At the RAF Cosford Air Show last month, the RV8tors appeared in a unique formation with Avro Vulcan XH558. Gareth Stringer reveals how it all came together – while Karl Drage brings us air-to-air images from the formation itself.
RAF Cosford, Sunday 9 June 2013. Blue skies, sparkling summer sunshine and the promise of an excellent flying display have attracted in excess of 50,000 spectators to one of the few major air displays in the West Midlands.
The bottom line is, it’s packed; full to the brim with aviation loving Brits who have marvelled at the sheer power of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the famous sight of the Red Arrows, watched awestruck at the evocative grace of the Lancaster and delighted in an appearance by Prince Harry, to name but a few of the many highlights from an incredibly varied five-hour flying programme.
Truth be told, though, as the afternoon draws on, many are waiting for one thing in particular, the 2013 airshow début of the world’s only flying Avro Vulcan, XH558. A true Cold War icon, the Vulcan came back to life (flight) in 2007, partly thanks to Heritage Lottery funding, and has stayed there ever since, almost exclusively due to the generosity – adoration even – shown towards her by the Great British public. It’s an incredible story and one which might not be over yet, with plans now afoot to keep the aircraft flying until 2015.
It’s 16.00 and the Vulcan is due to appear at any time and with the RV8tors formation aerobatic display team due to follow immediately afterwards. The contrast couldn’t be any greater. The distinctive delta-shaped bomber is nearly 100ft long and 100ft wide, weighing in at more than 80,000lbs, empty. It is powered by four Bristol Olympus engines and, in service, could cruise at 55,000ft carrying 21,000lbs of conventional weapons…or a nuclear bomb.
The RV8tors fly, as their name suggests, the Vans RV8. Other than the fact that both types (Vulcan and RV8) are Permit Aircraft – operating thanks to clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority (Vulcan) and Light Aircraft Association – the comparison between the two ends there! The RV is the world’s most popular kit-built aircraft, weighing in at approx 1,100lbs, with a wingspan of 24ft and a single 200hp engine. Compare those with the Vulcan stats above…
Don’t be fooled though, the RV8 punches well above its weight and the team is one of the UK’s most popular, with pilots Alister Kay and Andy Hill two of the most respected on the airshow circuit. Displaying after the Vulcan is never easy, however, whoever you are or whatever you fly!
It is therefore a huge surprise when, much to the delight of the enormous crowd, not one but three aircraft loom into vision from the west, as the RV8tors and the Vulcan arrive overhead together, the two diminutive RV8s making the Vulcan look even bigger than normal as they trail smoke from their position in close formation on each wing-tip.
It’s a fantastic, enthralling and quite unique sight as the formation completes a trio of flypasts, before the two RV8tors break off to allow XH558 to complete her solo display which, as ever, combines elegance and raw power and shows just why she is often referred to as ‘the people’s aircraft’.
Once the Vulcan calls ‘display complete’ and is heading for home, the stage is cleared for the RV8tors to perform themselves, albeit on a quieter level, as Alister and Andy deliver their usual high-energy brand of formation aerobatics, one which will be seen by more than two million people this year alone.
Afterwards, having landed at Cosford, the pair are all smiles. The word ‘unforgettable’ and the phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ are both repeated as they are forced to recount the story to the many who want to hear it, with people coming over to offer congratulations and to comment on the success of the formation.
But how did it all come about? You would be forgiven for assuming that it takes months of planning and practice to put a unique Cold War veteran in the same piece of sky as two tiny (by comparison) aerobatic aircraft and to do so in front of 50,000 people – but you’d be wrong.
“It started on the Thursday morning prior to the weekend”, Alister says, “three days before we would actually be displaying. I got our slot (display) times through for both Welshpool Airshow and also RAF Cosford Air Show and couldn’t help but note that we were displaying before the Vulcan at the former and just after her at the latter.
“I knew that we would both be transiting across to Cosford at the same time and that’s when I thought that it would be fantastic to do so together and to then do something as a three-ship when we got there.
“Our RV8s are also pretty quick so I knew we could easily keep up with ‘558, which would also mean that she wouldn’t be wasting any of her precious allocation of hours for the 2013 season waiting around for us or doing anything unnecessary.”
It sounds simple doesn’t it? But this is only part of the story though and the next step was to see if those who operate XH558 agreed that it was do-able – and actually worth doing. There is of course no direct link between the Vulcan and the RV8, or indeed the RV8tors, but Alister and Andy’s feeling was that it would look good, would provide smoke for the Vulcan and, being unique, was worth exploring further. Alister’s next port of call therefore was Vulcan to the Sky’s Chief Pilot and Operations Manager, Martin Withers.
Martin, in the first of a number of coincidences surrounding this whole event, is not just one of the heroes of mission “Black Buck 1”, which saw him fly a Vulcan 6,800 nautical miles to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War, but who as a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) in the Royal Air Force sent Andy Hill off on his first jet solo!
“I spoke to Martin and he said it was a great idea, suggesting I speak to Kev Rumens, who would be captaining XH558 on the Sunday, to see what he thought. Fortunately Kev was onside too, and at this stage I think we all began to think that it might actually happen – even the weather forecast was looking favourable!
“We had the full support of both Display Directors – Pete Sinclair at Welshpool and Bill Hartree at Cosford, and the latter was especially enthusiastic as it would be ‘his’ airshow where the formation appeared publicly.”
On Friday afternoon a planning meeting took place at the IWM Duxford, and Andy and Alister took the opportunity to spend half an hour with the museum’s Vulcan, evaluating potential formation positions. They picked a primary position using the passenger seat of museum RAF car parked adjacent to the bomber as a guide!
