Don’t Mess With The Gods
We’re continually paying homage to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and rightly so. Vulcan has played a significant role in our lives over the past decade or so and he is never very far from the front of our thinking. Perhaps then we can be forgiven for becoming just a little bit blinkered and forgetting about all the other gods that may, or may not, play a part in each of our lives. While we mere mortals continue our daily lives we sometimes forget that the other gods are also looking down on us and any slight transgression will result in them taking their revenge. And so they did with a vengeance last Friday 6th July when our crew comprising Martin Withers, Phill O’Dell and me attempted to get airborne and fly 558 to the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford via Farnborough. We had been unforgivingly remiss and none of us had given thanks to the most senior of the Greek gods – Zeus, the god of wind and rain. He obviously took umbrage at the fact that we had ignored him and he took his revenge in the most dramatic fashion.
Our crew had met at the hotel the evening before the flight because we were scheduled for an early morning take-off. As dawn broke it became really apparent that neither the Met man nor we had consulted Zeus about the weather and as a consequence the heavens were unloading sheets of continuous rain. Now, we aircrew tend to be glass half full types of guys and so we assembled in the office at Robin Hood airfield to plan the day’s trip full of confidence that there was no way that the rain would continue to bucket it down. As our take off time came and went Zeus was still exacting his revenge. In my role as the crew AEO there wasn’t much I could do to contribute to the crew actions as the day progressed. My pre-flight work was done. My communications plan was already worked out but there was no point in ringing ahead to all the airfields we going to fly near to until such time as we could ascertain a take-off time.
Martin and Phill were continually on their mobile phones talking to the show organisers at both Farnborough and Fairford trying to rearrange display times while at the same time talking to the Met men along the route to ascertain whether the weather was going to improve sufficiently to let us get out of Robin Hood. Talk about knitting with smoke – as soon as the weather at Farnborough became within our limits to display the weather at Fairford would go out of limits and vice versa. Robin Hood weather was still marginal but with the promise from the Met man, who by this time I’m sure was in full conversation with Zeus, that it would get better later in the afternoon we were then totally reliant on the weather at our display airfields and the weather en-route before Martin could make a decision on whether we were going to be able to take off or not. Just as both Martin and Phill’s mobiles were going into melt-down suddenly Zeus decided that he had exacted enough revenge and stopped the rain at Doncaster. Not only that, he also stopped it not only along our route but at both Farnborough and Fairford. The knitting with smoke was paying off, due deference had been paid to Zeus, and after waiting around all day Martin was able to make the decision that we would have a go at flying southwards. We had already briefed the sortie earlier on in the day just in case everything happened suddenly. And so it transpired. Our umpteenth cup of tea was rapidly discarded down the kitchen sink, our kit was gathered together, and before we knew it we were at the aircraft to meet Taff and his team of engineers.
The aircraft was looking splendid and shiny with her new coat of paint. However, she looked as though she had been through a power wash after the torrential rain that had fallen on her and water was dripping from the many orifices under the wings and fuselage. I was a bit concerned that water may have ingressed into the power compartment where all of the electrical systems are controlled. This is a compartment located under the rudder area at the back of the aircraft and is a known area for water to accumulate if heavy rain has fallen. With a lot of water and subsequent damp in the compartment there is always the danger that it will result in arcing and sparking amongst the electrical relays. I was about to mention to Taff that I would like to ensure that his guys had mopped up in there when he pre-empted me by assuring me that they had just finished drying it all out just as we were on our way to the aircraft. As an electrician he was well aware of the potential problems with damp and had already sorted it out for me. Why is he always one step ahead of me!! Perhaps it’s all those years of working together and he now knows how my thinking goes.
By the time we climbed aboard the aircraft the evening was lovely with blue skies and some cloud in the distance along our route but not sufficient to concern us. The start checks were going well until we got as far as checking the flying controls when things started to go awry. For reasons best known to itself the rudder flying controls didn’t want to play nicely. Between us Taff and I checked the fuses, me in the cockpit checking the 28 volt ones and he in the power compartment checking the big 200 volt AC fuses. All seemed to be ok but still the rudder wouldn’t work properly. Eventually we ran out of time for us to make our arrivals at both Farnborough and Fairford and so Martin had to make the painful decision for us all to climb out and try again in the morning. All very frustrating but that’s the way it was. With very heavy hearts we left Taff and his team to fix the aircraft, which they did quite quickly, and we aircrew went back to our hotel. I could see that Martin and Phill were both extremely frustrated and mentally exhausted after having spent all day on their mobiles arranging timings and then re-arranging them as the weather was changing and then we were then thwarted by a technical problem with the aircraft possibly due to the heavy rain the aircraft had been subjected to. We did perk up a little bit when Taff rang us just after we had checked in to say that his engineers had fixed the problem and the aircraft was ready to go the next morning.
