Take Me To The Pilot

I was watching the TV show Countdown the other day and when the contestants took a short break from their word and maths games, Suzie Dent, the mistress of Dictionary Corner went into her usual talk about words. In this particular episode she decided to talk about the word pilot which inspired me to write this entire blog post on the subject.

The word pilot comes from the French word pilote which in turn was derived from the Latin word pilotus. Back in the 16th century the word pilot denoted someone who steered a ship and the term is still in use today mostly referring to those who fly aeroplanes.

Baron Von Richtofen: The Red Baron

Baron Manfred Von Richtofen was an ace German pilot in World War I. He flew a red triplane and was one of the most feared pilots in the skies. He was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau in 1892 and began the First World War as a cavalry officer serving on the eastern and later western front. Trench warfare soon made cavalry units outdated and Richtofen became bored with dispatch work and applied to transfer to the newly formed German Imperial Air Force.

At the beginning of the war it was felt that officers should not be pilots and Richtofen started his flying career as an observer. Times quickly changed though and after meeting the ace pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richtofen asked to be trained as a pilot. He started out badly crashing on his first solo flight but later Boelcke, who had created Germany’s first fighter squadron, Jasta 2, asked him to join.

Fighter combat in WWI evolved quickly. At first aircraft were used for reconnaissance but then aircraft from opposing armies took pot shots at each other with rifles and then later, fixed machine guns. British aircraft were ‘pusher’ aircraft with a propellor at the rear to push the plane along. This meant that a machine gun could be placed at the front so the pilot could shoot at whatever was ahead. Aircraft with propellors at the front were better and faster but how could a gun shoot through the propellor blades?

In 1915 Fokker produced the first fighter plane with a machine gun synchronised to the propellor so the machine gun could fire through the arc of the propellor. This gave the Germans a considerable advantage in the air.

Richtofen’s first confirmed kill came in September 1916 and he ordered a small silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had shot down. He continued this tradition with his next victories until he had 60 cups but by then the war had limited supplies of silver in Germany and he had to stop. His kills and victories however went on.

In January 1917 he assumed command of Jasta 11 which came to be known as Richtofen’s Flying Circus and which many celebrated pilots of the time joined. In late 1917 he began to paint his aircraft red and also began to use the Fokker Triplane, one of the most famous aircraft of the period.

Richtofen was shot down in April 1918 and killed. He was flying low while chasing a British Sopwith Camel piloted by rookie pilot Wilfrid May of 209 squadron. May’s flight commander Captain Arthur Brown intervened to help May but the dogfight drifted over British lines and the fatal shot to Richtofen is thought to have come from a machine gun on the ground. The British buried the Red Baron with full military honours.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was the first famous female aviator of the 20th century. She was one of the first of many female pilots. She was born in 1897 and in 1920 she paid ten dollars for a ten minute flight in an aeroplane. The short flight changed her life and afterwards she knew she had to be a pilot. She worked at a variety of jobs to fund her flying lessons. In 1921 she purchased her own aircraft and the next year flew up to 14,000 feet setting a new record for a female pilot.

In 1928 she was asked to join the crew of an aircraft that was to cross the Atlantic. The flying crew were a pilot and mechanic and Amelia was basically a passenger and admitted that was the case. ‘I was just baggage’ she told the press. Even so, she was the first female to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft and she and the crew were treated to a ticker tape parade in Manhattan and a visit to the White House to see President Coolidge. Later, in 1932 she flew solo across the Atlantic arriving in Ireland on May 20th. Amelia made many other trips and also competed in long distance air racing. She became a celebrity in America and in 1937 began a round the world flight. Amelia piloted a Lockheed Electra 10E and the only other crew member was navigator Ted Noonan. The pair departed from Miami on June 1 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. The final 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific. The duo left Lae at 10:00 am on July 2nd and were heading for Howland Island, a small coral island in the Pacific. The US coastguard had sent a cutter there to assist with navigation. As Amelia neared Howland Island the coastguard picked up various messages and it became clear that the Electra was lost and could not see the island. The last transmissions stated that fuel was running low and that they were flying at 1000 feet. The coastguard generated black smoke in the hope that the aircraft could see them but the aircraft never appeared. The coastguard cutter initiated a search an hour after the last message but nothing was found. The next day the US Navy began a search which lasted for three days but no trace of Amelia Earhart was ever found. Some thought the aircraft had ditched in the sea and that the crew had drowned. Various other theories were put forward: The two managed to get to Gardner Island but died there or perhaps they were captured by the Japanese and shot as spies. The mystery has continued to this day.

