More From The AEO’s Panel
Now that our annual ground training had been completed we turned our attention to the airborne business side of working with 558. The date of 26th April had been set for some of the aircrew to fly in order to become current at flying the aircraft and also for the pilots to practice their display flying. The crew on that day comprised Martin Withers, Kevin Rumens, Phil Davies and me. I was flying with Phil because the rules say that each year Phil has to be ‘checked’ by me. Phil of course has been flying the Vulcan since 1980ish and has numerous hours in his log book and really doesn’t need to be ‘checked’ but rules is rules and so I flew with him to satisfy that requirement and give him a tick of approval. Martin was flying alongside Kevin to upgrade him to a position as a Training Captain so that in future Kevin can train other pilots that we have on the team.
26th April was the day after the Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Having curtailed our Easter break Martin and I met up at the Crown Hotel in Bawtry late on the Monday evening. We had both decided to stay overnight so that not only would we would both be fresh for the following day’s events but we didn’t want to be snarled up in potential traffic jams on the day of the flight with the possibility of delaying our flying schedule. I don’t know if any of you know the A17 from King’s Lynn to Newark but it has to rank up there as one of the worst roads in the country for traffic delays and I had taken a decision that I shall always travel up to Robin Hood the night previous to a flight in order to circumvent any possible traffic delays. Anyway, I digress. On booking into the hotel it was great to meet up with some of the ground crew who had the same idea as me and also to meet up with Jane and Malcolm Thomas from the 558 Club who, along with others of the 558 Club volunteers, had been at the airport all over the Easter weekend working on the shop floor in the airport terminal. They had been doing a great job and as always where would we be without the hard work put in by this willing band of volunteers. Thank you all for your continuing good work.
The aircrew all met at our new operations room at about 9am on Tuesday to start the planning for the day’s events. The intended sortie profile was that after take-off we would depart to the south to RAF Wittering where we would do some practice display flying and then climb up to medium level to do some slow speed handling during which time Kevin would be shown how the aircraft handles in an asymmetric attitude with a couple of the engines throttled back on one side. This simulates the loss of a couple of engines just after take-off. In the past we had done all our planning in RAF planning rooms where all the information such as a met. weather forecaster and all the latest aviation updates are immediately at hand. Now, of course, we were on our own and all the information we needed for our planning had to be done from the appropriate weather and aviation sites on the internet. This doesn’t present a major problem because all the information is available there on the internet but it just takes a bit more time to access it rather than just asking the appropriate personnel in the RAF operations room. Checking the met. forecast soon showed that flying south down to the Wittering area wasn’t an option with a weather front progressing its way southwards from the Yorkshire area and it indicated that the weather to the north of Doncaster would be more favourable. It was decided that we would fly up to RAF Church Fenton in the Vale of York and do our work there before flying back to Doncaster.
With all the planning done it was soon time to walk to the aircraft. Sounds simple eh?!! Not a bit of it. Because 558 had been towed from her normal position in front of the hangars to a position in front of the airport terminal additional security was in place. As the aircrew got to the Control Point through which we would have to pass in order to gain access to the airfield side of the airport we were all stopped for a security check. This involved a full passenger type security check with us having to take our boots off, remove any metallic objects from our flying suits which included our survival knives, empty our document bags and finally empty out our flying helmet bags. Once all this was done to the satisfaction of the security people we could progress through the body security arch when we could then all get dressed again. It was at this stage that the security people were very reluctant to give us back our knives. A more senior security person had to be called to arbitrate and eventually he gave permission for us to be given our knives back. All our water bottles were taken away as well and we just hoped that Taff Stone would have had the foresight to put some water on the aircraft. Needless to say he had. Once dressed we started to leave the Control Point to walk to the aircraft with our security guard accompanying us when we were stopped yet again because we weren’t wearing Hi-Vis yellow jackets. It never occurred to us that we would need these and they were still hanging up in the Operations room. I volunteered to go back to get them while the others waited for me at the Security Control Point. Foolishly I retraced my footsteps back through the security scanner and now that I had all my metal accoutrements re-attached to my flying suit I set the alarms off!! This was becoming a farce but the security staff retained their sense of humour and just waved me through to walk the 100 yards back to the office to get the jackets. Having retrieved the Hi-Vis jackets and were now suitably dressed we set off to the aircraft to meet up with Taff and his team of engineers to eventually get the show under way.
Because I wasn’t the operating AEO for that day I left everything to Phil and just assisted him with whatever he asked me to do such as operating the door closing system and then stowing the door ladder in the bomb aimer’s position. Not a lot of people realise that doing these tasks wearing a heavy parachute can be quite tiring and to have someone else to assist is a great bonus to the AEO. All the technical malfunctions from the previous sortie had been fixed by Taff and his team and they all worked as advertised so the aircraft was started up with no problems evident. Once airborne we set course for RAF Church Fenton where the two pilots did three practice displays each. This can become just a little bit uncomfortable for us guys down the back and both Phil and I were feeling the effects of the event. I decided to leave my seat and climb up the ladder between the pilots and see if that helped. Unfortunately for Phil he didn’t have that option and had to remain in his seat at the AEO’s panel feeling not too well. After about forty five minutes the practice displays were over and we climbed up to about four thousand feet to do some practice asymmetric and low speed handling. Satisfied that the pilots had gained everything they could from their flying it was then time to return to Doncaster to do some flying in the circuit. There were only two aircraft flying in the aerodrome circuit, us and an EasyJet aircraft on a training detail, and we just followed him around as he was doing his training too. We did a touch-and-go which 558 hadn’t done for some years because of the undercarriage fatigue restrictions we’ve had imposed on us and it was a lovely and comforting feeling to feel the surge of power as we touched down and then opened up the throttles to race off down the runway before getting airborne again. We stayed in the circuit for about twenty minutes or so before it was time to land for the final time having completed one hour thirty five minutes of flying time.
The aircraft had behaved impeccably and had, as always, been a pleasure to fly. Once our technical debrief with Taff had been completed we then walked over to the air terminal to meet up with the 558 Club volunteers and we had the opportunity to talk with the enthusiasts who had paid to view us flying watching from the viewing gallery. As usual we signed books and photos before it was time to depart for our journeys home.
It was an interesting day with lots of very valuable lessons learned about how we were going to operate in future from our new home on a civilian airfield. Doing all our planning with just the aid of the internet will take just a little more time than we are used to but we have ably demonstrated that we can safely do all the necessary planning for a successful sortie. Although the security arrangements seemed to be a nightmare we realise that they are a necessary part of life when operating in a civilian environment and we’ll just have to build in a bit more time in future to accommodate all the checks that need to be done. If the aircraft is parked in front of the air terminal we must allow a bit more extra time for those additional security checks. However, if the aircraft is parked in front of the hangars in what is hopefully to become its normal parking position then the security checks aren’t quite as rigid. We will of course have to remember to wear our Hi-Vis yellow jackets as soon as we leave our operations room otherwise we go nowhere!! What was very evident was the enthusiasm and helpful attitude of the Robin Hood airport staff. Even when we had the episode at the security Control Point we all, with them, managed to have a smile about it all. This all bodes well for a successful long-term relationship between the airport and the VTST.
That’s about it for this time. As I write this it’s only a few days before 558 flies to Abingdon to fly her first public display of the season. I shan’t be flying on that trip however, the AEO will be Phil Davies and the two pilots will be Martin and Kevin. My next display sortie won’t be until 10th June when we fly over to the Isle of Man for a display there. Hopefully after that I shall have a few more words to write to let you all know how things are progressing from the aircrew perspective.