2010 Articles

MAR 02 2010
At the Cutting Edge - 29(R) Sqn, Typhoon OCU

Don't listen to the critics and the doubters; Typhoon is an extraordinary aircraft. That much was made abundantly clear by everyone we met at 29(R) Squadron. Accusations of bias would be easy to make in these circumstances, but it's not just about what we hear and see during a day with the Typhoon OCU (Operational Conversion Unit), you can sense it.

There is a noticeable buzz about 29(R), a feeling that all the men and women here are well aware that they are working at the cutting edge of technology, and operating, be it flying or maintaining, an undoubtedly incredible piece of kit.

However, an air of something approaching despondency hangs over the Squadron when we drive across at 07.30 with our host for the day Fg Off Owen Thompson. It's as thick as the blanket of fog which has caused it, with flying currently off the agenda. With the airfield colour code Red all the aircrew can do is wait to see whether the clag lifts and it is quite obvious that they are impatient to get airborne, even though we can barely see the nearby flightline and the aircraft which have already been towed outside.

With the met brief postponed until 10.00 what the weather does do is give us a chance to look around and take a proper peek behind the scenes. We already know Owen from his work last year as the Typhoon display manager, a role he will hopefully be fulfilling again in 2010 while he completes the last of his hold at Coningsby. With a good spell of time under his belt with 29(R) already, and indeed some Typhoon hours on display transits last year, he is the perfect host and happy to give us a feel for the Squadron's day-to-day operations.

First stop, as seems routine on such visits, is the crew room for teas and coffees. This in itself is a fascinating area, with reams of eye-catching memorabilia spanning a distinguished history which has seen 29 Squadron operate a host of aircraft from the B.E.2.C, when the unit was formed in 1915, through to such classics as the Blenheim (in the Battle of Britain), Beaufighter and Mosquito. The jet age has seen Meteor, Javelin, Lightning, Phantom and Tornado F.3 all operate in 29's distinctive markings prior to Typhoon's arrival in 2003.

The Squadron badge, an eagle preying on a buzzard, is fittingly representative of air combat while the XXX markings which feature on either side of the RAF roundel may, depending on who you believe, have originated from brewers usage of the three Xs on beer kegs to denote the extra strong nature of their contents! Alternatively they may be the result of an unfortunate airman applying the Roman numerals incorrectly when painting an aircraft or indeed simply the result of rules for RAF markings as they were laid out in the 1950s. We spend a few minutes taking in the amazing photography, signed prints and artwork, even the tail from a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt BF109, before retiring to Owen's desk for a chat about the likelihood of a 2010 Typhoon display programme. As many readers will know, this year's display pilot has been nominated and indeed we meet him later in the day to talk through his potential plans for the season ahead. An announcement will be made in due course and, all being well, he plans to commence his work-up in the jet sometime next month.

Next on the agenda is a tour of the building and, as we leave the office, Owen points out the photos of each Typhoon conversion course, with plenty of familiar faces on show, and also the solo board which lists each and every RAF pilot who has soloed on the Typhoon - another distinguished list of names. A short walk down the lengthy corridor and we pop in to the 29(R) hangar which adjoins the Squadron building; it's an impressive sight as we step inside, with engineers taking the opportunity presented by the poor weather to work on the numerous versions of the aircraft on show, all of which are in a variety of squadron markings and from various production blocks. We'll return here later in the day with Chief Technician Carlos Proctor so after a quick walk round we continue our tour of the main building. Our destination is at the very end and en route we pass various briefing rooms, offices and also the gymnasium before entering what is very much at the heart of 29(R)'s day-to-day business - the ops room.

The ops room is a spacious facility and rather amusingly the first people we bump in to are not one, not two, but three ex-Jaguar pilots who know Karl from his time working with 6 Sqn on the book that commemorated the aircraft's retirement and that unit's disbandment; we would later meet a fourth incidentally, it's a small world! The main immediately noticeable difference, from somewhere like the 208 Sqn ops room at RAF Valley for example, is the lack of shelving to house the aircraft's Form 700s, the documents which record each airframe's individual history and which must be signed by the aircraft commander before every flight. This system has been computerised for the Typhoon units and instead of the bulky folders the work surfaces are dominated by a number of computer terminals which allow pilots to check on their aircraft and sign out, and back in, electronically.

