On the way to the airport this morning I was faced with another dilemma regarding the purpose and priority of my flight to Australia- to be the first blind aviator to fly and navigate a microlight from London to Sydney, or to raise much-needed funds to restore eyesight to thousands of blind children and adults in the developing world.
The problem was this; once we reached Raipor we had a long stretch to reach Calcutta tomorrow, requiring landing and refuelling en route that would inevitably lead to the likelihood of not making Calcutta tomorrow, with an important big fund-raising dinner I was to speak at.
I could only guarantee to get there by taking a commercial flight that evening, thus enabling Richard to do the flight tomorrow in one hop due to less weight in the microlight, but me not completing this leg of the journey.
I was helped by my memory of the Governor we met yesterday, a man with both vision and compassion.
A man or woman with vision but no compassion in life can become very self-centred to achieve their goals in life.
I realised once again these virtues of vision and compassion must remain entwined throughout our lives, should we seek to leave this earth a better place by our passing.
I have just been reminded of climbers nearing the summit of Everest, coming across a weakened fellow climber who will die without their support, facing the dilemma- fulfil their life dream, or help their fellow man.
It has taken this flight to give me the understanding that vision and compassion are mutual attributes that should not be separated in our lives.
after buying a ticket to fly onto Calcutta tonight I met up with Richard who had gone ahead to prep. the aircraft and complete departure formalities.
We pushed our little machine out of her protective giant hangar onto the tarmac outside, only to quickly push her back again as a pilot taxiing a twin-engined Beechcraft chose to turn it around almost opposite us, with us fearing the slip-stream would flip our light machine!
We planned to fly again at around 9,500 feet to give us a bit of a tail wind, so I decided to put on two fleeces beneath my thermal flying suit for warmth up there. A distinctly cool 12 degrees blasting you in a 70 MPH slipstream for several hours certainly makes you forget the 35 degrees Centigrade left on the ground mid-morning!
I only loosely fastened my clothing to reduce sweating before take-off, but my balaclava pulled over a sweating face still made me wonder if there was a better way of controlling my environment!
We climbed steadily up to our flight level of 095 in aviation jargon, with me zipping up successive layers as the cold started reaching me, and plugging in my heated gloves over my thin wool gloves.
We had no dog-legs to follow for once, with no restricted air space etc, so it was a nice straight flight, but made memorable by experiencing the most powerful thermal activity we have hit to date, hitting these invisible swirling walls of energy-filled rising air with an impact that would throw our microlight some 30/40 degrees to the left, for example, and knocking our ground speed from 95 MPH to 65 MPH almost instantly, accompanied by blasting upwards at an exhilarating 1,500 feet per minute, like a super-charged lift.
I would count the seconds till we hit the other side for interest- usually about 20/25 seconds, giving you some idea of the diameter of the column of air, before we hit the wind-sheer at the other side, throwing us to the right, and the machine now dropping down with a stomach-swooping rush of 1,000 feet a minute- great fun, as long as you have total confidence in the strength of your machine!
Actually, let me diverge and reassure you that our microlight is actually tested to withstand extreme pressures almost twice of that of a Jumbo Jet.
A 747 is rated to plus 3.5 G's I understand (I.E. the wings can withstand
3.5 times the force of gravity on them positively, and I think about 2.5 G's negatively.
Our little machine, whilst we are told not to exceed 1G when performing a precautionary training downward power spiral in a 60 degrees angle of bank, it can actually withstand 6G's, or six times the weight of gravity acting on it's body and contents (us!).
So, on the one hand, we are safer in the air than a Jumbo Jet. On the other hand, weighing just 1/800th the weight of a Jumbo Jet, the effects of the turbulence we fly through is, it seems at times, 800 times more energetic!
Our descent some 3.6 hours later into Raipor was accompanied by the foggy haze generated by the huge city enveloping us, with the differing smells we flew through telling me something of what the factories were making- some very pleasing aromas to the oily smell of refinery processes.
I was still feeling quite cold, although not shivering, as we were given new flight levels to descend to by air traffic control, who let us know they were vectoring a 737 on another level away from us.
It was only when we were about 20 feet above the runway that I was assailed by beautiful hot, hot air rising off the baking runway to warm my chilly body.
Not drinking anything before flying each day I am sure contributes to my drop in temperature, but this is far preferable to wanting to have a pee up there!
Once down, the ATC wanted to park us on the open tarmac amongst a number of big commercial aircraft, requiring us in the end to literally stop at the junction of a taxi-way, explaining that the safety of our aircraft would be endangered there. We finally were given permission by ATC to park by the control tower while Richard went up to request secure hangarage for us.
I peeled off my flying suit with all it's Velcro fastenings at wrist and ankle, along with all my layers of fleeces beneath, feeling very thirsty.
Reaching for the 1.5 litre water bottle we keep in the cockpit I was pleasantly surprised to find it chilled to perfection, like it had just come out of a fridge- which in fact it had, along with us, up at 9,500 feet in that blasting 70 MPH 12 degrees slipstream!
I could feel the water, deliciously cold, sluicing down into my stomach, and almost sense it being immediately absorbed into the cells of my body- a delicious sensation, and very satisfying, making me feel on top of the world right then, stretching luxuriously in the hot sun after the cramped flight conditions.
Richer soon arrived back at the aircraft, followed by virtually all the smiling ATC staff, warmly welcoming us, and, now they understood what the flight was all about, treated us like honoured guests, escorting me into their VIP lounge to prepare for my imminent flight to Calcutta whilst others helped Richard stow the aircraft.
Over a welcome cup of hot sweet milky coffee, the Chief Air Traffic Controller Nanda Kumbar explained that India was experiencing a massive boom in air travel, including several low-cost airlines starting up, leaving the industry currently short of pilots, air crew, ground technicians, and, of course, ATC personnel, leaving him and his staff working at maximum levels right now.
I was escorted onto the flight to Kolkata (correct Bengali spelling!) after saying cheerio to Richard, who will follow tomorrow.
Just before landing in Kolkata I was approached by the cabin crew, saying that the pilots of the Airbus had been told about me by ATC before takeoff, and asked me to stay behind so they could meet me, resulting in an animated conversation before being whisked away through the airport.
9(MP3 BRIEF COMMENT BY CAPTAIN HADAR OF AIRBUS 320) I was warmly met by Shazi, Regional Head for Branch Banking in Eastern India for the SCB, , who briefed me about our commitments tomorrow en route to the hotel in Kolkata.
The traffic in India seem to hoot almost incessantly at each other in friendly "I'm just coming past" fashion- a fascinating phenomenon I was reminded of continually via my hotel window- not intrusive, just atmospheric, as I had some fresh mango juice in my room along with a meal and headed for bed for a much-needed rest!