Amazingly, the Friday morning traffic was quiet for once and I arrived at the Heritage Aircraft Trust’s hangar at the historic North Weald aerodrome nearly an hour early. But I was by no means the first to arrive…
The hangar was a flurry of activity as the engineers prepared a pair of Folland Gnats for flight. As I walked through the door a cheery «Morning!» sounded from the back of the packed hangar and a youthful smiling face appeared from behind an aircraft.
As usual the ground crew and engineers were working their magic long before the aircrew got anywhere near the aeroplanes — and 21-year-old James Mohr (aka ‘Stig’) had been at the ‘coalface’ since the crack of dawn. Today he’s joined in the hangar by Kev Broughall (aka ‘Blade’) as well as Chief Engineer and Gnat guru Pete Walker:
As we approach the 60th anniversary of the Gnat, the type’s ongoing survival is under threat from many directions. Spares availability is always an issue, engines are in short supply but, beyond all else, the limiting factor is the rapidly diminishing skillset of the engineers.
When the Gnat entered RAF service in 1959, the ground crew and fitters working on this complex little aeroplane were mostly in their 20s. The type was finally retired in 1979 and the engineers working on the aircraft then are now approaching retirement age.
«We have access to some simply amazing engineers,» explains Heritage Aircraft Trust’s Oli Wheeldon (aka ‘The Chief’), «but we wanted to ensure that their skills were passed on to a new generation.» And that is where young James fits in.
Back in the hangar it was a maximum effort operation to get Gnats G-TIMM (XP504) and G-RORI (XR538) ready for their weekend away and the aircrew soon disappear (no doubt much to the delight of the engineers!) for a briefing.
The plan of action calls for an 11.00L departure from North Weald with Mark Fitzgerald and myself in G-RORI and Chris Heames and Oli flying the newly repainted G-TIMM. The sortie profile sees Oli perfecting his formation flying skills as we route northbound through East Anglia en route to RAF Scampton.
Here we will perform a couple of circuits and then land to give members of the Red Arrows Association the chance to become reacquainted with their old aircraft. We’ll then head across to RAF Waddington where Chris and Mark will be flying the jets in the weekend’s airshow before we return on Sunday e
After a thorough brief we emerge to find the jets almost ready for departure. The engineering team has worked solidly all week to ensure the aircraft are in the best of condition for their weekend away from base and now turn their attention to the flight crew as they help us strap in and prepare the Gnats for start.
Ensconced in the back of Mark’s Gnat, I was able to watch as James and co. scurried around making the final checks before plugging in the large Palouste air starter This is actually a small jet engine that is connected to the Gnat to power up its Orpheus powerplant — and is the only way the aircraft can be started.
Of course this causes a problem when the team operates away from base, requiring that they either land at airfields equipped with a Palouste (or similar) or take their own by road.
This weekend it is the latter, and as we begin our taxi to North Weald’s runway, James and Kev jump into the crew support vehicle and start their long l40-mile/3-hour drive through the Friday traffic to Scampton.
In the nippy little Gnat our commute is relatively simple and ‘Red Gnat’ formation meanders northbound at 4,000ft in a series of gentle turns to test Oli’s formation skills.
Back on the ground the temperatures are rocketing to the high 20s but at altitude, with the cold air unit working overtime, the Gnat is a surprisingly comfortable — albeit cosy — environment.
All too soon we’re overhead Scampton and practise a few formation circuits at 2,500ft over the historic base, ever conscious that the Red Arrows ‘Old Boys’ are down there watching our every move, All goes well and we decide to give the chaps a treat with a 500ft run and break before landing.
With a 2,740m runway to play with there’s no need to stream the brake ‘chute and we taxi in and shut down ready to meet a multitude of ex-Red Arrows’ ground crew and their families.
One of the Gnats (XP504/G-TIMM) has recently been repainted to represent XSIII when it flew with the Red Arrows in 1967 and this was the first time it had been seen in public. Much debate had gone into the colour scheme, including intense deliberation over the exact shade of red, and many of the gathered veterans had given input into the discussions.
«It was a real honour to debut the new scheme in front of the Association,» Oli later told me. «The ‘Old Boys’ provided a wealth of information to help us repaint the jet and the smiles on their faces when we taxied in at Scampton made all the hard work worthwhile.»
We’re on the ground a long time before Kev and James finally arrive. The traffic hasn’t been too bad, but towing a half-tonne Palouste on a trailer has slowed their progress! They arrive just in time to see the Red Arrows’ Hawks take off to fly to RAF Marham where they would display for Her Majesty the Queen (reportedly the first time she’d ever seen a complete display rather than just a flypast) and we all stand and watch as the RAF Aerobatic Team take off with their usual panache.
Seeing as Kev and James have stopped for food en route, we leave them to work on the jets and grab some lunch as we debrief our sortie in the Red Arrows’ crew room -interrupted briefly by the Vulcan performing a number of noisy practice displays outside.
Practice Makes Perfect
With some time to kill before our I6.48L landing slot at Waddington, we also opt to fly a practice display at Scampton, both to perfect the routine in readiness for the weekend and to give the Reds veterans something to watch.
James and Kev have serviced and refuelled the jets in record time so we call ATC to confirm our slot time at Waddington — the intention being to depart to Waddington straight off our display practice. All is well so we strap in and this time I back seat Sqn Ldr Chris Heames in ‘Red Gnat I.’
The boys hook up the Palouste again and soon we’re trundling down the taxiway to the hold, the canopy open slightly to allow some cool air in.
By the time we reach the hold, Scampton ATC delivers the bombshell that Waddington is now running 20 minutes behind schedule and our landing slot is slipping. Faced with the choice of holding on the ground (burning lots of fuel) or holding in the air (burning ridiculous amounts of fuel) we opt to sit tight and the perspiration begins to run down my neck. The air conditioning on the Gnat does not come into operation until you’re in the air and dressed in flying suit, G-pants, Mae-West and a bone dome in high temperatures underneath a big glass canopy is not a pleasant experience — but eventually we depart and fly straight into our display practice.
Flying formation aerobatics in a red Gnat over RAF Scampton, and knowing the Red Arrows veterans are watching us, is one of those seminal moments that will take a lot of beating.
With the routine complete we headed to Waddington but further delays quickly ensue as we begin our run and break to land. It transpires a kitplane has declared a «fuel emergency» (despite his short ferry flight!) and we are asked to extend our run to allow spacing for him to land first.
Eventually we are approved to break into the circuit and we slow the jets down as much as we can on the downwind leg. None of us can see the errant kitplane despite ATC informing us he’s on a «3-mile final» so we go around again. After another circuit the aircraft has still not landed and we’re forced to go around a second time and the stress levels raise a notch as the Gnat’s fuel levels descend further…
The next time around the ‘buffoon’ in the kitplane has landed but not vacated the runway so round we go again, now with our own fuel levels rapidly approaching critical levels. Thankfully we are able to land on our next approach and we share a collective sigh of relief!
Yet More Delays
Safely parked up on the dispersal alongside a Hawker Hunter (that Chris had delivered the previous day), a Czech Aero L-159 and a pair of 617 Sqn Tornados, we climbed down from the cockpit and gratefully received the bottles of water handed to us by the RAF marshalling crew.
But there was no sign of Kev and James — despite it being just 12 miles by road from Scampton. A quick phone call reveals they are queuing to get through the main gate and half an hour later we hear they are finally on base. Sadly it takes another 80 minutes for them to get escorted across the runway to come and service the jets!
So, with time now ticking, we leave them to their hard work and head back across the airfield to sort out the team’s accommodation requirements for the weekend. Thankfully this is straightforward and the boys join us in time to enjoy a very welcome cold beer in the sun.
Waddington Airshow accommodates the display crews in the Lincoln University Halls of Residence, which may not be the most salubrious of rooms but they are handily placed for the restaurants and sites of Lincoln. And so it was that the hard working engineers are treated to a late night curry and a few drinks in thanks for their hard work.
