An encounter with the Divine that occured high up in the skies over Western Australia and a voice that was trying to communicate to me my true purpose in life.
Here I recount a borderline mystical experience that came literally out of the blue. It occurred under some unusual circumstances while I was piloting a single engine light aircraft near Perth, Australia. I'll also relate some of the relevant details of what was happening in my life, before and leading up to this strange episode.
The year was 1992. It was in January of that year that I found myself living in Hong Kong, slightly more than half a year after finishing university. It was the place of my birth, but I really nothing about the place, as my family had emigrated to the United Kingdom when I was only two years old. And I had never returned until making this expedition in my young adulthood. It was something of an odyssey of self discovery, a chance to visit my roots and perhaps learn something about who I was. So I made my way to Hong kong in late October of the previous year 1991. At first things went well, and I was very excited to be in an exotic part of the world. It really seemed like an adventure at first. I had the idea of staying on for a while and making a lot of money with ease and rapidity. I was filled with the optimism and boundless energy of youth. However I was also quite naive about various aspects of life. I still am. Anyway... things quickly deteriorated. I didn't speak the most commonly used local dialect so had to get by on just using english. Also the money I brought over from the UK started to run out. I found it difficult to get a job and was increasingly frustrated by my language barrier. Once the novelty of being in a different part of the world had worn off I then started to become more aware of the negative side to my circumstances. Also I was constantly being stopped by the police and asked for identification. This would typically happen when I was walking down the street or shopping somewhere. Why this kept happening was due to two reasons. Firstly the time in question was before the 1997 hand over of Hong Kong, by the United Kingdom, back to the China. So back then the local Hong kong police had a big problem with illegal immigration by chinese nationals seeking financial opportunities. So carrying ID was mandatory and all illegals were detained and subsequently deported. The second reason why I was constantly being stopped by the police is that my physical appearance was subtly but distinctly different from the locals. This is because I belong to a minority ethnic group, many of whom display unusual physical characteristics which distinguish us from most chinese people.
My particular ethic group is known as the 'hakka' which means 'The guest people', that is we are outsiders who became slowly assimilated into the local population over the centuries. However at the same time we retained our distinct language and customs. Having done a fair amount of research on the topic, it appears that our origins are unknown and mysterious. There are however many different theories which try to explain where we are from. One theory has it that we are the descendents of exiled rebel aristocrats and members of the imperial bureaucracy, who were expelled from Northern China after a big rebellion that failed. Other theories propose that we are descended from either huns, manchurians or mongols. No one really knows. Now, back to the story... So here I was in Hong kong, broke, unable to communicate and being harassed by the police. I was feeling a little lost and despairing. I didn't know what to do but an advertisement in a newspaper set my life on a new course.
I was reading the main english language newspaper of Hong Kong, the South China Morning post when I chanced upon an advert from Cathay Pacific airlines. The advertisement was calling for trainee pilots, no experience required. They'd train you up from scratch and then put you into the control deck of a jumbo jet. The advert caught my eye because it was an unusual job to see advertised and also because it took up most of the page. But at first it didn't really interest me. Being a pilot just wasn't one of those things that excited me very much. However I saw the salary offered, thought about the opportunities for travel and then I thought about my current situation. There was only one sensible thing to do under my present circumstances. I sent off for an application form. Soon I found myself spending a lot of time going to and from Hong kong airport where Cathay Pacific airlines had their headquarters. There I had to go through a lot of mental tests, medical examinations and interviews. Just about everything was examined, ones eyes, ones body, ones mental agility, ones reflexes and even ones personality. It was a lot of time consuming hassle but amazingly I managed to pass. So I got onto the initial stage of the training program and was sent off to do basic flying training. At first I was really quite indifferent about whether I succeeded in completing the training program or not. But as I got deeper into it, I started to really get into the idea of being an airline pilot. It really started to seem like a useful way out of my present predicament in life. I can remember getting quite excited by it all, it seemed that a host of new possibilities were opening up. I can also recall that, in my naivety, I seriously thought that once my training was complete, I could pursue my on going studies into the brain and mind while working full time as an airline pilot. I got the idea in my head that I'd be able to read my neuroscience books while the auto-pilot looked after the plane. I also pictured myself studying scientific papers about the brain and artificial intelligence, in fancy hotels all around the world, in between all the long distance flights. In retrospect, it all seems really silly now, but I was young back then and eager to have it all. So it was with this mindset that I set off for Perth, Australia.
