Ramblings From The AEOs Panel No 4 – 2013
Those of you who are avid readers of the Vulcan To The Sky website will have already read accounts of the RAF Waddington air show written by Lauren and Grace our two PR/Media interns. With such very readable articles written by these two young ladies it’s very difficult to follow up on them but I shall have a go.
I guess that I should start at the beginning of the weekend when 558 flew in to Waddington to be positioned ready for the big event to be held over the following two days. With Taff Stone and his engineering team and volunteers yet again presenting XH558 looking in immaculate condition to the aircrew of the day viz. Martin Withers, Bill Ramsey, Phil Davies and the new member of our AEO team Jonathan Lazzari, the aircraft flew from Doncaster to Waddington. Many of you will know that I have decided to retire at the end of this season and we therefore need a replacement AEO before I can go. Some of you will be saying that you thought that I was going to retire at the end of last season and you’d be correct but events rather overtook us at the beginning of this year and my original replacement never materialised. Therefore the search went out for a suitable candidate to join the AEO team and Phil Davies, my AEO colleague, identified a more than capable AEO who was keen to join us.
Jonathan Lazzari is a retired RAF AEO currently flying with Cobham performing a very valuable role training aircrew of all nationalities in the ‘art’ of air warfare. He is an extremely capable AEO and our history together goes way back to the late 70’s when we both went through the Vulcan OCU at around the same time. Jonathan last stepped into a Vulcan over 30 years ago and obviously he would need to have a refresher course to re-acquaint him with the operating systems of the Vulcan. He has completed a fairly intensive ground school with presentations on all the aircraft operating systems. Having successfully completed that it was just a case of getting him into the aircraft and do all the practical stuff. Jonathan’s first flight was to be from Doncaster to Waddington with him watching Phil Davies operating the AEO panels. It was going to be a high intensity weekend schedule with him flying every trip over the weekend culminating with us repositioning 558 at RNAS Yeovilton on the Monday ready for their air show the following weekend.
You may well have heard, and those of you who were at Waddington will have seen, we have modified our display routine this year. The routine has been worked out by Bill Ramsey our ex Red Arrows display pilot and manager in conjunction with our other 2 display pilots Martin Withers, our Chief Pilot, and Kev Rumens. Before we can perform the new routine it needs to be practised and the flight into Waddington was the ideal time to do this. It also gave Jonathan a good idea of what it was like to be in the back of the cockpit during a display routine not that he is a stranger to Vulcan display flying having been the AEO for David Thomas when he was the RAF Vulcan display pilot way back in the ‘80s.
The practice display training was completed over RAF Scampton and the aircraft progressed on to Waddington for her arrival in front of the assembled media. The following day, Saturday, dawned with brilliant sunshine and that was to be the weather set fair for the whole of the weekend. The Vulcan was programmed to display at about 2pm by which time the display venue was packed with air show enthusiasts having a wonderful time watching the dramatic and stunning displays by the air show participants. As her display time drew near the change in the crowd’s attention was palpable and the audience started to pack the display line in eager anticipation of what most of them had come to see – XH558.
Having taxied out to her holding point on the runway Bill, who was going to fly the display, opened up the throttles to 80% released the brakes and with full power applied roared off down the runway to the cheers of thousands. Once airborne 558 positioned to start the new routine. This involved flying directly towards the crowd to a range of about a mile, applying full power and pulling up into a steep climb before rolling off the top and continuing the display we all know and love. After the bomb-bay turn another new routine was introduced which was a spiral climb with full power up to about 3500’ before pulling back the power and commencing a quiet spiral downwards like a falling leaf before completing the display with a few turns and passes with the undercarriage selected down.
All of this was completed in about 12 minutes before it was time to put the wheels down for her final approach to the runway to land. As soon as the wheels touched the ground there were whoops of delight accompanied by thunderous applause from the rapturous crowd. XH558 taxied into her display stand and the crew ‘poured’ themselves out of the cockpit looking as though they had all just been into a shower. After having spent over an hour in a closed cockpit where the temperature was close to 100º what they all needed was a good long swig of water from bottles which Taff had thoughtfully provided before trying to make their way back through the crowd to the Vulcan Village. Needless to say the crowd still wanted them all to sign autographs and to have their photos taken with the crew which even though the crew were absolutely exhausted from the heat they were happy to oblige.
