Author Archives: flyer

“A Little Knowledge”

I’m doing my prep for the Project Board Review (PBR), which is a big event where every Project Manager is given the opportunity to present their project to the Senior Management Board, so no pressure. This is the 3rd of these I’ve done, so I know the general format and realise that the most important thing is to fully aware of your plan, so I’m feeling pretty good.

Now this I’ll admit has not always been the case. My flying training always emphasised the importance of knowledge sharing and making sure that everyone knew the plan. This was for the very basic reason that if the Leader got shot down in flames, then someone else could step once more into the breech Dear Friends and complete the Mission.

This was great in theory, but not always in practice. I’ve been involved in quite a few sorties where the overall strategy, dependencies and timings have been shrouded in mystery. At least you knew this up front and could assess the potential risks. Even worse was the situation, where everyone believed they knew the plan, but for one vital piece of information.

Let me tell you a story. When I was on exchange with the Luftwaffe, we deployed to Zaragossa in Spain, for a Squadron Exchange. The general format was 2 weeks of fairly intensive flying, with the final sortie being a major airfield attack, with us flying as Fighter Escort, against Palma de Mallorca airport. The Spanish F-18 Hornets were flying in a fighter/bomber role, another squadron of bombers were joining us en-route and our 8 Phantom F-4E were close escort (or high-speed chaff as the role was otherwise known). After a bit of ground juggling, we’d assembled the Team, apart from the Leader, who’d had to hand-over the Hammer (lead position) to his Number2. Jet after jet in close-formation screamed airborne in a 10 minute stream of AVTUR & testosterone. It was all very exciting, lots of heavy-metal, bit of air-to-air refuelling, a NATO AWACs, two fighter squadrons as the Opposition and the chance to scream over a major International airport in full blower. Top Gun or even Top Gear – eat your heart out !!

It was all going well, we’d sidestepped a couple of Combat Air Patrols, engaged a couple more with long-range AMRAAM active missiles and as we all merged as a big Gorilla, we coasted out from Mainland Spain. “Feet Wet” was called and we all experienced another big adrenalin surge. We dropped down low over the sea to avoid radar, then as the coastal bird-strike risk diminished; we dropped even lower, which was quite impressive as we were already pretty low to say the least. (One of the jets had to RTB after clipping a yacht’s mast in the bay.) Things were going well, too well, it was too quiet and even though I was callsign ‘Torro 32’ out of 32, my hackles started to rise.

“Enemy Coast Ahead” came the call. We pulled up slightly to avoid the beach umbrellas and ruffled a few towels on the loungers, whilst the bombers made switches ‘Live’ to pepper the runway with munitions, the fighters prepared to bomb-burst over the field in an attempt to overload the simulated Surface-To-Air Missile batteries and enable the bombers to complete the Mission. “Matador”, came the codeword call, the fighters pitched into the vertical and whilst fighting the G-Force, I craned my neck back over my shoulder to see the air-picture below.

Fighters, in place. Bombers, in place. What was not in place, were the Boeing 767 and Airbus charter flights initiating emergency overshoot manoeuvres.

It transpired that the Leader was meant to call up the airfield 2 minutes out and Palma would clear the field. Unfortunately, this one fact was known to him and him alone, so when he handed over to his Deputy to lead the sortie, this vital bit of info was lost. Ooops.

At this point, I’d like to apologise to anyone on a charter flight to Majorca who’s had their tasty in-flight meal and duty-free plonk dumped in their lap as their pilot tried manfully to avoid a series of mid-air collisions.

But back to the PMR. I’ve gone through the pre-brief slide pack and all I get are flashbacks to my Resistance To Interrogation (R-to-I) training courses I’ve done. You’ve all seen the movies where the under duress, the only information is given is Name, Rank, Number, DOB and “I cannot answer that question”.

It’s 20 years since Gulf War I, (I’m getting old), though the images of various mates of mine displayed on TV by Saddam are still iconic and crystal clear. One of the bizarre outcomes of the Gulf it was decided that aircrew needed more training in being beaten up. I jest not. Even stranger was that since no Senior Officer would order us onto the course, we had to volunteer, or lose our flying category. (As an aside, the guys duffed up by some seriously nasty people and given the option of go on TV or die – read Tornado Down for details, were only told 6 months after the war that they ,reluctantly, wouldn’t face Court Martial for ‘aiding the enemy’).

So as ‘willing’ volunteers, we spent a week out on some desolate moor, with a parachute, no food, water or sleep, being chased by a bunch of Paras or Special Forces, before being handed over for a good kicking for a couple of days. Just to say that the Army generally doesn’t like the Royal Air Force. The Army generally don’t like Officers. The Army really, really don’t like RAF Officers, so it gives you a good idea of the gentleness demonstrated towards us.

This is where giving the answer during interrogation, “I cannot answer that question” more than a couple of times, invariably meant that you’d be dragged back out into the snowy North-Yorkshire farmyard, once again put into a stress position and hosed down with freezing water until you were shivering uncontrollably, twitching on the icy cobbles, whilst gasping for breath because of the stinking, sodden hessian sack over your head with your hands tied behind your back. People ended up with stitches, soft-tissue damage, frostbite and even broken bones.

So back to PMR. It’s completely unfair to compare POW treatment to what we experience at PMR. As POWs, unlike PMs, are protected by the Geneva Convention.

In fairness and joking apart, I fully support PMR. The fact thatthe Seniors, plus other significant players, every 6 months, are willing to set aside 3 days to listen to and understand PMs concerns, with a genuine offer to help is a fantastic commitment and an opportunity that you don’t always see in other organisations. If you don’t have support for your project from the top, you might as well pack up and move onto something else.

So what have I learnt:

It’s always good to have a plan
It’s always good to communicate the plan to all interested parties
Sometimes “I cannot answer that question” is the right answer
But maybe not at the PMR !!

Best of Luck to all PMs at their own reviews, but failing that, Red Cross parcels are in the post – honest !!


“The Long & Winding Road”

As a Project Manager, and a PRINCE 2 Practitioner, when I hear, “We don’t have time to plan, just get on with it”, an icy chill envelopes me. Despite protestations, we duly get on with it, only to inevitably find that we don’t really know what ‘it’ is, there’s no money and what we’ve started is unlikely to be fit for purpose, doesn’t meet users requirements and doesn’t tie-in with everything else we’ve built.

I’m not decrying agile methods, nor advocating a monstrous planning phase culminating in a document requiring the destruction of a fair proportion of the Amazon Rainforest. And tie this in with the time spent reviewing and amending documents that would still be considering the Norman Conquest (Version 10.66) is certainly not the way forward, but please. I have received a project mandate on a restaurant serviette, which is just about acceptable, though a considerable amount of effort was consumed deciphering what transpired to be a minestrone spillage.

Another war, another war story, this time OP DENY FLIGHT over the Balkans during the winter of 1993. As mentioned in a previous blog (“The Experts Agree”), we were flying over the Balkans, trying to intercept helicopters in the mighty Tornado F3.

There was a problem though. Helicopters tend to fly pretty close to the ground, fighters like to fly much higher, especially if you have to go to get air-to-air refuelling, as the tankers only venture near the ground if there’s a runway, allowances and a meal involved. The mountains in Bosnia are about 7,000’ and the winter cloud base was about 1,500 feet. This meant that to get down below cloud you had to penetrate a few thousand foot of cloud before you got to see the ground.

