Category Archives: Aviation

Cloud Dancing, May 2017

The other day I took the PA-38 Tomahawk ‘Romeo-Romeo’ (so called because of the phonetic alphabet rendering of the last two letters of her registration ‘Golf- Romeo Victor Romeo Romeo’) up for a dance among the clouds. The idea is that you find some medium-altitude clouds, and use them as a point of reference around which to throw the aeroplane. Turning, rolling, swooping, soaring, climbing and diving – the feeling of freedom is huge, and the scenery (both of the clouds and the beautiful Devon landscape) is spectacular. Sometimes you fly so close to the clouds that it feels as if your wingtip is grazing the brilliant white vapour and you feel like you could simply reach out and touch the clouds themselves.

So, today I present a photo record of my recent cloud dancing flight. All of the pictures are clickable to give you the full-size, zoomable detailed picture. I hope you enjoy them!

This is Romeo-Romeo, prepped for flight and raring to go. Preflight check completed and everything is ready.
Here’s where the fun begins…

Yes, that is Auntie Betty’s Headset sitting on top of the instrument panel, along with my kneeboard and flying gloves…

There are fewer more thrilling, evocative sights than this. Lined up and cleared for takeoff on Runway 26 at Exeter. The adventure begins…
Five minutes after take-off. North end of the Exe estuary and Topsham.
Here I dipped the starboard wing to get a better view of Topsham and the Exe M5 motorway bridges
Exmouth and the seaward end of the Exe Estuary
A good view of Starcross and Dawlish Warren. Shaldon, Babbacombe Bay and Hope’s Nose, Torquay visible in the distance
Rainbow over Dawlish Warren, looking towards Exmouth from the Kenton area.
Torbay coming into view in the distance.
Teignmouth Golf Course with the Teign estuary behind.
Heavy squall near Newton Abbot. I will be avoiding that…
Despite the dark cloudbase and squalls, the visibility today was actually immense. You could see for miles.
Another view showing the excellent visibility.
Chudleigh from 2,000ft.
Time for some cloud dancing. At 3,500ft near Newton Abbot I found these little beauties. They will do nicely for my proposed activity today. When you go cloud dancing, the aeroplane feels like an extension of your own body; the instruments an extension of your senses. There is a real feeling of being ‘in the Zone’; at one with your machine and you can feel the airflow over the wings and fuselage, you can feel the whole thing…there really is nothing like it.
…and some more clouds too. You can tell that I am clawing for more height by the wing angle… Things got a little busy from here on in: swooping, banking, rolling, climbing, diving, skimming the cloud tops and ducking under them, flying through valleys of cloud. Too busy to use the camera, unfortunately. Cloud dancing involves both hands and both feet working the stick, throttle and rudder respectively; this isn’t aerobatics but sometimes it feels as if it is…you need to maintain the ‘energy loading’ of the aeroplane (this is a combination of airspeed, altitude and engine power) and keep a close eye and feel on what the aeroplane is doing. Because the Tomahawk can ‘bite’ quite viciously at low speeds around the stalling speed, you want to stay away from there as much as you can, and this means maintaining a high airspeed. This is especially important when performing tight turns because the margin of airspeed above the stalling speed decreases, due to the stall speed increasing with the square root of the g-loading. So, for example, if you’re pulling 2’g’, the stall speed becomes 1.414 (the square root of 2) times what it normally is. So for a clean stall speed of around 50kt, at 2’g’ you’re looking at about 71 or 72 kt. You really need to keep an eye on things and maintain at least 90kt for the whole thing, and this demands your full attention. Certainly there are no hands free, nor brain cells available, for operating a camera! My apologies…
‘Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . ” Cloud so close you could reach out and touch it…
Cloud dancing finished, plenty of altitude left at 3,800ft.
View down the River Teign from nearly 4,000ft.
Oh, all right then, one last go….More clouds to dance around! These clouds were treated to a powered dive through a valley of cloud between them. The impression of speed is awesome, at about 120kt (that’s about 137mph).
And here’s Romeo-Romeo back on the ground. Thanks for the flight, dear lady. See you next time…
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Controlled Flight Into Terrain

‘Controlled Flight Into Terrain’ (or CFIT) is the number-one cause of fatal aircraft accidents in the UK. That is to say, the pilot has not lost control of his aircraft – he is still completely in control – but the aeroplane is destroyed by a collision with the ground. How can this happen? Far and away the most common cause of this sort of accident is where the Pilot flies into a cloud* at low level, and that cloud just happens to have a solid centre. So, something like a mountain, a hill, a radio mast, that sort of thing. Pilots have a name for that sort of cloud; we call it ‘cumulogranite’. Invariably, the aeroplane loses such an argument, but, of course, the simple answer is to avoid flying into cloud at all, never mind at low level. My Pilot’s licence does not allow me to fly in cloud anyway, so it’s a no-brainer.

So, for me, a CFIT accident should never happen.

Or so you would have thought.

Let me tell you the brief story of a rare ‘hairy moment’ I managed to contrive a bit back, that could have become a CFIT but for my decisive action.

While flying one of the Piper Tomahawks from my local Flying Club in Devon, I decided to perform a ‘Practice Forced Landing’, or ‘PFL’ for short. As described in this article, it’s where you pretend that the hamster has died** and the engine has therefore failed, so you need to practice the unpowered glide down towards a suitable field. But you don’t actually land there, as you would do in a real emergency; no, once you think you’d have made it, you open the throttle again and climb away.

Now, I have only been flying from this airfield in Devon for a year or so. For the previous few years, I have been flying over the gently rolling, undulating Cornish countryside. The Devon countryside is similar, but we do have at least one giant ridge, called Haldon Hill, which rises several hundred feet out of the western side of the Exe Valley. Oh and there’s the huge, high plateau of Dartmoor as well, but that doesn’t figure in this story. Most of the time, though, Haldon Hill is not a problem because we fly at 2,000 feet or higher, so the Hill is well below us.

But for a PFL, by definition, you do go down low and fly pretty close to the ground. You are pretending you’re going to land, after all.***

So, on this particular occasion, I ‘failed’ the engine at 2,000ft at a randomly-chosen time and chose a field a few miles west of Starcross on the Exe estuary (‘randomly-chosen time’ because you don’t look for a nice big field and then fail the engine once you’ve found one; in real life, the engine would likely fail with little or no warning and you wouldn’t have that luxury). A nicely-sized triangular field on a slight uphill slope (this helps slow the plane down once you’ve landed) and directly into wind, and with a farm next to it. In real life that would have been the perfect place to land. And, also noting that Haldon Hill was well clear a good few miles away to the west so that should be fine; there was plenty of space for me to climb away so I don’t hit it.