Very early the next morning I looked out of my hotel window to see that there was a very heavy mist but felt confident that as the sun climbed higher in the sky what little heat there was from it through the clouds would soon burn the mist away. We assembled for an early breakfast and drove across the road to the office to carry out our briefing schedule and check with the Met man. All seemed to be going to plan, Zeus was behaving himself, and after some last minute consultations with both show organisers at Farnborough and Fairford they informed us of the slot times when we could display. Once again we assembled at the now serviceable aircraft to meet with Taff and his team. Crewing in went without any problems and very soon we were taxiing out for a timed take off. One can only imagine the sighs of relief from Taff and the engineering team when they saw us race off down the runway and get airborne. He could at last get all his engineering stuff together and drive off down the motorways to meet us once again at Fairford.
We meanwhile climbed up to 5000 feet to continue our transit southwards. It wasn’t long though before we were forced to descend again to about 2000 feet to avoid the cloud we could see en-route. The conditions we were encountering were well within our limits for flying but we still had to dodge around some serious cloud formations to stay within those limits. At our briefing we noticed that our route was to take us a few miles to the east of Silverstone. It was, of course, the weekend of the British Grand Prix and a restricted no-flying area of about 8 miles in radius had been set up around the race track in which we, nor anyone else, were allowed to fly because of the helicopter activity in and out of Silverstone. You may not know that over the British Grand Prix weekend Silverstone becomes the busiest heli-port in Europe. As we got closer to Silverstone I called the helicopter air traffic controller on the radio to let him know that we going to pass to the east of Silverstone but with his permission we were more than happy to do a fly-by over the race track. To say that the man was enthusiastic would be an understatement and he welcomed our over-flight but with the proviso that we were to stay above 2000 feet to avoid the helicopters. Apparently we got good coverage on both BBC and Sky TV.
Continuing on south we eventually arrived at Farnborough. The purpose of going there was so Phill could do a validation display in front of the Flying Control Committee. For those of you who are not aware, before we can do a display at Farnborough the pilot who is going to be displaying the Vulcan the following week (Phill O’Dell) has to demonstrate his display before the committee for them to observe whether they think it is safe and then give their seal of approval. Without this seal of approval the Vulcan cannot display. The committee only allow certain times when pilots can demonstrate their displays and after failing to fly the previous day this was going to be our last opportunity for Phill to show the committee his skills. Phill flew a very impressive display for the committee and after he had finished and we were leaving to fly to Fairford I got a message over the radio to say that his display had been approved. That set us up nicely for our next event in about 20 minute’s time which was to be a display at Fairford to be flown once again by Phill.
As we approached Fairford under the control of Brize Norton radar we were asked to hold to the east of Brize Norton until our display time. This gave us a few minutes to settle down and then before we knew it the Fairford display controller told us we were on. Those of you who were there all know that Phill gave a truly stunning display and after we had landed we were apparently met with rapturous applause. Of course, we can never hear that from inside the aircraft but it’s really gratifying when the crowd come up to us afterwards to tell us what they thought of the performance. Once the engines had been shut down and we could climb out of the cockpit we had to be towed to a position nearby to the Vulcan Village where crowd could have good photographic opportunities of 558. This all took about 20 minutes before we finally came to a halt and could eventually climb out of the cockpit. After a debrief with John Hufton, our crew chief for the arrival, it was but a short walk to the Vulcan Village to have a well earned cup of tea and a short aircrew debrief of what we had just done. Martin and I then mingled amongst the crowds in the tent signing books and photos and just about anything else that they had been buying. Phill left us fairly shortly after we had arrived in the tent to go to the Rolls Royce corporate chalet. Phill, as most of you will already know, is the chief test pilot of Rolls Royce and he was committed for the rest of the day to his duties hosting the great and the good of the aviation industry at the chalet. Before he left us though he kindly gave us some invitations to take lunch in the chalet which I’m led to believe was quite a splendid affair. I didn’t personally manage to get there on the Saturday because we were so busy in the Vulcan Village tent.
Talking about the Vulcan Village tent, it was really busy for the whole of the weekend and the volunteers selling all the merchandise were working their socks off. They were being helped for the weekend by Laura Withers and my partner Rae. During a conversation in the bar at our hotel that evening both of them expressed the same opinion that they never cease to be impressed with the limitless energy that the volunteers seem to have and also the fact that they all continue to be as courteous and smiling at the end of the day as they are at the start. This may be an opportune moment to say a really big thank you to all of our volunteers whether you’re working at the shows or in the regions organising events to support 558. Without your continuing help and support we would be in a very bad place.
As the day progressed we were visited by many VIPs including our very own Trustee, Mr Gerald Howarth MP. He brought along the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond MP. Martin and I took them both to the aircraft for a personal tour which they both seemed to enjoy. As always, those who have never been inside the aircraft before are always amazed that we spent close on 16 hours in such a cramped environment during our Black Buck missions and so true to form was Philip Hammond. We were visited by many of the other display teams all of whom wanted photographs taken with them in front of the aircraft. It had turned out to be a great day with the VTST making lots of new friends and reacquainting with old relationships.
As the show drew to a close we made the wise decision to leave and drive the considerable journey back to Cheltenham and our hotel. It was going to be a quiet evening with a quick meal, a drink in the bar, and then off to bed for an early night because we had to be on the road again the next morning at 7am. Our display time had been set by the show organisers to be mid morning. We had no control over this and we all knew that there was going to be a lot of disappointed Vulcan supporters who were not going to get to see 558 display because they would be stuck in queues of traffic approaching the show venue. There’s not much we can do about this except to offer up the advice to keep a close watch on Twitter or Facebook for the latest timings on when 558 will be displaying. We do make a plea to show organisers for the Vulcan to appear late in the day but sometimes the plea falls on deaf ears.
Sunday morning arrived and because we were displaying mid-morning we had no difficulties in combating the traffic inbound to the show. Our briefing by the show organisers was at 8-30 and by 9am we were back at the Vulcan Village tent ready to fly. The pilots for the Sunday display were Kev Rumens and Bill Ramsey plus me down the back in the ‘coal hole’. As our display time approached Kev gathered us all together at the back of the tent for our comprehensive briefing and then it was time to walk the 50 yards to the aircraft. Once again 558 looked magnificent in her shiny new coat of paint with the sun gleaming on her. The engineers were there to meet us and assure us that the aircraft was fully serviceable and ready to fly. Crewing in went without a hitch and soon we were cleared to taxi to the end of the runway and hold there for the previous aircraft to finish their display. Clearance for me to change to the display frequency was given and suddenly the brakes were off and we were on our way. Kev flew a really remarkable display and between him and Bill they made the aircraft perform to its best. Down the back I watched with awe through my window and periscope as the horizon tilted left and right, up and down, and it was a truly exhilarating experience. People often ask me what it must be like down the back when the display pilots throw the aircraft around as they do during a display. They think that I must be thrown around like a rag doll unless I’m well strapped in and are truly stunned when I tell them that if the pilots fly the aircraft properly then there are very few uncomfortable moments during the display. We are singularly fortunate that on our team we have display pilots who do fly the aircraft correctly and sympathetically with the consequence that down the back the ride is not uncomfortable, just exhilarating.
With the display over it was back to the tent once again to meet the crowds. More signing and chatting which always a pleasure to do. Lunchtime approached and Rae and I were invited to the Rolls Royce corporate chalet for lunch. Unfortunately by the time we arrived at the chalet the lunch had already started and the invited high profile guests were already well into their meal. Unfazed by this the chalet staff asked us both to seat ourselves outside in the sun with a few other late arrivals to watch the display and the lunch would be served to us ‘al fresco’. I don’t know who got the better deal, the guests inside or us out in the sun sipping a nice cool white wine while tucking into a delicious meal of lamb steaks. I suspect it was us. Lunch over and after making pleasantries with a few people who I recognised it was time to leave to return to the Vulcan Village. Ambling slowly past the rest of the corporate chalets we were hooted at by the horn of a VIP Range Rover. We thought it was to get out of the way. Not a bit of it. Inside was Air Chief Marshal (Retd.) Sir Mike Knight, our previous Chairman of the Board of Trustees during the restoration phase of 558, and he was trying to get us to stop for a chat. It was so nice to see him once again, I’m sure that he’s getting younger every time we see him. Unfortunately he could only spare us a few minutes because he was on his way to another engagement but it was really gracious of him to stop and talk with us.
Back to the tent we plodded and spent the rest of the afternoon signing and chatting. We met some special guests who had won a prize of a personal tour around the aircraft and Bill Ramsey and I took her and her husband up into the cockpit for the tour. They seemed to be suitably impressed and left with big smiles on their faces. The afternoon soon drew to a close and Kev suggested that, once again, we try to beat the departing show traffic by leaving a bit early. Unfortunately, although the traffic wasn’t a problem, the police had set up a diversionary route which took us all around Gloucestershire before we could get back to Cheltenham and our hotel. Once again it was going to be an early start the next day for the crew of Kev, Bill, Phil Davies, and Andy Marson, the navigator for the day, who were to be up at 6am for an early flight to Farnborough. They were to meet up with the Red Arrows en route and fly in formation to open the show at Farnborough and after that to do some formation work with the Blades formation team and the lucky people who were passengers in their aircraft.
For me the weekend had drawn to a close. On the Monday morning I had the drive back to Doncaster with Laura Withers and Rae as my passengers. It had been a great weekend interspersed with extreme highs and desperate lows. The highs were memorable, the lows were awful. So what did I learn from the weekend? For a start, if ever in the future the weather looks marginal I shall have a quiet word with Zeus, the principle of all the Greek gods, and get him on-side to give us a good forecast and secondly I shall continue to keep in contact with his son, the Roman god Vulcan (Hephaestus) as I always do. Whoever I talk to I must make sure that I never ever again mess with the gods!!
That’s about. Once again, thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I hope that it hasn’t been too boring for you. Please continue to give us your support. If this past weekend at Fairford is anything to go by there is still a lot of love and affection out there for XH558 and long may it continue. Till the next time: