« Reading List: Hitler in Hell | Main | Reading List: Wool »

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Reading List: Out of the Blue

Cowie, Ian, Dim Jones, and Chris Long, eds. Out of the Blue. Farnborough, UK, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9570928-0-8.
Flying an aircraft has long been described by those who do it for a living as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. The ratio of terror to boredom depends upon the equipment and mission the pilot is flying, and tends to be much higher as these approach the ragged edge, as is the case for military aviation in high-performance aircraft. This book collects ninety anecdotes from pilots in the Royal Air Force, most dating from the Cold War era, illustrating that you never know for sure what is going to happen when you strap into an airplane and take to the skies, and that any lapse in attention to detail, situational awareness, or resistance to showing off may be swiftly rewarded not only with stark terror but costly, unpleasant, and career-limiting consequences. All of the stories are true (or at least those relating them say they are—with pilots you never know for sure), and most are just a few pages. You can pick the book up at any point; except for a few two-parters, the chapters are unrelated to one another. This is thus an ideal “bathroom book”, or way to fill a few minutes' downtime in a high distraction environment.

Because most of the flying takes place in Britain and in NATO deployments in Germany and other countries in northern Europe, foul weather plays a part in many of these adventures. Those who fly in places like Spain and California seldom find themselves watching the fuel gauge count down toward zero while divert field after divert field goes RED weather just as they arrive and begin their approach—that happens all the time in the RAF.

Other excitement comes from momentary lapses of judgment or excessive enthusiasm, such as finding yourself at 70,000 feet over Germany in a Lightning whose two engines have flamed out after passing the plane's service ceiling of 54,000 feet. While in this case the intrepid aeronaut got away without a scratch (writing up the altimeter as reading much too high), other incidents ended up in ejecting from aircraft soon to litter the countryside with flaming debris. Then there's ejecting from a perfectly good Hunter after a spurious fire warning light and the Flight Commander wingman ordering an ejection after observing “lots of smoke” which turned out, after the fact, to be just hydraulic fluid automatically dumped after a precautionary engine shutdown.

Sometimes you didn't do anything wrong and still end up in a spot of bother. There's the crew of a Victor which, shortly after departing RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands had a hydraulic system failure. No big thing—the Victor has two completely independent hydraulic systems, so there wasn't any great worry as the plane turned around to return to Gan. But when the second hydraulic system then proceeded to fail, there was worry aplenty, because that meant there was no nose-wheel steering and a total of eight applications of the brakes before residual pressure in the system was exhausted. Then came the call from Gan: a series of squalls were crossing the atoll, with crosswinds approaching the Victor's limit and heavy rain on the runway. On landing, a gust of wind caught the drag parachute and sent the bomber veering off the edge of the runway, and without nose-wheel steering, nothing could be done to counteract it. The Victor ended up ploughing a furrow in the base's just-refurbished golf course before coming to a stop. Any landing you walk away from…. The two hydraulic systems were determined to have failed from completely independent and unrelated causes, something that “just can't happen”—until it happens to you.

Then there's RAF pilot Alan Pollock, who, upset at the RAF's opting in 1968 not to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding, decided to mount his own celebration of the milestone. He flew his Hunter at high subsonic speed and low altitude down the Thames, twisting and turning with the river, and circling the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben struck noon. He then proceeded up the Thames and, approaching Tower Bridge, became the first and so far only pilot to fly between the two spans of the London landmark. This concluded his RAF career: he was given a medical discharge, which avoided a court martial that would have likely have sparked public support for his unauthorised aerial tattoo. His first-hand recollection of the exploit appears here.

Other stories recount how a tiny blob of grease where it didn't belong turned a Hunter into rubble in Cornwall, the strange tale of the world's only turbine powered biplane, the British pub on the Italian base at Decimomannu, Sardinia: “The Pig and Tapeworm”, and working as an engineer on the Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft: “Along the way, you will gain the satisfaction of ensuring the continued airworthiness of a bona fide museum piece, so old that the pointed bit is at the back, and so slow that birds collide with the trailing edge of the wing.” There's nothing profound here, but it's a lot of fun.

The paperback is currently out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable cost. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at July 22, 2017 22:27