Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 14

Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 14

Barry Masefield was the Air Electronics Officer (AEO) for Vulcan XH558 and had flown in this iconic aircraft for over 30 years, also being a key member of the Vulcan Display Flight (VDF), the RAF Unit which memorably flew the aircraft on the Airshow circuit until September 1992. Barry was also a member of the crew that flew XH558 into Bruntingthorpe Airfield on 23 March 1993 – her final flight in RAF service.

Fast forwarding to 18 October 2007, Barry was once again flying XH558, as a part of the crew, alongside Al McDicken and David Thomas, who made the historic First Flight from Bruntingthorpe, after the extensive restoration programme had been completed to return her to flying status. Barry had been a regular member of the Aircrew of XH558 since 2008, and had helped to thrill crowds around the country at Airshows and other events with a spectacular and memorable flying display, which has captured the hearts and minds of many thousands of spectators.  

The following is a first hand account entry from Barry during the flying season of XH558.

Despite a previous attempt to fly a celebration flypast for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, events had conspired against us. Our previous attempt had been to overfly the Royal Barge during the River Thames pageant. It has been well documented why we failed to achieve that. Having lost a couple of engines a few days before the official Diamond Jubilee day, XH558 was grounded for a few weeks while our techies replaced the engines. As it so happened the weather would have prevented us flying over the pageant anyway with steady continuous rain and very low cloud shrouding the event. I was fortunate enough to be at the event when a friend invited me and Rae, my partner, to join him and his wife for lunch in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames and watch the Pageant sail by. It was a wonderful occasion and will live on in my memory for a long time. So even though I was bitterly disappointed not to be overflying the event, I did manage to witness the whole spectacle from the comfort and dry of the restaurant overlooking the Thames. As the saying goes, behind every cloud there’s a silver lining.

However, yesterday, the 18th July, we at last succeeded. For reasons unknown to me, the exact profile was kept a fairly well guarded secret and all I really knew was that the VTTS had been in contact with the Royal Household and that they had approved a flypast by the Vulcan while Her Majesty was visiting the North East of England as part of her Diamond Jubilee Tour of the United Kingdom. We, the VTTS, were running out of options of when we could perform a ‘Royal flypast’ and with only two occasions left, one in the northeast and the final one on the Isle of Wight the following week, we were very anxious that we really needed to pull out all the stops to fly yesterday. Martin Withers who was Captain for the day had been in high security talks with the Royal household to finalise details.

It transpired that The Queen and Prince Phillip were to spend the night on a luxury boat, the Leander, in Sunderland docks before undertaking their royal duties the following day around the North East. Just before they were due to step ashore at 10am we were to overfly them at 1000 feet. Martin had been liaising with the Harbour Master too about exactly where the Leander was berthed so that Andy Marson, who was our navigator for the trip, could get all his charts accurately plotted and download pictures from Google Earth of the dockyard ready for use by the crew. All of this information was of high security and nobody was to know where the Royal personages were spending the night. With the sortie profile planned all that was left to do was to get the crew together and prepare to fly.

As has become the norm now, the crew gathered in the hotel near Robin Hood Airport the evening before the flight. Because the flypast was timed for 10am it was going to be a very early start to the day with a briefing time in the office at 0715. The only element of the sortie that we couldn’t plan for was the weather. All the forecasts that we had seen on the Tuesday for the following day were that the weather in the North East was going to be unflyable under the limitations we had to adhere to. i.e. flying clear of cloud with a stated forward visibility. After a meal in the hotel it was an early night for us with a call from reception timed for 6am. As it happened, I awoke at 5am and as I pulled back the curtains I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a lot of clouds but there was also quite a lot of blue sky. Buoyed by this, I tuned in my I-phone to see what the aviation weather for Newcastle was and was pleased to see that it too was quite good and certainly flyable.

 After breakfast, we started our final planning in the office at 7-15 to be ready to walk to the aircraft at 8-15. Andy had worked out that we needed, a timed take off of 0908 to make good all our timings along the route and the final timing of 10-00 over the Leander. Final calls were made by Martin to the Royal party contact and to the Harbour Authorities to ensure that everything was in place for us to proceed, Andy had been ringing various airfields en-route to let them know that we would be using their air traffic control facilities, Kev Rumens had completed all the take-off data and I made the tea having already pre-planned all of my radio logs. 8-15 soon approached and off we went to the aircraft, chauffeured as always by Toni Hunter.

