Ramblings From The AEOs Panel No 3 – 2013

Hello everyone and welcome to the first blog of the 2013 display season. First off- give yourselves a well deserved pat on the back. What’s he on about now I can hear you all saying. Well, in my last blog I mentioned that we had completed all of our pre-season ground training in both the classroom and on XM655 the Vulcan down at Wellesbourne Mountford and that the next big events in our calendar were the post winter service air test and a couple of training flights. The fuel for those three flights needed to be paid for and so an appeal was launched to each and every one of you to help defray the cost of that fuel. Without that money we would have had a perfectly serviceable aircraft sitting on the ground at Doncaster but no wherewithal to get her airborne. You had all given masses of cash over the winter months to pay for the winter servicing and to ask you for even more was going to be a big ask. The appeal from head office went out and yet again you all came up trumps. With that money in the bank ,we could now go ahead and fly the required sorties. Thank you to all of you who donated to the cause, without your generosity XH558’s wheels would never have left the ground.

For the first time since 2007 when 558 had finally been refurbished, I wasn’t involved in the post service air test. The air test took place over the weekend of the 18/19th May and I had already arranged to take myself and Rae, my partner, off to Paris to celebrate my birthday which was over that weekend. Phil Davies acted as the AEO on that air test and he and the crew flew a very successful sortie declaring that, despite one or two very minor faults, the aircraft was in fine fettle and ready to do her thing for the 2013 display season. Because I wasn’t on that trip I can’t write anything about it but I believe it has been covered in previous editions of the Newsletter anyway.

Last Friday was to be the first of the training trips and my first trip of the new season. The Captain was Kev Rumens with our Chief Pilot Martin Withers as his co-pilot while down the back there was myself as AEO and Andy Marson as the Nav. Although there was a lot of training for the pilots to do Andy and I were also training ourselves on the use of a new navigation system that we have now adopted. Some of you may have heard of Airbox, a company which designs a GPS driven navigation system which goes by the acronym of PANDA (Planning, Awareness and Documentation App) which can be used from an Ipad. Phill O’Dell, one of our display pilots who also is the chief test pilot for Rolls Royce, had been in contact with Airbox and managed to do a deal with them - the end result of which is that they have allowed us all to freely download their system on to our Ipads for our use in the air. Of course, we still use our two on-board hard-wired Garmin GPS as our ‘master’ navigation systems but by using the PANDA system in tandem with it our situational awareness is vastly improved. We have encountered a few minor drawbacks with the PANDA system, but nothing that a phone call between me and them won’t resolve I feel sure. Flying in 558 is now starting to become like a visit to the zoo – we already carry Guy Gibbon in the Bomb Aimers compartment in the nose. He has flown every time that 558 has been airborne over the past 30 years and has probably amassed more flying hours than the aircrew and now we’re starting to fly with a couple of PANDAs on board too!!

Anyway, back to what we were trying to achieve on Friday’s trip. Some of you who take an interest in these things will have already picked up on the fact that in all likelihood 558 will be granted permission to fly for a limited time in cloud. We’re awaiting authority from the CAA for us to do this but we have every reason to believe it is on its way very soon. As you will be aware, 558 is only allowed to fly under VMC/VFR, the acronyms for visual meteorological conditions/visual meteorological rules. For the uninitiated, that means basically that we must fly with a forward visibility of at least 8km and to have the cloud no closer than 1000 feet above us and less than 250 knots. Needless to say, that can become very restricting especially when we’re trying to get to an air show and we encounter some bad weather. What we have asked for is permission to climb through the cloud to get into clear air above it and to then continue our transit on to the display area. Of course, once we approach the display venue we then need to get back down below the cloud once again and that requires a very special type of descent which takes into account the height of the ground either side of our pre planned track. As we commence the descent the crew is fully briefed by the Captain about the height of the ground around our track and what the minimum height is that we can safely descend to. The descent procedure requires close crew cooperation by monitoring the heights that we are passing and also ensuring that we don’t deviate from the planned track. As we continue the descent, hopefully, we will break clear of the base of the cloud before we reach the minimum descent height that we can fly down to safely. If we don’t manage to see the ground by the time we get down to our minimum descent height then we have no option but to climb back up again and return back home. A pity but if the cloud was that low then in all probability we wouldn’t have been able to display anyway. This is a tried and tested procedure and one that has been practiced by the Tornado force for years and years and they’ve just cracked the one million flying hours without a single aircraft being lost carrying out this procedure. Needless to say, the procedure requires strong crew cooperation with accurate heights and headings being adhered too. We’ve practiced several of these descents now in clear air conditions and each one has worked out well. We’re now just waiting for approval from the CAA for us to legally penetrate cloud and then our ability to transit to air shows in marginal weather conditions will be vastly improved.

