Introduction to Volume 2

Written by Neil Williams, the following articles were originally published in 'Shell Aviation News' in the 1970s. They are reproduced by kind permission of his son David, who owns the copyrights. Neil is widely acknowledged to have been one of the world's most skilful aerobatic pilots. His aviation writings, including his books 'Airborne' and 'Aerobatics', have likewise earned universal acclaim.

The annotations below show SAN issue number and year.

The Incredible ZLIN 50 (439, 1977)
Turbine Taxi (440, 1977)
Rothmans Aerobatic Team (441, 1977)
Weekend in the Country (442, 1977)
Visual Navigator (443, 1977)
Spitfire to Switzerland (445, 1978)

A professional test pilot, NEIL WILLIAMS last year became British Aerobatic Champion for the 12th time and at Kiev was placed 4th in the World Championships after Russian and Czechoslovak contestants. He has been a noted exponent of the Zlin marque since 1965, winning the 1967 European event in a standard two seater and in the World Championship three years later reaching the highest place achieved by any Zlin pilot.

EVER SINCE Adolphe Pégoud astonished the crowds at Prague in the days just before the first World War with his performance of inverted flying, loops and tailslides in a Blériot, the imagination of the Czechoslovaks has been captured by the elegance of aerobatic flying. A dynamic and creative people, it was inevitable that they should turn to this art form with all the enthusiasm that characterises their national music and dancing.

From the early experimenters, the Czech aircraft industry developed rapidly in the period between the wars. During this time participation in the various aeronautical meetings was the prerogative of the military, and was largely devoted at first to establishing records like the AERO factory test pilot of the early 1920s who executed more than 250 consecutive loops in less than 45 minutes. As a form of insurance, he took the chief designer along for the ride.

The various air meetings and rallies throughout the world stimulated development of aerobatic aeroplanes in Czechoslovakia, for there was great prestige to be won through skill in the sport. During the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, aerobatics formed a major event, with Czech pilots gaining second and third places behind the Count von Hagenburg in his Bücker Jungmeister.

With the coming of war in Europe, the Czechoslovak aviation industry was completely disrupted and its designers dispersed. After 1945 it was reorganised on a national basis, and turned its talents away from predominantly military types to concentrate on light civil machines, soon reaching second place among the world's constructors of light aircraft.

In post-war Czechoslovakia the development of sporting aviation proceeded to make aerobatics indispensable for everyone involved with powered flying. All candidates for a civil pilot's licence were required to master the basic elements. Unlike many other countries, Czechoslovakia could afford such a requirement as her industry was able to supply suitable aircraft in sufficient numbers. Having ceased to be the privilege of the military, aerobatics became a popular and ardently practised sport, and more specialised aircraft became available to the now predominantly civil national aerobatic team.

The World Aerobatic Championships as we know them today were developed directly from the Czech national championships of 1958 and 1959, leading to the first World Championship held at Bratislava in 1960. The Czechs won that contest outright - a contest that witnessed a revolution in the scope and artistry of aerobatic flying. This was made possible by the Zlin 226 Trener, a two seater machine developed originally from the celebrated German Bücker aeroplanes. It was the beginning of a ten year domination of the sport by the series of Zlin aircraft, culminating in the 526 Akrobat single seater.

To say that these machines were unbeatable was to understate the case. They eclipsed every type that had gone before: there was nothing, apparently, that they could not do. It became inevitable that those countries participating in serious contests had to acquire the Zlin - it was their only hope of gaining a place. In the United Kingdom we had at first to content ourselves with a second hand machine, but with the 1970 World Championships due to be held in England we bought one of the latest Zlins - the single seat Akrobat.

Then, with victory almost in sight, disaster struck. During a training flight I suffered a structural failure, caused by metal fatigue. The left wing folded up, resulting in some heart stopping moments before I crash landed it. We didn't know it then, but this was the end of the old Zlin's success story as a World Championship mount. Though they strengthened the centre section, clipped the wings by six feet to reduce the wing bending moment and pressurised the centre section tubes with nitrogen, the days of the old Zlin were numbered. The clipped wing version soldiered on, but never again was it to win a major contest against the specialised designs that were now beginning to appear from other countries.


For the Czechs, with their proud record in danger, this was too much. They must win back their position as constructors of the world's best aerobatic aeroplane. In 1973 the decision was taken to evolve a radically new design - not, as previously, a development of a trainer, but a specialised contest machine, capable of overshadowing its opponents just as the old Zlin had done when it first appeared. What was more, the aircraft had to be ready in time to participate in the 1976 World Championships.

And, in just 18 months, the prototype was designed and flown. With any aerobatic aircraft development practically never ends; it was to stimulate this that the manufacturers took the practical step of seeking outside opinions. Accordingly, in conjunction with the Czech aeronautical journal Letectvi and Kosmonautica, they arranged an international test programme in May last year, before the new machine, designated Zlin 50 L, made its debut in international competition. Pilots from six countries with varying levels of experience were invited to take part, ranging from unknowns with no experience of the Zlin to those with wide contest experience on Zlins of different marks. Besides Czechoslovakia, the countries selected were Russia, Poland, East Germany, Canada, and the U.K.

To my great surprise and delight I was asked to represent the United Kingdom, even though I had been at the controls during the accident that spelt 'finis' to the old Zlin. During this visit to Czechoslovakia - my first - it subsequently occurred to me that it was, in part, because of the accident that I had been invited, for my standing in the Czech aviation industry was obviously increased by the fact that I had managed to get the machine down in more or less one piece.

So it was that I found myself in the arrival lounge at Prague airport, shaking hands with fellow members of the delegation, and greeting friends from industry and the national teams. Some of the other pilots I already knew from competing against them in World Championships, and if I felt at all sensitive about my accident, this was overshadowed completely by the horrifying story of the Polish test pilot. He had been flying a 'mirror loop', back to back, when the two aircraft collided. His propeller had amputated his colleague's left arm and severed the tail unit. The Zlin spun into the ground, inverted, at full power, but the fact that his colleague couldn't throttle back had saved his life: the power had kept the spin flat and reduced the rate of descent. He himself had crash landed successfully.

From Prague we flew in a L.410 twin turboprop light transport to Holesov airport, home of the Moravan Sport Flying Club, which caters for members of the Zlin factory and their families. During the period of the test the airfield was closed to all traffic to allow us unrestricted airspace for our flying. We were accommodated some forty minutes' drive from the airport, high in the mountains, at the chalet reserved for the Moravan employees, a haven of wild and scenic beauty. The stillness and silence were wonderfully relaxing, but as if to herald the start of an unbelievably hectic week, we were blasted out of our beds at 5 a.m. by a sonic bang which shook the entire building, reminding us that our hosts took military training, as well as aerobatics, very seriously.

Soon we were aboard the coach winding its tortuous way back down the mountain road to the airfield at Holesov. Lots were drawn for the order of flying, just as if it had been an aerobatic competition; in fact, I was struck by the similarity between the week's test programme and a competition in terms of the tight time schedule and the morning briefings. I came to the conclusion that it was less to make us feel at home than simply the way all their flying operations are controlled and regulated.

Almost as if to mark the end of the briefing, with a roar that rattled the windows, a pair of shadows flashed past the window: it was the Zlin 50 with its escort aircraft, arriving from the factory airfield at Otrokovice. In fact the noise had come from the Zlin 726, but all eyes were on the early production model Zlin 50, almost silent by comparison - a small aeroplane of only 8.58 metres wingspan, riding smoothly on its titanium spring undercarriage. Our first impression was that it closely resembled the Swiss-German Akrostar, but with a huge sail-like fin and rudder which unbalanced the otherwise racy appearance.

ABOVE LEFT: Author discusses a handling point.   ABOVE RIGHT: Soviet team trainer Kasum Nazhmudinov's exceptionally smooth flying of the Zlin 50 was later reflected by the Russian pilots at Kiev in their new Yak 50 aircraft

The propeller had scarcely stopped turning when we surrounded it: with the design requirements I had laid down for our own Cranfield aerobatic aircraft firmly in mind, I was very much taken with the similarities. The wing is built in one piece, having spanwise stringers (identical with those on the L.29 jet trainer), and is stressed to + 9 and - 6 g with an ultimate loading of + 14 g, although this particular machine was restricted to - 5 g pending completion of tests. The ailerons are almost full span, and of generous chord, each fitted with a large booster tab. In the case of the left aileron this is a standard geared tab. However the tab fitted to the right aileron is more complicated. The drive shaft for the tab runs in a guide and follows a cam profile, so that for the first 5 degrees or so of aileron movement the tab is anti-balance: thereafter it becomes a conventional geared tab again. In addition, this tab is fitted with a small, anti-flutter, mass balance weight.

The complexity of this arrangement intrigued me. Both the chief designer and the chief test pilot went to great pains to describe the problems they had encountered. Initially, without the tabs, the control forces had been far too high: then with the tabs acting as standard geared tabs, they encountered an over-balance problem, which led them to experiment with the cam gearing. This cured the initial overbalance at small deflections, but the problem still occurred at high aileron deflection at low speed. Also the forces were too high at high IAS. A further modification to the shape of the cam produced an effective compromise. My immediate reaction was that the sheer size of the ailerons would produce problems in the tailslide case, but subsequent tests showed no tendency for the ailerons to snatch over.

The wing profile is symmetric, having a fineness ratio of 18% at the root and 12% at the tip with no built-in twist. This gives aerodynamic washout both erect and inverted, thus eliminating the risk of inadvertent tip stall in any attitude. Furthermore the flattened curve of the aileron nose extends very slightly above and below the wing, so that adverse aileron yaw is totally eliminated at any angle of attack - erect or inverted. The aileron gap remains materially constant regardless of deflection.


We were each allowed five flights of not more than 30 minutes apiece, and we were very closely controlled, even to having to file a flight plan for a flight over the airfield. Our hosts were adamant that we should not fly any longer than 30 minutes due to the very high strain on the body. They believe that + 9 and - 6 g is the limit of human endurance. We were also required to wear headsets so that we should be in radio contact, but after my headset disintegrated during an outside flick roll I was allowed to continue without one.

When climbing aboard, care is necessary to avoid damaging the full-span ailerons. The seat is adjustable for fore and aft movement and rake, and the pedals are also adjustable. We each of us set up seat and pedals to our individual requirements, then the engineers noted these positions and re-set them every time we were due to fly. The seating position was very comfortable, my eyes being in line with the trailing edge of the wing - a most important feature for aerobatics.

The five point harness gives perfect restraint in the wildest manoeuvres. Any combination of stick and rudder can be achieved without having the travel of the stick restricted by one's legs.

The 260 hp Lycoming AEIO 540 started easily and felt very smooth and well balanced, partly owing no doubt to the three blade Hoffman composite propeller. Although a 28 volt external power socket is provided, the two aerobatic batteries proved capable of dozens of starts per day without any problem. These are located forward of the cockpit and aft of the seat, to distribute their weight about the cg.

The inverted oil system has been modified by the Czechs on the basis of their wide experience with Walter engines, which never gave any oil pressure problems on the earlier Zlins. The result is an almost perfect system with very little oil loss; indeed I never found as much as one drop of oil on the aeroplane throughout the entire week, when it was flown hard by six pilots.

ABOVE: Zlin mechanic checks oil level between flights

ABOVE: Ronald Uloth (at right), Canadian representative at the trials, is checked out on the Zlin 50 cockpit. Interpreter in cap, Russian team in background

We had been warned about the rapid acceleration on take-off, but being accustomed to the Pitts I found it no problem to open the throttle fully and to lift the tail normally. The engine thrust line is depressed slightly, and angled to the right, so that there are no significant pitch trim changes, nor any swing, on take-off. In fact, were it not for the fact that one is pinned against the seat-back by the acceleration, the take-off is child's play. The undercarriage makes a rough grass field feel smooth. Even the least experienced among us, a Chipmunk pilot from Canada, considered the Zlin 50 easy to fly. We began to see the publicity value of inviting an inexperienced pilot to fly such an advanced machine.

Like the Pitts Special, the aircraft needed to be pulled off the ground. I reduced rpm to 2500 from the fully fine setting of 2700, and left the throttle wide open. At an IAS of 160 km/hr, the steady rate of climb was 9.7 metres/second, compared with the 12 to 13 metres/second quoted in the flight manual using 2700 rpm. My first impression was that the ailerons and elevators felt like powered flying controls over small deflections  - in fact for the first few seconds I was reminded of early flights on the Hawker Hunter, whose student pilots would wobble off into the distance. However I soon became accustomed to this razor edge of control. When shortly afterwards I flew one of the old Zlins it felt slow and sluggish by comparison.

The function of the tabs could only be detected in a slight stickiness about neutral at low speed, which was a very small price to pay for the incredible rolling power. At high speed the elevator was over-sensitive and extremely powerful, and took some getting used to. The elevator trimmer was highly geared and very powerful: this was an area where one could get into trouble if it was accidentally moved at high speed. Owing to the friction needed to hold the lever in the locked position, even a deliberate movement caused an excessive reaction in pitch.

During discussions with the chief designer I was told that this system will probably be modified, since the trimmer is only necessary to compensate for changes in pilot weight. The trim curve was very flat and it was possible to conduct the entire flight from take-off to landing, including aerobatics, without the aircraft getting out of trim. When the trimmer is set to give a slightly nose-heavy condition, the pull force in normal flight is equal to the push force in inverted flight, which is correct in an aerobatic aeroplane.

It also seems likely that a shielded horn balance may be incorporated to reduce pitch sensitivity about small deflections.

Stability assessment

The rudder was heavy and deadbeat throughout the flight envelope, while the keel area aft of the cg seemed too large, resulting in a mediocre yaw capability. It is likely that wheel spats or wingtip plates may be used to reduce this excessive directional stability.

At full power the rate of acceleration was very high. It was easy to reach the Vne of 328 km/hr in a shallow dive. Clearly there would be no difficulty in achieving the desired speed for any manoeuvre. During the dive it was noticeable that left rudder pressure built up quickly as a result of keeping the slip ball centred, giving another indication of the very high directional stability.

Longitudinal stability was generally satisfactory throughout the speed range, stick fixed and free. Although the aircraft showed signs of dynamic instability above 260 km/hr in the nose down sense only, this departure was very slow and was not significant. In the short period mode, the damping was excellent. The only feature of the behaviour in pitch I did not like was the excessive sensitivity and response for a small movement about neutral. There was no pitch-up in tight turns, but the sensitive elevator was again troublesome in a fast controlled rollout.

Lateral and directional stabilities were assessed in steady sideslips. The aircraft was found to be neutrally stable laterally, and excessively stable directionally. At speeds of between 120 and 160 km/hr, once the sideslip was established with wings level, it was not possible to carry out a flat turn in either direction using rudder alone. This meant that the rolling circle - turning and rolling in opposite directions - could not be carried out without losing points in a championship. Especially at the inverted point, the rate of turn dropped momentarily to zero.

This was the most adverse problem area on the aeroplane, and armed with my foreknowledge of it I selected the rolling circle during the unknown programme in the World Championships at Kiev, knowing the Pitts could fly it. The as yet unmodified Zlin 50 aircraft were in trouble here, and the United Kingdom made up valuable points. Another result of this feature was that the slip ball remained centred even during fast roll reversals with feet off the rudder, and this facilitated investigation of adverse aileron yaw, which was totally absent at all speeds in both erect and inverted flight.

ABOVE: Zlin 50 controls include the 'keeper' containing the rpm level, to reduce the danger of propeller overspeed. The unusual magneto switches (to left of stick grip) feature push-button control, with override buttons for individual mag testing

ABOVE: Enormously strong seat, recessed for a back-type parachute, is adjustable fore/aft and for rake. Note round head rivets in monocoque fuselage skin for extra strength

ABOVE: Clean and efficient Lycoming AEIO 540 installation is remarkably free from oil leaks, even during the most violent manoeuvres. Original stub exhausts have been replaced by manifolds to reduce noise

During sideslips the ailerons were barely deflected at all, even when full rudder was used. While principally demonstrating the excessive directional stability, it also served to highlight the remarkable aileron power and neutral lateral stability at low speed. Although the aileron inertia is very high, owing to the mass of the aileron together with its mass balance, tabs and associated mechanism, the circuit friction (as on all Zlins) is remarkably low. Thus, when attempting to stop a maximum rate roll in the vertical with any degree of precision, one tends to overshoot because of the sheer amount of metal that has to be moved, aggravated by the very high roll rate. However, for most rolling manoeuvres it is not necessary to use full aileron.

At very low airspeeds the ailerons retain their high rolling power. This is a most useful feature in competition flying. In addition this permits prolonged vertical rolling manoeuvres in descending flight. Even so, there may be a little more aileron power than is really necessary - the highest instantaneous roll rate appeared to be in the order of 300 degrees per second, which is at least as fast as a maximum rate flick roll, while the flight manual quoted as much as 345 degrees per second.

The rolling capability of the aeroplane is such that I was able to achieve a triple vertical roll from an 8.5 g pull-up from Vne at the first attempt. The control harmonization was very good during manoeuvres, both aileron and elevator forces increasing steadily with deflection. It was so good that a conscious effort had to be made to assess it. However, for small corrections and especially in the recovery from certain negative figures such as negative flick rolls, the elevator response was much too high near neutral. During high speed inverted flight any power changes produced a sharp pitch input, owing partly to the offset thrust line, but aggravated by the sensitive elevator. Furthermore during accelerated negative flight there was an intermittent tendency for the aircraft to try to snatch into the loop, which caused an irregular flightpath, this feature occurring between - 3 and - 4 g.

Stall characteristics

During manoeuvres the aircraft was deliberately pulled into the stalling region, which resulted in slight stick-lightening with buffet, followed by a very mild rolling tendency.

This behaviour was very encouraging, both from the standpoint of the manoeuvre capability with the symmetric wing and from that of safety for the inexperienced pilot. The straight stall from normal unaccelerated flight produced a slight flow breakdown at 118 km/hr, with a further breakdown with buffet at 103 km/hr, the stall occurring at 100 km/hr in a g break with the left wing lowering. Recovery was immediate. The inverted stall was also reached at 100 km/hr with the stick almost fully forward. Snatch pulls were made at speeds down to 110 km/hr and in all cases the aircraft responded normally, only reaching slight buffet at the lowest speed tested.

Spins were made during acrobatic sequences, both positive and negative, and the recovery was straightforward with no complications. The general behaviour in stalling and spinning was very mild, the aircraft being reluctant to respond to inept handling at low speed, making it a very safe machine to fly. It could be sideslipped almost into the stall without any adverse behaviour.

In level flight it accelerated quickly, reaching 260 km/hr at full power using 2500 rpm in a very short time, while the acceleration in a dive was much greater than that of other aerobatic machines. Yet the pilot has the option of controlling speed, looping radius, and size of manoeuvre to a greater extent than with most other types, and this was one of the Zlin 50's strong points. Also speed could be retained if power was maintained during high g manoeuvres - once again a very useful feature.

The principal 'airbrake' effect was achieved by means of the throttle, and not, as is usual, by induced drag. The symmetric wing allows cleaner corners to be flown, especially in negative flight, though this results in greater stress on the pilot.

Knife flight was satisfactory for short periods at moderate speeds. However it could not be held as long as with some other machines, owing to the high directional stability.

The engine performed well in all attitudes. There is a restriction of two seconds from idle to full power to prevent over-speeding, and the pitch control is operated over a small range by a 'keeper' on the throttle to further reduce the possibility of an overspeed. Even with this device one had to be very careful not to reach excessively high rpm if the throttle was opened too quickly. The pitch lever could be left entirely to the care of the 'keeper', resulting in 2500 rpm being automatically applied when the throttle was opened.

This setting was satisfactory for all flying, including the approach and landing, using a final approach speed of 120 km/hr. If the final turn was pulled too tight there was adequate warning for this type of aircraft in terms of sink and light buffet, which could be instantly corrected by a touch of power.

The flare was initiated at 115 km/hr, and at this point the view over the nose was lost. The touchdown was very easy to achieve smoothly with no tendency to swing or bounce. There was no comparison in handling with a Pitts Special, which is not particularly pleasant to take off or land. Brakes could then be steadily applied. With the stick hard back, moderate braking gave no indication of the tail lifting. From the standpoint of circuit and general flying this aircraft could be safely managed by a newly qualified pilot.


During my stay in Czechoslovakia I was asked many times whether the Zlin 50 compared well with a Pitts Special. So, with the test programme complete, I devoted my last two flights to pure aerobatics, starting with my Pitts routines for the World Championships. I had no difficulty in flying all the required figures, and I gained the impression that the inherent grace of the aeroplane more than made up for my lack of time on it. Although the g was imposed for long periods, because of the high speeds I used, I found that the excellent seat and harness allowed me to accept this with greater comfort than usual.

Multiple negative flick rolls on a descending flightpath were quite violent, as in previous marks of Zlin. Yet one of the highlights of this aeroplane is that it can be flown to suit the style of any individual pilot. I tended to fly it like a Pitts, and it accepted this as well as it did the Russian pilots' style which was obviously dictated by the new Yak 50.

Perhaps the most interesting style was a combination of the two. I tried this on my last flight, alternating multiple snap rolls with lazy cap lomcevaks: the possibilities were endless. All the manoeuvres I could dream up were well within the capabilities of the machine, and there is no g cutoff at Vne, positive or negative.

With a very high power to weight ratio and featherlight powerful controls, the Zlin 50's vertical performance surpassed anything I have seen, while the high drag of the Hoffman propeller in fine pitch meant that the speed could be kept firmly under control in downward figures.

This aeroplane meets the three primary requirements I had laid down for our own prototype aerobatic aeroplane which is now undergoing its test programme at Cranfield in England: a high power to weight ratio, excellent control at low speed, and high structural integrity.

Ten years ago the Czechs astounded the world with their complex tumbling and gyroscopic manoeuvres in the graceful long-winged Zlin 226 and 526 aircraft. With the advent of the Zlin 50, combined with the inventiveness of Czech pilots, a new chapter is about to be written in the evolution of aerobatic flying.

CAPTAIN NEIL WILLIAMS of Falcon Jet Centre, Ltd., London, reviews some finer points of executive jet operation. Photos by MICHAEL ST. MAUR SHEIL.

THE PRINCIPAL raison d'être of executive jet companies is similar to that of the private taxi operators who back up bus and rail transport. The public carriers follow established routes and schedules, but very often people need to travel outside these fixed limits - which means that executive jet crews must be prepared to go anywhere, any time.

So much for the definitions. In practice this is a field with many challenges. The integration of successive trips can often tax the powers of our operations manager, and when all is planned to the last detail, a change of mind by one client may throw the whole programme into disarray. It is then that the flexibility of ground staff and flight crews becomes indispensable.

For the latter, the job doesn't stop with flying the aeroplane. We must become involved on a much more personal basis with our clients than do the airlines - we do not refer to them as 'passengers' until they are actually on board - and it is not uncommon for some smart customer relations work by one of the staff to result in a contract for future business. Executive jet companies are small, and rely on teamwork and co-operation with other similar organisations; there is friendly rivalry, to be sure, but any company that becomes overloaded with work will be prepared to pass it on to another one. Next week the boot may be on the other foot. This type of operation is sometimes hard and frustrating, though compensated for by variety and interest, and the need for individuality within the tight confines of the 'rule book'. It is no accident that executive jets are largely crewed by ex-military pilots.


Generally, the telephoned scramble at midnight is becoming a thing of the past - except perhaps in the case of an ambulance flight - for most businessmen know they will want to travel some days before the appointed time. Thus the crews can be scheduled well ahead. With knowledge of the forthcoming flight, the captain has time to sort out what currency he will need, and whether he has to make up a navigation log, or whether one already exists in the fast growing company file. Unlike the major airlines, the crews have to do all their own planning, which includes fuel planning and deciding how much fuel to carry. The computer may do the job very well on the public routes, but there are too many variables in the executive jet field, where sometimes plain old fashioned experience is the better guide. Overflight and landing clearances are usually arranged by the operations manager, though if something needs doing, the nearest person usually gets on with it.

On the day of the flight, the crew checks in at the office just over an hour before take-off, to receive the briefing form which gives details of the client, the route, the catering requirements, and other relevant details. At this stage the stewardess is supervising the caterers, who are in attendance at the aeroplane. The pilots are given any last minute information and complete the load sheets and flight plans, before being driven to the central area at London Airport Heathrow, where they collect the weather and AIS information, and proceed to the aircraft.

ABOVE: Pre-flight check

BELOW: Author Neil Williams taxies out to Runway 28R for take-off

The bustle of activity soon gives way to calm, as the handling vehicles disappear and external power is disconnected. Our aircraft is a Fanjet Falcon, elegant and sleek, and we are very proud of her. This is the E model, with increased fuel capacity, but otherwise much the same in external appearance as the previous marks. Although fitted with an APU, the machine is quite capable of carrying out a start on internal batteries, which saves the time loss involved with an external power unit, and avoids the noise of the APU. The latter would, however, be used in very hot or cold climates to produce a comfortable cabin environment.

As the vehicle with the clients' baggage appears, we make a final note of the airfield departure information, before loading the baggage ourselves in the rear compartment. With normal baggage we have no CG problem, and although we are required by law to make out a loadsheet, the only figures we need are the take-off weight and the zero fuel weight, to compute take-off and landing speeds respectively. The French, flying the same aeroplane, don't even need a loadsheet. It is not possible to misload the aeroplane, whatever the combination of passengers and baggage, so people can sit where they please.

With the baggage on board, we are ready to meet our clients. Although all our pilots are captains, obviously there must be one person in command, so we take it in turns, with the man in the right hand seat acting as co-pilot. While he obtains start-up clearance, the other pilot is meeting the passengers and introducing them to the stewardess. He is last on board, and personally makes sure the door is closed properly. Quite often we find that we do not have the planned number of passengers, or the originally planned baggage, and this is where flexibility comes in. The pilot in the right hand seat takes over the duties of both crewmen and carries out all the checks and starts the engines, while his colleague reworks the loadsheet and computes the new speeds. We are used to each others' patterns of operation: indeed, on getting into the aeroplane we can hazard a pretty good guess as to who flew it last, even before we look at the technical logbook, just by the position of the seat, rudder pedals, and how and where the check list is stowed!

ABOVE: Passing through 700 ft during the climb-out

BELOW:  Cabin service for the client, whose anonymity is always preserved

During the winter months, one has to keep an eye on the air temperature and humidity during take-off and climb. It may be necessary to think ahead to icing conditions in the first cloud layer to be encountered. If icing conditions seem likely, engine anti-icing is selected before take-off, the correct functioning of which is indicated by two green lights in the roof panel. The slight reduction in thrust is no embarrassment at Heathrow, and with the knowledge that the engines are protected we are ready to go. Full power is stabilised against the brakes, then both pilots stopwatch the acceleration. Airspeed is cross-checked at 60 kt - the nosewheel steering is released at 80 kt, at which point the co-pilot confirms all trim settings still 'in the green'.

Acceleration time is checked at 100 kt, and the co-pilot calls 'V1' and 'rotate'. VR and V2 are coincident on the British registered aeroplane; although originally V2 was less than
VR owing to a static vent error during rotation the real speed did not drop. This means that we are actually some 4 kt better off when we indicate V2 nowadays. Twin engine aircraft are required to produce a climb gradient on one engine of 2.4%, while the Falcon, at gross weight on one engine, produces 3.5% gradient - a comforting thought.

Radar techniques

Although we carry weather radar, we rely more on the airfield radar if conditions ahead look dirty, especially during the few minutes just after take-off when ground returns can be a problem. As well as enabling us to avoid weather, the aircraft's radar has the obvious use of picking up coastlines, lakes and towns for navigational purposes, and a less obvious application during over-water flights, when a ship or an ice floe may be used to give a groundspeed check. One handy (and possibly little known) technique is to deflect the radar scanner fully downwards, and turn up the gain control to its maximum. The screen then becomes saturated with excessive returns, which take the form of a closely spaced group of arcs. An imaginary line or, for that matter, a line drawn in chinagraph on the scope exactly bisecting this group is the track of the aeroplane, and comparing it with the scope centre line shows the drift: very useful on long sea crossings.

During the climb, we monitor the cabin rate of climb, and adjust it if necessary for optimum passenger comfort. The pressurization control is set 1000 ft higher than our cruising altitude so that the blow-off valve will not cause uncomfortable fluctuations. During any descent from high altitude, we increase the cabin rate of descent when the density is still low, slowing this rate when we reach denser air: a little more for us to think about, but it gives the passengers a smoother ride. Our cruising Mach number is around 0.8. The Falcon is such a solid and stable aeroplane that it can take quite moderate turbulence without needing to slow down, as many aircraft have to do.

ABOVE: 'A more formal atmosphere exists . . . during the approach and landing.' On this February afternoon in Northern Europe the cloud base was 300 ft

BELOW: Raw weather on the ground. Falcon's crew will now prepare for the next sector of the flight and await the client, whose departure from the airport is being assisted by Pat Graham

On trips of more than 800 miles or so, we keep a 'how goes it' graph of fuel consumption, normally from top of climb to top of descent, drawing a line from the actual fuel at the first point to the required fuel at the second point. This allows us to see if we can make the trip with the required reserves, but does not give an indication of correct performance. Accordingly we read off the air nautical miles per pound of fuel from the chart showing height, weight and temperature, and plot this line on our graph as well. During our planning, sector fuel required does not take tailwinds into account: here we use still air figures, and anything extra is therefore a bonus. For a headwind, we use 1% extra fuel in our calculations for every 5 kt of wind, which is a good rule of thumb until we hit winds of 80 or 100 kt.

On a long trip into wind, we have to decide whether to fly high speed cruise, or long range cruise, or something in between. Since we are restricted by performance to 37,000 ft in a straight climb from take-off at maximum gross weight, we might have to accept 35,000 ft on occasions when ideally we might want 39,000 ft to get above the core of a jet stream.

To reach 37,000 ft without undue delay, one can either take chart readings every 5000 ft and set up EPR accordingly, or more simply, set 695 degrees EGT above 25,000 ft. Either of these methods will result in the free running fans becoming desynchronised, which produces a distinctive rhythmic beat, especially in the passenger cabin. Owing to the noise made by the radio blower fans, any desynchronised note can only be detected from the right hand cockpit seat, and so it is left to the co-pilot to make the necessary adjustment. The Falcon is such a quiet aircraft that the slightest beat becomes intrusive, but for a maximum performance climb we hope the passengers will be sympathetic.

Once at our cruising level the height lock is selected at 160 ft above the required height - indicated. As the speed increases to cruise, the height settles down at the correct figure, and we can then adjust the engine settings in accordance with the charts. If the outside air temperature alters, it can produce a noticeable alteration in speed; for example a decrease in temperature will produce a drop in gas generator rpm, a drop in EGT, and a reduction of Mach number: one must then recalculate the new value of EPR at the new temperature to restore the cruising speed. The Falcon is sensitive to the treatment it receives from its pilots, but when the performance charts are thoroughly understood and complied with, it is surprising what the aeroplane will do. It remains at all times a real pilot's aeroplane, and demands to be flown with precision.

The role of the nominal co-pilot is primarily that of navigator and radio operator, as well as keeping the fuel log and monitoring the aircraft systems. During the entire flight he sets up the navigation system and advises the captain of what he is doing, while the captain lets the autopilot fly the aeroplane, and monitors it to follow the prescribed route. In practice there is quite a bit of give and take, both pilots operating together in an efficient manner. With such a small team, standardisation is easy, such that the operation of the flight deck would appear to an observer as a routine that had been carefully rehearsed many times.

Top of descent briefing

Before the descent, even though we are familiar with it, the captain carries out a briefing to cover all aspects of the approach and landing. This is especially important when we operate into a strange field, perhaps at night and in poor weather. Very often the situation is compounded by a late descent clearance from ATC with the result that we may have to use the airbrakes. These have only two positions, in or out, and when they are selected out they give a nose-down trim change as well as deceleration and buffet. For these reasons we try not to use the airbrakes if we can avoid it; but when their use becomes necessary, we can minimise their effects either by selecting them at a low IAS before starting the descent, or by easing back on the stick when they are selected at higher speeds. An increment of about 0.25 g is sufficient to eliminate any sensation of 'floating' with deceleration that might worry a sensitive passenger: in fact, this method presses the passengers comfortably into their seats during airbrake extension. Once they are fully extended, very high rates of descent are possible, and the cabin pressure is monitored to make sure that the aircraft does not 'catch it up'.

When descending from height into medium cloud layers, one has to anticipate the results of speed and height changes on ram air temperature. One of the most awkward cases results from a descent at high airspeed, and then levelling out following an ATC request to decelerate. If this occurs in cloud, it is quite common for the ram air temperature to fall with decaying airspeed until the aircraft is in the icing range. Yet selecting anti-icing will do no good unless rpm are increased! So if one does not wish to be faced with using the airbrakes against power, the answer is to anticipate, and to pre-heat the engines just before descent begins. It is often better to use the airbrakes early if icing in the lower layers is suspected. At 200 kt one can substitute 15 degrees of flap for airbrakes to reduce buffet; and should a further descent be required, it is often best to select the undercarriage down - rather than select more flap, and consequently increase the buffet - thus providing the drag to allow sufficient rpm to heat the intakes.

From a relaxed and easy atmosphere at altitude, there is a slightly more formal attitude during the approach and landing. It is a measure of the mutual respect of the pilots that the roles of the captain and co-pilot are so easily interchangeable. Both pilots are responsible for identifying the aids to be used, and it is here that the co-pilot uses his skill and experience to back up the captain. A big advantage with this kind of operation is that if there is any doubt about anything, the question is voiced immediately - there is no rank consciousness in this cockpit. The captain flies the aircraft and handles the throttles, while the co-pilot reads out the checks and actively monitors the approach. When an approach involves limited aids the co-pilot may literally 'talk down' the captain, keeping up a running commentary on position and altitude.

On finals, the Falcon is reminiscent of a jet fighter, which is not surprising when we learn that it is directly descended from the Dassault range of fighters. At 1.3 VS it is speed stable, and in no wind, at medium weights, one can set 79% rpm (N1), when the speed will stabilize very close to VREF. On the earlier model Falcons, one had to be careful to start the flare before reducing power, as the elevator authority was limited, but on the E model one can cut the power at 50 ft and flare normally. The Falcon has a rather hard undercarriage, similar in feel to the Hunter, and like that aeroplane the touchdown is positive. A real greaser can be achieved, usually by means of a higher threshold speed and by throttling back slowly: however, this technique is not recommended because it can use up a lot of runway. To achieve the certification landing distances one must naturally adhere to the correct speeds.


With the aeroplane on the ground one might suppose that the day's work is done. Far from it. During the approach, the stewardess has been completing the customs documents for the bar, as well as the crew declaration. She also has to determine the client's requirements, not only for the immediate future, such as transport, hotels, and contact telephone numbers, but also to ask where they might want to go next, and when. In the event of a night stop we must contact our clients when we have located our own hotel.

ABOVE: End of the day's mission. Richard Campbell-Jones loads bar box into Pat Graham's minivan for return to the office

BELOW: Author fits Falcon's engine blanks

The aircraft is shut down quickly. Our primary task is to see that the clients get away through the airport buildings with the least delay, generally escorted by the stewardess. Customs have to seal the bar, and then we are left in relative peace to complete all the necessary paperwork and to supervise fuelling, just in case the clients want to depart ahead of schedule. Finally we fit all the necessary covers and pins and secure the aircraft, before going through customs and immigration ourselves and settling up our payments at the landing office. Where a major airline would rely on a vast ground organisation to back up the flight operation, we have to do it all. Sometimes, when we're cold, wet and tired, and struggling to fit engine blanks that are trying hard to get airborne in the wind, we might envy the airline crews. But not for long.

ABOVE: Presently averaging 800 revenue hours per year, the Falcon is available round the clock with a crew on stand-by. Aircraft's compliance with all noise requirements greatly facilitates night operation

ABOVE: With Leader and No. 3 in line astern, Nos. 2 and 4 fly a sustained knife edge

'BLUE SECTION, rolling out, descending.'

Sunlight and shadow swing across my cockpit as I ease the trimmer slightly forward and clamp the propeller pitch lever in fully fine. All my attention is on the belly of the leader's aeroplane, its gleaming blue finish marred by streaks of black oil, for this is the Rothmans Aerobatic Team, now entering its final season of formation display flying. Though facing disbandment the team's professionalism is still as high as ever, as it begins a last period of training before setting off for a two month tour of the Middle East.

At the end of the 1976 season the Rothmans Team was in real danger of being closed down after six years of operation. It had come a long way since 1970 when the late Manx Kelly invited me to take the No. 4 slot. With the possibility of disbandment two of the pilots left the company, so that when the Middle East tour was confirmed two more had to be found, and quickly. Time for training was very short. Happily, both the pilots selected had flown with the team before, and we were both available. Mike Findlay had led the formation for a season, so he was now the natural choice for leader, which left my old No. 4 position open for me -  with the added advantage that the box man does the solo display.

The routine had changed somewhat during the time that Mike and I had been away. One of the first jobs was to take a new look at all the manoeuvres, discard the ones we didn't like, and invent new ones to keep the interest going. Inevitably the sequence changed from day to day, sometimes even during the same day as we encountered problems or thought up improved ways of doing things.

As always, the team was run on relaxed yet disciplined lines. Our ex-Service backgrounds resulted in a tendency to operate according to RAF procedure, and an early decision was to allocate secondary duties. Graham Rutson, the No. 2 pilot, was put in charge of tour administration and navigation, while Dave Perrin - whose place in the box I had usurped - became responsible for safety equipment. I was charged with day-to-day engineering.

Fast pace

I was about to give my aeroplane an airing after its annual C of A when Mike announced a briefing for a four aircraft practice - and this on the first morning! The pace he had set for the training programme began to come home to us, and I felt very conscious that I had not flown advanced formation aerobatics for three years. The scratch flying kit I had contrasted sharply with the resplendent suits of the other team members, but I consoled myself with the thought that my leather jacket was probably more suitable to an open cockpit in January.

In true fighter-pilot style my colleagues were strapped in and started up before I had even settled into the cockpit, but I refused to be rushed. I wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and secure before I gave the thumbs up. As we rolled onto the runway it was all becoming familiar again, just as if I had never been away, except for a slight tendency at first to overcontrol. To be on the safe side, as we formed up, I eased out a bit. Although each pilot is cocooned in steel tubes and bracing wires, isolated from his colleagues yet almost near enough to reach out and touch them, he experiences a sense of unity and trust that is perhaps unique in aviation. Each man flies steadily and unwaveringly, knowing full well that his life is in the hands of the others. One is more conscious of responsibility to one's fellows than of the element of personal danger.

ABOVE: Over the top of a box loop
As we headed for the practice area we opened out into battle formation, like the spread ringers of a hand. This was the time for each individual to invert his aeroplane and make sure all was well before the formation work proper began. Ignoring the gyrations going on around me I contented myself with one roll, then settled down to see how my new aeroplane behaved. A trained test pilot can learn quite a lot about his aeroplane just by flying straight and level. I started to make notes of stick position and forces, engine power, airspeed, directional trim, the position of each aileron stick-fixed and free, and the amount of buzz in the bracing wires. The upshot was that the aeroplane spent the next two days in the hangar being re-rigged.

When rigging a biplane laterally there is the obvious temptation to do it all on the ailerons by means of the fixed tabs. However, if the mainplane rigging itself is out of true, one may finish up with an aeroplane that flies hands-off laterally but whose rate of roll for aerobatics will be dramatically reduced. As the solo display pilot I needed all the roll rate I could get. One has to rig in a trace of droop on the ground, which disappears as the ailerons float up under the flight loads. Also to emerge from my straight-and-level exercise was the fact that the aircraft was slightly down on power - which was not going to help me at the rear of the formation.

Box loop

But now these reflections had to be put on one side as, with the tips of my propeller no more than a couple of feet behind and below the leader's tailwheel, the whole formation seemed suspended motionless in space, only the gentle swaying of the wingmen giving movement to a curiously unreal tableau. Now the nose was well down and I caught a glimpse of a disused runway framed by the leader's wires. Again the radio came alive - 'Blue Section, descending for box loop, smoke, smoke, go!' As I flicked a switch near the throttle the whole suspended tableau was suddenly transformed, thick white smoke erupting beneath the leader. It seemed that I looked back through time and was once again in the cockpit of a fighter, following hard on the tail of the machine ahead, the condensation trail flicking past my canopy like a jet of high pressure steam. Yet here the impression of speed was even stronger - the smoke just clearing my top wing, and out of the corners of my eyes the wingmen trailing smoke too, with all the while the blast of the open slipstream. Fumes stung the eyes, choked the throat as unburnt smoke oil vapour penetrated the cockpit; it was running down the underside of the aeroplane, coating everything with an evil smelling slippery film.

ABOVE: Immense strength of the Pitts airframe, and its flick-rolling capability, cause pilots to impose very high and repeated g loads. Top wing attachment points are routinely inspected, also the root rib at the inboard end of the sweep. In flight, alignment by Nos. 2 and 3 pilots of Leader's rear centre section strut with front strut on the opposite side ensures their correct position in the formation

BELOW: Display smoke oil is injected into the exhaust tail pipes and emitted between the gear legs

'Pulling up - Now', and the four biplanes zoomed upwards as one. In the box No. 4 position I handled the power carefully, for if I lost distance at the top I would never regain it. Then we were over, and below us in the dive I could see the smoke trail of our pull-up lash towards us and disintegrate in our propellers. At full power I was barely keeping station on the way down, but as the nose came up again I deliberately began to drop back for the next manoeuvre. At this point the other three pull up to 45 degrees, then push around a downward outside half-loop. I must be very careful to maintain nose-to-tail clearance here. Years ago I frightened myself by getting caught beneath the formation during an unplanned box outside loop, which is potentially disastrous because to reduce speed on the inside the box man would have to throttle back fully and he cannot then fly the same small radius as the others. One near miss like that is enough. This time I have positioned correctly, and pull up rapidly through the back of the formation with a jolt and a shudder as I go through the leader's slipstream.

Zero g trajectory

The sequence now calls for me to fly a loop passing beneath the inverted formation head-on at the bottom of their outside loop. Any wingtip vortices that I left could throw a wingman out of position, so I must describe a zero g trajectory, letting the aeroplane fall vertically in a dive: no angle of attack, therefore no appreciable slipstream effect. Once I have visual contact with the V formation I have to wait until I am outside their intended track, then pull hard to the horizontal. The smoke trails help us besides making the manoeuvre look attractive - Mike Findlay and I need to be able to locate each other instantly.

As we pass I pull up quickly. This is where the really difficult join-up occurs: I must wait, inverted at slow speed, for Mike to start his next manoeuvre, which is really a climbing cloverleaf. The instant he comes over the top I pull the nose down, at full power, and set up a collision course. To achieve this join-up cleanly requires a great deal of anticipation, for Mike is accelerating, diving and still rolling, as indeed I am, but in different planes. At the last moment I can drop down and bank to nearly 90 degrees, sometimes pulling 6 g as I curve hard round into the box position again. An error of a fraction of a second can extend the join-up by anything up to twenty seconds - and I have to be in position ready for the upward burst which follows immediately off a continuous turn.


At first this join-up gave me a considerable amount of trouble, so I was relieved to let the maintenance staff take my underpowered machine into the hangar while I flew the spare aircraft. This was also the opportunity for a minute inspection of the airframe. In the Rothmans Team, each pilot is required to clean his own aeroplane, so that he can satisfy himself that all is well down to the smallest detail.

