High Flying - a leader's perspective
It all started back in April. Mike invited our Explorer Section to join the Scout sections at the County Air Camp. Oops. The feelings of guilt started... how could I forgive myself for subjecting the Scouts to the torture of enduring the Explorers for a weekend? Did they know what they were letting themselves in for? I had to protect them. I had no choice... I had to sign up myself... Fast-forward two months, and I'm cursing the sat-nav as I'm driving down a picturesque country lane to the 2008 Kent Scouts Air Camp. The wrong way. For the third time. A quick SOS phonecall to Roger reveals that I have indeed been driving past the gate for the last 20 minutes, somehow missing the sign announcing that the poor defenceless airfield beyond is about to be overrun by Scouts for the weekend. Hooray! Now to find the 20th amongst the sea of tents in front of me... Amazingly, the destructive influence of our Explorers hasn't manifested itself yet. All the tents are still standing; nothing untoward is on fire, and no small Cubs have been tied up yet. Evidently, I've got there in time. Someone provides coffee, I catch up with my fellow leaders, meet the youngsters, and before long it's dark. This means two things. Firstly, the youngsters are off to their first activity of the weekend - building and flying fire balloons. Fantastic! Secondly, I have to put up my tent. In the dark. Not a problem, 'cos I've been doing this "Scouting" lark for 20 years, right? So how it takes me an hour, I have no idea. The youngsters return - the 20th has won the fire balloon contest! Apparently, theirs has just flown across several fields. Get in, lads 'n lasses! And I've missed the opportunity to nick a perfectly good activity idea for later use on a Thursday night... bother...
Saturday morning is superb. It's been a while since I've been woken up on camp with a cup of tea brought to my tent, but this one is VERY well received. I'd love to thank the kind caffeine benefactor in person, but sadly the night's sleep hadn't been the best and I'm in somewhat of a slumber-induced blur for the first hour. Outstanding breakfast though Rog. My smug grin is suitably installed when the youngsters realise the potential benefits of my "disposable plate" strategy. Hehe. The first true air activity is approaching. Parascending! For those not in the know, this is where you get strapped beneath a parachute, and towed into the air behind a landrover. Generally you'll go up about 200 feet, which when you have nothing beneath you is the ultimate in exhileration. Unfortunately, just as I'm chatting up the Parascending Team (with a view to wangle a flight myself, of course), I'm summoned for the job of collecting water. Normally, this is a 2-minute exercise, but we're in the middle of nowhere - so off we head in a van loaded with 30 water barrels for an hour's entertainment at the airfield owner's house to do the honours. Fortunately it turns out to be a wise move - the owner has rather an interesting car collection. One tour later, and I have an envious grin, and Mike has managed to clear up all the water I've spilt over the owner's workshop. Teamwork, boys! Back to the airfield, and parascending is in full swing - often literally, in fact, 'cos we have gusts adding to the excitment. Excellent. It always amuses me to watch young people on their first parascending excursion. The fun and bruises of learning and practicing parachute landing falls. The excitement as they get kitted up with parachute harness and helmet. The slight look of trepidation as they're strapped into the parachute... followed by the look of horror as they notice the folks performing the all-important "retrieve" roles out in the field are our Explorers! And then no more time for thinking... the land-rover's moving, the cable tightens, wingtips release, parachute inflates... and you're up!
Reinforcements are needed to control the now-hyperactive Explorers, so I phone Dave. Dave is a fellow Explorer Scout Leader. My theory is that if he can be persuaded to leave the comfort of his home to join us on a windswept field, then he can take half the blame when the Explorers inevitably hijack one of the light aircraft sitting calmly in the hangar. Fortunately, my persuasive powers work and Dave joins us just in time to see me failing miserably to get some kites to fly. On the positive side, an alternative outcome would have been for the kites to fly so well that they act as barage balloons and kill the microlights - I'm not sure if the Scout insurance would cover that one. Ah, the microlights. We watch with some degree of pride (and a greater degree of envy) as our youngsters get to fly for the second time that day - this time in a microlight aircraft. Microlights are the simplest and lightest of powered aircraft. They might look, to some, as if they've been built by their owner in a shed. In the case of one of the two aircraft - that's absolutely spot on true. You've got to take your hat off to the man that is flying an aircraft that he's built himself; were that me, and knowing my engineering skill, I'd be scared the wings were going to fall off. You've also got to take your hat off to the innocence of youth - the youngsters are complete unfazed by this, and so up they go for their 15-minute air experience flights. And unsuprisingly they all return with grins as wide as they can go. Fantastic stuff!
Next up is the industrial-scale manufacture of balsa model aeroplanes, under the experienced guidance of the 20th's Doug. Some come out the shape of Eurofighters; some become canvases for intricate artwork; some actually fly! Building model planes has always been a popular activity within our Explorer Unit - and there's no difference here; for those planes that survive the inital test flights, a weekend of further flights awaits. I just hope the pilot baled out of the plane that was purposefully sent looping into the fire... One problem with being a leader is that you run the risk of being caught unawares by the youngsters, and press-ganged into physical exercise. Despite my years of experience, I made the schoolboy error of not hiding or faking injury when a wide-game was announced after dinner. Cue several hours of playing man-hunt in the less active bits of the airfield... resulting in several ensuing hours of research into hayfever allergens while wondering how on earth kids can run so far without collapsing in a asthmatic heap. My claims to have a special rule instated to protect poor defenceless leaders falls on deaf ears, and somehow being old means I'm a target... help!!! Sunday starts badly. The principal reason for this is that I'm forced to actually get out of my sleeping bag to claim my much-needed cup of tea. Mental note: more leader training necessary to promote the "breakfast-in-bed" approach to leadership retention. Sadly flying is off for today - yesterday's gusts have escalated into a full-blown gale. All is not lost, though - bullets can still fly in excessively windy conditions, so we experience air-rifle shooting instead. I sometimes abhor health and safety, but today it has the advantage that the Explorers are prevented from shooting me in a comedy fashion. Thank goodness. Towards the end, a moment of inspiration strikes: we can't fly, but we sure don't have to walk back to the campsite from the rifle shooting. Quick, everyone get into groups of three! Firemans Lifts are the name of the game - first trio back to camp wins! The result was predictable, I'm told... an exasparated Roger gets the task of co-ordinating the ensuing hunt for three mobile phones that have fallen out of pockets mid-race...
Camp is struck and we head home. As I leave, I can't supress a grin. This weekend, 15 of our youngsters - plus countless others - have just experienced activities that few of their peers will ever sample. All of this is made possible by Scouting - what a superb organisation! I can almost hear the Monday morning conversations at school: "What did you do this weekend?" seeking the reply "I went 200 foot into the air under a parachute, and I flew an aeroplane". I mentally doff my cap to my fellow leaders (Roger, Roger, Mike, Doug, Emma, Dave, Bob) for making it such a cracking weekend; I know that their tireless work has paid dividends. At a wider level, the leaders from the other Scout Groups present did likewise... not to mention the event and activity organisers who worked tirelessly behind the scenes. My personal thanks to all. One final vote of thanks remains: to our Explorers, who (despite my attempt at comedy commentary) did us proud this weekend. Lauren, Andrew, Michael - you're all stars, and I'm proud to have you in our Unit. Up the 20th!
Richard Chipperfield, 20th ESL, 2nd July 2008