My entrance into modern pentathlon was all thanks to a wonderful physical training instructor, Ron Bright, who was attached to my regiment in Germany. He picked me out and encouraged me after I was lucky enough as to win the Army Epee Championships and to briefly become a member of the English fencing team.
A modern pentathlete
The modern pentathlon consists of five sports: running, riding, fencing, swimming and shooting.
I had been brought up riding and fencing was already up to the mark. Swimming, running and shooting were the areas on which I really had to work.
Swimming (300 metres freestyle) and running (3,000 metres cross-country) were both hard, hard work and it was just a matter of becoming as fit as possible. Shooting was different, as psychological factors had to play their part. It consisted of .22 calibre pistol snap shooting at twenty-five yards.
In practice I was fine but the more important the competition, the more my nerves got in the way.
I tried everything – pills, alcohol, counselling and even diet. With little success.
A shot across the valley
The world championship that year was held in Stockholm. The weather was perfect and the first day was the riding competition. We were allowed, as far as I can remember, 15 minutes to get used to the horse allocated to us and to practice a few jumps before starting the timed cross-country course. My horse was perfect. She was a lovely chestnut mare who responded beautifully to the bit and we had a great round together. A good start.
Fencing (one hit epee) was the next day and again that went well and of the very few defeats I had was against a Frenchman who transfixed me with a hypnotic stare and then hit me on my right toe.
The shooting was held in the most beautiful valley about six miles outside Stockholm. I remember waking that morning telling myself to keep calm. I repeated this mantra time, and time and time and time again.
After each exposure, the scores were announced over a loudspeaker which echoed and re-echoed around the valley.
I still wake up from the nightmare of hearing “Mintowt-Czar Poland – 98, Williams United States of America – 97, Shultz East Germany – 99, Rialdo Italy – 95, Mylne Great Britain – 5 …5, 5, 5, 5” echoing and re-echoing and re-echoing.
An unintentional landing and environmental capture
In the studies of aviation human performance one of the topics is that of ‘environmental capture.’ Once a human being attains a skill, actions begin to be automatic. We learn skills from an early age and they can vary from tying one’s shoe laces or walking up a flight of stairs to driving a car through dense traffic at night or a violinist playing a complicated piece of music. The limbs are working without deliberate and conscious thought.
Of course, we could not survive without this capability. However, skills do have their weaknesses. One of which is environmental capture. During the time a person is conducting a skill, the environment or conditions change but the actions of the skill are continued inappropriately and not adapted to this change. On one inauspicious occasion I was a casualty of this phenomena.
A glorious summer
From Germany I travelled back to the UK to join the team of flying instructors at the Army’s Central Flying School at Middle Wallop in Hampshire. It was a particularly happy time. All our students were of the finest material having had to pass the most stringent medical and aptitude tests. This made our job happy, relaxed and, in turn, allowed us to get to know our students to such an extent that many became lifelong friends.
It was a long and glorious summer. For all June and July we had clear beautiful skies with, at the worse, puffy fair weather cumulous clouds with endless visibility. I got into the habit of taking my students away from the airfield to carry out the lesson for the day and on return, over a small coppice about 600 metres outside the aerodrome boundary, switch off the engine so that my student could carry out an engine-off landing. This routine continued day after day after day until it had become an automatic act.
The wind changes
Towards the end of July the environment changed. That morning a 25-knot wind sprung up out of nowhere. Otherwise, the conditions were exactly same – wonderful visibility, clear blue sky dotted here and there with the odd little puffy white clouds.
At the end of that morning’s lesson, I remained in the automatic mode and switched off the engine over my coppice unconscious of the wind change which was in the opposite direction of our approach. This radically changed our angle of descent. We ended up in the middle of a ploughed field short of the airfield boundary. We were unhurt but hugely and unforgettably embarrassed.