Gareth Stringer's 2010 blogGAR Entries

NOV 26 2010
Luck Favours The Brave

Okay, I admit it. It really wasn’t that brave if I’m honest. Taking a trip to an airfield to try and get some photographs is hardly medal of honour material, but it was damned cold on Wednesday and the walk to the end of runway 22 at RAF Cottesmore is perilously muddy, especially for someone with a dodgy ankle, so bear with me for a minute and I’ll tell you why the phrase kind of works.

If you’ll forgive me some artistic licence in the second part of this blogGAR’s title, ie the bravery bit – the lucky part will shortly become more than apparent. For those of you who haven’t been, and you’d best hurry up if you want to see the Harriers, the 22 end at RAF Cottesmore is one of the single best spots for aircraft photography most people will ever visit. Not only can you get head-on or side-on shots as the aircraft taxi down from the line but the threshold is within spitting distance (I didn’t try obviously but you know what I mean) and therefore you really are in the thick of the action – stunning for pictures and great fun. It's also always a poignant place for me to visit as my Dad was based at Cottesmore while assigned to XV Squadron and its Victor B1s.

So, when good friend Gavin Weaver asked me on Tuesday if I fancied accompanying him to Rutland the following day I didn’t take much persuading to clear the decks, charge the camera batteries and dig out hat, gloves and warm clothes. However, with the airfield’s 04 end providing nowhere near the same photographic opportunities you still need some luck with the wind direction on the day and the forecast was marginal with the wind blowing almost straight across the runway. So, we knew we were on to a winner when we heard a jet apparently departing from 22 as we drove through Cottesmore village, something that was confirmed on our arrival by another jet sitting at the hold. An excellent start to proceedings!

Boots on, Russian style furry hat (optional) securely pulled down, gloves, coat, camera bag, lunch – checks completed, we were ready to go and joined the line of people (it was busy!) walking the ten muddy minutes or so down the perimeter fence to the approach.

We’d not long got there when a slightly smokey Pegasus powered dot appeared on the horizon and it was cameras out to grab our first GR.9 of the day. A quieter period followed, although a 3 Sqn Typhoon performed a nice overshoot, and we got our first departure and a chance to get some of those classic Cottesmore shots as the jet trundled down the taxiway towards us.

Then we got really lucky. News filtered through, first from Karl via text and then from one or two familiar faces on the fence that the four aircraft which were flying off HMS Ark Royal for the last time would be inbound to Cottesmore – a real surprise as we had been led to believe they were heading straight for RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. The fact that this four-ship included the two newest specially painted aircraft, those from 1(F) Squadron and 800 NAS, was a real bonus; as was the fact that we were enjoying brilliant winter sunshine.

I gave Karl a quick call at this point and, just as our chat was coming to an end, spotted a neat formation of Harriers turning on to a long final leg for a run and break. Phone back in pocket, camera grabbed from its perch on a fencepost, settings checked – I recall feeling very aware that this was a special and privileged opportunity that I quite simply didn't want to screw up! Please let some of them be in focus! Thirty seconds or so later the aircraft screamed overhead and, at short intervals, broke right and into the Cottesmore circuit. Time to breathe out again.

Now, you quickly get used to a variety of approaches at Cottesmore with the Harrier frequently demonstrating its unique versatility and the 1(F) Sqn jet decided to give those of us braving the wintery weather a very special show all of its own. Turning downwind and then on to finals the aircraft decelerated into nozzle-borne flight and, approaching the runway threshold, entered a fully blown hover. Not the rarest sight I hear you thinking, except that its pilot then performed a perfectly executed 360 degree pirouette before slowly moving forwards and landing-on a short distance further ahead. It was a spectacular sight and, had it not been for the blast of the Pegasus, I imagine the click of camera shutters would have been quite deafening too!

Incidentally, for those of you interested in the technicalities, John Farley tells me this kind of manoeuvre is performed entirely by way of the rudder pedals, using the Harrier’s clever little puffer jets, which function automatically on each of the control surfaces while in the hover, replacing the absent airflow which would of course normally pass over them in wing-borne flight.

We were entertained again by another hovering Harrier later in the day and I admit I was a little closer this time, eventually being forced to turn away to save my hat and my hearing, briefly glancing up from the Pegasus thunder only to see others performing similar evasive action! It left us all with huge smiles and really is something you have to try and experience once if you can but, unless you are wearing ear plugs or ear defenders I wouldn’t by any means recommend regular exposure to hovering Harriers!

So, we got very lucky with the four-ship obviously and this was cemented even further when we learned that the specially painted aircraft were not even among the four that did depart for the Harrier’s last short detachment to Yeovilton, former home to the Sea Harrier of course, a little later in the afternoon. By that time Cottesmore had changed to runway 04 and the weather had deteriorated, so Gav and I were well on our way home, thawing out in the car having had all the luck we deserved for one day!

It was an unforgettable few hours though and, as I said at the top, if you can make it to Cottesmore before the Harrier is de-commissioned next month then you must do so. You really need them to be operating on 22, although 04 does at least allow for landing shots, so look out for a westerly wind to give you a fighting chance in that regard. I can’t promise you perfect weather, special tails, pirouettes and a Pegasus sandblasting but I doubt very much you would come away disappointed anyway.

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2010-11-26 - Pete Dimmock
Fantastic report and even better photo's. Unfortunately the only Harrier i was lucky enough to encounter was the Harrier's display at RIAT and a couple of GR9s that came low and fast across Browndown Training Area in Lee on the Solent in Hampshire.

2010-11-26 - Tony Strother
A nice account of the morning of what was a memorable day for me. I'd echo Gareth's comments on the fantastic photo opportunities available from the 22 end.

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