Taff Stone and I had a chat about some aircraft equipment problems that they had encountered during the stay at Farnborough. All had been fixed and the aircraft was ready to go. Crewing in went like clockwork, with Ray Watts taking the part of the crew chief on the end of the long lead, engines were started and permission was given to taxi out to the runway holding point. We had already briefed the air traffic controller that we would like a timed take-off at 0908. In the military, timed take-offs are quite common and the ATC controllers organise other aircraft movements to cater for this.  However, we have to remember that we are now dealing with civilian airfield controllers and with time being money for civil airlines, we didn’t want to block the runway for any of the airline aircraft to get airborne. The controller had obviously thought about this and had organised it so that we could have the take-off time that we had asked for without blocking any of the aircraft that were off to the sunnier parts of Europe. Clearance was given to enter the runway and at 0908 the controller gave us take-off clearance. Full power was applied, brakes off, stop watches were started and we were off.

Our route to the North-East took us out over the Humber up to Scarborough. Once there, we turned northbound to a position some 10 miles to the east of Newcastle. As we passed east of Hartlepool the ATC controller at Durham/Tees Valley Airport gave us a radar service. Having used this person before on several occasions I just knew he was going to ask if we would overfly his airfield on the way home. I mentioned it to Martin and Kev to see whether we would have sufficient fuel to do this and having got their approval I sat back and waited for the question. As he handed me off to the controller at Newcastle his final words were “Would you be able to visit us on the way home”.  Quick as a flash I said that we would and he went off the radio now a very happy chappie. Continuing on we arrived at a pre-determined timing holding point to the east of Newcastle from where Andy could start his timing for our final run southwards towards Sunderland Docks and The Queen on the Leander. Forward visibility was so good that at about 6 miles to run, Kev said that he already could see the dock. Speeds were adjusted up and down for the final run in to ensure timing accuracy, Martin was flying the aircraft perfectly, Kev reported that he could now see the Leander from about 2 miles, Andy was counting down the time and exactly at 10am we overflew the Queen and Prince Phillip. We roared overhead and Martin carried out a full power spiral climb to let all of Sunderland people know we had arrived. We completed one orbit around the Royal party and then we departed southwards. Job done.

As we journeyed southbound we soon flew near Durham/Tees Valley Airport and it was time to fulfil our promise to do a fly-by there. Descending to 300 feet, we flew down the runway ending with a climb away on full power to make a bit of noise. The controller I had been talking to previously was back on the radio again and the excitement in his voice was almost palpable. He said that he would arrange a handover to RAF Leeming seeing as were going to fly close to them. Needless to say their ATC controller I was talking to also asked for a flyby. Churlish to refuse really seeing as RAF Leeming more often than not provide us with an ATC service whenever we fly to the north. Before take-off, Martin had arranged with Elvington airfield, the home of the Yorkshire Aviation Museum near York, that we could use their airspace for him to carry out a few practice displays. Elvington lies within the RAF Church Fenton air traffic area and is controlled by them. That being the case, the controller I was talking to at Church Fenton asked yet again if we would do a flyby for them too.

RAF Church Fenton is a pilot training base and it is always nice to demonstrate 558’s abilities to these aspiring aviators so Martin did a few practice display manoeuvres for them. Once that was over, we headed out eastwards for about 5 miles to Elvington where Martin was going to carry out his practices displays. It was at this juncture in this ‘Royal’ sorti, that I felt the call of nature and decided to carry out the necessary just as Martin started his first wing-over. He was performing a tricky manoeuvre but not half as tricky as the manoeuvre I was trying to perform! With nearly 2g being pulled, it lent a whole new meaning to the ‘Royal Wee’!! Kev meanwhile, was beside himself with laughter as he looked down at his AEO struggling valiantly to maintain not only his balance but a sense of decorum. One would think that after all these years of display flying, I would know better than to try that sort of thing during a display practice. Ho hum!

Display practices now complete, bladder emptied and comfortable once again, we had to head back home to Doncaster. Although we had planned to carry out a couple of practice circuits back at Doncaster, unfortunately, our fuel contents prevented that and we had to land off the first approach. The aircraft had performed brilliantly. It was if she had a sense of the Royal occasion and she was, like us, performing to the best of our abilities so that the Queen could witness Vulcan XH558 in all her glory. Personally, I feel really glad that we had let all the people of the North East see XH558. We very rarely venture up that way and I am sure that there must be a lot of our supporters up there who have donated a lot of money to keep us flying so, in my opinion, I think it’s only right that they too should see what they are donating to. Likewise, I’m glad that we had completed this ‘Royal Flight’ for all of our supporters who have donated to the Diamond Jubilee Book which will be presented to Her Majesty later in the year. Your names will have been part of something totally memorable.

Well that’s it. Once again thank you for taking the time to read this. May I also say thank you to all of you who have contacted me to thank me for writing the obituary to Philbert Edwards. It was my privilege to do so.

Till the next time.  Happy landings.

Barry Masefield


More Articles