This was the first proper chance I’d had to speak to James and I ask him if aviation has always been in his blood.
«I’ve lived in North Weald all my life so I grew up around the airfield,» he tells me. «I always loved aeroplanes and my dad took me to airshows when I was a kid, but I never thought I’d be working on jets at the shows when I grew up.
My dreams really have come true!»
James studied Motor Vehicle Engineering at Harlow College in Essex but like so many youngsters he couldn’t find a job.
«I was 18 years old and working in a pub in North Weald,» he recalls, «when one of the locals told me there was a possibility of an apprenticeship job at the airfield. I made contact with Pete Walker [Chief Engineer] and Mark Grimshaw [Trustee] who offered me a month’s trial.
«I started on a winters’ day — with snow on the ground — and I walked into a cold hangar and looked at the two Gnats then thought to myself ‘what have I let myself in for!’ But I soon grew to love the jets and the people I was working with. I enjoyed it -and they seemed to like me as I was offered a permanent job at the end of my trial,»
Three years on and James really has the best of both worlds — he gets to work within the civilian world whilst enjoying the RAF lifestyle. «I’ve travelled all over the UK and Europe, flown in some interesting aeroplanes and had some amazing fun,» he says.
Bright and early the next morning we’re all on the 07.30 crew bus ready for a day at the show. For James and Kev there’s no typical day back at base, but away on detachment they have a routine to stick to.
«It’s our responsibility to have the jets ready for their display slot, serviceable and looking pretty!» James tells me with a smile as we sit in the traffic queues to get onto the base. «We need to ensure all the preflight checks and paperwork are completed, check the tyres and brakes, fuel the aeroplanes and replenish the smoke diesel — and all manner of other tasks. Effectively it’s our job to make sure the aeroplane is can be a pain to work on, and they’re pretty confusing at times when they have niggly faults, but when I see them flying at an airshow I get a lump in my throat and a sense of pride,» James is now working towards his CAA licences and the jobs he does at base and away are logged and count towards his experience levels, «Back at base there’s no typical day for me,» he reveals, «One day I could be doing an accumulator change on one Gnat and the next day I could be doing brake checks or a tyre change on another aircraft, It keeps you on your toes and is great training, The Heritage Aircraft Trust has placed a lot of trust in me to work on the aeroplanes and they’re investing in my future through allowing me to go to college to further my qualifications.»
During the airshow the affable James made a number of friends, but he also won fans in the higher ranks, When a piece of perspex fell from one of the Royal Jordanian Falcons aircraft, not only did James spot the object fall from the aircraft, which itself was an excellent piece of observation, but he also had the presence of mind to report it immediately, His intervention ensured that a team of personnel was gathered to conduct an orderly sweep of the potential debris field, which could be hazardous to persons and aircraft.
In a letter presented to James at the end of the weekend, Senior Air Traffic Controller (SATCO) Sqn Lr P A J ‘Albert’ Finney wrote: «The promptness of your actions, your positive and proactive approach to flight safety and the accuracy of your reporting allowed air traffic control and the Flying Control Committee to continue confidently with the flying programme without imposing restrictions, Well done and thank you.»
The Heritage Aircraft Trust is justifiably proud of James and he’s proud of his job, «I’ve grown up around the team and the jets and it’s become part of my life over the last three years,» he says as he straps me in for the return flight on Sunday night.
«I’ve got to know the aeroplanes very well and I love working on them, I also enjoy the banter and the camaraderie I share with my colleagues; we’re like a small RAF family, When we’re away from base, particularly on an RAF airfield, other engineers don’t believe me when I say I’m just 21 — I think they’re envious of the job I get to do! But I wouldn’t swap it for anything.»
And on that note we blast off into the wide blue skies and James and Kev get back onto the road for the long drive from Waddington to North Weald with the spares, oil and the Palouste in a heavy trailer: The next time you’re at an airshow, spare a thought for the unsung engineers who help keep the aircraft flying, And also spare a thought for how this small charity is investing in its workforce by using their current staff to pass on the skills of the past to the engineers of the future.