The following day we all assembled yet again at the Vulcan Village at about 8am. The crew on the Sunday was to be Kev Rumens as display pilot and captain, Bill Ramsey as co pilot, myself as the AEO and Jonathan sitting alongside me observing. The display briefing was at 8-30am in the Operations Room where all the days flying participants were given a comprehensive brief by the Display Director and the FCC (Flying Control Committee) on the weather conditions, the display timings and all things which were pertinent to safety during display flying plus a few debriefing points from the previous day’s displays. We saw that we were scheduled to fly relatively early on the programme at 1140am which was somewhat of a disappointment because we wanted to be on later in the day.
The reason for us preferring this is that a significant number of the crowd come mainly to see the Vulcan and with traffic problems that are always attendant with large air shows thereby creating long traffic hold-ups a lot of the crowd was possibly going to miss our display. We tried to get the timing changed but to no avail. As it happened there was a delay but I’ll come on to that in a moment. The only good thing about being on earlier than the previous day’s crew was that it would possibly be a bit cooler in the cockpit.
As 1030 approached Kev gathered us all together for a crew brief. With 45 minutes to go we walked to the aircraft which had been towed out by our ground crew to a position clear of the crowd but still close enough for them to feel almost part of the action. Jonathan and I completed our AEO aircraft checks together and climbed aboard to wait for the 2 pilots. We could feel that the temperature was starting to rise and already it was starting to feel hot and clammy in the cockpit. I had taken on board a digital thermometer which Richard, one of our trusty volunteers, had lent me from his mobile home and I could see that the temperature was already 85º and rising.
We completed all our checks on time right up to the engine start checks when everything came to a grinding halt. The air starter unit which supplies compressed air to start the aircraft engines itself refused to start and we were left helpless with a serviceable aircraft but no means of starting it. Some of you may remember that back in the good old days we had a facility for using compressed air stored in bottles on board the Vulcan which we could use to start the engines. This was always a dramatic way to start the engines because it produced a mighty howl as the engines started and it was always a crowd pleaser. Unfortunately due to engineering limitations this facility was withdrawn from 558 when she underwent her refurbishment so we are now left with only using the normal start procedure which uses an air starter unit.
Because Waddington would supply us with a starter unit we had no need to bring our own. Unfortunately the one they gave us on the Sunday refused to start and a replacement was urgently required from the Stations Ground Equipment Section. I informed the Display Director via the radio that we were perfectly serviceable but needed to delay until Waddington could supply us with another air starter unit. One can only imagine the concern for the Display Director this must have induced. All crews when they attend the briefing are told to be prepared to move up a display slot should the aircraft displaying before them not be able to make their timing and so the aircraft who was due to fly shortly after us took our place. There was only one bonus to our 30 minute delay, it meant that more of our followers who had possibly been held up in traffic jams would now be able to see us display.
We waited patiently for our replacement air starter unit to arrive. There was nothing more for me to do so I unstrapped from my parachute and seat and exited the aircraft to go and talk to the crowd. Unfortunately unstrapping the pilots is a lot more complex because of their ejection seats and they elected to remain in the aircraft and endure the rising temperature. After about 20 minutes the replacement air starter unit was spotted being towed towards the aircraft so I got back in ready to continue the engine start checks once it had all been connected up. With the engines started we were now ready to start our display once we had been cleared by the Display Director. The temperature in the cockpit was now up to the high 90s and still rising. Kev taxied out to the runway holding point and once cleared we were off roaring down the runway.
The display was a repeat of the previous day and once again it was met with universal approval by the crowd. Having taxied back into our dispersal I could hear the applause from the crowd as I opened the door and this got even more rapturous as Kev and Bill climbed out. They deserved their applause having completed a display under very arduous conditions. We all tried valiantly to make our way back through the crowd to the Vulcan Village which was only 75 yards away but it took Kev and I nearly half an hour to make that short journey because of the number of people wanting photos and autographs. David Beckham eat your heart out!! Once we had all managed to get back to the Village we had a cup of tea and then completed our crew debrief while everything was still fresh in our minds.
