Global Aviation Resource travelled to RAF Coningsby to meet Flt Lt Jonny Dowen, the 2015 Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon Display Pilot. Words Gareth Stringer, images as credited.
It’s a sunny Friday morning in May and RAF Coningsby is very busy, with the amount of flying activity befitting a station that is home to two operational Typhoon squadrons as well as the type’s Operational Conversion Unit and the Royal Air Force’s fast jet test and evaluation squadron.
The Avro Lancaster (pre-engine incident) is sitting quietly outside the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight hangar, which has attracted a crowd of its own by the adjacent fence, adding to those in the spotters’ car park watching the Typhoons come and go, and I will be heading across to the BBMF myself later for a second airshow-based interview.
Right now though I am walking in to the 29(R) Squadron building with Flt Lt Jonny Dowen. Jonny is a busy man himself and that’s because he is the 2015 Eurofighter Typhoon Display Pilot for the Royal Air Force and weeks and weeks of training and preparation are about to come to a conclusion with the award of his PDA (Public Display Authorisation) and the beginning of his display season; one which will see him taking the Typhoon to a whole host of airshows and other public events.
“I think airshows basically got me interested in flying to start with,” Jonny tells me as we walk inside, “especially the military side of things and fast jets. My parents used to take me and I have continued going to airshows since joining the RAF, so it will be interesting to see them from the other side.”
Born in Sutton Coldfield, Jonny initially grew up in Spain before moving back to the UK aged nine. He spent his secondary school years attending Colyton Grammar School, Devon, where he completed his GCSEs and A-levels and, from the age of 13, Jonny was an active member of the local Air Training Corps squadron.
Intent on pursuing his aspiration of becoming a pilot, Jonny applied to the Royal Air Force and was awarded a Sixth Form Scholarship, before subsequently joining the RAF in 2005, age nineteen. After graduating from his Initial Officer Training (IOT) based at RAF Cranwell he was then posted to RAF Wyton where he flew the Tutor aircraft as part of his Elementary Flying Training (EFT). Jonny was then streamed onto both the Tucano and Hawk aircraft, graduating from Advanced Fast Jet Training (AFJT) in the summer of 2009, before being posted to RAF Coningsby, where he spent four months learning to fly the Typhoon aircraft on the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), 29(R) Squadron.
Upon completion of the OCU he joined XI Squadron where he began his first operational tour with a frontline squadron. During this period Jonny took part in multiple overseas deployments and exercises in various areas such as the Middle East, USA and the Falkland Islands. On completion of his tour he was subsequently posted back to 29(R) Squadron as a Qualified Pilot Instructor (QPI). His primary role as a QPI is ensuring that new students are adequately trained and suitably qualified to serve on the frontline on completion of their training. This involves instructing students on the basics of aircraft manoeuvring through to air to air and air to ground weapons employment, both day and night. His duties at Coningsby also include contributing to RAF Coningsby’s primary task of defending the United Kingdom’s airspace – known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA).
As the annotated map of the UK in the Typhoon Display office shows, it’s going to be a hectic few months, and as Jonny and the team have already completed much of the broad planning for the season ahead, they have pretty much worked out where Jonny will be operating from for the airshows to come, although things can and will undoubtedly change.
We won’t be spending much of the morning in the display office though, as the team has just taken delivery of piles of boxes containing some of the paraphernalia needed for the airshow season – basically there is barely anywhere to stand, let alone sit and conduct an interview!
So, we head off to the 29(R) crew room where Jonny sorts the coffees out and, before taking a fuller look around the building and heading out to the flightline for some photos, we grab the chance to sit down to talk about displaying the Typhoon.
“I found out in September that I would be displaying the aircraft this year. Six of us applied and we each put together an official application and were interviewed by the Boss (Officer Commanding 29(R) Squadron) and the Station Commander. They then put their recommendation in to the AOC – Air Officer Commanding.
“It was a nice surprise to get it, as I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t this time round! I am incredibly proud and it took a while to sink in, to be honest. It’s a real once in a lifetime thing and a true honour – the Typhoon is our premier combat aircraft and it has a real presence on the airshow circuit.
“I am well aware of the responsibility too and, at the end of the day, I have been entrusted to display the aircraft in front of a lot of people and to bring the aircraft back here afterwards! Low level aerobatics is obviously very different from what we normally do, but the way we gradually work our way down in height as we train prepares you very well – but it is still eye opening to be inverted at 500’ and you know how close to the ground you are.”
