Author Topic: In flight action excerpt: 1881 words. Mild obscenities in a foreign language.  (Read 442 times)

Offline An Albatross Man

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The following is an excerpt of an early chapter from Book II of my fact-basted five-part WIP set in the First World War.  I consider it very much a rough draft still. In the scene below, the future "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen receives some on-the-job training from Imperial Germany's first master fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke.

Most of my beta-readers so far have been fellow pilots, and their feedback on my flying scenes has been pretty positive--but I'm really more interested in what non-pilots make of it. For all I know, this could be completely incomprehensible gibberish to everyone else. So please, let me know what makes sense and what doesn't. Am I losing you, or do I have you strapped in tight? This stuff isn't easy to describe without using your hands...

 
**NOTE: Please scan down a few posts for an updated version with a bit of trimming, and re-shaping. I think it represents something of an improvement.**

Over the Front, southwest of Bapaume

It was always humbling to fly on Oswald Bślcke’s wing, especially for a beginner. Manfred was not exactly a beginner anymore; but the copious amounts of vin rouge still swishing about in his ears from the night before made him feel like one. Never again, he told himself. And he meant it. Alas, he couldn’t even hide his mistakes by being last in formation today. Bślcke had him up front—where his shoddy air-work was on full display.

At least it wasn’t up to him to find the enemy.  The atmosphere above the Somme that afternoon was awash in billowing cumulous and shimmering curtains of rain. Any number of enemy planes could have been hiding in that surreal landscape. Or none at all. Yet Manfred had already come to accept that his captain had senses beyond those of ordinary men. He and his comrades followed Bślcke’s lead without question. Together, they skirted massive vertical walls of mist. They swooped down into splendid, sunlit valleys. They darted through impermanent caverns in the clouds. The beauty all around was intoxicating, hypnotic.

Tense and miserable though he was, there were moments when Manfred’s hands would go light on the controls and the plane seemed to fly itself. For those few seconds, he was no longer an Earth-bound ape, strapped to a mechanical kite. For those few seconds, he was a natural-born creature of the air instead; weightless, and in love with the wind.

Then reality intruded. War.

Bślcke rocked his wings and pointed down. Five hundred meters below, a flight of dark-colored aeroplanes were briefly silhouetted against the chalk-white moonscape of No Man’s Land. Before Manfred could count them all, they disappeared under a thin stratum of cloud. A nervous flutter tickled his lungs. Up front, Bślcke held his course—and did nothing. 

A few moments later, Manfred saw why.

Black puffs of smoke started broaching the milky haze below; flack, from the German front-line batteries. Like footprints in the snow, the steady barrage left a trail for the hunters to follow. And follow it they did, tracking east across the line. Eventually though, flack bursts petered out.

What now? Manfred wondered. Up ahead was a wide break in the clouds. Beyond it lay a dazzling white ribbon of arrow-straight highway: The Bapaume-Cambrai road. Bślcke led them straight there, as if he knew something. Another minute or two passed.

As they reached the edge of the cloud deck, Manfred looked down, his expectations low. The sky was vast. Aeroplanes were small. What were the odds that—

Ha!  There!

A distinct, oblong blur flickered across the terrain below. Manfred blinked twice, wiped the condensation from his goggles and looked again. Yes! The shadow of an airplane! And six more spots of shade alongside!

The planes themselves materialized, and it was the same gang of brutes from before. “Vickers,” in the parlance of The Front: big, ungainly, two-seat lattice-tails—typically armed to the teeth with guns and bombs, and always intent on some sort of mischief.

Manfred looked to his leader, eager to follow his every command—

Except the one that was issued.

No, no, that couldn’t be right, thought Manfred. He stared blankly at his flight leader, forcing the man to repeat the same series of hand-signals. In disbelief, Manfred tapped his own head, and pointed tentatively down towards the English formation. Bślcke smiled and nodded vigorously.

Manfred felt his mind go blank, like a nervous student, suddenly handed a test he hadn’t studied for. Bślcke was asking him to lead the attack.  His first ever. On a whole enemy staffel. And what choice did he have? If he showed cold now, he might as well fly back to Velu and pack his bags.  Already, Bślcke was sliding back behind him, while the rest of the formation spread out laterally.   

