Category Archives: Aviation

Vought F-8 Crusader

This entry is part 20 of 20 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

It’s been a while since I have done a post on the Beautiful Destroyers – the ironic observation that some of the most beautiful aircraft ever built were made with the express purpose of breaking things belonging to other people.

Today, I would like to introduce you to the Vought F-8 Crusader.

The Crusader was a carrier-based air-superiority fighter designed in the mid-1950s, and used by the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the French Navy and the Philippine Air Force. A real ‘hot ship’, she was the US Navy’s first real supersonic fighter; previous fighters could go supersonic in certain circumstances (usually a powered dive) but the Crusader could do it in level flight. The Crusader was also known as the ‘Last Gunfighter’ because she was fitted from the outset with four 20mm Colt cannon, in an era where fighter jet designers were moving away from gun-armed fighters and majoring on missile-armed interceptors.

In the Vietnam War, however (1965-1972) the ‘missile-only’ tactical doctrine was revealed as essentially flawed, as North Vietnamese MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters, which were (in the case if the MiG-17s and MiG-19s) much older than the American fighters and indeed almost obsolete, were able to get ‘in close’ and use their guns, where the Americans couldn’t fire back. This was because not only were missiles quite unreliable in those days, but also they were not really designed to be launched from hard-manoeuvring aircraft at small, agile targets. They also had a ‘minimum range’ limitation and could not be launched if the target was too close – because they took time to arm themselves after launch.

For the Crusader, however, this was not a problem, because she already had her guns built-in. Indeed, so successful was the Crusader against the MiGs that the North Vietnamese pilots reportedly had far more respect for the Crusaders than any other American fighter.

It is also worth mentioning that, because of the lessons learned in Vietnam, the majority of today’s ultra-modern fighter aircraft, produced by all nations, now carry at least one internal gun.

So, what is it with the Crusader? Why do I find her so beautiful? Well, there’s the clean, sleek lines, the lovely wing shape, the huge air intake under the nose which suggests a belligerent, aggressive attitude, and to be honest she invokes in me a visceral ‘oomph’ sort of feeling whenever I see a picture one of these lovely aircraft.

And – she just ‘looks’ right! And as the old pilots’ adage goes, if an aeroplane looks right, she will fly right 🙂

She also has some interesting design features, particularly the ‘variable-incidence’ wing. The entire wing can be tilted ‘upwards’ so as to increase the lift capacity of the wing for slow-speed work, particularly when landing on aircraft carriers, which is what this plane is primarily designed for. In addition, since she’s a carrier-based aircraft, she has to be made tough and rugged; landing on an aircraft carrier is an entirely different concept from landing on a runway. I’ve described this in some detail in this article, but suffice it to say that an aeroplane rarely arrives on an aircraft carrier in a gentle manner 😉 The variable-incidence wing is visible in the ‘up’ position in this photo of an F-8 about to snag the arrester cables on its carrier’s landing deck*:

…and here’s a photo of a Crusader just about to undergo a steam catapult launch from its carrier:

The version above is the reconnaisance version of the Crusader, the RF-8; the difference is visible in the absence of the cannon muzzles and the addition of the side-facing camera apertures (the black rectangles on the fuselage of the aeroplane).

Earlier in this series, I posted an article on the Russian Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber, and pictures of various Western interceptors escorting them. The Crusader, of course, also routinely intercepted Bears, often performing reconnaisance over (or near) the aircraft carrier group. Here’s a US Navy F-8 shadowing a Bear:

…and then a lovely shot of a Bear flying right over the USS Oriskany, with its F-8 Crusader escort in attendance:

This sort of mission (for the Bears) would be primarily ELINT – Electronic Intelligence – the gathering of data on the other side’s electronic emissions, such as radar and communications. In those days, if you decided to fly near an American carrier group, you could guarantee that there would be a lot of radars looking at you, a fair bit of radio chatter, and you’d get some close-up photos of the aircraft that they sent up to take a look at you. And this sort of information would be priceless, should you ever need to fight a war against those people whose technology you are checking out. But the ‘defenders’ still need to send up interceptors, just to make sure that the visitors stay out of mischief 🙂

Here’s another shot of an RF-8 reconnaissance Crusader, showing off that lovely wing shape:

And finally, a monochrome shot of the prototype XF8U-1 Crusader, in 1955:

So there she is, the F-8 Crusader. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful of all the Beautiful Destroyers.

Header Picture Credit: Gaetan Marie

*Observant readers will notice that the Crusader in the carrier landing photo does not have its arrester hook extended. This means that the aeroplane will not stop on the deck; rather she will ‘bolter’, US Navy slang for doing a ‘touch-and-go’. The pilot will touch down on the deck, but will not snag a wire; instead, he will pile on the power and take off again. This sort of thing is done in order to practise approaches and landings, but without actually stopping, and it’s a very common practice also in land-based flight training at any level.

For more information on this beautiful aircraft, take a look here.



This entry is part 19 of 20 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

This instalment of ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ is a little different, as I am not showcasing a particular aircraft. Instead, I’m looking at the origins of military aviation and also sharing a lovely piece of music. Enjoy!

As both a military historian and an aviator, I am of course passionately interested in the use of aircraft in military operations – or ‘military aviation’. The history of the military use of aircraft is in itself a fascinating tale of high-end technology (military aircraft have always been at the forefront of technological development), courage, technical skill, determination, tactical development, trial and error, mistakes and success. Of course, warfare is an unforgiving crucible, and because of this it is one of the major motivating factors in the development of technology of all kinds. Military aviation is a prime example of this, if not indeed the pinnacle of modern military technology. It was realised fairly early on in World War I (1914-1918)* that control of the skies was of paramount importance in tactical (and later strategic) warfare. This continues to be axiomatic in modern warfare; he who controls the skies, controls the battle.

But of course it had to start somewhere. The first recorded use of aircraft in military operations was (as far as I know) the use of manned observation kites by the Chinese in the late sixth century – about 594CE. Hot air balloons were first used decisively by the French in 1794; however, although balloons continued to be used for observation purposes for long after, these kites and balloons were of course tethered to the ground and couldn’t really go anywhere. Military aviation therefore really only came into its own during World War I, because with the advent of powered aircraft like aeroplanes and airships, people could actually go more or less where they wanted to go in the skies, rather than having to stay in the same place; this operational flexibility, of course, meant that virtually anything was possible from then onwards. But even then, fully-dirigible (that is, mobile and steerable) aircraft were still in their infancy; airships had been around for only two or three decades, and as for aeroplanes (or ‘flying machines’ as they were often called back then), the first powered aeroplane flight was only in 1903, so the technology was still very much experimental, and flying aeroplanes was very much a hit-and-miss affair (in other words, dangerous) because of this. So it was an historical period quite unlike any other as far as military aviation was concerned.

Having just finished an excellent book on British aerial combat operations in WWI, Fighter Heroes of WWI, by Joshua Levine, I bought the DVDs of the 1970s classic BBC series ‘Wings‘, which for some reason I was completely unaware of at the time (that is, in 1974-76 when it was being shown on TV) – which is a shame as it would have been right up my street. It’s an absolutely superb series with excellent characterisation, engrossing story writing, great acting, historical accuracy and (most importantly to me!) superb and authentic flying sequences. Anyone interested in the early development of military aviation will not fail to be captured by this series; it’s simply brilliant.

And the theme music is gorgeous. In fact, despite my lengthy preamble, this music was actually the main inspiration for this post today – it is simply lovely. It has a nostalgic ‘music-hall’ feel to it, with a beautiful chord structure and bass-line, and above all, a catchy and poignant melody. And I recommend you listen to it on headphones if possible, in order to catch all the lovely nuances.

So, here we are – the theme music from ‘Wings‘, composed by Alexander Faris:

Gorgeous. Hope you liked it!


The theme music for the series ‘Wings‘ was released as a 45rpm vinyl record in 1977, and since first writing this article, I have managed to buy one. You can pick up a copy of your own from Amazon if you like; click the cover graphic below to go to the sales page:

In case they have sold out, here is the title track as an orchestral arrangement, digitised from the A-side of the record:

During one of the early episodes in Series 1, some of the characters in the screenplay can be heard singing a military-style pub drinking song to the same tune. Since I like to have the lyrics for any songs I really like, I was delighted to find that the B-side of the record contained this vocal arrangement, entitled ‘A Sussex Lad’, which is the same song that the characters sang in the episode. The whole feel of the song is just so World War I; it’s a perfect song for the series:

And finally, here are the lyrics so you can sing along:

I’m a gentle lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s light and free
So a frown did pass across my brow
When my girl said to me
“They are fighting on the land, Jack,
And they’re fighting on the sea
Will you be a sailor-boy
Or will you join the New Army?”

I’m a loyal lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s brave and free
But the Sergeant-Major’s language, Lord!
It simply horrified me!
And I would not joint the Navy
For I’ve never liked the sea
So I put my brave heart to the test
And joined the RFC

I go skimming the tops of the mountains
And soaring all over the sea
I think of my girl as I’m flying
And I know she is thinking of me

I’m an airborne lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s flying free
I’ve a pair of wings upon my chest
My girl’s so proud of me
They can keep the Royal Navy
They can […] the infantry
For the sky is now my pasture
It’s an airman’s wings for me!

I’m a daring aviator
And I fly so skilfully
But my aeroplane lacked common sense
And crashed into a tree
Now my wings are lying broken
And my girl she weeps for me
For I’ve left this world and God’s unfurled
These angels’ wings for me

The inclusion of this blog post in my series ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ was apt, I thought, because it describes the very early origins of military aviation. Without the tireless efforts of those pioneers of the past, our ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ would never have existed.

The aeroplane in the header picture is a flying replica of a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c, the mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, when the series ‘Wings’ is set. A very stable aeroplane, and ideal for its designed purpose of reconnaissance (being a stable camera platform), it was not really designed to fight other aircraft; the idea of aeroplanes fighting each other hadn’t really been thought of when this aeroplane was designed! The image is a direct screenshot from the opening titles of Series 1 of ‘Wings’. I’m not sure there are any replicas still flying nowadays; remember this series was made in the mid-1970s 🙂

*Hostilities in World War I, known at the time as the ‘Great War’, ceased when the Armistice was signed on the 11th November, 1918. The War was formally ended in June, 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles. This explains why the dates on some war memorials say 1914-1919.


A Magical Evening’s Flying

Well, after the wonderful night flight I did back in November, I went ahead and trained for my Night Rating to add to my Private Pilot’s Licence. I’ve already been flying on my new Rating, with my daughter Ellie – who absolutely loved the night flying – but I also wanted to go up again for some practice flying in order to consolidate my night training. Plus, I just love it!

I’ve tried to do more night flying since just after Christmas, especially wanting to take up my son David (who is also a Pilot), to let him have his first night flight, but the weather has been completely unsuitable for any kind of flying lately, let alone Night Flying, which needs a certain set of weather conditions in order to be viable*. But this week I was fortunate to have picked an evening where there was a ‘window’ of perfect flying weather, so off I went.

Here’s the aeroplane I fly, Piper PA-38 Tomahawk G-RVRL (“Romeo – Lima”), on the South Apron at Exeter International Airport, Devon, UK, which is where I fly from:

(Note: All the photographs in this post are fully zoomable; just click them to get the larger image)

I got there deliberately early so I could preflight the aeroplane in the daylight. I had her booked for a three-hour slot but that was fine – I wasn’t ‘hogging’ the aeroplane – as nobody else seems to want to do night flying at the moment. I don’t think they know what they’re missing… Anyway, ‘official night’ in the aviation world begins 30mins after local sunset, so I had plenty of time to inspect the aircraft and get her ready. For instance, in the above picture, the wing flaps have been lowered so that I can examine their condition, the hinges and control linkages, and check them for correct and symmetrical operation. You don’t just jump into an aeroplane and go flying! I have seen many Pilots – some of whom should have known better – simply check the oil and fuel and then off they go. But not me. I have a reputation for being an extremely safe Pilot and I want to keep it that way. I always perform a full (what’s called a) ‘Check Alpha’ on every aeroplane I fly. Every detail is checked, from the flaps to the fuel to the fire extinguisher to the first aid kit; my life depends on that aeroplane working properly and I leave nothing to chance, especially at night.

So, after preflighting the aeroplane, I started her up and ran the engine for a few minutes to warm it up a bit. As dusk fell and ‘official night’ drew closer, I performed all my power checks and pre-takeoff vital actions at my parking spot, so I’d be ready to go on time. This is the view from the Captain’s seat (the left hand seat) across the South Apron, just after sunset. Perfect for flying: good visibility, high cloudbase, and virtually no wind.

So, performing a night take-off, I climbed away from the airport and set course for Torbay, one of the most beautiful and scenic parts of the local area. All these pictures were taken with my phone’s camera, and the light was pretty dim; the phone has made the pictures make it look lighter than it actually was. But then that’s better, because then you can see what’s there…

Here’s the view from over Dawlish, looking south with Teignmouth in the foreground and Torbay in the distance. The dusk sky was absolutely beautiful, as you can see:

Looking over to the north-northeast, the lights of Exeter are visible in the growing twilight. The Exe estuary is just visible as a lighter blue patch to the right of the picture.

A few minutes later, coming up on Torquay. Torquay is the ‘capital’ town of Torbay, in the area known as the ‘English Riviera’. You can see the Marina and harbour bottom centre, with the lights of all the boats lined up at their moorings. The next town around the Bay is Paignton, and the pier is easily visible, all lit up over the water.

Directly ahead, and on the opposite side of the Bay, is the fishing port of Brixham. Paignton Pier is visible to the right, and if you know where to look (on the zoomed photo) you can just see the beginnings of the flash of the lighthouse at Start Point. As you can see, despite it being dark, the visibility is tremendous, being able to see all the way to Start Point, the southeastern tip of Devon.

A bit of a different view, now; looking out to the east and over the English Channel. Each of those small white lights shows the position of a ship or boat on the water. And of course it’s darker in that direction.

A couple of minutes after I took this photo, I inadvertently flew into cloud. At night, it’s so dark up there that you can’t always see the clouds before you’re into them. Suddenly, you can’t see the ground anymore, and you are surrounded by a silver-grey flickering, billowing mist, illuminated by the flashing wingtip strobe lights on the aeroplane. But this is easily remedied in that you go straight on to instruments (which, at night, you’re doing for much of the time anyway) and do a gentle, level 180-degree turn out of the cloud. After only 90 degrees of turn, I was clear of the cloud anyway – it must have been only a small one – but in order to prevent any further cloud incursion, I descended 300ft or so in order to be sure I was completely clear of the cloudbase. This illustrates the sort of quick decision-making, forward thinking and real-time tactical planning that is essential in all flying, but particularly at night.

Over the middle of Paignton, now, this slightly blurry photo is of the main crossroads on Torbay Ring Road, known as ‘Tweenaway Cross’. The famous tourist attraction, Paignton Zoo, is just below the orange area at the bottom of the picture (the orange area is a supermarket car park (Morrisons)). Note how the little remaining light from the sky reflects off the aeroplane’s wing…

The night was completely dark not long after that shot. Although the moon was up, it was only just over half-full and didn’t really illuminate all that much on the ground, if anything.

Thoroughly enjoying myself, I was struck once again by the wonder of flight, and night flying in particular. This was the sort of flight where I simply didn’t want to come down!

It’s almost surreal, and, if you think about it, almost counterintuitive. Here we are, tanking along at what amounts to nearly a hundred miles an hour, over half a mile above the ground, and I can’t really see where I’m going, and yet it all works. Incredible! I suppose there’s nothing to actually run into up here; even other aeroplanes are easy to spot because, like mine, they have lights on them and also I have a radar service from Exeter Radar – kind of like an extra pair of eyes, if you like. But tonight, apart from a few airliners being directed in to Exeter, I’m the only aeroplane up here. It’s all very quiet and quite beautiful.

Heading back up towards Exeter from Torbay, I flew over Newton Abbot, and took this picture of the Penn Inn flyover, part of the South Devon Expressway. This is a long-awaited road that has transformed the transport links in this area, and it has been open for just over two years. Prior to the opening of the Expressway (also known as the Kingskerswell bypass), road users from Torbay and all the areas beyond had to queue through the town of Kingskerswell, adding at least half an hour to their journeys. This road has opened up the area like nothing else. And here’s what it looks like at night:

Finally, here’s a photo of the final approach into Exeter’s Runway 26, with all the lights and whatnot. This photo was taken back in December by my daughter; because I was by myself on my latest flight, I couldn’t have taken a photo myself at this point, having my hands full with the landing and all. Features to note are the approach lights (the yellow lights laid out like a Christmas tree) which help the Pilot line up properly with the runway, the green threshold lights, showing the start of the runway, the main flarepath lights which show the runway itself, and the short row of four lights to the left of the runway. These are what’s known as ‘PAPI lights’ (Precision Approach Path Indicator) and they show you if you are on the correct glideslope. Two white and two red means you are on slope, like in the picture. If you are too high, more of the lights turn white; if you are too low, they turn red. So four reds is way too low, four whites is way too high. Part of the night rating training is to learn how to land without the approach lights, and/or without the PAPIs, to help the trainee learn how to land at night in the event of failure of those particular lights, and also to learn how to land at aerodromes that do not have those kinds of lights (not all do). However, if the main runway lights are unserviceable, you’re talking diverting to another aerodrome because those lights really are essential for a safe landing. The others are just trim; they make things easier but they are not essential.

So, there we have it. An absolutely magical flight for me, some lovely photos (although flying at night does make it harder for the Pilot to do photos; better if he has a camera-armed passenger!) and a safe landing at the end. In fact, it was one of the best landings I have ever done, and in the dark as well! I think it’s going to take me at least a week to lose these euphoric feelings that happen when I fly, and especially at night. Walking back across the airfield from the aeroplane to the flying club, I was actually laughing out loud with the sheer joy of it all. Thankfully it is a huge, dark airfield, and there was no-one nearby to hear 😉

Once the nights get lighter, and night flying falls off the end of the airport’s opening times, I will be daylight flying again right up until the autumn. I will really miss night flying at that time; I really love it and to be honest there’s nothing quite like it. So I am going to get in as much night flying as I can before the cutoff around Easter!

Love it!

Header picture shows the Teign estuary all the way from Teignmouth to Newton Abbot, and the glorious sky beyond.

*Ok, I will explain: in night flying, I still have to fly under what’s called ‘visual flight rules’ or VFR. This means I still can’t fly in cloud (although sometimes I might inadvertently enter a cloud – like in this story – because you just can’t see them at night). For that reason, not only does the weather at Exeter have to be good enough for VFR flying, but also the weather forecasts at my planned diversion airfields, and the en-route weather to those airfields. Why is this more exacting at night than it is in daylight? Well, it’s because, in daylight, if you have a problem at your home aerodrome (say someone’s pranged an airliner and blocked the runway, or there’s a terrorist incident or something that closes the airport), in a pinch you can just land in a field if necessary; it’s called a precautionary landing. At night, you can’t even see the fields. As you can see from the photos in this piece, even when it’s still twilight, everything that isn’t a town or road is simply black and you can’t see what’s actually there. And so, in case such an aerodrome closure event occurs, you have to plan to be able to fly to another major airport that has runway lighting; in my case that would be Bristol, Bournemouth, Cardiff or Newquay-Cornwall. Or, if Dunkeswell are doing night flying, I could go there (it’s only ten miles away). So you see the planning and weather briefing has to be much more detailed for night flying. Of course, that’s all part of the training…

Talking of precautionary landings, one wag once told me that if you have to do one at night, you switch on your landing light (it’s like a small car headlight) and take a look. If you don’t like what you see, you switch it back off again… 😉



Arctic Intercept!

My friend Toby pointed me in the direction of this article, from the website UK Defence Journal:

“The Royal Air Force will reportedly be on high alert in the coming weeks in order to track cargo flights from the Arctic region.

“The move has been prompted by an incident around a year ago in which Typhoon aircraft escorted a Lapland registered aircraft (flying from the Arctic region) over the UK’s major cities, the pilot of the craft was said to be under the influence of alcohol and very “festive”, this is especially dangerous due to the sheer volume of cargo the aircraft was carrying. This is expected to happen again.

“An MoD spokesman had this to say:

‘ “Interception is part of what the QRA* force do. We have to identify and confirm who or what is flying through our airspace or approaching our airspace and since the craft appears at the same time each year, we have a fairly good idea who will be flying but we don’t take any chances.” ‘

“The Ministry of Defence used satellites with infra-red sensors to track the aircraft last time this happened, it is understood that the heat from an animals red nose was clearly visible and it was at this point RAF aircraft began escorting the bright red aircraft over every British city, town and village.

“More on this as it develops.”

Here’s the link to the original article.




In case you haven’t got it yet, it’s a joke. I won’t spoil it for you; go and read it again if you didn’t ‘get’ it.




Of course, it’s about Santa Claus. Father Christmas. Yep.


I do think it’s sad that at this time of year, so many religious people moan and protest about Santa and about the emphasis on him, rather than on the ‘Reason for the Season’: Jesus Christ. They trot out ‘Put the Christ back into Christmas’; ‘did you know that ‘Santa’ is an anagram of ‘Satan’ ‘, and other such tired phrases. What happened to the joy of celebrating that God gave us the ‘Gift’ of His Son, to show us how much He loves us? And then there’s the classic religious conundrum: How does a Christian family approach the unavoidable problem of the Santa story? Do we ‘lie’ to our kids and tell them he exists? Will they feel betrayed when they find out the ‘truth’? What about their friends who believe in Santa; do they tell them the ‘truth’ as well? Well, let me tell you our story first.

Y’see, I can really identify with that RAF story I led with, spoof though it is 🙂 Because I must confess that when my eldest son, David, was a toddler, at the beginning of 1991, we jokingly told him that Santa had been shot down over Iraq…  😉 As the story went, he had been clobbered by a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile homing on Rudolf’s nose…

But it wasn’t as bad as it sounds! David already knew it was a joke. You see, our view as a young family in those days with regard to the Santa stuff – and don’t forget I was really ‘religious’ back then – was that we never told our David and his brother Richard (born in 1987 and 1989 respectively) that Santa exists, but we however did tell them that other kids believed in him, so it was our secret that he was not real – and that they were not to tell their friends. In this way, the boys had a secret that they knew they had to keep, so we involved them in the Santa myth in a passive sort of way. The point that it was a secret meant that they kept it to themselves with great joy – the ‘we know something you don’t know’ principle! And so they already knew that Santa had not perished by enemy action; that was how they knew it was a joke – or at least David did. Rich was only 19 months old at that point…

For my daughter Ellie, though, born nine years after Richard, we had matured somewhat, and we decided to ‘let’ her believe in Santa right up to the point where she asked us if Santa was really ‘you two’. She was about ten years old when she rumbled us. And we ‘fessed up, of course. She wasnt fazed by it at all; she had really outgrown it by the time she worked it out. And she never suffered any psychological damage; the Santa myth was useful for her childhood.

How? Well, you see we ‘adults’ look at this question with the black-and-white ‘logic’ of, at least for some of us, ex-Evangelicals. We see it as being either lies or truth. But kids’ minds don’t work that way. Kids routinely enact fantasies that they know full well are untrue, but the fantasy thing is simply a game to them. It’s probably even more than that too; at that age they are developing the ability to think and develop ideas of their own, and fantasies are all part of the way that they test reality. For that reason, amongst others, I would say that a belief in Santa is actually healthy…even if as they grow up, they realise all the incongruencies and inconsistencies – how does Santa manage to deliver toys to over a billion kids in eight hours without waking up all the kids (even the good ones!) with a sonic boom – all this does is to help them differentiate between fantasy and reality; fact and fiction. Comic books and superheroes do the same thing. They know it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter; it’s fun – and that’s the main thing.

But also that knowledge and ability to distinguish fantasy and reality mean that we can still indulge, as adults, in fantasy, even just for a little escapism. I know full well that what Spiderman can do is impossible – but that doesn’t stop me enjoying a Spiderman film *precisely because* I know it’s all made up.

And then, to bring it full circle, I also think that an ease with fantasy actually helps us cope with the ‘fantastic’ – in the sense of it looks like fantasy – truth of our real Superhero, Jesus. He is the One of Whom all these other guys with ‘magical powers’ – Santa, Superman, the Hulk – are but a reflection. An ease with such earthly fantasy therefore makes it easier to grasp the real supernatural world, much of which we can indeed only access by imagination, and not entirely through empirical experience. I have previously written on this idea here, using the Star Wars universe as my model.

Of course, the decision of how to approach the Santa story is entirely up to parents. And, partly because of the reasons I have put forward here, amongst others (especially that it’s none of anyone else’s business), there are as many different outcomes to this as there are families. Each family needs to decide these things on an individual basis, based on their own views, beliefs, philosophies, personalities, relationships and needs, and without recourse to others’ opinions. Especially where those opinions involve guilt-tripping and condemnation. While, for some reason, this is the sort of subject on which feelings can run pretty high, yet people also need to respect each other’s stances on these often sensitive decisions.

For a most interesting piece on this subject, I’d also like to recommend a post by my friend Tim, author of the blog ‘Jesus Without Baggage‘, which served as a primary inspiration for this present piece, along with the discussion afterwards, in which I took part. You will no doubt recognise most of my ideas in this piece in that discussion.

Click the graphic below to go to the article, where Tim talks about five different ways that people approach the Santa story:

And while on that subject, here’s a tip for any fellow bloggers reading this: I have had some of the best inspirations, for my blog articles, from discussions resulting from others’ blog posts. This is mainly because it gets you to think about things that you might not normally think about, you form new opinions, and you see things from different angles, including the viewpoints of others. This is a great way to build wisdom and maturity! Try it!

Finally, back to old Rudolf:




I think that’s brilliant. Of course, there was an explanation for it. It’s just a bunch of guys setting up a Christmas display in a shopping mall in Hull, Yorkshire, UK. Here’s what it looked like when it was finished:

So you see he didn’t really kill them. It was all just a fantasy 😉

*QRA stands for ‘Quick Reaction Alert’; an originally Cold War term referring to interceptor fighters ready to scramble (launch) against an incoming threat – like a Soviet bomber or reconnaisance aircraft. There are pictures of QRA fighters intercepting Russian ‘Bear’ reconnaisance bombers on this page.



Night Flying

A couple of evenings ago, I had an awe-inspiring flight that was a major first in my flying career.

I went for my first ever flight at night. With an instructor, of course.

At the moment, my licence only allows me to fly in daylight. In order to fly at night, I would need to add a Night Rating to my licence, which simply involves a short theoretical and practical flying training course and then five solo takeoffs and full-stop landings at night.

I have been thinking about going for my night rating for a good while now, shall I/shan’t I, will I like it, what if it’s really hard, what if I get all disorientated? The inspiration for the night flying came from one of those moments where I was standing in my garden at home and looking up at the brightly moonlit clouds above, and thinking, “I would love to fly up there in that sky!” And so was born the idea of training for my first additional rating in all my 20+ years of flying.

So I decided to go for a short hop with an Instructor and see how I liked it. As it was an instructional flight, I planned on flying the aeroplane for the entire flight, right from moving off from the apron to the final shutdown, as far as it was possible given that I had never flown at night before.

So, first, we had a little bit of a briefing, where Ollie (my Instructor) gave me some important points about the differences involved in flying at night as compared to daylight flying, and I asked a few questions. Then it’s engine startup and off we go.

The first thing I noticed was that it is really hard to read my checklist in the pitch black. I had brought my torch and used it, but I made a mental note that next time I would put a red filter on my torch so as to avoid loss of night vision.

So, engine start as normal, call the Tower, and then taxy the aeroplane to the holding point just short of the runway for the power and pre-takeoff ‘vital actions’ checks. The taxiways are lit with blue lights at the edges and green lights down the centreline, and there are two bright yellow flashing lights to mark the holding point. This wasn’t all that difficult although I did notice a tendency to overcontrol on the steering because of the lack of visual references. But essentially it was no harder than driving a car at night. Lining up on the runway, though, was a bit different because there were no cues at all apart from the white lines on the ground. All the lights on aerodrome surfaces are carefully aligned to cause minimum inconvenience by dazzle and maximum benefit for the different stages of flight. To be honest I don’t remember if I could see the main runway edge lights (the flarepath), but we were quickly cleared for takeoff so it’s off we go.

The takeoff itself was easy, not all that different from a daylight takeoff, but I think I would have found it hard in a crosswind, again because of the lack of visual cues. These visual cues are something that I have taken for granted in daylight flying, because everything is visible all around me and I don’t even think about it. At night, though, the default setting is that everything is black, everywhere, unless it’s a city or a road. But the wind was calm; a nice fine and quiet night weather-wise, just perfect for a night air experience flight.

In fact, the feeling is quite surreal as the aeroplane lifts off and I begin the climbout, just like I would in daylight, but relying on the instruments to maintain the correct airspeed and attitude. Everything is black, except for the bright lights of Exeter and its surrounding towns, and the bright car lights on the nearby M5 motorway, one stream of red tail lights, the other of white headlights. It’s rush hour so the roads are busy and easily visible even where there are no street lights, and the feeling is like climbing up into a huge black velvet coal sack but with all these islands and rivers of coloured lights (mainly orange, red and white) lighting up patches on the ground. Fortunately I know the geography of the local area really well so I am not fazed at all by thinking, like, ‘Where am I?’. That’s one major thing I don’t need to worry about.

The City of Exeter at night, seen from above Dawlish Warren at 2,500ft

I notice also that large water features, like the two major estuaries of the Exe and the Teign, actually reflect light from the sky that I didn’t even know was there; the Moon has not yet risen so the sky is lit mainly by starlight and a little bit of city glow, though not all that much as Devon is really very rural. In fact, I have read many times that water features are one of the best aids to night navigation, and now I can see why. Yeadon, my old home town near Leeds, has a lake near it that they had to drain during the War, because it is only a mile from a factory where they used to build Lancaster bombers. The lake would have been a major landmark that would have enabled German night bombers to attack the factory with some fair degree of accuracy. And the sea, of course, is a major feature around my current area, although it appears much darker than the rivers for some reason…but again it’s easily found because the coastal towns define the coastline really well. And there are all these little white lights dotted around that show where boats are located. You can see one just below the middle of this photo of Exmouth, taken from over Dawlish Warren at 2,500ft (photo is clickable for full-size image):

But the most striking feature, again, is the blackness. Everything is black apart from the towns and roads, and the rivers. In fact the feeling is like that of everything being almost abstract; it’s like I’m not really flying but instead I’m using a flight simulator or something. Because the aeroplane, once trimmed up, basically flies herself, all I need to do is to look out at the view and occasionally check the instruments for height, heading and speed. I know I’m above the MSA (minimum safe altitude) so I’m not going to run into anything. Other aircraft are easy to spot as they have flashing lights on them. In a lot of ways, despite the lack of a visual horizon reference, this is much easier than flying in the daylight. Quite a paradox.

And I can see. Although most of the ground is dark, I notice that there is actually enough light to see by due to the starlight, now that my eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark.

Straight away I notice that I am flying the aeroplane much more precisely and carefully, being careful not to risk disorientation by abrupt attitude changes, and paying much more attention to the instruments and what the aeroplane is doing. When flying, it’s really important to keep ahead of the aircraft at all times; to be proactive rather than reactive, so I am concentrating hard and thinking well ahead because at night it is so much more vital to be ahead of your game. Any tendency of the aeroplane to drift off course or change its attitude has to be seen and acted on early so that it does not ‘develop’. This is probably the most precise flying I have done in a long while.

Coming back to the airport, Ollie points out landmarks that will be useful for me when trying to find the aerodrome by myself. How does one lose a huge field with a 2,064-metre runway? Quite easily, actually 🙂 But the airport does indeed appear as advertised, and I position for a left-hand downwind join for Runway 26. Doing everything slowly, carefully and precisely, I fly a very nice downwind in all this blackness; several landmarks are available to help me in this regard but I also need to make sure that I am well clear of high ground to the east of the airport and below the place where I am going to do the base turn. Downwind checks complete, and turning base, then, at about 1,100ft, the runway approach lights gradually become more visible as a dim string of yellow dots as I prepare the aeroplane for landing. Turning for final approach, the runway is lit up gloriously – I have done dusk flarepath landings before, so the sight is familiar – but in between the flarepath lights, the runway surface itself is totally black.

Photo (not mine, credit goes to ‘Golfcharlie’ as signed on the picture) of the approach lights at Exeter as seen from a Beechcraft Duchess twin-engined training aeroplane. The main runway lights are actually white, not red as they appear in this photo.

I’ve been briefed by Ollie on when to ‘flare’ (the point where you arrest the descent); apparently it’s when the runway lights appear to be coming up around my ears. So I flare and prepare to hold off, but the aeroplane touches down straight away for a real greaser of a landing; almost perfect – except that it was pure fluke. I didn’t expect the aircraft to land so soon; normally she needs to be held off the runway until she stalls gently on from about 8-12 inches above the runway. Again, the lack of visual cues is something I’m going to have to learn to deal with.

I was surprised in that I actually flew the entire flight myself, with the exception of a minute or two where Ollie took over so I could take the two photos featured in this blog post, and the whole flight was easy, if a little surreal. But the precision flying I will have to perform will do nothing but good for my flying technique.

And so my training starts on Monday, weather permitting. For the first time in 20 years, I will be undergoing a flying training programme. I did have a lesson or two a couple of years ago, where I learned things like radio navigation and such, but this will be the first really new formal flying training program that I have done since completing my PPL in 1997. Once again, I will have to summon all my courage, discipline and determination to make this work. The courage to face new and potentially dangerous situations, the discipline of concentration and excluding all extraneous thoughts from my fizzing Aspie mind; and the determination to overcome all the obstacles to learning that I will likely encounter, and come through with my shiny new Night Rating. It will be really freeing to be able to not worry about whether or not I am down before sunset. And I love the flarepath landings; it’s all very pretty.

Outside the local supermarket yesterday evening, I looked up into the black sky and thought, “Crumbs, I flew in that last night!” Well, hopefully I’m going to be doing a lot more of it over the winter months.

Wish me luck!


North American F-86 Sabre

This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

The F-86 ‘Sabre’ is certainly one of the most beautiful aeroplanes from the Cold War era, and is an icon of the classic jets genre.

First used in combat in the Korean War, the Sabre soon proved itself to be the best of the fighter aircraft in the United Nations’ arsenal, and it was the only fighter capable of facing the North Koreans’ MiG-15 fighters on equal terms. Other fighters fielded by the UN were either slower piston-engined prop jobs like the F-51 Mustang, or straight-wing jets such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Gloster Meteor, which were a good deal slower than the MiG-15.

But the Sabre was fast (it was just supersonic in a shallow dive), manoeuvrable, had good visibility from its bubble canopy, and was often flown by experienced combat veterans who had fought in WWII. In many ways, the Sabre and MiG-15 were virtually equal aircraft, each with strengths and weaknesses with respect to the other, very much like the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109 were in the Second World War. Here are a preserved Sabre and MiG-15 seen together at an airshow in the USA (photo is clickable to magnify):

But the Sabre is just plain beautiful, and that’s one reason why I’m featuring it in ‘Beautiful Destroyers‘.  Look at those lovely clean lines, the perfect wing sweep angle, the sleekness of the curves of the fuselage…this is a beautiful aeroplane in the same league in the beauty stakes as the Hawker Hunter.

In the photo above, you can clearly see the ‘bubble’ shape of the canopy; this gave the pilot an excellent all-round field of view; this is very advantageous in close-in air combat. There is an old fighter-pilots’ adage: ‘He who sees, wins’ and the Sabre’s canopy certainly fits the bill for that purpose.

Armed with six 0.50″ machine guns, the Sabre packed quite a punch – the six 0.50-cal machine guns were a proven weapons fit from the Second World War – but they did not have quite the range of the cannon with which the Soviet fighters like the MiG-15, and jet bombers like the Ilyushin-28, were armed.