“What’s the problem?” I hear you ask, “Planes fly through cloud all the time”. Yes, you’re right, but genrally this is in a controlled manner, being monitored by a bank of radars and controlled by more air traffic controllers than you can shake a stick at. This is all well and good back in Blighty, but strangely when you’re flying over enemy territory, about to try and shoot down their helicopters, they’re not all that willing to help.

The next solution was to use the Tornado’s internal Inertial Navigation system (IN), but here begins the snag. The INs on the Tornado F3 weren’t that good, they were designed for big skies, intercepting long-range bombers over the UK Air Defence Region, not pin-point navigation. We had 2 INs though, which was good, but only one light to tell us if one had gone wrong. So the caption saying, “Sorry mate, one of the INs isn’t working”, illuminated, you didn’t know which one to believe. Again, back in Blighty, where you can use a ground-based navigation systems to update the kit, all well and good. The bad guys just turned theirs off (oh and we’d bombed their transmitters – doh).

Solution 3, plunge Earthwards and trust to luck with dodgy INs. Now being out by a couple of kilometres is the difference between bursting out into the sunlight or suffering a terminal bout of deceleration sickness, having bumped into a large immovable lump of cumulus-grantitus. (The success of missiles is generally measured in Probability of Kill (Pk) with 0 being low and 1 being a certain kill. It is generally accepted that the Pk of hitting a stonking great mountain at several hundred miles an hour gives a Pk of 1). This was not the preferred option amongst the aircrew, but luckily someone had a cunning plan.

The solution was hand-held Garmin GPSMAP units, issued to all navigators. Seemed OK, right up until you try it in the aircraft. We tucked the GPS between thigh and ejection seat – no signal. We put the GPS on top of the TV tabs – under G-Force this flew randomly all around the cockpit and wedged itself in such awkward places you had to dislocate your shoulders to reach around and retrieve it – still no signal. Now I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of steely-eyed aircrew, with a helmet and dark-visor down. Well the visors have a nice soft, fluffy, velvet cover to stop them getting scratched, which sits neatly on top of your head whilst flying.

So this was it, we were flying about in a £20m+ plane, with a hand-held GPS sat on our heads in order to get a signal. This was not the end, because if you brought it down to take a fix, you surrounded it in metal and lost the signal. Also you had to fix the IN at the same time so that you could update the nav-kit. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, whilst riding a roller-coaster.

So “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was fly around Bosnia with a GPS balanced on my head. Throw in some night-vision goggles (NVGs) also strapped to the helmet, a bit of G-Force and I was beginning to suspect that the solution was not really being endorsed by the Institute of Osteopaths (though a lifetime of treatment beckoned). We also used to drive around Italy at night with NVGs on. This irritated the locals until they actually complained about British driving (the cheek having driven around Naples !!)

The tempo of Ops was such that we flew like this for the whole deployment, as we had a solution, not a great one, but considerably better than “Do you feel lucky punk?”. We feeded back to the next squadron to replace us, who luckily had the time to do a bit of planning and got some Velcro stuck on the GPS and the TV tabs – problem solved.

The other great thing about the GPS was it was top-of-the-range with more functionality than we could ever use. You could choose which language it was set in. This is all well and good, until the curious pressed ‘Chinese’ only to be confronted with, you guessed it, Chinese. Now after randomly pressing a few buttons in an attempt to find your way back to the start menu, the likelihood of achieving this nirvana was rapidly receeding.

Solution – swap it with your mate when he isn’t looking !!

So what have I learnt?

Take time to plan
Don’t give a function, just cos you can
Don’t fiddle with things, just cos you can
NVGs give you no depth perception at corners

Have a Great Weekend


“The Hamster Sleeps Tonight”

Having given the Navy a hard time the other week about the decommissioning of the HMS Ark Royal, I’d actually like to thank them because after they got rid of their last Ark Royal, I got to fly their now redundant aircraft – the ever impressive Phantom F4. Before anyone asks I’m talking about the Ark launched in 1950, not 1587 (flagship of the English fleet during the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588). The last Ark was a proper aircraft carrier with catapults and arrester cable to catch you on arrival, rather than an enhanced helipad for jump jets.

We used to practice taking the cable, which was always an eyeball-opener, but also a back-up in case you’d lost all your hydraulics. We’d tighten our harness straps and then lock them in place, because otherwise you’d end up eating the radar scope due to the rapid deceleration. You’d go from about 200mph to zero in 2 seconds, which is quicker than a Formula 1 car, whose deceleration force under braking can be as high as 5-6 g (in excess of 39 m/s²), described by Martin Brundell as he felt like his lungs were hitting the inside of his ribcage. You’d also have to hit the cable at full cold-power, so that if the hook bounced over, you had enough oompfh to get airborne again.

My first posting flying Phantoms, was to Treble One Fighter Squadron, which unfortunately was assigned to SACLANT, which meant we had a secondary role supporting the Navy. This often meant several days of exercises, operating around the clock way out in the North Atlantic. Worse than this was that occasionally you’d hear those soul destroying words, “We’re going to hand you over to the Navy for control”. Despite your pleading, offers of bribes or even threats, they’d still hand you over to a Type 42 Air Defence Destroyer. As an aside, as part of SACLANT we’d have to do ship recognition. All the Soviet classes – ‘keep clear of a KIROV’ (loads of missiles on board) – ‘you could park a car in there’ KARA (big funnel), but it was always easy to identify a RN boat, no armament :)

To say Type 42 control was useless would be a bit of an understatement. In fairness they were way out of practice and only normally controlled helicopters or if really lucky the pseudo-fighter, super-slow Harriers. Quite often they’d ask us to hover whilst they worked out which direction to point us and used to complain if we chugged around at 500kts to avoid falling out of the sky.

So even worse than operating way out at sea, being ‘controlled’ by the Navy, was to get the graveyard shift. This meant being on task from about 2 o’clock in the morning, then becoming the Dawn Patrol as the sun came slowly up. The only excitement during the shift being Night Air-To-Air Refueling, which was always a bit sporty. We’d do the ‘pretend to be a missile’ task and fly at the ship as low & fast as you dared, whilst they tried to train guns on us. After seeing the size of the winter storm generated waves, we’d invariably wave bye-bye and leave them to toss away.

We once did a live unauthorized approach to USS Forrestal, having discovered her on exercise way out in the mid-Atlantic. The Forrestal was bigger than a floating city, designated quite rightly as a super-carrier, 75,000 tons of pure aggression, (the current Ark about 22,000 tons), so big you could land a C-130 Hercules on board. The Colonials in our view were a bit over-protective of their boat, as having dropped the gear and hook and lined up on the deck, the CAG Commander came up on Guard with “British Phantom, break-off approach immediately or we’ll shoot you down”, touchy or what? Last heard, the boat was awaiting disposal as an artificial reef.

But anyway, the Phantoms from the Ark, were definitely not state of the art, with the navigation kit rumoured to be powered, deep in the bowels of the Heath-Robinson design, by a hamster on a wheel. It was not really a Navigation Computer, but an Air Position Indicator (API), way before a GPS came near the scene. I’ll take some time to explain how it worked, because you won’t believe it.

You dialled in your Latitude and Longitude co-ordinates, then dialled in the estimated wind direction and speed, remembered from the morning’s Met brief. Then as you rolled down the runway, you moved the switch from standby to on. The aim was that after about 30 minutes in the air, you’d take a fix from a Tacan or from the radar. Then on your knee-pad, using a 1 to a million scale map and a blunt china-graph, you’d estimate where the fix put you, extract the lat & long, compare it to where the API thought you were, then rapidly dial in the new co-ordinates, estimate the new wind direction & speed, change these as well.