Having practiced these ‘new’ cloud penetration procedures in clear air and good visibility the pilots then carried out a couple of practice displays before we headed off down south to the Northampton area to carry out another display near Sywell. It was flown magnificently by Martin and from some photos I’ve seen the aircraft looked absolutely stunning. Before we took off we all commented on how beautifully clean and shiny 558 looked and it is testament to the hard work of our volunteers who take their cleaning rags to the paintwork each time she is due to fly to make her look so beautiful. Thank you guys and gals, although we get all the plaudits for displaying her it is you who make her look so beautiful when the sun is glinting off her wings. I mentioned seeing some photos of the aircraft taken during her display well how about this for coincidences. The photos were taken by my good friend Charles Toop who I’m sure most of you will be aware was the official photographer to the Vulcan Display Team during our RAF days. His iconic photo taken back in the late 80s from an aircraft he was in flying ahead of 558 has been used by the VTTS on numerous occasions. Some of you may well have seen his wonderful photos taken during our display at Windermere. Well, he was on a social visit at the home of some friends which was no more than a mile from where we were displaying and being a professional photographer he’s never caught without a camera. As soon as he heard the familiar noise of the Olympus engines he rushed outside the house much to his host’s surprise and there above him was 558 strutting her stuff. Out came the camera and true to form he produced some really stunning photos of us displaying as the sun was starting to set.

The display went extremely well, but it was now getting on. By now the sun was getting low in the sky and we really needed to pour the coals on and get back home to Doncaster before it got dark. As you all know 558 isn’t allowed to fly after sunset. It had been a very long day but one which had immense and valuable content ranging from practicing with our new PANDA navigation system, the pilots practicing things which only pilots know about, practicing our ‘new’ bad weather let-down procedure and finally carrying out a stunning display which worked up the 2013 routine. The aircraft had behaved herself impeccably so Taff and his team had very little to do after we had shut the engines down apart from the after-flight servicing and locking her up ready for the next day’s event.

Saturday’s trip was to be a replica of the previous day’s trip with the exception of not having to do a display at the end of it. We couldn’t fly until mid afternoon because the aircraft was being used for a photo shoot by a group associated with Harley-Davidson motorbikes. I’m sure this will be covered in a separate article so I won’t mention any more about it here. The crew for the day was Bill Ramsey who was to be our captain with Kev once again in the co-pilots seat and me on my lonesome this time down the back in the AEO’s seat. Again we practiced all the stuff that I have previously mentioned and by now it was becoming quite a familiar but enjoyable demanding process to us. The pilots were doing their aircraft handling stuff up the front while down the back I was playing with my PANDA. The weather was good and allowed us to complete everything that we had planned in our training programme. After an hour and a half it was time to land and once again we were able to hand back a fully serviceable aircraft to the engineers.

The next big event for 558 is the Cosford and Welshpool displays next weekend 9th June. I shan’t be flying on that trip but Andy Marson and I will be at the Cosford show helping out in the Vulcan Village. If any of you are there please come up to us and say hello and have a chat. We welcome your input and suggestions and if we can see that they are of benefit to the VTTS then we will try to implement them. Of course, don’t be surprised if we try to part you from your hard-earned cash. We still need every penny that we can get to keep your aircraft flying.

That’s about it folks. Once again thank you to you all for digging deep in your pockets to get us this far into the display season. We can never say how grateful we are. I look forward to seeing some of you next weekend at Cosford and at other display venues during the display season.

Fly safe.

Barry Masefield

© Barry Masefield