Indeed the early Sabres were in some ways some of the last of the gun-only armed aircraft; changes in the performance of jet bombers meant that there had to be new developments in air-to-air combat that would enable fighters to bring down Soviet bombers which had nearly as good speed and altitude performance as the fighters that would be trying to stop them in the event of a war.

Eventually, the ability to stop fast jet bombers was realised by the advent of air-to-air guided missiles; indeed the Sabre was one of the first aircraft to be fitted with early versions of the AIM-9 ‘Sidewinder’ heat-seeking missile. But in the meantime, other methods had to be developed to enable interceptors to attack enemy bombers without being exposed to withering cannon fire from the tail turrets of aeroplanes such as the Tu-95 ‘Bear’. (Remember that at this time in history, the ‘Cold War’, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present, and the West and the East both poured tons of money into developing effective defences against enemy nuclear-armed bombers). The temporary stop-gap measure adopted by the USA and Canada, at least, was to arm their interceptor jets with many unguided ‘folding-fin aerial rockets’ (FFARs) which had explosive warheads but which had to actually hit their targets directly in order to cause damage. A good number of these rockets were carried by various interceptors, from 24 in the F-86D (below) and F-102A, to a massive 108 FFARs in the Northrop F-89D ‘Scorpion’. The idea was to attack enemy bombers using a single head-on pass, using a specialist radar-guided attack computer which launched all the FFARs at the target in one (hopefully devastating) salvo. Hopefully, the combination of reasonably accurate aiming and the ‘shotgun’ effect of having so many FFARs in the air at the same time, would bring down the enemy bomber before it got to its target. That’s what interceptors are supposed to do.

And so was born the F-86D ‘Sabre Dog’; the FFAR-armed interceptor version of the F-86. The inclusion of the fire control radar and the retractable rocket tray meant that the airframe shape was nowhere near as graceful as the gun-armed F-86s, but I suppose it was for a reason and it did its job. The F-86D was never intended for fighting against enemy fighters, though; its entire armament for its mission was based around the single salvo of FFARs, to be used to intercept a single enemy bomber. You only got the one shot. Here is the F-86D, and another shot showing its retractable rocket tray, which was just under the cockpit:

The big black dome on the nose of the Sabre Dog (which I feel spoils its lines!) is the radome containing the fire control radar for the FFAR aiming computer. Here’s another shot of the whole FFAR salvo going off:

Impressive though that looks, this technique is of questionable value at best; it was appallingly inaccurate, and it was fortunately never really necessary to use it for real, in this role at least. (See the Wikipedia article on FFARs for more on this)

Now, this is more like it. Here is a gorgeous painting of an F-86 punching off its drop-tanks as it prepares to engage a North Korean MiG-15:

Drop tanks were an idea from the Second World War, where fighters could extend their range by carrying extra fuel in external tanks. Because these external tanks increased the weight and drag of the aeroplane, they could be dropped, or ‘punched off’, as the enemy was sighted, hence the name ‘drop tanks’.

The fighter would then be lighter and cleaner and better able to engage the enemy. The idea was that you would use the fuel from the drop tanks first, so that the tanks would hopefully be empty by the time you ran into trouble and jettisoned them. Or, if you didn’t make contact with enemy aircraft, you could just bring the tanks home empty and use them again.

The Sabre served with many nations’ air forces , including the Royal Air Force, for many years and in many operational theatres, with the last ones being retired from service in the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.

So, there she is; the F-86 Sabre. Beautiful lines, sleek, fast and deadly. A ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ for sure.


Aerobatics with Lauren Richardson

The other day, I was privileged to meet Lauren Richardson, aerobatic display Pilot and former British Female Aerobatics Champion. Lauren performs her superb routine, in her customised Pitts Special S1-S aeroplane, at airshows all over the  UK, before crowds of tens of thousands of people or more.

Lauren flying her Pitts Special aeroplane in a classic ‘knife-edge’

I also got to meet her partner, Simon Wilson, who is himself an accomplished diplay Pilot,  displaying the vintage Percival Provost at airshows all over the UK.

The gorgeous Percival Provost at Torbay Airshow, flown by Simon Wilson

Lauren and Simon are well-known in the British airshow circuit for their highly professional, sparkling displays of these two classic aircraft; displays that are so different (although both aerobatic) and each riveting each in their own unique way. Apart from their immense skill, what makes display Pilots like Lauren and Simon so special is that they have to perform their displays at a low level, typically below a maximum height of about 2,000ft, because if they went any higher than that, the crowd wouldn’t be able to see them well enough. In fact, that figure of 2,000ft is only the very apex of their manoeuvres; most of the display is actually performed much lower than that. And this kind of low-level flying, and the consequent lack of time for recovery from an error, means this: there is no such thing as a minor incident in low-level aerobatics. These guys have to get it right first time, every time; there is very little margin for error. Flying like this requires a precision that is unmatched in virtually any other type of flying, with the possible two exceptions of fast-jet operations on aircraft carriers, and low-level terrain-following flight.

Lauren has recently begun publishing ‘behind the scenes’ videos of her flying, detailing such subjects as why she loves what she does, what preparation she has to do before each display and so on. She has also started doing, well, not exactly ‘how-to’ videos, because you can’t just hop in any old aeroplane and perform these manoeuvres, but at least videos showing how she personally is handling the aeroplane in each manoeuvre. I find these videos quite fascinating, so I have showcased this video today, the second in the series, with Lauren’s permission. Here it is; enjoy!

Wisely, Lauren concludes the video with a ‘don’t do this at home’ disclaimer, which is spot on and wholly correct. You can’t do this sort of thing in a Tomahawk, a Cessna 152 or a Warrior.

I would also like to point out that not only does Lauren do public airshows, but she also performs routines of up to 12 minutes for private functions too, such as weddings, corporate functions and the like. The service Lauren provides includes all the paperwork and insurance and what-have-you, so it’s totally hassle free for you. If you’re interested in booking Lauren for your event, click the image below or follow this link for further details.