To help you in this task, was a mini-Dalton Computer, again not a computer but a round sliderule. (For those of you under a certain age, go ask a grown-up about slide rules and even log tables whilst you’re at it). It was not very accurate to say the least. To give you an idea of how good the hamster was, after a 90 minute flight, I once had an error of 1.5nm, which was astonishingly good. Only to realise that I’d forgotten to turn on the hamster which was still in Standby – How ??

Anyway, tonight on QRA, we had a cunning plan. We had planned a silent night launch scheduled on QRA. So we’d strap-in in good time, start-up on a secure land-line signal, taxy out on light signals, then launch, all without any radio-comms and the radar not emitting in standby. We’d then get handed over to the radar sites, given vectors for identification, then pointed on an intercept course. When we got within radar contact distance, we’d be told to ‘Punch’, where we’d turn on the radar, get contact on the bad-guy and call ‘Judy’. I doubt if the might of the Soviet Union ever broke that particular code.

Despite our silent procedures, often as soon as we launched the Bear would turn around. It was always rumoured that there was a Soviet spy in St Andrew’s who’d transmit as soon as we launched. (Heaven forbid if someone who went to St Andrew’s University ever infiltrated into the establishment at the highest level). Or it could have been the ever-present Russian trawler docked in Dundee, with some extra special aerials on board. In fairness, on a quiet Scottish night, trying at 2am to hide a Phantom in full-afterburner, lighting up the sky like a comet and emitting more decibels than is imaginable, is quite tricky.

Intercepting a Bear was always a fantastic experience. They’re huge and even sat in a noisy jet with a helmet on, we could still hear the propellers. It was normally a cordial event (depending if a Commisar was on Board or not). We’d wave and take photos. They’d gesture obscenely or hold up pictures from exceedingly non-PC magazines. Sometimes they’d be a bit nasty and try to fly us into the sea by shining massive searchlights at us to make us lose our night vision, but overall the ‘war’, though fairly regular, was fairly ‘phoney’. The most amazing bit was just looking at the tail and seeing the enormous Red Soviet Star – this was the Cold War – up close and personal.

However, tonight was not the night. We’d now be searching way out in the Atlantic around the Iceland / Faroes gap en-route to Cuba in the pitch black for a 7 hour sortie, especially if they’d pre-launched a tanker as well. It did have it’s benefits, as there was no light pollution and we were about 30,000, the visibility was superb, so I always carried a Times Map of the Stars, it was a prefect environment. I also lost count of the times we saw the Northern Lights, appearing in all forms from eerie spectres to fantastic multi-coloured waterfalls – indescribable.

Have you ever woken up with a jump making that loud ‘Humph’ noise? Well sat in the back of a F4, I’d managed to fall asleep. Me waking up with a start, caused a chain re-action, it woke the pilot so from the front-cockpit came a ‘Humph’ (luckily we’d been in auto-pilot). There was also high-pitched ‘Humph’ from the Hamster sleeping in the API.

We all woke up very quickly, adrenalin pumping. We had no idea how long we’d been asleep. We decided to call up Saxa Vord, the last radar site controlling us. ‘Saxa, Saxa, this is Q-Bird 1’. No response. We tried again with similar results.

This is where years of training fell into place (OK sheer terror) – it was time for Plan B. ‘Turn around 180 degrees, we’ll see where we are’. We pointed 140 mag. I went to our longest range mapping radar. No land bounced back our pulses, this was not good. There was silence. Then from the front, ‘Where are we?’ ‘Well the API puts us South of Iceland’. I knew what was coming next, ‘Have we got enough fuel to get home?’ So with the vagaries of the API and the appalling in-accuracy of the fuel gauges the only honest response was ‘Not sure we’ve got fuel to get anywhere’.

Time for Plan C. I calculated our best height and speed for maximum range and driver-airframes duly obliged. Plug in the auto-pilot to ensure constant RPM (fuel efficiency). ‘Saxa, Saxa, this is Q-Bird 1’ – silence. Time for Plan D. What was causing any drag on the aircraft, which we could jettison? Lots of missiles, a few empty external fuel tanks. This was drastic measures, coming back without all these bits & bobs would be severely embarrassing, but Plan Z put us ejecting into the freezing mid-Atlantic to bob about in one-man life-rafts till hopefully rescued in a few days time. We made all the switches and were about to send some high-tech weaponry into Davy Jones’ locker, when a couple of islands crept onto the edge of the radar scope. The guessed the Faroes, but at this point land was land. A quick update of the Hamster, a quick estimate of distance, we had the fuel. ‘Q-Bird, this is Saxa, how do you hear?’ ‘Loud & clear’ we both shouted down the airwaves. ‘Copied, we lost you for a bit, you OK?’ ‘No snags, now RTB’.

On the ground we pieced it all together. We reckoned at most we’d been asleep for 5 minutes, but the 5 minutes sound of silence felt like a lifetime.

So what have I learnt?
Always start with a plan
Have a Plan B
Have loads of other contingencies and mitigation strategies up your sleeve.
Really, really understand how bad it will be if you let it get to Plan Z.

Never sleep with a Hamster, because it’s wrong on so many levels

Have a great weekend.


“The Navy Lark”

Ahoy there. Well there’s been a lot of furore in the news recently about the early decommissioning of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Also, the fact that the Harrier is also to be phased out, leaving the next one-for-the-price-of-two multi-billion pound bargain basement new carriers without any planes on board.

At this point, I’d like to take the time to say a few words in support of the Navy and what they’ve given us. However, apart from International Talk Like A Pirate Day, I’m struggling. But seriously, the loss of the Harriers will without doubt severely impact a major part of the aviation fabric, the air display season. Everyone appreciates a nodding Sea Harrier at an airshow, much like a boy-racer appreciates the Churchill nodding dog on the parcel shelf his sooped-up Fiat Panda. It will be a real ask for the RAF to fill the gap left by the Navy at airshows, especially as they’ll be totally reliant on displaying aircraft not optimized for entertaining guests at far-flung exotic cocktail parties on floating gin-palaces, rather to fulfil an operational role.

It’s not that I hold a grudge against the Navy, but part of my mis-adventures at RAF Farnborough, included being the Officer in charge of a mixed forces flight of RAF, Army & Navy. Having become Duty Officer for the week, part of the daily duties was to lower the Ensign at sunset. So one evening as the sun started to track lower, there was no sight of the duty RAF SNCO. Mysteriously, the Navy Chief Petty Officer appeared, (almost as if he’d known), and offered to pipe down the Ensign. It was a risk, but with no RAF on the horizon, with the clock ticking unstoppably towards 6pm, I felt it was a risk worth taking. The RAF Ensign ceremony involves a couple of short blasts of a whistle with the Duty Officer saluting. The CPO burst into life, rummaged in his trouser pocket and with a spectacular flourish, was suddenly fully armed with a Bosun’s whistle. He then proceeded to conduct an extended version of a series of whistles, hoots and toots, which would not have been out of place at the Last Night of the Proms.

The crowd outside the Officers’ Mess, were suitably impressed (a few I’m sure started waving Union Jacks), apart from the puce OC Admin, who I studiously ignored as he attempted to catch my eye. All this I can forgive, except that I was then persuaded by the CPO to authorize a local purchase order for the rum ration for the flight. He assured me that being on detached duty, still meant that him and the rest of the flight were entitled to ‘splice the mainbrace’. He was convincing, the quantity required according to a well-thumbed copy of Navy regulations was astonishing, but apparently enshrined in history. I steeled myself, accepted the responsibility and signed the order, ensuring a good time was had by all. My reputation within the Flight increased out of all recognition.

