2011 UK Airshows

MAY 13 2011
Airshows >> UK: Flt Lt Jules Fleming - 2011 Royal Air Force Hawk Display

Arriving on Anglesey the day before our official visit, ostensibly to break up the journey but also to spend some time taking advantage of the stunning weather conditions, we catch the last couple of minutes of Jules Fleming's Hawk display routine. Clearly you can't make a complete judgement on two minutes alone but even that brief peek leaves us impressed and agreeing with those who had already been following her frequent practice sorties; it looks like an eye-catching routine with something for everyone.

Fast forward to 07.10 the following morning and we are already driving across from the Officers' Mess to the main RAF Valley site, destination 208(R) Squadron. In the car with us is Lt Rob Hunt RN, one of two holding officers who will act as Jules' Display Managers this year, the other being Sub Lt Ollie Pocock RN - definitely the men responsible for the 'HMS Display' sign which currently adorns the door of the display office!

The reason for the early start is an 07.30 met brief, following which Jules will conduct a display brief ready for two run-throughs in her first practice slot of the day, between 08.30 and 09.00, with a second slot planned for lunchtime. In terms of photographing the display itself this gives us two bites of the cherry to allow for poor weather, but we needn't have worried really as the UK is basking in bright sunshine blazing down from clear blue skies, a welcome sight on any visit but perhaps at Valley in particular, not always known for such conditions!

Met brief complete and coffee refilled we head in to the display office and sit quietly while Jules briefs for the practice with Sqn Ldr 'Skids' Harrison, one of her supervisors and a hugely experienced pilot himself. Jules talks through the whole routine, stage by stage, using the whiteboard to draw each manoeuvre as she recites the correct speeds, gate heights, headings and emergency procedures. I've said it before but I make no apology for repeating myself, display flying is a complex and exacting thing to go and do and the risks associated with performing low level aerobatics are always minimised as much as possible.

Once Skids is happy he heads off to authorise Jules for the sortie and we make our way downstairs to Ops, where, a short while later, we are joined by Jules who, walking in from the locker room, is now almost ready to go flying. Grabbing the portable GPS (Global Positioning System) unit that she will attach to the Hawk's cockpit coaming she signs out her aircraft for the trip (XX307 for those of you who are interested in such things) and outbriefs with the duty pilot on the ops desk. One part of this outbrief is that he checks the special dispensation that means she doesn't have to wear an immersion suit for the sortie, this despite the water temperature hovering just below the 10C limit which would normally make it a safety requirement. After this is all done, she's finally ready to walk.

It's only a short distance across the ramp to the rows of Hawk T.1s and a flightline that is growing in size as more and more aircraft are towed out ahead of a busy day's flying, with 19(R) Squadron's T.2s parked just behind us. XX307 is parked near to the end of the line and, as another crew prepare their aircraft so that they can depart before the display practices close Valley to other traffic, Jules begins the fairly rapid process of pre-flighting her jet, this accomplished by virture of the usual walk-around and the somewhat fiddly job of affixing the GPS.

Soon though Jules is sitting with the engine running and, having waited for a few minutes, is given clearance to taxi. We watch her depart towards the runway and then make our way to the balcony of the air traffic control tower where Skids and the Station's video cameraman are both already in position.

"I returned to Valley in March last year and I decided that, having already done an instructional course and therefore built up some experience of flying the T.1, should the opportunity arise I would like to be considered for the display," Jules told us later. "I began dropping hints almost straight away!

"I was then working away on a service inquiry for four months so thought I might have missed the boat but, having returned in September and got my instructional qualifications renewed, it became clear that with the SDSR going on, that no decision had been made. It wasn't until November that the display started being mentioned again.

"Really this couldn't have to come at a better time for me as I knew I would be around all season and that there were no other commitments that would get in the way. So, five of us were shortlisted and each of us got a half hour flight with the Station Commander followed by 10 minutes in a briefing room where we talked through a sequence and made a presentation on why we wanted to be the display pilot. He debriefed us all together later that afternoon and made his decision that same day.

"This was actually on our last day before we broke up for the Christmas break and I don't think it really sunk in until we came back in to work."

It did however make for a Merry Christmas and a great way to end 2010 for Jules, who, on arriving back at RAF Valley in January, realised just how much needed to be accomplished in a comparatively short space of time.

"I hit the ground running as we needed to get the sequence approved, find out if there was going to be a paint scheme, whether I would get a Display Manager to help me and basically figure out how we were going to make the season work. We hadn't really been able to conduct a proper handover as the decision was made fairly late so I made the most of talking to Tom (Saunders) and Matt Barker (2009 display) and then, when Rob and Ollie were allocated to the Team, they spoke to Flt Lt Tom Sawle, last season's Display Manager, who really helped them from that perspective."

While Jules naturally took counsel from others, notably the Station Commander, Gp Capt Bruce Hedley, and the likes of Flt Lt Geoff Sheppard, the Central Flying School (CFS) agent for the Hawk at RAF Valley, the display sequence itself is pretty much all her own work.

It's something she's very proud of and, most importantly, clearly enjoys flying. This is abundantly clear as we watch the first of the day's practices and we really enjoy it too. A mixture of quite technical flying - look out for the excellent Roller Coaster and also a beautifully flown slow roll - all combined with a number of crowd (and photographer!) friendly passes. Especially worthy of note is a knife edge pass down the length of the crowdline and a slow loop where everything, momentarily at least, goes very quiet, and this will undoubtedly get the audience's attention.

"Every time I go and fly it it's just brilliant really! Not everyone gets the chance to do this and from a professional perspective that was the motivation for the job, I suppose. There was personal gratification even just to be shortlisted but to have actually got the job is awesome.

"It's a big responsibility to go out there and represent 208 Sqn, 4 FTS and RAF Valley, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this season, and yes, while I have done the PR bit for flying in Afghanistan (in her previous role as a Tornado GR.4 pilot), this is a whole new ball game. It really does encompass every single member of the general public who comes to an airshow or indeed any event where I'll be displaying."

Having completed two successful run throughs of her full display sequence Jules lands and taxies back past the tower giving us all a good wave as she does so. We then make our way back across the ramp to the 208 Squadron building where her next task is to debrief with Skids - a fairly quick process as both he and Jules are happy with how the two displays have gone. After that it's time for Jules to change in to the black flying suit for some posed pictures out on the ramp and then, in a spare briefing room, conduct the interview that you are reading here.

By which time, following a brief interlude for us to visit The Moran Building, new home to 19(R) Squadron and the Hawk T.2, we are just about able to grab lunch before heading back to the tower for Jules' third and fourth practices of the day - a full followed by a rolling show in pretty horrible light, certainly nowhere near as good as that in the morning. This time Gp Capt Hedley himself is supervising and, between the two displays, he comes over to say hello. It's clear that he is delighted with Jules and the way in which the display has come together and is keen to emphasise that certain parts, such as the dirty pass, have been included very much with the photographer in mind. Good to hear and, as I mentioned earlier, proof that there really should be something for everyone.

"I read all the manuals and past display notes and the best bit of advice I took from that research was to pick some specific moves that I wanted to do and then use more standard display manoeuvres to link it all together," says Jules. "I definitely wanted to include the slow loop and I was also keen for the Roller Coaster to be in there as well, mainly as you get some really interesting levels of buffet as you fly towards the crowd. The slow roll, which I think works really well if you do it properly, and also the negative G cuban, were musts for me as well.

"Then it was a case of playing around on paper and attempting a few things in the air to try and join it all up. You really learn about the aircraft's true turning circle when flying aeros and also, what works at 5000ft doesn't always work when you bring it back down to lower altitude, so it takes some time to get a polished routine."

While Jules describes her emotions as "excited nerves" with a long display season ahead, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn here with something that also plays a big part in her life - the world of show jumping. An experienced rider and competitor, Jules has represented the Royal Air Force on numerous occasions and, most recently, was part of the winning RAF team that competed at Royal Windsor Horse Show in front of Her Majesty, The Queen. Add motor racing as another hobby, albeit one serious enough for Jules to drive in the 2004 National Series, and you can see that performing in front of a large crowd will actually be a far from new experience for her.

"I love big crowds and I suppose there's a part of me that enjoys performing in front of one. I think it's going to feel exactly the same as it does when I'm doing my horse riding, my mind is totally focussed on what I'm doing and I think you tend to forget that there are loads of people there so I suppose in some ways I'm doing it for me in that regard."

There remains of course a serious message to be delivered by the vast majority of the Royal Air Force's solo and team displays which is that, despite recent and ongoing defence cuts and redundancies, we do still maintain effective armed forces which will require young men and women to join them in years to come. It is certainly very busy at RAF Valley at the moment and the Hawk T.2's first ab initio student course is due to commence in November. It's a message that Jules is very aware of.

"We still need to produce the aircrew to maintain the front line and our job at Valley remains unchanged. The RAF will still be recruiting too and the displays show the public we are still around, we still have a fleet of aircraft for training and frontline operations and that we value their support."

Jules is certainly looking forward to meeting the general public and fulfilling the PR part of the job, but is determined to find the right balance between concentrating on the flying and doing exactly that. With many of her former colleagues currently engaged on operations both in Afghanistan and over Libya, it's clearly important for her to help get the message across both in a professional and personal sense.

She has of course been at the frontline herself and flown operational sorties in Afghanistan as part of the Tornado GR.4 force. What comparisons, if any, can be made between the challenge of display flying and operational flying?

"The display flying is actually a far more physical challenge. As you know, everything is carefully planned and we use a building block approach to the training, discovering what yours and the aircraft's limits are at 5000ft before working down to lower heights, step by step. The G forces really start to kick in at low altitude and you can't ever really afford to switch off, although the full display does at least give me a few seconds to catch my breath at the top of the looping manoeuvres.

"Operational flying is different. It could be quiet for 50% of the time but the situation can change in a heartbeat and you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Not as physically challenging but definitely quite tiring mentally.

"The actual mental preparation is quite similar however. There comes a point before every trip I think where you need to try and switch off outside influences and concentrate on the forthcoming sortie. I do go in to a bit of a zone, I suppose, but equally you have to be able to cope with inputs as circumstances can always change and you need to react. It's a little unhealthy to disappear totally in to a bubble I think."

Interview complete and, after a quick visit to the paintshop to see how the 2011 Display Scheme is coming along, it's time for one last treat - a trip to the Hawk T.1 simulator. Most of us will never get to see Jules' sequence from the cockpit of course, but she flies it twice for us in the sim and we get the chance to watch from right next to her in the dome. I'm quite glad we didn't do this first thing in the morning before breakfast to be honest as Valley spins around at a furious rate, the sim giving a true, and very impressive, pilot's eye view of the display.

After that Karl and I both get a second opportunity to try it out for size ourselves, and I for one am hoping for anything other than a repeat of my crashes when we flew it before! This time, thankfully, having successfully taken off from Valley, I fly out over Holyhead and return for a near perfect landing. We swap over and Karl does exactly the same, although he is given a 9/10 to my 9.5/10, largely for landing slightly off centre and then performing a pirouette, leaving his Hawk 'parked' at 90 to the runway! It's all good fun though but, most importantly, gives us a brief insight in to what it's like to fly a Hawk for real.

With that it's time to say our goodbyes and hit the road for the long journey home. Once again we've enjoyed a fascinating and enjoyable visit to RAF Valley and got to learn a little more about the 2011 RAF Hawk Display. Personally I think Jules' routine will prove extremely popular this year, as her debut at Abingdon Air & Country Show last weekend demonstrated, and she's sure to enjoy an engaging and successful season. We wish her and all the Team the very best.

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2011-06-18 - TED HYDE
18/6/11. Have just watched a display by this wonderfully talanted woman. What a pilot, we had an airshow at Margate Kent today. The RAF must be very proud of her! May she have many more years flying and go far in her profession. Marvelous!
Ted Hyde. (aged aviator. 78).

2011-06-06 - Peter Fleetwood
Another fine article with a great selection of photographs, too. I think it is marvellous how much RAF Valley and "Jules" and her colleagues want to put into these interviews and articles, as well as what I reckon will be a thoroughly appealing display routine. As often happens, your article makes me even more keen to see the real thing for myself.

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