensate accumulated on the window sills in the morning, stains on the walls where moisture has run down leaving tell-tale marks that look like tiny snails have been having a midnight downhill race, and the ominous growth of nasty black stuff on the ceiling.
No matter how much we mop up, bleach the ceiling, and run around with a spray bottle of Febreze, we still end up walking into the house to be confronted with that slight underlying whiff of mould that usually results in an emergency Tesco run to stock up on air fresheners.
I even tried repainting the boy's room (which is the worst affected) using kitchen & bathroom paint, but the only difference is that instead of soaking the paint, the water just runs down the wall and creates a damp patch on the carpet.
The situation isn't helped by having freshly washed laundry and towels hanging about the place, but as putting them on the washing line just makes them cold and damp rather than warm and damp, there's little choice in the matter.
Today I threw caution to the wind and bought a dehumidifier in the hope that the extra cost in electricity will be justified by it being a useful weapon in the ongoing war against the damp.
Time will tell.

Winter also brings with it the days of going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark; forcing yourself to go out for a short walk at lunchtime just to get a bit of vitamin D.
Soon it'll be cold enough to be out there scraping the windscreen in the morning, freezing your fingertips so that they've barely thawed by the time you've got to work. That is of course assuming that you make it to work at all, because you take your life in your own hands with all the idiot tank drivers out there - the wankers who are just too damn lazy to clear their windows properly before setting off, preferring to navigate by the 'force' and one small patch of windscreen about the size of a postcard.

 In the meantime there's always the good stuff about winter to reflect upon, like the leaves having fallen from the trees and bushes at the roadside so you can see further round the bends. It's always nicer to vegetate on the sofa in the evening once everything has been done, without the sun still being up and about trying to convince you that you really ought to be doing something other than winding down for bed. It's just not the same being tucked up in bed a bit early with a large glass of red and a bacon sandwich if it's accompanied by the sounds of kids playing and the tosser up the road pressure-washing his bloody motocross bike for hours on end yet again. Far better for everyone else in the world to be indoors watching Newsnight or something while you eat, drink, and do squidgy things until the knowledge that you still need to be up for work again the next morning persuades you to turn off the light and get some shut-eye.
Winter is about being cosy. Knowing that if it gets a bit nippy you can always throw on another layer, unlike those hot summer days where you can only take off so many layers to try and cool off before somebody calls the police who charge you with indecent exposure.
Just like everyone else, I know I'll end up grumbling about it because that's what we do in this country.
Gone are the days when we were a global superpower with colonies wherever the indigenous people were armed with nothing more than pointed sticks and therefore provided little in the way of resistance. Gone too are those days of England being a dominant centre of manufacturing excellence, since most of the factories have been shut down in favour of cheap labour in the far east.
All we have left to be proud of is the NHS (despite being so desperately underfunded), moaning about the weather, and having the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Posh bacon sarnie. It's a winter evening thing.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Le Freak

Looking back at my previous post, I can see I wrote it from a rather dark place.
Luckily there are things that lift you back up when you're down, like talking things through with a loved one, watching a TV programme about people far less fortunate than yourself, or even just reading something that puts life into perspective for you.

In a recent post on a blog I enjoy reading by John Gray called 'Going Gently' http://disasterfilm.blogspot.co.uk he listed a few odd habits of his. I had a good chuckle at this, and it also got me thinking. I reckon anyone could write a similar list of their own if they were to analyse themselves closely enough and be honest about those things that others might consider a bit strange.
So I've given it some thought and come up with my own list of behavioural and psychological oddities.

1. I must be the only man who hates the toilet seat being left up.
2. The volume on the car radio must be on either an even number or a multiple of five, otherwise the universe will come to an end.
3. I have a very real fear of crowds, especially if I can't see an exit.
4. I hate talking on the phone.
5. Ants - kill 'em all!
6. Large volumes of water get me jittery, particularly around locks and weirs.
7. I feel very uncomfortable in shops that sell expensive stuff, and have an overwhelming urge to punch the snooty assistants in the face when they look down their nose at me.
8. The coasters on the coffee table have to be straight and aligned.
9. I'll spend ages making sure the cheese accurately covers the toast before putting it under the grill.
10. The kitchen knives must be super sharp at all times.
11. A 20 mile detour is preferable to sitting in a traffic queue for fifteen minutes.
12. A computer must respond within 0.25 seconds to any command, otherwise I want to introduce it to a large hammer.
13. I can't help whistling the theme to The Muppet Show when I've been dealing with inept students.
14. Tattoos on women are my biggest turn-off - even more than smoking.
15. Can't be near smelly people.
16. Still find farts to be a wonderful source of entertainment, despite being 43.
17. Don't like cats, but they have an inexplicable fondness for me. I'm sure they just like to wind me up.
18. Really don't like driving at night in the rain.
19. I stubbornly refuse to own or wear slippers.
20. The excitement generated by the proximity of guns could be a bit worrying.
21. I don't get why anyone would make a conscious decision to wear corduroy or tweed.
22. I don't trust things I don't understand.
23. I don't do Christmas.
24. Confidence is attractive, but vanity is not.
25. I consider religion to be the greatest cause of trouble in the world.
26. There's nothing better at the end of the day than brushed cotton sheets.
27. I know I locked the door, I remember doing it, but I still need to check I locked it again.
28. I become irritable and generally unpleasant when I'm hungry.
29. I'd rather be hungry or thirsty than consume poor quality food or drink.
30. I generally consider 'Everyone does it' to be the best reason to not do it.