Alister also knew that as well as ensuring that the transit with the Vulcan and the flypasts were meticulously thought-through and briefed ahead of the weekend, that there would also be a unique opportunity to capture imagery of the aircraft together as they tracked from Welshpool to Cosford. Could that be exploited?
Fortuitously, another RV8 (coincidence number two) was planning to attend Welshpool – G-JBTR; owned by Bob Ellis, a highly capable formation pilot and would you believe, a former RAF Vulcan pilot who last flew XH558 back in February 1982. That’s strike three on the coincidence count!
Bob recalls, “I flew XH558 on many occasions but the most memorable was on a trip where we were tasked to fly from RAF Scampton to Midway Island in the Pacific to carry out an air sampling mission that should have taken ten days. We never actually got to Midway and after navigation problems on the way there, a hydraulic leak (in Hawaii), crew illness and a pressurisation failure which saw us landing in Iceland, returned to Scampton 23 days later having failed to complete our original task!”
In case you’re wondering where coincidences four and five are coming from, wait no longer, for Martin Withers was Bob’s Flight Commander when he was a QFI at RAF Linton-on-Ouse in 1983 and Bill Perrins, Kev Rumen’s co-pilot for the day at Welshpool and Cosford, also served with Bob at the same location. Small world!
Anyway, Bob, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was delighted to undertake the camera-ship duties, and with Global Aviation Resource’s very own Karl Drage an equally eager recruit as photographer, all that remained was to figure out the best way of getting all four aircraft in the same piece of sky for photos, and more pressingly, working out how to get Karl to Bob’s RV8 and then Karl back to his car at the end of the day!
The emails were flying back and forth and the timings were extremely precise, with contingencies factored in, but, in the end, this first portion of the day all went smoothly. Sunday morning eventually saw Karl driving to Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green Airport where he met with Bob, jumped in to his RV8 and the two then took off, rendezvousing with Alister and Andy close to Kidderminster, which allowed them to work on a few angles ahead of the afternoon’s transit with the Vulcan.
Once on the ground at Welshpool, Alister and Andy conducted their usual airshow duties, which culminated of course with them flying their display for the capacity crowd, though Karl blotted his copy-book somewhat by missing the display as he had gone for lunch, which is going to take some time to live down!
With the Vulcan’s arrival at Welshpool looming, the RV8tors and Bob, with Karl in the back, departed and held in a safe area, giving them a unique, albeit distant, airborne perspective of ‘558 as she displayed. Kev Rumen’s radio call of “Display complete” was Alister and Andy’s cue to form up with her for the first time, and for Bob and Karl, who had gained some height, which Bob planned to trade in for speed to make sure they were close enough to the formation, the race was on!
“We dived down from our position, slightly above the Vulcan,” recalls Alister, “and XH558 just looked huge. Once we were in position it really was extraordinary, this mass of aircraft next to us, and somewhere up ahead was its cockpit!
”We were close enough to see plenty of detail, such as how the elevons deflected and then there was a gap of couple of seconds before the wing moved and I could see the huge engines but couldn’t hear them all. I’d never been that close to Vulcan with its engines running before, and it was totally silent, even though it felt as if I could reach out and touch it!”
Interestingly, the pre-planned position for the RV8tors to keep station, as calculated at Duxford, actually proved to be unsuitable due to wake effects, so the RV8tors moved to a pre-briefed secondary position.
In the end the four aircraft were ‘together’ for exactly 16 minutes, during which time Karl was able to capture the images you see here. It wasn’t easy, and he described the experience as “really tough, there was lots of canopy distortion and it was very bumpy”, adding, “what an experience though – absolutely awesome!”
Not the easiest job for Kev Rumens either, as he confirmed when we spoke to discuss the formation…
“It’s never easy flying formation in the Vulcan and with the RV8tors it was perhaps trickier than normal. I was very aware that if I applied too much power that I would dump them out of the formation and they would suddenly be 100 yards behind us, and we’d all look stupid in front of a massive crowd!
“This was our first public display sortie of the year and it was great to start the season by getting together with the RV8tors – a truly memorable day.”
That final statement would certainly be echoed by everyone else involved, with Bob saying afterwards, “I was honoured to be asked to fly my own RV8 to capture this once in a lifetime experience. It was even more poignant for me as I last flew in this very aircraft 31 years ago as co-pilot.”
For Kev Rumens, Bill Perrins and Phil Davies (Air Electronics Operator), on-board XH558, the experience was also slightly surreal, being unable to actually see the RV8tors alongside them for much of the time, other than glimpses of shadows and smoke during the join. That didn’t dent their delight at the success of the venture, however, as was quite clear when Alister and Kev spoke on the phone once all parties had landed. Kev has even said to Alister that it would be great to do it again sometime!
“It really was an incredible experience for both Andy and me,” Alister says now, “and I must note that Kev Rumens and his colleagues did a fantastic job with the flying, they were really the ones working hardest of all. The most important thing though was that everyone on the ground enjoyed it, there would have little point in putting it all together otherwise.”
Whether it does happen again remains to be seen, but, for now, Alister and Andy are simply delighted that it all worked so beautifully at RAF Cosford. Best of all was the response that the formation flypasts generated from everyone who saw it – that made it all worthwhile and, hopefully for a few, something they will always remember.
Gareth Stringer and Karl Drage would like to extend sincere thanks to all of those mentioned above – without whom this feature would not have been possible.