Category Archives: Aviation

A Box of Frozen Chickens

I think I’ve said this before, but some of my favourite blog posts have been inspired by interesting exchanges on social media, especially Facebook. Yes, despite my recent rants, there are still interesting posts on there, in addition to the usual bunch of grey Religious people doing their routine moaning. In particular, the humour one finds on the Internet is far and away my favourite aspect of the entire marvellous phenomenon (that phenomenon being the Internet). So, I wanted to share this particular exchange and the funny, bantering discussion that followed. It’s quite dry and tongue-in-cheek geeky banter, but if it makes you laugh, job done. If it doesn’t, fair enough and I am sure there’ll be something out there that you will find funny.

So, in this very memorable exchange from last week, there was a question about some damage that an airliner had suffered in a collision with a bird. Here’s the meme that prompted the discussion:

My two friends Bill and Philip commented, and it kinda went from there:

Bill: What kind of bird was it? Wanna make sure I dont hit it with my truck!

Philip: I think it’s a dead kinda bird now…
Don’t know, actually. But it musta been a decent size…A frozen chicken, possibly?

Bill: Box of frozen maybe?

Philip: It could have been, Bill…I’d like to know the aerodynamic possibilities of a box of frozen chickens at cruising altitude, though…Anthony, you may be able to enlighten us…

Bill: I would very much like to hear his analysis.

Philip: Bill, knowing Anthony, he will give us a comprehensive and detailed synopsis.

Me: Very well, gentlemen. I’ll see what I can do.

The aerodynamic properties of a box of frozen chickens at 38,000ft would be very easily defined. Of the four forces of flight: Lift, Drag, Thrust and Weight, only weight and drag would be in operation due to the absence of any lift generating devices (such as wings) and the lack of an engine (producing thrust). Weight would accelerate the box downwards until the deceleration caused by the drag forces, operating in direct opposition to the acceleration caused by the weight, cancelled out the downward acceleration. At this point, the box would attain a stable downwards velocity which is known as ‘terminal velocity’, which brings it back to something that most of us have heard of, even if only because it is the title of various eponymous movies. The box would maintain that velocity – which would of course vary with air density and temperature – right until it made what is technically known as a big splat.

The fact that they were chickens in the box would have no bearing on the matter because a) chickens are virtually flightless; b) the chickens are frozen (and therefore dead) and c) they are in a box. Fortunately for the chickens, the fact that they are already dead means that the outcome of the analysis, for them at least, is irrelevant.

In short, the aerodynamic properties can therefore be summed up as being very similar to those of a safe, or even a piano. It would not be correct to assert that the aerodynamic properties are similar to an anvil, however, because that would be more streamlined, at least at the pointy end. But even an anvil would still have its own terminal velocity.

I trust this answers your questions.

Philip: It answers them perfectly! I thank you.
The only question that remains, is; how did the box of frozen chickens, travelling perfectly naturally at their terminal velocity, collide with the front of the airliner? I propose that there’s something quite fishy, here…Or, chickeny…

Me: No, it’s actually quite a simple explanation. Because air accident investigators always blame the aircrew, it follows that in fact it was the airliner that collided with the box, not the other way round.

Philip: Of course! That clears things up. It’s the aircrew’s fault. Lol…


And at this point, we left it. I so love Internet humour, and the banter of intelligent people 🙂


Peace and Grace to you 😀


Sportavia-Pützer RS 180 Sportsman

This entry is part 22 of 22 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

Well, it’s been a looong time – more than a year, actually – since I last published a piece in the series ‘Beautiful Destroyers: my articles about military aircraft and how beautiful they often are, despite their sometimes dark roles. Please accept my apologies for the long gap between posts in this series.

I did say that I would also be featuring civilian aircraft too, and today’s aircraft is such a one. And I’m sure you’ll love it.

So, here is the Sportavia-Pützer RS-180 Sportsman.

The RS-180 is a little-known aeroplane designed by legendary French aircraft designer René Fournier. Fournier also designed the Fournier RF-6/Slingsby T-67 Firefly (which was used as a basic flying trainer for the RAF and the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines) and a series of motor-gliders including the Fournier RF-4 and RF-5, all of which aircraft are well-known in General Aviation circles.

A four-seat, low-wing, single-engined monoplane, the RS-180 features a large bubble canopy with excellent – in fact I would say unparalleled – visibility, easy handling, and docile flight characteristics.

In this article, I will be writing pretty well exclusively about the aircraft in the photo above, G-VIZZ. It is an unbelievable fact that there were only eighteen aircraft of this type ever built, and G-VIZZ (‘Zulu-Zulu’) is the sole British-registered example. If you see an RS-180 flying over you somewhere in the UK, it will most likely be G-VIZZ. So, give us a wave 😉

Here she is standing on the taxiway in front of her hangar at Exeter Airport in Devon, UK, on a sunny morning in May 2020. Most of the pictures on today’s blog post were taken on that day, and most of them are also clickable to zoom in for additional detail.

From a military history point of view, and indeed from a ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ point of view, the building we use for VIZZ’s hangar is very interesting. It was originally built to be the gun butts, where the guns of the Spitfires that were based at Exeter in WWII could be set up safely. In other words, the ‘hangar’ was originally designed to be a giant bullet catcher. Here is a wartime photo of a Spitfire Mk.V having its guns calibrated, and the building is visible on the right of the photo:

Now, I am very fortunate to be a member of the Owners’ Group for G-VIZZ, which means I get to fly her as often as I can afford (which is not as often as I’d like!) and because there are only a few of us, it means she is almost always available. Group members can borrow her for just simple flights, or for a weekend away, for touring, holidays, landaways and all sorts of things like that; basically she is our aeroplane and we can do what we like with her. Yes, that means that essentially I own an aeroplane. Sometimes I find that simply unbelievable 😉 But it also means that I get to write this piece from an owner/pilot’s perspective.

The canopy is very large and bubble-shaped, with the only framing being the join line between the front and rear sections. It also has a really low coaming (the bottom edge) so the visibility is immense – even for the back-seat passengers.  In the photo below, taken at Exeter’s Taxiway ‘C’, you can see how high up the line of sight is for everyone in the aircraft. No idea who the people in the aircraft are, by the way; they are not current Group members. Must have been taken a few years ago.

The canopy opens by sliding forwards on rails, which means that you can’t open it in flight – so no flour-bombing competitions or anything with this aircraft[1]. Yes, there are such activities, and we used to do them at Bodmin (Cornwall Flying Club) in the Cessna 152s there 😀

The rear canopy is fixed in place, and the rear-seat passengers get in and out by tilting the front seats forward. For emergencies, there’s even a miniature fire axe on the centre console to let the passengers hack their way out!

Everyone has a ‘Happy Place’, and here’s a picture of mine:

This is the full instrument panel, showing even the yellow glider-tow release handle on the centre console (see below for more about this unusual feature). Remember the Captain’s seat is on the left in an aeroplane (but on the right in a helicopter), so the most important instruments are arranged in front of the left hand seat. While it looks complex, in reality it’s not. You don’t sit there looking at all those gauges and dials in bewilderment and think, ‘What does that one do? What about that one?’ 😉 Actually how it works is that say I want to check my speed, maybe to make sure it is correct on final approach, I’d look at the airspeed indicator. That’s the one on the top left. If I wanted to see how high up I am, it’s the altimeter. That’s the one slap-bang in the middle of the left instrument panel, with the two hands so it looks like a clock. So what happens is that you use the correct instrument to gather the required information at the time you need it.  It’s just a question of knowing which instrument to look at, and where it is, in order to get the information you need. Most of the rest of the time, at least in daylight flying, you more or less ignore the instruments. Really, you shouldn’t be peering at the panel all the time anyway; your eyes should be outside the aircraft, enjoying the view and looking out for other aircraft so you don’t hit them.

Here’s a closer view of the main instrument panel:

Note the gun button on the top of the control column; this fires the aircraft’s machine guns and cannon.

Just kidding 😉 It’s actually the transmit button for the radio – also known as a ‘PTT’ or ‘Push to Talk’ button.

So, what’s she like to fly? Well, she is an absolute dream.

Yes, I have put her in my series ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ despite, if truth be told, her looking like a bit of an odd bird. The fuselage almost looks too short for the cockpit canopy, the tail is a funny shape and the tailplane is halfway up the fin.

But she more than makes up for that in her handling. Now that really is beautiful. Light to the touch, sensitive and yet well-balanced controls make for easy and gentle flying characteristics. She’s stable, she’s responsive and she’s just so natural to fly. For example, I took my eldest son David up in her a few months ago, or, more accurately, he took me up. He’s a Pilot too, and yes he’s flown a fair few different aircraft types, but even so I basically just plonked him in the left hand seat and said those immortal words, “You have control. Take us flying”. And he did. Obviously we’d pre-briefed with the checklist; we’d discussed the V-speeds (that’s the speeds that you fly in the different phases of the flight, so, take-off speed; climb speed; best glide speed; maximum flap speed; circuit, base leg, final approach and threshold speeds) but he really just flew the entire sortie himself, with me as Command Pilot only by name. Never flown the type before and he took to her like he’d been flying her all his life, including a lovely wing-down crossind landing, and he loved every minute of it. She really is such a delight to fly.

And the visibility is enormous. That bubble canopy with the low coaming means you have a huge field of view. Couple the view with the lovely, light handling, and you’ve got a gorgeous aeroplane. I mean, when you go back to flying a Piper Warrior – which really is itself a delight to fly – the Warrior feels like a bit of a tank in comparison, and the canopy framing makes you feel like you’re shut in a box. Although the RS-180’s performance is more or less identical to the Warrior’s, the RS-180 is a much nicer aeroplane to fly – and that really is saying something, because the Warrior has always been high on my list of favourite aircraft types to fly in terms of handling.

In this next shot, the aeroplane’s starboard flap is easily visible, set up for preflight inspection at the full 50 degrees of extension.

This aircraft has ‘split flaps’, meaning that just the underside of the wing drops down to form the flap, leaving the upper surface of the wing in place. This is as opposed to ‘slotted’ flaps like on a Warrior, or ‘Fowler’ flaps like on a Cessna 152, where the flaps extend backwards and downwards, sort of on rails, like on a jet airliner. But this aeroplane has split flaps. This does mean that you can’t see from the Pilot’s seat whether the flaps have extended or not, but there’s never any doubt because you can feel it in the way the aeroplane flies. If you zoom in on the next picture, you’ll just about be able to see the way in which the flaps have a sort of ‘recess’ above them in the wing; this is where they go when they retract. 50 degrees of flap is a very effective setting and you can get down – landed and stopped – in just a couple of hundred yards with them, if you know what you’re doing.

Also visible on the above pictures is the glider towing system I mentioned earlier; it’s that sort of black ‘stinger’ thing that is sticking out under the tail. This is kind of an aeroplane ‘tow-bar’ that enables the aircraft to tow gliders into the air, on a rope behind her. ‘Aerotowing’, as it is called, is one of the two main launching methods for getting gliders into the air in gliding clubs all around the world, the other method being the ‘winch launch’, which is very much what I imagine it’s like being catapulted off an aircraft carrier[2] 😉 . When I flew gliders back in the early ’90’s, I had a number of aerotows, and they were great fun. As far as any of us know in the Owners’ Group, G-VIZZ has never been used for glider towing. But for the sake of completeness, here’s what an aerotow looks like in practice:

I love this next shot. This is the view forwards on Exeter’s Runway 26, just before opening the throttle for take-off. For me, there are few sights in aviation more evocative than this one. Today, everything has come down to this: all the preparation and planning; all my checks are complete; the aeroplane is fuelled and my route, radio frequencies and V-speeds are written on my kneeboard. Everything is ready; it’s a perfect day for flying, adventure beckons and it’s somewhere off in this present direction of 260 degrees magnetic (that’s what the ’26’ in ‘Runway 26’ means). The reason the airport is there is to enable aeroplanes to land and take off, and now it’s my turn and I have the runway all to myself. So, it’s brakes off, full power, and away we go!

Here’s a video demonstrating the unparalleled visibility that bubble canopy gives. Taken from over Ashburton in Devon on that same day in May 2020, this video begins looking out East towards the English Channel, over Torbay, and then the camera swings all the way round past Dartmoor and over the tail towards Bovey Tracey. Note how the only canopy frame that gets in the way is over my right shoulder, as the view comes round towards the aircraft’s tailplane:

I think that’s quite breathtaking 🙂

This is a still shot of the Teign estuary in the foreground, and Torbay in the distance, taken from over Chudleigh, Devon, again through that magnificent bubble canopy:

I mean that view is just colossal. Here is a view of Ivybridge from 3,000ft, demonstrating the superlative view downwards and forwards:

This is the now-closed Plymouth Airport. It’s the place where I learned to fly in 1996-7; there are plans to reopen it, but we shall have to wait and see – while all the politics are sorted out.

Here’s a lovely view of the River Plym estuary, looking roughly south-southeast:

After this, returning to base, then, via the pretty little grass strip at Bolt Head. I intend to do a landaway here sometime this summer, and I have been practising short-field operations for this very reason[3].

And then the return flight to Exeter in all that spectacular visibility, via the magnificent Start Bay:

I mean it just doesn’t get any more gorgeous than that 😀

The next picture is of G-VIZZ tucked away in her hangar after the flight, with the covers on. With a canopy that huge, any bird droppings or dust of any kind on the perspex is always going to spoil the flying experience, as well as compromise safety and maybe even damage the plastic (by etching it), so it’s important to put the large canvas cover on her before leaving her for the day. I haven’t had to do this at night yet, though! But I’m sure I’ll be fine; I have flown VIZZ as it was getting dark once and all I needed to do when I put her to bed was to plonk my car on the  taxiway with the headlights on, shining them into the hangar 😉

Just one more photo, and this one is not of G-VIZZ but of a German-registered RS-180; I have included this shot to show the shape of the wing on this aeroplane type.

So, there we are. The RS-180 Sportsman, easily the sweetest-handling aeroplane that it has ever been my privilege to fly.

I love those words I used for David: “You have control. Take us flying”.

There’s no better light civilian aeroplane in which to do that.



Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Actually, there is a way of doing flour-bombing. We can use the glider-towing attachment. If we put the flour bomb in a net bag and attach a metal ring to the bag, we can clip that ring into the towing apparatus as if it was a mini-glider, then release the bomb by using the yellow glider release lever pictured above. Simples!
2. I realise that there are more than just two methods of launching gliders, but aerotowing and winch launching are far and away the most commonly-used
3. Edit: In between writing this article and its publication, I did just that, and landed at Bolt Head. Here’s G-VIZZ on the ground at Bolt Head airfield, 17th July 2020.

Some other aircraft had flown in that day too; you can see them in the background. And in this article, I have left the original essay text in place, because I will undoubtedly be going there again 🙂

But on this occasion, I flew in, went and did a coast path walk, then had a picnic in the shade under the tail, then flew back to Exeter. What’s known as a ‘grand day out’, you know.

‘In Company With…’

“Exeter Radar, good morning; Golf Charlie Delta Delta Golf for basic service”

“Golf Charlie Delta Delta Golf , Exeter Radar, good morning; pass your message”

“Golf Charlie Delta Delta Golf, PA-28 out of Dunkeswell, in company with Golf Charlie Delta Echo Oscar, two thousand five hundred feet on one-zero-two-four, VFR navex and, er, basic service please”

“Golf Delta Golf, basic service, squawk five-zero-seven-one, Exeter QNH one-zero-two-three; will you be returning to Exeter?”

“Golf Delta Golf, squawking five-zero-seven-one, basic service, one-zero-two-three, and affirm returning to Exeter”

So yes, I had bogged up my ‘pass your message’ response, which should have been a concise and accurate summary of my flying intentions.

What I should have said was, “Golf Charlie Delta Delta Golf, PA-28 out of Dunkeswell in company with Golf Charlie Delta Echo Oscar, returning to Exeter after navex, heading one-eight-zero degrees at two thousand five hundred feet on one-zero-two-four, planned turning points at Sidmouth and Tavistock, VFR and requesting basic service”. * Quite a mouthful, but getting it right is important to me. And sadly I never get that bit right.

You’d have thought after over 20 years of flying, I’d have known better, wouldn’t you? But this time I had an excuse, or at least a reason 🙂

You see, the phrase, ‘In company with’ meant that on that day, a couple of weeks ago, I was flying with another aeroplane, this one being flown by my son David, who is a much better pilot than I am. His aeroplane, a PA-28 Archer, a variant of the PA-28 Warrior II I am flying but slightly more powerful, is based at Perranporth Airfield in Cornwall, not far from where he lives, whereas ‘my’ aeroplane is based at Exeter. ‘In company with…’ also lets the operator know that we are aware of each other’s proximity and he doesn’t need to warn us about each other.

