Learning To Fly…
In a recent blog post I wrote about a normal day for me (not that I have one), I thought I’d do a post about an abnornal day I once had. But it was one of the best days I have ever had…I was reminded of it by a Twitter post about low flying…
Myself and “Milburn” (a lovely lad from ‘oop north’ who reminded us of the dim one from Last of the Summer Wine – all muscles and accent) were standing at the Radar trade desk in work. A normal Tuesday, we were both Junior Technicians, and we were both fairly keen and both looking for the next job to do to pass the time, when all of a sudden on of the controllers came up to the desk and said…there is a back seat trip going this afternoon…and it was the radar desks turn…was there anyone who would want to go?
Back seat trip. Yeah. That’s right. A trip in the back seat of the two seat Tornado F3 fast jet fighter.
My Chief was standing with us both and said, “Well you two are here…do you fancy it?”
Of course we flipping well did! We both looked at each other…who would get it. I’d been on the sqn the longest out of both of us, but that would be a crap way to decide, so the Chief made the decision. “Heads or tails?” Milburn called tails, but it came out HEADS! I was going…
Off I went to get my head measured – yeah – head measured…so my bone dome helmet would fit, and then over to the doctors to make sure my ears and bits were ok and that I could safely fly without the internal bits of me popping out of places that they shouldn’t if we were to pull a high G turn. I am talking intestines and ear canals and eyes and stuff like that.
So I passed that test and it was reassuring to know, that at that time, my insides were not likely to become outsides and went back to the sqn for briefings.
Briefings on how to use the ejection system. Briefings on how to use a parachute. Briefings on how to use the intercom system. Briefings on how to use the oxygen system. Briefings on how to use a sick-bag. All really reassuring stuff again.
And then about an hour before the flight I went to get dressed. Now you may think that a pilot looks really cool with the helmet and the jacket and the jump-suit and the boots and the G-suit…what you may not know that the cool stuff is just on the outside.
Under all that cool gear, about as far away from a pair of Raybans as you can get, are the long-johns, and the big thick woolly socks, and the polar necks. In white. So not cool. And all this I had to put on before the jump suit. I was then measured for the G-suit; basically a pair of inflatable chaps that are designed to keep the inside bits inside when pulling high-G, their other role is to push down on the delicate bits when pulling said high-G to force the blood away to the extremities – in particular the head so that you don’t blank out. The effect is rather like being placed into a vice…
Anyway. After being suitable dressed (and made to wear a head-cap that a lad at a Bar-Mitzvah would be jealous of) I was pushed through to meet my driver for the trip. Now I knew all the pilots. I worked with them day on day, I took de-briefs from them on the faults that the aircraft had picked up during flight, and I hoped for a particular one, and thankfully I got him. A guy called Lee Fox. A great pilot, who I had once seen do the best bit of low-flying ever. In Cyprus he participated in a “beat up” of the air base, by flying up over the Line (where we parked the aircraft) around the Tacan Navigation tower, and then the swinging round the other way behind the hanger, and then across the taxiway at about 50 feet…
But I digress. Lee asked me what I wanted to get out of the trip. I wanted to go fast. I didn’t care about aerobatics, or going over my house or anything. I just wanted to go FAST.
So after more briefings about the flight, off we went to the aircraft. These were parked in individual hangers or Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) which were supposed to withstand the impact of enemy (read Russian) bombs. These had a fundamental flaw. Whilst the building could withstand a blast. The effect of the blast inside them would kill everyone inside simply by the blast wave itself. Oh well. We only found this out after the First Gulf War…and by the time we had, the Russians were our friends anyway.
So into the HAS, and then into the cockpit. I was strapped in by one of my colleagues and told how to avoid airsickness (keep looking at the horizon), but given a couple of sick bags anyway.
The jet started up…first one engine and then the ladder was taken away and the cockpit canopy was lowered and the left engine was started. This all made me feel like I was in some sort of MASSIVE roller coaster ride. You know how you get that nervous sickly feeling in your stomach as the coaster goes UP towards the first drop, with the click, click, click, click of the ratchet pulling you up…and you KNOW that any moment the ride will kick in.
But this lasted longer. The click, click, click, click in my head got worse as we taxied down the road towards the end of the runway…all the time Lee in the front seat was doing his pre-flight checks and talking to the Air Traffic Control Tower, and my nerves were getting worse…and then we made the last turn onto the end of the runway.
All of a sudden we were still. It was surprisingly quiet in the cockpit. The final “OK to go” was given and Lee asked me one last time “Are you ready?”
I nodded. My mouth was to dry to speak. The thing was it was pointless me nodding at the cockpit on an F3 was a tandem one – me behind Lee, and so there was no way he could see me nodding. “Alex? OK to go?” one more time.
This time I rasped a “yea”…and then I looked down. The version of F3 I was in was a two seat trainer, so I had a set of controls in the back as well as all the usual Radar gizmo’s that were usually there for the Navigator – or more rightly Weapons Operator to use.
So I looked down. The throttles moved forward very quickly and the noise intensified. All of a sudden the fields and buildings by the side of the runway started to move fast. They started to move very fast. Very, very fast. I was pushed gently, but firmly back into the seat and we gently lifted off. There was a clunk as the wheels came up and Lee’s voice broke through. “You want us to do a high-G?”