It was a few years later that I found that the rum ration was discontinued years previously in 1970 – well and truly had.

The second Navy grudge I hold is against a Sea King helicopter crew. In the bar in Cyprus, there was the normal banter between the RAF and the Navy. The argument got around to the comparative performance of a Sea King helicopter, versus a Tornado fighter. The Navy’s claim was that a Sea King would beat a Tornado from brakes off to 10,000’. We weren’t even convinced a Sea King could get to 10,000’, certainly not in a competitive time. Eventually after a lot of debate, bluff and bravado, a bet was offered, reputations were at stake, as was a significant amount of alcohol, so terms were agreed, lots were drawn, and the RAF would go first. The duel, as tradition dictates, was to be at dawn.

Lots of people had become involved. OC Operations would be the timekeeper. Air Traffic Control would verify when 10,000’ had been reached. The Station Commander would be judge and jury. The doctor would ensure there was no doping. The Padre, as a man of honour, held the collection. Best of all was the Army major who was persuaded to get up very early and take his jeep way up to the top of nearby Mount Olympus with a couple of semaphore flags. He served no actual purpose in the day, but the joint Navy/RAF joke was well appreciated by all.

The sunshine bright Mediterranean dawn broke. The assembled crowds gathered along the runway’s edge. The Top Gun Tornado crew strapped into their jet, fully feeling the weight of responsibility of ensuring the Tornado’s reputation was still in tact after the contest. Reputation, like virginity, can only be lost once. The sun just rising as the gun-metal grey Tornado called ‘Brakes on’ as agreed, followed by ‘Brakes off’ and started the take-off roll. Full afterburner engaged, kept in full blower, the bright blue flame burning Avtur at an astonishing rate, gear up, flaps up, very low, then pitch to the vertical and zoom up towards 10,000 feet. Air Traffic Control called the altitude, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,000’. OC Ops called out the time – ’30 seconds’.

‘Impressive’ was the muted comment from the Naval Commanding Officer, a Captain Haddock look-a-like, straight out of central casting. We were all convinced that the several crates of beer were in the bag and we were duly celebrating when he extracted his shag-filled pipe from somewhere within his hirsute full-set, then uttered, ‘Want to double the bet?’ Caught up in the moment, there was obviously no risk after such an impressive performance, we agreed.

The battleship-grey Sea King taxied out to line up on the runway. ‘Brakes On’, anticipation mounted. The rotor speed increased to a sub-sonic blur and from a storm of dust and debris, the Sea King rose majestically upwards. Air Traffic called the altitude, 6, 7, 8, 9, nine and a half thousand feet. The helicopter seemed stuck at 9,500’ feet, rotors noticeably struggling in the hot thin air, game over, voices were raised in celebration. Then over the tannoy came the call from the Sea King, ‘Brakes Off’.

The crowd went silent. In the time it took for the penny to drop, the Sea King rose an extra 500’. ATC called out ‘Ten thousand’. OC Ops called ’10 seconds, the Navy win’ – well and truly had. Our reputation in tatters, we cried into our rum ration (the Navy’s call) long into the night.

So what lessons have I learnt from playing with the Navy?

You must understand the risks inherent in the game
You must take responsibility for knowing the rules
You must accept your reputation could be trashed in seconds

But most importantly –

You must only ever use Angostura bitters in a Pink Gin

Cheerio me Hearties. Have a land-lubbering great weekend.


“Check Parking Space”

Car parking in London is always a nightmare, though it pales into insignificance compared to the recent 75 mile long traffic jam in China, which has been likened to a 10,000 vehicle car park. Temporary villages have been set up, with street vendors doing a roaring trade, though sadly and somewhat smellily, toilets have yet to be deployed.

But to lighten the mood, here’s a couple of car park tales, oh what an interesting life I’ve had. But then I did grow up in the town where they publish a calendar featuring road-traffic islands, including the infamous Magic Roundabout.

Anyway, I was at a holding post during my days in the RAF at the Farnborough Airshow. This was a great post, free access to all areas, wander around the jets in the static park and generally have a good time. In return, I was Officer Commanding Administration’s (OC Admin’s) whipping boy for the week.

Day 1 – I was given a group of enthusiastic Air Cadets and a car park to project manage. My brief from OC Admin was along the lines of “Last year was chaos, with lots of poor parking, I don’t want that to happen again”. No problem. I wandered over to the Air Cadets who snapped rigidly to attention and I told them in no uncertain terms “Right you lot, direct cars to where you want them to park and make sure there’s no wasted space”. Now it was decision time. Do I supervise the Air Cadets in the car park or wander around the airshow looking a shiny, flying things. Shiny won. Off I went, what could possibly go wrong.

I wandered around the stands, when over the Tannoy came the message “Would Pilot Officer Evans report to OC Admin immediately”. For those of you that have ever been to an airshow, you’ll know that the Tannoy is jealously guarded with display commentaries given the highest priority, interuptions only tolerated in dire emergencies. But I was young, I was blissfully unaware of the implications, so wandered back to see OC Admin wondering what new adventure was in store.

OC Admin was a strange puce sort of colour. He was speechless and just beckoned me to follow him – to the car park. He stood there, just pointing, unable to speak until eventually he erupted “Sort it out Evans !!!!” I looked, what could possibly have gone wrong, I’d given them clear instructions. That was the problem, my instructions had been followed to the letter. The Air Cadets had filled all the parking slots as instructed. My previous words came unbounded into my head “no wasted space”, well they hadn’t. They’d filled the access roads, parked cars on pavements and even on the ramp up into the car park. Nothing could move. No-one could leave unless the car park was emptied in reverse order to arrivals, with a large Range Rover as the keystone to unlocking the Gordian Knot (Yes pedants – mixed metaphors I know). I eventually had the situation back under control, calmed a number of very irate visitors and left the car park as it was beginning to go dark. What a Day One.

Days 2-7 now the Station Duty Officer

At another airshow, a friend of mine landed his Tornado and taxied off at the end of the runway. As is often the case at these sort of events, there was a ‘Follow-Me’ minibus waiting for new arrivals. My friend started following the minibus along the peri-track. The minibus got faster, but was unlikely to outrun a Tornado, then faster still. My friend thought this a bit unusual, but carried on following, chalking it down to the minibus obviously being driven by a bit of a boy-racer. The minibus then turned down a narrower track, with less clearance and a few more trees, so to avoid damaging the aircraft, the pilot swept the wings back to 67 degrees. The track eventually petered out in the carpark of the hosting squadron, by this stage the Tornado was well and truly ensconced in the squadron car park, unable to manouevre.

Eventually it transpired that unfortunately what he was following was not a ‘Follow-Me’ minibus, but one of the squadron’s crew buses that had nipped onto the peri-track to get around the airfield. The driver had glanced in his mirror and saw the Tornado behind him. His instant reaction was to accelerate, no luck Tornado still there, so he started to panic, but he still couldn’t shake off the aircraft even when he took the access road to the squadron buildings.

To extract the Tornado meant completely emptying the car park of all the cars. It couldn’t be towed as the swept wing position meant the centre of gravity made it very unstable and they couldn’t sweep forward without putting a fuel tank through the side of a very nice Jaguar. Having recalled an enormous number of people via an extended number of Tannoy messages. The crowd was large, attracted sightseers, rubberneckers with Schadenfreude a-plenty, plus a large number of people who couldn’t resist giving the forlorn crew a hard time. Oh, I forgot to mention lots and lots of cameras. Centre stage were the crew, who were the butt of all jokes the entire weekend.

So what have I learnt

Make sure the brief is clear
SMART is better
Check understanding
If you’re not sure the project’s going in the right direction – ask

Have a Great weekend


“The Experts Agree”

Have you ever been in the situation, where you realise that despite much lengthy expert debate, the agreed solution was, in retrospect, incredibly stupid? And that if you’d asked the right person, the solution was in fact, blindingly obvious.

So here’s one from my back-catalogue of daft decisions, which is as extensive as the music back-catalogue of the Beatles or Michael Jackson’s, though almost certainly not as profitable, (for further evidence, please review my back-catalogue of blogs). However, at least I have the certainty that my list of idiotic decisions has not fully run its course. The problem was ‘How do you shoot down a helicopter ?’ Before you ask, this wasn’t some random act of vandalism, rather we were about to go out to the Balkans to enforce the no-fly zone.

Now there are 2 types of aircraft, fighters and targets, which gives you a quick idea of where my allegiances lie. Now some will tell you that bombers are also vital, but I ask you, in all honesty, would you rather join ‘The Few’ and fly fighters (war heroes) or bombers (war criminals)? It also gives an insight into the fairly egotistical and arrogant self-opinionated nature of fighter aircrew. Think Lord Flashard in Blackadder 4 and you’re not too far from the truth, though I’ve changed honest; the therapy was effective, with only the occasional relapse.

So having assembled a group of experts and after much debate, (on a whiteboard, not showered in post-it notes) we decided that the best way to succeed was to rule out the sophisticated high-tech expensive missiles and go with the very basic cheap gun to strafe the b*******ds. Having then consulted the manual, (we’d have been better consulting Manuel), the only documented solution was a 30 degree dive. (To give you an idea of this angle, a commercial airliner follows a 3 degree descent path.) We convinced ourselves that this would also have the added benefit that the bad guys wouldn’t see us coming high out of the sun. (Baron von Richthofen.) So to simulate the Balkans terrain, off we went to the Highlands of Scotland to practice.

Now for you thrill seekers out there, tip your chair up to an angle of 30 degrees, possibly on the edge of a stair-well (H&S amendement – don’t do this), then look at the floor and imagine doing this plunging downwards at 500 miles an hour. Then try and guess when you need to start pulling out of the dive to avoid hitting the ground. Did I mention the mountain opposite?

We saw the target helicopter in good time and started careering earthwards. At this point, whilst hanging in my straps and grasping the ejection seat handle, I suspected we’d consulted the wrong experts. After the 7g pull-out, bottoming out at a height where…. Well to put it this way, the way the flock of sheep parted would have won maximum points on One Man and his Dog and it took the engineers hours to clean the grass stains off the bottom of the jet. I also suspected I knew why the dubious pull-out height expert wasn’t on the sortie, but was in fact out collecting eyes of newts before casting his runes and looking for 4-leaf clover.

The debrief was quite subdued. It was a bit like the scene from ‘The Dambusters’ after they’d been trying to fly ultra-low level at night over water with minimal success and a few hairy moments. But undeterred, much like the movie, we all set off to London for the weekend for a RAF shindig. I met up with an old friend from training, who I’d barely seen for years (I couldn’t really be seen with him as he was flying Tornado bombers – oh the shame of it !!).

I told him about our experiences and he looked at me in total bemusement. With great simplicity, he asked why we didn’t just depress the gun sight and fly the tracer through the helicopter. We laughed at his naivety. “But they’ll see us coming.” “So what? It’s a helicopter, they can’t run away”.

Monday was a much better sortie, I felt the odds had moved positively in my favour that I might see Tuesday. The post-flight meal of humble pie was actually quite palatable.

So why am I telling you this? (Apart from my highly developed narcissism and a desperate attempt to cling onto my youth).

That one thing that is apparent from working with other organisations. Although you might know loads and do lead the field in many areas, you can (obviously) still learn from others (internally & externally), sometimes miss the blindingly obvious and your (imposed/arrogant) solution might not be the answer to others peoples’ perceived problems.

May I humbly suggest, (whilst tipping my hat to my despairing therapist, though what does he know), it is sometimes better to adopt the incantation, “Work with, not work at”.

Got to go now, I feel the need to tell someone how good I am !!
Feel free to join in.

Have a Great weekend.


“What Goes Up”

Anyway, having Wrangled a Chipmunk, they finally let me loose on the mighty Jet Provost. By a strange twist of fate, I ended up going solo in a jet aircraft before I’d passed my driving test. This was due to a combination of how I never realy got into driving (motorbikes much better), combined with how the Cold War sausage machine needed to keep a constant flow of new aircrew feeding the front-line.

But anyway, let me give you a quick description of one of my more exciting solo sorties. Striding out confidently to my jet, strapping in, looking for my instructor, Archie, then realizing it was a solo trip and I was on my own. OMG, not sure who was more frightened, me about to risk my pink body again or my instructor, who’d just signed for a jet on my behalf and agreed to let me take it airborne, thinking I was competent. Talk about risk, responsibility and reputation. I was based at RAF Linton-On-Ouse, a sleepy hollow training base, 10 miles North of York. Off down the runway, full power, which in reality wasn’t generating much more power than a Babylis hair-dryer. Airborne again, looking for gaps in the clouds to get above into the clear blue sky to practice my aerobatics up and down the Vale of York. In the early days of your flying career, you avoided all cloud as much as possible. There were a couple reasons for this. One, when you don’t know what you’re doing, knowing that it’s very easy to get dis-orientated in a second and end up plummeting Earthwards to death & destruction, it’s scary. And two, did I say, it’s blinking scary. (For those of you about to fly in the next few weeks, don’t worry 95% of commercial pilots have got over this worry).

So there I was looping and rolling above the broken cloudbase, when the Jet Provost trait burst into life – engine vibrations. Having a dodgy engine, when you’ve only got one, is not good. Admittedly it’s better than no engines, but engine vibrations was in effect half-an-engine. You could use it, but push it too hard and at any moment it could go bang, closely followed by the bang of the ejection seat and a Martin Baker let-down.

I called base, told them my problems, told them I was RTB. However, just then through a break in the cloud I saw Leeming, snuggled close to the A1. Base was 40 miles away through cloud (scary things remember), with an engine that was unlikely to pass its MoT, Leeming was in sight, no cloud, I was going there. I changed radio channels, called my Mayday into Leeming. This had the desired effect; they responded immediately and informed me they’d clear the circuit of aircraft for me to make my approach.

I left the engine throttles right back and started my assisted glide towards the airfield. Luckily, we’d practiced this a number of times, so I effortlessly descended to ‘High Key’, which was about 3,000’ above the runway. My arcing glide path, positioned me at ‘Low Key’, a fraction out, so I risked dabbing the throttle to get some extra energy. No big bang, back on course so I dropped the gear & flaps, then called ‘Finals 3 Greens to Land’. Air Traffic Control cleared me to land and seconds later I smoothly landed the jet. A sigh of relief was uttered by all. I’d never been to Leeming, so called for taxi instructions back to dispersal. I’d wrestled the jet safely home, not having ejected, leaving the jet to plummet into the local orphanage, quite the hero, medals were awaiting.

As an aside, they used to practice engine failure drills on the Canberra, an early jet flown by the RAF. Now rumour has it is that when they were designing the aircraft, they couldn’t decide whether to put propellor or the new fangled jet engines on it. Eventually, they hedged their bets and put the engine housings way out in the middle of the wing, so that if they went for propellors, they’d still fit OK. They went for jet engines, but if they lost one engine, as the housing were so far out, the plane now became incredibly unstable, especially coming into land, so they trained intensely for this eventuality, even having fatal accidents in the process. Finally, having looked at the metrics to see how often the engines did fall, (not often) and how many accidents they were having overall and decided that it would be better to stop training for the worst case scenario.

Now there are 2 sides to every story.

Back at base, Archie my instructor was sat up in the ATC tower, listening in as his ‘chicks’ flew the nest. He got my emergency call and resembling a good Project Exec, assessed the situation, instantly made the call, nodded his assent to the controller and approved my diversion decision. He then got on the hot-line to Leeming. They confirmed they’d heard the call, cleared the circuit of aircraft and were awaiting my approach. ‘High Key’. They didn’t have me in sight yet, but there was broken cloud in and out of the overhead. ‘Low Key’. Still not in sight, Archie was puzzled, they should be able to see me. ‘Finals, 3 Greens’. Still not in sight, something was wrong.

Archie looked at the map. He scanned down the map fom Leeming to Linton. Halfway down was Dishforth, again parallel to the A1. He slammed down the phone to Leeming and called the duty pilot at Dishforth. The phone was snatched up “Can’t speak now, there’s some idiot blasting through the circuit”.

Back in my warm glow, I awaited taxi instructions. They finally came. “Solo One this is Leeming tower, I suggest you call Dishforth – Good Luck”. It hit me, I had made all my radio calls to one airfield and landed at another. I suspect my feedback was not going to be the ‘Breakfast of Champions’, more like the ‘Muesli of Misery’.

Well to cut a long story short, the spotlight came on my performance (or lack of), I flew a few sorties with the Chief Instructor and the Station Commander, (alway an ominous sign when the high-powered help get involved) and not long after that, my days as a military pilot drew to a close. In fairness, this was a weight off my mind, as in all honesty I wasn’t a very good pilot. (Later in my career I ended up landing a Tornado F3 from the back seat, but that’s another story). So despite being temporarily unaware of my position (in layman’s terms – lost), I went off to be a Navigator, found my niche, which led me on to being a Project Manager on flight trials.

Pilot profession’s loss – PM profession’s gain

(not looking for feedback right now thanks).

Have a Great Weekend


“Chipmunk Wrangling”

As student tuition fees are once more in the headlines, I’m transported back to the day of my A level results, when the long-awaited news dropped through the letterbox. Even back then, I was obviously a natural project manager, having set expectations low, so that I could deliver high. The first part, I fully achieved, the second part was less successful, though in all honesty not totally unexpected. During my A Level years I was nigh on a full-time rugby player, had discovered wild women and song, which all left very little time for school-work.

Although I still had a valid offer to study underwater basket weaving at Barkinmadsville University, I felt I didn’t need a degree, but had to follow my dream. So I packed my bags and ran away to join the circus.

Well, the ‘Flying Circus’ anyway. I joined the Royal Air Force.

I actually applied to join as an RAF Regiment Officer, but the recruitment sergeant asked me if I’d ever considered being a pilot. At this point I’d never been in a plane on holiday, let alone considered being a pilot. However, it paid more, had an element of glamour, so I took the Queen’s shilling and off I went to Biggin Hill for the assessment tests.

Shockingly, there must have been a mix up with the paperwork, so a few months later, having earned my commission along the way, I reported to RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire to start my training to becoming a pilot. We did some groundschool, were taught a bit about flying and were sent off to the simulator to practice our pre-flight checks. Well when I say simulator, it was more like a plywood box with a cardboard printout glued to the front panel, but it did the job.

So eventually Acting Pilot Officer Evans strode boldly out to his mighty steed, with Aviator sunglasses glinting in the late afternoon sun. Alright, alright, it wasn’t quite like that. If you’ve ever tried to walk with a parachute strapped to your back, you look more like a waddling duck, especially as you race after your instructor, who’s striding confidently towards the plane, leaving a nervous sweaty novice trailing in his wake. It wasn’t a jet either, but a bright red and white propeller driven 2-seat Chipmunk trainer, but to me right then, it looked real cool.

The first couple of sorties were a bit of ‘follow me through’, do a few turns, go “Wow” with some aerobatics and generally just running to stand still as the learning curve ascended quicker than a Raptor. The sortie we’d all been dreading soon came upon us, where we had to do the take-off. This was quite a moment, as for a pilot it’s generally accepted that being able to get a plane airborne is an essential part of the skill set.

Getting a little prop-job Chipmunk into the air sounds easy. Well just for the record it isn’t. A propeller throws out quite a bit of torque, which on the ground makes the plane veer to one side. To counter this, you have to apply full opposite rudder, or was it the other way? Whilst pondering this, came the instructor’s voice “You have control, ready for take-off”. I guess you’re getting a clue to the forthcoming dilemma. Now I’m not trying to make excuses, but there’s a lot to do and think about at this point. Check you’ve got the brakes on, push the throttle to full power, grip the control column with such force that all the blood drains out of your fingers and they go numb. The last point isn’t in the check list, but chatting with my peers seemed to indicate that it was normal procedure.

Brakes off, speed beginning to increase, quite exciting this, plane moving to the right, something I should be doing, think me, think !! Bit quicker now and I’m about 20 feet behind the speeding plane already. Press on, it’ll be alright, still going to the right, now what was it I should be doing? I remembered that I really, really should be applying a serious amount of rudder to counter this as the Chipmunk bounced off the side of the runway.

This isn’t all bad, though I’ll concede it was quite bad, but the Chipmunk is quite capable of operating off a grass strip. (Something I’d remembered from groundschool). Good job really as we’d started to skip and bounce merrily across the grass. The other significant characteristic of a Chipmunk, is that it’s a tail-dragger, which basically means that you need to pick up speed before the tail comes up and you can see over the nose of the plane. So as the tail came slowly up it became apparent that the no-problem grass was in fact the big-problem Station football pitch. Now it would be a great story say that the pitch was in use and that the players needed to advance quicker than the Arsenal back-four, but that would be over-egging the story and believe it or not I’ve been accused that my tales have an element of exaggeration. But it did unnerve the bloke marking out the pitch.

So as I made my darting run from the left wing towards the penalty area, quicker than Ryan Giggs in his prime, I reckoned I needed to do something about it. So a quick check of the airspeed indicator, good enough, so I yanked back on the stick, which I think caught my instructor unawares. Airborne, at least I wasn’t going to end up in a tangled netty mess surrounded by goalposts and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Right, hands up all those that fully understand the inter-relationship between pitch, roll & yaw? Not many hands up I see. If I’m honest, it wasn’t until a long while later in my career, before I could reasonably put mine up. Basically, make things big, make things small is pushing and pulling on the stick (pitch), left & right are done with the stick (roll), but you need to balance the plane using rudder (yaw). My lack of rudder input meant that as soon as the Chipmunk was loosed of its Earthly bonds, it went into a severe right-hand banking turn. We went past the control tower on a knife-edge. I learnt later that they all hit the deck being convinced that they were about to be hit by a high-speed Moulinex food mixer.

I rolled the wings level, set the right pitch attitude and balanced the rudder. I then heard the comforting words from the pilot behind me, “I have control”. This was really good news as I was well aware that despite my hard-fought battle with the Chipmunk, me being in control was only a fleeting situation.

The sortie was largely uneventful, up until the point when I had to land the plane. Being able to land a plane is also viewed as quite important by professional aviators, though not quite as necessary, as you’ve always a parachute to get you down. Before you start worrying, commercial airline pilots are normally recruited with the requirement that they’ve done the same number of landings as take-offs, with only a few exceptions.