Elton John and Take Me to the Pilot

Take Me to the Pilot was a song written by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1970 and released as the flip side to Elton’s Your Song that same year. Some sources on the internet say the single was a double A side disc but apparently DJs preferred Your Song and that became Elton’s first chart hit.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong was born on August 5th, 1930. He went on to become a pilot for the US Navy and saw action in the Korean War flying aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After the war he became a test pilot flying various aircraft including the famous X-15 Rocket Plane. He joined NASA in 1962 and flew into space aboard Gemini 8 in 1966. The flight was a difficult one as the crew were the first to try a space rendezvous. They docked with a target vehicle in space but a faulty thruster caused the Gemini capsule to roll uncontrollably. Fortunately, Armstrong was able to undock from the other vehicle and stabilise the capsule. Too much fuel was used up though forcing the crew to make an early return to earth.

In 1969 Armstrong flew to the moon on Apollo 11 and became the first man to walk on the moon. It was a tricky mission though and during the landing as the Lunar Excursion Vehicle dropped towards the moon’s surface the spacecraft’s computer kept throwing up ‘1201’ and ‘1202’ program alarms. Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin knew what that was but the controllers at mission control knew. The on-board computer which had less memory than a modern mobile phone, could not deal with all the data it was receiving. Armstrong switched over to manual flight, hopped the lunar lander over a rocky area then finally dropped down safely onto the lunar surface with only a scant few seconds of fuel remaining.

Landing on the moon made Armstrong a hugely famous and popular man and that fame was something he and his fellow astronauts were unprepared for. Armstrong later resigned from NASA and took on a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati. He died in 2012 after suffering complications from bypass surgery.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III

Sullenberger, known as Sully was the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. On take off from La Guardia Airport in New York in January, 2009, his aircraft was hit by a flock of Canada geese and power from both engines was lost. Sullenberger realised that the only thing he could do was to ditch in the Hudson River. He did so and all passengers and crew were rescued safely.

Scott Tracy

Thunderbirds was a TV puppet series from the 1960s produced by Gerry Anderson. The series was part of an entire futuristic world set in the 2060s which other puppet shows in the Anderson canon all became a part of. Puppet series like Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 were futuristic TV shows all produced by Gerry and his wife Sylvia.

In Thunderbirds, Anderson tells the story of International Rescue, an organisation created by Jeff Tracy with a secret headquarters on Tracy Island. Thunderbird 5 is a space station constantly monitoring the airwaves down on Earth and listening out for calls for help. When an emergency situation is detected, Thunderbird 1, a rocket plane, is immediately despatched to take charge of the situation and its pilot Scott Tracy will find somewhere to set up a mobile control centre and take stock of the situation.

Millionaire Jeff Tracy is a former astronaut (the first man on Mars if I remember correctly) and it is his sons who pilot the Thunderbird craft designed by their technical genius, ‘Brains’. Jeff’s other sons are Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, all named after US astronauts from the 1960s.

Scott was named after Scott Carpenter and voiced by the actor Shane Rimmer.

The TV Pilot

Another type of pilot is a TV show. Producers often produce a pilot episode for a projected new series and then decide whether to make a full series depending on the success of the pilot. A famous pilot was the one made for Star Trek. In the pilot episode, Captain Christopher Pike is played by Jeffrey Hunter and he and his crew investigate a distress call from an unknown planet.

NBC apparently weren’t happy with the result and asked for another pilot episode and in that one William Shatner made his first appearance as Captain Kirk. Later the original pilot was re-edited into a new two part episode called ‘The Menagerie’ in which a court martial on the Enterprise views footage from the earlier mission.

Thanks to Wikipedia Creative Commons for the pictures of Manfred Von Richtofen, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong.

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4 Incredible Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theories is one of those phrases I really don’t like. It’s one that stops us thinking, one that condemns people with alternate ideas without even listening to what is being said. Here are four historical events, all of which have been questioned by various groups and individuals and may, or may not have happened in the way we think they did.

1969: The Moon landing

A conspiracy theory regarding the moon landing? It’s hard to believe I know but there are some that believe the moon landing was faked. Faked? How? Well back in the 80s there was a film called Capricorn 1 about a manned mission to Mars. In the film Nasa were worried about funding for the Space Programme and knew the oxygen breathing system on the mission was a failure so they sorted out a film studio, filmed the Mars landing; a fake Mars landing, and broadcast it as if it were real. On its return to earth the capsule lost its heat shield and the astronauts were burned up in the atmosphere. The thing is, the astronauts weren’t in the space ship so NASA were stuck with live astronauts who should have been dead.

