Every year at Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield near Stratford on Avon the XM655 MaPS (Maintenance and Preservation Society) team of Vulcan enthusiasts who look after Vulcan XM655 hold their Wings and Wheels Open Day. This annual occasion allows these enthusiasts to proudly show off their Vulcan aircraft to the public. Most of you who read my blogs will be aware that XM655 features highly in the VTTS aircrew pre-season training and I feel quite privileged when the XM655 MaPS team invite me down to Wellesbourne to assist in the running of their aircraft during their Open Day. When I did the same thing last year I was in the company of Martin Withers who was standing in for David Thomas (he couldn’t attend due to commitments with the Waddington Air show).
This year however, David was there along with Michael Pollitt, who as most of you will recall, was the VTTS Operations Director until a couple of years ago. The ‘dream’ team of David, Michael and myself, have long been associated with 655 and have been starting up and taxiing that particular aircraft for over a decade. For those of you who have never been to the Wings and Wheels Day, the highlight of the day is when XM655 is started up in front of the public and taxied out onto the runway, where we then open up the throttles to complete a fast run down the runway. There are many other events going on during the day too involving fly pasts by other display teams who are either on their way to or returning home from air shows. This particular weekend was the Cosford Air show and as a consequence, several of the display teams participating in that show had agreed to visit Wellesbourne either on their way to or from the Air show. Such is the reputation of the MaPS organisation, that very rarely do they get a negative answer when they ask some of the display teams to do either a flypast or maybe even a mini display.
The whole day runs seamlessly, and is all ‘stitched’ together by a continual commentary by David Rowlands. David is an ex Concorde captain from his days when he was flying with British Airways and is an extremely experienced aviator. Not only that, he was President of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2008-9 and is always held in high regard by all who know him in the aviation world.
Our weekend normally starts with the aircrew assembling at the airfield cafe on the Saturday morning when we can catch up with what we’ve all been doing since we last met. Of course, being in an airfield cafe there were plenty of other aviators around us many of whom are Vulcan enthusiasts. Needless to say, each and every one of them in the cafe wanted to know the latest state of play with 558. It was really encouraging to see that there was no anger or bitterness at the fact that 558 had had a bit of a mishap which has unfortunately resulted in us missing the initial displays of the 2012 display season. All of the aviators just wanted to know when she would be out of the hangar again and available to fly. This seemed to be the general view of all who we met over the weekend whether they were aviators or just aviation enthusiasts. No anger at 558’s situation, just a great deal of continuing support, and a genuinely held pragmatic view that accidents happen in all walks of life and that we were just unfortunate to have had one when we did.
No one tried to question us about what our thoughts were on the matter, they were all just genuinely concerned that at least no one had been hurt. As one member of the public said to me “engines can be replaced, aircrew and ground crew can’t”. Obviously, the truthful and ‘up front’ statements put out by the VTTS had satisfied all those who were genuine enthusiasts and that was sufficient for them.
Having done our social chatting, it was soon time to start work. Once our pre flight walk around of the aircraft to check everything externally was in order had been completed, we started up the aircraft to make sure that all was working as advertised. With the checks completed, we took 655 for a ‘walk’ in a figure of eight on the disused runway to check out the nose wheel steering and braking system. As we sat comfortably in the cockpit doing our checks, the sky got darker and darker and eventually, it poured with rain. The ground crew outside were all huddled under the wings to try and keep dry, but most of them eventually got soaked once we started to taxi. Seeing these poor bedraggled technicians getting soaked was a salutary reminder to me what a wonderful bunch of guys they are. Their enthusiasm for 655 knows no bounds and they were quite prepared to get soaked to the skin to ensure that their ‘baby’ could do her thing.
Anyway, having checked out all the aforementioned systems we taxied the aircraft down to the end of the runway. Once there, the pilots applied a modicum of power in order to commence a fastish run of about 40 knots back down the runway. This was to check out the braking system for the following day’s events. Satisfied that all was working well, the pilots taxied the aircraft back to the starting point where we shut her down.
This might be an appropriate time to mention that although we had the ‘dream team’ organised to taxi the aircraft, David Thomas had decided to stay down the back with me because we had been joined by retired Group Captain John Laycock and David had given up his pilot’s seat so that John could taxi the aircraft with Mike Pollitt. John Laycock, as many of you who have read the book Vulcan 607, written by Rowland White will remember, was the Station Commander of RAF Waddington back in 1982 when the Falklands Campaign was being fought.
It was John who commanded and oversaw all that went on at RAF Waddington during that period. It was through his great leadership and genuine concerns and affection for his aircraft engineers, his aircrews and the rest of his Station personnel, that ensured the Vulcan force did the magnificent job that they did when they were tasked with the bombing of the runway at Port Stanley. John, as he climbed into the aircraft, was mistakenly under the impression that he was going to be standing on the ladder between the two pilots. He thought that he was just coming along for the ride and to experience travelling in the Vulcan once again after nearly 30 years away from the aircraft. Little did he know that David had hatched a cunning plan in cahoots with Charles Brimson who is in charge of the MaPS organisation. Between them, they had agreed that John should act as co pilot to Mike and that David would stand on the steps between them to monitor what was going on and give assistance should it be needed. As John said afterwards, climbing into the Vulcan was like finding and putting on, after many years, a pair of his most comfortable shoes and once he was in the aircraft it felt as if he had never been away.