The rest of the day was spent chatting with the crowds who were now thronging into the Vulcan Village to make their purchases of all things related to the Vulcan. It’s amazing some of the people we get to meet and chat to. I was privileged to meet up with a gentleman named Joe Parker who as a Flight Lieutenant test pilot carried out many of the test flights on the original Vulcan B1s and he also flew the tests on the aircraft when it was designed to carry the Skybolt missiles under the wings. He told me a fascinating story of how he was testing the new autoland system which was designed to take over from the autopilot during the final stages of the flight before landing. He was assured that once he disconnect the autopilot and connected in the new autoland he would still have full manual control of the aircraft should anything go wrong. Well, go wrong it did in a most dramatic way. He was at 200´ just before landing when the system dropped out but refused to let him take manual control of the aircraft to land it safely. He sat there as the aircraft descended virtually out of control on to the runway and it virtually crash landed. Fortunately the undercarriage was strong enough to withstand the impact and they all got away with it. It was a very frightening experience for all on board. As he said to me, when an engineer tells you that the system is fail safe take it with a pinch of salt and prepare for the worst but hope for the best.
I love hearing tales like this from such wonderful aviators from days past. As people gathered around us all I lost count of the number of books, programmes, autograph books and other paraphernalia we were all signing. I joined my partner Rae who like Laura Withers was helping out the Volunteers who were serving in the Village. I thought that it was hot in the aircraft but these ladies were serenely enduring very high temperatures in the Village tent as well but without a word of complaint. They just got on with it, not like us aircrew who complain at the slightest inconvenience to our own personal comfort!
As the day drew to a close it was time for us to leave to go home to prepare ourselves for the flight the next day which was to be the delivery of 558 to RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. We, the same crew as on Sunday, all assembled on the Monday morning once again in the Operations Room to begin our planning. The cloud base didn’t look too good at about 500´ but we were assured by the Met. Man that it would soon improve and burn off. Having briefed we were driven out to the aircraft to meet up with Taff and his now much reduced team of engineers. Quite a few of them had already left for Yeovilton to be there ready to meet us when we arrived.
The aircraft was ready to go but we encountered another couple of delays in the guise of no ground electrical power unit and also that we were still going to have to wait for the cloud base to rise so that we could fly within our Visual Flying Rules limitations of 1000´ minimum cloud base for take off. We watched other aircraft taking off and we could see that they were entering cloud at about 600´. Kev contacted the Met. Man who once again predicted that the cloud base would be within limits within the hour. We had reports from places nearby within a few miles of Waddington that the skies were cloudless so it appeared that Waddington was enduring its own micro climate. This time the Met. Man was proved right and by the time we were ready to taxi the cloud was dispersing sufficient for us to meet our legal weather limitations.
Entering the runway Kev opened up the throttles and we were off. The flight down to Yeovilton was without incident and very enjoyable. We climbed up to about 7000´ which cooled the aircraft down nicely and before long it was time to commence our descent into Yeovilton. The weather in Somerset was absolutely glorious and was forecast to stay that way for the rest of the week and for the all important RNAS Yeovilton Air Day. Let’s hope so because XH558 is due to perform at 2 venues on the Saturday taking in not only the Yeovilton Air Day but also a flypast at 1pm over the Festival Of Speed at Goodwood. The crew for those two events will be Martin Withers as display pilot and captain with Bill Perrins as his co pilot, myself as AEO instructor and Jonathan Lazzari operating the systems as the AEO.
So what more can we say about the Waddington weekend that hasn’t already been said both here and in the two articles written by Lauren and Grace. Not much really – it was an outstanding event, very well organised by the team at RAF Waddington and it gave XH558 the opportunity to perform in stunning fashion yet again in front of you her faithful supporters. As always, we can’t do this without your continued monetary support and we are forever grateful to you all for it. Please keep it up so that your aircraft can continue to strut her stuff and thrill everyone who sees her in the air.
That’s it. I look forward to seeing you all at Yeovilton and if you have the time please do come up and say hello to us all. We won’t bite I promise.
© Barry Masefield