OK, that was fiction but did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really walk on the moon? After all, they took thousands of photographs on the moon as well as cine footage. NASA also have 382kg of moon rock brought back from the Apollo missions and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken many recent photos of the landing sites. Well, of course they did but many experts will call attention to some of those pictures and explain that they were fakes because of various anomalies. On TikTok I recently watched a video in which a man swears his father was a security guard at a secret base where the moon landing was filmed. On YouTube there is a video where someone tries to get Armstrong to swear on the bible that he went to the moon. Neil Armstrong declined. Why? Because he didn’t go to the moon! Why did he retire from NASA so early? Was he ashamed about his continuing lies?

My personal verdict: Baloney. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon in July 1969, an incredible feat of exploration and bravery.

1991: The World Trade Centre Attack

On 11th September 1991 terrorists crashed two hi jacked aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. I remember watching it live on TV and being horrified at what was happening right before my eyes. Within hours, according to a BBC report I read as part of my research, conspiracy theories were spreading across the internet: The US government was behind the attacks, George Bush knew in advance but needed a reason to invade Iraq. The twin towers were demolished by explosives placed at an earlier date and detonated.

Courtesy wikipedia

Building 7 was the cause of many conspiracy claims because of a BBC report announcing the collapse of the building when the building itself could be seen intact in the background behind the reporter.

At the time George W Bush didn’t really look that good as he was given the news of the attacks while on stage at a school event in Florida and didn’t look as though he knew what to do. In recent years I’ve seen a few interviews with Bush and found myself really quite liking the guy. His security staff were telling him to hide away but he insisted on flying back to Washington.

Personal verdict: Was Bush behind the attacks himself? Of course not. Did someone arrange for the twin towers to be detonated? No!

1997: The Death of Princess Diana

The recent death of the Queen was sad but it was expected. After all the Queen was 96 years old. The death of Princess Diana in 1992 was all the more shocking because it was unexpected. She was a young woman in the prime of her life. I remember getting up early one Sunday morning and after making a cup of tea, switching on the TV to hear the terrible news of her death.

Diana and her new man Dodi Fayed, the son of Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed had left the George V hotel in Paris and had been driven away at speed in an effort to get away from the paparazzi. In the vehicle were Diana and Dodi, their driver Henri Paul and Diana’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. When her car accelerated through the Pont de L’Alma tunnel in the French capital, the driver lost control and crashed at high speed. All the occupants were killed except for Rees-Jones. He was the only one wearing a seat belt.

Soon afterwards the first conspiracy theories began to arise; had Diana been murdered? The thing is, why would anyone want to murder the princess? What was the point? She was hardly a controversial figure, she was well liked, even loved by the public. She had of course just divorced Prince Charles who was then heir to the throne. Would the royal family have really wanted her dead just because she was considering marrying a Muslim?

There were reports of a white Fiat Uno ahead of the Princess’s car and there were white paint marks found on the wreckage of the crashed car. There were also reports of a flash of white light before the fatal impact which could have blinded the driver causing him to crash. Not only that but an ex-MI6 officer revealed that MI6 officers were in Paris that day and there was a plan in the MI6 files detailing how to commit a murder and make it look like a car accident. The plan involved flashing a bright light and blinding the driver.

My personal verdict. There are a lot of things that have come to light that don’t make sense but at the end of the day I’d have to say Diana was probably sadly killed as a result of a traffic accident

1963: The JFK Assassination

OK, this is the big one, the conspiracy theory that’s the daddy of them all. I think it’s only fair to tell you I’ve been interested in the Kennedy assassination ever since I was a schoolboy. I’ve read many books, seen many documentaries and I’m even a follower of the JFK Lancer group that have organised research and debate on the subject for a very long time.

Did Lee Harvey Oswald shoot the president from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas in 1963? Did he shoot officer JD Tippet while trying to get away? Personally, I’m not convinced he did. The report by the Warren Commission set up by President Johnson concluded that Oswald acted alone but the House Select Commission on Assassinations in 1978 decided that there were other shots fired at Kennedy from the grassy knoll. That was based on a recording from a motorcycle outrider whose transmit radio button was jammed on. Audio experts concluded that shots other than those from the Book Depository were fired.

Since then, many other experts have decided the audio evidence doesn’t add up but that’s the thing about this entire story, for every piece of evidence held up by experts that proves the conspiracy one way or another, other experts will refute that same evidence or interpret it in another way.  How many shots were there? From which direction? If Oswald shot the president, how did he get from the 6th floor of the Book Depository to the 2nd floor lunch room where he was seen by police officer Marion Baker? Who were the people on the grassy knoll with secret service ID when no secret service agents were at that location?