So, I conducted the PFL drill and got down to about 300ft. I wanted to go a little lower than normal – usually no lower than 500ft above ground level – to see what an open field looks like from a lower level. Having decided that, had that been a real forced landing, I would have survived, I selected full power and began the climb away. Looking up from the field, well I can’t say I went into a panic because I don’t do that, but right there in front of me, less than a mile away, was a bloody great big treeline – a ridge with loads of trees on it – and I was looking up at it! The top of the treeline was a good 250ft above me…

You see, because I had descended for the PFL from above the height of Haldon Hill, I had failed to see the treeline in the foreground and a mile beyond ‘my’ field, because it was well below Haldon Hill. It was down in the ‘ground clutter’, as it were, and as I was concentrating on the field and the landing procedure, I hadn’t seen the ridge under my ‘exit route’. I found out a few days later – by finding ‘my’ field on a map – that the treeline is a medium-sized copse near a wood called ‘Mamhead Big Wood’. Maybe it was called ‘Mamhead Little Copse’ or something. Well, whatever it was called, it certainly looked like it was living up to the larger name right now, Mamhead Big Wood or not, and not only that but it was above me! and it was also getting closer. With less than a mile to run, low on airspeed because I was just recovering from the descent and getting rid of the drag flaps and also nose-up as well (which reduces the acceleration), and not yet at best climb speed, I knew I was going to have to do something pretty decisive. Low on airspeed, altitude and ideas, this is a situation we Pilots call ‘tumbleweed’ for obvious reasons. No way was I going to gain sufficient height to clear ‘Mamhead Little (but getting bigger) Copse’ in the time available.

Adopting the only course left open to me, I decided to turn gently right – again, in a climb, your turning is restricted too because turning uses ‘lift’ from the wings, and when you are climbing you are using most of that already – so the gentle right turn brought me northwards and parallel to the ridgeline. With that terrain feature now to my left, I now had plenty more space to complete the recovery manoeuvre. CFIT avoided.

Map showing my PFL flightpath. Dotted line shows the gliding descent, ‘my’ target field is the triangular one marked with the blue ‘X’, and the climbout escape path is shown as a curving solid line. Arrowheads give direction of travel. ‘Mamhead Big Wood’ visible to the left of the map, but actually it is on the reverse slope into the next valley; the problem wood was that smaller copse to the east. Look at those contour lines; each one of those is 5 metres more altitude…but also see how the land drops away again west of the ridge through Mamhead Big Wood. Scale: Large blue grid square – 1km

So, I learned from this that I should only really do a PFL in properly rolling countryside; I know now that the area between the Exe estuary and Haldon Hill is a tricky complex of ridgelines, slopes and forests which is not good terrain in which to practice forced landings. I have no doubt I would get a plane down in that area safely should the real thing happen, but for practice? Not good, because the exit routes are potentially not good. When you’re trained to do PFLs, you’re trained to look out for certain types of field: fairly level or with a slight upslope; big enough to land in with enough space to stop before you hit the far hedge; into wind and hopefully not into the sun (but the wind direction is more important); hopefully a reasonably smooth and firm ground surface; preferably near to civilization so you can get a cup of tea while you wait for the AA to come out; and no obstructions like trees or power lines on the approach path. But nobody ever mentioned the escape routes. The vast majority of the time, you are going to be doing these sorts of things for practice only, so it’s not just a matter of ‘would I have got into the selected field safely’, but also ‘can I get out again once I have completed the PFL exercise?

The day a Pilot stops learning is the day he should stop flying. I’m glad to say that I learned from this event; I got in some good practical and real-time decision-making, and I lived to tell the tale. I wouldn’t say that the event was necessarily dangerous, but it was what we might call ‘marginal’; not much room for error and very much dependent on my skill, experience and knowledge of my aircraft in order to resolve it satisfactorily.

I’m probably going to drive over and have a closer look at ‘Mamhead Big Wood’ and ‘Mamhead Little Copse’ sometime. I would say that it’s in order to see what it looks like from the ground, but I would think that I can make a pretty-well informed guess about that already, don’t you? 😉


*The number two cause of fatal aircraft accidents is ‘loss of control in IMC’ (‘IMC’ meaning ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions’ or, again, cloud), that is, the Pilot gets into cloud, gets disorientated, and loses control of the aircraft. Again, very rare and easily avoided (because we’re not supposed to fly into cloud for that very reason), but still worth bearing in mind.

**Everyone knows that light aeroplane engines are powered by a hamster running on a little wheel, under the engine cowling; this makes the propeller go round very fast.

***People sometimes ask me “How low can you fly in those aeroplanes of yours? How close to the ground can you go?” To which, of course, the only correct answer is, “All the way down. It’s called “landing” ‘ 😉


Header image shows Piper PA-38 Tomahawk G-RVRR, callsign ‘Romeo-Romeo’, one of the two Tomahawks I fly.

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Auntie Betty’s Headset

Sadly, my Auntie Betty died last year (she was 90!), and she kindly bequeathed me a money gift in her Will.

I always like to use a bequest to buy something that will remind me of the person who left me the gift. So, for example, a few years ago my godfather Geoff died and left me £250. We used that money to buy an awning for our caravan, which was very fitting as Geoff was an avid caravanner. And so we think of him when we use the caravan and the new awning.

Since my Auntie Betty was involved with building Lancaster aeroplanes during the War, I decided to buy an aviation-related item with her gift. And so I bought myself a new flying headset. I have been flying light aeroplanes for over 20 years and, up until now, I had never yet got myself my own headset, instead using flying club headsets which are often less than perfectly functional.

The purpose of the headset is four-fold: a) to shield the ears from the loud noise of the engine; b) to enable intercom communication with passenger(s) in the aeroplane; c) to let me converse with the air traffic controllers and other helpful agencies on the ground; and d) most importantly, to help me to build up a picture of what’s happening in the area in which I am flying, up here in the sky and on the ground too (aircraft about to take off, that sort of thing). This is what’s known as ‘Situational Awareness’, or ‘SA’; a skill that takes time to develop and which is vital to survival in the air. SA is basically knowing what you’re doing, where you are, and what’s going on around you. It is gained by a combination of visually searching the sky for other aircraft; keeping an eye on the weather, cloudbase and wind direction; being aware of the condition of the aircraft (fuel state, engine behaviour and so on) and of your own position, course, speed and altitude/height; listening to the radio chatter from other aircraft and relating their information to your own situation; liaising with radar controllers who perform a most useful service by providing an extra ‘pair of eyes’, and more*. And that of course is the part where the headset comes in.

So, here’s my new headset, a brand-new David Clark H10-60, a top of the line passive noise reduction headset which is the best you can get without going into active noise cancellation technology – but those types of headset cost nearly £1,000 and I have always found passive headsets like this one to be perfectly adequate for my kind of flying.

