Song Stories: When I Was A Pilot

The Initial Plan

At the beginning of 2020 my friend Ann asked me to compose a song for her husband Greg who was retiring as a helicopter pilot from the RAF during the year. We met up for chats and she told me stories. The plan was that The Bridge Singers (which has amongst its membership their son Connor) would perform this new song in our summer concerts, and the whole thing would be a big surprise to Greg. Ann was going to impel Connor to have a house-warming party at which I would bombard Greg with questions about his life as a pilot, thereby giving me lots of nuggets of information and anecdotes with which to construct this story.

The Revised Plan

Before most of this plan could be implemented, 2020 turned course rather drastically, and there were no more choir rehearsals and concerts and no more prospect of house-warming parties. So, another strategy had to be thought of. I had previously written a sea shanty from the point of view of three characters in a painting by Christopher Wood (Push The Boats Out), and thought I could try this approach again, with three verses from the point of view of Ann, Connor and Greg.

The original inspiring picture by MACR Nick Swannick

I saw Greg out of the window one day, and engaged him in conversation about a photo I’d seen on his Facebook profile of his helicopter above the clouds with the tip of a mountain in the distance. I improvised and told him that I was writing a song about flight using memories of flight from members of the choir and it occurred to me that as he was an actual pilot, it would be good to have some thoughts from him, as his perspective on this would be quite unique. He chatted readily of that photo and later in the day sent me more stories, and more again a few days later.


Now, of course, I had to ask the choir for their memories of flight, and they too were very forthcoming, and I ended up writing Earthbound using Greg’s and their stories.

Fours singers and one dog.

But this still was not the song Ann had asked for, so I chatted at great length to Connor and Ann, and we enlisted the help of Greg’s mother Helen, and his former colleague Bob, and the “air shanty” was finally written by Christmas. Jamie and I made a hurried recording so that Ann had something to give Greg, and in the last couple of weeks, we’ve joined with Connor and Rebekah to create the recording at the top of this blog.

The Lyrics

What started out as a three verse idea became five:

  1. General memories of flying from Greg
  2. His excellence as a pilot as related by Ann
  3. Memories of home and family days from Connor and Helen
  4. Some fun aspects of flying from Greg including Santa trips to schools in December.
  5. Dreaming of those magical memories above the clouds as sparked by that first photo I asked him about.
1. When I was, I was a pilot:
Soaring through the cloud-base,
Go high: five thousand, ten thousand feet.
Overtaking eagles!
A tremendous sense of freedom, so alive!
Sea King!
General handling sortie.
Sky Queen!
Dive down, engines off, autorotate!
Earth cushion!
And the pain of check rides, paperwork, niff naff disappears
Miss the field and down the beers,
When I was a pilot.
2. When I was a pilot
Driving my bus to work in the sky
Left one, right one, steady, steady, no worries.
Overtaking ospreys,
Hover-taxi along the motorway!
Sea King!
Winching out, winching in.
Sky Queen!
Turbulence on the helideck!
Low cloud, icing levels, snowfall,
Self-sacrifice and altruism:
She knew I was a good pilot, one of the best!
Master Air Pilot!
3. When I was, I was a pilot!
Home from living in the sky:
Climb the trees; shake the box; pretend to be a pilot.
Overtaking drifts of swans!
Strap me to the monkey harness!
Sea King!
Dangle my legs in the cloudscape!
Sky Queen!
Fly the flags, ring the bells.
Thoughtful risk:
Hanging out with the bunting!
Scrambling for the Grannies!
When I was a pilot.
 4. When I was a pilot
Inspiring Christmas children
Playground landings, S turns, flare the speed off,
Overtaking skeins of geese.
Winchman Santa in the cab. Surprise!
Sea King!
Hovering over the rooftops!
Sky Queen!
Tight squeeze. All aboard!
Time for fun, with
Ice creams on the beach,
Then send my dreamy son to sleep.
When I was a pilot!
5. When I was a pilot:
Dreaming of the gloomy, cloudy days,
Bursting through the stratus clouds to see the sun
Overtaking dancing harriers
Circling through the mountains,
Sea King!
Hovering, soaring, lingering.
Sky Queen!
Wondering at the old, old world,
Icy scars,
Tiny lakes and tarns below,
Unseen by anyone but me
Dreaming of my last sad, joyful flight.
When I was a pilot!

The Music

It’s jolly. It rollicks along. It’s in compound time signatures of various lengths, as is my way. It is for 4-part choir and will hopefully one day be performed by The Bridge Singers with Greg in the audience!

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