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Student soaring

Vikings have again invaded eastern EnglandGary Stedman goes gliding with 611 VGS

It's difficult to overstate the importance of the network of Volunteer Gliding Schools (VGS) to today's Royal Air Force - in common with many other air arms the RAF faces losing many of its senior aircrew each year to civil aviation, so the recruitment of the next generation of RAF aircrew is therefore very much a high priority. Many of the UK's military and civilian pilots started their flying careers with the gliding schools, who perform a vital first step for cadets considering a flying career. The VGSs have remained largely untouched in the present climate of cutbacks, with over twenty-five schools located nationwide, their role in supporting the future of the RAF looking assured.

The first step for a Air Training Corp or Combined Cadet Force cadet attending a VGS is the Gliding Induction Course (GIC), cadets under 14 years being allowed Air Experience Flights only. The GIC is designed to show cadets basic handling and typically lasts for about thirty minutes, but with the winch launched Viking this can take several launches. Once the cadet reaches 16 they have the opportunity to take the Gliding Scholarship (GS) course and eventually fly solo, receiving their GS wings. The course is typically run over successive weekends, but during the summer a weekday course is also sometimes held. A cadet is expected to complete the GS course and fly solo within fifty launches (eight hours for the powered Vigilant). Advanced Glider Training courses are also available once a cadet has completed a GS course. Further training includes learning how to ridge soar from the gliding centre at Portmoack, located near Loch Leven in Scotland.

The rather sumptuous cockpit of the Viking TX1The Grob 103 and 109 form the backbone of the VGS fleet, called the Viking and Vigilant respectively in RAF service. The Viking serves in the greater numbers and is a winch-launched two seater, being complemented by a smaller number of powered Vigilants. A school will operate either Vikings or Vigilants, the types not being mixed at school level. The majority of instructors at the VGSs are commissioned officers in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, some being former cadets.

Originally formed in 1943, 611 Volunteer Gliding School has suffered the misfortune in having to relocate its gliding operations twice in recent years. For many years the school operated from RAF Swanton Morley, the RAF station boasting one of the finest grass airfields in the UK. Many enthusiasts will recall the small but always well attended airshows hosted by the station, and 611 VGS could always be relied upon to take a active role. Unfortunately 611 was left looking for a new home when the RAF left Swanton Morley in 1994, the station being turned over to the Army. The grass airfield currently now houses a regiment of light tanks.

The school relocated its Vikings to RAF Marham in September 1995, the Norfolk Tornado base providing a less than ideal site to conduct gliding activities. The summer holidays usually allow the school the opportunity to operate during the week in addition to their regular weekend flying, but the daily operations of the Tornados and Canberras of the Marham reconnaissance wing proved to be too restrictive for it. A more permanent home was found with the move to the old RAF airfield at Watton during October 1996. Although mostly derelict, the runway, hangars and tower remain, the airfield being administrated by the army as part of the STANTA training area located throughout the Thetford area.

In its role as the STANTA airfield, Watton still sees regular visits from the UK support helicopter force, as well as C130s conducting tactical exercises from the 6,000 foot runway. Although still standing, Watton's four C-type hangars have long since fallen in disrepair and are now used for grain storage. A new purpose built hangar was constructed to house 611 VGS upon arrival.

Take-offs are nearly verticalDuring my visit 611 VGS was operating five Vikings TX1s; ZE530/VS, ZE553/WA, ZE587/WS, ZE601/XA and ZE611/XL. A sixth, ZE554/WB was missing, undergoing repairs to a damaged canopy. The fact that ZE611 came to 611 VGS is no coincidence - not one of the schools original line-up when they converted to Vikings in 1987, 611 VGS requested and eventually acquired 'their' Viking. Tail codes were recently applied to all VGS gliders to aid airborne identification following a mid-air collision (not involving 611 VGS I hasten to add). Most of the schools operate about four or five gliders, although strengths do vary. The only other glider with 611 is a old Primary trainer, the school having rescued it from disposal by the Ipswich Combined Cadet Force some years previously.

It was at the end of an intensive week of gliding in early September 2000 that I had the opportunity to visit and hopefully fly with 611 VGS. Upon finding the school's hangar (no easy task on a such large deserted airfield!), all flying visitors are required to view a safety video and parachute demonstration. The school's five operational Vikings were lined up out on the airfield beside the control caravan, other equipment required include the cable winch and a couple of Land Rovers.

Each launch is co-ordinated between the glider, ground handlers and winch operator by the control caravan. When the glider and crew are ready to launch, the ground handler will call 'take up slack' to the caravan, who then sends a light signal to the winch operator several thousand feet away to start the launch. When the cable is taught the handler calls 'all out' to the caravan who instructs the winch operator to commence the launch. A Viking typically launches at about fifty to sixty knots, climbing to
about 1,000 feet before nosing over to release the winch, a parachute slowing the descent of the cable.

Watton's runway is still active, forty years after the airfield 'closed'How long a Viking stays airborne is very much in the hands of the weather conditions and the skill of the pilot - unfortunately during my visit ten to fifteen minutes seemed to be the most anybody achieved. Given the right wind conditions however, a Viking can remain aloft for hours. The more experienced instructors remarked how they develop a feel for the wind conditions in the local area, adding that since the move to Watton they now have to contend with a regular crosswind. Other factors can also influence the flight; wet wings increase the aircraft's sink rate, clearly noticeable when the rain came down during the afternoon.

Once airborne the aircraft is fully cleared for aerobatics, the Viking being stressed to +6/-4 G. One characteristic of the Viking is it is not designed to fly inverted, a fact I was happy to made aware of before the flight, as I'd forgotten where the video said the sick bags were stored. Although launched from the grass the Vikings land on Watton's runway, opening their airbrakes on final approach. The gliders are equipped with wheel brakes, slowing quickly before being pushed to the back of the line
for the next flight.

I had some idea of what to expect when the time for my flight came, having flown with the Wattisham Gliding Club some years previously. It takes a few minutes to remember where all the parachute straps go, taking great care not pull the ripcord accidentally. By coincidence, my ride turns out to be ZE611. In common with most two-seat training aircraft, the instructor takes the back seat. With a parachute on your back as well as carrying a camera, there's very little room in a Viking cockpit. After the marshal holding the wingtip gives the command 'all out', the aircraft picks up pace quickly, the marshal running
with us for a few paces before letting go. With the stick pulled back and banked slightly into wind all you can see from the front is blue (well, grey really) until the instructor rolls level and releases the cable. Unfortunately, with little lift about the Viking is already on its way down, the occasional bump being experienced upon finding a thermal.

Watton's C-Type hangars only store grain these daysAfter a few circuits and a brief look at nearby Wayland prison (the former home of Reggie Kray), it's time to head downwind. After rolling out on finals, we release the wing mounted airbrakes before touching down with a gentle bump. The ground marshals (all ATC cadets) are upon you straight away to clear the runway for the next Viking on approach. '611 is pushed to the rear of the line-up before we disembark. The winch can operate with up to six cables, the short flights causing a fast turnaround. As soon as I'm out the next passenger is strapping in, and within a few minutes the Viking is airborne again. On a typical weekend with no weather interruptions the school can mount up to 150 launches.

The blue skies and warm sun that were a welcome surprise during the morning flights soon gave way to the forecast cloud cover and finally rain, so it's then that the control caravan becomes popular. With the rain apparently settling in for the day it's time to thank the staff at 611 VGS and find my way out of Watton airfield, but at least the weather did clear that evening for the school's barbecue!

Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank the CO and everybody at 611 Volunteer Gliding School for their assistance and hospitality during my visit.

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