Specific areas that call for inspection after every flight are common to both the Pitts S-2A two seater used by the team, and its single seat competition relative, the Pitts Special. Because pilots tend to take advantage of the great flick-rolling capability of these aeroplanes, one is primarily looking for signs of high g in a pitching, rolling and yawing case. One naturally thinks of the engine and its attachments, owing to the high gyroscopic twisting effects: visual evidence of this may be chafing between the spinner and the front cowling, despite more than an inch of normal clearance. Inside the cowling one is specifically looking for signs of stress at the engine and bearer attachment points, distortion of rubber mounts, cracking of exhaust and smoke systems, and oil leaks.

Bending or deformation of the top wing support brackets is an indication that the aeroplane has been working hard. There are now modification kits available which beef up this area. The long streamlined wheel spats suffer mainly from chatter in straight and level flight, causing crazing, while their proximity to the ground gives rise to impact damage at the aft ends on rough surfaces. At the rear of the fuselage one finds the weakest point on the S-2A, the tailwheel attachment. Several failures have resulted from the tail bouncing on hard rutted ground caused by last summer's drought, and we now operate exclusively from the asphalt runway when at our home base.

The only known failure of a Pitts in the air was top wing separation, the result of an extreme overstress during a previous flight. It transpired during the enquiry that the wing had been seen to be deformed before the final flight, which the pilot nevertheless carried out regardless. It is likely that any future failure would follow this pattern, and we therefore pay particular attention to the inboard rib of the top mainplane where it attaches to the 'box' centre section. The slightest deformation in this area would cause the aeroplane to be grounded.

ABOVE: Start of the 'Swiss Roll'. Leader with No. 4 in line astern pulls into a loop. The other pair are in line abreast (out of shot) head on, also pulling up. Leader & No. 4 fly a half loop then push into inverted flight, where 2 and 3 join up with them

A recurrent concern is the loose article hazard. Although we empty our pockets and secure our clothing it is still only too easy for small objects to drop into the cockpit and find their way into control runs. This is why we discourage people from leaning into the cockpit during airshows. Not only do their cameras make dents in the fuselage but there is the danger of pencils, pens or worse falling out of their pockets. Just because the pilots are 'clean', it doesn't mean that they can ignore the loose article check, and to facilitate this the rear inspection panel over the elevator bell crank has been removed and replaced by a clear view perspex panel. A jammed elevator during formation aerobatics can be a short cut to disaster.

Finally, most of us punch small holes in the fabric at the lowest point of the belly curvature. It may be unsightly, but it allows the inevitable smoke oil spillage to drain to atmosphere rather than give the pilot a shower bath during slow rolls!


In the hangar things were not going well with my machine, which was still down on power. I was beginning to appreciate the disadvantages of being the last recruit to the team - everyone else had already had their choice of aircraft. Of course the spare, which was going like a veritable rocket, was the wrong colour. After changing the injector once and the propeller three times, and renewing the engine bearer rubbers to reduce vibration, we reluctantly had to accept that my aeroplane was just a shade slower than the others. At least I was learning by this time how to cut corners to best advantage.

Even with the initial part of the sequence practised, an easy life was not to be our lot. We briefed for two new manoeuvres, both of which involved aircraft rolling over or around the rest of the formation. However one of these had to be abandoned simply because it consumed too much sky, while the other produced a marked concertina effect with three aircraft rolling simultaneously around the leader, and therefore a risk of collision. This latter problem was overcome by having both the leader and No. 2 flying steadily in line abreast while No. 3 and I rolled around them, always keeping on opposite sides of the circle.
It also had the advantage of increasing the diameter of the circle, and when smoke was used the trails gave a very pretty intertwining effect.

Without the commentator to explain what is happening, the public probably don't realise that the three formating aircraft change position several times during the show for specific manoeuvres, so that I find myself flying in the No. 2 and 3 slots at various points as well as in the box. These changes occur during the reform after a break-up, with the singleton aircraft moving into the vacant space, and the formation resumes its original identity as it 'unwinds' in a given manoeuvre.

BELOW: At the celebrations to mark the accession of Prince Rainier of Monaco, the Rothmans team were honoured by a visit from Princess Grace. Seen here at Nice Airport, the Princess had just returned from a flight in one of the team's aircraft, when she was shown a formation loop by the then Rothman's leader lain Weston in company with author Neil Williams. Her daughter Princess Caroline (bottom photo) also flew in a Pitts

Gradually the team settled down as we all got used to each other. There was a handful of new manoeuvres, such as the half-roll and outside loop upwards with a V of three aircraft - one figure I cordially detested, because flying in the No. 3 slot I was on the inside of both the initiating turn to the left and the half roll. This was quite bad enough during practice at height, but when we started coming down to below 200 ft at the bottom, self-preservation became dominant and for once I was glad of the lack of performance as it allowed me to drop back a foot or so and gain a peripheral impression of where we were going and at what height!

While our routine was still in malleable form we were required to attend a press day at the Silverstone racing circuit, for the launching of a new race car, so we 'froze' the sequence although it was still not entirely satisfactory. It also gave us the opportunity for a dress rehearsal at low altitude in front of informed critics. This was quite smooth and uneventful from the formation standpoint; however, when I was in the middle of my solo display my main smoke oil delivery pipe fractured., and at 200 ft inverted I suddenly went IFR. The whole of the inside of the aeroplane was awash with the stuff, and the windscreen was covered inside and out. I flew the rest of the formation display with neck craned and head out in the breeze, and far from getting any sympathy all I received was a remark from the commentator that the smoke 'had got a bit thin'!

The trouble with smoke oil is that it gets everywhere. For a week afterwards every seam leaked oil on every flight, no matter how many times we wiped them down.


In general the manoeuvres are designed to have an artistic or exciting visual effect. Strangely enough it is not always the dramatic figures that contain the greatest element of hazard. From the team's point of view the aim is to present a high apparent hazard level while in reality keeping it as safe as possible, although some degree of built-in excitement may occasionally rear its head despite efforts to the contrary.

Probably the manoeuvre with the greatest adrenalin factor is the opposition loop which follows the synchronised pairs stall turn, with a pair of aircraft at each end of the arena travelling head-on at a closing speed of more than 300 mph. The leader of each pair aims initially at his opposite number, and when the team leader has steadied, it is up to the deputy leader (No. 2) to ensure there is no collision while keeping minimum separation laterally. In the meantime No.3 is flying line abreast on No. 2, just leaving enough room for the leader to pass between them, while I am tucked in tight astern behind the leader, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. One is treated to a sight akin to driving the wrong way up a freeway as machines hurtle past one's ears, literally in a cloud of smoke. Both sections then loop so that one has the same situation again at the top, only this time upside down!

Yet for a continuous spectacle from within the formation the most dramatic is the double mirror, with four aircraft stacked up vertically, the top two inverted and the lower two erect. This unique formation is achieved from the box position where the leader and No. 4 roll inverted together, and where No. 2 slides out far enough to let me through before he and No. 3 drop underneath. The manoeuvre takes place at 200 ft or below. From my position at the top I can look upwards at the leader's wheels a few feet away, and actually hear the crackle of his engine exhaust as it spews thick white smoke almost into my cockpit. Below him, very close, I can see the other two aircraft, their gentle movements as we jockey for position adding to the disorientation produced by the flowing smoke trails and the ground streaming past close beneath. I don't know which feels worse, to be on the top and see how close together we are, and how low, or to be underneath and to sit there in blissful ignorance of the proximity of the ground.

But then, after one short month, it is all over. Suddenly we realise that this is the final practice. The leader gives his penultimate order: 'Blue, rolling out descending for bomb burst, smoke, smoke - go'. As we float gently over the top of the loop, everybody is tucked in tight: the box is perfect. 'Blue, burst - NOW.' And we split apart, leaving an inverted fountain of white smoke over the green fields of England. Next time it will be the sands of Arabia.

ABOVE: Echelon port, contre-jour

DURING MAY the Queen's Silver Jubilee Air Pageant was held at White Waltham, in Berkshire. I had been asked by the Shuttleworth Collection to demonstrate their 1912 Blackburn Monoplane at this two-day event; the Rothmans Aerobatic Team, too, wanted me to take my old Number 4 position for their last displays before final disbandment. I had been in at the beginning of the team, when in 1970 the late Manx Kelly formed it with Stampe biplanes. Now I was to be in at the finish, but this time flying the high performance Pitts S2A.

With only two items each day I began to look forward to a quiet weekend at a pleasant grass airfield in the country. Certainly it would be a holiday compared to a normal summertime weekend. I might actually be able to watch most of the display, something I am rarely able to do. There would have to be an early morning's air test on the Blackburn, which was to be transported to White Waltham by road and assembled for the show; since rotary engine time is measured in minutes rather than hours this meant just a quick circuit to prove all systems. True, there was still some administrative work to look after, as I had arranged for a Spitfire IX to take part in the Biggin Hill Air Fair - held at the same time as the Jubilee Pageant - but all I had to do was brief the pilot when he arrived from overseas. I should have known that things were going too well. At the last moment he sent a message to say he couldn't come!

I studied the programmes for the Pageant and the Air Fair. If I based the Spitfire at White Waltham, could I fly over to Biggin, display the aircraft and return in time for my other commitments? I decided that it was possible, but only if the Biggin Hill organiser agreed to bring my slot time forward. I rang him up. Yes, he said, that would be OK. By now it was beginning to turn into a standard flying-season weekend, though with careful planning there shouldn't be any rush between appearances. One big advantage of displaying high performance machines is that one can cover a lot of ground quickly and thus take part in airshows a considerable distance apart. However, this does call for really accurate navigation - usually in an aircraft with no aids - and getting off track can ruin the afternoon for a lot of people. Even a slippage of a couple of minutes can make it impossible to reach the next site in time.

White Waltham also had a Spitfire on their programme, a Mark I flown by a colleague. With two Spitfires to be positioned from their home base to White Waltham, we naturally decided to go in formation, for such an opportunity arises all too rarely.

Early start

The first day of the Jubilee Air Pageant dawned fair and clear. Crouched in my small cockpit I could scarcely tear my eyes away from the trim, beautiful lines of the Mark I, as it gently rose and fell just beyond my wing tip. I pressed the R/T button: 'Spitfires, turning port - go!' and the horizon slanted as we swung onto the heading for White Waltham. For those who came early to the display, the sight and sounds that greeted them must have made it worthwhile as we broke into the circuit and landed, the Rolls Merlins crackling and popping as they were throttled back.

ABOVE LEFT: Author Neil Williams straps in to Spitfire.   ABOVE RIGHT: New look at Biggin Hill

BELOW: Vintage look at White Waltham. Author floats overhead in the 1912 Blackburn Monoplane

But now there was business to attend to, for as we taxied in I could see the Blackburn Monoplane being prepared for flight. We had decided to air test this early, before the daytime turbulence built up and the circuit became congested with visiting aeroplanes. From 1750 hp to 50 hp, I thought, as I used the brawny back of our engineer to climb into the cockpit.

