Born Lucky, Or How to Have Nine Lives by Eric B. Forsyth – April 2020
As I write the majority of Americans are hunkered down behind the ramparts protecting themselves from the rampaging Covid-19 virus. The TV channels are full of death counts. All this has set me thinking about my own numerous narrow escapes from a sticky end in a fairly adventurous life. I think I have been very lucky, although on the face of it I wasn’t born lucky. I was born in an industrial town in Lancashire, England at the height of the Depression; 1932. My father had a part-time job working in a cotton mill. My mother was killed in a horrible domestic accident when I was a year old. My father was forced by the authorities to put me in an orphanage run by the local town council. I am sure it wasn’t very nice, but I don’t remember. My grandmother had died some years earlier and my grandfather had hired a young woman to help bring up his two younger sons who were still living at home. Apparently, he decided it would be cheaper to marry her than pay her. The decision was probably helped by the fact he was fired from the cotton mill he worked at, where he had a managerial job, and he was lucky enough to be hired by a competing mill, as a clerk. He had to move into a much smaller house. At this stage his young wife, Alice, had a miscarriage, I learned these details from an uncle, one of grandfather’s younger sons, many, many years later, when I was old enough to appreciate my grandfather’s dilemma. His wife was extremely depressed at losing her child and was not functioning well. But he was stuck; he had married her. He still had two boys to bring up. The solution was to move me from the orphanage into the house with his second wife and two sons. I was a surrogate for the lost child. Calculating as it sounds, this was a lucky break for me, his wife was very loving, she was the product of a work-house upbringing herself, so there was a very Victorian caste to the set-up. I have often wondered how I would have behaved if, in my late sixties, I was stuck with bringing up a small baby. Probably the way he did, which was to ignore me if possible, and to deliver a quick back-hand if he was annoyed. I developed very quick reactions. The town had an excellent education system and I did well in exams and I found myself at a very good private school, at the expense of the local Education Authority. The same thing happened when I was eighteen; I went to Manchester University with a small scholarship. On one of the winter breaks I hitch-hiked to the Lake District with two old school chums. We planned as the highlight of the short vacation to camp on the summit of Helvellyn on New Year’s Eve. Helvellyn is one of the highest mountains in England at just over 3,000 ft elevation. There are several ways to reach the top but the most adventurous is to cross Striding Edge, a ridge that terminates just below the summit from the east.
We camped at the east end of the Edge, after a slim breakfast of bread and marmalade and tea, boiled on a Primus stove, we folded our tents and started across the ridge. It is nearly a mile long and ends a few feet below the summit. Over the years a few people have fallen to their deaths, the top varies in width from a few inches to a couple of feet. The sides drop precipitously for several hundred feet, ending at a small lake on the north side. I led the way, the surface was covered with ice and snow, and the footing was treacherous. Inevitably I slipped on some ice and started sliding down a large, flat rock that was sheathed in a sheet of ice. It was sloping down at an angle of about twenty degrees. It seemed that I was going to shoot off the edge into space. Just before that happened my Army surplus, hob-nailed boots struck a nub of rock protruding from the ice, my downward acceleration came to a stop. I was poised, inches from a steep drop and not daring to move. I was about eight feet horizontally from my companions and a couple of feet lower. We were just hikers, not mountain-climbers, and we carried no rope. After some debate my friends undid all the straps on their rucksacks and fastened them together. With one friend holding tight to something, the other clasped his hand and then wormed across the ice towards me. He snaked the makeshift rope into my hands and the two began to haul me back to even ground. It was all over in a few minutes; we didn’t give it much thought. We reassembled the gear and pressed on. We were eighteen and immortal, nothing could harm us. But a small piece of rock sticking out of the ice had just saved my life, it was a pattern I was to witness many times in the years that followed.
View of Striding Edge from the summit of Helvellyn
My next brush with death was much more serious, but I don’t remember it. During the Christmas break in my final year at Manchester a friend who was a schoolteacher persuaded me to drop over to her school one evening to see the Christmas play. I went on my uncle’s motorbike with one of my chums who had been on the Helvellyn expedition. On the way home I collided with an unlit streetlight, it was witnessed by my friend who was riding his bike behind me. I broke a couple of bones and fractured my skull. The doctors in the emergency room thought I would die and Alice came to the hospital to sit by my bed. I was out for five days. When I did come-to, one of the interns told me I was very lucky; a senior surgeon had performed his first-ever spinal tap, a very risky procedure in those days, to relieve the hemorrhage in my brain which was causing the blood to over-pressurize. Of course, I don’t remember any of it, but I escaped without permanent damage. Later I sat my final exams, got a degree and entered the R.A.F. as a trainee pilot, having passed the strict medical.
I progressed through wings training, attended gunnery school and was posted to an operational fighter squadron. There the opportunities to kill myself greatly increased. I will mention four. I was flying at Gibraltar, there was single runway lying north of the Rock which cut across the main road to Spain at right angles. When planes were taking off or landing the road traffic was halted. The runway poked into the sea at either end, built on a rock embankment about six feet above sea level. Early one morning two of the squadron planes took off heading east and I followed close behind in a Meteor.
Meteor Mark 8 Fighter
The plane was fully armed with ammunition for the four 20 mm canons and carried a fuel drop tank, as the nearest diversionary fields were several hundred miles away. Shortly after I was airborne the control tower issued a recall. A so-called advection fog had been detected moving to the runway from the east. This was a common problem at Gibraltar; warm Mediterranean water met cold Atlantic water and formed a fog bank, usually rising to an altitude of a few hundred feet, enough to obscure the runway. I immediately turned and started a downwind leg on the south side of the Rock, easing the speed to 175 knots and setting some flap and dropping the undercarriage, the normal routine for that part of the landing procedure. When I was well west over Algeciras Bay, I turned crosswind to line up with runway. At that point things went badly wrong; the Meteor began to sink rapidly, and the controls became mushy. The plane had stalled, fortunately it did not spin. I pushed both throttles to the limit and gingerly put the nose down to get some speed. I finally got control with descent arrested and the plane in a nose -up attitude. Both mighty Rolls Royce engines were running at nearly full power, in effect the plane was being kept up by the engine thrust, with not much lift from the wings. I was almost at sea level, I forget if I called the tower for final approach clearance. I lined up with the runway, the plane was just about at the same height as the blacktop. When the runway end flashed past, I chopped the throttles and plane sank onto ground like a bag of wet cement. Seconds later I ran into the fog. The tower advised me to stay put until the planes that had taken off just before me touched down. We all taxied back to the dispersal area in the fog. I shut down, climbed out and signed the duty book, then went for breakfast. While I was eating, the pilot of one of the planes that landed after me came over and dropped a hand on my shoulder. “Eric, weren’t you a little low on that approach?” “A little, I guess,” I replied, “why do you ask?” “Oh,” he said, “it’s just that you were throwing two fountains of water a hundred feet into the air.” The explanation was that the plane was way over its maximum landing weight. I had used up very little fuel and in order to land safely I should have added 20 knots to the speed on the downwind and approach legs, As soon as I rolled on bank for the crosswind leg the effective wing area was not enough to support the weight. Alternatively, I could have jettisoned the drop tank, but the C.O. would not have liked that.
I might argue that it needed a little flying skill to walk away from the landing at Gibraltar. But my next near miss was entirely due to gross stupidity on my part. I was told one quiet afternoon to take a plane over to Shawbury, a so-called master airfield about a hundred miles from the base. Master airfields never closed, no matter what the weather, and were equipped with every available landing aid. Apparently, they had installed some new equipment and needed a plane in the air to test it. I jumped into a parked Meteor and roared off to about 5,000 feet and gave them a call on VHF. I was told to stand-by, after a couple of minutes Shawbury called to inform me that the test had been scratched and I should return to base. When I left the base, I had headed in a generally southwest direction, the ground was obscured by cloud and I had assumed that Shawbury would give me instructions on the course to fly. I still had a plane that was carrying almost a full load of fuel, which normally would give me an endurance of about fifty minutes. The Meteor carried no navigational gear, flights were usually made under radar control, or by obtaining radio bearings from RAF airfields. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as Gibraltar and attempt to land heavy. Shawbury was located at the south end of the Cheshire plain, level terrain which extended as far as the base. I decided to drop below the clouds and return to base from Shawbury at low level which is fun and uses a lot of fuel. I got a bearing from Shawbury and began to descend. Somehow, I had stupidly assumed I was over the plain, but, in fact, I was over the Welsh mountains. Descending through cloud without knowing your exact position is the height of stupidity. Concentrating on the instruments and occasionally glancing ahead I let down at about a thousand feet a minute. Outside the fog swirled ahead of the windscreen. Suddenly I broke out of the cloud, perilously near a green meadow with grey stone walls. Instinctively I pushed the throttles forward and pulled back hard on the stick. The Meteor bounded up like a rocket and within a few seconds I was flying above the clouds. I cursed myself for being an idiot, I was only couple of hundred feet above the ground when I flew into the clear, If the cloud base had been any lower I would have crashed; another inexplicable accident. I called the base and let the controller guide me back to a safe landing at home. I wonder if there was a shepherd or hiker on the mountain that day who was suddenly startled by roar of two great jet engines thundering overhead in the cloud?