Schiss…

Manfred drew a quick breath. It rattled around in his lungs like a pfennig in an empty tin can.

Those aren’t haystacks down there, he reminded himself, looking down at the lattice-tails. No indeed. They were men with guns. Men who did not wish to be killed, and would fight for their lives. Bślcke made killing such men seem easy—a matter of geometry and arithmetic—but Manfred was not convinced. The longer he hesitated though, the more likely they would see him coming.

There was only one thing to do. Commit. Now.

Let them be haystacks, he thought. Rote training took over after that.   

Throttle—idle. Nose up.  Steady, steady . . . Now! Roll right—

The world flipped upside down. Manfred hung in his straps, weightless. Picking one target from the middle of the formation, he pulled back on the stick until he had the Vickers of his choice captured within the narrow slot between his engine and his upper wing.

Now stop! Roll again—stick and rudder together, carefully. . .

Eyes fixed on the lattice-tail, Manfred forced the sky to pivot around it. Everything swapped places again as he rolled back upright. The enemy crate only wobbled a little in the center of it all. Not bad.

Aim. And hold . . .

Peering through his starboard gun-site, Manfred rested his thumbs on the spade-like control-column triggers. There was one for each gun, and third to fire both together—but he knew better than to shoot too soon.

Closer. Kill with first bullet.

As the British machine swelled in size, the big, colorful roundels on its wings stared back at Manfred like the hypnotic false eyes on a butterfly. Fixated, he waited a moment too long, before mashing the trigger.

Now!

A short, jagged burst erupted from his guns, rattling Manfred’s teeth. He was falling out of the sky like a meteor by then, every rational instinct crying out in warning. With the Vickers filling the whole of his vision, Manfred shoved the control column forward with fear-strength—until his fists struck the instrument panel. Blood rushed to his head. The whole flight of lattice-tails rose up like cardboard stage scenery, yanked heavenward on invisible wires. One moment, they were below him; the next he was looking up at their tan-colored underbellies.

Cursing, he yanked back on the control-stick. Hard. At once, the air was driven from his lungs under the weight of an invisible giant, crushing him into his seat.

The world turned grey, but he held fast.

The belly of a Vickers loomed. Manfred fired. The tracers fell harmlessly away. An instant later, he was bracing for impact, slicing almost vertically between one machine and the next. His plane bucked violently, passing through a stream of propwash. Then he was through.

Manfred relaxed on the stick and took an overdue breath. Color returned to his sight, vivid as a Spring day, but his mind had gone strangely blank. Time slowed. All around him, the sky was filled with rolling, diving, swirling aircraft. Bright-orange tracers danced across the air like fire flies on a summer evening. It was breathtaking and terrifying all at once, and he had no idea what to do about any of it. A cowardly urge to flee slipped into his consciousness; his inner-schweinehund, beckoning softly with the promise of safety.

He wanted to run.

He wanted to hide.

He wanted to sleep.

Of course, all the while, the nose of his machine was still pointed almost straight up, his airspeed fading away like a half-remembered dream. With a shudder, the Albatros keeled over, cartwheeling sideways.

That did it. Shocked from his reverie by seeing the Earth and sky swap places, Manfred froze the controls in what he hoped was a neutral position, just as Georg Zeumer had taught him. He held on tightly.

Then Fate intervened. Or luck.

After a brief gyration, the heavy-nosed Albatros pointed its bullet-shaped snout downward and started flying again. By raw happenstance, one of the British lattice-tails flew right below him as he regained control. That presented Manfred with a split-second decision—

Run. Or fight.

Inner-schweinehund be damned, Manfred made his choice.

Fight!

Tony Fokker’s magic synchronizing gear did the rest. Two perfectly-timed streams of rifle-caliber bullets passed without interference through the Albatros fighter’s whirling prop. The shot was almost perfect. Manfred led his target as though he were shooting partridges back home in the Nonnenbusch. But at the last instant, the British pilot rolled his crate to the left. Instead of cutting a deadly swath through the Vickers’ cockpit, Manfred’s guns stitched a line of holes through its wing instead.

From that point on, there might as well have been no other planes in the sky over France that day. The only one that concerned Manfred was the one before him—

He dove in behind.

Overshot. Turned back.

Fired wide. Overshot again.

Rolled behind once more.