The Gnome rotary burst into life on the first swing, but I had difficulty in establishing the correct positions of the control levers to achieve full power. There are three of these levers: an air slide, a petrol needle valve, and a throttle, the latter control being used only when the engine is running properly and the mixture has been set using the other two. One cannot simply open everything wide on a rotary or the whole thing will flood and stop. Eventually I persuaded the engine to give its revs, but for some reason the levers were not in their accustomed places on the quadrant.

At last I was ready. Chocks were removed and willing hands clung to the tail while I stabilised at full power. I raised and lowered my arm, and with a strong push from the mechanics the Blackburn rolled across the grass and drifted into the air. I leaned off the petrol slightly to compensate for the richness due to centrifugal force with rising rpm, noting that she was slightly right wing heavy, but nothing to worry about. The engine note still did not sound right - I adjusted the levers to try and improve things.

I had just reached the end of the airfield at about 300 ft, when the engine died! With no ASI or altimeter in this 65 year old original one has to rely on feel and instinct. The ground ahead was no good, but the wind was light, so I started to turn. I could not get back onto the duty runway and there were tents and barriers across the airfield. Gliding silently downwards I pulled the petrol lever fully closed: if it had been a rich cut, this would cure it. At about 100 ft I opened up - the Gnome coughed and restarted. It still wasn't right, but it gave enough power to climb, so I continued my circuit and landed on the runway. Evidently some new sparking plugs had been the problem. They were immediately removed and replaced by the older type which we knew to be satisfactory.


By this time the crowds were pouring in. We pilots assembled for our display briefing, during which I confirmed with Biggin Hill my arrival and departure slots in their Air Fair programme. There was time to get a bite to eat and a cup of tea, and then I had to prepare the Spitfire IX. It appeared that the ground crew were also away to lunch, so there was no starter trolley available. Not to worry, I still had an ace up my sleeve in the shape of two batteries in the rear fuselage instead of the usual one.

Again the airfield echoed to the well-known crackle, and soon the machine was bounding across the grass. In the cockpit the thunder of the Merlin was muted as I held hard right rudder to keep her straight against the enormous turning effect of the engine and propeller. The ground fell away, I quickly changed hands on the stick to select gear up, and pulled the power back to cruise as I turned on course for Biggin Hill. I trimmed out and changed frequency to London Radar: I would need a special VFR clearance, about which I had briefed Air Traffic. Everything was going like clockwork - London knew my details and confirmed radar identification, the weather was near perfect.

And then, almost imperceptibly, the note of the Merlin changed. It was so subtle that one could have been forgiven for missing it, but I knew this Spitfire well. I checked the engine instruments and saw the oil pressure was dropping!

There was not a second to lose. I was flying a precious and historic aeroplane: one mistake could be catastrophic. I turned back and told London I was experiencing difficulties. I asked them to alert Biggin and Wycombe Air Park, where the aircraft was based; already I was thinking of how I could get to a suitable repair base. The oil temperature was rising, so I reduced power to the minimum and opened the radiator shutters to increase airflow through the oil cooler under the port wing.

White Waltham was now on the nose, but beyond, no more than ten miles away, was base. The pressure had stabilised at a low but safe reading though the temperature continued to rise slowly. I asked London to get through to Wycombe on the land line and find out the wind and runway in use. Clearing the Zone I changed frequency, called the tower, pulled back the power, dropped the undercarriage and glided in to the grass runway, cutting the switches as I touched down. It was another week before we found the cause, a broken oil cooler bypass valve, but the engine had been shut down in time to save it.

With that emergency out of the way, I could now start thinking about displays again. How could I get back to White Waltham? I looked around the hangar and found a CAP 10 belonging to one of the aerobatic organisations, which I flew from time to time. Well, this was going to be one of those times! Then I had another thought. What if I could borrow the Spitfire I? I studied my watch: my Biggin Hill display was only forty minutes away - it couldn't be done. But supposing I tried for a later slot time?
Taking a chance on being able to use the Mk I, I telephoned Biggin, asking at the same time if they would accept a change of aircraft. They were surprised, but agreed. So, borrowing a headset, I leapt into the CAP 10 and was soon retracing my path towards White Waltham. I called the tower and asked them to broadcast for the Spitfire pilot to meet me when I landed. He too was a bit surprised, but agreed to my using the aeroplane after his own display was over. As he took off I was busy rushing about finding a fuelling truck, starter trolley and mechanics to turn the aircraft round. Even by Battle of Britain standards it was a record! From the Spitfire's touchdown to my getting airborne in it with a full tank of fuel was just five minutes.

London Radar were as helpful as ever, and I reached Biggin with two minutes to spare. The display itself was relaxing by comparison with what had gone before. Soon I was cruising westward again across the Zone, leaving behind a commentator whose notes referred to a Spitfire IX and who was later heard muttering 'I could have sworn it was an earlier Mark . . .'

Back on the ground at White Waltham I was just in time for the Rothmans aerobatic team briefing. We had flown this routine many times during our recent two-month tour in the Middle East, and my only concern was that there might be a temptation to try that little bit too hard - the team had never had an accident in formation. Had I but known it, everyone else was thinking the same thing. The show was tight, clean, and above all safe. As our four Pitts S2As split in the final bomb burst, I thought, 'we shall only be doing this once more.' Then we were down and taxying in, waving back to the crowd.


ABOVE: Last ever display of the Rothmans Aerobatic Team

Walking down the line of aircraft towards the Blackburn, I saw that we had picked our time well. The wind had dropped and conditions were almost perfect. Seated precariously in the canoe-like fuselage, I scarcely dared breathe until we had reached a safe height from which I could make a glide landing. But the change of spark plugs had restored the engine performance, and I could confidently achieve full rpm. With the rev counter the one and only instrument in the aeroplane, it was reasonable to ask that it should present a decent reading! This time she was going so well that I had to throttle back to lose height, a most unusual situation.

So ended the Saturday display. But as I got into the CAP 10 to take it back to Wycombe, I found myself with a few more things to think about. It appeared that my colleague with the Spitfire Mk I, who had also been demonstrating a ferociously camouflaged Fiat G.46 fighter trainer of the same vintage, was going motor racing the next day and had left both his aeroplanes for me to fly on the second day of the Air Pageant. My one experience of the Fiat dated from several years previously, when I had collided with a seagull which removed the leading edge of the wing all the way back to the main spar; that flight had been confined to a wide circuit and a fast, straight approach to a wheel landing. Sunday was further complicated by a commitment I had made after the airshow to move a Spitfire Vc belonging to the Shuttleworth Collection from Duxford to Old Warden. Some assistance was clearly in order, so I co-opted my wife to do some ferry flying in our Jodel light aircraft.

The plot thickens

The Spitfire Mk I having been returned to its base overnight, our first job on Sunday morning was to get over to Wycombe to collect it. Fortunately the weather remained fair, and after seeing my wife safely airborne again, I climbed into the Spitfire and pressed the starter button. Day Two had begun.

At White Waltham I taxied in and parked alongside the Fiat G.46. Rather unwillingly I strapped in to the front cockpit of this strange looking machine, running over the briefing I had been given and identifying the unusual layout. I had been specially warned not to touch a cable that ran along the floor, whose function was to disconnect the front cockpit controls . . . Apparently this was to allow the instructor in the rear seat to save the day if the student panicked!

The engine, with its six stub exhausts, seemed to make up in noise for what it lacked in thrust, though the aeroplane went quite well on only 215 hp. After fifteen minutes, during which I managed to avoid any seagulls, I decided that I wouldn't attempt anything clever but merely fly low and make a lot of noise, keeping the manoeuvres to basic figures like loops, Cuban 8s and barrel rolls.

Then it was time for pilot briefing. My flying programme was now so full that I gave my lunch ticket to one of the Shuttleworth team in exchange for a home packed sandwich, and started up the still-warm Fiat for the first display of the day. The technique of 'low and noisy' seemed to go down well, and it also allowed me to assess the wind before my Spitfire I event.

For me, flying a Spitfire is a never-ending delight. All too soon my display was over, but I could look forward to a second run as I set course for Biggin Hill once more. Biggin sounded surprised to hear me, for I had been unable to telephone them before take-off and was adhering to my programmed time. What I didn't know was that they had misunderstood the previous day's message and therefore assumed I wasn't coming on the Sunday. 'You're cleared to land,' they said. 'We can fit you in at 1700 hours.'

'Negative,' I called, mindful of my fuel state and the fact that I had a two-minute gap allotted for my landing back at White Waltham.

ATC then queried: 'Can you display at 1515?'

'Negative, my landing slot is 1506 at Waltham.'

'Stand by,' replied ATC . . . then after a pause, 'How about 1435?'

'Affirmative,' I said, clinching the deal. A camouflaged shape rocketed up past me, waggling its wings: it was the Royal Naval Sea Fury, at the end of his show, bound for the Air Pageant at Waltham. I rocked my wings in reply, opened the radiator shutter and eased the rpm up to 2650 as I lowered the nose. My watch showed 1435. Nine minutes later I completed a climbing roll and levelled out on course for the west.

In a shallow orbit over White Waltham I watched the Sea Fury display, then it was my turn to join the circuit and land. More out of habit than the expectation of finding anything wrong, I walked around my aeroplane, and was horrified to discover a large dent in the bottom cowling with blood and feathers everywhere. A bird had gone clean through the propeller, missing both the oil tank and the carburettor intake by inches. And the owner of the Spitfire was also the owner of the Fiat!


Happily there was no real damage - only a panel that could easily be straightened. I put it out of my mind as I climbed into the Pitts, for now I had to concentrate and fly steadily. For the final bow-out of the Rothmans Aerobatic Team we all wanted a safe, polished performance.

Despite my inner misgivings the team acquitted themselves with honour. 'This really is the last time,' I reflected, as we burst downwards and I cut the smoke in the pullout. Perhaps the old Blackburn was getting jealous of the way I was consorting with these modern machines; at any rate, I had just stabilised on the chocks at full power when there was a loud 'twing' and everything went quiet. The large crowd, primed by the commentator, waited, hushed and expectant. No problem, three of the ignition wires had come adrift and tied themselves in a knot: this could soon be sorted out. We reconnected the wires, but still the Gnome showed no signs of life, whereupon it was discovered that the carbon brush had fallen out. After a futile ten minutes on our hands and knees in the oil soaked grass under the aeroplane we were forced to call it a day.

All that now remained was to set course in the Jodel for Duxford, and the Spitfire Vc. Even after two consecutive days of Spitfire displays I could not resist a loop and a couple of rolls en route to Old Warden, especially as the clipped wings of the Mk Vc positively demanded that they be rolled! We pushed her into the hangar and took off for the last leg of the weekend, making it with 30 seconds to spare before Wycombe airfield closed.

It was wonderful to relax at last in the hotel, where the rest of the Rothmans group were assembling for the team's farewell party. Some few minutes late one of the executives arrived, looking a little flustered. 'The traffic,' he explained apologetically. 'You've no idea . . .'


ABOVE: HRH the Prince of Wales arrives at Biggin Hill in an Andover of the Queen's Flight: His Royal Highness, a qualified Service pilot and a keen aviator, had just opened the Silver Jubilee Air Pageant at White Waltham


Last month I was invited to visit Jutland in the northern part of Denmark to give an aerobatic display in my Bücker Jungmann, in company with a colleague flying an even older biplane, a single-seat Arrow Active. We planned our route across the English Channel, then eastwards over France, Belgium and Holland, and finally across Northern Germany into Denmark.

After a hard day's flying, we arrived just as dusk was falling to be greeted by the pilots assembled for the navigation rally, which was a part of the event. The air show next day was hampered by low cloud, wind and rain. We fuelled the aeroplanes and prepared to set off on our homeward journey. This very much surprised the rally contestants, who were incredulous that we could navigate without the benefit of VOR, ADF or even VHF, for our biplanes were strictly non-radio; and I began to realise the difference in mental approach to this kind of problem when one has been brought up strictly in accordance with the modern methods of radio navigation and airways flying.

This is certainly not meant to decry the use of radio as a method of navigation. Yet the best equipment is only as good as a pilot's ability to interpret it, and on rare occasions systems have been known to fail, which could leave the pilot of a well-equipped aircraft no better off than we were in our totally unequipped biplanes. In fact he would be worse off, because we had begun the trip knowing that there could be no outside assistance, and that we were entirely the masters of our own destiny.

Then again, there is the case of today's totally radio-orientated pilot - accustomed to and dependent upon a full set of navaids - who finds himself being asked to ferry a friend's priceless, unequipped vintage machine across country. How will he cope with an 80 kt slipstream and no form of radio guidance whatever?

Ability to revert

To be deprived of modern navigational assistance is largely a psychological problem when it occurs suddenly, as for example in the case of complete electrical failure. It takes a strong effort of will to be able to revert instantly to dead reckoning navigation. Admittedly, with modern aids usually duplicated there is no need to place full reliance on dead reckoning methods. Yet they are the foundation of all navigation. Since weather deterioration is the fundamental cause of most navigational incidents, clearly this is the area where the pilot should concentrate his attention: if he can do it in foul weather, then fair weather should present no problem.

About the worst situation to encounter is when a pilot is making a half-hearted attempt to fly visually in deteriorating weather, when the visibility is falling and he finds himself going in and out of cloud. He should have decided before this to (a) turn back into better weather, (b) climb on top and operate on dead reckoning or (c) get properly visual beneath the cloud, and remain visual. But a flight on top of cloud has its dangers: if the engine fails, what then? And how can one be sure that the destination weather will be clear?

If the pilot decides to carry on in visual contact with the ground there are other problems. On the more recent maps, there is a tendency for cartographers to overprint with radio navigational symbols and frequencies, and while these naturally have a function they can also cause great confusion. In conditions of poor light and turbulence the circles surrounding a VOR station can look exactly like railway lines, so if one belongs to the IFRRR brigade (I fly roads, rivers and railways) one must make sure that one is not simply going round in circles and getting nowhere!

ABOVE: Today's General Aviation pilot has become accustomed to airline-standard radios, navaids, autopilots and couplers, and enjoys full operational flexibility in the IFR environment. But how will he cope when faced with a cross-country flight in a non-radio, totally VFR aircraft ?

Apart from the map, the needs for visual navigation are basic - an ASI, compass and stopwatch. Once airborne, the primary requirement is to fly accurately, because if the pilot weaves about all over the sky, he will have nothing on which to base his calculations. From a positive fix, he can relax and fly on a steady compass course, knowing that the next check-point will appear on time. In turbulence there is a temptation to chase the needle, as the basic compass is not gyro stabilised: in this case a mean heading will usually suffice. Here one flies from map to ground - that is, one selects a feature on the map, and expects to see it at the appropriate time.

Should things go wrong and one becomes unsure of one's position, the best procedure is to visualise a circle of uncertainty centred upon the estimated position, and then fly from ground to map, waiting until a good navigational feature appears below. This is then identified on the map. At this stage it is only too easy for the pilot to convince himself that the feature he is looking at is the correct one. It is essential to think clearly and dispassionately, and not give way to panic. If he has been tracking steadily for half an hour with no problems, he cannot be very far off track, even if the next check-point has not appeared. Sometimes one tends to keep looking for such a point for several minutes after common sense dictates that it must by now be twenty miles astern. Just because one didn't see it, that doesn't mean it wasn't there!

What about sea crossings? In many ways I would rather navigate over the sea, because with no distractions one usually flies more accurately. In the lower levels I tend to follow the advice of a former RAF Coastal Command navigator: his technique was to measure drift by sighting along a Douglas protractor. Alternatively, one can mark 5 and 10 degree drift lines on the windscreen. Although there is no ground speed indication - here one has to rely on dead reckoning - the track can be held with surprising accuracy.

Aim for the minimum

A large navigational log, amply equipped with pencils, rulers, clipboards and computers, seems to have become a status symbol of the present-day aviator. It is much more pleasant, and practical in an open cockpit, to go flying unencumbered by these trappings. All the pilot really needs is a map with the tracks drawn on it, drift lines, distances, and either time or distance ground speed markers. I favour distance markers, which I can use in any wind.

Navigation is based on the 1 in 60 rule, so that a couple of formulae in the mind can replace the computer in the cockpit. One can soon become very proficient at mental dead reckoning, and in many cases the answer will be produced faster than would have been possible with a computer, bearing in mind that the aeroplane has to be flown at the same time. There may be small errors in approximation, but these are generally disguised by normal handling errors.

The measurement of distance, too, is easy - a spread hand span equals 60 n miles on a 1 : 500,000 map, each finger's width representing 5 n miles. Drift, ground speed, and conversion of RAS to TAS can be calculated quickly with practice, while still maintaining a proper look-out. Nobody has immunity from collision risk. The golden rule for visual flying is nine seconds with one's head out of the cockpit for every one second in.

Statistics show that a great many weather-related accidents occur during the approach phase. Pilots sometimes tend to forget navigational principles as they approach their destination, and to start searching for familiar landmarks. To be successful they would, of necessity, have to be as familiar with the approaches to the airfield as they are with their own living room, where they would have a mental picture of all features and obstructions, even in the dark. Should it become necessary to make an approach to a strange field in poor weather conditions, a large scale map can be of great assistance, but one should convert to it while still some distance away, in order to get used to the change of scale.

ABOVE: Neil Williams, seen here with his Bücker Jungmann sporting biplane, refocuses attention on an increasingly neglected side of airmanship

Basically all this is just training, practice and common sense. Cultivating some independence of radio aids in less than perfect weather can literally extend the general aviation pilot's horizons. As our wheels sloshed through the sodden grass of the airfield in Jutland, we could contemplate two hours of rain and low cloud ahead before our first stop in Germany. For the first hour I watched the check-points appear out of the murk, almost monotonously. I forced myself to concentrate, because when things are going well, even in bad weather, one can be lulled into a dangerous state of complacency. Soon we were coasting out over the North Sea towards Cuxhaven, and I was glad of the time spent over land to firmly establish the drift.

We dropped lower towards the oily grey surface of the sea, the silver of our machines making them hard to detect in the lowering visibility. Gradually the drift was altering: now the wind was swinging round onto the tail. I altered course and brought our ETA forward by five minutes. The light was going, aggravated by the cloud and rain, when, exactly on time, the airfield at Wilhelmshaven appeared dead ahead. Soon we were taxying in, unstrapping, and climbing stiffly out of our machines - yet it was worth the discomfort when the controller told us that we were the only international movements that day.

Despite our minimum navigational equipment, we had known exactly where we were at all times. I could have done the same trip in a modern light aircraft; but I don't think I would have relied entirely on the radio aids unless they were certificated for full IFR flying on airways. There is nothing quite like being in charge of one's own destiny - especially in aviation.

THE SPITFIRE swept over the hedge bounding the airfield, its narrow undercarriage seeming to reach out towards the grass. In the cockpit, the roar of the slipstream died to a whisper, punctuated only by the harsh crackle of the exhausts. Now the nose was well up, obliterating all forward view, and I peered out sideways to judge my height as she sank towards the runway. She touched on three points, the tailwheel clattering in protest as I concentrated on keeping straight, for a Spitfire seems able to sense a moment's inattention by the pilot and is ready to swing either way, as if to remind one that this is a thoroughbred aeroplane, rewarding but also demanding.

There was quite a small crowd waiting outside the hangar. I switched off and climbed out, to find that our visitors were a group of enthusiasts from the Chablais Flying Club in Switzerland, anxious to see the Spitfire and wanting to know if they could have it for their local air show later in the Summer. They had, it seemed, searched all over Britain to find one.

Despite their keenness, it was hard to believe that such a small organisation could afford to finance the trip, since the whole idea of the air show was to make a profit for the club. We asked them to write and confirm, and then said our good-byes, not really expecting to hear any more.

Within a week we received a reply accepting our quote, and providing details of the location of the club's base at Bex, and time of the display, together with a plan of the airfield. With a sinking heart I stared at the runway length - 700 metres of grass! We began to have grave doubts as to the chances of making a profit, and therefore covering the not inconsiderable cost of taking a World War 2 fighter halfway across Europe. I delayed making any real preparations until a couple of weeks before the display, by which time we were receiving letters, telegrams and telephone calls almost daily. It was quite evident that they were taking the whole project extremely seriously; indeed, they wanted us out there well ahead of time to attend their press event.


The departure day was fine and clear. Doug Bianchi, Managing Director of Personal Plane Services and his wife Edna, who constituted the ground party, had already left to cross the Channel by car ferry. In the Spitfire I spent less than ten minutes over the sea, my thoughts alternating between the possibility of engine trouble and a sense of history as the aeroplane's shadow leapt from the grass above the chalk cliffs, to reappear in miniature, racing across the turgid Channel waves. This is how it must have looked, nearly forty years ago: the hurtling water beneath, the blue sky above, and over all the steady snarl of the Merlin. Only the windshield mirror was empty - no Me.109s about today! It was an eerie experience, and as the French coast loomed out of the haze, I pulled up and headed inland.

ABOVE: Author taxies out at Bex for a display. Sheer mountains, high tension cables and haze compounded an already difficult airshow environment


Now I was back in the present, navigating across France in a single engined aeroplane: something I had done many times. But somehow this time it was easier. Perhaps it was the near perfect weather, or the high cruising speed with its rapid succession of checkpoints. Even though I could spend a large part of the time in sheer contentment, admiring the lines of this beautiful machine and listening to the steady beat of the engine, my fuelling stop, the military airfield at Reims, came up on the nose and on ETA. Air Traffic asked me to orbit to let in jet traffic on a practice GCA, then I was cleared to land on an enormous paved runway, which made me think with foreboding of my eventual destination.

