Once upon a time a new fighter was planned. It would be a great fighter. It would push the boundaries of technology and it would be all things to all air forces – and navies.
The military knew that it had to ask for every piece of technology and every capability it could think of. It knew this because a responsible government keeps a check on defence procurement, making sure that the military doesn’t spend all the treasure. So the military asked for all the toys it could ever want, expecting that it’d actually get only the toys it needed. That was usually the way of things. It also decided that it’d be really smart to ask for just one type of fighter, but have it built in really different versions.
So the military sat down and made a list of all the magic it wanted in its new fighter. The list said: stealth; a new radar and sensor suite; a helmet-mounted sight that did away with the traditional HUD; a single, widescreen cockpit display; advanced sensor and data fusion; a new propulsion system; the ability to operate from land bases without compromise; the ability to operate from aircraft carriers without compromise; the ability to operate from smaller ships without compromise; weapon bays; supersonic performance; a brand new logistics and maintenance system; world-beating air-to-ground capability; and world-beating air-to-air capability.
It also made a list of all the aeroplanes it wanted to replace. On the list it wrote F-16, F/A-18, A-10, Harrier, Tornado, F-4 and EA-6B, a long list of very different aeroplanes with diverse capabilities. Could the new fighter really take-off like a Harrier, kill tanks like an A-10 and jam mobile phone signals before they could trigger an IED?
Now the aircraft and engine manufacturers, high-tech wizards with great magic in their wands, looked at what the military was asking for and saw treasure. They saw the chance to develop technology beyond their wildest dreams and, if everything went well, to make billions of money from all the fighter jets they would sell to air forces and navies of the world.
It all seemed so possible and soon they were busily at work, crafting and concocting. Each piece of technology was possible, given enough time and resource, but no one stopped to ask if all the technology was possible at the same time and for the same machine. No one stopped to ask if so much technology could be adapted to fit the requirements of the very different versions of that machine. And no one stopped and said to the government, or the military, ‘Yes, we can do all these things, but probably, if we’re entirely honest, not in a useful timescale, certainly not on budget, and maybe not all for just one airframe design.’ Worse still, everybody became so engrossed in trying to make it all work, that nobody thought to ask if they really should be trying to make it all work.
Many years passed. A great deal of treasure was made and a huge amount lost. Wizards came and went. Dates and deadlines came and went. Some aeroplanes were built while the wizards were still working their magic and although these aeroplanes were upgraded, they were never as good as the aeroplanes that were made years later, when all the magic was finally working.
The problem was that none of the wizards ever lay down his wand and said: ‘What are we doing? This is all going horribly wrong and we should admit that we’re all wrong and fix it.’
The problem was also that the military saw all its wildest dreams coming true and didn’t want to admit that it had set off the wizards on a quest that would stretch their magic so far that it’d keep breaking. It had been allowed almost all of the toys that it had wished for, even though, in the real world, most of those toys were pure luxury most of the time.
The government simply didn’t understand and it didn’t think to ask anybody who did. It started out with a big chest of treasure and although it added a little bit of extra gold, it still wasn’t enough to pay for the fighter programme as it struggled along. So it decided to buy fewer aeroplanes, but it was the development costs using all the treasure up, not the production, so the government actually paid for fewer, much, much, much, much more expensive aeroplanes.
Happily Ever Afters
There were several possible endings to the Fighter Fairy Tail. In one, the whole programme was stopped and the wizards put all their magic and their clever spells into the aeroplanes that the new fighter was supposed to replace, and into much more modern aeroplanes that were already in production, but still evolving. Legend has it that this had been done once before, long, long ago, when a very clever helicopter gave away all its magic. It worked out quite well.
In another ending, the programme was cancelled and the military made do with the fighters it already had in production. This seemed like a very silly ending, because it wasted so much magic and most of the very, very clever wizards disappeared.
Ending number three saw some of the magic requirements relaxed. This meant that the remaining magic could be made to work much better, much more quickly. One of the fighter variants was abandoned, which allowed the others to be much less compromised. The wizards managed to get really, really good aeroplanes to the military without too much more delay. By the time the military got its hands on the jets it had forgotten about all the problems and the aeroplanes worked so well that everyone, even the government, was delighted.
In the final ending, the wizards carried on as they were. The military wriggled and jiggled and although some changes were made, it pretty much got what it wanted. At first the government made the military order far fewer jets, but the aeroplane remained in production for 30 years and because orders kept being added, in the end the military got all its aeroplanes and the wizards made lots and lots of treasure.
The problem was that the first aeroplanes were delivered when their magic was immature. They all needed new spells and some of them had lots of their magic missing for many years. By the time it was ready, they were worn out.
But finally, the military got all the variants of the new fighter into service. Eventually they all worked. All the magic did what it was supposed to do and because the magic was clever, the wizards could keep writing new spells that kept the aeroplanes on top of the world.