Other than this it is just as we've seen elsewhere with the same computerised system showing the flight schedule (with a whiteboard as back-up) and a duty pilot / authoriser manning the desk. Right now that man is Flt Lt Tim Clement, one of the pilots Karl has met before from 6 Sqn, and he's busy fielding questions about the weather from ever hopeful aircrew hoping to launch as soon as possible. As I said, the Typhoon novelty has not yet worn off.

Turning his monitor round so we can see it he shows us the TAFs (Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts) for Coningsby, Waddington and Scampton. All are colour code Red which means a reported visibility of less than 800m and/or a ceiling of less than 200ft; not good. Even so, he explains that taking off would not be a great problem, it's finding a suitable diversion within around 100 miles or so which is the problem, so the expectant aircrew can but wait, and hope. Tim will be joining us a little later to talk Typhoon in more detail so we leave him to field the phone calls and weather enquiries and head out on to the misty ramp to take a closer look at the aircraft and give Karl the chance to capture some "atmospheric" images, hugely influenced by the current weather conditions of course.

Driven back inside the warm of the building by the freezing fog it's entirely appropriate that our next stop is the aircrew locker room that houses their survival equipment. As Owen is about to demonstrate, Typhoon's performance is not the only unique thing about the aircraft from a pilot's perspective. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the Typhoon pilot's survival equipment is almost completely different to that worn by other RAF fast jet crews. While their boots, gloves and helmets (for the time being anyway in the latter case) are the same, that's where the similarities end. Even the flying coveralls worn by the aircrew are different, with far less zips and encumbrances than the regular RAF version, this being due to the amount of assistance against g (the forces of gravity) given by the rest of the flying kit. Normal g protection comes from a g-suit worn over the legs and this is the first major difference as the Typhoon g-suit covers the entire leg with no cut out areas whatsoever. Compare the pictures of Owen you see here with a pilot wearing conventional kit and all should become clear.

That's not all, as optional g-socks are also available, and it's becoming clear why there are so few zips on the suits - with so many areas of the suit inflating when the aircraft pulls g they would dig painfully in to the wearer's skin, something Owen himself has experienced first-hand! The jacket, or life preserver, also works to help against the g forces by inflating, and this leaves the Typhoon pilot with just three areas that are not protected in this way - head, arms and the groin area. The final new piece of equipment is the immersion suit - much lighter and cooler than the ones we saw at RAF Valley - although, as Owen's demonstration shows us, it is still quite a job for the Typhoon pilot to fully prepare him or herself for action.

"This kit is remarkably effective," says Owen, who has completed pilot training on both the Tucano and Hawk.

"I am tall and thin so my g tolerance is not naturally the best, but when I first flew in a Typhoon I thought the g readings were incorrect as it didn't feel anything like as much as it did in the Hawk. It is also very comfortable to wear and the immersion suit is fantastic compared with what I have worn before."

So, on to the Typhoon itself. After the met brief (which successfully predicted an improvement in the weather) and lunch in the Officers Mess, with conversation interrupted by the sound of departing jets, we head back to 29(R)'s hangar for an expert tour around the aircraft, this time courtesy of Chief Technician Carlos Proctor. We are joined by Flt Lt Tim Clement and as we walk across to the jet Carlos has chosen, a block 8 aircraft sitting opposite the Lightning currently being refurbished for display outside, I ask him if my impressions of the Squadron thus far have been correct?

"I've been instructing on the Typhoon for something like 2 years now and still, once or twice every five sorties or so I sit back and think, 'wow, this aircraft is an incredible performer!"

I guess that's a yes then - and confirms why we just saw a much busier ops room now that the weather has improved, with pilots checking whether there was time to fit in the sorties cancelled in the morning.

"When new pilots come to the Squadron they all want to see how fast and how high the aircraft can go, so we actually programme some of that into the early days of the conversion course. They've done it then, seen what the aircraft can do and get on with learning about how to fly and operate the Typhoon."

Simulators are widely used at RAF Coningsby and there is actually a varied selection of synthetic training available, from the full dome simulators which can be linked together to enable pilots to practice air combat, to smaller, but no less realistic, versions where the pilot can actually set up his or her own training flight with no support required from other staff. It says much about this synthetic training, and indeed the ease with which Typhoon can be flown, that pilots will usually solo after just seven dual sorties, by which time they will already be instrument rated.

Carlos has been involved with the Typhoon programme since the aircraft was being developed at BAe Warton and then their introduction to RAF service, it's fair to say that there is nothing he doesn't know about the jet, and it shows as he gives us an enthusiastic tour of ZK305/EC.

Built largely of carbon fibre (composite materials) and some titanium, Typhoon was designed to feature 'carefree' handling that would maximise performance but not allow the pilot to lose control of the aircraft. Like every modern fighter design, Typhoon is inherently unstable and without the complicated flight computers and fly by wire technology wouldn't so much fall out of sky as never leave the ground.

"There are four flight computers in here," says Carlos, indicating the lower fuselage just rear of the nose cone.

"This provides total redundancy and the pilot could safely fly the aircraft with just one system operating, perhaps without even being aware that the other computers had failed. The whole aircraft is packed full of computer technology, well over 100 individual units, and that is one of the biggest leaps forward from previous aircraft in RAF service, both from a pilot's and maintainer's perspective."

At the heart of the aircraft, both literally and metaphorically, are the quite frankly amazing Eurojet EJ200 engines. The EJ200s can power the Eurofighter to published figures of Mach 2 plus at altitude, Mach 1.2 at sea level and the jet can supercruise at Mach 1.1 i.e. without using reheat. That much power, bearing in mind the engines are not yet fully rated and indeed may not need to be, is both a blessing and a conundrum for the aircrews.

"Within a matter of minutes after leaving Coningsby we can be at altitude, just east of Wittering for example and practising ACM (air combat manoeuvres)," says Tim, "that's brilliant for training."

"Equally, we usually transit across the UK at 40,000ft+, which means we are above all the airway traffic and can reach anywhere by taking a direct route, so this is both quick and efficient. The trick though is coming down from altitude as, if we select idle and point the aircraft five degrees nose down, we will still go supersonic.

"We have to roll the aircraft inverted and pull back hard on the stick to unload all the energy and can then spiral downwards without breaking the sound barrier."

One of the questions always being asked of the Coningsby Typhoon pilots is why they so infrequently depart their home base with 'burners blazing, and the simple fact is that they don't need to.

"There's no real difference in thrust to the Jaguar," says Tim laughing.

He's joking of course, but it's useful to compare some other differences between the aircraft and the landing checks example is one that illustrates the generation gap extremely well. Jaguar pilots had a host of pre-landing checks to complete before arriving home, somewhere in the region of 30. Typhoon pilots must lower the undercarriage and, well, that's about it really!

Carlos takes the time to explain some of the Typhoon's defensive aids, the most prominent of which are the DASS (Defensive Aids Sub System) pods on the wingtips which include a towed array for protection against radar guided missiles. Also of note in newer production block aircraft is the MAWS (Missile Approach Warning System) and there are various sensors positioned on the airframe for this purpose.

Inside the cockpit the lack of any traditional instrumentation is striking, and the main panel is dominated by the three full colour MHDD (Multi-function Head Down Displays) while the huge HUD (Head Up Display) and bulky control column are also worthy of note.

"We teach a certain way of using the screens but the information they display is interchangeable and on the front of the throttle we have a button which operates a mouse cursor just like that on any home PC or laptop. This can be freely scrolled between all three screens to make selections as required," Tim tells me.

He also confirms that while pilots do utilise the DVI (Direct Voice Input) they are careful not to become too reliant on this system and it is not used for any safety or weapons critical tasks.

Typhoon is literally brimming full of technology which allows the RAF pilots who operate it to do so in the most efficient way possible. Many of the features are designed to reduce pilot workload, but that doesn't mean that the 29(R) syllabus or indeed life on an operational squadron will be plane sailing.

"We could probably teach anyone who has flown a flight simulator on their computer at home to fly the Typhoon," says Tim.

But there is a vast amount to learn about operating this aircraft as a weapon system that only time and practise will bring, and any pilot successfully completing the OCU is a long way and a lot of hard work away from earning themselves the tag of combat ready."

That seems like a suitable place to wrap up our visit to 29(R), notwithstanding a quick photo session on the flightline to catch one or two jets as they come and go, flying programme now well underway. It has been a fascinating day and one full of surprises as we learned much about this monumentally impressive piece of technology and the pilots who fly it. Far too much to include here truth be told but hopefully we have given you a snapshot of what life is like with one of the world's most potent combat aircraft - the Eurofighter Typhoon.

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