101's Tens in action
Alexander James checks out the newly enlarged 101 Squadron at Brize Norton
The day finally dawns and after a few weeks of waiting we arrive at Brize Norton at the remarkably sociable time of ten in the morning. The preceding few days and hours had been a "will we - won't we" wait, as various tasking and serviceability issues had put our potential trip in some doubt. It is a typically miserable and grey morning, with a fair bit of rain in the air, but we can at least hope for brighter skies above the clouds.
With check-ins complete we make our way to 101 Squadron's dispersal, situated on the opposite side of the runway to the domestic site and the main maintenance and support facilities at Brize Norton. 101 has recently become the largest flying squadron in the RAF as it took over the aircraft, personnel and tasking of 10 Squadron last October (see 'End of the Shiny show') and amalgamating into the one unit. A unit with a historic tradition, 101 Squadron's crew rooms, walls and cabinets bear testament to its illustrious past with numerous plaques, models, paintings and other mementos celebrating glorious achievements stretching back many decades. Originally formed in 1917, the squadron was soon in action over the Western Front, and its history was typical of many squadrons from then on. It re-formed most recently on 1 May 1984 as a VC10 unit at Brize Norton, and continues with this aircraft at this location.
The VC10 is undeniably a sleek aircraft; however age is definitely taking its toll on the fleet. First flown by Vickers in 1962, it entered RAF service as high-speed passenger aircraft in 1966 (over FORTY years ago!). And, boy what a high-speed passenger aircraft it was, and still is. With its maximum cruising speed of over 500 mph, it was only bettered by Concorde, and even today it still cruises with the best of them. The engines, though, are nowhere near as economical as current turbofans and also less environmentally friendly too, but the performance of them is still impressive. All the remaining VC10s in service operate as either dedicated aerial refuelling tankers (K3 and K4 versions) or as dual-role passenger-tankers (C1K model). A shortage of spare parts and running out of airframe hours means that the fleet of aircraft has had to be gradually reduced with many aircraft ending up being scrapped at St Athan's DARA facility following removal of all usable spare parts. This fleet is long overdue a replacement and it can only be a matter of time before serviceability will prevent a vital tasking, despite the sterling work of the engineers. As its replacement programme, FSTA, suffers delay after delay, replacing these aircraft with efficient A330s years ago would have already seen some major cost benefits by now, as well as providing a vastly improved transport and refuelling capability that the forces deserve.
Back to the mission for today. Callsign 'Tartan 22' is to be a towline in Air Refuelling Area 5 provided by ZD241. Numerous receiver aircraft are slated to be refuelled during the racetrack pattern to be flown off the coast of Northumberland, but as ever there are a few cancellations and in the end just a few RAF Tornado F3s take the opportunity to top-up during the trip. The professionalism of everybody we come into contact with during the day is clear to be seen, and the ease with which they accomplish the seemingly myriad of tasks they have to do is frankly astonishing. From aircraft start-up and see-off, the take-off brief, the flight and mission itself, the fighter aircraft join-ups and tanking, through to the recovery and landing itself, we are fortunate to witness a superb display of thorough skill and professionalism from everyone concerned.
As for the budding photographer who gets a chance to take part in a flight like this, I can only relay my experiences, and perhaps give a few tips. Whatever happens, enjoy every minute of the trip. The guys and gals who do this every day are happy to answer your questions, and your interest in what they do can sometimes make a good change for them. Pay attention to the instructions and rules - they are almost certainly there for your well-being. I will assume you all know what to take as far as cameras and lenses go, but don't forget a cloth for the cabin windows. On the subject of windows, this is where you will earn your photographic spurs. Okay, so there are the usual few layers of Perspex that you would get on any normal passenger aircraft, however the size and age of these windows conspire against a clear view. From the dirt and rain spots on the outside, to the scratches and blemishes on the inside, via the various distorted areas in between, the photographer is faced with a real challenge to get a clear and undistorted view.
The windows themselves are at the normal height above the floor, and this means that to get a good position you have to be kneeling down on the floor. The next issue to contend with is the fact that there is bound to be umpteen other people on the flight, with exactly the same intentions as you have, and maybe they have already found that winning window. Also, choose a window too far forward and you won't get a good shot of the receivers as they refuel - choose a centre window and the VC10 wingtip can be in the way, whereas a window at the rear will prevent you getting pictures of any aircraft as they formate alongside. Well, with that lot sorted out, all you have to take into account now is that the VC10 itself is going to be flying in a circuit in the Air Refuelling Area. During the actual refuelling, the relative position of the sun will change from port to starboard, thereby throwing the receiving aircraft into silhouette at almost certainly the most inopportune moment. So, you can count on half of the shots you take being of silhouettes.
last issue you have to ready for is the pace of events - typically you
can get some notice from the flight deck that some receivers are about
to join up, but is surprising just how fast the fighters can appear on
the wingtips. Make the most of this time because after a few seconds they
get clearance to move onto the drogue, and whilst they are plugged in
they are too close and aft to be able to get really good pictures. This
joining procedure is an enthralling but unnatural looking act, but an
amazing feat to behold as that tiny probe is forcefully thrust into the
bobbing drogue. After the receiver has topped up it pulls back and disconnects,
then formates alongside again for a number of seconds before departing.
For my trip I was using a digital SLR, shooting in RAW mode - I took around
200 pictures of just four receiving aircraft, and perhaps got around twenty
that were acceptable (those windows do take their toll), so make sure
you have sufficient storage media as it may be your only chance of a trip
like this. I used a 17-85 mm IS lens on this shoot - you'll find anything
much longer than 100 mm will accentuate the distortions and muck in the
windows, making focussing very difficult.