Now this is just an abridged version of my issues, but already I'm concerned that there's enough material to deserve a prolonged stay at the funny farm. But here's the thing - we all have our own little habits and preferences. Sometimes they're more irrational or unconventional than others, but variety is, as they say, the spice of life.
So maybe it's time to relax about these things. Be who you are, allow others to be who they are, and embrace your inner freak.


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Can't get no satisfaction

Some days I get a bit too thoughtful for my own good, and when those thoughts turn to everyday life and what I do with it, I have to admit it can get a wee bit depressing.
For the most part I bimble along through the days, just getting on with what needs to be done and that's that. But when I start analysing how I spend my time outside of work it becomes clear that something is amiss.
Whenever I chat with people about everyday stuff, it always seems like other people's lives are a whirlwind of activity so intense it would leave Superman leaning against a lamppost, breathless and clutching at the stitch in his side.

I, on the other hand, sit down in the evening once dinner and the washing up are finished and wonder what the hell I'm going to do to fill the remaining hours in the day until it's time to curl up in bed for yet another night of  Olympic standard snoring.
The weekend is even worse because I don't have work to break up the day, and once the car is washed and the supermarket has been visited to stock up on Doritos and popcorn in readiness for the evening's slobbing in front of a film, there's still a big chunk of the day remaining.

Now there's always a few jobs that need attending to, but somehow it's hard to get motivated to deal with them even though I'm desperately bored. I need to de-spider the shed, rub down the bathroom door frame where the door is chafing, clean behind the washing machine, and invent a way of airing the towels every day through the winter without them getting in the way or resorting to the tumble dryer.
Instead, I'll choose to shoot people on the Xbox until the wife gets fed up with all the gun noises, then turn on the computer to kill a couple of hours looking at cars and boobs on the internet.
It's completely predictable, dull, repetitive, and frustrating - especially knowing that the only thing stopping it from being any different is me.
This behaviour could indicate one of two things. Firstly, that I'm clinically depressed and it's only a short step from here to an overly tight necktie. Otherwise it could be that I'm actually doing all that I want to do and need to accept the situation and embrace it.

I should be able to enjoy the fact that I've engineered my life to be as stress free as possible, leaving me with ample free time to spend doing as much or as little as I wish, and if I choose to kill time doing as little as possible between cooking meals and descaling the shower head yet again, then I should be able to do so without feeling guilty.
I think the guilt comes from thinking I should be doing interesting stuff with the wife - going here and there, exploring and having little adventures - but as she's of much the same mindset as me  neither of us motivates the other and we're left looking at each other going "So what do you want to do?", "I don't know, what do you want to do?" like those vultures in Disney's Jungle Book.
Inactivity leads to boredom, and boredom leads to all sorts of bad things like excessive chocolate consumption, trying to shoot magpies beyond the range of acceptable accuracy, and reactivating your Facebook profile even though you've spouted off repeatedly on your blog about how crap it is.
The most frustrating thing is that I'm always full of ideas about what I could be doing. My insane brain is constantly coming up with potential projects that could fill the empty hours with productive activity, but I still haven't installed a big V8 into a very small car, built a canoe, restored a steam engine, or learned to paint. I haven't followed up the idea of joining a photography club, the power kite only got used a couple of times, the archery had to stop when I knackered a tendon in my arm, and any hopes I had of actually learning to dance properly were dashed last November by the amazing exploding knee episode.

Perhaps it's time for me to accept that if I really wanted  to do these things I would have been doing them already, and that I must therefore be content with things the way they are. Anything I've done to change my situation, believing myself to be dissatisfied with life, has failed for one reason or another, and that can only be because although outside influences make me feel like I'm missing out on a big exciting life, the truth is that I'm happy as I am, and I need to stop being miserable about it.

Loved archery - gutted to have to give it up.