—like a crow harassing a buzzard, he circled his little scout around the much-larger British crate in a series of fluid, diving turns, forcing it lower and lower. The big Vickers proved surprisingly agile, and its pilot had no shortage of pluck. So too, the gunner. The man was literally standing on the nose of his crate, firing a swivel-mounted Lewis gun over his pilot’s head to ward off Manfred’s every attack. His courage was a magnificent.

Forced to cut to the outside of the turn yet again to avoid being struck, Manfred finally let his building anger and impatience get the best of him. Disaster struck: one moment, he was turning hard, wings clawing at the air; the next, he was upside down, hanging by his shoulder straps. Stall! Verdammt!

His recovery was clumsy this time. He tumbled; fell through a scattered layer of clouds before he could submit the plane to his will again. Worst of all, he lost sight of his enemy. That was a cardinal sin in the Dicta Bślcke. Close to panic, Manfred searched all around.

Nothing . . . Nothing . . . Nothing . . .

God Damn it! Where was that blasted lattice-tail?

A shadow fell across his cockpit, and Manfred drew a startled breath. Hovering above and slightly behind him, in the perfect killing perch, was the Vickers. The observer’s Lewis gun was pointed squarely at his face.

That should have been the end. Should have been—but wasn’t.

Instead of firing, the Englishmen swept his gun the other way, and the lattice-tail sailed serenely by. Manfred was almost too surprised to react. What? he thought, wondering how he was still alive. Then it came to him.

He can’t see you.

Through some strange alchemy of light, the layer of mist between them must have been totally opaque from above.

Manfred could have escaped then, easily. None would have been the wiser. But if the thought even entered his mind, he pushed it aside so quickly it failed to register. Instead, he fixed his eyes upon his adversary—his prey, now—and steadied up on the controls. Moving like a hunter on the stalk, he slipped under the Vicker’s tail and coaxed his own machine upward through the mist.

Higher. Closer. Higher. Closer.

The British crate was just an oblong silhouette against the glare of the morning sky; a shadow growing ever larger. Manfred let it. He waited until it blocked out the sun entirely.

Then, he unleashed Hell.


 
« Last Edit: April 22, 2019, 05:01:19 PM by An Albatross Man »

Offline Stayce

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Well, they say to write about what you know, and it's clear that you know flying, or at least more about it than me.

I think your descriptions work well. I can generally follow the action and 'read' the unfolding drama of Manfred's attempts to bring down the enemy plane. You have a nice clipped style that keeps the prose flowing and reflects how split-second flying one of those old WWI era planes must have been.

I also like your description of Manfred. I only know a little about the Red Baron, but I like how you've captured this 'first time out' moment, and how uncertain even the greatest must be when they are beginning their careers.

To me, the downside is that the action does start to drag, purely in the sense that this particular sequence seems to go on for quite a while. I've read similar books before, and it is perhaps more reflective of my taste than genuine criticism, but I find keeping up with extended action in prose to be quite tiring, and I start skimming until the scene or situation changes.

There were also one or two paragraph breaks that I felt interrupted the flow of your ideas rather than helping them. An early example would be the following:

Quote
They swooped down into splendid, sunlit valleys. They darted through impermanent caverns in the clouds. The beauty all around was intoxicating, hypnotic.

Tense and miserable though he was, there were moments when Manfred’s hands would go light on the controls and the plane seemed to fly itself. For those few seconds, he was no longer an Earth-bound ape, strapped to a mechanical kite. For those few seconds, he was a natural-born creature of the air instead; weightless, and in love with the wind.

I felt that here, the paragraph break actually interrupted your description of the beauty of flight, and the tense and miserable line stands out in its placement as again breaking up the description.

Anyway, maybe I'm way off base with all of this. I still really enjoyed it and thought that overall it worked in the manner which you intended.
 

Offline An Albatross Man

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Thanks very much for your thoughtful input.  The particular part your singled out as being disrupted by the paragraph break had caught my attention as well, but I left it as-is to see if it was just me being overly self-critical. Since you reacted the same way, I gather I was being *appropriately self-critical* and will revise as required.

