Two lucky guys!
For two lucky individuals, the oft heard adage that “I never win anything in any raffle” certainly came home to roost following the recent announcement of the winners of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust’s, (VTTST) recent Grand 60th Anniversary Raffle drawer.
In a surprise call from VTTST’s Marketing & Events Manager, Ian Homer, the news that I had won a prize had me momentarily visualising the odd bottle of whiskey, a hamper of food or similar. That my second prize-winning ticket had won me a flight with ‘The Blades’ aerobatic team alongside Vulcan XH558 left me feeling stunned and bewildered. Surely there had been some kind of mistake? Only other lucky souls win these ‘chance in a lifetime’ prizes don’t they? Was I really going to have prime seat alongside one of the icons of British aviation?
Then reality set in. With the flight due to take place in two weeks time, did I have any leave left? As I have an inbuilt aversion to fairground rides, the news that I would also be performing aerobatics with ‘The Blades’ in an Extra 300 aircraft was somewhat unsettling and despite my lifelong love of aviation, you can also count the number of times I have flown on the fingers of one hand!
As ‘V’ Day drew ever closer, my excitement over the prospect of flying with XH558 was mixed with an air of uncertainty. Sensing my nervousness, my good lady wife twice offered to step into my shoes should I consider defaulting on my flight. Not on your Nellie was my reply, or words to that effect..!
Although I have been a member of the ‘Vulcan 558 Club’ since it’s launch in 1997, I am ashamed to say that I had not seen XH558 since that final, emotionally-charged display at Cranfield in 1992! Of course, that’s not through want of trying and despite being a regular air show attendee, a member of the RAF 214 Squadron Association and having a voracious appetite for all things vintage. Since XH558 returned to the air show circuit in 2007, my Wife and I always seemed to find ourselves a long way distant from her display venues. Obviously, the flight was going make up for all those missed opportunities and I just hoped and prayed that the weather wasn’t going to stick a proverbial spanner in the works!
Thankfully, Wednesday 19th September dawned bright if a little breezy and my Wife and I arrived at the delightfully appointed Sywell aerodrome not knowing exactly what to expect.
Stepping into the veritable opulence of Sywell’s art deco bar, we were greeted first by Ian Homer and then the gentleman who has been at the helm of the XH558 success story from the start, the VTTST Chief Executive, Dr. Robert Pleming. There too was the lucky first prize winner, Dr. Peter Jequier who was going to fly alongside XH558, not in an Extra 300 like me - but in a World War II Spitfire! Momentarily, the thought went through my mind that with two Peters’ present, both working in health care-related jobs, perhaps there was an opportunity for me to blagg my way into the back seat of the Spit instead!
Any chance of musing on this ploy was soon dispelled as we were ushered into ‘Tiger House’, the headquarters of ‘2Excel Aviation’ and ‘The Blades’ aerobatic team. Here too we met employees of ‘Aerobytes’, big players in the aviation industry worldwide and worthy sponsors of XH558 who would also receive their share of the first class hospitality treatment from ‘The Blades’ team before they too were taken skyward to fly with the Vulcan later in the day.
Any lingering feelings of unease were soon dispelled at the briefing given by ex-RAF and Red Arrows display pilot, Mark Cutmore. Indeed, with a total of 30,000 hours flying time between them and with tours on Harriers and Jaguars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we all knew we were going to be in safe hands, despite the fact that CAA rules required that we all had to wear parachutes. If rubbing shoulders with these luminaries was not enough, we were then joined by Air Marshall Cliff Spink (RAF Ret), doyen of warbird display pilots, who had flown the two-seat to Sywell across from Duxford.
As the flight time drew ever closer, as an extra bonus, we were each treated to a flight in a helicopter and at the wheel of a F1 race car, on a simulator of course! Then, there was relief all round as the news arrived that the Vulcan had passed her fitness to fly and was now taxiing at Robin Hood airport. It was time to don our flying suits and parachutes and head out onto the tarmac where ‘The Blades’ five blue RAFA logoed Extra 300’s were lined up wing tip to wing tip and just yards away from the Spitfire.
From the balcony, a cry went up that the Vulcan was in the circuit, countered by a rapid increase in the heart rates of those flying on the first sortie. I hadn’t reckoned on being sat in the front seat of my mount 'Echo Lima', but with the calming words of my pilot, Myles Garland over the headset, I was strapped-in and soon bumping across the green sward of Sywell’s neatly cut grass strip - on a mission to formate with XH558. With six aircraft in the sky all heading in the direction of the Vulcan, as the distinctive delta shape loomed ever larger in the canopy, memories of witnessing a Vulcan formating with the Reds at West Malling’s late-lamented Great Warbirds Airshow suddenly came flooding back!
Almost effortlessly, our aircraft slotted into formation just feet away from XH558’s port wing with 'X-Ray Lima' in close formation to my port side and the other two ‘Blades’ off XH558’s starboard wing and with the Spit, just visible stepped down beneath her tail.
What a sight!
With two icons of British aviation in the air in close proximity to one another and the fifth ‘Blade’ acting as camera ship, the whole formation must have looked pretty impressive, even to the casual observer on the ground. It’s an image that will certainly last with me forever and as all six aircraft banked to starboard in unison, you could really appreciate the benefits of the Vulcan’s wrap around camouflage as we sped across the Northamptonshire countryside at 2000 or so feet. As we levelled-out. I waved at the pilot in the Vulcan who returned my gesture despite the poor visibility afforded by the aircraft’s cockpit. We made one more bank to port and then all too soon, the Vulcan’s Olympus engines gave an almighty roar and XH558 climbed away into the clouds.
This was a cue for all five ‘Blades’ to formate and to perform a loop before each aircraft broke to undertake their own aerobatics in their own little bit of sky. As I’d survived the first manoeuvre without having to resort to the use of expletives, sick bag or both, I had nothing to lose by seeing the horizon from all different angles as Myles took me through barrel rolls and stall turns in quick succession. Exhilirating? You betcha!
Back on terra firma, it was all smiles and handshakes for our ‘chaffeurs’ and then a piece to camera for local TV. Reluctant to get out of my flying suit, now it was the turn of the ‘Aerobytes’ team to witness XH588 close up before we all retired to ‘Tiger House’ to compare experiences over lunch with a glass of champagne or two!
But the day was not over yet and from the large numbers of spectators that had gathered in the aerodrome’s car park, it was evident that news of the Vulcan’s last impromptu display of the year had got out. Like us, they were not to leave disappointed as XH558 engines gave us her trademark wingovers and that distinctive Olympus howl before heading back to Doncaster. Cliff Spink then performed a spirited display in the Spitfire before it was the turn of ‘The Blades’ themselves to give us an aerobatic display par excellence.
What can one say? This had been a day for my Wife and I like no other and we have to say a huge thank you to the ‘The Blades’ and to ‘2Excel Aviation’ for their professionalism and hospitality. Of course, an extra big thank you to Ian Homer and to Dr. Robert Pleming and indeed to the whole VTTST team for the enormous task in keeping Vulcan XH558 where she belongs. If each member ‘did their bit’ by buying or selling raffle tickets or by donating to the cause, this would ease the enormous burden on the costs of keeping her flying. After my experiences, I for one will adding my pounds to the total required to fund her Diamond Jubilee Tour on Saturday 29th September.
Can we all help for 2013?
Peter Frost (one of the lucky guys).