Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 15

Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 15

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.

‘Holidays at the seaside’

You know, sometimes I have to pinch myself to let me know that what is happening is real. What’s he on about now I hear you ask. Well the past week has been almost like being on holiday with visits to both Clacton and the south coast. Last Thursday, 23rd August, we were scheduled to display at the Clacton seaside show which was a new venue for us and over the weekend, we were scheduled to appear at several venues in the south of England including the Wings & Wheels air show at Dunsfold and visit to a show near Basingstoke which was being held in aid of Children In Need. Finally, we were to appear at another small event at Little Gransden near Huntingdon.

First things first though. I was quite excited about doing the Clacton air show. Being in the east of England the transit to Clacton would give me the opportunity to fly over the Eastern Counties and my home patch. Why am I excited about that? Well for two very good reasons; we very rarely visit the Eastern Counties and I know that there is very strong support for the Vulcan over there and this will be their opportunity to see the Vulcan in all her glory, without having to travel many miles to our usual venues in the central and southern parts of the UK. Secondly, it is always good to visit new places to display so that we can spread the word that the Vulcan is the most impressive aircraft on the air show circuit (sorry Reds!!). This isn’t just my opinion though as was evidenced on the Look East BBC regional programme on the Thursday evening during which we were given star billing. Many of the spectators who were interviewed by the BBC were asked which aircraft they had come to see and most of them said it was the Vulcan. Even the show presenter at the end of the video clip said that there is no more magnificent sight than that of the Vulcan doing her thing.

It was estimated by the local Chamber of Commerce that the air show and the Vulcan’s presence brought in revenue of approximately £M3.75 to the local economy. Hopefully this will be sufficient to persuade them to have us back next year too.

Being down in the Clacton area and very close to Southend it also gave us the opportunity to visit Vulcan XL426 which is parked at Southend airport. The supporters of 426 have always been supportive of 558 and it felt only right that this very day being the 50th birthday of 426 we should visit her to say ‘happy birthday’. I’m sure that many of you who are long-term supporters of the Vulcan will remember that back in the days of the RAF Vulcan Display Flight, XL426 was one of the two aircraft along with 558 which we flew on the Display Flight. I recall flying 426 many times over that period before the MOD (air) decided to sell her off into private ownership. Fortunately, a group of dedicated supporters down in Southend refused to let her die and have tried to keep her in as good conditions as they can. Unfortunately, they don’t have a hangar in which to store her so the elements are beginning to take their inevitable toll on the airframe. However, they aircraft still works and although I can’t be certain I’m sure that on her 50th birthday last Thursday she was fired up into life just to show the world that she refuses to die. Happy Birthday 426. Thank you to you and your supporters for helping us over the past decade.

On the way back to Doncaster our route took us very close to King’s Lynn. My long-standing and always thoughtful partner Rae knew that we were going to be in the vicinity so she rang my local sailing club of which we are both members to let them all know what time we would be flying by. It wasn’t due to be until late afternoon so I had very little faith in the fact that there would be many people gathered there to witness us flying past but little did I appreciate Rae’s persuasive abilities. She had gathered together a strong contingent of club members out on the club deck over the river all of whom all waited patiently for the Vulcan to appear on the horizon. Even the lady serving behind the bar closed the bar for the duration of our transit apparently. It bears out the fact that the Vulcan is the only aircraft at air shows which can actually empty the beer tents of hardened drinkers during her display. This wasn’t a display though, just a transit past the club on our return to Doncaster. As we approached King’s Lynn I left my AEO’s electrical control panel and climbed up the steps to stand between the two pilots, Kev Rumens and Phill O’Dell, and give them guidance as to the exact location of the club on the river bank. Everything looks a bit different from 1000 feet up in the air but eventually I located it and pointed it out to Kev. Ever mindful of the limits we are obliged to stick to of a minimum height of 1000’ and not overflying built-up areas we flew by the club much to the excitement of the members. Makes it all worth when the next day while having lunch at the club I didn’t have to buy a single beer!! It had been a great day; the spectators at Clacton were all wowed by us, the VTTS club members in the Eastern Counties had had an opportunity to see their aircraft and finally my own club members had seen exactly what it was that I had been boring them to death with over the years.

The following weekend was to see us flying back south once again to appear at the Dunsfold Wings & Wheels air show. We always look forward to this event because not only do we get to appear at the home of the Top Gear show but we also get the opportunity to fly over Eddie Forrester’s house which is very close to Dunsfold airfield. Eddie, as I’m sure the majority of you will know, has been our guardian angel right from the start of 558 flying on the air show circuit. When things were dire and we were looking over the edge of the financial abyss Eddie has on many occasions stepped in with generous donations to keep us going financially until things improved. We cannot begin to say how thankful we are to Eddie and at the risk of embarrassing him I would personally like to say thank you to him for giving me and the rest of the aircrew the opportunity to continue to fly the Vulcan. It’s a small gesture of thanks but flying over Eddie’s house is the least we could do.

Looking out my side window at the airfield I could see that there was a considerable crowd gathered. It never ceases to amaze me to see the thousands of faces looking skyward as we fly in to commence our display. The pilots that day were Kev Rumens and Martin Withers and between them they put on yet another stunning display. Although the display routine remains the same throughout every display there are some displays when I get the feeling from inside the cockpit that this display is a real stunner and Saturday’s was one of those occasions. I’m sure that the crowd must have been ecstatic; I know I was and I’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years.

