I was in Eastbourne yesterday. For those of you outside the UK it’s one of the many Southern seaside towns on the so-called “English Riviera”, a beautifully preserved relic of a bygone era full of Georgian and Victorian architecture with a deserved reputation of being one of those places where people go to die. I kid you not; walk around its main shopping area on any given day and the shuffling hordes of senior citizens might have you questioning whether it wouldn’t be the ideal place for the Special Forces to train for the Zombie Apocalypse!

So why was I there? Well, for one weekend every August it plays host to Airbourne, the annual airshow paid for out of the town’s coffers which lays claim to being the biggest free event of its kind in the world. Plus the Vulcan was coming and since this will be her last ever flying season I am going to grab every chance I get to see the old girl before she is grounded for eternity. That ghostly silhouette in the hazy distance, the unsettling knowledge that she was designed with Armageddon aforethought and that unearthly howl she makes at around 90% engine power, more animal than mechanical, bellowing like a wounded dragon and gripping my soul with talons of ice and fire. Special stuff.

But what, you may be thinking, does this have to do with motoring? This is a car blog isn’t it? Well bear with me.

The night before I had collected Junior and we had driven over to stay with my Mum in Hastings, about 15 miles further east. We would get up in the morning, drive most of the way then park at a nearby station and jump the train two stops into the town thereby avoiding the traffic congestion that gets worse the closer you get to the event. Except we didn’t. That 15 mile sortie which on an average day should take between 30 and 40 minutes instead took over two hours. The reason? A collision between a car and a biker causing the closure of our route for over an hour. We were one of the first to drive past the scene once the road reopened and whilst I abhor rubbernecking a swift sideways glance as we passed suggested that the poor bugger in leathers was going to need a bit more than a Band-Aid and some aspirin before he could think about getting his knee down in a tight right any time soon.

There is, however, more of an aviation connection to this than our destination might suggest. Let me explain. I passed my driving test first time after 6 hours of lessons. 6 hours. There wasn’t even a written aspect to the thing back then and the practical side was less than 25 minutes’ driving and a few questions on the Highway Code. At the end of which I was handed a piece of paper which allowed me, an 18 year old male, to go out in public in charge of a ton and a half of machinery capable of maiming or killing me and anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught in the firing line.

Fast forward to my early 30s and having just become a parent and acquired the keys to an Impreza Turbo wagon I figured some extra training might be in order so I enrolled with the Institute of Advanced Motorists and while they may have been dismissed by the Top Gear Trio as a bunch of pedantic wheel-shufflers their methods are rooted in the same training given to police pursuit drivers. And this is where we start to get to the point.

One of the first things my observer (they are “observers” and “assessors” not “instructors” and “examiners”) pointed out to me is that “90% of the people on the roads drive round in a state of unconscious incompetence”. That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it? And you’re pondering it and nodding your head in a sage fashion, probably. I’m even willing to bet you a pint next time you’re in the Seagull & Cesspit that at some point someone has confided in you that they have arrived at their destination in their car with absolutely no memory of the journey. Or that you’ve done that very thing yourself.

Now compare that to flying. I’ve done a bit over the years and to be honest it really isn’t all that difficult. Not the basics anyway. I’ve never had the means to gain any kind of license but even my limited hours meant that last summer, when a good friend of mine secured me some time in a professional training simulator, I was able to pilot a Dassault business jet out of Innsbruck in thick snow with a 30 knot crosswind and land it again without bending anything. So what’s the big difference between driving and flying?

Well to get a basic private pilot’s license you will spend a lot of time in a classroom, take several written exams and require a minimum of 40 hours flying time. And for that you can take off in perfect weather, fly to another airfield, have a cup of tea and fly back again. If you want to fly in wind or drizzle there’s another exam. Fog? Another one. Drive the ‘plane at night? Another one and so on. And the thing you will be required to do from start to finish on every single flight is to concentrate. Hard.

I once drove a Mercedes van from Frankfurt to Brighton in a day, unloaded the contents, cooked dinner and was ready to hit a nightclub that evening to party until the wee small hours! But flying? After 45 minutes in the Falcon 7X sim I was ready to curl up and sleep until Christmas. It was exhausting, and I was only handling the major controls without having to worry about fuel levels, air traffic control, passenger comfort……

Which brings me to the point. For almost as long as the automobile and the aeroplane have co-existed people have tried to make a machine that performs the functions of both. As I write this several companies are testing prototypes, seeking investment or filling YouTube with skillfully rendered CGI of the thing that could be on your driveway in a decade or so. The problem is that if the vast majority of drivers can’t be trusted to pay attention on the roads what will happen when we give them wings? Most people struggle in two dimensions with kids squabbling on the school run; adding a third would simply be chucking another pint of bat’s blood into an already overflowing cauldron and that, pardon the pun, spells disaster.

There is, however, some comfort to be gained. Another long-held motoring pipe dream is the autonomous car and happily it is much closer to reality, so close in fact that the chances of being able to buy a car that drives itself before the end of the current decade are looking very high indeed. As that technology advances it won’t require a great leap to apply it to something that can fly, which means if the car ever does get off the ground we can rest easy in the knowledge that people won’t be in charge and it won’t be raining bits of Benz and Beemer every time your neighbour heads to work with a bit of hangover.

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