Brian Lecomber aerobatic pilot and writer
Special feature

A dream that feels all too real…

Brian lands himself in court – the celestial kind – where guilt is established and the Angel Gabriel turns out to be somewhat surprising. But, he wakens just as his fate is decided…

Back in 2013 Brian Lecomber wrote his last column for FLYER. He passed away in September 2015, leaving the world poorer for his absence, but richer for the memories and writing he left behind. Brian spent many years on the circuit as a very accomplished member of the Rothmans aerobatic team, and of his own Firebird Aerobatic team.

In addition to his novels, Brian wrote about motoring and, of course, aviation. We’re reformatting his previous FLYER columns, this appeared in FLYER in December 2013.


Well, the Pearly Gates certainly lived up to expectations. And then some. You fly straight at these Fort Knox gates only to have them slam open just before impact, wide enough for an Extra to fly through them to the great long runway which stretches ahead.

Good trick, that.

The Terminal, by contrast, is not so hot. Long crocodile queues and revolving turnpike barriers a bit like the ones at a London station when you want to go to the gents. Somehow didn’t expect that here. The only real surprise is the floor surface, which is a sort of indistinct white vapour like the top of a cloud. After standing in the queue for an hour I decide to sit on the floor. I go so to sit – and the floor rises to meet me, forming a comfortable armchair.

The Angels are a surprise, too. I’d always thought of them as beautiful nymphets. Some are – but others are fat, ugly, very obviously male, and fly (and especially land) with the grace of an elephant falling out of a tree.

Eventually I reach the window. Behind the glass sits an angel with an amazingly crinkled face. A sign says Recording Angel.

“Watcha name, buster? An’ date an’ place o’ boith?” The accent is pure New York Bronx, which for some reason astonishes me. When I reply he astonishes me again by tapping on a keyboard and staring at a computer screen in front of him, pursing his lips.

“You’ve gone computerised here, have you?” Inane question, but I feel the need to say something.

“Hadta. Too many folk comin’ tro’ here now to be hikin’ them heavy life-books aroun’ alla time. Two clicks an’ I got your life-book up right on this here screen. Now quiet please while I go tro’ it.”

He is a fast reader. Within a minute he raises his eyes to mine.

“Hokay. Now ya know who I am?”

“Well, the Recording Angel…”

“Yeh. Says so right here, don’t it.” He taps the sign. “Now my job is foist screening, unnerstan’? I gotta decide whether to send you up there…” one wing points upwards, “…or down there,” the other wing points downwards. “On’y sometimes I cain’t decide, ‘cos it’s kinda borderline. You’re one o’ them times. So I’m sending ya to CC.”

“Er… CC?”

“Celestial Court. Brown door onna left there.” He produces a huge Havana cigar and takes a luxurious puff. “An’ don’ smoke in dere. Gabby don’t like it…”

I pass through the brown door.

The courtroom is huge. Down one side are six angels reclining on the clouds – and all with what look like laptop computers. At the end of the room is a vast desk with a name-plate on it saying ANG. GABRIEL. Behind the desk Angel Gabriel is another surprise, she being female, huge and black as midnight. She gives one lazy flap of wings the size of a DC3, presumably to open the proceedings.

“You are Brian Lecomber, is that correct?” Her voice is deep, gravely and melodious.

“Er, yes.”

“You are brought before us to answer for various sins in your flying life. These include negligence, dangerous operating habits, arrogance and manslaughter. This is your jury,” – a wave at the angels – “and I will ask you questions. We all have your life-book on our screens.”

I respond intelligently, “Ah – er…”

“We will begin with the lesser charges. The first is that in the years you think of as the 1980s you flew a great many aerobatic displays when you were actually unfit due to a crushed spinal disc in your neck.”

Gawd, I remember that all right. The piercing pain when I twisted my head under g. Twice a week visits to the chiropractor eventually trod the problem down – more or less – but oh yes, I remember that.

“Well, er… yes, but that was a personal problem. It never endangered anyone but myself.”

This sounds weak, even to me.

It seems to sound weak to Ang. Gabriel, too. “You mean to tell us you flew hundreds of displays in front of millions of people while in considerable pain, and that that wasn’t dangerous? What with the distraction, and the chance of it getting suddenly worse and making you pass out?”

“I had it under control. There was no question of suddenly passing out.” I do not add that I needed the money and had no other way of making a living.

“Not that you needed the money? No? Hmmm…”

I hadn’t seen an Angel sniff before – well, up until now I hadn’t seen an Angel before, never mind one sniffing – but I can tell you now that Angel Gabriel possesses one of those expressive sniffs which most clearly means ‘I don’t believe a bloody word of it.’

She glances at the jury. Six angelic hands click swiftly on keyboards. I begin to get the feeling that this is not entirely going good.

“Moving on…” says the melodious voice, “we now come to the sin of arrogance. In the mid 1970s it was becoming evident that you had a certain talent for aerobatics and flamboyant flying generally. While glider-towing you evolved a particular technique for landing a Chipmunk off a very steep slipping turn…”

“It was called improving my aircraft handling.”

Ang. Gabriel turns out to have a piercing stare which comes out of the same box as the sniff.