A snag now arose. Although I produced a fistful of francs, they could accept nothing but a fuel carnet. French initiative was not to be defeated, however. Telephone calls were promptly made and the customs officer was diverted to the small airfield at Reims-Prunay, where they would take cash for fuel. I had 15 gallons left, just enough to make it provided I didn't get lost. No starter trolley was available, but happily this particular Spitfire was fitted with double the normal battery capacity, and soon I was taxying in at Reims-Prunay and noticing the airfield grass cutting equipment - a flock of sheep busy between the runway and perimeter track, supervised by an ancient shepherd complete with crook.

The enthusiasm here for the aircraft was terrific. Even by Spitfire standards it was unusual. I discovered that this was the home base of Pierre Clostermann, the French wartime ace. Trading shamelessly on the fact, I arranged for the airfield to stay open and provide customs facilities for my return flight on the Sunday, as I would be in a hurry, with a deadline to meet at an air display in England to which the Spitfire was committed.

Soon I was on my way again, towards the rising ground forming the foothills of the Jura mountains. Today the mountains were open, and before long I was descending low over Lake Leman, peering into the haze, searching for the mouth of the valley where my destination lay. As I approached the southern shore of the lake, above me rose a wall of solid rock, seemingly supported by the clouds that gathered at the water's edge. There must be no mistakes here! The haze seemed to clear a little, and there was the valley, dead ahead. Throttling back I started to weave slightly, following the path of the river . . . and then, suddenly, I was there. It was hard to see; a tiny grass strip, a hangar with the name of the field painted on it in bold letters - BEX.


I circled and took stock of the situation. No wind, a downhill slope with a good over-run towards the lake, but a bad approach - trees and high tension wires. The ground was undulating, and the mountain towering over it gave the whole field a claustrophobic air. Doug and Edna Bianchi, already there, sounded anything but happy over the radio. From where they stood it looked even worse than from the air.

Well, I had enough fuel for a couple of attempts before diverting to the alternate airfield further up the valley. Wheels and flaps down, I slithered in, side-slipping over the trees, holding the descent steady with a trickle of power. As the wheels brushed over the hedge I kicked her straight and closed the throttle. With no float she dropped on - quickly I slid open the hood and retracted the flaps. I needed brakes more than flaps at this stage, and the flaps were depleting my precious supply of air, which also fed the brakes. The tail kicked slightly as I held the brakes hard on: these were never the Spitfire's strong point, but finally she stopped, just inside the marked runway. Doug looked nearly as relieved as I felt! The duty customs officer arrived, but in the presence of a Spitfire formalities were swept aside. All he wanted was to sit in the cockpit.

The tension was over, the 'Spit' was here, and everyone on the airfield was jubilant. So many people were fussing around the aeroplane that I was extremely relieved to see her finally locked away for the night in the hangar. Now we could start attending to our own arrangements. It transpired however that our hosts wouldn't hear of us booking into a hotel: one of the club members was the director of a girls' finishing school, and we were to be billeted there. What was more, the students were still in residence. Many of these were from Eastern countries and were observing Ramadan, which meant that all was peaceful until about midnight, when bedlam was let loose as the period of fasting ended and there was an instant and impromptu banquet. Thinking that the place was on fire, we peered nervously out of our rooms, only to beat a rapid retreat at the sight of a horde of multi-national young ladies embarking upon a giant celebration. Spitfires and short runways I could take, but this was too much!

ABOVE: Take-off checks in a sylvan setting. Each landing approach over the trees, 6 kt above the power-off stall, had to be virtually perfect


ABOVE: Bex airshow organising team, with the Author third from right

When I ventured out to breakfast next morning I met a reflective Doug, who told me that while he was standing in his room, clad in nothing but a pair of spectacles, a young lady had burst in. Doug was the first to recover from the confrontation. 'Good morning,' he said pleasantly. 'I'm the new sports master.' At this the maiden departed with alacrity and fled shrieking down the corridor.

The club's display was focussed around the Spitfire, so it was inevitable that I should be asked to fly several times for the Press and TV. Take-off was no problem at all, even though the airfield was over 1300 ft above sea level; the two speed, two stage supercharger would provide more power than I could hold with the rudder. Landing was different - the higher TAS and the poor energy absorption of the brakes meant that every approach had to be virtually perfect. Also I had to delay lowering the flaps as long as possible, because of a slight air leak in the flap 'down' line which would take too long to rectify.

In the end I found the best compromise to be a speed 6 kt above the power-off stall, with judicious use of engine to control the speed instability: I was well on the wrong side of the drag curve. Visibility on the approach was a problem, over that long elegant nose, but a mild sideslip helped. Not too much however, for more drag meant more power, and a Merlin loses its residual thrust very slowly. During every landing I slackened my left shoulder strap enough to let me reach the magneto switches - just in case! Of course, on the only landing the TV people filmed, I was too fast and had to go round again. 'Never mind,' they said, 'it made an exciting shot.'

An ordeal in a different form presented itself at the local supermarket, where we had to sit in full view of the public signing posters advertising the air display. During this performance there was a continuous running programme of old aviation movies including the original 'Battle of Britain' film, made in black and white in 1941 and full of the most outrageous clichés. I co-opted Doug and Edna's help in signing posters, but Doug soon tired of this, and we were treated to the sight of a puzzled eight year old, staring at Doug with round eyes and clutching a poster which displayed in bold and prominent script the signature 'Adolf Hitler'. This line of thought had probably been suggested during our admission to the rear of the supermarket, where a metallic voice had demanded identification. 'Equipe Spitfire,' I replied, at which the door automatically and silently opened before us. Doug motioned us inside, but stayed where he was. When the door closed, he pressed the bell again. To the request for identification Doug replied 'Equipe Messerschmitt' . . . and the door swung silently and immediately open!

ABOVE: Neil Williams autographs the hangar wall, as a tribute to pilots who flew the Spitfire in action 37 years ago


ABOVE: Preparing the Spitfire for return to England on the last morning. Doug Bianchi, on the wing walk, checks engine cowling security

At length we all got fed up with signing posters and downed tools, demanding tea and cakes. These were produced instantly by no less a personage than the assistant manager, so we were morally committed to taking tea in public, much like chimpanzees in the zoo, which evidently proved a much greater attraction than the films. Our sense of humour was by now wearing a trifle thin, so our hosts decided to take us to a restaurant in the mountains for dinner. It was bad enough going up: narrow mountain roads, hairpin bends, and a strong sensation that this was a training route for Monaco. But coming back was worse. Fortified with a litre of wine, the locals obviously work on the principle that at midnight nobody is going up. They were right, as it happened, which was just as well for everyone concerned.

By the time I had taken part in a live radio interview, in French, of which I understood little or nothing, I felt that life could offer me few more surprises even when I was sandwiched between a folk singer and a local comedian in the programme. Meanwhile the Spitfire was doing rather well for itself. It was housed in the hangar with strategically placed spotlights, Union Jacks, and tape recordings of Merlin engines, and was on view to the public at two francs a head. In two days they took enough cash to buy another light aircraft for the club fleet.

Against the clock

The displays by contrast were uneventful, which is just the way I like them. On Sunday I had to display at 10 am, and then depart without landing back for the event in England. As the Spitfire disappeared down the valley towards the lake the crowds started to disperse! The organisers, in panic, broadcast over the public address system that the rest of the programme was yet to come, but in vain. They were happy to have seen the Spitfire - some of them had travelled from France and Germany. Meanwhile I levelled out over the Jura mountains. There was more cloud today, but it was still too early for the big cumulus build-ups that were forecast.

Time was of the essence now: everything had to go like clockwork if I was to meet the afternoon schedule. As I turned finals and touched down at Reims-Prunay I thought things looked rather quiet. The fuel pumps were locked and there was hardly anyone about but the customs officer, munching a sandwich; at least he had kept his word. Then I found out what was wrong. One of the students had crashed, and everybody had gone to the funeral. However the customs officer cleared me to fly to Epernay, fuel, and depart from there.

Again the Merlin started on internal power: what a blessing that extra battery was. Throttled well back to conserve fuel, I cruised south, well behind schedule. Epernay was not easy to find, as it looked just like any big field until one was almost on top of it. But soon the 'essence' was gurgling into the tanks, litres clicking up on the asthmatic fuel bowser at a painfully slow rate. Francs changed hands and a receipt was laboriously made out. 'How much is the landing fee?' I asked. 'Just give us a low pass,' was the reply. The wheels thumped into their wells, the Merlin's scream dropping to a steady roar as I pulled the revs back to 2650 and slanted in towards the clubhouse. The Spitfire flashed low across the field and I checked the time: despite the delays I had only lost five minutes overall. I inched the boost up to +4 lb - that would take care of those few minutes over the next leg to Shoreham.

A thin dark line on the distant horizon materialised into the French coast. Then once again I was over the sea. It was only for a few minutes, yet out of sight of land I had to remind myself that navigation is an exact science and not a black art: of course the coast of England would appear ahead. Those minutes dragged, and even the note of the incomparable Merlin seemed to change. But it was all in the mind, for there was the coast exactly on time, and the engine as smooth as ever.

Ben Gunn, Shoreham's irrepressible manager, knew all about my tight schedule. I was fuelled, through customs and immigration, booked out and ready to go in ten minutes from touchdown. Now my track took me north, through the Gatwick and London control zones, where the word 'Spitfire' was enough to give me every possible assistance. Pete Woods, the controller at Elstree, was waiting for my call - 'Spitfire, on time.' He would pass this message to the display controller at Old Warden, where I was to open the show at 1430.

North of Luton the haze was thickening, but I knew this area well. I eased wide of Henlow, with its gliding activity, and soon picked up a glint of water ahead: the small lake near Old Warden. I opened the radiator shutters and eased the revs up to 2650. The roar of the Merlin swelled as I advanced the throttle to +6 boost. Now with the nose down I could see the airfield, the runways, the crowd. Now I had to forget the adventures, the problems, the worries of the last few days and concentrate on giving a clean, safe display. The planning and the effort to co-ordinate these events had paid off: as the aeroplane passed 1000 ft in the dive I took a last glance at my watch - the time was 1429½.

In peace, as in war, the Spitfire's mission was again successful.

We must record with deep regret the loss, on 11 December 1977, of Neil Williams and his wife Lynn while flying a Heinkel III from Spain to England. He had lately delivered two of these vintage military aircraft from the UK to the Confederate Air Force in Texas, subsequently writing for Shell Aviation News what must be one of the most remarkable accounts of a North Atlantic ferry flight in winter. This article has yet to appear.

Neil Williams was one of the most versatile and accomplished aviators Britain has ever known. Many times UK Aerobatic Champion, he was once European Champion and came close to winning the World title in 1976. Six years previously he had been decorated for an unprecedented feat of airmanship when, one wing of his aerobatic aircraft folding upwards after recovery from a vertical dive, he flew the machine home inverted and rolled it erect just before touchdown, thereby preserving it for the accident investigators. RAF and industry test pilot, film & TV, demonstration and transport pilot, he was also an acknowledged expert on the operation of historic aircraft. His Spitfire displays, in particular, will be long remembered.

Neil took a keen interest in Shell Aviation News, contributing over the years no less than twenty specialist articles and advising on many areas of the magazine's work. A prolific author, his book 'Aerobatics' must ever remain a classic work upon the subject.

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