A Century of Flight - so where were you?
Damien Burke certainly made the most of the historic occasion on 17 December 2003...
So, 100 years of powered flight (ignoring the various arguments about whether it really was the Wright Brothers that managed the important first powered 'hop')... how to celebrate? Well clearly getting airborne on the day, and hopefully at the right time, would be a start.
Then it turned out the Shuttleworth Collection were going to be marking the occasion with a few displays and some symbolic flights by the nearest thing they had to a Wright Flyer - the Boxkite replica. Chuck in an all-comers-welcome fly-in, and the obvious step was to cadge a lift from some kind soul who was planning on attending.
One lift duly arranged, and I found myself with a dilemma - a phone call offering a flight on an RAF TriStar on the same day. Not just any flight either, but a 4 hour refuelling sortie finishing up with a commemorative flypast over RAF Brize Norton. Well, with said dilemma duly resolved by making my apologies to the kind chap who'd offered a seat on his trip to Old Warden (let's hope he forgives me!), it was time to dust off the camera from its winter storage and get an early night in... because flight "Fagin 32" was departing from Brize at 08:00. And that meant 06:30 check-in. And 04:00 on the alarm clock. Ouch.
Arriving at a freezing cold and foggy Brize Norton, I hoped they were having better luck with the weather at Old Warden or the whole day could be a bit of a damp squib. Once through check-in and with a decent window seat bagged, it was time to lie back, relax and enjoy the early portion of the flight. Pity nobody was taking pictures outside at the time of the morning, because as we rotated off the runway (having used a far greater length of tarmac than the entire length of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight), the massive burst of vapour above the wings would have made an impressive shot. Up through the murk and we were soon in sunshine and hastening towards our refuelling area over the North Sea.
The UK was striped with alternate areas of cloud and clear weather so once again I hoped Old Warden was in a clear bit (it was). The North Sea was mostly coated in a soft - and very seasonal looking - blanket of cloud. Had we dropped a few giant inflatable snowmen and a reindeer or two and it'd have been perfect. We didn't have long to wait for our first customers - a pair of Tornado F3s, one from 43 and one from 111 Squadron. The first quickly slid into position behind us to take on some fuel, looking like a model kit on the green glow of the rearward-facing camera in the flight engineer/refuelling operator's position.
The next two to three hours were spent orbiting with a near constant stream of Tornado F3s from three different squadrons - 25 (from Leeming), 43 and 111 (from Leuchars). High above the cloudbase and in a racetrack pattern this was photographic heaven, with light from any direction you wanted (if you were patient), the moon flitting in and out of the frame from time to time, passing airliners leaving contrails overhead and, as one of the RAF personnel onboard quipped, 'more Tornados than we normally get serviceable in a whole week'. At one point I had four in the frame with two more disappearing as black specks in the distance. And at precisely 10:35 I marked the anniversary of that first flight by taking a picture of one of those Tornados.
With refuelling all done for the day, the toilets were once again available (apparently fighter jocks don't like ice crystals on their windscreens - particularly yellow ice crystals), and we took a long flight down the length of the country, with Nottingham being the first recognisable landmark enroute back to deepest Oxfordshire. Next up was the flypast - we would form up with a VC-10 in the lead slot, us in the middle and a C-17 bringing up the rear. Then it was straight line over the station at around 500 feet. Well, that sounded like a good plan but obviously the view out of the side wouldn't be great... so after the appropriate amount of begging the jumpseat was bagged and I was being strapped in just behind the pilot for the best possible view - great big windows. Pity they're angled and so thick that the camera has problems taking clear shots through them, but it was a hell of an experience and a privilege to watch the crew going through all the hard work of forming up with the other aircraft, carrying out the flypast and finally bringing us in for a perfect greaser on that massive Brize runway.
Now my plan had been to rush from Brize to Old Warden for the afternoon's activities, which had been mooted to include a flypast from the Red Arrows (enroute to Hendon for a flypast to open the new Milestones of Flight exhibition) but I was running a bit later than planned by now so had to resign myself to getting to Old Warden well after the Reds. As it turned out, the Reds weren't happy with the amount of GA traffic in the area and gave it a miss but I did arrive in time to see the last few visitors of the day departing. Earlier in the day no less than 95 visiting aircraft had popped in and out of Old Warden; the Boxkite had flown in the morning at 10:35; the resident Tiger Moth and Magister had also flown displays and TV reporters even turned up to film some coverage of the centenary celebrations.
Anyway, I was here at last and was promptly invited up onto the tower for a better view of the Boxkite's symbolic flight at 15:35 local (10:35 Kitty Hawk time). This was a short hop in the hands of pilot Dodge Bailey, replicating that famous flight - but without the crash at the end of it!
However, this wasn't enough for Dodge, and so with the sun slowly setting he took her up for a lengthy flight while all on the ground marvelled at how somebody could manage to fly an aircraft while frozen to the core. After some debate about whether he was ever going to land - we thought he'd frozen to death - he finally came down to applause... before Trevor Roche hopped in the seat and also went up for another go, in the last minutes of sunlight. He looked even colder, but managed some waves at us all even so. With contrails from airliners glowing in the sunset and the Boxkite passing in front of them, it really brought home just how far we have all come in the last 100 years of aviation.
What a shame that it was the year we had the world's only successful supersonic airliner taken away from us all, and what a pity we lost so many aviators - particularly those engaged in the business of entertaining us all.
With thanks to the crew of Fagin 32 (TriStar ZD952), RAF Brize Norton CCO Sqn Ldr David Rowe and assistant Kate Zasada, fellow snapper Barry Clack, Andy Sephton and all at Old Warden.
Prints from this article are available at www.handmadebymachine.com