As for the overall length of the sequence, I am sensitive to the concept of action-fatigue, but also strongly wish to capture how intense life-or-death events get drawn out in perception. Ten seconds can seem like ten minutes when you're working hard to stay alive. To portray that without actually making the sequence too long is a deft balancing act--which I am still working on. Clearly.  :)

It is worth noting however that context plays a role, I think, in a reader's patience.  You're reading this scene here in isolation--as if it where the opening pages of a book.  In reality, this is the climax of the novel's first act. (I tend to think in three-act format, because my formal training as a writer was in theater and film) If I did my job right in the first few chapters, steadily building tension and anticipation, the length of this sequence may not be such an issue.  That is the danger of reviewing a large work, one small piece at a time. A single tree does not a forest make.

Anyway, I will see if I can clip a few corners, sand off the rough edges and re-post if I think its any better. Thanks again for your thoughts.


Offline An Albatross Man

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Take II.  I pulled about 120 words out.  Not much, but it may be enough to help keep the action from dragging on too long. 

Over the Front, southwest of Bapaume

It was always humbling to fly on Oswald Bślcke’s wing, especially for a beginner. Manfred was not exactly a beginner anymore; but all that vin rouge still swishing about in his ears from the night before made him feel like one. Never again, he told himself. He couldn’t even hide his mistakes by being last in formation today. Bślcke had him up front—where his shoddy air-work was on full display.

At least it wasn’t up to him to find the enemy.  The Somme was awash that afternoon in billowing cumulous and shimmering curtains of rain. Any number of enemy planes could have been hiding in that surreal landscape. Or none at all. If there was one man who could sniff out a Tommy in all that though, it was Bślcke. Manfred had already come to accept that his captain had senses beyond those of ordinary men. He needed no further proof. 

Under Bślcke’s steady lead, Manfred and the four other German fliers skirted massive vertical walls of mist. They swooped down into splendid, sunlit valleys. They darted through impermanent caverns in the clouds. The beauty all around was intoxicating, hypnotic. Miserable though he was, there were moments when Manfred’s hands went light on the controls; when the plane seemed to fly itself. For those few seconds, he was no longer an Earth-bound ape, strapped to a mechanical kite, and fighting a hangover. For those few seconds, he was a natural-born creature of the air instead; weightless, and in love with the wind. But of course, all that was Bślcke’s doing. Not his own. And rather soon, reality intruded.

War, specifically.

Manfred saw Bślcke rock his wings twice and point. It was a signal. Down below, a flight of dark-colored aeroplanes had silhouetted themselves against the chalk-white moonscape of No Man’s Land. They vanished again under a thin strata of cloud before Manfred could count them—but that wasn’t a problem for long. Right on cue, the German flack batteries opened-up on the intruders. Black puffs of smoke broached the milky haze below, leaving an unmistakable trail. Bślcke turned east to follow it, like a hunter, tracking footprints in the snow.

Up ahead, Manfred saw a distant break in the clouds, framing a dazzling-white ribbon of arrow-straight highway: The Bapaume-Cambrai road. Could that be the Englishmen’s target? Bślcke seemed to think so. Even after the flack trail below subsided, he kept leading them in that direction. Another minute with no sign of their intended prey. By the time they reached the edge of the cloud deck, Manfred’s expectations had diminished. The sky was vast. Aeroplanes were small. What were the odds that they would cross paths again when—

Ha!  There!

He saw their shadows first: six oblong blurs flickering across the terrain below. He wiped his goggles and looked again. Only then did his eyes catch hold of the planes themselves. It was the same gang of brutes from before. “Vickers,” in the parlance of The Front: big, ungainly, two-seat lattice-tails—typically armed to the teeth with guns and bombs, and always intent on some sort of mischief.

Manfred looked to his leader, eager to follow his every command—

Except the one that came.

No, no, that couldn’t be right, thought Manfred. He stared blankly ahead, forcing his captain to repeat the same series of hand-signals. In disbelief, Manfred tapped his own head and pointed tentatively down towards the English formation. Bślcke smiled and nodded.

Manfred’s mind went blank, like a tardy student handed a test he hadn’t studied for. Bślcke was asking him to lead the attack.  His first ever. On a whole enemy staffel. And what choice did he have? If he showed cold now, he might as well fly back to Velu and pack his bags. Already, Bślcke was sliding back behind him, while the rest of the formation spread out laterally.   

Schiss…

Manfred drew a quick breath. It rattled around in his lungs like a pfennig in an empty tin can.