My next close shave came when I flew within a few feet of colliding with an airliner, and not even knowing. The squadron had a Meteor mark 7 for instrument flying practice. This version of the Meteor is a two-seater, arranged in tandem. The safety pilot sat in the front seat, and the guy in the rear seat honing his skills had panels clipped to the canopy so he couldn’t see out. We were practicing GCAs at a field shared jointly by the RAF and commercial airlines. GCA stands for ‘Ground Controlled Approach’. A special radar is set up on the runway to be used, a controller guides a landing plane by issuing instructions about the plane’s position relative to a virtual glide path, such as ‘Ten feet high, increase rate of descent’ or ‘left of the glide path, steer right.’ The system worked very well but it was slow, planes could only be handled that were a few minutes apart. I was the safety pilot one afternoon with another squadron pilot, Terry, in the rear. We were using runway 24 (240° is the compass heading) and the cloud base was about 500 feet. We made two GCA approaches, each time the controller broke off the approach at the airfield boundary, I took the controls, climbed through the cloud to the downwind leg and then the other pilot took over. The next time when I handed over control I said,” you do the overshoot on instruments this time” Terry agreed but when we turned onto the final approach the controller said,” we will break off the approach earlier this time.” When we got the command to break off Terry started to climb, raise the flaps, retract the landing gear and turn onto the heading of the downwind leg. Of course, he was slower I had been when I had visual contact with the ground during an overshoot. A minute or so after entering cloud I heard the controller say,” You missed,” which was rather puzzling, seconds later we were told to land on the next approach and report to the C.O. Turns out an airliner was landing on runway 12 and the pilot had reported seeing the belly of my Meteor pass a few feet above his windshield in cloud. He filed a ‘Near Miss’ report on landing. The inquiry determined that the controller assumed the Meteor would follow the same path as previous overshoots, but because Terry was more deliberate on instruments our path stretched out and actually intersected with the approach to runway 12. If we had hit the airliner (a DC 3) it would have been a tragic disaster, it was full of holidaymakers returning from Blackpool. Of course, Terry and I would have almost certainly been killed. I was exonerated by the inquiry and the controller was reprimanded, they said he should have directed my plane not to cross the airfield boundary or aborted the approach altogether.
The planes we flew in the RAF at that time were the tail-end of WWII technology; they fired guns, each pilot and each gun were required to fire a certain number of rounds every month to stay current. The days of a squadron ‘shoot’ were exciting, armorers swarmed over the planes reloading. Our Meteor mark 7 was busy towing the target, a strip of canvas about ten feet high and thirty feet mounted on a steel bar. A black ring in the center was the aiming point. One summer the squadron was stationed in the northeast of England, our shooting range was over the North Sea. I was towing the target for one of the shoots, I rendezvoused with the first pair of fighters and I started a run at about five thousand feet over a patch of the ocean I had already made sure was clear of shipping. Halfway through the shoot I radioed the first pair to break off and I turned one-eighty for the second pair to start firing as I flew back up the range. When they were finished, I turned for the base and called radar for a fix and bearing. I got a shock; I was too far from the airfield, the west wind had almost pushed me to the Dutch coast. I had been trained to fly a fighter to achieve one of three things: maximum speed, maximum endurance and maximum range. Clearly the need was for range, I could drop the target, which would certainly have improved the fuel consumption of those mighty Rolls Royce engines, but at the cost of ruining the whole shoot. Each plane carried painted bullets and the colored rings in the canvas were eagerly examined to see who was the most accurate marksman. The drill for maximum range was to shut down one engine and increase power on the other. Although I had never done it before I did exactly as taught and opened up the cross-feed valve so the one engine could use all the fuel on board. With the airfield in sight I jettisoned the target to one side of the runway, made a tight turn and lined up for a landing, the fuel gauges all read zero. By some miracle the engines continued to run and I taxied to the dispersal area after landing. As I climbed down the flight sergeant called, “you should have been back ten minutes ago!” After a while, back in the crew room I was told to see the duty officer. He was not looking amused, “the flight sergeant just told me they filled up your plane to within five gallons of the rated capacity. Do you know how much flying time that corresponds to?” I knew a Meteor towing a target consumed about ten gallons a minute, so I mumbled, “not much, Sir.” “Thirty seconds! Just be more careful, stop flying on fumes, Forsyth,” he ranted. I think the poor man really thought I was going to kill myself, if I hadn’t shut down one engine I probably would have.
After graduate school I worked for a National Laboratory in the States. The specialty there was particle physics, they had one of the most advanced accelerators in the country at the time. It is an irony that to study some of the tiniest particles in creation requires massive machines that consume megawatts of power. We were having a problem that some equipment used to guide particles from the machine to a physics experiment was causing severe electrical disturbance that interfered with other apparatus. I set up a mock-up of the equipment that was causing interference in an unused building and designed a filter to go between the equipment and the electrical feeder, which was 440 volts, three phase alternating current, rated to provide many megawatts of power. One morning during a test run I wondered if the filter I had designed was running hot. I asked the technician who was working with me to shut down. He went to the wall and pulled down a number of circuit breakers with a satisfying ‘clunk’. I crossed over to the filter and put my hand on one of the major components, a large inductor made of half-inch diameter copper tubing. It was warm, not too hot. The technician watched me and then said. “you’re brave.” “What do you mean? “I asked. He replied, “the filter is still connected to the feeder” “ I asked you to shut down, “ I said. “I know, “ he said, “I disconnected the load but not the 440 volts!” I felt weak at the knees and must have blenched white. If I had been grounded, the momentary connection to that voltage would normally have electrocuted me and incinerated me at the same time. My luck was that sometimes the 440 volt feeders at the Lab were wired relative to ground (zero) potential and sometimes were wired floating off ground. It was my good luck that the filter had been wired to an ungrounded feeder, pure chance. Normally, safety regulations would have required me to ground the inductor before I touched it, using a ground stick; a copper hook on a long Lucite rod connected by thick wire to ground. But there wasn’t one handy. But as you will learn, sometimes even a ground stick isn’t enough to avert disaster.
A couple of years later I designed a pulsed power supply which supplied about 250,000 amps for a fraction of a second to a plasma, an ionized gas. The field in the plasma focused exotic particles which produced neutrinos. The three physicists running the experiment all received Nobel Prizes for their work understanding neutrinos. The current for the plasma was obtained by discharging thirty-three capacitors charged to 20,000 volts. The capacitors were then recharged in the next three seconds in time to synchronize with the accelerator cycle. The capacitors were in modules containing the switching devices and monitoring equipment. They were contained in a wire mesh cage with a floor of copper sheet.
One day the monitoring circuits detected a fault in a module. We shut down and I entered the cage, gingerly threading my way between rows of capacitors. I knew that even after a shut-down the capacitors could retain energy, there was a convenient tab on the copper floor to attach a grounding stick. I hooked on the stick and made a measurement with a multi meter. The needle vaporized in a flash. I realized that despite the grounding stick the capacitor still had a lethal charge. I removed the hook and very carefully made my way back to the door of the cage. A measurement with another multimeter then showed that the hook on the grounding stick was not actually connected to the large clip that connected it to the copper sheet. It had been made incorrectly. If I had touched the meter probes while I was hooking them up, I could have received a shock of up to 20,000 volts, enough to send me to Kingdom Come. Later in my career at the Laboratory I worked on equipment powered up to 450,000 volts. I always checked the ground sticks before I trusted them. You learn by experience, if you survive.
In my early thirties I started ocean sailing aboard small sailboats. This hobby provides plenty of opportunity to nearly kill yourself. You don’t need heavy weather; on a cruise from New York to Bermuda I narrowly missed a lingering death by drowning or hyperthermia on a calm night. The wind had died and the boat was powering over a relatively calm sea using the diesel engine. One of the crew, a young woman, was at the wheel, we were south of the Gulf Stream, about three hundred nautical miles from Bermuda. I left instructions to be called if the wind picked up About 1 a.m. the helmswoman gave me a call, I went on deck to find a light wind, about ten knots, had developed. I decided to try to sail, but rather than wake the rest of the crew I figured I could set the mainsail by myself. Without going into too much sailing jargon, I loosened the boom and as I was walking to the mast the boat gave a lurch and the boom swung across and knocked me into the sea. As I fell over the side, I grabbed at the lifeline rigged between stanchions on deck and ripped the skin on the palm of my hand on a hook used to open a gate in the lifeline. Of course, the young lady gave a penetrating shriek and the crew tumbled into the cockpit. By then I was probably four hundred feet behind the boat which was still chugging happily towards Bermuda. I had the unnerving sight of watching the stern light disappearing as I splashed about in the Atlantic, three hundred miles from land on a dark night. Before we left, I had given the crew a safety briefing, fortunately they had been paying attention. One of the life rings clipped to a stanchion had a flasher which automatically started when it was in water. The crew put the engine in neutral and flung the life ring over the side. Luckily for me it started to flash. Although it was a calm night the waves were over a foot high and I could only see the flasher from my low vantage point about half the time. The crew could also see the flasher and brought the boat up to it as I swam to make a rendezvous. Fortunately, no sharks were attracted by my bleeding hand.
Stern view of Fiona
I was lucky that the flasher worked, now I religiously change the battery before starting a voyage. I was lucky that crew did the right thing and I was lucky that the wave height was not larger. If the flasher had not worked, it is unlikely that the crew would have found me on a dark night. Even though the water was fairly warm I would probably have died from hyperthermia within half a day or provided a meal for a shark.
I had a much more fast-moving escape on the same boat sailing from Fiji to New Zealand. The weather had been unsettled with a strong wind. We were sailing downwind, that is, the wind was coming from the stern. The mainsail boom was well over on the starboard side, restrained by a wide strap connected to a tackle. This was intended to prevent the boom shifting to the port side should the wind change. The boat was steered by a wind vane, a contraption of plywood and gears, mounted at the stern, that controlled the rudder so as to maintain a constant course angle with respect to the wind. We called it Victor the Vane, it is essential for long, ocean voyages to relieve the crew from long tricks at the wheel. Suddenly the boat jibed; the wind blew on the other side of the sail and the vessel veered off course. Victor was supposed to stop that kind of thing, I disengaged the vane, steered back onto course and re-engaged Victor. After about two minutes the same thing happened. I again put the boat on course and re-engaged the vane. I thought maybe something was wrong with Victor, I climbed out of the cockpit and walked to the stern to take a close look at the self steerer. It seemed OK. Then I felt a strong burst of wind and the boat jibed violently, to my surprise the boom and mainsail collapsed onto the deck. Part of the boom landed in the cockpit, just where I had been standing a couple of minutes earlier. The boom and mainsail weigh a few hundred pounds, If I had still been in the cockpit I would probably have been killed. The boom had been broken in half, pivoting around the point where the restraining strap was attached. The crew, who were below in the main cabin, heard the crash and dashed to the companionway, but the sail was now blocking the door and it took them a while to get on deck. We tidied up and sailed the remaining few hundred miles to New Zealand without a boom.
Eric standing under the boom
Here is a highly condensed account of a summer voyage which had a very dramatic finish. I had sailed to the Caribbean, exchanging crew at various ports. On the way back my last crew change was to be at Bermuda, but the new man had a family problem and dropped out. After trying unsuccessfully to find a local substitute, I sailed alone for Long Island. The weather forecast showed a front moving south from the continent, I would be in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream when I encountered it. As time went on, I got more accurate forecasts, it looked like I would be just clear of the north wall of the Stream when I sailed into the front. On the third night the weather deteriorated, and I went below to don foul weather gear, I left the steering up to Victor, the wind vane. When I returned to the cockpit the weather had worsened considerably, the wind was touching 60 knots. I managed to furl the jib, but to furl the mainsail I had to go the mast, Victor could not hold the boat into the wind, much later I discovered the plywood vane had blown away. So I eased the mainsheet and let the boat heel over, I was concerned the mainsail would tear. The wind kept increasing until the boat was fully knocked down, that is, the mast was almost horizontal. Water poured over the cockpit coaming. The waves were not very high because the wind had built up so quickly but spray produce ‘White-out ‘conditions. The staysail, which was furled and lashed to a boom on the port side, suddenly flew to the starboard, a hook on the sheet had let go.
I couldn’t stand up in the cockpit due to the wind pressure, and as I crouched down the mast suddenly disappeared to starboard. The standing rigging bent most of the stanchions flat. When I went below I could hear loud crashes as the mast and boom, suspended by the rigging, banged into the hull. Clearly, I had to jettison the mast. It took me over an hour, armed with vice-grips, a hacksaw and a sharp knife, as I slithered along the deck, to cut the running rigging, saw through the headstay and forestay and pull the clevis pins out of the turnbuckles for the standing rigging. It was impossible to use a bolt cutter as I needed to hang on desperately with one hand as the boat tossed. The lifelines were gone.
Twisted chain plate shows the tremendous forces involved in a dismasting. (now a gory exhibit in my basement)
The storm passed by morning and as conditions improved I was able to start the diesel, I had just enough fuel to make it home. On inspecting the damage, I measured the force needed to bend the hook which failed to hold the staysail, translating the force to windspeed suggested the peak wind had been over 150 knots. The mast fell because one the shrouds on starboard side had snapped under tension load, the wire was rated at about 6 tons, breaking load. Most frightening of all, when the backstay swept across the aft cabin roof as the mast went by the board, it demolished a teak grabrail. If I had been standing, instead of crouching in the cockpit, I would probably have been decapitated. When I told a friend about the experience, he said I must have been on my knees praying, and I replied, no, I was on my knees making sure my head stayed on.
The first ocean-going boat my wife and I owned was a lovely Dutch-built boat called Iona. In the late ‘60s we spent nearly a year and a half cruising the Caribbean, a cruise I will never forget. But a few years after that, the arrival of my daughter and other considerations forced me to sell her. The new owner asked me to sail with him to Bermuda as he became familiar with the boat. I was happy to comply the next summer. Everything went well but south of the Gulf Stream a problem developed with engine transmission system, which was of an unusual design. With the engine running, the propeller shaft turned all the time, forward, reverse and neutral were selected by changing the angle of the propeller blades. The problem we encountered was that the blades were not feathering properly and were producing drag. I knew exactly what the problem was; a rod which went down the center of the propeller shaft engaged gears in the propeller hub, it had come loose. To tighten the nut on the hub I had to slip over the side with a mask and snorkel. The water was warm, so why not have a swim and fix the problem? We furled the sails and drifted. I swam to the stern with a wrench and attempted to tighten the appropriate nut. Now in water, as the astronauts discovered in space, when you push on a wrench you simply go the other way without anything to counter the force. I decided a hammer was the answer. The crew lowered a hammer tied to some light line and I tapped away at the wrench. That worked, on deck they moved the shift lever and I watched the blades, all seemed copacetic. I gave the nut a final tap and swam to the boarding ladder. Just as I hauled myself up on the bottom rung the biggest shark I have ever seen glided by my feet and gave me a baleful eye. I think if he had come by while I was still working on the propeller I would have died from shock. It turns out, tapping on metal while underwater is a dinner bell for sharks.
Looking back at some of these incidents I often fantasized that maybe I did die, but then simply moved into a parallel universe and carried on. So, if I want to live forever, I should have lots of narrow escapes? I am an old man now, well past my ’expiration date’, who wants to live forever?