It came with free cotton ear covers (that’s the white speaker covers in the photo); these serve to keep the headset dry in use – flying an aeroplane can sometimes be hard work, and you can get quite sweaty at times! Also, there was a free case to store the headset in when not in use:

And I imagine my cousin Pete (Betty’s son) will be pleased with this idea, because he’s a Pilot too and will totally ‘get it’.

Here’s the headset in place. I don’t like doing selfies and prefer to avoid the limelight, but this one is kind of important as it is intended to show the headset in use. Granted it makes me look like a Cyberman off Doctor Who, a picture of which is included for comparison 😉

I have already flown the headset a good few times and I’m very pleased with it; it’s really effective, it is very comfortable and it’s clean, and of course it also reminds me of my Auntie Betty whenever I fly. Which was part of the idea, of course.

To me, it’ll always be ‘Auntie Betty’s Headset’.

Which is nice 🙂


*Unfortunately, SA is a skill that is all too lacking in many of today’s car drivers. Most of the idiots I see on the roads here in Devon are skilled at ‘Situational Unawareness’. They haven’t a clue what’s going on around them and probably don’t even know what song is playing on their stereo. It’s quite scary if you think about it. So I try not to 😉 In an aeroplane, they wouldn’t last thirty seconds…

No doubt there are drivers of the same calibre where you live 😉

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Cessna 152

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

I did say, when I began this series, that despite it being called ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, not all the aircraft featured would be military aircraft.

And today’s aircraft is the first civilian aircraft I am featuring in the series. The Cessna 152, first manufactured in 1977 and produced until 1985. The ‘152 is probably the most popular basic training aircraft in the world. Multitudes of pilots have learned to fly in this aircraft; it is steady and reliable, easy to fly, and a real delight. It’s a bit cramped with two people on board, but it does have a better load-carrying capacity than the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, another popular training aeroplane (and the type I fly at present).

This is G-CEYH, ‘Yankee Hotel’, the aeroplane I flew a lot while at Cornwall Flying Club, Bodmin. In this shot, taken fron the observation point near the airfield approach road, someone’s on short finals for Runway 31. No idea who, though 🙂

The C152 has a maximum ‘never-exceed’ airspeed of 174kt (1kt = 1.14mph), a speed we’d never get near in practical flying, as at that speed the tail reportedly falls off. Maximum normal level speed 110kt; economical cruise speed 90kt or as near to 100mph as makes no difference. Ceiling (maximum altitude) is reportedly 14,500ft but all the Cessnas I have ever flown can make 10,000ft but will struggle to go any higher; there’s not a lot of oomph left by the time you get up there. Not that we can take them any higher than that anyway, as most Flying Clubs have rules routinely restricting pilots to 10,000ft due to lack of oxygen at altitudes any higher than that. Certainly at 10,000ft you can feel your heart beating faster, tingling in your fingers and toes, increased respiration rate and a slight dizziness; all signs of impending hypoxia (oxygen starvation).

Me with G-BNSM – ‘Sierra Mike’ – at Compton Abbas airfield, Dorset, after an epic 100-mile flight from Bodmin with my son David, July 2013. Note the stripe on the arm of my T-shirt; this can be clearly seen in my blog’s header image which was taken about ten minutes before this photo.

I learned to fly on the C152, at Plymouth Airport in Devon. During that time, I discovered that different aircraft of the same type can have very diferent handling characteristics, and so the Pilot develops a preference for certain specific aeroplanes over others of the same type, based on the ‘feel’ of the aeroplane. My favourite aircraft at Plymouth was C152 G-BSTO, ‘Tango-Oscar’. She had such lovely clean, sharp, responsive handling characteristics, along with an engine of decent power and decisive power response, I couldn’t help but favour her over the other two Cessnas at Plymouth Flying School. She always felt like an extension of my body – well, actually, all aeroplanes that I fly do, but especially Tango-Oscar. And she was the aeroplane in which I flew my first solo, which is described here. Tango-Oscar now lives at Newquay airport (just 20 miles from Bodmin), with the flying school there, and it was always strange, when flying out of Bodmin, occasionally to hear Newquay Radar talking to ‘Golf-Tango-Oscar’ and have to resist the temptation to reply to them. It took some getting used to to remember that someone else was flying Tango-Oscar at the time, and Newquay Radar weren’t actually talking to me. Here’s Tango-Oscar taxying at Cardiff Airport, with an unknown Pilot in command:

(The header image of this post shows me taking off from Bodmin in Tango-Oscar, in May 2009. The full story can be found at the bottom of this post).

Here’s another picture of Sierra-Mike at Compton Abbas in July 2013, this time on the ground and taxying for departure with David in command:

Note the elevator is fully raised – stick right back – and this has the effect (which can be clearly seen) of raising the nose away from the ground, to minimise the chances of a prop-strike (that’s where the propeller chews into the ground). It doesn’t do either the prop or the ground much good if that happens.

Finally for Sierra-Mike, here is the original photo, taken by an unknown photographer, that I use in my blog’s header image. It shows me flying Sierra-Mike down short finals for Runway 26 at Compton Abbas, 14th July 2013:

What is it that I love about the Cessna 152? Well, she has clean lines, a simple, uncomplicated design, docile and gentle handling characteristics, she’s easy yet still fun to fly, stable and reliable, and I am so familiar with the type that when I fly one she, more than any other aircraft type, feels like a part of me, like an extension of my body and senses.

Underside view of G-CEYH ‘Yankee Hotel’, photographed from the road just under the final approach for Rwy 31, Bodmin Airfield. This was on the day I joined the Flying Club there, and I had just done my Club Check flight in this aeroplane. By the time I left, it was someone else’s turn to fly her…

What’s it like to fly a Cessna 152? Well, for starters, here’s the instrument panel on Tango-Oscar, in flight over Teignmouth, Devon, en route to Exmouth at 2,250ft, looking from the passenger seat. It looks complicated at first, but believe me, you soon get used to all those switches and dials. It’s not so much, ‘What does that one do?’, but that you need some information, like ‘How fast are we going?’, and so you know to look at the airspeed indicator, which is the top left dial. Or you need to perform a task, like go into a climb, so it’s throttle to full power (the black knob next to the red Mixture control knob) and up you go. The picture is fully zoomable; click it once to download it to your browser, then click again to zoom, and scroll around as you like. many of the controls are actually labelled with a little caption saying what they do. You might find it interesting to take a closer look.

