This summer the Royal Air Force will once again display a Supermarine Spitfire and a Eurofighter Typhoon together, to commemorate the Battle of Britain. Gareth Stringer travelled to RAF Coningsby to meet the team. Images as credited.
1/ The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
2/ A priceless Supermarine Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
3/ Approximately £70 million worth of Eurofighter Typhoon painted in a spectacular scheme to represent the Hawker Hurricane flown by Fighter Command’s only recipient of the Victoria Cross.
Those are the three fundamental elements that have come together and resulted in the formation of the spectacular Typhoon and Spitfire display that will appear at a handful of airshows this season. Many are calling the team ‘Synchro 75’ as a result of its Twitter handle, although it should be noted that this isn’t an official title.
As you might imagine, there are a vast number of people working behind the scenes to make this kind of thing happen, and that is true of any display, such as Flt Lt Jonny Dowen’s Typhoon solo, or team. That we will get to see them at all is to the great credit of the men and women at RAF Coningsby, and among that group are the two pilots actually doing the flying.
They are Flt Lt Ben Westoby-Brooks, a Typhoon QPI with 29(R) Squadron and Flt Lt Antony Parkinson MBE from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Ben was born in London and grew up in Surrey, intent on becoming an RAF pilot and to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather who was himself an RAF pilot during World War 2 and also flew Seafires in the Fleet Air Arm. Ben was a member of 1349 Air Training Corps Sqn in Woking and completed a Flying Scholarship after finishing his A-levels at Godalming VIth Form College. He was awarded an RAF Bursary whilst reading Mathematics at Bristol University where he joined Bristol University Air Squadron and completed Elementary Flying Training on the Tutor at Colerne Airfield, Wiltshire. He joined the RAF in 2004 and following Initial Officer Training at RAF College Cranwell he continued pilot training on the Tucano and Hawk.
Ben was posted to 29(R) Squadron at RAF Coningsby in 2008 to fly the Typhoon and became the 100th pilot to go solo in the aircraft on the Operational Conversion Unit. He has since remained at Coningsby spending more than four years on 3(F) Squadron for his first tour. Ben has now flown Typhoon for over seven years, amassing over 1000 Typhoon flying hours. His service includes Front Line operations over Libya in 2011 on Operation ELLAMY plus numerous overseas detachments to the Falklands and exercises in Holland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Cyprus, the Middle East and India. Ben returned to 29(R) Squadron as a Qualified Pilot Instructor in 2013 to train both student pilots and instructors whilst also contributing to RAF Coningsby’s primary task of Quick Reaction Alert.
‘Parky’ meanwhile needs very little introduction and, having joined the RAF at 18, has been flying ever since. He was privileged to be the first pilot to gain 1000 hours flying the Typhoon and has also flown over 1000 hours on no less than three other types – F-4 Phantom, Tornado F3 and Hawk, with the Red Arrows. He also flew the F-16 for three years with the Royal Netherlands Air Force and has over 6,500 flying hours in total. Parky is now the Operations Officer for the BBMF, as well as one of its fighter pilots.
Both are sitting alongside me in the BBMF’s planning room on what is a busy Friday afternoon as various members of the Flight prepare for the weekend ahead; a weekend which will include a trip abroad for the Lancaster and also the airshow at Abingdon, which will include Parky and Ben’s synchro display making its public début. But, more of that later, I want to know where it all started.
“Last year we had a meeting with the AOC (Air Officer Commanding) 1 Group to talk about making the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain a real event and, having done a Spitfire and Typhoon synchro in 2010 for the 70th (Editor’s note – it was flown by Sqn Ldr Dunc Mason and Flt Lt Rich ‘Wally’ Walton) it was one of the options on the table.” Parky tells me.
“Any fast jet with a warbird looks great and it lends itself to the crowd I think, they like something different, and the fact that the Typhoon is camouflaged in Battle of Britain colours and will hopefully be with our Mark II Spitfire that actually flew in the Battle, all adds to the story. We hope it will make for a fitting tribute to all of those who were involved 75 years ago.”
Parky’s selection for the Spitfire half of the duo is perhaps self-explanatory, but how did Ben come to land himself the coveted Typhoon synchro seat, I wonder?
“I was selected by the Boss, Wg Cdr James Heald, Officer Commanding 29(R) Squadron, and his choice was ratified by AVM Gary Waterfall who is AOC 1 Group. As you can imagine, I was chuffed!”
I’m not surprised at all, to be honest, but conversely, the unveiling of a camouflaged Typhoon was, in fairness, genuinely quite startling and the piece we ran here on GAR has already become one of our most popular of all time. The scheme is after all a huge leap from anything we have seen on an RAF Typhoon before, even taking other current commemorative schemes in to consideration, and both the 29 Squadron and XI Squadron jets look fabulous, I hasten to add.
“It is great, no question. We did put forward a few designs and it would have been very easy to go with something more conservative, like a special tail, which has become the norm for Typhoons. But, there aren’t many of The Few with us now and the 75th anniversary is a big deal, so we really wanted to try and go for it.” Ben says.
“Everyone here at RAF Coningsby has been brilliant, 29(R) Squadron, Serco, the whole team, everyone found reasons to make it happen, rather than the other way around, and the story behind the scheme the aircraft is wearing, for James Nicholson VC, is just right too.”
So, you’ve got a Spitfire and a Spitfire pilot, and a Typhoon and a Typhoon pilot, where do you go from there in order to put a synchro routine together?
Parky – “The display is traditionally flown by the BBMF either with two Spitfires or a Spitfire and a Hurricane, so we weren’t selling something entirely radical to the AOC, alongside which we have done it before, so we knew that, somewhat bizarrely, it does work with a Typhoon in there. The speeds Ben will be flying at are fine, they are in the 200 / 250kts regime, but Typhoon has carefree handling and, while it is a little slow for him, the aircraft is very happy to fly at those speeds. We knew it was a proven display so really it was just a question of practicing and making sure the crosses are in the middle and the fudges look good.”
The simulator was also used to good effect by both Ben and Parky to prepare for and hone the synchro routine, as Ben explains.
“It’s been so useful and what we have really done is take a display routine that is usually flown by two warbirds and used cutting edge simulator technology, with all its computer power and lifelike graphics, to practise it. Actual flying hours are obviously expensive and I think we have done more training hours in the sim than they actually did for real in 2010 prior to getting their PDA (Public Display Authorisation). Visually, in the sim we can practise at any venue and in any conditions and, although Parky is sitting in another Typhoon simulator, when I look ‘outside’ from my cockpit, I am looking at a Spitfire, so that really adds to it and helped me work on my references for the formation segments, for example. This morning we used the sim to practise at Abingdon!”
So, during display, who’s working the hardest?
“It’s a good question,” says Parky, when he and Ben have ceased waiting for the other to answer, and the laughter has subsided, “and I think we have agreed that it is Ben. Although I would like to add that Typhoon is a very easy aircraft to fly!
“I am essentially flying my solo routine and, for the first three minutes, Ben is formatting on me through various manoeuvres, but it is fairly gentle stuff to allow us to get in close. Then we point at the crowd and break and then we mirror each other, flying crosses and an opposition 360. I would say that Ben is definitely working harder than me there, especially when it comes to getting the crosses right. The wind plays a big part, as it does for any synchro, one of you is always having to extend to allow for the wind, but because Ben can actually set the Typhoon to maintain an exact speed, he can match the Spitfire’s parameters and his speed control is probably better than mine!”
75 years ago, the Spitfire was the pinnacle of the Royal Air Force’s air combat capability, and we can of course say the same now of Typhoon. But, despite technology clearly coming a huge way in that time, do they share some of the same characteristics as fighters I wonder?
“Definitely. You’re right though, technology has come a long way and, watching them together, you can see where 75 years has taken us,” says Parky. “But, both represent the cutting edge of their time, and the biggest quality they share is that they are both very easy aircraft to fly.
“They are forgiving aircraft and certainly if you talk to those who flew the Spitfire back in the day, well, the G they used to pull and flying them at night and at ultra-low level, they were inherently forgiving and the Spitfire got them out of trouble so often. That’s why their affection for it is so extraordinary, as it is for all of us, but you can see how much you’d love it if it saved your life regularly! It’s the same with Typhoon now and if you show a Battle of Britain veteran a Typhoon cockpit, they are blown away by the level of equipment, but in 1940 the Spitfire was itself a pretty impressive piece of equipment. I think Ben would back me up and, although technology moves on, you can get busy in any aircraft, but the level of information Typhoon can convey to the pilot, which is enormous, makes it an incredible piece of design.”
“I have only flown Typhoon (on the frontline) so have nothing comparable to base it against, but I have been flying it for about eight years now,” Ben tells me, “so yes, I would agree with that completely. The carefree handling is brilliant, although it doesn’t fly itself as some people think, and we can perform all kinds of missions in it, whether it is air to air or air to ground or sitting on QRA, defending the UK, just as the Spitfire was 75 years ago.”
Perhaps the most apparent feature here is how much it clearly means to these two men to be doing this. Despite their extensive experiences to date, and Parky’s are hugely significant of course, performing this synchro display, and what it represents, remains a very big deal.
“The 75th is going to be as bigger year as any when I look back on my time,” Parky says. “The Few get fewer but they are still around and they are living legends. The fact that we can honour them and show them 75 years of Royal Air Force history from when they were doing the business back in the day, fills us both with pride. It really is a huge accolade.”
For Ben of course there is also a family connection, which really adds to his sense of pride for the season ahead. “My grandfather was my inspiration, no doubt about it, and when I was growing up I would see the photos of him and talk to him about it. He didn’t fly in the Battle of Britain but when he flew the Seafire (the navalised Spitfire) I know he loved it, and he was landing them on aircraft carriers.”