There are a thousand questions like that which need to be answered. The Oliver Stone movie JFK led to the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, passed by congress, which ordered the review and release of all remaining assassination records and files. I’m sure some people think that buried in the CIA archives is a memo ordering the assassination of JFK but sorry, that is never going to happen.

So, who was responsible for the murder of the president? The CIA? The Mafia? The military-industrial complex mentioned in the film JFK?

I’ve even read a theory that Kennedy was killed because he had been to area 51, seen captured alien space craft and alien creatures and wanted to reveal this to the world.

My personal verdict; Did Oswald shoot the president? I’m not convinced. Was the CIA or elements of the intelligence community involved? Absolutely.

What do you think?

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Remembering Apollo 11

I’m not one for writing topical blog posts. I pretty much write about whatever comes into my head but this week it’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, something that made a deep impression on me as a 12 year old boy in June, 1969.

There have been lots of anniversary programmes on TV about the moon shots and Apollo 11 and for me who was once obsessed by the Apollo missions they were all pretty interesting.

One was a programme I have seen before about Neil Armstrong which involved his friends and family talking about the late astronaut. Armstrong was a quiet man who took lessons at his local aerodrome and learned to fly before he could drive. He joined the US air force and became a pilot in the Korean War before returning home to study aeronautics at university.

Later he joined NASA and became an astronaut and apparently the first his family knew about it was when NASA introduced its new trainees on the television news.

Armstrong was a talented pilot who went from testing aircraft like the experimental X15 to become part of the manned spaceflight program and later from being an unknown astronaut to perhaps the most famous man in the world. Everyone wanted to meet the first man on the moon and perhaps get his autograph.

Later on he declined to sign autographs when he found that people were selling them on.

Armstrong resigned from NASA in 1971 and decided to take up a professorship at the University of Cincinnati.

He seemed reluctant to talk about Apollo 11 and I even remember back on the 25th anniversary, the BBC ran a documentary in which Buzz Aldrin did most of the talking, explaining how Neil landed the Lunar Module Eagle on the moon’s surface.

On the way down the Eagle’s computer kept throwing up ‘1201’ and ‘1202’ program alarms. Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin knew what that was but the controllers at mission control knew. The on-board computer which had less memory than a modern mobile phone, could not deal with all the data is was receiving. Armstrong switched over to manual flight, hopped the lunar lander over a rocky area then finally dropped down safely onto the lunar surface with only a scant few seconds of fuel remaining.

Anyway, getting back to July, 1969, I don’t know if you can imagine the excitement of a twelve year old boy, getting up for school one morning to find the TV on and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when the usual TV broadcast at that time would have been the test card!

Those black and white ghostlike TV images enthralled me that July morning and how my Mother eventually managed to pack me off to school I do not know. Back then I was glued to the BBC transmissions about the Apollo programme and I was a great fan of James Burke who gave us concise updates on what was happening in space and at mission control.

Another BBC programme I saw recently was one about the BBC broadcasts of those days and James Burke himself looked back at film from the late sixties. Video tape was apparently in short supply at the BBC back then and most of his broadcasts were deleted but many of the filmed inserts, broadcast presumably when not much was happening live, were really interesting.

In one, Burke gets inside the cramped command module and shows us just how small it actually was. Apparently in zero g: weightlessness, it appeared bigger because then one could float off into a corner that was normally inaccessible and go to sleep.

In another Burke goes aboard a NASA plane which makes a steep descent creating a few moments of weightlessness which was important for astronaut training.

I often think about that day in 1969, watching the Apollo 11 crew on the moon. The images looked ethereal and ghostly as the two astronauts bobbed about in the low gravity of the moon. I used to wonder just what it was like for Aldrin and Armstrong and what it was like also for Mike Collins, waiting patiently orbiting above in the Command Module Columbia.

Collins must have been the loneliest man in the world just then.

Later in the Apollo program, the TV pictures improved enormously but it was the pictures and cine film that the astronauts brought back which were really amazing.

You might be forgiven for thinking that with the moon landing being 50 years ago, manned space exploration has gone on to bigger and better things. Not so. The Apollo program was incredibly expensive: 25.4 billion dollars according to a quick search on Google: Money that of course the US government could well use elsewhere and after Apollo 17 the moon landing programme was shut down.

Still, think about the spin offs in technology, not only rocketry but computers and electronics and so on. I once read that the secret to the US winning the space race was computer technology and that many calculations done by the Soviets were done by teams of mathematicians using abacuses!

