Ramblings From The AEOs Panel No 7 – 2013
It’s now Thursday and I think that I’ve just about recovered from a very busy flying programme displaying your aircraft at 6 events over 3 consecutive days of the August Bank holiday. For me it all started on Thursday evening when I had the drive from King’s Lynn up the dreaded A17 and the A1 to the Ramada Encore Hotel at Robin Hood airport where I was booked in for the night. Our flight the following day was to be a single display at the Clacton seaside show and a return to Doncaster. Our display time was quite early in the afternoon which necessitated a relatively early start at 9am when we all gathered to do our planning. Our crew for that day was Kev Rumens who was the Captain aided and abetted by his co-pilot Phill O’Dell. I, of course, was to be the AEO.
As usual the first thing we do is to look at the weather prospects for the display area and for the transit route down to Essex. The weather at Doncaster was fine and sunny but that’s no guarantee that it would be fine elsewhere throughout the country. Anyway, the charts and forecasts looked great and we now could get on with our planning in detail. This trip was to be a combination of display flying and training. Because of pressures at work Phill hasn’t had the opportunity to fly with us yet this season and would need to reacquaint himself with the aircraft. All this season Kev has been demonstrating the handling characteristics of the Vulcan under abnormal flying conditions to all the other pilots and Phill was the last one to complete the demonstration/training given by Kev. Also Phill needed to carry out some practice display flying before he could demonstrate the aircraft later over the weekend. Kev too needed to get an official tick of approval for his display flying which could be given by Phill seeing as he is an authorised Display Authoriser nominated by the CAA. Each of our pilots who display the Vulcan need to have an annual check by the CAA or their nominated person who will observe a practice display and either give approval as being up to the required standard or, heaven forbid, say that it wasn’t up to par.
With the training element taking up a fairly significant proportion of our trip we set about organising an appropriate airfield where we could carry out the practice displays and also an area where we could safely carry out some aircraft handling at medium level ie.14000 feet. The preferred airfield was RAF Wattisham down in deepest Suffolk which was going to be quite close to where we ultimately wished to be displaying for real at Clacton. Kev rang up the ATC people at Wattisham to explain what we would like to do and just like last year when we were flying in their area they were more than happy to accommodate us. The area where we wanted to climb up to medium level was en route to Wattisham but was generally in the area around RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Because we don’t have the clearances required to allow us to enter into controlled airspace we needed to find an area where there was no danger of bumping into airline traffic which would be flying along the airways going west to east across the country. Over Lincolnshire was ideal because that was an area where there was no airway structure and we wouldn’t be in any danger of breaking the rules by infringing the airspace occupied by the airliners. Finally, after the practice displays at Wattisham we were tasked to do some air-to-air photography with a Cessna Caravan and an on-board photographer. This was planned to take place between Wattisham and Clacton and prior to our display.
All was going to plan, the various Air Traffic authorities that I would be talking to were contacted and as always they were eager to give us an air traffic control service. Kev then contacted the Cessna pilot to arrange where we would meet up and where we would carry out the photography and of course give him a safety brief about flying in formation with the Vulcan. Light aircraft flying close to a Vulcan can get into all sorts of problems if they get too close and become affected by the vortices created by the Vulcan wings. The display authorities down at Clacton too were contacted to make sure that there were no last minute changes, the Air Traffic people at Doncaster were informed that we wanted to climb up to medium level directly after take-off and finally Taff and his engineering team were informed of what time we would be arriving at the aircraft. With everything in place we could relax for a few minutes before our briefing time and have a cup of tea and a biccie.
As briefing time arrived the aircrew team gathered around the desk accompanied by Taff who would give us the latest info on the aircraft serviceability state and what work had been carried out since she last flew. Kev, as Captain, led the briefing and gave a broad-brush outline of the trip. I followed by giving a brief as per the AEO Briefing Sheet. Each of the individual briefing inputs by the aircrew members is done from a pre-printed proforma. This ensures that every salient point of what we need to know is covered and it leaves no room for error or omission. There’s nothing worse than having an unprofessional brief which is all ‘higgledy piggledy’ following no particular format which easily lends itself to self-induced errors. We pride ourselves on being totally professional in everything we do regarding flying 558 and the briefing format is no exception. With the outline of the sortie covered by Kev followed by a more in-depth brief of communications and the navigation of our intended routing covered by me this was all followed up by a briefing by Phill on the fuel load and fuel management of the aircraft. Finally Taff had his say and after the ubiquitous ‘any questions’ the briefing was essentially complete.