That last remark gets a knowing ‘fair play to him’ nod from Parky, who is sitting just to me left, but then admits “I feel physically sick just thinking about that!” And on that note, let’s fast forward roughly 48 hours to the annual Abingdon Air and Country Show in Oxfordshire which would see the Spitfire and Typhoon synchro make its public début. Unfortunately, those who forecast adverse weather were correct, and Abingdon would be hit with some torrential rain during the day.
But would that stop Synchro 75 displaying? Ben takes up the story…….
“So Abingdon. I went into RAF Coningsby at about midday on the Sunday. Not much is happening on base at the weekend except QRA, which is always on, 24/7.
“There were lots of rain showers about and the TAFs (a weather reporting format) weren’t brilliant. RAF Brize Norton had very bad downpours predicted throughout the day, which was not great. So, Parky, in the Spitfire, and the Station Commander, in the Hurricane, pre-deployed down to Brize at about 1300 due to the weather and crosswinds. We had previously briefed the display sortie and hoped to RV (rendezvous) a few miles south of Brize and five minutes before the display slot time.
“The Typhoon Engineering Team ‘Lightning’ led by Sgt Stu Dutch (one of the four teams this season) were brilliant and got BZ, the camo jet, ready, as well as a spare aircraft.
“All went smoothly and I started up, took off in the sunshine, routed through the Lichfield Radar Corridor at FL140 then headed south to Brize and descended into the murk. Here we go.
“During the descent I listened out on the second radio to Abingdon’s frequency and the weather obviously wasn’t very good. A Jet Provost couldn’t get in due to the weather and was holding off. Not ideal and I hoped that we might be lucky later, but it didn’t sound good. I managed to break cloud and orbit overhead Brize at 2000ft but was continually forced lower by incoming showers.
“On the front radio I was co-ordinating with Brize ATC (air traffic control) and Parky on the ground in the Spit, and on the back radio the Jet Provost and Abingdon, which made the cockpit quite busy. Fuel was now becoming an issue as, if I waited too long, anything more than 20 minutes really, then I wouldn’t have the fuel to make it back to Coningsby and I would have to divert to Brize, refuel and turn the jet myself then hop back to Coningsby. The only snag would be that if the jet developed a fault then my engineering team are 100 miles away.
“I needed to assess the weather and decide if we could get the display in and if so, launch Parky who was in the Spit cockpit ready to scramble. I found a gap in the showers and ventured towards Abingdon. From five miles away, Abingdon and surrounding area was totally obscured by a large shower and everyone on the ground was obviously getting drenched, my family who had gone to the show included! With the prevailing wind (and weather) coming from the south west I flew that way to see if it was improving, and there was a small gap between showers following on behind, which I hoped would be suitable so I told Parky, it’s now or never, let’s give it a go.
“I pinned my hopes on the gap being big enough, and that it was going to be over Abingdon in about 10 minutes, and if my assessment of what the wind and weather were doing was wrong, then there would be no display. Within minutes Parky was airborne and, dodging the showers, we joined up; not the easiest thing to do, joining up on a Spitfire at low level in-between showers, the Spitfire is quite small, and camouflaged, and funnily enough the camouflage is very effective!
“Now in formation we headed towards Abingdon and thankfully the shower was clearing and we could now see the airfield; it was a great feeling, things were looking up, we are going to get it in!
“The display went very well and all of the head-on passes were right at the crowd centre point which meant that Parky and I were making the right amount of time-delay corrections. It takes a lot of teamwork to make the display work, which is one of the reasons why I love flying it so much. On the final pass I went into max afterburner and pulled full back stick at the cross to vertically roll into the cloud and as the G came on the jet created lots of spuffy cloud on the top surface of the wing, such was the level of humidity in the air.
“I was immediately into the cloud above and delighted I still had just enough fuel to get back to Coningbsy without having to divert to Brize. Mil ATC also gave me a straight line transit which was appreciated. Getting back to Coningsby the weather was lovely and the sun was shining, the showers had passed.
“I landed and was met by Team Lightning back at 29 Sqn. The jet was fully serviceable and so I thanked the team, completed the post-flight admin and that was that. Job done!
“Our first public display was a great success. The Team asked me how it went and I had to admit that I’d rather have had a nice and easy sortie for my first one but pretty happy that it all worked out when it could very easily have been a washout. Later my family asked if I had seen them on the crowd line, apparently they were the really noisy group waving! I was sorry to say I didn’t see them, the display demands all of my attention, especially when there is 500 mph of closure!
“Later I spoke with Parky on the telephone and he was really happy with the day, everything had worked out, the displays had got in and they too had made it back to Coningsby later on. It was a great sense of achievement and relief, but we are already looking forward to the next one, roll on summer!”
Lest We Forget.
With thanks to Ben, Parky, Jim Robinson and the whole team at RAF Coningsby.
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Really, really hope I get the chance to see this display. Saw the D-Day Typhoon last year and thought that looked good, this one looks even better!