And another shot, this time a pilot’s eye view of the panel of Yankee-Hotel, again in flight, levelling out at 3,000ft and just finishing the turn on to heading:

And finally, here’s a little video shot by my friend Steve, where you get to see what it’s like to fly in one of these beauties (Yankee-Hotel) in short-field, grass-strip operations from Bodmin Airfield. Startup, taxying, takeoff, then rejoining the circuit (we’d probably been off to bomb Colliford Lake or something), final approach and landing. Points to look for: the building whine of the instrument gyros spinning up; the call of ‘Clear prop!’ before engine start; the bumpy ride on the takeoff roll (grass runway!) transitioning instantly to smoothness as she gets airborne; the final approach with the runway getting bigger; a little bit of sideslip at 5:50, where I dip the nose to lose a bit of excess height, and the extremely quick landing (not as rough as it looks) with hardly any hold-off at all. This was because it was a short-field landing: a landing flown with airspeeds ‘on the back of the drag curve’ at about 55kt or so. This means that as the nose is raised, the airspeed decays very rapidly and the aircraft comes down quite quickly. Which is what you need if you’re on a short runway. We were down, and slowed, and off the runway in 200 yards or less. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!

So, there she is. The Cessna 152, probably my all-time favourite aeroplane to fly, and for reasons that are probably obvious by now!


For more information on the Cessna 152, check out the Wikipedia entry on the type here.

Edit: You could in fact call the Cessna 152 a ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ in that we regularly used them to ‘attack’ the dams on local reservoirs. Tip in towards the target, a shallow dive to pick up airspeed, then race across the water at low level and high speed. Call ‘Bombs away!’ and then a sharp, high-g pull-up into the vertical and climb away. Most exhilarating, tremendous fun, and your grin is fixed for at least a week afterwards.

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DaVinci on Flying

Many people may not know this, but in fact the famous fifteenth/sixteenth-century artist Leonardo DaVinci invented the helicopter.

He designed a vehicle with a large ‘Helical Air Screw’ on top that would use that device to climb up into the air. This is exactly the same principle as the helicopter, which has a large ‘airscrew’ on top – nowadays (specifically on the helicopter) we call it a ‘rotor’, and indeed all such devices like propellers, fans, impellers and rotors are still known today as ‘airscrews’. Any device like a propeller or rotor is esssentially designed to ‘screw’, or drill, its way through the air (or water for a marine propeller), which is why it spins very fast. Leonardo wasn’t just an artist; he was what is known as a ‘polymath’ – someone who is brilliant at lots of things, art being just one of his many talents.

Sadly, most of Leonardo’s concepts, although incredibly far ahead of his time, were essentially not going to work in his time because of the limitations of materials science and power technology. Structurally, the airscrew would likely not have supported the vehicle, and in any case the powerplant – four men turning cranks – would have been insufficient to generate enough thrust to lift the vehicle. Had it been available at the time, not even steam power would have been able to generate enough oomph to lift Leonardo’s helicopter. Indeed, it was only the advent of the internal combustion engine that enabled powerplants to be built with enough power and low enough weight to be used in heavier-than-air aircraft.

And Leonardo also ‘got’ the emotional element of flight too. From the quote I share below, it is apparent that he would have understood the heady feelings of flight and the euphoria it can produce.

once-you-have-tasted-flight-da-vinci

We have a saying that sometimes it takes a week or so for the grin to disapper from our faces after a successful day’s flying.

I think Leonardo would have had the same problem, don’t you?


For more information on Leonardo’s flying machine inventions – and his others, too – click the image below (takes you to a new website in a new tab)

img-helicopter


Of course, Leonardo DaVinci did the odd bit of art as well 😉

Recently, I had a request from the Webmaster of a Leonardo DaVinci art site, to provide a link to their site – so here it is, if you are interested. I’m not necessarily recommending the site or its services, but it looks reasonably bona-fide, and you can definitely view Leonardo’s art there. So I’m just providing the link. Click the Mona Lisa below to go there.

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First Solo

“…and I was being chased by at least three Focke-Wulf 190s…”

“What, in a Tempest? Couldn’t you just outrun them?”

“Well, no, it wasn’t like that you see…..carry on, you’re doing fine….”

What an honour, having veteran flying instructor, senior flight examiner and war veteran Rufus Heald have me fly him for my pre-solo check ride. This is the final check by a senior instructor, to see if he agrees with your Instructor that you are ready to take an aeroplane up by yourself for the first time – the First Solo. And what a real gentleman Rufus was, taking my mind off my nerves by regaling me with war stories – albeit stories about being chased by German fighters!

But I have to be honest and say that in some ways I kind of felt like I couldn’t wait to get him out of the aeroplane so I could go flying by myself for the first time ever. Rufus, if you read this, please accept my apologies, although I am absolutely sure you understand!

‘Any questions?’

‘Just the one, Rufus: if some clot decides to prang a Dash-8 [an airliner] right on the runway intersection, what do I do?’

‘No problem. Just follow the A38 eastwards all the way to Exeter, and land there’

‘Oh, ok, thanks.’ A sobering thought, that; if that happened, then my first solo would turn into my first solo cross-country flight, but fortunately that doesn’t happen. Good job too; I haven’t started my navigation training yet.

‘Right then, off you go and good luck!’

So, once Rufus had hopped out, it’s interesting to see how quickly the flying discipline comes in. Settle down, now; you’ve got to get this next bit right first time, there’s no second chances. Crumbs, this is scary, do I have to do this? Yes, you do; you’ll never be a Pilot unless you do this.

Right then, time to get cracking. Power checks: check clear behind, set 1,200rpm, check both magnetos on, brakes on and oil temperature and pressure (T’s and P’s) in the green, set 2,000rpm and check brakes holding. Select carburettor heat HOT and rpm drop within limits at less than 175rpm, also no rough running and select carb heat COLD and check the rpm recovers to 2,000, Mag drop right – 100rpm; mag drop left – 100rpm. Max drop 125rpm so within limits; difference between drops less than 50rpm (in fact  they were the same) so that’s ok. Mags both on again, suction gauge showing 3″-5″ vacuum, ammeter charging,  T’s and P’s in the green, Idle check – close throttle, 700rpm, that’ll do, reset 1,200rpm.

Now pre-takeoff vital actions: Trimmer set for takeoff, throttle friction nut set, mixture rich, magnetos both on and master switches both battery and alternator on, pitot heat off, primer IS locked, fuel on and sufficient, flaps up, Instruments: Direction Indicator, artificial horizon, altimeter has the QFE set [pressure setting to indicate height above aerodrome level], T’s and P’s again, landing light goes ON and transponder indicating 7000 and set to Mode C, doors and windows secure, straps tight, carb heat recheck then select COLD, controls full and free movement. Call: ‘Golf Tango Oscar, ready for departure’. I know my Instructor, Tim, is watching from the Tower right next to the Air Traffic Controller, in case anything goes wrong and I need any help. Not that he can give direct help; I think that when flying an aeroplane by yourself, you are more alone, and beyond direct help, than you can ever be in any situation on earth. Another sobering thought.