We left Dunsfold and headed off to our next venue near Basingstoke. This was the Chris Evans Car Fest show which was being held in aid of the BBC’s Children In Need appeal. Each year the Vulcan likes to be involved with the Children In Need appeal and in previous years we have supported the Blades display team who offer up seats in their aircraft to fly alongside us. The bids from those lucky people who get to fly with the Blades alongside us goes to support the appeal. This year however, we decided to support the appeal by doing a couple of passes at the Car Fest. Hopefully our presence will have helped to swell the coffers yet again. After the Car Fest we headed eastwards over to the Bedford/Huntingdon area to do a few passes at yet another charity event at Little Gransden. This done it was time to head north for our return to Doncaster. It had been yet another good day. Not only did we perform stunningly at Dunsfold but we had an opportunity to say thank you to Eddie F and lastly help to support the Children In Need appeal. What better use of your aircraft eh!!

The next day was to be a repeat performance but without the Children In Need appearances. The weather forecast was not the best but it was flyable. We all met up at the office at Doncaster at 1100 to do our usual flight planning and because it was a virtual re run of the day previous we finished the planning with quite a bit of time to spare. Out of interest I thought that I would plot the route on an aviation planning system which I had loaded on my laptop. When we plot our route we use forecast weather from the aviation Met sights to make sure that we will steer clear of any adverse weather which would be outside our flying limitations.

The system on my laptop uses actual weather conditions from airfields along the route and if there is any problem weather it shows it up on the screen. To my horror, I could see that there was a band of adverse weather right across our intended route down near the Lincolnshire area and it would have been impenetrable. I quickly called Kev Rumens and Bill Perrins, who were the pilots that day, to see the laptop display. They like me, realised that had we got airborne then we would have had to turn back resulting in a ‘no show’ at Dunsfold. We decided to do a complete re plan which would take us down the east coast ahead of any adverse weather that was approaching from the west. Kev got the maps out and threw a few lines on it which would take us down towards King’s Lynn and then over Lakenheath towards Clacton. We would then transit out over the Thames Estuary turning southwards to coast-in near Herne Bay in Kent. Passing Canterbury on our right we would continue westwards through Kent and West Sussex to Dunsfold. Taking this route I plotted it on to my lap top and it indicated that the route was do-able weather wise. With some measured urgency we all re plotted our maps with the new route, I rang all the airfields along our route to let them know that we would be over-flying their real estate and that if they had any gliders or light aircraft flying out of their airfield then please let them know so we can avoid any mishaps. The time we had allowed for a cup of tea after our initial planning was quickly swallowed up by this new re-planning and no sooner had I put the phone down from my calls to the en route airfields when Kev said it was time to go.

Because the route was significantly longer than the original we would have take off much earlier and time was now our enemy. Not only that, we were going to need more fuel on the aircraft. This meant Taff and his engineering team had to call up for the fuel bowser to top up the aircraft to the required fuel level. With their usual efficiency they had done what was required and by the time we arrived at the aircraft the engineers had done the re-fuel and the aircraft was ready to go.

The trip over East Anglia went sweet as a nut. Talking to Lakenheath and the USAF air traffic controllers based there was interesting. For some reason despite me talking with them on the phone to let them know we were coming over their airfield and describing what type of aircraft I was they still thought that I was a glider!! Interesting I thought, I’ve never seen a glider doing 180 knots but ho hum. However, they cleared me through their zone and it was onwards to talk to Southend zone ATC. They must think that we’re like London buses, they never see us from one year to the next and then we come along twice in 3 days. Working out over the Thames Estuary we were soon in contact with Manston who asked if we could do a quick visit on our return journey. Apparently the ATC controller remembered me from my days back in 1979-82 when I was at RAF Waddington. Small world. Anyway, this would tie in nicely because we were looking for an airfield over which Bill Perrins could hone his skills at displaying the Vulcan. Having assured them that we would see them a bit later we proceeded en route to Dunsfold. The display went really well yet again and having done another ‘home visit’ to Eddie’s house we began our return journey via Manston where Bill did his thing.

Progressing back over Essex and Norfolk I could see King’s Lynn passing down the starboard side of the aircraft about 10 miles away but we decided not to go and say hello again. Soon we were into Lincolnshire and after passing over Junior’s and Phil Davies houses we soon happened on Andy Marson’s place near RAF Coningsby. Andy, as you all know, is our resident Navigator so it would be churlish not to deviate off track to say hello to him and David and Pam Thomas whose houses are only a mile or so apart from each other. You will all remember David from when he was Martin Withers’ predecessor as Chief Pilot before David retired from flying. Continuing en route, it was only another 5 minutes or so before I was in contact with Doncaster air traffic control who cleared us straight to the airfield for our landing.

All in all it had been a great few days. It was time to put the bucket and spade away until my next visit to the seaside. That of course will be our displays at both Bournemouth and Shoreham this coming weekend. The long range weather forecast looks to be favourable so we look forward to putting on a good show for the hundreds of thousands of spectators who will be there to see the air show. I shall be flying only on the Sunday trip; Phil Davies will be on the panel for Saturday.

Finally, once again thank you to all of you out there who so generously give of your time, energies, and hard-earned cash to keep 558 in such wonderful flying condition. Without you all we wouldn’t be able to thrill the spectators at the air shows we perform at. Although we aircrew and ground crew get the plaudits for what 558 achieves we are always mindful that without you supporters and your seemingly never-ending generosity none of this would ever happen.

That’s it. Hope you haven’t found it too tedious reading this. I’ve got to get this missive sent off to head office now. Once again, thank you for taking the time to read the ramblings of a wayward mind!!

Happy landings

Barry Masefield


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