Focus on the Lift-Off

 I was the airborne controller during a battle in a densely wooded and mountainous area. Directing from a helicopter, my job was to deploy and then guide my troops into various positions enabling them to cut off and eliminate enemy forces. Owing to the very thick terrain, visibility was limited, so my effectiveness in this particular case was diminished. Rather than senselessly circling the area, I decided to join my troops on the ground. Arranging to meet one of my call-signs a short, but safe, distance from the contact, John ‘Plank’ Blythe-Wood, the pilot flew to a rather tight LZ nearby and landed. He was going to stay there to conserve fuel.


As the rotors were slowing down I prepared to disembark. Suddenly a deafening explosion a few metres away! Shrapnel splinters the Perspex canopy. I decide not to disembark. Some disgruntled ZIPRA dissident had lobbed a grenade at us - we had obviously parked on a yellow line.

The problem now was to get out of there – with SPEED! Restart the motors, get the blades spinning at full pitch and only then, gently manoeuvre the whirly-bird upwards. This takes a minute or so and that is a l..o..n..g time when you are sticking out like a burst paw-paw and nervously anticipating a spiteful guerrilla with 20 of his closest friends to come firing out of the jungle for the final curtain.

My eyes, now the size of a Rottweiler’s food bowl, were following my rifle, probing the bush around us. I glanced over my shoulder at ‘Plank,’ his eyes boring into the instrument panel – utterly absorbed in the task at hand, detached and focused. No emotion, shaking or panic! As the rev counter slowly..... oh, so slowly.... crawled up to maximum pitch, he tenderly levered the ‘collective’ control and the aircraft lifted into the hover. The most vulnerable state of an aircraft in this situation is on lift off. Rising above the short scrub and trees, there is nothing to hinder those taking a shot at you. The insurgents were in grenade throwing range, so they were close. We expected an RPG rocket to come and destroy our day. It never came! 

Gradually, we skimmed over the trees, then John dipped the nose and we made good our escape. It was only then that we both looked at each other, and simultaneously expressed our feelings, “Wheeeeewaa!!!!”

To this day, I wonder why the rebels never pressed the attack on such an easy and exposed target. But I’m not complaining!


However, let’s take the lesson here. There was huge pressure on Blythe-Wood, and any pilot would be forgiven for trying to yank the helicopter into the air on minimum power. But John, regardless, was going to do the job properly and eliminate any take-off errors. He allowed no distraction whatsoever to interfere in the execution of his task and although he could not manipulate the actions of the enemy, he certainly could control that which was in his circle of influence – and he did so with distinction!


On teambuilding courses we do an exercise called Oliver’s Travels. An A-frame structure supports two parallel logs, ten metres above the ground. Two delegates, one on each log, walk across the divide supporting each other. During this intimidating process there is lots of wobbling, sweating and gnashing of teeth. At the end I ask delegates, “As you crossed, were you thinking of tonight’s dinner?”. “No way! We were SO FOCUSSED on getting across there was nothing else in our minds. We could not fail!”

If we, in our business and daily lives can do likewise, as did John Blythe-Wood; totally centre our minds on the task at hand and the end result, we too cannot fail.