“Golf Tango-Oscar, backtrack line up Runway 31”

“Backtrack line up 31, Golf Tango-Oscar”

Right, this is it, then. Brakes off, and off we trundle from the holding point onto the active runway, rolling along to the far end of the runway and then turn the Cessna on a sixpence to line up. The familiar sight fills my view: the runway stretching off into the distance, promising imminent adventure, exhilaration, concentration and the ultimate in achievement – that of flying an aeroplane in complete defiance of the gravity that has held our ancestors earthbound for so many thousands of years. But this time I’m on my own; there’s nobody sitting in the right-hand seat and I know that the next five minutes or so are the real beginning of my flying career – if I get it right. But surely Tim and Rufus wouldn’t have let me go if they didn’t think I was up to the task?

Without any delay, the Controller’s voice comes in over the R/T: “Golf Tango-Oscar, clear takeoff runway 31, right hand circuit, surface wind three-three-zero, five knots”. Good, that’s the wind more or less straight down the runway, then; no significant crosswind component. “Clear takeoff 31 right hand, Golf Tango-Oscar”. So, hold the aeroplane on the toe-brakes, power to 2,000rpm and check T’s and P’s in the green, then brakes off heels on the floor [so toes away from the brakes] and full power applied smoothly. Everything happens very quickly but this is what I have been trained for. Check full power: 2,500rpm, T’s and P’s in the green, airspeed building, keeping straight using the feet on the rudder pedals and looking for 65 knots and rotate and….”AIRBORNE! Wooohooo!” the shriek of pure delight erupts spontaneously. I’m flying an aeroplane all by myself for the first time ever and the only way I’m going to live through this is if I get everything right. That’s honestly what I thought, you know! Right, concentrate now, five hundred feet, after-takeoff checks: Fuel is on and sufficient, Engine T’s and P’s green, radio tuned to Plymouth and we’ve got our clearances, Altimeter has the QFE in, landing light stays on because we’re staying in the circuit. Crumbs this aeroplane is performing so much better; we’re at circuit height, 800ft, already and only just turned crosswind. Must be because we’re so much lighter with only one person on board. ONLY ONE PERSON on board and I’m flying an aeroplane on my own oh my goodness this is crazy right settle down and remember your training. Set 2,000rpm for 80kt at 800 ft. And you’re going to land in a couple of minutes so you need to do something about that. Right then, turn downwind, level now with the end of the runway and report “Golf Tango-Oscar downwind to land” Just the one circuit for the first solo. “Golf Tango-Oscar, report final”. “Report final, Golf Tango-Oscar”.

Right that’s him told, now let’s do the downwind checks. Brakes are OFF (check them), undercarriage is fixed down, (and now miming the actions) mixture is rich, fuel on and sufficient, flaps up, instruments QFE in the altimeter – and we’re a little high; must be the excess power – T’s and P’s are good, landing light is on still, carb heat check – no rough running – and then selected COLD, hatches and harnesses secure; yours? Oh, there’s nobody in the right hand seat, now isn’t that weird? Aeroplane feels empty…. ok downwind checks complete, runway in my four-o clock position, time to turn base.

So, a neat 90-degree right turn and now I’m on base, the last part of the circuit before my final approach. Immediate actions: carb heat HOT, power back to 1,700rpm and hold the height as the speed decays; we are already within Vfe [maximum flap extension speed] so flaps to 20 degrees and watch the nose come down. Establish 70kt and 500fpm descent and re-trim the aeroplane. Everything’s looking good except that I’m still too high; now at 900ft instead of 800ft. I know exactly why; it’s because I didn’t have the weight of the instructor aboard (how ’bout that!) and so the aeroplane had excess power at 2,000rpm so she was climbing slightly. Anyway, never mind why, what are you going to do about it? Nothing for it but to select full flap; save that until you’ve turned final so you’re not trying to do too much at the same time. Don’t let the aeroplane get ahead of you; you need to stay ahead of the aeroplane all the time. Crumbs the workload is so high in the circuit; no wonder they use it as a First Solo test. If you can do circuits, you can do anything. Looking for 70kt on the airspeed indicator for the final turn; plenty of speed, nice and safe. Slow turns on final are what kills people.

So, lined up on final approach and the call, “Golf Tango-Oscar, finals to land”

“Golf Tango-Oscar clear to land runway 31, surface wind three-three-zero, five knots”

“Clear land, Golf Tango-Oscar”, so now it’s all up to me. Let’s have those flaps now: the full 30 degrees of flap come on and pull the power all the way back and she comes down not quite like a piano, but at least like a dive-bomber anyway. Adjusting the rate of descent with power and the airspeed with the nose attitude, this is precision flying at its best. It has to be if you’re going to arrive properly in the right place. Setting 65kt all the way down final, trim it up, nice and easy, coming down nicely. 300ft: pre-landing final check – Cleared to land, runway is clear, happy with the approach (although still a little above the glideslope, still, I’m doing all I can about that), carb heat goes COLD so the engine can deliver full power in a potential go-around situation. Crumbs I love this stuff. Over the hedge now, looking for 60kt but still a little high, we’re safe as it’s a nice long runway. Flare now, nose up and arrest the descent, aeroplane now just a few feet off the runway and hold her off as the airspeed decays, she sinks and Bump she lands but the airspeed is a little too high and so she comes unstuck again because she still wants to fly and I don’t blame her, but re-establish the hold-off and add just a trickle of power to slow the rate of descent so she doesn’t come down like a safe and Bump she’s down again but this time she stays down. “Golf Tango-Oscar: six out of ten for the first one; seven for the second one”. Cheeky so-and-so; I’d like to see him try and do what I’ve just done. Still, Tim most likely put him up to it anyway; sounds like a Tim comment. “Congratulations, well done!” That’s more like it. I’ve just fulfilled the dream of my entire lifetime and as you can imagine I’m feeling pretty good about it. I am now a Pilot; granted I haven’t got my licence just yet – that is still more than nine months away – but it means that I have just joined that very few select people who have flown an aeroplane by themselves. I am now a member of the ‘Fraternity of Pilots’, and nothing will ever be the same again. The feeling is indescribable and I can tell you that it took approximately ten days for the delighted grin to disappear from my face.

To commemorate my first solo, Tim gave me a certificate to mark this milestone event. And because I flew my first solo on the ‘unlucky’ day of Friday the Thirteenth of September, 1996, and I am so completely and totally unsuperstitious, I asked Tim to annotate my certificate accordingly. Here it is:

first_solo_certificate

As you can tell, that flight is etched indelibly on my memory. They say that you never forget your first solo; twenty years down the line and I can attest to that as a fact.

I know this article is a bit techy, but I wanted to put across as realistically as possible what goes through a Pilot’s mind as he is flying, and also to try to share some of the feelings of concentration, discipline, training, exhilaration and panic that the first solo entails. I hope you have enjoyed it.


Here is a video of a young student pilot doing her first solo. Listen out for her comments, like ‘Holy shit, I’m flying an aeroplane on my own!’ Having read my article, perhaps you can appreciate that a little more easily! This is a great little video which gives an intimate insight into flying a light aircraft solo for the first time. Enjoy!


Header image shows me and my son David departing Bodmin Airfield on 2nd May 2009 in my favourite Cessna 152, Golf Tango-Oscar, the aeroplane I flew my first solo in.

There’s an interesting backstory here. I had to get my Pilot’s licence signed by a senior examiner, and we didn’t have one of those at Plymouth Flying School at the time. So I’m thinking, like, Ok, David, let’s go flying at Plymouth and then drive from there to Bodmin to get my licence signed by Phil the Chief Examiner. Hey, hang on a minute, I’ve got an aeroplane! Why not just fly to Bodmin and take my licence with me? So that’s what we did. First time I’d done a landaway since my solo cross-country qualifier in 1997, and the first time I’d ever done a landaway at Bodmin [apart from some touch-and-goes in ’97 when we had to go to Bodmin because weekend circuits were banned at Plymouth. I was converting onto the PA-28 Warrior and needed some landing practice in one]. It was the warm welcome we got at Bodmin, combined with a great first impression of the airfield and its surroundings, that decided David to do his flying training at Bodmin with Cornwall Flying Club, and then for me to move to Bodmin as my home airfield when Plymouth Airport closed.

The photo shows me performing a classic textbook soft-field take-off: full power, ten degrees of flap, stick right back to get the nose wheel off the ground early and craning my neck to see forward over the cowling. Aircraft gaining speed, looking to lift into ground-effect at about 50kt or so and ‘fly’ about three feet above the runway allowing the airspeed to build to 65kt at which point we rotate into the climb attitude for the climb-away. It all went really well, too….

tango-oscar-at-bodmin-2nd-may-2009

(This photo is clickable to get the full-size picture)

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Boeing B-17 ‘Fortress’

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

….and the 8th Air Force Legacy

Today’s Beautiful Destroyers post is just a little bit different, because not only do I showcase the legendary Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, but I also present a little game you might like to try.b-17e

The B-17 ‘Fortress’ was the mainstay (along with the B-24 ‘Liberator’) of the United States 8th Air Force, flying from bases in the UK during World War II. This aeroplane has long been one of my favourite American aircraft from WWII.

Here’s the mighty B-17G Fortress ‘Sally-B’, one of the (happily) many airworthy examples flying today. She’s dressed up as the legendary B-17F* ‘Memphis Belle’, which was the first Fortress to complete the required 25 missions to enable her crew to return home to the United States.

sally-b

The doctrine which inspired the design and construction of the B-17 was that ‘The Bomber Will Always Get Through’; an inter-war concept whereby bombers would be designed that were so fast and high-flying that fighters (which when the doctrine was formulated, had similar performance to the bombers) would not be able to intercept them. However, by the time the early B-17’s were designed, they knew that the fighters would most likely be able to catch the bombers. And so the Fortress was designed, basically with guns providing all-around firepower protection; defences covering every possible approach angle so that enemy fighters would have to run the gauntlet of heavy defensive fire no matter where they attacked from – hence the nickname ‘Flying Fortress’. And so, with the benefit of this all-round armament, the Fortress was supposed to have been able to make it all the way to the target (The bomber will always get through!), without fighter escort, and defend itself (and its squadron mates, with which it flew in a defensive ‘box’ formation to maximise mutual supporting firepower) all the way to the target and back.

B-17Gs flying in Combat Box formation
B-17Gs flying in Combat Box formation

Of course, however, as with all such combat doctrines, the reality did not match up with the theory. Although at first, the B-17s could indeed get through to the target without serious losses, and deliver their bombs reasonably accurately, this did not last long. On the first daylight bombing mission, on 17th August, 1942, only two bombers suffered minor damage. However, the German fighter leaders of course developed tactics which they used successfully against the Fortress formations. This is what professional soldiers do well; if there is a tactic that works (in this case, massed formations of machine-gun toting bombers), you develop a counter-tactic, and so on. One of the primary such tactics was to attack the bomber formations head-on, where a) the bombers had weaker defensive weaponry (at some angles, just a single machine gun), and b) the closing speed was so high (of the order of 600mph) that accurate fire was difficult. But still the Fortresses had to go in in daylight – the whole idea was that they could actually see the target they were dropping their bombs on, unlike the RAF night raids where the bombers relied on a combination of good navigation and luck in order to hit their targets – if indeed they did hit their targets.

And so they found that the Fortress benefited from a fighter escort almost as well as did the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Both sides had learned that unescorted bombers iin daylight are vulnerable – but still the B-17 was far more capable of defending itself than were the much more lightly-armed German Heinkels and Dorniers they used in the Battle of Britain. In fact it wasn’t until early 1944 that the Fortress got a fighter escort all the way to the target; on the notorious raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg in August 1943, the Fortresses lost nearly ten percent of their strike force, being escorted only about 25% of the way there and for the last 25% of the flight back. In October 1943, the second Schweinfurt mission resulted in such catastrophic losses (about 20%) that these missions in fact foretold the failure of the concept of deep-penetration unescorted daylight raids over Germany, in spite of the Fortress’s heavy defensive armament, and while raids continued unabated for the rest of the War, unescorted deep-penetration raids did not. Not until late 1943 were long-range escort fighters sufficiently long-legged to make it all the way to targets deep in Germany and back.

silver

In fact, eventually, the US long-range escort fighters performed so well that some B-17 crews flew two 25-mission tours without ever seeing an enemy fighter.

The Fortress was held in high regard by its crews, because even though the bombers were regularly clobbered good and proper by both enemy fighters and flak (anti-aircraft fire), they had a reputation for being unbelievably tough.

“There were occasions where, any other airplane, took hits the way it took….wouldn’t’a brought us back…”

“God love ’em. They’d bring you home when you didn’t think you had a prayer, and, … they’d never let you down….”

“When you see what the B-17 went through, in combat, and still make it back home … it was a miracle to me”

Some Forts were indeed able to make it back home with some of the most incredible battle damage; damage that would easily have felled any other combat aircraft in the War. Some examples are given here. This Fortress, for example, was damaged in a collision with a German fighter which tracked its wingtip down across the rear fuselage and took off the left tailplane (horizontal stabiliser) too.

damaged

Or this Fort, where a Flak shell had exploded directly in front of the nose of the aircraft:

b17damaged

…and they incredibly managed to fly that aeroplane home! This, while extreme, is typical of the kinds of damage these areoplanes used to absorb and still survive.

