Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter 6:The Burning Blue

As a summer intern at British Aircraft Corporation at Warton, I worked in the Flight Test Department. One of the perks of the job was flying the Jet Provost T.3, an example of which is seen here on static display at an airshow.

At the end of my first year at Cranfield, I worked as an intern during the summer at British Aircraft Corporation in the north of England, not too far from my home in Liverpool. I somehow gravitated to flight test and from that progressed onto testing of the Jet Provost 3. I usually flew with test pilot Reg Stock. The Jet Provost had a lot more power and performance than the Paris, and was great fun to fly. Jet Provost XN 467 had been in for a refit and had the so-called "big engine" the Viper 200 series with 2500lbs thrust which gave it a climb rate 40% better than that of the standard Mk 3. This engine was destined for the Jet Provost 5. It made 467 something of a hotrod. We would climb to thirty thousand feet, complete our production test card and would be back in the office by lunchtime. This was a good way to spend part of the day, especially if a session of aerobatics was part of the required mission.

Officially sponsored by BAC for my second year, I returned to Cranfield and our team of budding aircraft designers settled down to the rigors of the second-year project, which for us was a tilt-wing transport, (The E.67) with big turboprops and propellers on a swivelling wing. We all had multiple tasks to complete, and worked as a team to produce a workable design. Aerodynamics, stability and control, structures, weights, human factors and performance were all covered. In my case I also had to assess the economic advantages of this tilt-wing transport, a project which was way ahead of existing technology ( similar designs only came to fruition in the V-22 Osprey and Bell 619 of the 21st century.) Technically this was a difficult program, as the aircraft was a hybrid between the helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. But it was fast and could land vertically in City Centers, which gave a big boost to its usefulness. As a concept it was rather ambitious, however we proved that it was a workable design, and my work indicated that the development costs would require both military and civilian variants to get a long enough production run to make it a viable project. However I also ended up with a good grounding in the economics of business aviation, which turned out to be useful later on in my writing.

During my first year I had assisted fellow student Daryl May in producing the annual college magazine, Potential, and now in my second year I assumed position of editor and together with a small team had a lot of fun, the usual blood, sweat and tears, and burning of the midnight oil, and finally produced our masterpiece.

On graduating from Cranfield I joined British Aircraft Corporation at Warton in the north-west of England to work on fighter aircraft. Here at the forefront of aeronautical technology I would be using the techniques I had been acquiring throughout my time at College. It was a busy time with lots to be learned about the task of bringing the complex aircraft to flight status, but initially the job kept me in the office. To add one more factor to an already hectic life, during the summer I got married and Clare and I started to settle down after too many years regularly commuting each term to our respective colleges. It was late in the fall when I found time to start my civilian flying again. Luckily Blackpool airport was only a few minutes drive away from the company airfield at Warton where I worked.

I started out by checking out in a Cherokee, so preserving marital harmony by taking Clare flying on a sightseeing trip up to the Lake District. Although she had grown up in the north of England, this was the first time she had seen the countryside from the air. The view of the Lakeland Hills covered with a dusting of snow on a gin-clear winter’s day was spectacular. In the warmth of the cockpit the sight of a film of ice starting to form on Lake Windermere was beautiful, and a little eerie in the afternoon sun.

Then again there was the Chipmunk. G-ARGG was a civilianized Chipmunk, one of the few in the north of England. This example was owned by Air Navigation and Trading (invariably known as ANT) at Blackpool airport. It had an electric starter instead of the cartridge starter of the military version, but was otherwise identical to the military Chipmunks I had been flying two years previously. So again I started flying aerobatics. Once again I came to terms with the ground handling of this spirited machine, battling with those cantankerous brakes and juggling the sports-car-like brake lever on the left-hand wall of the cockpit while pushing on the rudder pedals to keep straight in the perennial gale-force winds at Blackpool.

Aerobatics in the Chipmunk were much easier that in the Auster Aiglet and I soon got back into practice. The Chipmunk was a perfect vehicle to indulge any Walter Mitty fantasies. The front cockpit was Spartan but bore a striking resemblance to that of a Spitfire. A sliding canopy, stick and tailwheel completed the fighter-like arrangement. In fact the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight checked out their pilots on Chipmunks before letting them loose on their Hurricane and Spitfire piston-engined fighters. In the air the Chipmunk’s handling was superb, and the ground handling with the tailwheel was sufficiently interesting to make sure that the pilot kept awake during the landing roll.

As time went on I realized that the weather in the north of England was much more treacherous than down in the south, where I had done most of my flying. There were mountains to the west of us in Wales, to the east the Pennines formed the spine of England and to the north were the hills of the Lake District. Very spectacular on a sunny day, but those days were the exception, especially during the winter months. I had not done much recent instrument flying, and was concerned that one day the marginal weather would turn really bad on me.

Jane Murdoch offered to do some instrument flying with me. Jane was an instructor at ANT and I had met her the previous year when we had both attended a Light Aircraft Design Course at Rearsby. Now Jane took time off from flying a Stampe biplane at displays to instruct me. So I learned again how to fly the Chipmunk on instruments. The method used in instrument training on the Chipmunk was straight out of a World War II movie. The system had been called two-stage amber by the Royal Air Force. Amber screens were clipped on the inside of the front cockpit side panels and the windscreen. The student under instruction wore blue goggles. The result of this was that the outside world was completely obscured, while the interior of the cockpit was still visible. In the Chipmunk, with only a single radio, approaches into Blackpool were either laborious VHF Direction Finding(VDF) letdowns, with the tower giving a series of bearings, or on rare occasions full radar letdowns which were much simpler. In a spirit of devilment, Jane used to talk me all the way through a simulated GCA down to an actual three-point touchdown. This was an act of faith on her part but magically we always ended up with the wheels rumbling down the runway.

When I had my rating, I used to delight in climbing up through the winter murk in the Chipmunk, with the narrow cockpit quiet, all the instruments giving their proper indications and only gray cloud outside. Moisture streaked back across the windshield as I climbed. Three thousand feet…four thousand feet …with the Gipsy Major purring away serenely until the cloud lightened miraculously and the Chipmunk burst out into the cold clear world of limitless blue which only aviators could find.

For the first few seconds there was always a great impression of speed because of the nearness of the blinding white cloud-deck whipping past only feet beneath the wings. It was always cold in the Chipmunk, with the heating arrangements being primitive and largely ineffective at five thousand feet. Despite the discomfort it was always hard to throttle back and descend into the winter gloom again, knowing that the burning blue was waiting above the clouds.

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