Close encounters of the Vulcan kind
Everyone remembers exactly where they were when hearing a fantastic piece of news that would lead to an incredible and momentous event in their lives. For me, that particular place was the runway threshold at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. Let me explain......
The date was Sunday 26th September 2010, and I’d driven up to Brize that morning from my home in London to watch and film our favourite aeroplane depart to Coventry Airport for her final appearance of the 2010 season. Having watched her quickly roar away from runway 26 just before 11am followed by a slow and hefty Sunday lunch in the local pub, I made my way back to the same spot at the end of the runway for XH558’s return, scheduled for around 3.30, and waited. And waited. And waited. By 4.30 it was clear to me and the quite sizeable crowd that had gathered that something was up as no Vulcan had materialized. Eventually, a rumour started to spread that she wasn’t coming, and shortly we all realized she had in fact passed us by completely and landed at RAF Lyneham instead!! Feeling fairly glum knowing that this would be the last chance I’d have to see her this year and annoyed I hadn’t checked that Lyneham was her point of arrival today I began to mope back towards my car. It was then that my phone rang.
“Are you sitting down?” my friend Jon said. “Why?” I replied. “You’d better sit down and light a fag” he continued. I hadn’t a clue what he was on about and just uttered the same response. “WELL” he continued, YOU’VE JUST WON A SEAT WITH THE BLADES FLYING NEXT TO THE VULCAN NEXT WEDNESDAY!!!”
My first reaction was one of total shock and utter disbelief. Had he got this right? Was this a joke?? These things just don’t happen to me!! Jon assured me it was in fact quite true; I had won, and even he wouldn’t wind me up about something like this. Pure unadulterated joy took over!! My first ever win on any kind of raffle and what a prize!! Suddenly missing the landing didn’t seem to matter quite so much and the journey back to my car was carried out with a sprightly spring in my step and a huge grin on my face!! I love Brize Norton!!
The drive back home took place in a total daze, which is pretty much how the next 48 hours passed by too. Friends, family and work colleagues were all informed, and each minute until the magical day was counted down with great anticipation. Roll on Wednesday 29th September!
However, there was a slight problem. The weather forecast for that day was fairly atrocious for the entire country, and not surprisingly I received a call from Ian Homer, VTST’s Marketing and Events manager on Tuesday afternoon informing me that due to the predicted incessant rain and low cloud for the next day the event had been postponed until Friday 8th October. Much patience now required!
Fast forward ten days, and at 6,30am on the morning of 8th October I set off like an over excited child at Christmas to Sywell in Northamptonshire, home base of The Blades. The closer I got to Sywell though, the cloudier and greyer the weather became until on arrival at Blades HQ the entire airfield was covered in a very gloomy thick mist that quite clearly nothing could possibly fly in. By midday the mist had begun to lift and a proposed join up with XH558 was scheduled for 14.55. However, by decision time at 13.30, although the weather at Lyneham was fine for The Vulcan’s departure, our cloud base was still far too low and unfortunately the flight was postponed again, our new date was now the following Wednesday, 13th October.
Despite the initial disappointment at this news, my fellow lucky fliers-to-be and I, plus various members of the VTST team present had enjoyed the Blades’ excellent hospitality very much and were certainly looking forward to our next visit.
So back again we all went five days later and this time the weather looked much more favourable. It was still a pretty overcast and grey day, but the clouds were much higher this time, and upon arrival everyone sounded extremely confident we’d finally get airborne today.. Sure enough, during a short briefing to all from Blades’ leader Myles Garland, we learnt that indeed it was green for go and this amazing day was about to get underway!!
There were to be two meet ups with XH558 today, the first four lucky passengers were to depart sitting at the front of the Blades’ four two-seater Extra 300 aircraft at 11.45, with the second group (including myself) departing at 12.30. Before this though, we had another treat in store as at 11.05, with all gathered outside, The Vulcan finally appeared on the horizon and performed a nine minute display for us including an extremely loud and healthy trademark howl right at the end!
Then it was time for the first group to fly, kitted out in their smart Blades overalls and parachutes, which we’d been assured wouldn’t be needed!! The Extras buzzed into the air one by one and disappeared for a few minutes while catching up with the star attraction of the show. It didn’t take long before we were all watching open mouthed as XH558 performed three flypasts of the airfield, the first featuring two Blades on either side of The Vulcan, then all in a line on her starboard side, followed by a further pass with all four Extras lined up directly behind her. A large crowd of spectators had gathered on the side of the airfield by now and no-one could keep their eyes out of the sky..a truly awesome sight and I simply couldn’t wait for my turn!!