In this picture, you can see the contrails (the white vapour trails) of escorting Allied fighters above the B-17 formation:

contrails

Here’s a lovely picture of a B-17G on its bomb run. Note the spiral contrails induced by the spiral propeller wash.

b17above

And another incredibly atmospheric shot, this time a backlit picture of the propeller tips forming their own slipstream vortices:

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And another beautiful picture of a B-17 formation and its contrails – beautiful but deadly. These contrails made it impossible for the defending German fighters to not see the American formations approaching.

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So, the B-17 Fortress – another Beautiful Destroyer. Loved by its crews, but suffering heavy losses until the advent of 100% fighter escort.


And now for the little game, which I appreciate will only be of interest to WWII geeks 😉 I call this little exercise the ‘8th Air Force Legacy’.

During World War II, several tens of airbases were constructed during 1942-1943, in East Anglia – roughly the area east of Cambridge/Peterborough – in the United Kingdom. These bases were to be home to the tens of thousands of American servicemen whose mission it was to launch daylight air raids into Occupied Europe in order to cripple Nazi Germany’s war machine industry.

Whereas the RAF conducted its bombing campaign at night – largely a fairly indiscriminate ‘terror campaign’ waged against Germany’s civilian population (although many raids were also sent against German industrial targets in areas like the Ruhr Valley) – the US Army Air Force doctrine called for daylight precision bombing – attacks so accurate that the targets would be hit and hit hard.

The bases were placed in East Anglia so that they would be at the nearest practical ‘jumping-off point’ for raids into Europe. Raids began in August 1942 when twelve B-17s of the 97th Bombardment Group attacked the railway marshalling yards at Rouen. Within months, it became common for the skies above East Anglia to be filled with the reverberating snarl of aircraft engines as hundreds of bombers assembled their formations before commencing their long, freezing flights out over Nazi Germany and back again. Visions of the ground crews waiting anxiously for the first sound of approaching B-17s, returning from storms of flak and rivers of bullets. The culmination of the campaign against the Nazi war machine was in August 1943, where two raids were conducted against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, and the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, both deep in Germany, as already mentioned.

These air bases were absolute hives of activity. Thousands of personnel, hundreds of aircraft, thousands of vehicles, tons of ammunition, bombs, fuel, spare parts; busy hangars and repair shops, briefing and canteen facilities, chapels, stores, barracks – each airfield was a small town and was more-or-less self contained.

b-17-over-wartime-control-tower-sm

Many of these bases were closed at the end of the War, some were kept going, but now, over seventy years after the end of the War, there is in some cases little left of these once bustling places. Like navvy shanty-towns, they served their purpose, and were then left to fall into decay. Places full of memory, full of history, are now once again reverted to being farmers’ fields or other uses. Polebrook, Kimbolton, Snetterton Heath, Bassingbourn, Thorpe Abbots. Names that evoke visions of B-17s running up their engines, long grass waving behind in the prop wash, the thunder of engines as the heavily-laden B-17s rumble down the runways and lurch into the air, men playing baseball until the returning bombers could be heard, red flares on final approach to signify that the bomber had wounded aboard, wheels-up landings on one engine….

skippercomeshome

Now, here’s the game. Use Google Maps/Google Earth (satellite view) to search for the place names given below, and see if you can see the bases, or what’s left of them, nearby. Or even just if you can see where they were. As an aid, you can type in the names of the bases into Wikipedia, and get an idea of what the shapes of the airfields were like. In Wikipedia, add RAF in front  – RAF Polebrook, for example. Clue: Most of the airfields had three intersecting runways arranged in a rough overlapping triangle pattern. And take a look at what some of them are used for now – Snetterton Heath is a good example. Also, where possible, try the Google Street View on them – at Rattlesden you can even look along one of the runways that used to be used for B-17s (it’s now a gliding airfield). Would you believe that a very few of these are still active airfields in one form or another!

Here are the names you’re looking for:

Alconbury (an easy one to begin with)
Snetterton Heath
Rattlesden
Knettishall
Bassingbourn
Polebrook
Thorpe Abbotts
Framlingham
Grafton Underwood
Molesworth
Deenethorpe
Glatton
Podington (I think this is a drag-racing track!)
Chelveston (a very hard one!)
Thurleigh
Kimbolton
Ridgewell
Nuthampstead

Each of these bases was near(ish) to the village from which it took its name. Thorpe Abbotts is a bit further away, but that’s part of the fun. Look at the Google Maps from different heights and try to to spot the patterns in the ground. Polebrook is a particularly difficult one, as are Knettishall and Kimbolton. Give it a go and see how you get on. And, as always, comments are welcome 🙂

Good luck!

And finally, I found on the Internet a very moving picture of an unidentified young lady (whose face I have pixellated) walking on a disused runway at one of these old airfields.

Look carefully above her head….

ghost-b-17


*The B-17F didn’t have the chin turret that the ‘G’ had (the twin-gun turret under the nose). The ‘Sally-B’ is a B-17G model.

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The Wonder of Flight

I have realised once again just how incredibly privileged my son and I are to be able to do the things we do (I should add at this point that he’s a Pilot too…). We go to a little grass field in the middle of nowhere, and from there we rise up into the sky and dance among the clouds. What an amazing thing to be able to do! Sometimes I simply can’t believe it, even having been a Pilot for twenty years!

For one and a half million years, all our ancestors could do was to look up and dream of flight. Only for a little over a century has it been possible to do this in a controlled manner. We are so honoured to be a part of that.

I can’t put it better than how it’s said in this uncredited quote:

“The ultimate responsibility of the pilot is to fulfill the dreams of the countless millions of earthbound ancestors who could only stare skyward and wish”


Header picture is of me taking off in Cessna 152 G-BNSM (the same blue aeroplane as in my site’s banner image) from Bodmin Airfield (the field in the middle of nowhere),  on the evening of 21st September, 2014.

Since I wrote this piece, I have begun flying from Exeter International Airport; hardly a field in the middle of nowhere! It’s much nearer to where I live than is Bodmin….

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Why We Fly…

“Flying as God meant it to be…..Wonderful flying weather; looking down on the rolling colourful countryside, English countryside, surely a green and pleasant land. Small cars on small roads passing through small villages and then a larger town with factories; nine till five, hard luck you down there.

“Up here the air is pure and clean. The sheer joy of flight infiltrates the very soul and from above the earth, alone, where the very thought in one’s mind seems to transmit itself to the aeroplane, there is no longer any doubt that some omniscient force understands what life is all about. There are times when the feeling of being near to an unknown presence is strong and real and comforting. It is far beyond human comprehension. We only know that it’s beautiful.”