Those aren’t haystacks, he reminded himself, looking down at the lattice-tails. No indeed. They were men with guns. Men would fight for their lives. Bślcke made killing such men seem easy—a matter of geometry and arithmetic—but Manfred was not convinced. The longer he hesitated though, the more likely they would see him coming; and that would only make things harder.

There was only one thing to do.

Let them be haystacks, he thought. Rote training took over.   

Throttle—idle. Nose up.  Steady, steady . . . Now! Roll right—

The world upended. Manfred hung in his straps, weightless. Picking one target from the middle of the formation, he pulled back on the stick until he had it captured through the narrow slot between his engine and his upper wing.

Now stop! Roll again—stick and rudder together, carefully. . .

Eyes fixed on the lattice-tail, Manfred forced the sky to pivot around it. Everything swapped places again as he rolled upright. The enemy crate only wobbled a little in the center of it all. Not bad.

Aim. And hold . . .

Peering through his starboard gun-site, Manfred rested his thumbs on the spade-like control-column triggers. There was one for each gun, and third to fire both together—but he knew better than to shoot too soon.

Closer. Kill with first bullet.

The British machine swelled in apparent size, the roundels on its wings starring back at Manfred like the hypnotic false eyes on a butterfly. Fixated, he waited perhaps a moment too long.

Now!

A short, jagged burst erupted from the guns, rattling Manfred’s teeth—but with the Vickers filling the whole of his vision, panic took hold. He shoved the control column forward until his fists struck the instrument panel. Blood rushed to his head. The whole flight of lattice-tails rose up like cardboard stage scenery, yanked heavenward on invisible wires. One moment, they were below him; the next he was looking up at their tan-colored underbellies.

Cursing, he yanked back on the control-stick. Hard. The air was driven from his lungs under the weight of an invisible giant, crushing him into his seat.

The world turned grey, but he held fast.

The belly of a Vickers loomed. Manfred fired. The tracers arced harmlessly away. An instant later, he was bracing for impact, slicing vertically between one machine and the next. His plane bucked violently. No collision—just propwash. Then he was through. 

Manfred relaxed on the stick and took an overdue breath. Color returned to his sight, vivid as a Spring day, but his mind had gone strangely blank. Time slowed. All around him, the sky was filled with rolling, diving, swirling aircraft. Bright-orange tracers danced across the air like fire flies on a summer evening. It was breathtaking and terrifying all at once, and he had no idea what to do about any of it. A cowardly urge to flee slipped into his consciousness; his inner-schweinehund, beckoning softly with the promise of safety.

He wanted to run.

He wanted to hide.

He wanted to sleep.

Of course, all the while, the nose of his machine was still pointed straight up, his airspeed fast-bleeding away. With a shudder, the Albatros keeled over, cartwheeling sideways.

Seeing the Earth and sky swap places finally shocked Manfred from his trance. That, and almost being thrown from the cockpit. He tightened his grip on the controls, holding them neutral even as the machine corkscrewed in a series of wild gyrations. After at least three full turns, the angry Albatros finally submitted, pointing its bullet-shaped snout firmly downward.

That was the moment Fate intervened. Or luck.

By raw happenstance, a lattice-tail flew right in front of Manfred’s guns as he regained control, presenting him with a split-second decision.

Run. Or fight.

Inner-schweinehund be damned, Manfred made his choice.

Fight!

Tony Fokker’s magic synchronizing gear did it’s work. Two perfectly-timed streams of rifle-caliber bullets passed without interference through the Albatros’s whirling prop. Only a last-second roll to the right saved the British pilot and observer from being killed outright. A ragged line of holes perforated their left wing instead.

Manfred was so close he saw the bullets hit. He saw the enemy crew flinch in surprise. Suddenly it was all very real. He felt tethered to the other ship as if by an invisible string. And he was not letting go.

They rolled further right. He dove in behind.

They rolled left. He overshot and turned back, firing all the while.

The big Vickers proved agile, its pilot full of that famous British pluck. So too, the observer. He was literally standing on the nose of his crate, firing a swivel-mounted Lewis gun over the top wing to ward off Manfred’s every attack. His courage was a magnificent. And maddening.