“Do not interrupt. The other tug pilots watched you and one tried to emulate you. He flicked out of a steep slipping turn and crashed fatally on the airfield. He is with us now. He was a married man with three children.”

“Aw, look – I knew him of course, but I never encouraged him to do steep slipping turns.”

“Did it ever occur to you talk to him about them? Maybe even fly with him to check his handling?”

“Um… er…”

Another expressive sniff. More clicking of angelic keyboards.

“Arrogance,” says Gabriel, “is often coupled with negligence. You are also charged that on…” a glance at her screen “…no less than 316 occasions you did hand-start, or caused to be hand-started, various Tiger Moths without using chocks.”

This is definitely not going good. Heaven knows – well, Heaven obviously does know – where Heaven’s intelligence comes from, but she has me
bang to rights. In my aerial adolescence I would sometimes swing a Tiger without chocks – distinctly unwise, on an aeroplane with no brakes. I have no idea how Heaven came up with the figure of 316, but do not wish to labour the point.

I was much younger then.

All I can think of to say, feebly, is, “I was much younger then…”

“Indeed you were. And lucky to get older. Not everyone was so fortunate. You may not know, but one of your colleagues from that time was killed five years later doing exactly that. He too is with us now. Your bad example does not quite amount to manslaughter, but is not far off.”

I can think of absolutely nothing to say to that.

“Moreover,” continues my tormentor, “these were not the only examples of negligence. Fifteen of your years ago, you did as a Type Rating Examiner sign off one (name deleted – Ed) as Commercially Rated on the Pitts Special. Two weeks later he spun his Pitts into the ground, killing his passenger in the front seat and critically injuring himself. The probability is that he misidentified the direction of the spin. Should you have done more to examine his pilotage?”

I find myself looking around the huge courtroom like a trapped rabbit. Consciously square my shoulders and meet Gabriel’s eye.

“I’ve been asking myself that for years. If a pilot spins in two weeks after passing a Type Rating test, it certainly suggests the examiner wasn’t thorough enough. I’ve re-flown that test flight in my mind 100 times, until I’m no longer sure of my memory. I thought it was thorough – and it certainly included spinning – but… in my heart, I know I must have missed something. It has always haunted me, that one.”

Ang. Gabriel blinks and then stares at me.

“So you plead guilty to this?”

A deep breath. “I do.”

She pauses. “That is to your credit. However, there are other charges of possible manslaughter. In the Earth year 1980 you were flying with an aerobatic team and engaged in a display tour of the Middle East. In Kuwait you were performing the solo section of the display on the shoreline – the Corniche – of Kuwait City. A pedestrian crossing the road was watching you, and was hit and killed by a car whose driver was also watching you.”

I re-square my shoulders. “That one is not fair. I was just doing my job at a pre-advertised display. Surely I can’t be responsible for carelessness among the audience?”

Gabriel frowns. There is another ominous pause. Then, “I am actually inclined to agree with you on that.” She glances at the jury. “Delete that indictment.”

Pitts Special in an (inverted) spin. A pilot spun into the ground two weeks after Brian had examined him and signed up his type-rating on the Pitts. “In my heart I know I must have missed some clue. It still haunts me.” (Photo: Ted Ziemba)

Then back to me. “Going back to your instructing days. There are a number of cases of LMF – lack of moral fibre – on your part, one in particular of which led to tragedy.”

“Lack of moral fibre? How on earth do you make that out?”

“May I remind you that you are not on Earth now, Mr Lecomber. May I bring to your recollection the case of Peter?”

Ah. That rings a bell, all right. I think I know where she’s going on this…

Into every instructor’s life must fall one or two students like Peter. Almost anyone can be taught to fly – but the likes of Peter are those very few who fall on the wrong side of almost. This Peter, although a very pleasant guy, had all the aeronautical aptitude of a hamster. He had no mechanical sympathy, no feel for airflow whatsoever and no judgement of either height or direction during his always-interesting attempts to land. Why he elected to do it the hard way, learning on a Tiger Moth, I have no idea.

Needless to say, I had inherited him. Every instructor will know what I mean. If you’re assigned a new student and look in his logbook, and find he has more than 30 hours without going solo, and has had ten different instructors, you know you have a problem…

“How is it,” says the melodious voice, “that you lacked the moral courage to tell Peter that he was never going to make a pilot?”

“There are a hundred answers to that. I did point out to him several times that golf was a wonderful pasttime, but you can’t keep repeating that or you destroy his self-confidence.”

“It might have been better if you had. As it was you crammed him through his PPL course, somehow prepared him for his General Flying Test, and two years later he flew into the ground while trying to deal with a fairly minor emergency.”

I feel my shoulders slump. “I know it. You’re right. But remember it’s more difficult to reject a student in the civilian world than in the military. If I’d refused to fly with Peter he’d have gone somewhere else. He was very determined. But… you’re right. I should have done more to stop him.”

This time the silence stretches. Finally Gabriel nods in a thoughtful way and says, “Angels of the Jury, I think we have enough to make a decision.”

Six hands tap on six keyboards. Ang. Gabriel looks at her screen.

“Brian Lecomber, we have a verdict. And this verdict is…”

And then I woke up. I’ll always wonder…


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