So I found myself living on the grounds of an aerodrome located in a place called Janderkot, which is like a suburb of Perth, Australia. We lived in some pre-fabricated dwellings, a dozen of which were clustered together to house all the cadets who used the aerodrome's planes and airfields. We lived opposite the Air Indonesia cadets and also some trainee pilots from Malawi of all places. I settled in quite easily and found the climate quite agreeable. During the time of the year I was there, which was around February, Western Australia is like the Summer in the UK. Warm and temperate though we did have some days which were a little too hot. Anyway I soon got into the routine of being a cadet pilot. The daily routine would consist of a couple of flights supervised by an instructor. There was an early morning session and then another one in the afternoon. Also there were classes where we sat in lecture theatres and were taught relevant facts. At first I quite enjoyed it and liked the views from the plane while in the air. It was quite exciting. After the days training was over we would all relax and take it easy. Sometimes we would drive to Perth city centre and look around the place. I recall that we had a barbeque just about everyday and the food was very cheap to buy. I remember being stunned by how clear the night sky was and had never seen so many stars in my life.
Here is a photo of the airfield and also showing the West Australian sky that I would get to know so well. Together with the other cadets we lived in some prefabricated accommodation located next to the aerodrome, which itself was in the middle of nowhere. It was all quite surreal but I remember I got loads of thinking done while I was there.
So life went on like this for a bit. I lived an existence of flying small planes, eating a lot of barbequed food and hanging out in Perth. But then something happened which caused my interest in becoming a pilot to start to waver a bit. I can recollect the events which triggered this subtle change of mind set. It was due to my coming across some old magazines which quite inspired me and re-awakened a side of me that had been dormant for a while. It happened like this. One day my fellow cadets and I all drove together to Fremantle which is a nearby town. My impression of the place was that it seemed rather new age and hippy. We went to the town market and I stumbled across a pile of magazines from the late 70s called 'Omni'. I was an avid reader of Omni in my childhood even though it was quite an adult magazine and a mature read. My Big Brother used to buy it while he was at College and would pass them on to me. The magazine was a mix of technology, science, science fiction, psychology,ecology, arts and spirituality. It used to so inspire me in my pre-teens and used to fill my head with all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas. It definitely had a powerful influence on me during my childhood. Anyway... I bought a dozen or so copies and read through them over the next few days in my spare time. This had the effect of making me introspective and really stimulated the intellectual side of me. I seemed to re-discover my passion for learning and in particular my interest in brain science and artificial intelligence. Over the past few months, while I was struggling after moving to Hong Kong, my studies into the brain and mind really got sidelined a bit. But now I once again felt an intense motivation to learn about the brain and think about artificial intelligence. It came on as a strong yearning to pursue an old passion of mine, to understand how the human mind worked. However this created a dilemma. Here I was embarking upon a career as an airline pilot, but at the same time my real desire lay elsewhere. I found myself spending more and more time on my own, away from the other cadets. My brain seemed to really come alive with interesting thoughts. When not flying or in the lecture room, I would spend all my spare time reading and thinking. Often the cadets would ask me if I wanted to drive off with them on an expedition into town or some other place. However I would more often than not decline and stay at the aerodrome to do my own thing. I remember going for long walks in the middle of the night in the countryside around the airfields. The sky always seemed to be clear and the stars looked so bright. My immediate surroundings were really conducive to having focused concentration and so I had a lot of good ideas around this time. This state of affairs continued for a while but then something happened which would change the course of my life once again.
I was on a training flight and coming towards the end of the session. So I was maneuvering the plane, positioning it in order to make the final approach for landing. Everything was going fine but as we approached the runway I got a message from the control tower requesting that I use another runway because the wind had suddenly changed direction. The aerodrome had three different runways, all facing different directions. This was so pilots could avoid landing against strong cross winds, which could make things difficult. Anyway, so I did a lot more maneuvering and got the plane on course to land on one of the other runways. But then again it happened. We got another message from air traffic control telling us the wind direction had changed yet again! So we were advised to use the third runway. All this was a bit disorientating. For the second time I had to maneuver and re-position the plane for a third attempt at landing. While I was doing this a strange thing happened. Very suddenly everything went white and the loud noise of the plane's engine seemed to fade away into inaudibility.
