Chris, one of my subscribers, tried to comment on my last post ‘How to Persist when hope is lost’ but his comment was too long! He emailed me his thoughts instead and I was so touched by his response that I asked him whether I could share it with all of you. Here it is:
I had a dream
Years ago, when I was about 11, I dreamed of being a jet pilot in the RAF… I just simply had this yearning, overwhelming ambition to fly. I had never flown before, I’d never seen an aeroplane up close, I’d never watched Top-Gun! I read books about flying and dreamed – it was the closest I could get to the real thing.
I waited 2 years and then when I was 13 I joined the Air Cadets. I had an amazing 5 years and on a few occasions I got to go flying! In a chipmunk aeroplane (which is a basic (very basic!) military trainer) – an old wood and canvas aeroplane which was older than my dad!! It was breathtaking – looping and rolling in the sky above Oxfordshire.
Because I was in the cadets I got access to aeroplanes and occasionally to real pilots. I asked those pilots questions; about applying, training, what duties you have to do, what exams I should take at school etc.
When I was 15 I applied for a 6th Form Sponsorship; I had to go through the full RAF pilot selection tests including interviews – I found it fairly easy – the Air Cadets had kind of prepared me well (although that is not the raison d’être of the Air Training Corps) and I was fortunate enough to be selected – one of only 80 that year!
So, the deal was: pass my A-levels then join the RAF as a pilot. I couldn’t believe it! And I was also given 30 hours of flying training in the Summer Holidays… it couldn’t be better!!
Until I flunked my A-Levels! Combined with defence cuts. Of the 80 sponsored 6th formers around the country only around 5 (I wasn’t one of them) were actually invited to join the RAF. To say I was disappointed would have been an understatement. Over the next few years I made more applications:
I applied for the RAF again. Went for selection but didn’t get in.
I applied to join the RAF University Air Squadron. Wasn’t selected.
I applied to the RAF for University sponsorship. Didn’t get invited for selection.
I applied to the University Air Squadron again – I did get in this time! This gave me 2 years of flying whilst at Uni but not on terms which gave me a place in the RAF.
After finishing Uni I applied to the RAF to be anything – air traffic controller, navigator… desperate! Not invited for selection.
Disappointment after disappointment after disappointment.
What had started so well 10 years earlier had faded to nothing.
I moved to London and worked for a year and did a few retail jobs which I hated.
I was very sad all of the time.
One day, and I really don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before (I guess I had been blinkered into one way of thinking), on a Saturday morning I walked out of my John Lewis job in Brent Cross and got The Tube to the Royal Navy recruiting centre and applied to be a Navy pilot.
The RN had about 18 Sea Harrier jets which they flew off aircraft carriers. The guys that flew these were well known for being able to walk on water and had brains the size of planets but I didn’t know that at the time of applying. In fact I knew NOTHING about the Navy.
I bombed in my initial interview at the careers office, but the Interviewing Officer at the time said “I’m going to recommend you for the full selection process in a few weeks’ time but you need to learn and revise everything there is to know about the modern Royal Navy!”
So I did. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I did with my A-Levels; this was an opportunity and I was going to give it everything. I learned the name of every frigate and destroyer. I read about the ships’ defence systems, their radars, the various patrols around the world, the role of the Royal Fleet Auxillary etc. I also learned about classical music and art!! This was because the first morning of the 3 day selection process for the Navy contained exams and questions on cultural and artistic general knowledge – I was in the deep end, learning a lot, some of it about things that I was not really interested in!
But it worked. I went to the Admiralty Interview Board in 1997 and passed! In January 1998 I stepped through the gates of Britannia Royal Navy College in Dartmouth.
1 year of officer training.
8 Months of waiting for my flying course to start.
Then Elementary Flying training (which I found fairly easy as I’d already done a fair bit of flying by this time).
I was selected for fast jets and the Harrier!
Basic Fast Jet Training ensued.
Do you know what I did? After all this?
I got cocky because I thought I would breeze it… and by the time I realised that it wasn’t easy I was behind on the course – the pace of learning was too quick and I was behind on the aircraft, the checks, the procedures and the flight planning. I failed sorties – then I’d have a re-fly, dig in and pass. Then I’d fail another… re-fly… then pass. And so on…
Unbelievably I got through the syllabus, pulling through with grim determination. I had instructors who could see the effort I was making and, if I say so myself, recognised that I wasn’t without talent for flying. But by the time I finished the course my talent was depleted and I was exhausted. I wasn’t selected to move on to advanced fast-jet flying training.
Dream over. The biggest disappointment ever.
I was “restreamed” to fly helicopters.
Helicopters are challenging beasts but I was a seasoned failure by this time! I knew myself. I knew my weaknesses, I knew how to please the instructors. Also, the self-induced pressure was gone. That was really important – there was virtually no pressure because I had kind of stopped caring.
I went on to fly Lynx Mk 3 and Mk8 helicopters around the world and I also keenly volunteered to train as an instructor. The irony was I became an experienced instructor in both the air and in simulators and tried (and I think achieved) to emulate the best instructors that I’d had – they weren’t the best pilots necessarily, but they were natural mentors and had a genuine desire to help.
My proudest moments were flying at airshows. I often used to see kids who had that same look of longing and admiration that I remember from when I was in their shoes. I could spot them among all the other kids when I’d be signing autographs (autographs!? honestly – me?!!! – the aircraft’s the star but nonetheless signing airshow programmes was a big part of doing airshows). I would stop and chat to these kids and tell them to not ever give up – if you want something badly enough then just keep working – even if it takes you years.
Sometimes you have to learn to impress other people and adapt to what their requirements are. But you also have to find the balance of being yourself, and find the confidence to take the pressure off yourself before you can flourish.
I never actually achieved my ambition. I never made it as a jet pilot in the RAF. But in the process I explored lots of options, lots of channels, engaged with lots of people and told the WHOLE world about what I wanted to do – and it got me to a really good place!
Don’t keep your ambitions secret – sometimes you need the help of other people to unlock your dreams.
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