Picture Credits:
Header photo:
Lauren’s Pitts in Knife-Edge:
Percival Provost photo:
Private function photo:


Piper Warrior Conversion

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

Well, when I first began the Beautiful Destroyers series here on my blog, I did say that I would not always be featuring military aircraft.

If you remember, the most beautiful aeroplanes are often the ones that are designed to break things belonging to other people, hence the title ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, and I said I would also feature civilian aircraft from time to time. I’ve already featured one of my favourite civilian aeroplanes last time – the Cessna 152 – and today I am going to feature another of my favourite aeroplanes to fly – the Piper PA-28 Cherokee, also known as the ‘Warrior’. And, although she’s not a ‘Destroyer’ (although actually there are some military versions), she’s still beautiful.

The Warrior exists in various versions, and the one in the title picture, G-CIZO (‘Zulu-Oscar’), is actually a PA-28-161 ‘Cadet’, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia as being a two-seat variant. It’s not; there are definitely four seats in Zulu-Oscar! And four sets of seatbelts and four sets of headphone jacks.

And this is the aeroplane that I flew a couple of weeks ago, in order to convert back on to the Warrior after nearly sixteen years away from the type.

But that aside, the Warrior is, in my opinion, the prettiest of the light aeroplanes that I have flown. I love the double-taper wing shape; here is a lovely photo of Zulu-Oscar showing off her beautiful lines really nicely:

Zulu-Oscar on final approach (note position of flaps just behind the main undercarriage)

In the past, when I have flown a Cessna 152, it always felt as if I was putting on my second skin, so familiar am I with the aeroplane type. The aircraft very smoothly becomes an extension of me, my senses, my body, you get the picture.

And I am thrilled to have been reminded that it’s the same with the Warrior. Even after sixteen years of not flying the type, I have to say that I took to it immediately. Having completed my hour and a half conversion flight with an Instructor, five days later I took the same aeroplane up solo for a skills consolidation flight and it was just like I had never been away from the type, so delightful is this aeroplane to fly. It was like putting a glove on; she instantly becomes a part of you. She’s smooth, steady and stable, responsive and light to the touch. A real pilot’s aeroplane.

The Warrior I have flown most in the past, at Plymouth (where I learned to fly) is G-BTSJ ‘Sierra Juliet’.

Sierra-Juliet on the grass at Exeter

Since Plymouth Airport closed a few years ago, Sierra-Juliet has lived at Newquay (where Plymouth Flying School relocated to) and I had seen her occasionally at Bodmin (where I flew after Pymouth closed) when she was there for maintenance. Now, however, she has been bought by my flying school at Exeter and I am looking forward to taking this dignified old lady up into the skies once again. She’s the aeroplane I was flying when we had the humorous ‘Forced Landing’ incident I related previously.

So, as I said, a couple of weeks ago, I flew in Zulu-Oscar, with veteran flying instructor Mike, for my type refresher conversion. Why? Well, unless you have flown it recently, you can’t really just jump into a new (to you) aircraft type and fly it, at least not safely; you need to know where all the switches are, how to handle emergencies, and especially what speeds to fly for climbing, gliding, cruise, final approach, all that sort of thing. These are what’s known as the ‘V Speeds‘. My instructor Mike is a great bloke whom I have known for most of my flying career; he was an Instructor at Plymouth just after I finished my PPL and he’s patient, unflappable and great to work with. So off we toddled up towards Cullompton and Wellington, two towns to the north of Exeter, for General Handling practice including steep turns, stalls and a PFL. Then across the moor to the busy local General Aviation (GA) aerodrome at Dunkeswell for circuits and touch-and-go landing practice. Because Dunkeswell were using their shorter Runway 17, I had to relearn very quickly about the Warrior’s acceleration/deceleration characteristics. The PA-28 is a very slippery aeroplane and, while she accelerates readily, slowing down is really not that easy. And so I had to fly four circuits of precision flying, controlling height, heading and speed accurately as well as communicating with the ground radio people, keeping a lookout and maintaining high situational awareness because of the busy circuit traffic at Dunkeswell that day. My first landing was admittedly more of a controlled crash; after raising the nose for the flare (just before landing), my airspeed fell off a little too quickly and I came down like it was on an aircraft carrier. Boomps-a-daisy. And to cap it all, on our last final approach, they decided to chuck a load of parachutists out over the airfield and they were coming down all over the place. But they kept to their area of the airfield and away from the active runway, so all was well, although Mike did double-check with the ground people to make sure they were happy with us continuing our approach (they were). So, a quick full-stop landing for refuelling, then it’s off to Exeter again, land there, get my logbook signed to say I’d requalified on the Warrior and the job’s a good ‘un.

Here’s a profile view of Zulu-Oscar:

Look at those lovely, clean lines and the beautiful curves on the tailfin. Also worthy of note is the ‘slab tailplane’. The entire tailplane – that’s the small wing-like structure at the back end – is what’s known as an ‘all-flying tailplane’, ‘stabilator‘, or ‘slab tailplane’. What this means is that, instead of the tailplane being fixed but with separate moving surfaces (known as ‘elevators’) as the part of the tailplane that controls the ‘attitude’ or ‘pitch’ (nose-up/nose-down) of the aeroplane, instead, with a slab tailplane, the entire tailplane moves as a single piece to provide this control. Because the slab tailplane has such a large area when compared to normal elevators, this means that this sort of tailplane confers excellent ‘pitch authority’, in that the aeroplane responds decisively and enthusiastically to pitch control inputs. This gives a very ‘positive’, yet also very light, feel to the controls when flying this type. In addition, unlike the Piper PA-38 ‘Tomahawk’ that I also fly, which has a high ‘T’-tailplane, the lower tailplane on the Warrior sits in the propeller slipstream – the ‘wash’ of high-speed air blown backwards along the aeroplane by the propeller – and this gives it even more pitch authority. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for the tailplane to enter a dangerous ‘deep stall‘ condition, which makes for a much safer aeroplane.

So, there we go, that’s the Piper Warrior. I’ve not given much detail on performance or stuff like that, but instead a proper ‘pilot’s-eye’ view of a lovely aeroplane which flies as nicely as it looks. Here’s a final shot of Zulu-Oscar, taken just after my consolidation flight last week:


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…

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.