Celtic Illumination, part 91, bumps and rollers.
I would love to meet that Squadron Leader again, the one with the eye patch and missing arm, in Shawbury, who told me that my posting to RAF Valley was a punishment posting. Certain aspects of my time at Valley were not very pleasant, like cleaning the white lines on the road with a tooth brush or standing still in the dark, in the rain, with a gun, but North Wales is a most wonderful place and the job I was now doing was perhaps the best job I would ever have in my life.
Claims were always made that Valley was one of the busiest airfields in the UK. This is because it was a training unit for pilots, both fast jet and helicopter. The flying along in a straight line bit was easy, it was the landings and take offs that were difficult and why they were always practising. In fact we had a second airfield known as Mona, a few miles away, which was manned on a daily basis, with a small detachment, so that aircraft could nip over there and practise landing. This was known as circuits and bumps, or bumps and rollers; the aircraft would land but keep rolling and take off again. Some of you may even have been stopped at the traffic lights on the A5 used to keep the traffic clear as the aircraft landed.
If we found ourselves at a loose end, which wasn’t very often, we would go to the section house and sit in the crew room. In a way, you were sort of saying that you were available for gash jobs or whatever. I was stretched out one day just thinking about this and that when Jack, the team leader, came in, he had a pilot with him, I could tell this from the wings on his flying suit. I can’t remember his name but Jack says “Flight Lieutenant So and So needs a volunteer.” I stood. “That’ll be me then.” Jack smiled. I did well, I had guessed, correctly.
I went outside and got into a land rover with the pilot. We drove to the search and rescue training squadron. I was taken in to the flying clothing section where the pilot told the chaps to ‘kit me out’. I was pleased when I confirmed that I had heard him correctly and so was measured up for a flying suit, flying boots, flying helmet and a Mae West. Mae West is a name given to a life jacket, or personal flotation device. It’s not something that can just be thrown on, it has to be fitted correctly so that if you do end up in the drink, it can do its job properly, which is to inflate and keep the wearer, whether conscious or not, afloat.
The pilot had put his own Mae West and flying helmet on and gone to sign for an aircraft. I didn’t know what was going on and as I was only a Novice, and expendable, thought he might dangle me out of the helicopter on the winch cable, as bait, and go fishing for sharks.
Luckily he didn’t. He explained, as we walked over to the aircraft, that he had been away on leave and every pilot must fly a certain number of hours per month to remain current. They have to perform certain tasks, on a regular basis as well, but these depend on the type of aircraft you fly. Today for us it was a Wessex helicopter. My pilot wanted to become a helicopter instructor pilot, so I was the duty guinea pig; I was to be taught how to fly a Wessex helicopter.
In a way I was glad that I hadn’t been prepared for this, however I can tell you I was pretty excited. The ground crew performed the pre-flight checks with the pilot, as one engineer strapped me in to the twin sticker. A twin sticker is an aircraft that has two sets of controls, so that the instructor can take over if necessary. Most of the air traffickers were desperate to get a flight in one of the fast jets, but zooming along in straight lines wasn’t my cup of tea.
We fired the bird up and he asked me, as he now knew I had air traffic experience, to request clearance for take-off from air traffic control. I would love to have been in air traffic when my dulcet tones blared out from the speakers and seen the faces of all those failed fast jet pilots. We left the airfield and went over to Mona where he landed, in a quiet corner, and then began to instruct me in how to fly the Wessex.
First of all he had me use one set of controls at a time, so in my left hand I held the collective lever. This was a lever that operated up and down, like a handbrake on a motor car, and this made the helicopter go up and down. First he had me raise the bird to fifty feet and hold it there and then descend and land. We did this a couple of times, and then he gave me control of the main stick, which would move the chopper forward and back. This time using both controls I raised the Wessex up to fifty feet, kept it in the hover, and moved forward to a point he showed me, and then back again, and then down, and land.
The next manoeuvre was a little tricky, when you consider that ten minutes before I was preparing to be fish bait and not flying a helicopter. The rudders were operated with both feet so, using the collective, I brought the helicopter up to a hover at fifty feet, then, using the rudders, I brought it around in a full circle and then landed. Tell you what; the amusements in Warrenpoint Square had just lost a customer. I did have difficultly bringing all three controls together, I couldn’t master the coordination required, not in the short amount of time we had, so after about half an hour we decided to give it a rest and flew off for a jolly in the mountains.
Spending an hour flying in and around the mountains in North Wales was fantastic. Yeah, a punishment posting was right. I was really excited. Flying had never been of any interest to me at all, but this helicopter experience certainly had me change my way of thinking. Especially as he dropped me back at the mountain rescue section, and asked. “Same time, next week?” I nodded my head, for I couldn’t speak with the huge smile that was stretched across my face.