One of Jonny’s first jobs was to trawl the Internet for videos of fast jet displays so that he could start putting his planned routine for 2015 together, wanting to do so with his own stamp on it – potentially alongside suggestions from the numerous people who started chipping in with ideas of their own to the newly announced display pilot!
“There might be a bit of that,” he laughs, “but mainly I looked around to see what I thought worked and looked good, from aircraft with similar performance and characteristics. Typhoon is very agile and very powerful and I wanted to show those elements, and perhaps its biggest party piece is its ability to accelerate from a slow phase of flight very quickly – so I wanted to demonstrate that too.”
While Jonny is clearly pleased with what he has put together for this year, he has also benefitted from feedback from his supervisory team, including last year’s display pilot, Flt Lt Noel Rees, and even Flt Lt Jamie Norris who displayed in 2013.
“I think if I fly it well, it will work well. The most enjoyable part is trying to make it flawless. The overall flow will be quite consistent I think, chasing perfection is the fun part and I am not sure I will ever achieve it or that it will even be that noticeable from the ground.
“I don’t have anything to compare it to from a display flying perspective, but during the show Typhoon is really quite easy to fly – everything I do will involve full stick deflection and the aircraft always gives you the maximum that it can, assuming I am at the correct energy states. During certain elements of the routine, such as the hesitation rolls, the flying control computers try to blend out the rudder that I want, which can be tricky, but they are the sort of more technical elements that I wanted to try and incorporate.”
So, with PDA now achieved (soon after GAR’s visit), Jonny is good to go, but that really only represents the tip of the iceberg, and a huge team is involved when it comes to fulfilling the Typhoon’s display commitments.
“Yes, it is a big team but it is well established here at Coningsby now. There is a lot to organise and a huge amount of paperwork to get through so Karla (Sgt Karla Vaile – Typhoon Display Manager) will conduct much of the liaison so that I can concentrate on the ops part of the display weekend, while Rob (CT Rob Huckle) looks after the engineering requirements.”
The PR side of things is already well underway of course, with Jonny using the team’s Twitter account and admitting to being “gobsmacked” by the amount of people who have been following and photographing his work-up. One such dedicated supporter is Viv Porteous, some of whose photographic work you can see here.
“I’m enjoying that side of things to be honest. Twitter was an alien world to me but I have a natural enthusiasm for what I do, so if people want to hear it, then I am more than happy to talk about it.”
Jonny has also already met a host of other display pilots when he attended this year’s European Airshow Council fast jet symposium in Antwerp, part of EAC’s annual gathering for airshow organisers and participants.
“That was incredibly valuable and we have already suggested that the team attends every year. All of us who attended are still in touch, talking to each other about how work-ups are going and such like. It gets you thinking about how we go about doing things, and while not everything will apply, it was and is still extremely useful.
“Of course we are all in different aircraft, doing different things with different capabilities and possibly working to subtly different limitations, and while getting feedback from the public is great, as they form the bulk of our audience, talking to other current display pilots is beneficial – and there is definitely healthy competition too!”
Jonny readily admits that he is looking forward to seeing the Battle of Britain 75 commemorations marked at shows this summer, and he confirms that while the 29 Squadron centenary jet will be his primary aircraft, the specially painted commemorative jet for the Typhoon and Spitfire synchro routine will also be out and about this season with the solo display team, and we can expect to see him displaying it at a number of events, especially where it is most appropriate from a Battle of Britain perspective.
Typhoon aficionados can also expect to see him flying without a centreline tank when circumstances allow, and that we haven’t seen from an RAF Typhoon for some time – and it really does make a difference. Something to watch out for….
For now though, we’re done, and as you can see from one or two of the pictures here, Jonny went on to afford us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world of 29(R) Squadron and operating the Typhoon, from the flight equipment he and the other pilots wear on a daily basis, to the flight planning and engineering sections without which there would be no display team or indeed any Typhoon operations at all.
And let’s not for forget that at both RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth, as well as on global operations and exercises, Typhoon is the tip of the Royal Air Force’s spear, defending the UK and projecting air power as required. It is a remarkably potent and capable platform with which to do so, and that is something that Jonny’s display will demonstrate very well.
We wish him and the team all the very best for the 2015 airshow season.
Social Media / Web Links:
GAR would like to thank Flt Lt Jonny Dowen and Jim Robinson at RAF Coningsby.