Karl Drage's 2010 blogGAR Entries

JAN 07 2010
The New Year at North Weald

Firstly let me take this opportunity to wish you all a happy New Year. I hope you all had a great festive season?

It's been a while since I shared my most recent happenings with you all through blogGAR, but that's primarily because everything I'd done prior to the Sunday just gone had been geared towards features for the main site.

Northolt's Nightshoot V, Midland Air Museum, Air Atlantique Classic Flight's Nightshoot, the visit to 208 Sqn at RAF Valley and the amazing opportunity to fly with the Metropolitan Police's Air Support Unit are now all online, so if you've missed any, please check them out.

And so we come to Sunday, 3rd January, 2010. Gareth had called me at lunchtime the previous day. Mark Hooton had spoken to him and advised that the Vampire Preservation Group were planning on flying their T.11 the following day. There was also going to be a Cessna 150 available for a bash at some air-to-airs. For those that don't know, Gareth underwent some surgery just after Christmas, and wasn't up to attending, so I took Sammy and my dad down to North Weald for the day.

We'd planned to meet up with Mark and the VPG posse at 1000, but we were a little early and the de-icing of the various aircraft travelling down from Cranfield took a little longer than planned. It didn't matter - conditions were amazing, if rather cold.

It was the first time we'd ever been to North Weald and we were genuinely surprised by the amount of interesting aircraft dotted around the airfield. Obviously we knew about the two DC-4s (well, one DC-4 and one C-54Q, to be precise), some of the resident classic jets (the sheer quantity of Jet Provosts and Strikemasters wasn't appreciated however!) and Peter Teichman's Hangar 11 Collection (none of which we saw), but there was also a wingless Dakota, a couple of Beech 18s (including a particularly lovely one with tricycle undercarriage) and a hatful of Chipmunks, Bulldogs and assorted Yaks.

When we arrived we parked over by The Squadron, a club providing refuelling, aircraft servicing, a restaurant, bar and other facilities for its members. Not really sure how welcome we'd be as 'outsiders' we stayed by the car until Mark arrived. We need not have worried!

After a cup of coffee and the collection of the batteries needed to get the Vampire going, we headed over to the hangars on the western side of the airfield, where WZ507 was now sitting, along with a Jet Provost T.3 and a handful of other bits and pieces. Rather coolly Mark suggested that we park the car underneath the wing of one of the DC-4s!

N31356, its genuine registration at some point during its career, started out life as a DC-4-1009 in 1946 with Northwest Airlines. After periods of service with Air New-Mex, a lease period to Lufthansa and many other owners it was bought by Bill Dempsay of Central Air Services and parked at Avra Valley, AZ (a location I visited in January 2009!) in 1982. Just shy of ten years later Aces High Inc acquired it, restored her to flying condition and, on September 27th, 2002, flew her into North Weald.

N44914, originally delivered to the US Army Air Force as 42-72525 in March 1945, was immediately transferred to the US Navy, before being converted to a C-54Q in 1962. Retired in 1972, Biegert Aviation bought her out of the desert in 1975, registered her as N44914 and converted her for insect spraying duties, which she performed until 1979, when once again she was put out to rest in the Arizonan desert. Atlantic Warbirds Inc purchased her in 1996 and set about giving her a complete restoration, complete with authentic MATS Atlantic Division colourscheme. Following a number of airshow appearances she was registered to Aces High US Ltd on September 3rd, 2002 and flew in to North Weald together with N31356 that same month.

The reason for their arrival was that they were to star in the HBO movie, "Candybomber" - the story of Colonel Gail Halvorsen, a C-47 and C-54 pilot during the Berlin Airlift in 1948/49. Halvorsen gained fame when his idea of dropping sweets attached to parachutes for the children beneath the approach to Berlin's Templehof airport received the approval of his commanding officer and Operation Little Vittles was set in motion. It gained widespread attention in the media and by the end of the Airlift more than 23 tons of confectionary had been dropped; vast quantities of which had been donated by the public and the industry. For his inspiration Halvorsen was dubbed "The Candy Bomber".