You may recall a few blogs previously I mentioned the fact the one thing that we don’t have on the VTTS is an aircraft simulator where we aircrew can practice flying the aircraft under adverse conditions. To try and keep us as sharp as we can possibly be our briefings are finalised by having ‘Snag Of The Day’. The AEO has the responsibility of deciding on an aircraft problem and the crew then verbally go through what they would do to remedy the situation. This is a very valuable exercise and although we don’t have the advantage of actually flying the aircraft under fault conditions we can have a very valuable discussion about the actions we would take. The problem I chose on this particular day was that during the take-off run down the runway we hit a couple of birds which smeared the left hand side of the windscreen making it impossible to see out for the left seat pilot. I won’t go into detail about the recovery actions that we discussed because of time and space available but it led to a valuable and practical discussion.
The time came for us to gather our bits and pieces together and make tracks to the aircraft. Toni Hunter was waiting on the airfield side of the security gate and once we had been security checked we were allowed onto the Air Side of the airfield. As you can well imagine, with the threat of terrorism being with us on a daily basis it is essential that no-one is allowed onto the airfield without passing through the security system. We all have our own individual security pass and without it, even though the security people have got to know us all quite well now, there can be no entry on to the airfield. It’s a necessary evil which we have to acknowledge but we all know that it really is in all our own best interests so we just get on with it. Toni drove the crew car up to the security gate, we piled all our gear into the back of it and she drove us out to the aircraft. The sun was shining and 558 looked absolutely beautiful gleaming as though she had just been polished. Obviously the engineers and the volunteers had been hard at it before we arrived to make 558 look as stunning as she could possibly be.
Crewing in went without a hitch. The aircraft worked as advertised and before long we were at the end of the runway awaiting clearance to go from the control tower. With clearance obtained we set off down the runway and were soon airborne and climbing away up to 14000’ feet. It was a beautiful day and the pilots could see for miles and miles. I could see for a maximum of 28 inches down the back!! I did mention at the time to the guys up the front that I’ve spent 50 years of my life flying backward, in the dark, and just having to imagine all the places that they can see out of their windows. Would I have had it any other way? Of course not. Having reached our pre-determined height Kev and Phill carried out their training while I kept us away from any areas where we might be infringing airspace that we weren’t entitled to be in. With half an hour gone and satisfied with their training Kev set course for our transit down to the Suffolk area and RAF Wattisham where we were going to do the practice displays for both pilots.
Roaring around the Wattisham area practicing their display flying skills I could see a lot of the Station personnel gazing up at us in wonderment at a sight they don’t often get to see in that part of the country. Kev finished his practice and then handed over to Phill for his go. You would never have believed that it had been nearly a year since Phill had flown the Vulcan, and just like Kev’s the display he flew was as smooth as silk and it was a pleasure to be in the aircraft. Enough already – too much emotion!!
Satisfied with their efforts it was time to meet up with the Cessna for the air-to-air photography at our pre-arranged point between Wattisham and Clacton. There was no sign of the aircraft where he should have been so after enquiries to the Wattisham radar controller we established that he was over 20 miles away to the north east. Time was running out on us and so after a quick dash back northwards we managed, with the help of the radar controller, to formate with the Cessna and start the photography. We told him that we needed to be further south so that we were within striking distance of Clacton just in case we were asked to start our display earlier than planned. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that when we display we are allocated a display time but should always be ready to display earlier should the display aircraft before us fail to either turn up or has a problem whereby he has to depart the display area sooner than he had intended. Anyway, with the display time uppermost in our mind we let the Cessna know what we wished to do. Unfortunately he had other ideas, well the photographer had. He continued north towards the Sizewell power station area and wanted to photograph us with the coast line in the background. We were getting ever further away from Clacton and finally Kev had to tell him that we had run out of time for his photo shoot and that we had to depart for our display.
Heading off down to Clacton I contacted the Display Controller to see if the display was running on time as per the programme. He assured me that it was and cleared us in to commence our display. As we arrived over the display it was evident that the haze might be a problem and both pilots recognised that it was possibly a factor in trying to see where the horizon was. Being assured that both pilots were aware of the potential problem I could relax just a little bit and now enjoy the ride. Looking down out of my side window during the turns I could see that the crowd along the sea front was massive. According to the local TV reports and the radio too the crowd had been swelled by the fact that the Vulcan was appearing at the air show. Yet again the ‘Vulcan Effect’ was in evidence. Kev flew his usual exemplary display much to the delight of the crowd who apparently broke into a spontaneous applause once the display was over. With no controlled airspace above us Kev performed his spiral climb at full power up to about three thousand feet before spiralling down for a final pass along the crowd line. The display was over and with the crowd being left behind absolutely dumbstruck we headed off in a north westerly direction to return home to Doncaster to land after 2 hours 25 minutes of flying.
Both I and Phill were due to fly again the following day so we headed off back to the Ramada Hotel for a well-earned beer. Kev meanwhile headed off down the A1 to his home to be ready for a family social event that weekend. As Phill and I arrived at the bar we were met by Jonathan Lazzari who is going to be my replacement after I retire. He was going to fly with us the following day observing the way I do things in the aircraft before he was due to fly as the AEO on the Sunday. After just one beer Phill elected to go up to his room and recover from the day’s flight. He had been extremely busy at work and just wanted an evening to himself to just chill out and relax before the flight the following day. I, meanwhile, was to attend a Murder Mystery evening being held in the hotel. Toni Hunter had managed to wangle us some free tickets to the event which included a free meal. It would have been churlish to have turned down an offer of a free meal so after getting ourselves all cleaned up from the day’s exertions my partner Rae and I joined several of the engineers for an evening’s entertainment. It was really good fun but I now know why I became aircrew rather than a detective; unfortunately I arrested and hung the wrong guy!! As I was due to be up quite early for a radio interview in the morning about the following day’s flight I elected to have an early night and sloped off to bed about 10pm.
It was a mistake thinking that I was going to get a good night’s sleep by going to bed early. At about 2-30am the heavens opened and there was a torrential downpour of rain. We were on the top floor of the hotel which has a metal roof and the noise from the rain made it sound as if we were in a drum. This continued for over an hour before it finally stopped and we could finally get back to sleep once again. By this time I was getting a bit concerned that if the rain continues like this into the following day then we’re going to be flying nowhere. As dawn broke I woke and after my alarm went off at 7-30 I hauled myself out of bed ready for the radio interview at 8-15 with Radio Devon. One of the displays that day was to be at Dawlish just north of Torquay my home town and Richard Clarke our PR guru had organised an interview with me to generate a little bit local interest. As it happened there would be 2 of us on the aircraft that day who come from the same area. Jonathan was born in Exmouth which is just across the estuary of the river adjacent to Dawlish. The interview went off ok so my sister tells me, she lives locally and was listening in, and I just couldn’t resist mentioning that we would be holding to the south of the display area just in front of my local pub when I go to visit my family in Torquay. Nothing like a bit of free publicity I always say. Indeed, as we were holding in the bay just off the coast of Babbacome in Torquay everyone in the pub could see us from their vantage point on the cliff tops. Apparently the pub was packed that day with people who had heard me on the radio mentioning the pub by name. I’m told that landlord has offered me copious pints of beer for when I visit the pub next. Job done!!
Anyway, back to the events of the day. As we all assembled in the office it was readily apparent from the weather conditions outside and from the forecast that this wasn’t going to be an easy day to plan. Our crew was captained by Bill Ramsey with Phill O’Dell once again as the co-pilot and me as the AEO. Jonathan, as I mentioned earlier, was along purely as an observer. The displays were planned to be flown in the order of Dunsfold in West Sussex followed by Dawlish in Devon. Looking at the Met forecast and from getting actual weather reports it was readily apparent that the eastern half of the country from a line from Portsmouth up to Lincolnshire was not very good. The forecasters predicted that the West Suffolk area would start to clear a bit later in the afternoon but until then the weather precluded us from going anywhere near to Dunsfold. The western half of the country was absolutely fine for the whole of the day. It was a fairly volatile weather mass and was continually changing. Bill was re-planning the route to take into account of the weather and as soon as he had finished his plan the weather would change yet again. Eventually Bill elected to tell Dunsfold that we probably wouldn’t be able to make it to their display until very much later in the day and if they could find us a display time to accommodate our change of plan then we would make every effort to get to them commensurate with flight safety. Dunsfold of course readily agreed with Bill’s change of plan.
Armed with a new routing we elected to head due south to the Brize Norton area before heading west to the Gloucestershire area and then down towards Exeter. I contacted all the relevant radio agencies that I would be likely to talk to en route while Bill made a final call to both the Dawlish and Dunsfold display directors to let them know of our revised plan. With everything now finalised as much as it could be with the ever-changing weather situation in mind we carried out our formal briefing. This being complete we set off to the aircraft. The weather at Doncaster had by now very much improved and with a renewed air of confidence we climbed aboard the aircraft to get things on the road – well, in the air!! The aircraft started up sweet as a nut and before we knew it we were on our way southbound at about 1000’ to remain below the cloud layer. The transit down to the West Country went without incident and after about 45 minutes flying time we soon arrived in the Exeter area. Our route then took us out to west of Exeter to the north east tip of Dartmoor before turning southeast towards Newton Abbott before crossing the coast out into Babbacombe Bay where we were due to hold before being called in to do our display. We were holding for only a few minutes before the Display Controller gave us permission to commence out run in to the display area.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Dawlish area there is a high headland to the south and right of the beach front where the crowds are gathered and anything approaching the display area from the right is hidden from view right up until the last moment when the aircraft rounds the headland to be positioned in front of the crowd. Phill, now fully up to speed with displaying the Vulcan after his practice the previous day, approached the display area and surprised everyone as he hove into sight from around the headland to commence his display. Conditions were so much better than at Clacton and his display was flown beautifully with no fear of losing awareness of the horizon. He concluded the display with the spiral climb up to about 2000’ before descending to fly past the crowd with the undercarriage down. This done the undercarriage was raised and the display was complete. Unfortunately when the wheels were selected up the indications in the cockpit were such that the port wheel wasn’t locked up properly. I scanned the underwing of the aircraft through my periscope and confirmed that everything looked ok and that there was nothing dangling where it shouldn’t be dangling. This indication of an undercarriage positioning problem is not unknown to us and has happened several times before so there was no cause for alarm. Bill elected to lower the undercarriage once again and then raise it to see if the problem would resolve itself. Unfortunately we still had the indication problem but we weren’t too worried about it and we continued our transit along the south coast towards Dunsfold.
Progressing further eastwards we could see up ahead that the weather was starting to deteriorate. Bill elected to fly a bit further to the south to hug the coast where the visibility was better and with the help of the radar controllers at both Bournemouth and Southampton we flew on towards the Portsmouth area. Looking inland the prospects of flying any further north were looking decidedly grim so we continued along the coast past Selsey Bill and Bognor Regis towards Littlehampton. We could see the estuary of the River Arun and turned towards that to fly due north keeping the Chichester/Goodwood airfield well clear on our left progressing further north towards Dunsfold. By this time we were in contact with the display controller at Dunsfold on our second radio and we could hear that things were not going too well there with the adverse weather. As we continued on still in the clear air we could see the aircraft from the BBMF leaving the Dunsfold area passing us going in the opposite direction. Looking out the front Bill could see that going any further towards Dunsfold was going to be a fruitless task and made the wise decision to cancel our display and head westwards towards the clearer weather and then home to Doncaster. We hate having to cancel our appearances at displays for a variety of reasons. People pay an awful lot of money to come and watch us display and the organisers have spent a lot of time and effort to get us to the display however safety is paramount and if the weather conditions are below the limits set for us to display then we have no option but to cancel our appearance. To continue on in adverse conditions is true folly, it not only puts the crowd at risk but it also puts the safety of the crew and the aircraft in jeopardy.
We set up our revised route and started the long journey back north towards Doncaster. The weather by now had got significantly better and the flight home progressed without any problems. As we approached Doncaster the undercarriage with its associated indication problem was selected down ready for our landing. The wheels came down as advertised and all the indications were that there was no problem. Landing after a flight of exactly 3 hours the aircraft was taxied in to the dispersal and shut down. Looking at the undercarriage door on the port main wheel we could see where the indication problem had occurred. To keep the doors firmly locked when the wheels are up in the wheel bay there are 2 hooks attached to each of the doors, one at the front and one at the rear which then catch on to brackets attached to the wheel bay walls. Unfortunately the rear hook on the outer door had broken and seeing as this is attached to an indication micro switch it failed to give the correct indication in the aircraft that the door was up and securely locked. It was locked of course by the remaining front hook so there was no danger of the door becoming unlocked and dropping down undemanded. The engineers have seen this problem on quite a number of occasions and are very skilled in manufacturing replacement brackets which they fitted the following morning.
And so we come to Sunday our third and final day of the Bank Holiday flying commitment. The displays on the Sunday were programmed to be at Dunsfold once again, Laverstock Farm near Popham where the BBC Children In Need event hosted by Chris Evans was being held and finally another Children In Need event at Little Gransden just to the west of Cambridge. Today the crew was to be Martin Withers as Captain, Bill Perrins as co-pilot and Jonathan Lazzari as the AEO. As many of you know Jonathan joined us at the start of the season and has been flying under instruction/observation by either myself or Phil Davies. Today he was to be observed by me to see whether or not he had reached the required standard before he was to be allowed to fly without either Phil or myself alongside him. As we all assembled for the pre-flight planning the weather outside was looking beautiful and this was being reflected across most of the country according to the Met forecast. There were quite a few changes to the timings of the displays which needed a change to the routing but Jonathan coped with all of that admirably. The crew set about their planning and once everyone was ready Martin called them all together for the sortie briefing which all went without incident.
The day was progressing well and before long it was time to make our way to the aircraft which once again was glinting beautifully in the sun. The start-up, taxi and take off went well and soon we were well on our way south down to the first display at Laverstock Farm. Jonathan was coping well and so I took advantage of this by standing on the ladder between the pilots to watch the world go by, an experience I haven’t much opportunity to do. Of course once we got into the display area I had to go back to my seat and get strapped in. Looking out of my window during the display I could see that the crowd was huge so hopefully the Children In Need fund will have benefitted immensely. With the display complete Jonathan took over the navigation of the aircraft and steered us eastwards towards Dunsfold for the next display. Yet again this went well and was over all too quickly for me. I was really enjoying being just a passenger without any direct responsibility for the aircraft. We set course northwards towards the Cambridge area for our third and final display at Little Gransden, Jonathan was confidently supplying all the navigation details to the pilots and he was continually chatting away to all the relevant radar controllers on the ground to keep them informed on what we were doing and where we going next.
Little Gransden was bathed in bright sunshine and our appearance there flown by Bill Perrins must have looked wonderful. We were to do only a couple of fly pasts rather than a full display but even so I’m sure that all who were on the ground watching must have loved every moment of it. With the flypasts completed it was time to go home. The transit northbound gave me an opportunity to yet again watch out the front cockpit widows. I could get used to this I thought as the scenery passed by underneath. As we approached Doncaster I returned to my seat to watch Jonathan on the final stages of his trip. We landed after a flight of 2 hours and 30 minutes. As we taxied in to our dispersal I injected a simulated emergency for Jonathan to deal with. The scenario was that we were approaching Doncaster when we flew into a large flock of birds which caused both engines on the starboard side to fail. The pilots shut down the engines in the appropriate manner which left Jonathan with only half of his electrical generation system running. He dealt with the situation and completed all his recovery actions to ensure the electrical safety of the aircraft in a text book fashion. More than satisfied with what I had seen I declared that the simulated emergency was terminated and that we should continue onwards to our dispersal. With the aircraft shut down I left Jonathan to do all the things that the AEO has to do before vacating the aircraft, I gathered up my bits and bobs and climbed out.
It wasn’t long before Martin too climbed out and after a brief discussion with him about how I thought Jonathan had performed he agreed with me that Jonathan was fit to be accepted as an AEO on the VTTS and to be allowed to fly without any supervision on future sorties. The engineers gathered at the bottom of the steps and as Jonathan climbed out he was met with a round of applause from both the aircrew and the ground crew. Looking suitably embarrassed he was congratulated with a hand shake from Taff and was declared a full member of the VTTS team. Once the engineering and aircrew debrief was completed Jonathan, Martin, Bill, me and Rae all went across the road to the Ramada Hotel for a celebration beer. All it remained for me to do now was to let our CEO, Dr Robert Pleming, know that Jonathan had flown a successful trip and that I recommended that he be awarded a full contract to fly with the VTTS unsupervised. Robert graciously emailed me yesterday with his confirmation that Jonathan is now a fully-fledged member of the VTTS aircrew team.
And so the weekend’s flying activities came to a close. It has been a busy weekend with some beautiful but also some really shocking weather conditions. We had managed to fly every one of the tasks we were given except one. Taff and his engineers had given us a serviceable aircraft on each of the three days despite us breaking it on the Saturday and I had managed to see the countryside fly by from a totally different perspective. Finally, strangely enough, I had managed to fly with every one of our pilots over the weekend which was absolutely wonderful. Seeing as I retire from flying in a month’s time that probably won’t happen again.
Before I close this extra-long blog I would like to say a big thank you to our volunteers who manned the shop in the terminal building over the weekend. They do a wonderful job there and they continue to raise much needed cash from the sales of all the VTTS bits and pieces that are for sale.
That’s about it. I’m sorry that this has been a bit of a tortuous read but to try and cover a long weekend’s flying in just a few paragraphs is impossible. Congratulations to those of you who have made it this far!! Thank you for reading this and as always thank you for your continued financial contributions which not only allow the aircrew to do the thing they love most, but you have enabled us to give pleasure to countless people who have seen us around the country either during our transit phase or at the shows.