Geoffrey Wellum, ‘First Light

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Lockheed SR-71A ‘Blackbird’

This entry is part 14 of 16 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

 Without a doubt, the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ has to be one of the most incredible aeroplanes ever built, while at the same time being one of the most beautiful. Few aircraft invoke such a visceral sense of awe amongst aviation enthusiasts as this one does!

She was futuristic, stealthy, and with a performance more akin to a spacecraft than an atmospheric ‘air-breathing’ aircraft.

sr-71 blackbird-jet

Her stated performance was impressive; however, as she was a secret ‘spy plane’, her true performance was not released until after she was retired from service. She holds the ‘official Air Speed Record for a manned air-breathing jet aircraft’ of 2,193 mph (around Mach 3.2; 3.2 times the speed of sound), set in 1976, and a reported ceiling (maximum altitude) of 80,000+ ft (which is all the US Air Force will admit to). However, on the return transatlantic flights of the Blackbirds back to the USA from their deployment bases in the UK, higher figures of 2,275mph were reported (possibly apocryphally!) and altitudes (depending on the source) of between 87,000 and 100,000ft. Of course, even the Blackbird needs sufficient air for the engines to function – it is not a rocket, after all! – and a more reasonable figure of 85,000ft as a designated maximum altitude, with inadvertent flight up to 87,000ft, has been reported, again unofficially*. And she could maintain that performance for over an hour! This is noteworthy since most supersonic aircraft (a notable exception being the Concorde) can only maintain their top speeds for a few minutes at best.

lockheed-sr-71-blackbird-4731-1680x1050

So, an aircraft steeped in mystery, but somehow even more impressive for all that.

The Blackbird, though, unlike all the aircraft I have covered so far in this series, was not an armed combat aircraft. She wasn’t made in order to bomb or shoot anything; she was a reconnaissance aircraft. She was designed to go and look at things in hostile territory, to see what is there. And in order to do that, she had to have a performance that would ensure her survival. Hence, Mach 3.2+ and above 80,000ft, for long enough to make a difference.

Lockheed-SR-71-Blackbird-100

Whereas fast jet aircraft from the Sea Vixen to the Typhoon have been designed in more or less similar ways, essentially including the same conventional technology of other aircraft of the time, in terms of engines, aerodynamics and materials science, what made the Blackbird so special was that she was conceived in a completely different manner and using so many advances not only in technology but also in design philosophy. If you like, the aircraft was designed ‘from the ground up’ to operate in that specific performance envelope. The factor that made the similarly – performing XB-70 Valkyrie obsolete was the rapid advances in surface-to-air missile (SAM) technology, that is, missiles fired from the ground in order to shoot down their targets. The SAMs could now reach fast, high-flying aircraft, and so their threat was what forced other reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of the time to abandon the upper air altogether and rely on low-flying in order to accomplish their missions. This is why all modern air forces practice low-flying. And this is why the XB-70 was abandoned – because her incredible performance had become irrelevant.

But the Blackbird had to be designed in order to operate at such extreme altitudes and speeds, and with the range she required in order to complete her mission, because she simply had to fly high enough to be able to see what she needed to see, because she was a reconnaissance aircraft, and from higher up you can see more. Low level was not an option for the Blackbird’s mission. And so, several design factors had to be built into her from the start, in order to give her the performance she needed to survive in the SAM threat environment.

The first factor was in the Blackbird’s engines. To make things simple, I will eventually put all the technical stuff on a separate page, but basically the Blackbird’s engines were a type of hybrid engine known as a ‘turboramjet’. At high speeds, all of the thrust was provided only by the air intakes and the afterburners, and the actual jet engine in between could be, well, essentially shut down. This produced an incredibly efficient engine in terms of thrust per unit of fuel, far more efficient than the simple afterburning turbojet engine.

Blackbird flying at night with the afterburners showing spectacular shock diamonds

The next factor was of course her speed and altitude performance. Blackbird could fly higher than the XB-70, but even so, it is virtually impossible for a manned combat aircraft, even the Soviets’ MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ interceptor, to intercept an aircraft flying that high and that fast, and then actually get into a position to shoot it down. In addition, Soviet air-to-air missiles (missiles launched from an intercepting aircraft in order to shoot down another aircraft) simply did not have the performance, at those altitudes, to be able to catch a Blackbird.

Which leaves the question of how the Blackbird managed to avoid the SAM threat, when the nearly-equally-performing XB-70 couldn’t.

sr-71-blackbird-4

The SR-71 has the (as far as I know) unique reputation that not one example of the aircraft has been lost to enemy action, even though used operationally in hostile airspace.**  Even though the performance of the SR-71 is similar in many respects to that of the XB-70 Valkyrie, whose development as a manned combat aircraft was discontinued because it would have been vulnerable to interception by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), it was still not vulnerable to SAMs as the XB-70 would have been, despite its blistering performance. This is because the SR-71 had not only powerful electronic jammers to fool hostile radars, but also an excellent combination of stealth technologies including radar-absorbent paint; radar-absorbent material wedges in the leading edges of the stabilisers, wings and fuselage; blended wing/fuselage shape and so on, which gave it the same radar visibility as a small aeroplane like the ones I fly. In other words, it looked tiny on radar.

SR-71A

This meant that the SAM operators would have far less time to alert their systems; in fact, not enough time for any launched SAM to get up to the Blackbird’s altitude. And the same would apply to any defending fighters, for whom their performance (and that of their missiles) would be so much inferior to that of the Blackbird that she would be long gone by the time they got up to anywhere where an air-to-air missile just might be able to bag her.

And so that was how the Blackbird managed to survive the – literally thousands – of SAMs fired at her. A combination of sustained high performance, and stealth technology which together minimised the engagement envelope of the opposing air defence system.

The end of the Cold War signified the deactivation of so much of the Western military; the Blackbirds, however, soldiered on until about 1998. There’s always a need for reconnaissance! There are two airworthy examples which are however no longer operated, but the rest are in museums. Here’s a photo of the example at the USAF museum at Duxford, UK:

sr-71_Duxford

And finally, here’s a lovely poetic piece expressing the sense of wonder engendered by this amazing aeroplane, by the brilliant Jeremy Clarkson:

There we are then. The amazing SR-71 Blackbird – not a Destroyer per se, but beautiful nevertheless.


For a couple of interesting anecdotes about this aeroplane, check out my previous blog posts here and here.


*However, the Blackbird’s Flight Manual, released now to the public, specified that operations above 85,000ft had to be ‘specially authorised’ (whatever that means!) and it is also apparent from that manual that the maximum airspeed depends largely on the external air temperature, in order to maintain the aircraft’s outer skin temperature within safe limits.

**Actually, now I think about it, the Vulcan was used on live combat missions into hostile airspace in the Falklands War of 1982 without losing one to enemy action; however, one was interned in neutral Brazil for nine days when it had to make an emergency landing there due to an aircraft technical fault.

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