And this flying ‘in company’ was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire flying career.

I will explain why it was so hard later. But the reason my radio message was somewhat patchy was due to the intense mental and physical workload involved in flying in fairly close proximity to another aeroplane. Our priority is this: “Aviate – Navigate – Communicate” and the ‘Aviate’ part was occupying my whole attention, with hardly any mental space for ‘Navigate’ and ‘Communicate’ was coming in a very poor third.

I mean it’s not as if it’s even anywhere near proper formation flying, like within a few yards of the other aeroplane. We stayed at least a hundred yards away, usually more like two hundred plus. But remember that a huge part of Pilot training is about the avoidance of other aircraft, and the idea of staying as far away from other users of the sky as possible. So to deliberately fly within a couple of hundred yards of another aeroplane is really, really counterintuitive for us. And remember that it’s the first occasion on which we have really done anything like this, at least for an extended length of time. And such concentration leaves very little mental capacity for other tasks.

Anyway, less of the words. Let’s have some pictures. Most of these shots, the flying ones at least, were taken by just pointing a crappy camera in the general direction of the target, and hoping for the best. The light was too bright (it was a really sunny day) to be able to see the cameras’ screens properly. But still they came out pretty well, I think.

Beginning with some of David’s photos, then, here’s the view from his Archer as he flies past Camelford in Cornwall, en route to Dunkeswell where we’d arranged to meet up.

On this particular day, there was a ‘ridge’ of high pressure over the southern part of the UK, bringing with it a little bit of murkiness under the cloud, and also a broken cloud layer consisting of huge towers of cumulus. To use David’s words, “…some of [the cloud] can be flown over…”

…and other bits that you just have to go around!”

Meanwhile, on the ground at Dunkeswell, I have already landed after my short flight from Exeter, and I am chatting with a young man who’s about to do his first sky-dive. Trying to encourage him, you know 😉 So here’s Delta-Golf on the grass at Dunkeswell. I’d hoped to get a photo of the two aircraft together, but David was asked to park in a place about fifty yards away from my aeroplane, so I didn’t get chance.

I had my airband receiver with me, so I heard David arrive on the Exeter Radar frequency, then followed him as he switched to Dunkeswell’s air-to-ground radio frequency. A greaser of a landing later (yes, that’s a good thing!), he taxied over to the parking area and we met up. Over a picnic lunch, we planned our upcoming sortie in great detail. Positions we would fly in, radio frequency plans including loss-of-contact planning, procedures for changing ‘formation’, who would lead, who would trail, how we would do our taxying, power checks and takeoffs, the works. No stone was left unturned; planning is vitally important when considering a venture like we were going to do. Given that neither of us had previously really flown in any kind of proximity to another aeroplane for any appreciable length of time**, this was all new to us and therefore we had to thrash it all out on the ground, before setting off. Plan was this: David had the lead, sequential trailing takeoffs, fly out to Sidmouth, then turn for Tavistock on the other side of Dartmoor. Stick with Exeter Radar until we get to Bovey Tracey, then switch to SAFETYCOM frequency on 135.475 so that we can talk plane-to-plane.

So we started up and taxied across the airfield using the taxiways…

…moving slightly across to let another aircraft with a rude pilot come past (he’s off-camera to the right)…

…and then it was time to stop and conduct our power checks and pre-takeoff vital actions:

The strange, downwards-curved wingtips on Echo-Oscar are a modification kit that improves the efficiency of the wings and gives a better fuel economy – of the order of an impressive ten percent. It looks weird, but she flies well.

Since Dunkeswell is not a commercial aerodrome, where only one aeroplane would be allowed on the runway at a time, we lined up on the runway together and David set off first. The very second he lifted off, I opened my throttle and commenced my takeoff roll. Lifting into the air very quickly and not too far behind him, I managed to keep David’s aircraft in sight, although with a white aeroplane against a white/grey background, it was extremely difficult and I lost sight of him a couple of times.

Given that we were climbing, we were both at full power, and it was difficult for me to keep up; I finally caught up with him about ten miles out when we were nearly at Sidmouth. The first photo opportunity came when we had turned over Sidmouth and were over Exmouth; this gorgeous photo shows David over Exmouth with the mouth of the Exe estuary in the background, showing Dawlish Warren to good effect.

Although David knew I was ‘around’, he wasn’t sure whether or not I was actually in visual contact with him as we couldn’t talk to each other – we were on Exeter Radar’s frequency where we can only really talk to the radar operator. But he carried on with the navigation plan as we’d arranged, and just had to assume I was there. The position I am in in the above photo, in David’s five o’clock high, is a near-blind spot where he would not have been able to see me unless he knew where to look.

At this point, I began to overtake David to his right, so he’d be able to see me if he looked in the right place. Which he did, and happened to take what is probably the best photo in this entire set. I’d drawn alongside to the right but was slightly high, and as he passed under my left wing I realised I couldn’t see him, and so began a gentle, climbing turn away:

…and continued the turn for good separation, before I felt comfortable enough to turn back parallel to him again:

Job done. Note that if you can’t see the pilot’s face (or even the window), then he can’t see you. So because you can’t see my cockpit window in the above photo, it means that David’s aeroplane was invisible to me at that point. And at only a couple of hundred yards away, that’s pretty scary.

You see, it’s all very well when the aircraft are pootling along in the same direction, with little relative motion. Everything is moving in the same direction at the same speed, so it all looks like everything is standing still. But the moment you take any other heading apart from dead parallel, your velocity difference becomes immediately and frighteningly apparent. Because you’re doing about 100kt, which is about 114mph, you’re actually going very fast indeed. So convergence or divergence of your headings can happen very quickly. And if you were to turn at 90 degrees across the other aeroplane’s track, that would mean that your relative velocities would be in excess of that 100kt; you turn 90 degrees behind him and then it is immediately obvious that his aeroplane is moving away from you at high speed. Or, if you should cross in front at that speed and angle, that is going to be very dangerous indeed. At those sorts of speeds, things happen blindingly fast; faster even than my really lightning-fast reactions can cope with. So it’s important to use slight heading changes rather than drastic ones, hence my gentle turns in the photos above. This flight was in fact a safe if salutary lesson in how fast things can ‘develop’ (read: go pear-shaped) up there in the sky.

So, we got as far as Bovey Tracey, terminated the radar service and switched to SAFETYCOM. Now, we were able to talk ship-to-ship and that made things much, much easier. No need to second guess each other’s intentions; now we could just tell each other straight.

Somewhere over south Dartmoor, David took this photo of me formated on him in echelon port, about 200 yards away. Although this doesn’t look or sound all that close, in real life the other aeroplane looks frighteningly large, and you are painfully aware of your mutual proximity. The aircraft looks a lot bigger at this distance, in real life, than the photos suggest. You may even have some personal experience of this yourself; you’ll probably have taken photos of aircraft at airshows; when you took the photo the aeroplane was like right there and looking really big, but when you look at the photo later, the aeroplane is like a small dot. That’s what this is like.

And here’s a similar shot, but just not as zoomed in. That’s me in that tiny dot in the distance. Again, it looks miles away but in reality it wasn’t:

So, why is flying ‘in company’ so hard? Well, I’ve already talked about how things can change really quickly when flying this close to another aeroplane. At the kinds of ranges we are looking at here, just a couple of seconds’ inattention can result in a velocity change (speed or, more likely, direction) that can result either in getting too close or in losing visual contact with the other aircraft altogether, which is worse in some ways because he might be right there and you don’t know about it. Therefore, as well as having briefed preflight on breakaway procedures, as the trailing aircraft you’ve also got to keep your gaze more or less locked on the other aircraft – we call it being ‘padlocked’ – and there’s no time really to do much else. That’s mainly applicable for the trailing aircraft because the lead aircraft is simply flying straight and level and on course. Things like checks of fuel pressure, changing fuel tanks, oil temperature/pressure, compass synchronisation, carburettor icing checks and all the other routine chores involved in flying a plane; all these things become subservient to the overarching concerns of a) not hitting the other plane, and b) not losing him either. I have read anecdotes from fighter pilots where they say that in one moment the sky is full of planes; in the very next second there’s not a plane to be seen. I can see how that is possible. Think about it like this: from directly astern (behind), the cabin and fuselage cross-section of a PA-28 is something of the order of a five-foot square. Out of this five-foot square poke two wings which are almost invisible from astern at any kind of distance, because they are not much thicker than about eight inches or so. Added to that, the plane is painted mainly white and it’s glossy, all of which means it’s very difficult to see against a cloud backdrop, in haze, or against a hazy underlay. So unless you keep your eyes fixed on him all the time, it’s just so easy to lose sight even when you know exactly where to look. That’s the main thing that makes it so hard. I have absolutely no doubt that it becomes easier with practice and training, but for us, on that day, it being our first time, it was unbelievably difficult. But huge respect to people like the Red Arrows and The Blades, who routinely fly with only feet separating them from their neighbours. And that’s with more than just two aircraft in the formation, too. I would imagine that greater aircraft numbers will really complicate things way beyond what it’s like with a two-ship formation. Formation flying is hard enough with two aeroplanes straight and level. With four, or nine, aircraft and doing aerobatics too (which are also difficult), it’s just insane. Seriously, respect to these guys…it’s only when mere mortals like us do what we have done so tentatively, that we can really appreciate what these guys do. Amazing.

Now we were in radio contact, David also got a chance to formate on my aeroplane, as I took the lead for a spell:

And then, at 5,000ft and coming up on Tavistock, our scheduled separation point, I got this lovely shot of Echo-Oscar:

The Devon town of Tavistock is visible below the cloud there, and nearly a mile of vertical distance below us, and I think this shot captures as well as any other the glaringly obvious point that there is nothing holding us up. Just the wings, using the marvellous natural effect that happens when you change airflow over a curved surface and generate lift. It really is quite remarkable that literally thin air can lift (in the case of a PA-28) the best part of a ton of metal, fuel and flesh up into the sky, where it really has no business being. And of course that’s just a light aircraft; there are of course many, much bigger, aeroplanes, all of which fly because of the same principle. I find that amazing.

But eventually we had to part and go our separate ways. From just west of Tavistock, David continued on course for Perranporth, and I turned for my return flight to Exeter. Here’s David’s Echo-Oscar just before I broke away:

Even then, things were complicated slightly in that my intention was to break away high and left, and perform a 180-degree turn onto heading for Exeter. But directly to my left was a towering cumulus cloud that stretched a good couple of thousand feet above my level and there wasn’t space to get round without going into cloud. So I had to make an on-the-spot decision – such a common occurrence in flying that I am well used to it – but basically I turned away only some 30 degrees in a climbing turn to the left, towards the cloud but not all the way towards it, and then reversed my turn and turned right and away from the cloud, still climbing, and crossed David’s wake about half a mile behind him and three hundred feet higher. We’d said our farewells before I began the turn, maybe we should have waited to do that until we were heading away from each other. Well, we’ll know for next time.

My flight back to Exeter was uneventful; David took a couple of photos, though, including his first ever airborne selfie:

(see how he’s got the same kind of headset as mine; we got him it for his 30th birthday 🙂 )

…but he also got some spectacular views like the claypits (china clay quarries) at Indian Queens near Newquay:

So, there we go. An awesome flight where we learned so much***, and had so much fun. Things to learn from this flight, just off the top of my head: I would probably have wanted direct radio contact much earlier in the flight to maintain situational awareness and mutual location; better briefing on how to find each other; maybe do more aeroplane checks but again in radio contact, so we can warn the lead aircraft to keep it straight, maybe setting a slightly divergent heading while doing the checks. Also, carry a photographer rather than doing it myself 😉

But all in all a great experience. Still buzzing from it, over a week later!

Peace and Grace 🙂

*English translation:

‘Golf Charlie Delta Delta Golf’ is my aircraft callsign; it’s the phonetic alphabet rendition of the registration letters on the side of the aircraft. It’s usually shortened to ‘Golf-Delta-Golf’ by controllers, or just ‘Delta-Golf’ by flying school staff and pilots. ‘Which plane are you taking today?’ ‘Delta-Golf’.

‘PA-28 out of Dunkeswell in company with Golf Charlie Delta Echo Oscar’ – Aircraft type is a PA-28, and we’d taken off from Dunkeswell, an airfield near Exeter Airport, where it’s cheaper for David to land. And I fancied a landaway anyway.

‘Returning to Exeter after navex’ – that’s my destination airfield, and a ‘navex’is a ‘navigation exercise’.

‘Heading one-eight-zero degrees at two thousand five hundred feet on one-zero-two-four’ – refers to the direction in which my aircraft is pointing, so the radar operator can see which aircraft I am. One-zero-two-four refers to the pressure setting  – the ‘QNH’ – on my aircraft’s altimeter, so the operator knows what pressure setting I am working from in order to determine my altitude. This needs to be the same for all the aircraft he is working with, so that all their altitudes are reported from the same reference point.

‘Planned turning points at Sidmouth and Tavistock, VFR and requesting basic service’ – tells him our intentions, that we are flying under ‘Visual Flight Rules‘, that is, decent weather flying where we can see where we’re going, and that we just want him to help us look out for other aircraft on his radar screen. Giving us an extra pair of eyes, as it were.

**The only previous time when we had done anything like this was once over Cornwall in 2013, where we had met up in the air by chance – we knew each other was up and around, but not exactly where – and David came up about fifty yards off my port wingtip. An awesome sight, but we each had our flights to do (he was doing a navex and I was training my daughter for an upcoming charity flight), so we didn’t stay like that for long.

***In addition to the lessons learned, there was something else too. David and I are both military historians. This flight gave us both a really strong appreciation of what it must have been like in air combat in World War II – or indeed any war – but especially WWII because of the ubiquitous use of air-to-air gunnery. Imagine a swirling sky filled with fast, small aeroplanes that are going at speeds in excess of 350mph and in a small volume of space, trying to keep formation with your wingman, trying to avoid collisions with aircraft friend or foe, and most of all trying to shoot down other aeroplanes. Given that the most effective range for using guns against other aircraft was of the order of no more than about 100 yards, and often much closer, we got a really good appreciation of how huge an enemy aircraft would appear when it is in firing range. Because of that, it’s also no surprise that many pilots opened fire at ineffectual ranges, like say 400-500 yards because, although the range was too great for effective fire, still the aircraft would look like a great big barn door target and therefore would look close enough. You had to get really, stupidly close in order to score any hits. Added to that things like deflection shooting (where you aim ahead of the target so that it flies into your bullet stream, like in clay pigeon shooting), bullet drop and other advanced ballistics, and that you had to actually point your aeroplane into a collision course with the target in order to shoot it – I mean it’s just insane! Pointing your aeroplane at another aeroplane at very high relative speeds, getting really close, and somehow not colliding with him…. it’s incredible to imagine how they did that, given the things we experienced on our ‘in company’ sortie. These were brave people indeed.10

The Wonder of it all…

I’m a member of a Pilots’ group on Facebook, and recently one of the other group members wrote this:

“I’m on my way to my PPL with around 18 hours and just a few more lessons before the solo…
Have you ever during your training became unmotivated or suddenly having doubts of your goal of being a pilot?

I always dreamed to fly (hundreds of hours on flight sims, hanging on airport fences, etc) and I enjoyed every single minute of the training. Just suddenly it hit me “what is after the PPL”.
Is it normal or is it just me?”

In addition to others’ very wise and encouraging responses, I of course had to add my two penn’orth. Here’s what I put:

” Well, as a Pilot you will find that you never stop learning. There’s always a new adventure, a new trick, a new lesson. Awe, wonder, freedom, solitude, seeing the reaction of others when they see the world from ‘up there’ for the first time, the technical stuff, the practice, the skills, a good precision navex, landing away at an impossibly short grass farm strip, low-level cross-country and attacking a dam at the other end of it (imagining the gust response is flak!), night flying in the pitch darkness pretending you’re looking for Lancasters, fighting down through a pernickety wind gradient and an unpredictable crosswind, seeing the ocean with the glitter of the sunset at 10,000 ft (picture)…. so many great memories and so many adventures yet to look forward to. Keep it up, bro, you have all this to look forward to as well as still enjoying your training, which is in itself a series of adventures and milestones…”

I also shared with the group the picture from the top of this post. This was the view over the Atlantic Ocean from 10,000ft up, above the north coast of Cornwall, on December 8th, 2012, at about 1600 GMT. The picture was taken not long before sunset, with the external air temperature a very friendly eight degrees below freezing, and the clouds below carrying amazing little rainbow colours of ice crystals which are not easily visible in the photo – that sort of thing is not easily captured on camera. But the sheer magnificence of it is breathtaking. It’s an entirely different world up here; the light is harsh, white and blinding in the crystal-clear, freezing air, and you can see for at least a hundred miles in all directions. It’s simply indescribable.

It’s true that my friend on the Pilots’ group has all this to look forward to…every flight is different, and you learn something new each and every time you go up. This is why we fly!

Wow! This is why I love flying so much….00

Battle in the Air

This entry is part 21 of 22 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

Back in 1969, when I was seven years old, the classic war film ‘Battle of Britain‘ was in the cinemas, and in this instalment of ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ I am going to showcase a superb piece of music from that film, which is an excellent example of musical storytelling.

But first, some background.

During the decades immediately following World War II, many films were made about the War. These movies told stories about the whole spectrum of the War, and depicted history – or near-history – from all theaters of the War. Films like ‘Bridge on the River Kwai‘ (1957), based on a true story of Japanese use of slave labour to build the Burma Railway. 633 Squadron (1964), from the book by Frederick E. Smith, its story loosely based on real-life exploits of crews of the incredible DeHavilland Mosquito fighter-bomber, and by which George Lucas was inspired to create his Death Star Trench attack from the final act of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. And, of course, The Dam Busters (1955), telling the true story of the legendary 617 Squadron* and their attack on the Ruhr dams on the night of 16/17 May, 1943, using the ‘Upkeep’ mine, also known as the ‘bouncing bomb’.

This is the raid that I often simulate in my personal light aircraft flying adventures, albeit in daylight and a lot higher up than the 100ft height that 617 Sqn flew the attack at. Because they flew at 100ft in the dark. Amazing flying. And the ‘bouncing bomb’ alone weighed like five times the total weight of my Tomahawk aeroplane 😉 And of course there’s the unforgettable and iconic film The Great Escape (1963), depicting, reasonably accurately, the true story of the escape of 70 prisoners of war from the German prison camp Stalag Luft III at Zagan in Poland. Even today, the main theme tune from that film – composed by Elmer Bernstein – is sung by football crowds all across the UK during matches, and has been essentially immortalised. Such is the power of film music.

Anyway, as a young boy I was absolutely fascinated by Battle of Britain, and indeed all the war films of the time. Since my Dad is ex-RAF, and I have a deep interest in military history, and a passion for aviation in general, this is no doubt largely why I have had a lifelong interest in military aviation in all its forms. We always looked forward to Christmas because there would always be some decent war films on the telly.

But the thing about Battle of Britain that I wanted to write about is the way that the climactic battle is done almost entirely to music. In fact, the music tells the story, and it could in fact be thought of as ‘musical storytelling’. The genius of this music – a piece called ‘Battle in the Air‘ by Sir William Walton – is that it captures perfectly the desperate and fraught feel of aerial combat. The breathtaking fear, the extreme danger, the racing, speeding, swirling and chaotic nature of aerial combat; the rapidly manoeuvring fighters and the rattle of their machine guns and cannon. The menace of the German armed forces and the threat of the invasion they were planning. The triumphs, the terror and the tragedy.  It’s all there.

What I’m going to do is to let you hear the piece of music first, and then give you a clip from the film itself where the music is actually used. Get a feel for the music and the story it is telling, and then see if it matches up with what you see in the film clip.

This part of the film is narrated almost entirely by the music. Once the music starts, there is very little engine noise, gunfire or anything else, just the occasional bit of monologue from a couple of the actors, and that rarely. The visuals and the music tell the entire story, and it is sheer genius.

September 15th, 1940, the day depicted by the clip, was the height of the Battle of Britain. In the two months leading up to this day, and on the day itself, (which is nowadays celebrated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’), the course of the War in Europe was decided. The hitherto unstoppable Luftwaffe – the German air force – had been defeated for the first time. As a result of this, not long after this day, Hitler decided to ‘postpone indefinitely’ his planned invasion of Britain.

The evocative picture below shows condensation trails (contrails) generated by aircraft operating at extremely high altitudes, fighting over London during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Yes, that’s Elizabeth Tower, colloquially known as ‘Big Ben’, although that’s actually the name of the bell in the tower, not the tower itself.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”. – Winston Churchill, 20th August 1940

As an additional observation, I’d say that classical music, played by a full orchestra, is generally neither liked nor understood by the general populace. It’s seen as old and stuffy. But in the world of cinema, just about all of cinema music is essentially classical, and is almost always full orchestra stuff. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, there were some forays into synthesiser music – for example Vangelis’s soundtrack to the film Chariots of Fire (1981), and the soundtracks to many science fiction films of the time, such as Dark Star  – but these nowadays come across as pretty cheesy, especially the science fiction soundtracks (Chariots of Fire wasn’t too bad in my opinion; for once the synth stuff actually worked). In short, there’s nothing like a full orchestra for a cinematic score.

And the work of the legendary composer John Williams is, in my opinion, some of the finest music ever written, not just in the field of film score music. His work on so many films – Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter, E.T., – is unsurpassed, and so is his genius.

Yes, music tells the story, usually as part of the screenplay, and usually very well. But today I just wanted to showcases the sheer genius of Battle in the Air, and how it tells the story with very few words and no sound effects audible. I hope you have enjoyed it!

*I’d like to tell a funny and interesting, if somewhat politically-incorrect, story about that film. The RAF officer who led the Dams raid was WgCdr Guy Gibson, and he had a black Labrador dog called ‘Nigger’. It’s an historical fact; deal with it.

As part of the operational planning for the Dams raid, the code word for the destruction of the Möhne dam was the word ‘Nigger’, to be transmitted in Morse code by the wireless operators in the Lancaster bombers taking part in the raid once the dam had been breached. Controversially, because of the somewhat sensitive nature of the dog’s name, some modern TV versions of the film were censored/edited to either blank out Nigger’s name entirely, or replace it with a more ‘acceptable’ name. I hate political correctness, and although I would not go out of my way to offend people, that was the dog’s name, and I am one of those people who thinks that history should be left alone and unchanged, no matter how ‘unacceptable’ something may be deemed to be in these present times.

But what’s funny is this.

Let’s say the dog’s name was redacted to ‘Blackie’. When the Möhne dam is breached in the film, the wireless operators back at base hear the Morse transmission coming in and proclaim joyously, “Blackie! It’s Blackie, sir!” and there are handshakes all around because the job’s a good ‘un and the dam has been breached. Except it’s not ‘Blackie’. Those who can read Morse (and I can) can hear clearly that the Morse message is in fact the original ‘Nigger’, just as it should be. ( _.   ..   _ _.   _ _.   .   ._. )

These censors are incorrectly assuming that no-one these days knows Morse, a point that, should I be so inclined, I could also get as equally offended about as do those who don’t like the dog’s name. But I don’t get offended…I learned Morse as part of qualifying as a Radio Amateur in 1985 and, although Morse is no longer required as part of the Amateur licence, I still know it and can read and send it proficiently. I also find it very useful when flying at night, as the radio navigation aids I use are identified by a Morse callsign, albeit using a much slower Morse than I am used to reading.

But still, I think the story is funny. A story where politically-correct censors try to find an offence that doesn’t really exist, and thereby create other insults into the bargain. History is best left alone!

Tragically, Nigger was killed by a hit-and-run driver just outside the station gate at RAF Scampton, the Dambusters’ base, on the evening of the raid, not long before the Lancasters set off on their mission. WgCdr Gibson’s wish was that Nigger be buried at midnight that same evening, and this was done while Gibson’s and the other crews were actually carrying out the attacks on the Dams.

Here’s a picture of Nigger’s grave:

…and its position next to one of the hangars at RAF Scampton:



I’ve just finished watching the movie ‘Sully’, starring Tom Hanks as Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the airline pilot who landed his crippled Airbus 320 passenger jet on the Hudson River, New York, on 15th January 2009. (Can’t believe that’s nearly ten years ago!)

After a double engine failure due to multiple birdstrikes, Sully and his First Officer, Jeff Skiles, glided the jet down for a forced water landing, on to the Hudson River, in one piece and, despite several injuries being sustained, there were no fatalities. Of the 150 passengers and five crew aboard, all survived. Fittingly, it was known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’.

Well. What a superb movie.  It tells the story of the flight; what happened, the decisions of the crew, the investigation by the US NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and also a little about the people involved. While the NTSB investigation is not shown in a good light – the members of the investigation panel are more hostile than they were in real life – this only helped, I thought, to highlight just what an amazing job Sully and his team did.

It was technically (i.e. from an aviation point of view) perfect. So often, in movies like this one where aeroplanes are simulated using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), the computer-generated aeroplanes fly nothing like the real thing. For a Pilot, it’s usually very painful to watch. But this was perfect. Also the other technical details were accurate too.

Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger

As my regular readers know, I fly aeroplanes for fun, and I often practice emergency situations, including simulated engine failures. I know how to cope with an engine failure, and I have over twenty years of flying experience to call on. I sincerely hope that, should the same sort of emergency situation happen to me as happened to Sully that day, that I too would manage to pull it off and land safely*. Mind you, not with 155 people on board…

Sully had been flying for twice as long as I have. I love the modest quotation from him that sums up the experience and training aspect of his amazing feat. He said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

I personally think that the movie will also increase passenger confidence. Many people have a fear of flying, and seeing the professionalism of the aircrew on this movie is bound to help. Mind you, the sight of a flock of Canada geese knocking an airliner out of the sky is a bit worrying… Also, they go to great pains to explain that a forced landing is not a ‘crash’, as the media love to call it. It’s not even a ‘ditching’; it’s a forced water landing. One implies lack of choice. The other implies being in complete control. I’ll leave you to guess  which is which.

And there was so much to learn from a Pilot’s perspective. ‘Fly the aeroplane’ is the first rule of flying. Nothing else matters more than that. And the discipline; the calm, measured approach to handling the emergency checklist; the effect and benefit of experience and training; the ‘permission’, almost, that the movie gives to make split-second decisions based on that experience and training; the interaction between, and best use of, the crew of the aircraft; the liaison with ground controllers; the ability to ignore distractions. All excellent stuff, and yet accessible by the general, non-aviating public.

So, if you can see this film on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or whether you need to rent/buy a DVD or borrow one from a friend, definitely watch this movie. I heartily recommend it.

“Just doing my job”, said Sullenberger afterwards.

What a hero.

*A forced landing is one where due to loss or lack of engine power – still under full control, but like it or not, the aeroplane is coming down – and you just have to make sure it gets down in one piece. Look at it this way: well before I went on to flying powered aircraft, my flying career actually began on gliders. These are aeroplanes just like the ones I fly nowadays – but they have no engine. In a glider, then, you have a permanent ‘engine failure’.  When flying gliders, therefore, Every. Single. Landing. is a forced landing. Since I have about 70-80 flights in gliders under my belt, that means that I personally have performed 70-80 real forced landings. They are perfectly safe when you know what you’re doing!20

Vought F-8 Crusader

This entry is part 20 of 22 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.00


This entry is part 19 of 22 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 join 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 1914-1919.10

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.