By this he meant do what we called a high-G take off. By this they meant flying low along to the end of the runway, and then the stick being pulled back quickly and hard, the throttles pushed forward fast and the jet flips up onto the vertical and we go straight up. By this I knew that I would be sick. “NOOOOOOOOO” I said a little too loudly.
Lee giggled and we slowly gained height over the Lincolnshire countryside. The clouds were angry all about us with a summer thunderstorm brewing. “We need to find a hole in the clouds, ‘cos flying through those is not fun.”
We skirted about for a bit and gained more altitude and we flew up through a gap. The clouds were forming the classic anvil of a thunder storm, and were very dark…someone was going to get a soaking, but then almost instantaneously we punched out into glorious sunshine above them. It was absolutely glorious up there. “Do it then” I said “Let’s go fast.”
We were flying over Spurn Head – clearly visible below.
“Oh noooooooo” said Lee. We can’t yet. We need to get 12 miles out to sea. We can’t go supersonic over land…we’d shatter too many windows, and generally piss people off, with the sonic boom.”
For those 12 miles I got the click, click, click, click, back again in my head…and then…
“Yes” I replied without thinking.
And the throttles moved forward again. Lee banged them forward quickly and we jumped forward. It was the biggest kick in the pants I ever had. But it was an odd kick because as I knew we were going forward I was pushed back into the seat. I was pushed back like some bouncer firmly taking hold of both shoulders and PUSHING me firmly and quickly out of a club. Like a BIG bouncer was doing it.
We leaped forward quickly and I could see on the screen in front of me a representation of the speed. We went from a couple of hundred knots to fast. BLOODY FAST. Within seconds we were up to Mach 1. A second or two more I saw the throttles rock over into the reheat position and the speed really kicked in. Mach 1.3…1.4…1.7…1.9….MACH 2. Curiously there was silence. We had left our sound behind us. Travelling twice the speed of sound, over 1400mph…there was no sound, no roar of the jet engines, no sonic boom. Nothing. Whilst I knew there was noise and chaos behind us, around us was only sky and calm and the sound of both Lee and myself breathing slowly in my headset.
Outside, the sea was a blur. The clouds swept by like a crazy speeded up sequence in some natural history television programme. It took just 3 minutes to travel the 60 or so miles. And I was blown away by the feeling of the speed. I was still pushed back into the seat, head forced back and stiff, unable to move my arms or legs. I tried to raise them, more out of curiosity but was unable to do so. I couldn’t move…and then the throttles were pulled back and the air brakes came out and we slowed rapidly…so rapidly it was like the bouncer had disappeared and my whole body moved forward in the seat until the straps took hold and pulled me back.
I looked up and could see the fuel gauge. As we speed across the North Sea, the coast of Norfolk grew larger by the second and the gauge had dropped by almost half.
“It uses up the fuel going that fast, so we don’t really have long left in the flight, Alex. About 15 minutes…before we have to turn back. Let’s go back out to sea and do a bit of messing around.”
“Its a twin stick Alex. Do you want a go? Just concentrate on the stick…I’ll sort the throttle and the pedals.”
“Ok. You have control!”
My hands flew to the stick and grasped firmly.
“Try a roll, just push the stick over to the ri……ugh”
As he said “right” I pushed the stick hard and fast. We corkscrewed through the air like a fly spiralling out of an air conditioning outlet…”Next time move the stick very gently, mate. It’s quite responsive up here…
“Pull back, gently, gently, gently”
The nose lifted, slowly. The sea disappeared. The horizon went. The blueness of the sky was all there was, and then Lee told me to hold it. “Look up” he said.
I looked up. But my brain couldn’t comprehend it. It should have been sky. But it was sea. I was upside down! My arms went strangely floppy – for a very brief second I was weightless…and then Lee broke my reverie. “Roll and then push forward.”
I rolled – gently this time pushed forward and we dived. We lost altitude rapidly and I felt Lee’s hand through the feedback on the stick…and we levelled out. “Well done, mate. Not many people do a full roll on their first flight. I have control!”
I let go of the stick and Lee took over. Some gentle aeros. We swept. We soared. We dived. We looped. At one stage we dived really fast and then pulled up sharply over a fishing boat.
We swung around a gas platform and Lee took us up high and we turned back in the direction of Coningsby and home. And as we did all this, that click, click, click, click was gone. Long gone. And replaced by a soundtrack. For some reason a Pink Floyd song came into my head. “Learning to Fly”.
Over and over I heard this lyric:
“Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
My brother Haley, a vapour trail in the empty air
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye”
and I felt the exhilaration. I felt what the pilots feel each and every time they go up there. I felt the ecstasy. I understand why they did it, and why they do it day on day even though everything about it is danger and fear and worry and potential disaster. The freedom. The control. The ability to do anything and go anywhere and anyhow. It was just…just…words fail me. I wish I had the ability to say exactly how it felt and what I felt.
But I can’t.
But the last lines of Pink Floyd’s song manage remind me. Everytime I hear it I get the hairs on the back of my head standing up and an odd tingle in my arms…and I am reminded of one of the very best experiences of my life.
“There’s no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can’t keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earthbound misfit, I”
And then I think on. I think about this verse. It is true for me now. I often look to the sky when I hear a fast jet fly over…and I think about that trip and I think that Dave Gilmour was right. I am just an earthbound misfit. But for 30 minutes one Tuesday afternoon I was a flyer.