In what could be his last ever Blog post (we hope not actually if he visits an airshow next year) Barry Masefield gives and account of an event that took place on Friday 18th October 2013 - a party to celebrate the 6th Anniversary of the first post-restoration flight - or so he thought.
A Wonderful Send-Off
Those of you who are regular readers of the VTTS newsletter will have seen that this past Friday, 18th October 2013, was exactly six years to the date that I had the privilege to be part of the crew who flew XH558 on her air test after the extensive refurbishment period. With just the three of us on board, Al McDicken, our test pilot, accompanied up front in the pointy bit by David Thomas, then our Chief Pilot, we were all acutely aware of the responsibility we had to make the day a success. It had been a long hard slog over a period lasting nearly three years to get this far and it was a path that was at times tortuous because of ever attendant funding issues but the engineers had done a magnificent job and had prevailed. Now it was the turn of the aircrew to demonstrate that everything that the engineers and fund raisers had been striving towards had all been worth it. I am not going to rewrite everything that happened on that momentous day because it has all been well documented in other publications and videoed to death and you can read and see all about the day there.
Six years on and Dr Robert Pleming, our CEO, in concert with the Board of Trustees thought that it would be a good idea to celebrate the anniversary by having a party in the hangar at Robin Hood airport, now the home of XH558. Well that’s what I thought anyway. Little did I know that my partner Rae and Martin Withers, our present Chief Pilot, were using the occasion as a disguise to have a party to celebrate my retirement from flying after 50 years as aircrew. I had always said to Rae that when I finally retired from flying I would just slip away with no fuss. She in her usual way just nodded sagely in agreement but was determined that as far as she was concerned this was an event to be commemorated and not just let slip by unnoticed.
She apparently mentioned this to Robert who suggested that celebrating the 6th anniversary of the return to flight of 558 would be a perfect cover for a surprise retirement party. Well, it seemed to work. Totally ignorant of what was really going on all I was aware of was that Robert had invited me along to celebrate the 6th anniversary of the test flight, an occasion I was delighted to attend. Going on in the background Martin and Richard Clark were busying themselves with inviting guests to the event but they, the guests, knew the hidden reason for the party. There were about 50 guests attending from all sections of the VTTS including the XH558 Club, the Trustees, the staff at Hinckley, the volunteers, the engineers and my fellow aircrew and everyone there knew why they were assembled. Everyone, of course, except me.
Gathering in the hangar at 7-15 pm under the wings of 558 we were all chatting away reminiscing about that wonderful day six years ago when the aircraft took to the skies. The beer and wine was flowing nicely and still I wasn’t aware of what was going on. Then Richard Clark asked for a bit of hush while he said a few words of welcome and mentioned about the anniversary. I was listening intently to his every word and then was totally stunned when he mentioned that the real reason everyone was gathered together was to celebrate my retirement. He asked me to step forward to the front of the crowd to be alongside Robert to whom he handed over proceedings. After Robert had said his piece I was then presented with the most magnificent crystal glass bowl which had been engraved on one side of the bowl depicting a Vulcan flying over clouds and on the opposite side a few words of thanks for my efforts over the years. Immediately afterwards Rae was presented with a truly magnificent flower arrangement. Stunned – too right I was. Of course it fell to me to say a few words of thanks for this most magnificent gift and not having had any time to prepare anything all I could do was speak from the heart. I tried to thank everyone who had been involved with XH558 both past and present and if I omitted to include anyone in particular then I apologise for the omission.
The surprise now over I thought that we could get back to giving the barman, Martin Withers, a bit more attention. However, the surprises continued. A lot of you who have been with us for a long time will remember that for the period of the refurbishment and for the first three years of our display seasons our Operations Manager was Michael Pollitt. When 558 was moved from RAF Brize Norton to RAF Lyneham and then finally to Robin Hood airport Michael, who lived in the Oxfordshire area, felt the distance to travel was just a step too far and made the decision to retire from the project and hand over the reins to Martin Withers who was now to wear two hats by being both Chief Pilot and Operation Manager. We, the aircrew, had always said that we would have a party to say thank you to Michael for everything that he had done to make the VTTS operations such a success during his period of tenure but we never quite seemed to get around to it. As the years ticked by it looked increasingly unlikely that we would ever be in a position to give Michael a good send off. Martin thought that seeing as we were having a party for my retirement why not combine it with a party for Michael’s retirement also. Michael, like me, was presented with a crystal glass bowl accompanied by some very kind words from Robert. It was Michael’s turn to be pleasantly surprised and after accepting the gift he made a very fine speech thanking everyone. With the presentations and the speeches over the party really began and went on for some fair number of hours but not before the ‘family ‘photos had been taken by Charles Toop who for many years has been associated with XH558 as the official photographer. I look forward to seeing the photos which are going to be a permanent reminder of what a wonderful evening it was turning out to be. Fortunately most of us had booked rooms in the Ramada Encore hotel at the airfield so it wasn’t too far for us all to walk back once we had run out of beer in the hangar. Of course, by this time we were all well primed and ready to attack the hotel bar which must have doubled its profits that evening.
It had been a great evening full of surprises. It was a wonderful send-off for Michael and I and I can’t begin to express my thanks sufficiently to all who were involved in its planning and execution. I was truly humbled by the numbers who were there, all of whom I count as my friends. My thanks go out to each and every one of them for all their kind words said to me during the evening and I am really touched by the mass of retirement cards that were given to me and also for the gifts that some individuals gave me. To those who couldn’t be there due to other commitments but sent me text messages, voice messages and emails to apologise for their absence and their best wishes for a great evening and a happy retirement I thank you too.
Thank you to each and every one of you especially Rae, Martin and Richard who were instrumental in arranging the evening; it was a night that I shall remember always.