This may not be widely known but sitting in the cockpit of a small single engine aircraft is a very very noisy experience. During all flights, headphones are worn. This is for two reasons. Firstly to protect the ears and hearing of the pilots. And also in order to allow communication between the occupants of the plane using the intercom system built into the headphones. It would be very difficult to communicate otherwise. But even with the headphones firmly in place, the sound of the engine is still pretty loud. So for things to suddenly go quiet was a pretty dramatic change of perception. Outside it was a grey and cloudy day but up in the air things still seemed pretty bright. However, along with my hearing going quiet on me, suddenly seeing only white light everywhere was very shocking indeed. I still had a sense of my body and who I was but it was as if I had been transported to some other place. At least it felt that way. It was as if I was no longer in the plane. This state persisted for what felt like several minutes. All the while I could still think. I recall that I was in quite an anxious state. The best way to describe my situation is that what was happening to me was a lot like one of those times when one wakes up in dream, realizing that one is dreaming but is unable to wake up in reality. But then I started to feel completely different. I felt calmer and in less of a panic. After this I felt a strong presence of someone or something and it was communicating with me. It was not talking to me in ordinary language, with words that I could repeat. It seemed to be communicating with me in pure thought. It was as if I was given thoughts to think that were not my own. Somehow these thoughts came from outside of me but were then projected directly into my mind. The message that I received if put into words would be something like 'Wai, this is not your purpose in life', 'Your destiny lies elsewhere' and 'You're needed to carry out a certain role in this World and this isn't it'. This seemed to go on for quite a while.
Then all of a sudden I snapped out of it. Suddenly the loud noise of the aircraft returned and I see the sky all around me. Through my headphones I could hear the flight instructor saying to me 'Wakey! Wakey!'. I realized too, that I was hyper-ventilating and also knew immediately that this heavy breathing would be clearly audible to the instructor through the microphone on my headset. God I thought, I've really screwed up. Very quickly I snapped back into action and got to grips with controlling the plane again. I must have passed out but judging from where the plane was I couldn't have been gone for that long. Certainly not more that 10 seconds or so. However it felt as if I had been away from the plane for many minutes, perhaps half an hour but this was impossible. Anyway... I proceeded to land the plane, it was a rough landing as I still wasn't totally together. After taxiing the plane back to the hanger I went back to my cabin. I was quite shook up and many thoughts were going through my head. I knew that flight was a disaster and would look very bad on my record. I started to become resigned to the fact that perhaps I didn't have the 'right stuff' after all. My hopes of becoming an airline pilot quickly unravelled. I felt despondent and uncertain about my future.
The time came when our performance as cadet pilots was assessed by the airline in consultation with the flight instructors. Sure enough as I expected, I was failed and expelled from the training program. I felt devastated by the decision. It was the first major failure in my life. Even though I never wanted to become an airline pilot until I saw the newspaper advertisement, as I went through the selection process I found myself desiring the position more and more. By the time I arrived at the aerodrome I seriously wanted to fly aeroplanes for a living. But that opportunity was no longer open to me, my ticket to a secure and stable life vanished into thin air. Now in retrospect I can look back on things philosophically, but back then it really felt like the end of the world.
My life, for a number of reasons, then entered into quite a dark period which lasted a number of years. After my time as a cadet pilot, I would experience a dramatic fall in life. I fell and kept falling. Less than a year after my involvement with Cathay pacific airlines, I found myself back in London, living with beggars, prostitutes and petty criminals. I would find myself eating food salvaged from rubbish skips and lighting up the remains of cigarettes that other people had discarded. During this time I recall that I would sometimes think about the message I received in the sky. However it could give me little comfort in my predicament but it perhaps did give me a sense that somehow my life had a higher purpose and meaning to it. The strange experience that I had in the plane back in Australia, probably gave me a greater awareness of a feeling of destiny. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that this almost certainly helped to provide me with the necessary hope which enabled me to go on pursuing my long term aims.
Here is a photo of me(in the middle) together with my fellow air cadets. Also pictured is one of the flying instructors and also the manager of the aerodrome. In the background is the main hanger and immediately behind us is one of the training aircraft that we flew. It was a plane called the GROB, manufactured in Germany and unusual because the wings and fuselage were manufactured from glass composite materials.