Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 7

Ramblings from the AEO’s Panel – Part 7

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.

RIAT at Fairford had come and gone and it was time for me to make my way down to join up with the crew and the aircraft in time to re-position her at RAF Wittering.  Phil Davies had been the AEO for the weekend, ably assisted by Jnr, but Phil had to fly out to Kuwait on company business on the Sunday evening so it was down to me to be the AEO for the following day’s flight.  I had arranged to meet up with Martin Withers, Kev Rumens, Bill Perrins and Jnr that same evening at the hotel they were staying at in Cheltenham.  The journey involved me taking the train from King’s Lynn to Ely, change trains for the next one to Birmingham, then change again for the Inter City down to Cheltenham. (Getting out of East Anglia is never an easy process!!).  Arriving at around 7.30pm I was supposed to have been met by the crew in the crew car on their way home from Fairford.  Unfortunately they had quite a struggle to get away from the airshow because of the density of the air show traffic and they were still on the airfield at 8pm.  Kev rang me to say that I would need to get a taxi from the station to the hotel and that they would meet up with me whenever they arrived back. So, taxi it was.  It was nearly 8.45pm before they turned up but after a quick shower and change we all popped out for a meal and a pint before retiring to bed ready for an early start at 6 am the next morning.

The following day was going along well, the briefing had been done, we all arrived at the aircraft in good time for Jnr to do all his checks.  This was to be his first complete sortie as the AEO, he had been on the AEO panel for the two displays over the weekend but hadn’t done the whole nine yards as the AEO because Phil Davies was looking after all the radio calls to Air Traffic Control while Jnr was looking after the safety of the aircraft electrics.  The sortie being a transit from Fairford to Wittering was fairly straightforward and ideal for Jnr to do as his first complete one as the AEO. Needless to say he was a bit nervous at first but he coped admirably and once we were airborne I asked him if he was ok and having received a nod I left him to it and went up the ladder to look out between the pilots.  There was nothing to be gained by me watching his every move so I just let him get on with it while I enjoyed the flight watching the world go by but the right way this time with me facing forwards!!  We did suffer a bit of a delay getting out of Fairford however, a couple of Hercules transport aircraft had been cleared to taxi ahead of us but one turned the wrong way on the taxi-way and ended up nose-to-nose with the other.  This presented a bit of a problem because neither of them could get past the other so the only thing left to do was for one of them to put its propellers into reverse and taxi backwards to an appropriate turn- around point where it could end up facing the right way. Embarrassing or what!! Eventually, we got clearance to take off and away we went. Landing at Wittering some 30 minutes later we were met by a couple of our ground crew and we left the aircraft in their capable hands.  The aircraft was to remain at Wittering for the next four days until the Wittering Families Day on the following Friday.  There was no point in us all staying at Wittering for the rest of the week so we all bade our farewells and went home.

RAF Wittering is, as many of you will already be aware, near Peterborough and only 40 miles from King’s Lynn. Jnr, who had wisely already pre-positioned his transport at Wittering, kindly gave me a lift to the main bus station in Peterborough where I then had to catch the bus for the final 35 miles home to King’s Lynn.  Talk about using all forms of transport, in the previous twenty four hours I had walked from my house to King’s Lynn rail station, travelled cross country by train to Cheltenham, taken a taxi to the hotel, had flown from Fairford to Wittering, had used private transport to the bus station, and finally I was now using the public bus to complete the last leg of my travels. Now that’s devotion to duty!!

Subsequent to the following weekend’s events the aircraft was to return to Doncaster. I therefore needed to have my car available there at Doncaster after I had landed from Wittering and the Southport/Windermere displays so that I could drive back down to King’s Lynn. I came up with a cunning plan which, yet again, made me take up the lifestyle of a gypsy. I arranged with Martin Withers, who was to be the captain for the weekend, to meet up with him at Doncaster, abandon my car at the office there and travel with him from Doncaster down to Wittering in the crew car.  We arrived at Wittering in the early evening and met up with some of our ground crew for a few beers in the Sergeant’s Mess.  There was to be a centralised messing system in place over the period of the Families Day and we were all going to be fed and watered in the Sgt’s Mess for the duration. This was ideal for me and Martin because it meant that we could spend some social time with the lads in their bar. This is always a valuable experience and it’s quite interesting to hear exchanges of views between us all and we invariably manage to resolve any issues any of us might have. The following day, Friday, was the Families Day and with the weather forecast being good it all seemed to go off very well. Considering that Wittering was in the throes of reducing its personnel there was a great turnout to watch what turned out to be a full day’s air show. The aircraft behaved herself impeccably with no snags reported. 

As the following day dawned we were met with glorious sunshine and we eagerly looked at the appropriate internet web site to see whether it was equally lovely to the north where we were due to fly later in the afternoon.  The forecast was good there too so the displays at both Southport and Windermere promised to be a photographers dream. We weren’t due to perform up at Southport until mid afternoon followed by Windermere at 1705 so we had plenty of time to relax and read the papers before starting our briefing procedures for the days flying. Later on in the morning Bill Ramsey, who had been driven down from his home in Lincolnshire by his wife Carol, joined Martin and myself to complete the crew and we ventured off to the Air traffic Control tower to do our briefing. RAF Wittering, like the majority of RAF stations, closes over the weekend but they very kindly agreed to open up just for our departure and ATC was the only place open for us to do our work. Briefing complete, we drove to the aircraft to be met by a rather large crowd of interested bystanders who were milling around the aircraft (I suspect Toni Hunter was running one of her much loved tours). This presented a small problem for me because, due to the fact that we had no power unit to give me power to the aircraft, I would have to use our own little on-board jet engine called the AAPP (Airborne Auxiliary Power Unit) to give me some AC power.  The problem was that there is, in the starboard wing, a downwards facing exhaust from the unit. This blows out extremely hot gasses once its running and if any unsuspecting bystanders were to walk under it they would be in danger of getting quite badly singed. The crowds were dispersed by our ground crew and once they were all safely clear I could light up the AAPP and get our checks going. Everything was well and soon it was time for take-off.  By this time there was bit of cloud cover starting to build up so we could only climb up to about 2000’ for the transit. We had rather hoped to go a bit higher to cool down the aircraft ready for Martin to do his displays. One of the Achilles heels of the Vulcan, and it has several, is that the cooling system on the aircraft leaves a lot to be desired. 

Our route took us northwards to the south of Manchester where we then turned to the west towards Liverpool and flew down the Mersey. Apparently, there were quite large crowds waving at us as we passed the Liverpool waterfront before we then turned north towards Southport.  I don’t get to see much out of my window but I did notice on a few of the wing-overs during the display that there was a large crowd gathered on the Southport sea front. I have subsequently heard from members of the public that they all thought that the display put on by Martin that day was one of the best they had seen at Southport. Nice to hear comments like that. Having completed the display it was then time to input the GPS coordinates for the flight northwards to the Windermere area. No sooner had I done that when Blackpool airport, who we were going to pass, asked us if we would pay them a visit.  Having ascertained that there would be no cost involved from the airfield authorities we gave them a regulation low-level approach and continued on northwards. Eventually I managed to contact the Display Director at Windermere on the radio only to find that the display was running about 10 minutes behind schedule. There was an incident in the Windermere vicinity which required the use of the Air Ambulance helicopter and he was flying somewhere in the vicinity of the display area. Obviously he takes priority so the display was postponed until after he had landed. 

Because we now had something like twenty minutes to kill we climbed up to 3000’ and stooged around the Lake District to admire the beautiful scenery and how beautiful it was.  I’ve been to the Lake District on many occasions hill walking but never have I seen the area look more beautiful than it was on that day. Eventually we got the call from Windermere Radio to say that we were cleared to carry out our display and so it was time to get back to work.  This was the first time I had done the Windermere display venue and I was quite excited to see how it would all look from my side windows with the mountains as a back-drop. I was not to be disappointed and the display flown by Martin was truly a wonderful experience. I say that as an observer on the inside of the aircraft but I’ve seen evidence from photos taken by many photographers who were in the area which has confirmed the true beauty of 558 with the stunning background of the hills. I have recently seen some photos taken by Charles Toop who many of you will recall was the official RAF Vulcan Display Flight photographer from 1987 – 1993 and his photos are truly stunning. I had the good fortune to meet with him last weekend to view his work and he was telling me just how he managed to get the shots that he did. It seemed to me that not only is he a great photographer but also a part-time mountain goat having managed to get himself into areas where no man has a right to be!!

All too soon the display was over and it was time to depart for Doncaster.  The weather was kind enough for us to climb up to 7000’ which cooled down the aircraft, and more importantly, the pilots who had been working extremely hard in a challenging display environment. The only drawback I have when we climb above 2000’ is that I lose the signal for my mobile phone.  As possibly a lot of you are aware, the AEO of the day sends updates of what we are doing throughout the trip to Toni Hunter. She then re-transmits the information to a small group of the Event team, who then populate the Twitter and VTTS website, so all those who are interested know how things are proceeding.  We’ve had great feedback from this and I know a lot of you value the service. Anyway, once we had gone above 2000’ on our way up to 7000’ I lost contact with Toni and it wasn’t until we started to descend around the Leeds area did I manage to get a panicky text message from her saying ‘All gone quiet. Is everything alright?’ We were almost at Doncaster by the time I managed to get a reply off to her saying that we were well and about to land. It was a busy time in the aircraft as we approached Doncaster with a lot of checks to do to get the aircraft into a landing configuration and texting Toni came second in priority so we were almost in sight by the time she got it. Bill Ramsey did the landing and a nice one it was too. 

After shutting down the aircraft and reporting that yet again she was fully serviceable we handed the aircraft back to Taff and the lads. Like all aircraft, they love to be worked hard.  The harder you work them the more they seem to remain serviceable and this was certainly true of 558.  We debriefed the trip back in our office, changed out of our flying kit, gathered our bits and pieces together and all departed for home. I was to give Bill R a lift home to his village near Cranwell, which was on my way home anyway, and Martin departed to go back to Lake Windermere where he was to meet up with Laura, his wife, and help out in the Vulcan Village the following day. Yet another long, but very successful, day. I don’t know how many people had seen us that day but if they got as much pleasure from watching us as we did from performing for them, then we had done our job.

That’s about it. I don’t feature with 558 now until the displays at Bournemouth, Shoreham and Oxford.  Bournemouth has always been one of my favourite displays (must be because I’m a seaside lad from Torquay) and I’m really looking forward to that.  Hopefully the weather will be kinder to us this year.

Happy landings.

Barry Masefield


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