More Ramblings From The AEO Panel No9
You could have heard the sigh of relief all across Lincolnshire as XH558 lifted off from RAF Coningsby on the 10th of September for her flight up to RAF Leuchars in Scotland and her last display of the season. The aircraft had been through a traumatic and very disappointing previous few weeks and all our hopes were now pinned on the fact that the aircraft would finish the display season on a high.
It has been well documented how 558 unfortunately suffered a fuel tank leak and then a week later a hydraulic system malfunction resulting in the non-appearance at the Dawlish, Bournemouth, Oxford and Dunsfold air shows. Taff and his team were working their socks off at Coningsby to get the aircraft serviceable for the display at Portrush in Northern Ireland to be followed on the same day by a display at Cosby in Leicestershire. After many days and hours of blood, sweat and tears and much burning of the midnight oil, Taff and his engineers resolved the hydraulic malfunction and declared the aircraft serviceable on the Friday, the day before 558 was due to do her ‘overseas’ trip. The crew for the trip to N. Ireland was Martin Withers, Bill Perrins and me. This was to be quite special for Bill seeing as he comes from Belfast and it was a chance for him to display the Vulcan in front of his ‘home’ crowd and his relatives. For me it was also a bit special seeing as I had started my flying career just along the road from Portrush at RAF Ballykelly where I was flying Shackletons with No 204 Squadron and I hadn’t been back to the area for over 40 years.
As the day dawned on the Sunday the weather wasn’t looking too promising. The Met. Forecaster at Coningsby was forecasting general doom and gloom across the country but there was a fair chance that we might just be able to do the displays before two major weather fronts coming in off the Atlantic were going to cover the UK as a whole. To try and beat the forecast bad weather which was due to hit Portrush at about 4pm, the same time as our display, Martin had arranged with the Display Director that we would display 3 hours earlier at 1pm. We would then do the Cosby display on our way back home at 4pm. The actual local area weather situation in Portrush was looking quite good according to the Display Director who was on the sea front so with renewed confidence we continued our pre-flight preparations.
With our briefing complete we headed out to 558 to wind up the aircraft and be on our way. Time was running short and we needed to be on our way quite soon if we were to make Portrush in time for our 1pm slot. We had just got up to the engine start section of the checks when the heavens opened. It poured and poured and after about 20 minutes of continuous rain I called the Control Tower to ask how much longer the Met. Man thought the rain would last only to be told it would be another half an hour before it would stop. This was not looking good.
Martin, meanwhile, was on his mobile phone talking to Portrush to keep them appraised of the situation and he was also phoning the Display Director at Cosby to let them know of the situation. We continued to sit in the aircraft in the dry while the ground crew, who were getting soaking wet, waited outside. They were trying to shelter under the wings and fuselage (sometimes known as the world’s biggest umbrella) but the rain was so heavy it just entered all the nooks and crannies and emptied down on them no matter where they tried to stand. Another ten minutes went by and I put in another call to the Tower for an update of when the rain would stop only to be told that the whole of Lincolnshire was in a deluge and that the situation was not likely to improve in the near future. There was nothing to be gained by us sitting in the aircraft with the ground crew getting soaking wet so we shut it down and returned to the Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight offices where Martin could try and come up with an alternative plan. The ground crew could also get into somewhere drier until we needed them once again at the aircraft.
As time ticked by we noticed that the sky was beginning to clear from the west and the rain was starting to ease off. Our hopes were rising that fairly soon we could be on our way. Martin once again contacted the Met. Forecaster for his latest opinion on the weather only to be told that the local weather clearance was only temporary and that shortly thereafter another belt of bad weather was on its way. Meanwhile the time was ticking by and the two weather fronts were edging closer to Portrush. This was becoming very frustrating not just for us but for the thousands of spectators in Portrush who were currently experiencing sunny weather and most probably wouldn’t understand that we had really bad weather between us and them. Little did they know that the two weather fronts were about to be upon them fairly soon.
We had no option but to sit tight until a break in the weather came which would allow us to do a mad dash across the Irish Sea and back and try and beat the forecasted weather. Of course, it wasn’t just the weather at the display venues which was of concern to us, Martin also had to ensure that the weather at Doncaster would be ok for the time that we were due to land and that wasn’t looking too good either.
A lot of factors had to be taken into consideration. Time was rapidly running out on us and eventually it became a physical impossibility for us to take off and get to Portrush in time to display before their display came to a close even if the weather allowed us to. We had already run out of time to do the Cosby display and so with a very heavy heart Martin made the only decision he could and that was to call it a day and cancel the flight. We felt really terrible, we had a serviceable aircraft with sufficient fuel to perform the task; engineers who had performed miracles to get the aircraft ready for us; all we were lacking was decent weather in which to fly.
We had had a good season so far as weather was concerned with only one previous flight at Cosford in June being cancelled due to poor weather but this time Mother Nature beat us resoundingly I’m afraid. Our apologies go out to all our supporters at Portrush and Cosby but we did try our best to be with you.
We now had only one display remaining for the season and that was to be in Scotland the following Saturday at RAF Leuchars. The crew comprising Martin, Phill O’Dell and me met on the Friday evening before the flight. We had gathered the evening before because it was to be an early start for us. Our display time was at 1pm so that meant getting into Coningsby at 8am to get breakfast before starting our planning process at 8-30. This time the weather was looking more favourable and with all the planning complete we met up with Taff and the engineers at the aircraft ready for our flight up to Scotland. All went well with the pre flight checks and soon we were taxiing out to the runway ready for a take-off at 11.45. With the comforting howl of the four Olympus engines in our ears we roared off down the runway and lifted off for our flight north.
Phill was going to do the display at Leuchars and having not displayed the aircraft for some little while he required a practice display before he did the real thing. We set course for Elvington, the home of the Yorkshire Air Museum near York, where Martin had made arrangements for us to do the practice. It went well and we continued our journey north and arrived at Leuchars on time ready for our display slot. Reports I’ve read indicate that the display was very well received and once again was one of the highlights of the display programme eclipsed only by the appearance of the Red Arrows in an 8 ship formation; their usual 9 ship formation now being reduced by the tragic loss of one of their pilots at the Bournemouth show. Our display complete we headed back home southwards to Doncaster to be met by our engineers with smiles the width of Yorkshire. The season had come to an end on a high note with a very successful display at Leuchars and with us delivering a serviceable aircraft back into the hands of our hard working engineers that was a bonus.
Looking back over the season as a whole 558 has, once again, behaved really well. When one considers that the grand old girl is over 50 she has performed in the most extraordinary fashion. This can only be put down to one factor in my mind and that is our engineering team. Our team of engineers are just about the best we can get and the serviceability of 558 is testament to the great skills that these guys possess. Like all things mechanical sometimes they go wrong and unfortunately in our case when the aircraft doesn’t fly she doesn’t generate any income. The Trust has lost a lot of very much needed income to see 558 through her winter servicing schedule. I know that there are lots of ways that are being proposed whereby the public can help in the cause and I urge everyone of you to try your best to action at least one of them.
I remember that when 558 was in the hangar at Bruntingthorpe undergoing her refurbishment a scheme was introduced to raise income whereby parts of the aircraft were being ‘sold’ off so that supporters could ‘purchase’ their own piece of the aircraft. In my case Rae, my long-term and very understanding partner, ‘bought’ me the AEO’s seat as a birthday present. When she presented me with the framed certificate which said that I was the proud ‘owner’ of the AEO’s seat I was chuffed to pieces. I see this certificate every day on my hallway wall and it gives me a warm feeling that this simple act of generosity on Rae’s part enabled 558 to complete her refurbishment and continue on to give such great pleasure to all who see her.
You will all have seen that a similar process is now in place whereby you can purchase a share in one or several of the components that need to be serviced during the winter. Each and every one of the components is essential to the safe operation of the aircraft and by purchasing a share in any of these components you will have the satisfaction of knowing that by your act of generosity 558 and her crews will be flying safely. We all know that times are financially hard and nonetheless so for 558 but I urge you to dig deep once again to support your aircraft so that she may fly yet again next season to the delight of millions, yes millions, who will look skyward in awe at the most beautiful aircraft on the display circuit.
Well that’s about it. We’re at the end of the season but already work is starting to prepare 558 for next year. For my part, and I know that I talk for all of the aircrew, it has been a privilege to fly your aircraft and I thank you for the opportunity to do so. I have had an extension to my time remaining with VTTS and I really look forward to flying 558 once again next season. Please dig deep in your purses, wallets and bank accounts to support your aircraft so that once again she can grace the skies for the pleasure of all who come in contact with her.