Anyway, landing a plane is all about perspective. If the runway looks fat & short, you’re too high. If it looks long and thin you’re too low. So a quick assessment of my approach to Runway 20 (Direction 200 degrees), showed that it looked like a needle, which meant it was either a very, very thin runway or I was very, very low. No problem, bung in a bit more throttle to stop the descent and keep on trucking in until the perspective looks good. Chill. So chilled, that rather than rigidly staring out through the front windscreen, I felt I had enough capacity to start doing some lookout. (This is really important, but under pressure can be forgotten). A quick glance to my left, no problem. A glance to my right, no problem, apart from the seriously big Pickford’s van crossing right to left along the A46. I didn’t know about how to recognise collisions at this point, but even to my untrained eye, it didn’t look good. I upped the power to gain height. “No, no, no” called my instructor, “wait for the right perspective”. I looked right again and I locked eyes with the removal van driver, who understandably was somewhat distracted. I swear I left tyre-rubber on his roof, then snuck over the boundary fence before smoothly landing on the runway. “Fantastic” enthused my instructor. I didn’t like to dissuade him.

So what have I learnt. Well flying is very similar to Project Management. In flying you have pitch, roll and yaw. In Project Management you have scope, time & cost. (You can also throw in speed and quality, but that’s really making it unduly complicated). In both scenarios, if you change one parameter, it will affect the others. Set the right attitude, keep everything in balance, take a quick look around, especially when things are going a bit pear-shaped and life is suddenly a whole lot easier, though perhaps a fraction more scary !! (Admittedly project managers don’t get issued with a parachute)

The other similarity is that in both disciplines, it’s all right for things to go a bit haywire and to get into a bit of a pickle, as long as you notice in time and do something to rectify the situation. So I’ve left the blog with a bit of a cliff-hanger. Did they mix up the paperwork again? Did I pass selection and go on to fly jets? Well, that’s another story.

Have a great weekend.


“Rocket Man”

I went to the RAF Fairford air show over the Summer (not on a Corporate freebie I hasten to add, I’m not bought that easily, close but not quite). I spent a season supporting the Tornado F3 display by taking the spare jet to venues all over the place. This was great as having parked the jet on a Friday, me and my pilot just watched displays, posed in front of the plane, whilst trying to sell various bits of squadron memorabilia to an adoring crowd. It meant giving up a summer of weekends, drinking vast amounts of beer, beating off groupies, but hey, someone’s got to take the bullet for the team.

Air shows used to follow a fairly standard format, lots of light aircraft in the morning, slowly getting bigger with a Hercules throwing out cargo and/or parachutists, a few minor display teams before an afternoon of ‘heavy metal’ generating noise for noise sake, finally closing with the Red Arrows.

The general thrills, as a professional aviator (and I use the term loosely) was seeing stunt planes doing crazy things and then spinning out-of-control way too close to the ground for comfort (the Phantom spin-recovery drill stated that if you were still spinning passing 10,000 feet, then eject). Watching minor display teams seemingly break all the rules and looking like a mid-air collision was imminent and inevitable. Finally, inserting the earplugs and deciding which high-speed pass was lowest, fastest and most likely to drop a sonic-boom (this sadly became victim to H&S-like regulations, who were a bit concerned about planes crashing and throwing debris into the crowd – nanny state or what?).

Fairford was different. It had the F-22 RAPTOR. Wow, what a display. It displayed all the craziness of a stunt plane, throw in that it was doing manoeuvres that seemed aerodynamically impossible, plus an awesome crowd-pleasing amount of raw power and you’ve got a show and a half. Now I’m not saying that a fantastic airshow display equates to fantastic operational capability (just look at how amazing a Harrier is at air shows, but operationally, well…..), but the F-22 was different. One awesome manoeuvre was to go into the vertical, till apparently stationary in the air, zero airspeed, then to actively fly out to perform another neat trick. Wow.

I’ve half been in that situation, so I’d like to tell you a story; you knew I would didn’t you?

We were given a F-4 Phantom to flight test, just back from major servicing. Now normally an F-4 has all sorts of junk hanging off it, from pylons to carry the air-to-air missiles, through to stubs to attach the underwing and fuselage extra fuel tanks. This was truly clean, nothing on it at all. The brief was to get airborne ASAP, check that everything works, don’t pull lots of G, don’t do anything stupid and get it back on the deck pronto so that everyone can knock off early.

So just before dusk on a light summer’s evening, we lit the burners and screamed down the runway. With nothing hanging off us, there was hardly any drag and we accelerated to the take-off speed of 150 knots in next to no time. Airborne, gear up, flaps up, hold it low till the end of the runway, then a 4g (not excessive in front of the engineers) pull up into the vertical into a mackerel sky, levelling out way, way, way above the airfield.

Now you can get rid of fuel in a number of ways. Pull loads of G-force with the burners plugged in, open the dump valve to jettison it out the back or go for speed. As we were under pain of death from the engineers that if we over-stressed the jet we’d never ever get another serviceable jet in our lifetime on the squadron, we only had one option. Speed, lots of it, in fact an excess of it.

We checked in with our radar site, got permission to climb up into controlled air space and requested clearance for a high-speed run. This was duly granted and in the thin-aired atmosphere we started to go fast. In fact, very fast. Through the sound-barrier, then a good bit faster, so that in our gentle accelerating descent, we’d have given Concorde a good run for its money. We had a whale of a time, infringed Dutch airspace a bit, but still hadn’t run out of fuel.

As an aside, when we used to do escape and evasion exercises with the Special Forces, they always used to say that aircrew would eventually give themselves away because they got bored and started playing with shiny things that glinted in the sunlight and gave away our position. I vehemently dispute this statement, obviously not in front of them, but I contend that aircrew aren’t that shallow. So anyway, we got bored with speed and turned our attention to altitude. Or more accurately how to convert our speed into altitude. We really should have taken more notice of the brief, especially the bit about not doing anything stupid, but hey you only live once.

So we set about converting a speed of in excess of Mach 1 (plus a good bit extra) and starting at 40 odd thousand feet, we pointed the nose moonward and off we went. The altimeter started spiralling upwards, speed at this point did not seem to be decreasing very much, but we put this down to the lack of drag and we excitedly reckoned we were going to go higher than we’d ever been before.

We punched through the published service ceiling for the F-4 at quite a lick. We’d have discussed the possibilities and situation more, but by this time the pressure breathing system had kicked in, which makes conversation a trifle difficult. In effect, you have to shut your mouth to stop pressurised pure oxygen being pumped forcibly into your lungs. The consensus was however, don’t touch anything. If we did, it would put undue strain the engines currently gasping for oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere and flame them out. Not good. Ooops, the realisation hit us, that whichever definition you use, we really, really, really were truly out of control.

This started alarm bells ringing. Not literally, but we both recognised, that we were not in a good space. Or more worryingly, would we end up in space?

For the curious, space starts at 100km above the Earth (80km if you’re American), but at that moment I didn’t know that, I wiki’ed it afterwards, just to see if I could legitimately claim to be an astronaut. However, by this time we had escaped the troposphere (20km or 65,500’) and drifted up into the stratosphere. The sky had really started to darken, the stars were shining brighter than is radio-actively healthy and you could clearly see the curvature of the Earth. In fact, not just see the curvature, but be significantly scared by it’s similarity to various Apollo photos. There now came that dreadfully stark realisation that we had moved from a nice summer evening, way up into the twilight zone.

