2013 UK Airshows

MAR 08 2013
Airshows >> UK: Exclusive - Flt Lt Jamie Norris: 2013 RAF Typhoon Display Pilot

December 2012, it’s a couple of weeks before Christmas and Karl and I are visiting RAF Coningsby to talk Typhoon Display. It seems early to be talking about 2013 airshows but with responsibility for the display returning to 29(R) Squadron, from 6 Squadron at RAF Leuchars, this year’s team is already working hard to make sure that it is ahead of the game; with very good reason, as we will see later on.

The man at the sharp end is Typhoon QPI Flight Lieutenant Jamie Norris. Jamie was born in Newcastle upon Tyne and grew up in Northumberland. Educated at Seaton Burn College and Northumbria University, it was whilst he was studying for his degree that Jamie joined Northumbrian Universities Air Squadron (NUAS) based at RAF Leeming and was awarded a bursary, joining the RAF as a pilot in 2002.

Upon completion of Advanced Fast Jet Training, Jamie was selected to be a first tourist “creamie” instructor. He spent three years at RAF Valley teaching students to fly the Hawk T1 before Tactical Weapons training on 19(R) Squadron.

Jamie was then posted to 20(R) Squadron at RAF Wittering to fly the Harrier GR9, and upon leaving the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) Jamie was posted to IV(AC) Squadron at RAF Cottesmore.

During his time on the Harrier he took part in numerous overseas deployments and exercises in Norway, USA, Canada and Cyprus including embarked operations onboard HMS Illustrious.

Jamie flew the Harrier GR9 until the disbandment of IV(AC) Squadron in 2010, at which point he transferred to the Typhoon FGR4. Following completion of the OCU he remained on 29(R) Squadron as a Typhoon Qualified Pilot Instructor (QPI). As a QPI, Jamie has trained many of the current Typhoon Force pilots and contributes to RAF Coningsby’s primary task of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties. Back in October it was revealed he would be displaying the aircraft in 2013.

Meeting RAF Coningsby’s Media and Communications Officer, Jim Robinson, Karl and I follow him through the maze of roads that lead to the parking spaces outside 29(R) Squadron’s building, its refurbished English Electric Lightning standing proudly outside. Unlike many of our previous visits to the Station, so much so that it has become a standing joke, the sun is shining from clear blue winter skies, although it is very cold; almost unbearably cold in actual fact, though we’ll take the sunshine any day of the week!

Entering 29(R) we make our way down the corridor and past the display boards explaining the role and make-up of the unit, which stand alongside an impressive collection of models representing the types flown throughout its distinguished history, reaching display HQ, one of many similar offices on either side of the building.

Checking that Jamie isn’t busy on the phone, we enter and do the introductions, as this is the first time he and Karl have met. As for me, I travelled up a few weeks earlier to meet Jamie, discuss some plans for the season ahead and to get a glimpse of his display routine (on paper!).

We then met again when he attended the BADA (British Air Display Association) end of season symposium at Shrivenham, a superb opportunity to introduce himself to many of the event organisers he will be displaying for this year and to meet other airshow pilots.

The season is months away yet, but even a cursory glance around the office shows how busy he and his colleagues are in terms of planning and preparation. Since my visit a couple of weeks ago, a map of the UK has gone up and pins representing potential displays are beginning to appear, as his calendar for the season starts forming. A white-board covering much of one wall has a lengthy to-do list, annotated with notes: sponsors, sign-offs, display routine, key dates, team clothing, media, photos, public relations, website, social media, brochure……the list goes on.

As Jamie himself comments, “It’s all too easy to forget the work that goes on behind the scenes, or at least not appreciate that it’s being done. It’s not just me, obviously, there’s an engineering team, a holding officer, my display manager and the supervisory chain. People should know that is all going on, and indeed it does so every year that we put a public display out there.”

This is the sort of insight we always consider ourselves very fortunate to be given and that the average airshow-goer doesn’t perhaps think of when they see the aircraft perform in front of them. Sending any aircraft out to display publicly, but maybe more so for such a hugely complex piece of equipment like the Typhoon, is a huge task and one that takes months of preparation. It’s certainly not something that we should take for granted, that’s for sure, and when things don’t happen, like this year’s Tornado GR4 Role Demonstration, for example, we’d do well to consider just how much impact it can actually have on the day to day business of whichever squadron has been tasked with providing the display, where operational tasks always, without fail, take priority.

But, displays like this have a hugely positive impact on public relations and recruitment for the Royal Air Force, of course, and, in the case of Eurofighter, potential export sales for the aircraft, which in turn could lead to a great economic benefit for the UK, so it is judged to be a worthwhile task, and that is the reason why, even though the season seems like a long way away, Jamie and his colleagues are already so busy.

This season also sees one other factor come in to play, the fact that Jamie’s display season actually starts at LIMA ’13 - the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia at the end of the March. This huge trade show coincides with 1(F) Squadron from RAF Leuchars deploying for an exercise with the Royal Malaysian Air Force and therefore gives the Royal Air Force the opportunity to demonstrate the Typhoon as part of a flying programme that will also include the likes of Dassault Rafale, Sukhoi Su-30, Saab Gripen and the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. It also means that Jamie has to be ready to roll, and in possession of his PDA (Public Display Authorisation), much earlier than he would have been otherwise. No pressure then!

“It is a massive honour to have been chosen as the display pilot for 2013,” Jamie tells me over coffee in the 29(R) crew room, “probably the greatest honour that I could have been asked to fulfil in my current role on the Squadron.

“In my opinion, the Typhoon is the best jet that the Royal Air Force has and has ever had. It’s right at the cutting edge and its performance is blistering, designed of course for its primary combat roles, but that also makes it very useful for airshow performances. Displaying the aircraft is going to be phenomenal and I am really looking forward to it.”!

He’s not just looking forward to it; he’s also put a lot of thought in to it, including extensive research in to all the previous RAF Typhoon displays, as well as those from the likes of the Italian Air Force, a display that has always proved extremely popular with enthusiasts.

That research has enabled Jamie to create a display that yes, does utilise manoeuvres you will have seen before, but in essence is very new. Even sitting with him as he talks us through it, you get a sense of how it is going to look and feel – and I do think it is safe to say that it could easily be the most exciting RAF Typhoon display yet, and that is with no disrespect to those who have gone before. It’s an evolutionary thing and it is quite clear that he can’t wait to fly it for real, having done so synthetically on numerous occasions already.

“The simulator is fantastic, but it can give you a false sense of security,” Jamie smiles, “at 1G it is very easy to fly all of the planned manoeuvres. The sim could give you the impression that it is going to be easy, but I’m not under any illusion that it will be.

“I flew with Squadron Leader Scott Loughran (2009 and 2012 display pilot) a few days ago and, having witnessed his routine at first hand, well, it was an assault on the senses! I knew what was coming, which helped, as did Scott’s briefing, but it is still interesting when someone else is flying it and you don’t really get any appreciation of what he is asking the jet to do. That will come when I’m in control, but flying with Scott was a very important and educational part of my own display work-up.”

In terms of the specifics, and all that research, as we sit down chatting on this cold winter’s day at Coningsby the routine was neither 100% finalised nor approved, but, without going in to many details, I ask Jamie what the routine is designed to achieve.

“My mentor is Charlie Matthews (2008 display pilot) and I got together with Scott, and Charlie, a few months ago to discuss the routine, and the first thing is that it has to be safe, that’s the absolute number one priority.

“We’ve been displaying the jet for a few years now so we have a set number of manoeuvres which have been tried and tested, which is great, but then there is an opportunity to put my own mark on the routine – what do I want it to look like, sound like and feel like?

“So, my second aim, after safety, was to keep it as close to the crowd as possible, albeit within the rules and regulations, of course, but I want the audience to see as much of the jet, from up-close, as they can. Thirdly – noise. There is a shock and awe factor from the jet, I think, and there should be plenty of that to look forward to in 2013, too. I would advise purchasing ear-defenders!

“Finally, and this is perhaps a step back from the public, if you like, is that I wanted to make it reasonably simple to fly. It’s my first season displaying and, while keeping safety very much in mind, it is also a relatively easy routine to fly, and interchangeable for different weather conditions, even if it doesn’t look simple from the ground.”

Lastly, before we all brave the freezing conditions to take some pictures of Jamie out on the 29(R) Squadron flight line, I ask one more question. There’s no point asking if he’s looking forward to it, that much is abundantly clear, but what, I wonder, is he most looking forward to?

“I’m not sure it is always that easy to put in to words,” he smiles, “but I can’t wait for clear days like this where I strap in, get in to my bubble and then taxi out and literally let-rip in what is probably the world’s finest fighter aircraft, specifically to show the general public some of what it can do. To be allowed to do that day in and day out will be fantastic.”

Fast forward – February 26th 2013, Shrivenham Defence Academy and the British Air Display Association / Military Aviation Authority Pre-Season Symposium. Nearly two hundred airshow pilots, organisers, experts and media have just sat through the first of two days of presentations, lectures and open forums to ensure that the 2013 airshow season is as safe and well-organised as it can possibly be. It’s a great environment for learning and for the industry to come together, and Jamie, naturally, was in attendance.

Having, like everyone else, retired to the bar at the end of a long day, we find a suitable corner to sit down before we all head off to eat. We don’t have long, mainly because we have grabbed a sofa in the peace and quiet of the TV room in The Mess, and its only resident wants to watch ‘The Great British Menu’ in ten minutes, but that is plenty of time to bring this feature up to date, especially now that Jamie’s work-up is so well advanced.

I ask him to think back to January and the first time that he actually walked out to go and fly his routine, starting, as per the process, at 5000ft.

“It was great, although there was some trepidation involved! It was a lovely day to go flying and I really wanted it to run on rails. It was a first chance to see if the sequence worked while airborne, having rehearsed it so much in the simulator, and to make any amendments, if necessary. (More of which later.....)

“We always try to minimise the noise in the local area as residents have to live with the Typhoon every day as it is, so I went feet-wet (over the sea) and headed for The Wash, practising in the Holbeach area, albeit well clear of the danger zone for the firing range, of course.

“Flying over the sea also meant that I could go a little lower, as my 5000ft MSD (minimum separation distance) was exactly that over the sea, meaning that I didn’t have to take in to account the height of any masts, or anything else like that.”

Reaching his practice area just minutes after take-off, Jamie admits to taking a breath and thinking to himself, ‘this is it……'.

“You really have to stay sharp to do this. If you had asked me before, I would have told you that flying aerobatics is actually relatively easy compared with some of the operational flying that we conduct, but suddenly I found myself chasing the jet again and trying to keep up! The preparation in the simulator paid off though, and it felt like a really good start.

“The best thing for me, and I’m quite a bad passenger in a car, for example, is that I was pulling my own G. I like to be in control, but that isn’t to say that you should ever underestimate the sheer forces you have to endure for the seven and a half minutes of the display – the G forces are brutal.

“We’ve got some great kit on the Typhoon to help us counteract those forces though, but as I’ve worked down in altitude, the forces increase as the air thickens. The flipside of that is that aircraft feels a lot more responsive and the way it flies really is remarkable – there’s a big difference, even from the way it feels at 5000ft.

“The jet never fails to impress, and the way it responds in the display environment is absolutely awesome, there is no other way to describe it.”

Jamie is keen to emphasise that his display will show the general public some of what the aircraft can do, but in actual fact he is not pushing up against all of Typhoon’s limitations, a clear indication that there is, in some areas at least, a lot more in reserve.

“We could fly the display with a full war load, for example, the Typhoon could do that, no problem, and we’ve seen it done before, but I want my display to be as tight and as close to the crowd as I’m allowed. The emphasis though is on the aircraft’s role, first and foremost it’s a fighting machine – and I will hopefully show everyone a little bit of what the Typhoon is capable of.”

While the step down in heights during his work-up might allow for what Jamie says is, “a nice learning curve, both physically and mentally”, each step is a significant one, most obviously with the ground getting closer each time!

“Your picture from the cockpit changes, even when coming down from say, 1500ft to 1000ft. Everything looks different, the aircraft will perform differently and that step shouldn’t be underestimated. Put it this way, I lose a third of my base-height every time I am cleared to step down, and I am sure anyone reading this would notice the difference if, as an analogy, they drove their car at speeds that were a third quicker, then another third quicker, and so on!”

Back to the routine, and Jamie’s comment earlier, regarding making amendments to the display, I have to ask whether much has changed since we met back in December and he talked us through his plans for the season ahead.

“It actually didn’t survive first contact with being taken airborne,” he laughs, “not at all! I am my own worst critic and will always be the first person to beat myself up if I don’t think it looks right. It’s reached the stage now where I know it inside out and when I came down to 1500ft and brought the display practices over the airfield, that gave us a first look from a spectator’s perspective.

“To some extent what you saw in December was a best-guess, and you really can’t tell until you’ve flown it in front of people over the airfield, so, using the correct process, we approached our command chain and asked if we could make some tweaks. When they were approved I then went back up to altitude to work on it again, so making those changes can be a lengthy process and you don’t want to it too often, which is why I spent so much time trying to get it right in the first place.

”So yes, it has definitely evolved since you saw it on paper, but we only changed things that didn’t feel right and I am really happy with where we are at.”

Finally, with The Great British Menu looming, along with our own dinner, I have to ask Jamie whether he is now, somehow, even more excited than he clearly was when we last met?

“I didn’t think when I spoke to you last time that I could have been any more excited, but I am! Very few people get to experience this and taking the jet to some of its performance limitations at low level has really opened my eyes to the true performance of Typhoon, which is absolutely breathtaking.

“I just hope that some of my excitement rubs off on to the crowd as I display the jet throughout the 2013 airshow season.”

Just a couple of days after this interview, Jamie, with mentor Squadron Leader Charlie Matthews in the back seat, performed his first practice at his display base height of 500ft, in the crystal clear skies over RAF Coningsby.

Later that evening he sent me a message in response to my "How was it?" text - and Jamie's reply was very simple – "Immense"!

Judging by the response of the numerous enthusiasts that were present, and you can see some of the images here, you need not take my, or Jamie’s word, for the fact that this could be a huge highlight of the display season.

While we naturally wish Jamie and the team all the best for LIMA, his UK dates can’t come soon enough and we are looking forward to seeing the entire team’s hard work rewarded with what is sure to be a hugely positive response from crowds the length and breadth of this country.

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