Forced to cut to the outside of the turn yet again to avoid being struck, Manfred let his building frustration get the best of him. One moment, he was turning hard, wings clawing at the air; the next, he was upside down, hanging by his shoulder straps. Stall! Verdammt!

His recovery was clumsy this time. He fell through a scattered layer of clouds before he could submit the plane to his will again. Worst of all, he lost sight of his enemy—a cardinal sin. Close to panic, Manfred searched all around.

Nothing . . . Nothing . . . Nothing . . .

Then a shadow fell across his cockpit. Manfred spun around. Hovering above and behind him, in the perfect killing perch, was the Vickers. The observer’s Lewis gun was pointed squarely at his face.

That should have been the end. Should have. But wasn’t.

The Englishmen swept his gun the other way, and the lattice-tail sailed serenely by. Manfred blinked, wondering why he was still alive. It came to him.

He can’t see you.

Through some strange alchemy of light, the layer of mist between them must have been totally opaque from above.

Manfred could have escaped then. None would have been the wiser. If the thought even entered his mind though, he pushed it aside so quickly it failed to register. Instead, he fixed his eyes upon his adversary—his prey, now—and steadied up on the controls. Moving like a hunter on the stalk, he slipped under the Vicker’s tail and coaxed his own machine upward through the mist.

Higher. Closer. Higher. Closer.

The British crate was just an oblong silhouette against the glare of the morning sky. He waited until it blocked out the sun entirely. Then, he unleashed Hell.

* * *

If any of that tickled your fancy, you can find out more than you ever wanted to know about this project at my website and blog:  https://vhdova.com/dreams/
« Last Edit: April 23, 2019, 03:45:21 PM by An Albatross Man »

Offline Kit

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Hi Albatross,

I read your second take.  Your expertise in flying comes shining through as you incorporate it successfully into the story.  There is a lovely balance between full sentences and short phrases that keep a forward momentum.  I could easily visualize what was happening.

Your opening paragraph shows that Manfred was suffering from a hangover and therefore had shoddy air-work.  Then, when it comes time, he is a capable flyer and able to beat the enemy.  This feels like a disconnect to me.  Of course, I don’t know the story before this, but I wonder why would he chose to drink to excess the night before going into combat?

I enjoyed the story.  Thanks for sharing!

Best,

Kit

Offline An Albatross Man

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Hi Albatross,

I read your second take.  Your expertise in flying comes shining through as you incorporate it successfully into the story.  There is a lovely balance between full sentences and short phrases that keep a forward momentum.  I could easily visualize what was happening.

Thanks. As you can see by the fact that I posted two versions, I am still chasing my idea here, but its good to know I'm getting close.

Your opening paragraph shows that Manfred was suffering from a hangover and therefore had shoddy air-work.  Then, when it comes time, he is a capable flyer and able to beat the enemy.  This feels like a disconnect to me.

Interesting that you see a disconnect. For me, there's no disconnect because I see him screwing up repeatedly after the attack starts. I mean he gets the initial set-up okay, but obviously over-cooks his first firing run, almost crashes into the bomber, just-about G-locks himself, then proceeds to depart controlled flight not once, but twice. Oh, and he has a hard time keeping on the tail of a lumbering aircraft that is much less agile than the one he's flying. Only at the end, when he accidentally finds himself in a good position, is he able to get a killing shot of.  Overall, he flies terribly, but redeems himself with sheer fortitude and courage.

Clearly, I need to do a better job of conveying that. I thought I had.

 

Of course, I don’t know the story before this, but I wonder why would he chose to drink to excess the night before going into combat?

Anxiety, pent-up anticipation, and peer pressure can make an otherwise sensible person do some pretty dumb stuff. And Manfred was never a big drinker, so it doesn't take that much over-indulgence before he bemoaning the after-affects.

I think in the context of the book, it's pretty clear that his flying troubles depicted here are more a result of holding on too tight, and worrying about not being good enough. When survival instinct or training take over, he actually flies pretty well. Its just when he "in his head" too much (over-thinking everything) that he does poorly.

That was me as a student/nugget aviator too, come to think of it.  :) 

And BTW there is a long and glorious tradition of pilots flying into combat with hangovers (or even still schlitz for that matter). Hell, some guys do their best work that way. Pappy Boyington, anyone? (Google him)

Anyway, thanks for reading Kit. I appreciate your reply.