After half an hour in the air, the first group landed and taxied back in front of the now hugely excited second group. The look on the faces of the passengers as they clambered out of their seats, including VTST Chief Executive Dr Robert Pleming were an absolute picture, huge beaming grins from all and comments ranging from all the superlatives you can think of to “I’m speechless!!”.
Our turn now! Having found an extra large set of overalls and almost forgetting my parachute, I made my way towards my aircraft, G-ZEXL, piloted by the previously mentioned Myles Garland himself. Being The Blades leader, this was another stroke of luck for me as it meant our aircraft would be nearest the Vulcan at all times! With heart pounding, I clambered into the small but comfortable front seat with Myles directly behind at the controls. In front of me were the airspeed indicator, gravity meter, altimeter and between my knees the control stick which was constantly moving around replicating each input made by my pilot. This was definitely not to be touched at any time!!
A few moments later and our canopy was lowered. Being completely made of glass this offered an excellent view from all sides-the best window seat I’d ever had!
In true Blades’ tradition, all four aircraft started up together and soon we began to head towards the take off point. Whilst lining up on the runway, out to the left I could see XH558 turning towards us in the distance at around 1000ft., flying a circular holding pattern and seemingly beckoning us to join her in the air. An offer not to be refused!
As the Extra 300 sits on its tail whilst on the ground, my view at this point was pretty much sky only, but as we began to speed down the runway during take off the aircraft leveled off and a clear view straight ahead was obtained. With the loud buzzing sound of the engine ringing in my ears we soared into the air and almost straight away made a gentle left hand turn over the Northamptonshire countryside. Time to go Vulcan hunting!!
A little more than a minute after take off, I heard Myles’ voice on my headphones. “There she is, can you see her smoking away in the distance?” XH558 was quite far away at this point but it was certainly hard to miss the unmistakable four thick trails of exhaust giving away her position immediately! We continued to gently climb making a 360 degree turn and losing sight of The Vulcan for the next couple of minutes, until a slight decent was made and all of a sudden…THERE SHE WAS!!!
Out to my left was the most incredible sight. We were now flying right alongside XH558 at a height of 800 feet, the gap between us being just 20 feet! She looked absolutely stunning, and appeared to just be hanging in the air as if suspended from the sky like a mobile. For the last two years, I’ve seen her at several air shows all around the country and always had my breath taken away by her sheer grace and beauty whilst watching each display from the ground, but to be flying so close and witnessing the worlds’ last airworthy Vulcan in her natural environment with the lush green English countryside below was truly was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen.
We were now absolutely dead level with her wing tip, so much so that her famous delta shape was barely discernable. At this point, there were two Blades on either side of 558, my aircraft one of the duo on the starboard side. We maintained this position for approximately five minutes, the last of which saw us make our first pass of the airfield for the crowds below. All four Blades now began to trail white smoke providing another unforgettable view from the air.
Suddenly, it was time to change formation, and without warning Myles began to swoop our aircraft to the left, and we passed directly under The Vulcan’s tail. The brief view from underneath really set my pulses racing! “Can we do that again?!” I begged Myles as all four Blades now formed a diagonal line next to her port wing tip, with us once again the closest. “Don’t worry, we will” came the reply. He was definitely to keep his promise!
So with XH558 now 15 feet to my right, and the three other Blades in close formation on the left, the smoke came on again and we flew overflew Sywell airfield once more. Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, the sun now came out for the first time today and instantly lit up The Vulcan…fabulous!
A few minutes later came what I considered to be the undoubted highlight of the entire day. Over the radio, I heard Myles give the command “Line astern, go!!” and in no time, we were flying right under XH558’s tail again with the three other Blades all following behind. Unlike the brief pass we’d made underneath a little earlier. we now stayed in this position for the next five minutes-it could have been five hours for all I cared!! From here, The Vulcan really did look her most stunning. The beautiful shape of the huge delta wings completely filled the entire view from our canopy, and at this stage we were so incredibly close the rumble of her Olympus engines could clearly be heard! The two blinking orange lights on her belly seemed so close it felt I could almost reach out and touch them, and I remember thinking this must be exactly how a Harrier or Tornado pilot must feel approaching the refueling boom of a Tristar or VC10 tanker when needing a mid-air refill!!
