There is something not quite normal about pilots.
Jimmy Aitken was one of the few of my father’s friends that I truly loved and enjoyed. He joined the RAF during WWII at 15, and in Rhodesia he alternately flew my father around or other troops. Famously he was known to “cheer the boys up” after a particularly bad encounter by flying under Birchenough Bridge (you can google it, it’s a suspension bridge in Manicaland Zimbabwe, south of what was Umtali and is now Mutare). When the floods hit there’s not a lot of space to fly a transport bird between water and bridge metal. The “boys” learnt to laugh and talk animatedly when Jimmy was their pilot.
My father was being taken to look at some targets in Mozambique during the Rhodesian Bush War (much of the war was fought not in Zimbabwe but in Mozambique) as they flew over the proposed targets my father felt the plane lose altitude. Watching the bush become ever more distinct he quietly checked his side arm, looked around the tiny cabin for any other weapons and ammo. Jimmy laughed and chit chatted as if nothing was the matter which was normal for Jimmy even under heavy fire he’d still be nattering in his Scottish accent with a smile under that giant twisty RAF moustache. Jimmy landed his wee plane on the first open veld he spotted. My father instantly fell out of the plane, tuck and rolled ready to run for cover. Jimmy was a bit surprised. “Steady on old chap, I just need a tinkle.”
Yup. Jimmy landed his wee plane in the middle of enemy terroritory, literally in the area they were planning their next assault on the ZANU (or it could have been ZAPU at that point) forces because he needed to pee.
There is something truly magnificent about their bravery, their precision under extreme circumstances and their ability to maintain calm at all times. Also, clearly not quite normal. I thought it as a kid and I hold on to the thought: pilots are made of different stuff to the rest of us mere mortals.
Retired Captain David Barkes is one of these exceptional humans. This painting that I did for him is based on a photo taken of the event where he landed his Labrador on a scraggy crumbling rock in the middle of ice berg ally off the Newfoundland coast. Studying the photograph I could make out the back wheels of the Labrador balancing in the air as the rock crumbles beside them. You can google the story, look for Labrador helicopter lands on Bell Island.
When I do a commission I ask A LOT of questions, I try to breath the event, feel the wind or see what I’m painting, walk around it in my minds eye. So I asked “What colour was the water?” He stared at me. “If you look at the water, you’re going in it.” Matter of fact. Just like that I realized the immense danger of flying these birds in those conditions. The swirls at the base of that giant rock took on new meaning as I studied them and saw the ice at the base. Further out I could make out ice bergs and I reasearched the normal conditions in that part of the world. That’s what I painted. The blues are intense because they are painted over reds and greens. There is a threat in the air and in the water that this photo above doesn’t really show, but trust me, I painted it in there.
”Don’t some helicopter pilots come out of the clouds upside down?”
Again, he stared silently at me. Then came a description of just what it takes to fly on instruments and keep a bird flying under the conditions faced by SAR pilots (Search and Rescue). As he spoke I was reminded of the story of a friend who survived in Iraq despite being shot down. He and his team were en route in a Blackhawk when they came under heavy fire, the bird was hit but their pilot fought to get them to a safer area, away from what would have been a total kill zone. He managed to find a spot to get his bird down and landed it on its nose knowing that it meant his death but their (hopefully) survival. My friend is retired now and lives in Colorado with his family because that pilot was the caliber of human that becomes a military pilot, whether SAR or other.
Before I met Dave I had heard of him and he appears in a few of my paintings around the world. One is called “One day in the Sandbox” which Don Sorochan owns (the lead lawyer behind EQUITAS). You can see him dressed in his flight suit helping to drag, carry and pull injured military into his bird. Pilots aren’t trained to do the work of the medics and SAR Techs (Search and Rescue Technician), they don’t receive the years of training on pulling bodies or bits of bodies out of wrecks, or face the impossible choices SAR Techs are so often faced with.
A pilot in SAR aren’t supposed to swing off a line into freezing waters or be dropped into the darkness with skis, compass and a “good luck”. Dave is one of those pilots who has had to do step outside, grab a body, haul it in. Wiping the blood and gore off his hands, put it away, tuck it forever in a pandora box of horrors, so he can fly his bird out of danger.
SAR teams, crew and techs, go where nobody else can go. They, Dave and his team, have saved Mounties, have gone where others simply can’t and aren’t trained, or capable of ignoring their surroundings and getting the job done. SAR are a breed apart. I have asked Dave if he can introduce me to a SAR Tech so I can show his story, beside this. My knowledge of SAR is zero but my respect is beyond measure.
I had to let that settle on me whilst painting this piece: the sheer immensity of human spirit it must have taken to do what he had to do on the ground and then to calmly climb into the pilot’s seat and put that brain into gear such that he could fly it with the precision needed.
No downtime, no reflection, no ability to open that can of worms and look inside, deal with the emotional trauma. When I look into his eyes I can see a world of pain and suffering that has simply been filed away because staring at it was simply not an option.
I don’t know if others seeing this piece will understand the story that I painted, but I hope they do. It was an honour to do it for this amazing man and example of manhood at its most heroic, courageous and incisive inteligence of a surgeon working with a loaded gun to their head, RPGs exploding 10 feet away.