Sunday, January 30, 2011

today: four aeroplanes

The Harrier Jump Jet

Even though I can picture it in my mind, I suspect that one of my earliest memories is not actually mine. I think it's probably a collective family memory - something that was oft repeated and supported by things I've seen on TV.

I am very young and we are all sitting on the roof the car looking across other cars parked in neat rows, and a crowd of people downwards into a green idyllic valley. We are at an air show. Suddenly, from behind a line of trees a noise begins. It's a whining roar that swells in volume until it is almost deafening. And then a blue aeroplane appears. It rises - miraculously - vertically from behind the trees and continues lifting straight up into the sunny sky, as if on a fishing line or attached to a crane. The crowd gasp in delight and excitement. Some people begin applauding. Then it stops. It just sits there in the sky. The noise is too loud for my sensitive young ears and I think I might have started to cry. The plane, standing still in the air, wavers a little and then suddenly zooms, nose first, away.

It was, of course, a Harrier jump jet. And the thing was, even if this time I wasn't actually there, or was too young to remember, I've seen Harriers do the same thing many times since. Each time it is miraculous and exciting. It is, after all, a plane that can rise vertically from the ground into the sunny sky. Another time I remember seeing a Harrier fly horizontally towards where the air-show crowd was gathered and then just stop in mid-air as if it had hit an invisible wall. I've seen a pair of Harrier's circling each other, nose facing nose, as if they were dancing a chaste kind of tango, or as if they were Judo players waiting for the moment of attack.

The Harrier was so exciting because you can't believe your eyes. You know that, like proverbial sharks, aeroplanes need speed and forward motion to stay alive. When a helicopter hovers you can see the blades whirring away and make the connection in your mind that it is the rotor that is holding it in the air. But a Harrier just sits there above the ground with no visible means of support. It can even fly backwards, and whether young or old, it kind of does your head in.

And always accompanied by the noise. That whining, roaring sound that blasts your ears and rumbles your insides.

Late last year government cuts scrapped the UK's Harriers. I watched the live coverage as the pilots, in formation, climbed out of their planes for the last time, leaving them static on the runway as they walked together towards a final parade. None of the pilots looked back. I imagine they got an order from command to remain stoic, but I also guess none of them could bear to turn their heads.


Leeds/Bradford airport was always part of my world. It was about 5 miles from our house growing up and it is still only about 6 miles from where I live today. In our old house we could hear the planes taking off and their flight path went directly over the valley our house overlooked. Out of my childhood bedroom window we could watch as they climbed across the sky before slowly turning away into the distance.

It's an odd airport - small and provincial. I have taken connecting flights from there in recent years and had to walk to prop a driven aircraft before climbing a short staircase onto the plane. It felt like the 1930s. Big airports always feel like places that stand outside of real geography. They are the portals of globalisation. Places like Atlanta, O'Hare, or Heathrow or CDG or Schipol are big, exciting, intimidating places. Sprawling towns occupied by excited transients from all corners of the globe. LBA doesn't feel like that. It's like a lego version. A little underused, a little windswept. Every half an hour fifty or a hundred people roll up to or emerge from its low doorways. If you collect or drop off a friend or relative you can almost drive up to the door, as if you were collecting them from their house.

Some years ago the airport had its runway extended. The road along the west side of the airport now goes underneath the runway extension and I drive through this short tunnel often. Sometimes, approaching the tunnel you can watch a 747 land and then immediately drive underneath it, knowing that you are maybe 30 feet from the wheels as they rumble above your head.

The main benefit of having an extended runway was that for a while, LBA was one of the rare provincial airports that could handle Concorde. A few times a year a Concorde would come along. Sometimes they toured provincial airports and people could book a short flight - a half-hour Concorde joyride. It was always prohibitively expensive. When we were young we could tell when it was taking off, as it made a noise unlike any other plane. It was fabulously loud. We'd get up and rush to the window or outside into the garden to watch it as it climbed above the valley.

I think most people in the UK love Concorde. It is genuinely iconic - hence the generic name that defines it as unique and special. I don't think we were alone in rushing out to watch it soar across the sky. I remember being at Wimbledon in the 1980s to watch the tennis. Sitting out on court 2, with its open banks of seating, the familiar unique roar emanated from the direction of Heathrow. As an ascending Concorde appeared above SW19 I noticed almost everyone in the crowd avert their eyes from watching Hanna Mandlikova play someone like Catherine Tanvier for a few seconds to watch Concorde as it rose across the skyline.

My most vivid memory of Concorde was from an air show. It was, I think, a last minute addition to the programme - probably on its way to somewhere else and able to fit in a fly-past. We were sitting on top of the car and could see it in the distance to our left. Excitement grew as it approached. As it did it dipped down lower and lower to the ground, until it was flying at only three or four hundred feet. As it reached the airfield where the crowd was gathered it slowly rolled, so as it flew in front of the crowd it tilted away, underside exposed to the onlookers. It was magic. There was Concorde (CONCORDE!) only yards away, flying sideways with one wing almost touching the ground. As it rolled back onto its belly and flew off the crowd cheered.

About 15 minutes later it had turned around and came in again from the other side, repeating the manoeuvre, only this time with it's top-side facing the crowd. And then it was gone.

The A-10 Warthog

I'm lucky. I grew up and still live in a beautiful part of the world. The Yorkshire Dales are literally on my doorstep and the Lake District is only about an hour away. When we were kids we'd all pile in the car and drive into the country for days out or camping holidays. Imagine that. Going on holiday to places that are only only 20 or 30 miles from home.