But there was a snag. The ending was not entirely happy, although it did take forever after. Almost two decades passed from the time when the wizards delivered the first aeroplanes until all the variants were in service and doing all the things that the wizards had promised and that the military wanted. This was always going to be the ending. The aeroplane was superb. Its technology was superb. Its powerplant was superb. But in combination, they were just too much for the wizards to make quickly and at the same time. For a truly happy ending, somebody should have realised that.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to militaries, governments, wizards or fighters, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Follow the author on @twodrones
I maintain a fear of flying is normal and anyone who claims to enjoy it is lying. Virgin’s choc-ices aren’t that great. Aerodynamics isn’t that fascinating. I mean, please: sitting up in a truly weighty metal tube thousands of feet up in the sky being driven by someone you’ve never met? Jesus.
The irony is, from the age of 16 to 21, I lived in Chard, a small town in Somerset which happens to be the birthplace of powered flight after inventor, John Stringfellow, flew a model plane in a disused lace mill in 1848. Whoopydoo, Icarus, because having lived there, I can safely say that Chard is crap and ugly and nothing good came of it. Not even planes.
I haven’t always been afraid of flying. As a child, sure. I would hysterically sniff Chanel no 5 from a hankie for entire flights. But as a teenager, I was fine. So fine in fact that in my early twenties, when I lived in Italy, I virtually commuted from London to Turin on a monthly basis. Then, 9/11 happened (see above), I went to Morocco, and, like a nostalgic dormant STD, my fear re-found me
My symptoms are similar to those experienced during a panic attack. Heavy heart thumping, fast, hard, tight breathing, a dry mouth and a general sense of impending doom during which I whine like a small dog. Suffice to say; I know my fears are illogical. It’s not the claustrophobia, the vertigo (two very real fears which make sense), which scares me. It’s not even the lack of control – I’m a trusting person. It’s the FEAR that I fear. A mid-air explosion? What can you do? One engine failing when three will more than efficiently get us to B and then being told this? Fuck Me.
My fear pans out fivefold. Firstly, for around 48 hours before departure. To wit: I recently fainted in Clarins and sicked up some French toast out of pure terror. Then, en plane, as we journey from the slow runway to the fast runway. Then, as we begin our super fast runway bit (the WORST), followed by takeoff and finally throughout turbulence, a vile, vile thing, which usually makes me cry.
Naturally I turned to Dr Alan Carr, a man who really gave it his all in helping me overcome my fear, and who rather romantically calls turbulence ‘the potholes of the skies.’ (I try to remind myself but more often forget).
Alan wrote a very good book – much better than the smoking one – about flying. He aims to make you not only NOT fear flying, but actually enjoy it. A little optimistic, Alan, but still, there are some great facts (and I paraphrase): ‘there are half a million planes in the sky at any one time and none of them have crashed to earth’, and, some woefully ineffective ones: ‘Lockerbie was a one-off’.
Got you there, Alan! Because it wasn’t, was it? We all saw The Towers! We all remember Richard and his shoes! We’ve all seen United 93 – and it must be a trend if they made it into a film, right? Why else do we have to decanter our toothpaste in Departures? Because somewhere, out there, loads of people want to blow up planes. And for any number of causes! The EDL (swathes of Europe), The Fundamentalists (everywhere else) and narcissists (all of us). Everyone.
So, you ask, why fly? The problem is I have to fly a bit for work. Generally to cool stuff – interviews, press trips – but still, I have to go. And trains are apparently too Medieval for journalists. Quite frankly, I find this ludicrous but whatever. I remember going on a press trip to a six star hotel in Croatia last October. The kind PR put us up in the business suite of Radisson Blue (no ‘e’) with wide views of Stansted airport. Wicked, I thought, and slept for about 23 minutes.
And yet, it’s never stopped me. I’ve tried to remedy it: pre-flight acupuncture (no); ear beads inserted to treat anxiety (nope) and hypnotherapy (which helped for, like, a minute).
How do I cope? Valium, primarily. I’m now on repeat prescription, which is great. 1 x glass on wine + 1 x 5mg pill = a blissful disinterest in either living or dying. During the flight, equally, I sustain myself on cockpit communication. El Capitaine can discuss anything: crap, mountains, wee, marital problems, so long as he sounds calm. I also stare at the air stewardesses, searching for signs of content. They smile, I smile. They laugh, I laugh. If they look worried I deem that a pretty serious breach of trust. Sometimes they see me looking at them, unblinking, over the blue lights flickering from the sleeping screens at 3am. It’s pretty awkward but I don’t care. That said, I hate the young ones. They lack life experience. If shit literally went down they would suck.
I plan to take a Fear of Flying course. Chances are it won’t work. But anyway, I’m off to Berlin next week. By plane.
(A disclaimer: I’m actually brilliant at flying when I’m by myself. If there’s no one to listen to my fears, those fears, unobserved, cease to exist. But otherwise I’m truly shit at it.)
By Morwenna Ferrier Features Editor at Grazia
If you enjoyed this, have a little peek at Amber Jane Butchart’s fantastic piece on Amelia Earhart and how she still navigates the catwalk