The space race was also part of the cold war and although the Soviets seemed to excel in the early part of the 1960’s, it was the USA that finally put a man on the moon and that man, the first man, was Neil Armstrong who went from relative obscurity to the most famous man in the world. The only other person I can really think of with a similar fame was Charlie Chaplin, whose films, in the days of silent films, went all the way around the world.

One interesting thing to finish with: On one of the BBC documentaries, one of Armstrong’s friends, or perhaps it was his brother, remembered Neil as having a regular dream when he was a child.

Armstrong dreamt that he could float in the air by holding his breath! Quite an interesting dream for a future astronaut!

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Breakfast TV and The Apollo Moon Landing.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan but when I was a child growing up in the 1960’s I was probably more interested in science fact. The sixties was the time of the space race and the Gemini and Apollo missions were covered in great detail on TV and when I say covered I mean full features and bulletins and not just a one minute item on the news.

I don’t know if you can imagine the excitement of a twelve year old boy, getting up for school one morning to find the TV on and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when the usual TV broadcast at that time would have been the test card! Those black and white ghostlike TV images enthralled me that July morning and how my Mother eventually managed to pack me off to school I do not know.

The moon landing was covered on UK TV by both the BBC and ITV although in our house we watched the BBC coverage exclusively. Cliff Michelmore was the main presenter but it was James Burke who explained all the technical stuff.
The launch of the Apollo missions was always a highlight for me. Although I enjoyed all the other elements too like the crew broadcasts from space, and those from Mission Control in Houston especially when a major decision had to be taken, for instance, ‘are we ok for lunar trajectory insertion?’ And the answers would come from the experts around the control room:


Mission Control: Image courtesy wikipedia.

Capcom? (Capsule communications)Go!
Retro? (Retrofire officer)Go!
Fido? (Flight Dynamics Officer)Go!
Guidance? (Flight Guidance Officer)Go!
Booster? (Booster Systems Engineer) Go!
And so on round the room.

Now the Space Shuttle has been mothballed there are very few launches from Cape Canaveral. (Originally I had written Cape Kennedy but as usual after finishing writing I did a quick search on the internet to check my facts and found, surprisingly, that Cape Kennedy reverted back to its original name of Cape Canaveral in 1973. I never knew that!) But another highlight of TV space coverage was in 1968 when Apollo 8 made the first manned trip to the Moon. Apollo 8’s mission was not to land but to fly to the Moon, orbit and return to Earth. The three crew members were Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders.

There were numerous broadcasts from the crew, especially during their orbits of the moon and they sent back to mission control their impressions of the lunar surface, Lovell commenting that “the Moon looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish beach sand.”
Every time the spacecraft passed behind the Moon radio transmissions were blacked out and the crew and ground control were relieved to hear each other’s voices once again when they came back, unscathed, from the far side of the Moon.

The crew of Apollo 8 were the first in history to see ‘earthrise,’ the Earth emerging from the lunar horizon. The crew all scrambled for their cameras but it was Anders who took the famous colour photo seen here.

297755main_gpn-2001-000009_full_0The most moving broadcast ever was when the crew read lines from the book of Genesis and Borman finished by saying “and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
Every time I see a documentary about the Apollo programme that includes that transmission, I can feel myself taken back to Christmas of 1968 and once again I become that same small boy, glued to our old black and white TV set. Incredibly, NASA was hit by a lawsuit because of this by an atheist who objected to astronauts broadcasting religious activities while in space.

Back to 1969 though as the Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module piloted by Neil Armstrong dropped down towards the Moon an alarm sounded in the spacecraft. Ed Aldrin passed the information back to earth; “Alarm 1201”.
Armstrong carried on, dropping the craft ever so closer to the Moon’s surface but again that alarm sounded. What was it? Well believe it or not, the Eagle’s on-board computer, which had a memory less than that of your mobile phone had locked up with an overload of data. Armstrong switched over to manual control and landed the Eagle, dodging an area in the Sea Of Tranquillity littered with boulders without computer assistance. His remaining fuel supply when Eagle touched down was just 30 seconds!

Armstrong was the first man to step out of the hatch and to drop down onto the lunar surface and I should imagine everyone is familiar with his famous words: ‘That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.’ However Armstrong’s first step out onto the Moon wasn’t small at all, because the Lunar Module landed so gently that the shock absorbers hadn’t compressed. His first step out onto the Moon was almost a four foot jump onto the lunar surface. TV cameras beamed the event to viewers back on Earth and along with myself, almost 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon. It seems incredible to me even now, that back then in 1969, I was getting ready for school, eating my porridge or cornflakes and watching science fiction become science fact.

I must remember to ask my Mum though, how did she manage to get me off to school on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?

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