Days in the country were somehow not complete without the summer idyll of picturesque villages being suddenly and violently shattered by the screaming noise of low-flying jets. The Lightnings, Buccaneers and Tornadoes used the Dales and the Lakes as perfect practice grounds for low flying. There you were, sitting eating an ice-cream or sipping tea outside a country tea shop and the sky would suddenly, thrillingly, be split apart by the racket from low-flying jets speeding across the countryside, just feet above the ground.

It doesn't happen as much these days. It's easy to forget that The Cold War was a pretty militarised time in our history.

I might be conflating a series of memories. It could have been Nidderdale, where the road snakes from the valley-head village of Lofthouse and the hidden limestone gorge at How Stean, along the edge of Gouthwaite reservoir and into Pateley Bridge, but I am sure it was the Lake District.

In the Summer of 1979, we stayed in a cottage on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake, one of the quietest and least populated lake-shores in Cumbria. Perhaps we'd hiked up the fell above our cottage, or maybe we took the narrow tunnel under the road that led us to the stony shore and were standing at water level. The cottage was one of the very few buildings along the 4 mile length of the lake and the path through the tunnel down to the water was more or less private access to the water. We spent a few afternoons fishing or playing in the water in our inflatable dinghy.

Such details are a little fuzzy, but not the memory of a pair of A-10 jets that suddenly appeared at one end of the lake, flying no more than 30 feet from the surface of the water. They skimmed at enormous speed along the length of the lake before arcing upwards towards the hill that rises about 700 feet and marks the Southern end of the lake. Their engines growled and screamed as they split apart. One jet swooped to the left and one to the right of the hill.

A year or two later, at the same air-show that hosted the Concorde, there was an A-10 parked in the static display. My Dad and I climbed the steps up to a platform to look into the cock-pit. The pilot - a clean cut midwestern-looking American who looked like he was called Chip or Brad, told us all about the history of the plane, including the fact that the pilots referred to it as The 'Warthog'. The A-10 had none of the elegance of a Concorde, but instead was a pretty ugly looking machine. It's uniqueness was the twin jet engines mounted in front of a U-shaped tail, and a short stubby nose. It did indeed look not unlike a Warthog. Squat, powerful and pig-like.

I thought it was great. Having Chip give us a guided tour made me instantly develop a fondness for it. I don't think I'd ever met a proper American before and this made the tour even more memorable.

After that, in the last years of the Cold War, I'd look out for the A10s blasting low across the Dales and the Lakes and felt an affinity for them. It was personal cult plane, unloved by many, but adored by me.

The Vulcan Bomber

I hate war, which amuses me when I think of how much I am smitten with war planes. I never harboured the desire to become a pilot, although I did know a guy at University who was training as a fighter pilot and went on to fly Tornadoes in the first Gulf War. I talked to him a couple of times about planes, but I think he was stunned. I was a goth-looking literature student with a strange haircut and a range of adolescent affectations. He was the complete opposite. Clean-cut, clean living. Organised, disciplined and responsible. I imagine he couldn't believe I was really interested in planes. And in some ways I'm not interested in them. I don't care about the technical specifications and would never risk being thrown into a foreign gaol by ogling or photographing them. I don't aspire to tick them off on a list, or look them up in books. I don't even know much about them apart from some of the names and shapes. But certain planes do for me is what certain cars seem to do for other people. They inspire an emotional response. I am in love with them.

What enchants me is the aesthetics and the visceral excitement. I just love to see these big, noisy, aggressive, impressive machines close up. Even more than that I love the noise.

And nothing sounds like a Vulcan bomber.

Climbing into the sky the Vulcan made a hellish basso roar. When the afterburners went on, the engines glowed a deep fiery orange and a low malevolent crackle ripped through the air. It shifted your diaphragm and resonated in your visceral cavity. It was frightening and thrilling and somehow primeval.

Vulcans are beautiful. They have delta wings like Concorde, but a Vulcan's wings are broad and as wide as the body is long. In flight they look like a soaring eagle, the curve of their wings has an almost organic grace.

But their beauty is matched by an indefinable quality. Power. When a Vulcan takes off, despite it's elegant design, there is no mistaking the fact that this is basically a 40 ton block of very solid, very heavy metal. You can tangibly feel the physics involved in getting this huge 100 foot machine to lift off and fly. And of course, the power is mind-boggling. It's something like the equivalent of having 150,000 horse power.

Here's why it's my favourite plane: the Vulcan somehow transmits all of this when you see it flying up close. Lots of planes seem to be effortless as they dive around the skies. The Vulcan appears to wheeze and sweat, like a superheavyweight weight-lifter straining every bone and sinew to put the weights over his head and you can see that the weight is so great that the metal bar is actually bending under the strain.

The paradox is that the take-off is rather serene. Like a kite a Vulcan suddenly catches the air under its giant wings and lifts gently off the ground. But then it can't go any higher without the supreme effort of those massive engines. They slowly grind into life, producing an oily looking trail of what can only be grimy, caustic smoke that reminds me of the belching chimneys of Victorian dark satanic mills. And that's when the great roaring, hulking machine soars into the sky.

They scrapped the Vulcan fleet in the mid-1980s, and only recently a bunch of nutty enthusiasts have restored one until it can again fly. They take it round air-shows. The thing is, they're not really nutty at all, just besotted.

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