Now I would never claim to be a physicist, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so I cast my mind back to school and ‘mad-professor’ William’s physics classes, wishing I had paid more attention to remembering when gravity stops. The mind plays tricks when under pressure and rather than instantly recalling the physical laws of nature, all that came to mind were the physical attributes of Hayley Johnston (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) and a remarkably enjoyable out-of-hours session with a water-ripple tank. All this was not particularly helpful, although I must admit a very enjoyable distraction.

But I digress.

Stupidly, I could not reconcile the fact that if gravity was a constant, why was the gravity of the situation increasing. I chalked it all down to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and as my lips were tingling (my personal pressure-chamber validated hypoxia symptom), it seemed a reasonable proposition. So as I desperately tried to recall Newton’s nth rule of something to do with bodies colliding or whatever it was, but to no avail as the altimeter ticked ever upwards. In all honesty, by this stage I was beyond caring, as my oxygen/red-blood cell count was in excess of Olympic athletes after a winter of high-altitude training (or a Tour de France cyclist). Luckily it suddenly came to me, Granny’s 12th Law of Sucking Eggs, which is that everything that goes up must come down. Granny was right.

Let me tell you, where we topped out was blinking high, especially if you have zero airspeed, and are forcing your oxygen mask onto your face with both hands as tightly as you can physically endure to ensure a life-sustaining feed of oxygen. (If the canopy had popped at this point, we’d be dead). But anyway, we had hit our zenith.

However, unlike the F-22 RAPTOR, we did not effortlessly manoeuvre into another trick, we plummeted earthwards like a stone towards the inevitable nadir of the post-sortie debrief.

“How’d it go?” “Fine” “Broken it?” “ No” “Great, you can have a jet tomorrow” “Thanks, we’ll make it a low-level sortie”.

So what have I learnt.

Don’t exceed the brief, there’s generally a good reason why.
I really need to work on a whizzy, aircraft project like the F-22.
I no longer have the blood of an Olympic athlete, though arguably still the physique (I grudgingly accept it’s quite a poor argument).

Sadly, I can’t claim to be an astronaut, though I have met one.

But that’s another story :)

Have a great weekend.


“In The Zone”

In the news this week, the RAF Typhoon fighters have deployed to Gioia del Colle in Southern Italy to support the no-fly zone over Libya.  Takes me back to my time at Gioia, to another no-fly zone, Operation Deny Flight, over the Balkans. 

We were flying Tornado F3 fighters and as part of the rotation, we picked up the 4 months from Nov – Feb.  Now Gioia del Colle in southern Italy in summer is a gorgeous place, in mid-Winter it’s not so hot – in many ways.  Four months away over Christmas and the New Year, is not great, but luckily to relieve the boredom was enough warped imagination to play some truly inspired practical jokes.  Oh and obviously plenty of exquisite Italian wine to wash down enough pizza & pasta to sink a battleship.

We were staying in a 5* hotel, allegedly Mafia run, a pink marble extravaganza in a very rural environment.    I say allegedly, not to protect myself from libel, more to protect myself from Omerta and a horse’s head appearing on my pillow.  Not to throw out unjustified allegations, but over the time we were there the hotel owner had more glamorous nieces on his arm than Berlusconi.  Gioia is a bit odd, but generally friendly (The local mozzarella factory had armed guards.)  After a car break-in taking a few valuables from outside the Hotel, the Sqn Boss complained to the Hotel Boss, threatening to move everybody out to another hotel.  The word went out and the wallet and camera were returned, with the lucky recipient reckoning there was more Lira in the wallet when it was returned than when it was stolen.

We’d go into work mid-afternoon, get the Int Brief and weather forecast, then plan the sortie for about an hour.  We’d brief, get kitted up in thermals and bulky cold-weather survival gear, check in all our personal possessions, such as wallets, photos, wedding rings etc so that if we got shot down the bad guys wouldn’t have anything to go on.  Then we’d get our life-jacket and helmet, plus maps, codebooks and documents, slip on a combat vest, pick-up night vision goggles (NVGs), SLR camera, IR filters, hand-held GPS, draw our Walther PPK and magazine, resist the temptation to shoot someone who was really, really bugging you about paperwork, then waddle fully laden out to the fully laden jets.

For a variety of reasons, we ended up flying a lot of nights, which wasn’t a great deal of fun.  Because Gioia is halfway up a hill, about 1,200’ above sea-level, then as soon as the weather got a bit bad, it became impossible to land there in the thick cloud engulfing the base like an enveloping shroud. 

This meant that we’d often launch from a snow covered airfield, into a blizzard as dusk fell, knowing the freezing cloud would settle as the night temperature plummeted, so we’d have to divert to another base in Italy.  In order that we didn’t end up with jets diverted all over the place, we’d launch a pair of aircraft, go straight to the tanker, then coast in over Split to patrol the inky black skies.  We’d then vector back to the tanker for a bit of sporting night air-to-air refuelling over the Adriatic.  The sortie would be about 7 hours, then divert into Bari on the coast.  With all the prep time before the sortie, a 7-hour flight, then a 2 hour bus-ride back to the base, plus an hour’s Int debrief we’d could be putting in a 15 ½ hour day before getting back to the Hotel at about 7 o’clock in the morning.

If you’ve watched the Tripoli anti-aircraft tracer on the news, you might not realise that the tracer shells are often only 1 in 6, so in reality there’s 6 times more heated lead flying about than meets the eye.  The down-side of flying in the dark with NVGs is that you can see all the rounds as the heat gives off an IR signature.  But we’d generally cruise about above this as it was generally aimed at ground targets, however to intercept helicopters busting the no-fly zone, we’d have to drop down to low-level and run the gauntlet of small-arms fire, artilery and random MANPADs.

The concentration levels required were intense, so we were generally pretty shattered when we’d finished for the day.  So we’d roll into the dining room and have breakfast, whilst demanding that the bar was opened so that we could sink a couple of beers.  Beer and croissants at 7 in the morning is not a normal place to be, but after a long stressful day it seemed appropriate.  We’d chat to the fighter crews who were going to do the next night’s sortie and banter with the day-only, nice weather or I’m not getting airborne Jaguar crews.  We’d then exchange some words of wisdom, Lessons Learned and any new Int, then as the breakfast and beer slipped towards mid-morning, just talk jibberish before heading off to pop some pills and sleep through the day.  Played havoc with your body clock.

The overall detachment commander came from a bomber background, though not always that up-to-date on current Ops, with our Sqn boss looking after the Tornado fighters. 

One day, he called in our Boss and told him he was disappointed that the Tornado crews only came to work mid-afternoon, whilst the Jag guys were in about 9 o’clock.  He told him he expected us in to show support for the bomber crews.  The Boss was surprised, but it suddenly struck him, “You know the Tornados are flying missions all through the night?”  “Really?” was the response. 

He then asked “You can’t possibly think the guys drink beer at breakfast before going flying”.  The next words were priceless, “I thought that was what fighter crews did”.  We wore the slur, like a tagged ASBO hoodlum, with pride.

Finally, one of the pilots was getting very worried, he was starting to lose more and more hair, as a result he believed of the stress.  This went on for a few weeks and his hair got thinner and thinner.  Washing with conditioner was suggested, but all to no avail, if anything it got worse.  Eventually ‘Coot-head’ as he was now known, was let in on the joke.  His shower gel had been mixed with Zeet ladies-hair removal cream, as had his shampoo and conditioner.

So what have I learnt:

No-fly zones look easy

Like tracer, there’s a lot more than meets the eye

Finally, if you’re stressed up to the eye-balls

Change your shampoo

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