The bomb bay doors were right above us now, and I was longing for them to open up as we’d have had a fantastic view right inside but they remained closed. Had they opened up at this point there’d have been very little room between us and those massive doors, and when I asked Myles how far away we were from her now I was not surprised to hear him reply our distance was just ten feet! In fact, by now I was whooping and jabbering uncontrollably, so much so that Myles had to politely ask me to keep quiet for a few moments as he had to listen to the radio once in a while!! Oops. So, silently, with smoke on again we made another pass of the airfield in this incredible formation before it was time to split up once again.
This time, we reverted to two Blades on each side of XH558, our aircraft one of the two going starboard, but this time flying line abreast of the cockpit.. From here, I could quite clearly see co-pilot Bill Perrins sitting in the right hand seat and couldn’t resist giving a thumbs up and hearty wave in his direction which he reciprocated straight away..it’s not every day you get waved at by a Vulcan pilot whilst in the middle of his job; this was another very special moment! I also remember being able to quite clearly read the small “Spirit of Great Britain” legend painted on her nose and just wishing we could stay up here all day!
Inevitably though, all good things must come to an end and after nearly three minutes flying in this formation it was time for XH558 to return to Lyneham, Slowly, the four Blades began to climb away from The Vulcan, giving us all one more stunning view of her flying directly below us for a few seconds before we banked away and she finally disappeared for good. Sitting back in my seat I began to reflect on what I’d just witnessed and how incredible lucky I was to have experienced it all..truly a once in a lifetime experience!!
However, the flight wasn’t completely over just yet! The four Blades, since leaving XH558 had now joined up and were flying together back to Sywell to land when Myles announced it was time for a bit of fun. Immediately, we all began a steep climb and carried out a fantastic loop over the countryside which I must admit looked quite spectacular from upside down! As we were coming out of the roll the forces of gravity really kicked in and thrust me so far back into my seat I could barely move my head down a couple of inches to read the gravity meter! We had time for one more loop shortly afterwards, and it was a good job Myles didn’t need to hear his radio quite as much during these manoeuvres as my whooping and jabbering had returned with a vengeance!
The party tricks completed, and the blood now having returned back to my feet, it was time for a couple of tight left hand turns and a smooth landing back at Sywell. As we turned off the runway Myles asked “Well, did you enjoy that?” with tongue firmly planted in cheek… queue much more uncontrolled jabbering from his passenger.
The Blades all parked in line in front of the terminal building and four very happy Vulcan chasers with exactly the same wide grins as those from the first group emerged from the front seats. I shook Myles firmly by the hand and thanked him fora fabulous experience and apologized for being possibly his noisiest ever passenger!
We all made our way back inside for a very nice lunch, which gave everyone a chance to compare stories of their own experiences of the flight, and it was quite clear that we all were going to remember this day for a very long time indeed. To finish off a perfect day, after lunch the four Blades took to the air one more time and gave us our own private display which seemed far lower and definitely crazier than the ones usually seen at air shows! The guys were really pulling out all the stops for us, and some of their twists and turns made the two loops I’d experienced an hour before seem very tame indeed!
When the display had finished, I said my goodbyes to everyone and started to make my way home. This really had been a fabulous, unforgettable day, and I’d like to thank everyone from The Blades team for looking after us all so well. Their hospitality was second to none, and the friendly, helpful and attentive staff could not have done more to make everyone feel relaxed and welcome. Many thanks also go to the VTST team, without whom this opportunity would never have been possible, and in particular Ian Homer for keeping me informed and up to date with everything I needed to know regarding all I’ve described above.
As I write, (late October 2010) there are just five days left to ensure my flight next to XH558 is not going to be one of her very last. To do this, a small matter of three hundred thousand pounds needs to be raised in that short space of time or else she’ll go the way of Concorde and just become a permanent museum piece. By the time you read this report, the future of the world’s last air worthy AvroVulcan will be known, and I dearly hope it’s the news we all want. Air shows without XH558 just will never be the same again, and it would be such a terrible shame if she were to miss the chance to fly in the very special year of 2012, with it being the 60th anniversary of The Vulcan’s first flight as well as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
This of course, could mean the spectacular sight of XH558 and The Red Arrows flying together down The Mall, what an incredible event that would be! More than anything though, I do hope she’s still flying for as long as she possibly can so that many more Vulcan fans can be as lucky as I was and be able to take the opportunity to experience an unforgettable day flying alongside her with The Blades.
I’m off to buy a lottery ticket now. Time for another trip to Brize Norton!!
Copyright of the author and reproduced here with his permission. January 2011.
One of the close formations described in Matthew's story taken from the ground. Photo courtesy and Copyright of Andrew Brown.