Mountaineering instructor Rob Johnson describes his day as a Top Gun pilot!
Last year I was joined by Simon and his wife on an intro to scrambling course here in Snowdonia. Since then Simon has joined several other courses and become a friend of mine. At some point I was foolish enough to admit to him that I was not keen on flying, foolish since he is an instructor on the Hawks at RAF Valley.
Despite my reservations we have enjoyed chatting about the different perspectives with which we each view the mountains of Snowdonia, he was not entirely happy with the exposure that we as climbers enjoy whilst I was not thrilled with the prospect of the speed and potential for going very green! Having gradually converted him to appreciate the climbers perspective Simon felt it was time he did the same for me from the back seat of a Hawk with two days at RAF Valley.
It is probably worth mentioning at this point that I used to get travel sick in my Dads car driving from home to the shops and back. I was very young though and as an adult have always been fine.
Monday morning saw me driving in beautiful sunshine to the base on Anglesey. I think that as climbers we have a real ability to block out the past and the future and live purely in the present when we need to. Its how we cope psychologically with climbing at our limit, if you read climbing magazines they call it getting in the zone. I was in the zone!
I pulled up outside the base and joined the jet spotters in the small car park next to the runway and took some rubbish photos of jets taking off and landing and the line of jets behind a wire fence, still not thinking about the fact I would be in one. As the clock ticked by I headed onto the base at my allotted time and was greeted by a smiling Simon, resplendent in RAF uniform which somehow took me by surprise - what was I expecting, leather jackets and Ray Bans?!
First job of the day was to get me fitted out with a flying suit. This took well over an hour and included thermals, an immersion suit, flying overalls, gloves, helmet, mask/radio and of course boots. It all needed to fit well and by the end of the session I was knackered already! For a worrying minute or two I thought I was stuck in the immersion suit until the kind lady that had been given the job of kitting me out reminded me about the zip at the back. There was a notice on the wall that warned flammable lip creams were not a good idea. OK.
Next was a safety video that taught me how to eject, how to parachute and how to ditch in sea or on land in 4 easy steps. It also taught me how to manually eject if the seat failed. All in 20 minutes. Simon filled the gaps in afterwards, explaining how to fly the plane if he got knocked unconscious by bird strike in the front seat. I was comforted by the fact that there had only been 1 bird strike in the last few weeks and that no one had been forced to eject from a Valley Hawk for nearly 3 years. I headed home that night still in the zone, tomorrow was a whole new day that did not need to be considered until it happened.
Tuesday morning saw me back at the base for 8:00am for my medical. It was another beautiful morning so there was no excuse with the weather. The nurse and Doctor checked my blood pressure, took a sample from me (what they did with it I don't know), measured me to check I would fit the ejector seat and checked my general fitness and ability to clear my ears. There was an awful lot of effort going into my flight involving a great deal of people.
I was then given a guided tour of the base by Doggy, a trainee on the Hawks until Simon was free from his morning meetings. Everyone I met was incredibly friendly, and passionate about the job that they did. As I sat in the instructors lounge a group sat eating chocolate cake that one of them had made at home and brought in for his colleagues. One of them remarked that it wasn't at all like Top Gun, and he was right. There was not an ego or a swagger in sight, no mirrored sun glasses, no motor bikes roaring down the runway. It was a great place to be, with motivated people taking their job seriously and professionally but in a relaxed and friendly manner.
Simon and I then prepared our flight route using the military equivalent of multimap. We decided to head across the North Coast to fly over my house and give Kate a wave before flying round the Orme, down the Conwy Valley and into the Ogwen Valley. A low level pass of the Ogwen valley would take us back over Bangor and then we would head down to mid Wales taking as much low level as my body would handle. Speeds at low level would be over 300mph and we could hit 4G. Still in the zone. Time to get dressed.
I swaggered onto the tarmac of the runway feeling like Tom Cruise, helmet tucked under my arm, sun on my face and still very much enjoying the moment. Doggy strapped me into the seat after the obligatory lean on the wing photo pose and pointed out the buttons that under no circumstances should I touch. He also pointed out the buttons I could fiddle with. These included oxygen flow levels, intercom/radio volume, the pins I needed to safely remove and then re-stow at the end of the flight to arm and then disarm my seat, (I was asked several times not to drop these as it meant the seat would remain live when I needed to get out) and the seat lower and raise button. I was also shown the rudder pedals and joystick and how to radio the tower should I need to take the controls in an emergency. The canopy closed and the engine fired up.
Now at this point I would like to take you back to the first time you ever went abseiling. You know the bit when you walk back to the edge, still full of bravado, smiling at your mates and then you reach the edge and you have to lean back. And you see the drop. And the rope seems very thin. And the ground seems a long way off. Just trust the gear.
Back to the Hawk. I was leaning over the edge. S***. I must be mad. I hate flying. This thing looks old. Those are dials not digital readouts. The GPS looks distinctly like a Tom Tom sat nav from Halfords bolted onto the dash as a concession to modern technology. Simon looks relaxed. He does this twice a day. Lots of people do this twice a day. Its fine. It will be great, its a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am very lucky. We are moving. Shit. Breathe normally. Simon goes through all his checks, I can hear him and the tower over my headphones. The cloud has lifted off the mountains so we will be good for low flying. I bravely wave to a jet spotter as we taxi down the runway. We turn a corner, stop and then boomf we are off. Woo hoo! This is awesome!! This thing can shift!!!
Nose up and we are airborne. Wow this is brilliant, breathing seems OK, its actually pretty smooth and what a view. I am going to enjoy this, I am so lucky. We bank left. Hurggh. That was exciting. I take some photos and view my cottage from above at 400mph. We bank left around the limestone crags of the Orme pulling 2G. My god that feels more than 2G surely! We gain some height and head towards the Ogwen valley. I feel ill. I have been told that if I make a mess in the cockpit it will put this multi million pound aircraft out of service for a week and Simon has to clean it up.
The remainder of the flight is all a bit of a blur. I remember trying to switch off my voice mike whenever I was ill so as not to fill Simons ears with the noise. I remember switching to full Oxygen to try and ease the nausea. I remember grunting in reply as Simon pointed out Tryfan, Cloggy, Tremadog and Moel Siabod. I remember Simon saying we can go down now. Thank You. We circle the Main Cliff at Gogarth and I wish I was on it. We land. I am helped out of the plane. I have not made a mess. I collapse on the grass at the side of the runway. I have lost that loving feeling.
It took me 18 hours of sleep to recover from the experience. Would I do it again, no way. Did I enjoy it? It was an awesome experience that I shall never forget. I loved the whole thing in a funny sort of way and have a massive respect for the men and women that master these machines to defend us and our country in times of war.
Simon has become a keen and regular climber and last week one of his colleagues, Carlos, joined me winter climbing in Scotland. They have made a much better job of adapting to my environment than I have to theirs!
A very big and heartfelt thank you to Simon and all of the men and women at RAF Valley who made my two day visit possible and who do such a fine job on our behalf.
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