As we progressed through the checks, I was amazed that even after several decades away from the aircraft, John could still remember quite a lot of the replies to the checks as I was reading them. Thinking that this was to be just a one-off experience for him he was stunned to find out that he was going to act as the co pilot for the following day too. Talk about a dog with two tails!! While John was having a wonderful time up the front, I had my own surprises lined up too for the lucky persons who had been selected from the ground support personnel to travel with me down the back. I had two people with me, one of whom, Ben, is a young teenage boy and the other was David, one of the very skilled technicians who had made, from fibreglass, 4 x 1000lb replica bombs which we were carrying in the bomb bay. Little did these guys know that one of them was going to operate the electrical generating systems, under my supervision of course, when we were doing the start-up of the aircraft and the other would operate them for the shut down procedure. I was quite impressed with their confidence when playing with such a myriad of switches and dials. Don’t want them to do it too often though -otherwise I’ll be out of a job!!
This had set the tone for the events of the following day. At 1130 we were to start up and taxi the aircraft out on to the runway once more, for a slow amble past the assembled crowds so that they could take photos as we passed in front of them. We usually select the airbrakes out and open the bomb doors so that they can photo the aircraft in all of its different configurations. Once again, Mike and John were up the front with David in attendance, while down the back, I had another couple of passengers, Avril and Damaris, who once again were acting as pseudo AEOs, operating the AEOs panel under my close supervision. Having reached the end of the runway and after ensuring that the two passengers down the back with me were securely seated, Mike elected to accelerate the aircraft up to about 40 knots to run back down the runway to where we had started before taxiing in and subsequently, parked the aircraft in front of the crowd. As the day progressed with several over-flights by many different aircraft who had come to participate in the Open Day, it soon became time at 1330 for us to start up and taxi 655 once again.
This time Charles had agreed that my partner Rae, much to her surprise and delight, should be the passenger with us for the afternoon event. Although she has been into the Vulcan on previous occasions, she has never had the opportunity of seeing what happens when we start up the aircraft and taxi it. She has been such a stalwart and a source of constant support to me over the years. She has the patience of Job when I continually ramble on about what happens in the aircraft and I thought that at last, she could experience it all for herself. I was under the impression that she was going to be down the back with me to watch what it is that I do as the AEO, but before I knew it, David had positioned her on the ladder between the two pilots to watch the events from the pilot’s perspective. We also had Len who is one of the MaPS avionics technicians travelling with us, but for reasons known only to himself he elected to go down into the bomb aimers position in the nose and watch everything go by from the little window down there.
The checks progressed without a hitch and soon it was time for John to taxi the aircraft out onto the runway. It was at this stage that I heard a helicopter on the Air Traffic Control radio frequency saying that he was going to climb up to a few thousand feet and film the whole event. I heard him a bit later telling the controller that he had indeed filmed the event and had got some good pictures. Maybe if he reads this blog he might like to contact Charles Brimson to show Charles his footage. By now, we had reached the end of the runway and once Len and I were both securely strapped in down the back and Rae was securely held on the ladder by David, Mike and John opened up the throttles to 80 per cent power, held the aircraft on the footbrakes for a short while and then released them and wound the engines up to just below full power.
The aircraft leapt forward with ever increasing acceleration until we reached 80 knots when the throttles were then closed and the airbrakes were fully extended to slow the aircraft. At the same time the pilot, Mike, pulled back on the control column to raise the nose into that spectacular aerodynamic braking configuration, before gently lowering the nose back once again on to the runway so that the weight of the aircraft was on the nose wheel. Once that had been achieved the pilots could then commence braking and steer the aircraft using the nose wheel steering. It wasn’t long before we had slowed sufficiently for them to turn the aircraft around and taxi back to the dispersal where we were met by a very excited and appreciative crowd.
I think that we had pleased a lot of people that weekend, but none more so than John Laycock. I mentioned earlier that after the previous days events he was like a dog with two tails, simply because he had just done a figure of eight and a moderately fast run down the runway to test the aircraft brakes. Now, after having done two taxi runs including a higher speed fast run, his joy was plain to see. We all have a lot of respect and admiration for John and what he has done over the years and to be able to give him that small degree of pleasure meant as much to us who had served under him as it was for himself. Of course, Rae never stopped talking about how wonderful it was for her to have seen just a little bit of what we do in the aircraft, albeit from a pilot’s perspective, and by the time we had arrived back home in King’s Lynn, my ears were well and truly bent. She will have to travel with me down the back next time and see where the real work is done!!
Despite the occasional heavy downpour of rain it had been a wonderful weekend and spirits were never dampened. Our thanks must go to Charles Brimson for allowing us the privilege to operate the MaPS Vulcan and to all of his team of volunteers, who with great teamwork and dedication to their aircraft, ensure that whole event runs on rails.
Our thanks, too, go to David Rowlands for his superb commentary. It would be remiss of me not to mention that this event is the success it is due in no small part to the sponsorship given by those who kindly donate their hard-earned cash. I shan’t embarrass them by naming them but they know who they are. We aircrew look forward to operating XM655 once again either for our pre-season training for next year’s display season or at the 2013 Wings and Wheels Open Day.
That’s about it for this blog. Hopefully my next missive will be back to the events of XH558. As you all know, our next planned display will be at RAF Fairford and the Royal International Air Tattoo, so hopefully, I shall be writing about XH558’s participation in both. Thank you once again for taking the time to read this. Keep the faith!!