The film was cancelled in 2009, however, and the two aircraft were offered for sale in October by hollywoodparts.com at an estimated cost of $400,000 each. It would be nice, albeit probably unrealistic, to hope that one might find an owner here in the UK.

Like the Vampire, Jet Provost T.3, XN637/G-BKOU, was being prepared for flight, and, after that taxied out and took off, I went for a closer look at the contents of some of the hangars.

The Catalina that had flown in from Lee-on-Solent in December was amongst those present. I had hoped to get some air-to-airs of her on that ferry flight, but circumstances conspired against us on more than one occasion….

In addition to several JPs in various states, a MiG-17 was also inside, or at least that's what it said on the intake cover…. Subsequent investigation shows that it's actually, G-MIGG, a Lim-5 - a MiG-17 built under license by WSK-Mielec in Poland. It wears North Korean markings but is ex-Polish AF.

With the Vampire now being all but ready for start, Chris, the owner-pilot of G-ASZU, the Cessna 150 camera-ship, and I walked to the aircraft. With it being only a two-seater it was always going to be tight, and the disparity in speed between us and them meant that we were already way down the down-wind leg before Mark had even commenced his take-off roll.

The goal that had been set was for us to get a shot of WZ507 in front of The Squadron, and while we managed it, it was a far cry from how we'd all envisaged it in our minds' eye. Rather disappointing, but it was good to get an aerial perspective of the airfield, and of course, it's not every day you have a Vampire cruise past you on your left hand side!

After we were all back on the ground Mark announced that he'd be going again, so we could have another attempt at some aerial shots. This time we'd head out to the east, to a lake near Chelmsford, where Mark would fly some orbits beneath us. Unbelievably (or maybe not!), the weather that had been perfect all day was now starting to give way to the cloud that was rolling in, and, by the time we were airborne, there was about six octas cover.

With my head and arms out of the window and into the airflow I knew I needed a pretty fast shutter speed, but even at 1/640th of a second, ISO640, and later 800, I never managed an f number greater than 5.6… And so once more we failed to get exactly what we were after, though we did get a handful of passable images that I'm keeping back for a VPG dedicated feature… Despite the frustrations it had still been an awesome experience to have the Vampire flying in such close proximity, albeit only for a handful of seconds during each orbit!

And, typically, within fifteen minutes of our landing, the skies were largely clear once more, though that did open up the possibility of some sunset shots…

Those disappointments aside it had been a fantastic day and one I hope we might get a chance to repeat at some point. I'll certainly be paying a return visit to North Weald anyway!

Huge thanks go to Mark, Chris and everyone who made the day such good fun!

Today, as I write this, we should have been off at RAF Cranwell and RAF Scampton, but the weather's put paid to that. We're hopeful that it'll be rescheduled before the month's out but only time will tell.

Likewise, several of the other visits and happenings we've got scheduled for the coming weeks could potentially bite the dust if the weather fails to co-operate, and that's the reason we've throttled the main site output back to just two pieces a week.

From a purely selfish point of view I'll admit to being absolutely gutted by the news that RAF Cottesmore's to close. There are few airfields, let alone front-line military ones, that provide such fantastic access and brilliant photo opportunities as Cottesmore does, and it'll be a crying shame when the location at the runway 22 end becomes redundant. To add insult to injury, Wittering is the complete opposite...

But of course there are those upon whom it will impact far more directly than I. While specifics are yet to be confirmed, it seems set that we will lose at least one RAF Harrier squadron and potentially two others, though the exact details are still to be determined in the next defence review. While the acquisition of more essential equipment, particularly for those serving on Op HERRICK, is to be commended, doing so at the expense of current capability does seem incredibly short-sighted.

The fact that the new Chinooks will not be in service until 2012 should serve as a reminder to those in positions of power that once a capability is lost it cannot then be restarted in the blink of an eye, should the need arise.

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2010-01-07 - Neil McCarthy
What a great bit of kit that T11 is! Great read again Karl.

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