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Fit Like?

Yesterday was kind of a gale-force day. The wind was so strong as I contemplated my walk that I contemplated staying in. The rowing machine sits there as a silent rebuke to idleness. And as an alternative.

But the walk beckoned more strongly than the quite loud noise of the trees which surround our house deterred. And so it was back into the long johns, the pullover and two scarves to keep the wind off my ears.

Actually, it wasn't too bad. Yes. I saw crows taking off from the ground, flying backwards as the wind exceeded their flying speed. Then, they took the decision to land and walk, with difficulty, to their destination.

As a pilot, a private pilot, one of the challenges in flying is landing in crosswinds. If there's a hooly blowing across the runway, one has to make the first part of the landing process, the approach, in a sideways manner. The aircraft's nose has to be pointed off the line between you and the runway towards the direction the wind's coming from. So you travel in a straight line towards the runway but pointing elsewhere.

That's fine, but given that the wheels will want to take you immediately off the runway when they touch the ground if you land pointing off the runway direction, another action is necessary.

The normal landing in calm weather starts with "approach" - descending gently at a 3-degree angle. That means, for example, that as one approaches Runway 24 at Edinburgh, that's the one from over the Firth of Forth, one crosses the railway line while one is 145 feet above the runway level. You've still a further 550 metres to fly before your wheels touch the ground.

You can look out the front window and see four lights at the left of the runway. If the left two are red and the right ones are white - a spot on descent rate. Three reds - too low. Three whites - too high. Simples.

Strange how a crow can do all this with its brain and no external technology. And no flight instructor to train it.

In a big plane, the ground-detection radar will measure your height above the ground very accurately, and the computer will call out "fifty", "forty", "thirty", "twenty" and then shout agitatedly at you, "retard, retard, retard". This is the point at which it expects you to haul the nose up and cause the wing to "dump lift", and when you should cut the engine power, thus causing the plane to make contact with the ground on its main undercarriage. This is the "flare".

Landing ar Paro, Bhutan - Cockpit view with audio
If you watch a crow land, you will see it swoop towards the ground and at the last moment put its feet down and forward while leaning backwards, the wings now acting as a brake so that it gently ends up standing on the ground. Yesterday's wind meant I saw a couple of crows end up on their side as a gust of wind caught them during that "flare".

Now, remember that crosswind that means the plane is flying towards the runway sideways. And it has to be heading straight down the runway when it lands so that wheels do their job of taking you down the middle of the runway. This is where the pilot earns their keep.

As they bring the nose up into the flare, they have to straighten up the plane to point straight down the runway and tip the wing that's on the side the wind's coming from, down so that the plane sideslips into the wind.

The passengers generally don't enjoy this much. But exiting the runway onto the grass, they'd like even less. They get thrown to the side suddenly and then almost immediately the into-wind wheel lands firmly onto the tarmac. All the other wheels are still off the ground as the pilot balances the entire plane on one wheel. As the plane slows down the wheel on the other side makes contact, passengers are thrown back in the opposite direction.

Eventually, the plane slows down, and the nose wheel descends comparatively gently onto the ground.

If you are at a very large airport like Amsterdam, which has six runways, this is where the real challenge starts, driving your plane to the arrival gate. But passengers barely notice this.

The bottom line is that at a time of crisis, and landing an aircraft is a kind of crisis, not optional, and a challenge every time no matter how much one has trained for it, you always need skill at the front.

And you want the person in charge to be fit. Pilots are not allowed to drink for eight hours before flying and have a much lower threshold for alcohol in the blood than applies to drivers. They have their hearts "ECG'd" at every medical and compared with previous tests.

I know the stress there will be on politicians, civil servants and officials as we navigate difficult times and plan our landing into a post-bug world.

For my part, when as a minister I got myself into difficulties over snow in 2010, it will forever be on my political tombstone, unless I manage to write my own obituary, a key part of the problem was my personal failure to look after myself. In the week over which the problem built up, I allowed myself to be harried hither and thither.

I missed meals. I missed sleep. I lost a stone in weight in that one week. I allowed my self to become monstrously unfit for the task before me. The personal outcome was predestined by my failure to look after myself.

So anyone reading this will realise that while I do not try to offer advice, I do provide an example. If your fitness is impaired, impaired judgement will surely follow. Exhaustion brings error.

Today I am looking at a longer walk over a new route. The variety will refresh the brain. The greater distance will step up physical fitness.

The fitter I am, the better equipped I am likely to be when, or if, the bug strikes me. The greater the chance I don't occupy a hospital bed needed by someone else.

Then there is always the rowing machine still sitting silently in the corner.

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