Back when I was a teen, I was in the ATC (Air Training Corps). Yup, I was an Air Cadet. This youth organisation was part of the RAF, and it gave us many opportunities to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do. And in the spring of 1991, I got the opportunity of a lifetime.
Our squadron had a civilian instructor who worked for the RAF; he was a Chief Tech at his squadron, and our RAF liason officer. He was based at RAF Wattisham, and was soon to transfer to RAF Odiham.
I don’t know if this is still the case, but back then it was tradition to get a flight at your old RAF base before you transfer. Rather than take the flight for himself, he negotiated one flight from each of the squadrons, and these would be given to a couple of Cadets at the ATC squadron he volunteered at. You had to be 18 or over, and have a note declaring fitness from your doctor.
When our CO announced the opportunity at the briefing at the end of one night, I stood up straight away, as did two others. The following week I handed in my note, as did one of the others. Unfortunately, the third cadet wasn’t fit enough.
RAF Wattisham had two F4 Phantom squadrons: 74 (Tiger) Squadron, and 56 (Phoenix) Squadron. The other cadet had his flight with 56 Squadron, and his experience was high-level flying at supersonic speeds over the North Sea. My flight was with 74 Squadron, and was low-level flying over Somerset and Devon.
One of the 74 squadron phantoms
As you can imagine, on the days leading up to my flight, I was extremely excited. I had permission to miss school, and that morning the Chief Tech picked me up and drove us to RAF Wattisham. The next hour or so was spent having a final physical from the RAF doctor. Unfortunately it wasn’t easy, as they had put me in one of those Top Gun style flight suits, and they are NOT easy to put on or take off.
The thing you don’t realise till you put them on is the neck collar does not undo. You have to tuck your head into the overall (you are already partially wearing it at this point) and thrust your head up through the collar. As this is designed for keeping you dry if you bail out into the sea, the lining is quite a stiff rubber; there is no give. I’m not very flexible but I just about managed to get it on, although I did contemplate removing my ears at one point.
One of the things I had to do was give a urine sample, and after the hell of putting the suit on, I was not going to take it off again. Fortunately, it is possible to go to the loo, but (as I discovered) it isn’t easy.
The first bit is easy: undo the zip. At this point there might be readers not wanting all this detail, so time for a bit of censorship.
Next, reach behind the zip at the waistline, reach inside and unroll the rubber tube. Shove your hand and arm through the tube and undo another zip. Now you can rummage around your own clothing and find, um… the bit of you that is essential for delivering urine. Do your best to pull it through all the unbelievable layers of clothing. Then remember you’ve still yet to aim through all that into a tiny sample bottle without leaving tell-tale embarrassments. Fortunately I did succeed and didn’t have to curse the person who made me suit up far too soon, nor did I need to hide in the toilet waiting for the suit to dry and miss the flight.
I bet you wished you hadn’t read that.
I was given the go-ahead by the doctor, and it was on for the safety and flight briefing. There’s only one bit I vividly remember, but that’s going in a separate post, as that might end up feeding the moderator.
After all the briefings, it was out to the hanger. I was seated in the navigator’s seat, which is the one behind the pilot. I was plugged in to all manner of different things, including these pneumatic pipes that feed air into rubber bladders built into the suit legs. You know those blood pressure sleeves that go around your arm? They’re a bit like that. When you go into a tight turn, they inflate to stop all your blood rushing to your feet.
I was shown where the sick bags were, mic was tested, cockpit closed…and we were off, taxiing to the runway.
The speed, oh the speed! I had flown in gliders and propellor aircraft before, and those always seemed to climb so rapidly. But this… wow! One second we stationary, then we were hurtling down the runway as we accelerated to about 170mph, then we were rapidly climbing up through the clouds.
It was an overcast day, a blanket of white as far as the eye could see. And once through the clouds, there was a bright blue sky and glaring sun. I can’t remember what altitude we reached, and looking outside it was really hard to judge as all I could see beneath me was cloud.
After flying straight and level for a while, the pilot said something to me I’ll never forget.
“You have control”
It took a moment or two to sink in… he was letting me fly the jet!
In the run up to this flight, I had joked with my friends about seizing control, putting it into a dive and performing insane dogfight style flying. And here I was, being offered the plane!
I remembered what I had to do. Put my feet on the rudder controls, hand on the joystick, other hand to my mouthpiece and fumble for the mic switch.
“I have control”
I had £18,000,000 of hardware at my fingertips, and all I dared do was bank slightly to the left, and then slightly to the right. After far too little time (but still WAY more than I could ever have dreamed of) he took control back.
A short while later, we had reached Yeovilton, where the pilot requested clearance from ATC (a different ATC this time: Air Traffic Control) to descend for low flying. We eventually got clearance, but not before we had to circle round, and around and around and around and…
…I am really glad I remembered where those sick bags were kept.
When we had descended, we started by flying along the north Somerset and Devon coastline. A couple of years previously I had stayed at Lynton and Lynmouth on holiday with my family. One of the places we visited was The Valley of Rocks to see the rock formation known as The White Lady. Some rocks had fallen in such a way that they formed an outline so that if you squinted just right, you could convince yourself it was a woman. If the day is cloudy (this is England, so that would be most of the time) it would appear white. Here’s a pic I found online… what do you think?
The reason I mention this is because that day I saw the White Lady from the other side! We were flying roughly level with the top of the cliffs (and The White Lady) over the sea.
I don’t remember a huge amount of the low level flying, as I was still desperately trying to keep what was left of that morning’s breakfast inside me, and also making sure that the bits my body didn’t want to keep made it into the bag.
I do remember this bit though. In Somerset, on the top of a large hill, is The Wellington Monument.
We flew by it, and we were lower than the top.
Eventually it was time to fly back. The return flight was uneventful, and it was only after we landed and I was in the crew changing rooms that the last of my breakfast showed up.
I had timed my flight; I was airborne for 1 hour, 15 minutes. When we went to Devon on holiday, the drive took about 8 hours (including stops). It took a long time for that to sink in.
The bit Mum remembers most about that day was when I got home. She was expecting me to bound in, talking non-stop about my experience and she might eventually get to ask a question after an hour or two when my jaw finally stopped working.
Instead, I let myself in, quietly went upstairs to my room, got changed out of my cadet uniform and quietly came downstairs. After a little while, all I could say was “this morning, I was in Devon.”
Eventually, the enormous feeling of being overwhelmed by the experience started to subside, and THEN mum got the non-stop narration that she was expecting!
I hope you enjoyed that. If not, blame @CJR, as he wanted to know!
And to Chief Tech [M]: thank you for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime!