Displaying with the Army Air Corps by Gary Parsons
As part of the 'Press Corps' at the Middle Wallop International Airshow in June, I was offered the enormous privilege of flying in a Lynx during the rehearsal for the massed flypast, a highlight of shows held at the Hampshire venue. Naturally, as one would expect, the offer was met with unrestrained enthusiasm and a cloud of dust as I sped across to the waiting minibus.
Having lived in the shadow of Wattisham's Lynxes and Gazelles for four years, the chance to sample the delights of Westland's finest was something of a busman's holiday, especially as the crew were from 4 Regiment, making up the numbers for the weekend as Wallop were struggling for machines and aircrew. Such was my excitement that I forgot my notebook, so consequently have forgotten the crew's names, which is a pity as they were a good couple of blokes, accepting their passengers (myself and Flypast's Ken Delve) with good grace although one got the feeling they would rather not have been burdened, if a choice was available.
A crew bus takes us and the pilots to the south side of the airfield and the massed ranks of Gazelles and Lynxes, an impressive sight to behold. Our Lynx is toward the end of the parked ranks, an ordinary looking AH7 bearing the serial XZ652, sitting basking in the midday sun that is a most welcome respite from the misery of three weeks of clag since Mildenhall. A safety brief is briefly given, after which we clamber aboard and strap in tight, sitting behind the pilot with the large side door open looking out of the starboard side of the aircraft. Inside, the aircraft is utilitarian, a basic canvas seat to sit on and there is a well worn feel to the interior; one remembers that this particular example is nearing twenty years in service, a time since when Austin Allegros were still in fashion. The dark finish gives a very austere feel, certainly no fobs to luxury are experienced, no furry dice are allowed in the windshield. A headset with intercom is available so that communication with the crew is possible, but I decide to keep the chat to a minimum in fear of saying the wrong thing at a crucial time and causing the helicopter to plunge to the ground, a vision that is all too prevalent as the engines are started and the rotors engaged. Any tension and apprehension is soon dispelled as one by one the choppers around us lift off and hover, awaiting their turn to peel off and follow the line of Gazelles disappearing into the distance. As we are to be the end of the second row of helicopters, to the far right as viewed from the crowdline, we are one of the last to turn hard to starboard and accelerate across the hedge in chase of the snaking line ahead. At what seemed less than head height the boundary hedge flashes underneath and the chase is on, the line curving away to the right behind the hills to the south. I can just lean out and look forwards, with the slipstream just deflected away enough not to cause discomfort; the thrill of chasing umpteen Lynxes is one that will stick in the memory. In what seems a race, some are taking tighter lines than others, all heading for an unknown destination (to me) at about two hundred feet and a similar rate of knots. The ride is wild, the dense air causing the Lynx to buck and weave, making photography immensely difficult as it is a job in itself to keep the viewfinder anywhere near your eye. The shutter speed is left at 1/350 in an attempt to get some sharp pictures without completely freezing the rotor blades, but as soon as we had lifted the biggest cloud of the day made an appearance and most of the flight is in shade.
No sooner have we left Middle Wallop, but are preparing to land in a grass field, exactly where I do not know. Settling in amongst the roaming sheep, the rotors are disengaged and engines shut down. A twenty minute wait ensues while the formation leaders finalise their plans; this gives the remaining crews a chance to check their place in the display and catch up on the local gossip, who was doing what to who in EastEnders and other pressing issues. The good natured banter over the intercom is refreshing to hear, military men are human after all. Bikes and birds are also on the menu, but soon the order to start engines is given and the banter swiftly replaced with a professional tone with a run through of the checklist to prime the Rolls-Royce Gem engines.
Back into action again, lift off is swift as again we are trailing the pack. Heading back towards Middle Wallop, suddenly the line ahead slows and the Gazelles start to form a disorderly row before coming to a dead stop; we do so likewise, forming a second line, hovering at about fifty to one hundred feet. It is now that the term 'Air Cavalry' strikes home, as the massed ranks of helicopters lay in wait behind the ridge could well be waiting for a line of Red Indians to pass through the valley, ready to pounce at the sound of a bugle. The downwash of the rotors does little to upset the cattle grazing in the surrounding fields, so used they must be to the antics of trainee pilots in this part of the wild frontier. Soon the bugle is sounded and the armada of aircraft heads for the airfield, advancing in two ranks, Gazelles and Squirrels to the fore with Lynxes and Griffons defending the rear. At display height, we form into two long rows of bucking, jostling helicopters, each pilot nervously eyeing the man to his right and keeping that all important minimum safety distance between the blades. One small movement sideways has a 'reverse concertina' effect in the row as the next pilot slightly over-compensates, the guys at the end (us) working hardest of all as the line expands and contracts. This lateral movement seems quite marked to us in the chopper, but to the crowd would seem no more than a mild wavering of the line. Then, as one, those of us to the right of the crowdline turn to starboard and those to the left turn to port, to face each other's path, the lights of the oncoming helicopters looking like a trail of beacons wandering down the mountainside. The silver Gazelle and his accomplices do their bit down by the crowdline, but are too far away to really see what is going on, the sun tantalisingly close but hidden by the few clouds in the sky. Suddenly the display is over and the line of Lynxes ahead of us streaks away and we give chase again, the line curving downwards and to the right, heading for the vast green expanse of the helipark on the southern taxiway. Realising this is perhaps the last chance for pictures, I lean as far as the straps allow, only to hear a desperate cry from behind; sorry, Ken! Probably not a good idea to upset the editor of Flypast, so I guess I need not bother submitting anything for a month or two.
Back over the fence we go, watching the Gazelles settle into position and guessing which scorch mark in the grass is ours. Touchdown is gentle, about an hour after we had left, but the time has just melted away as it always does when doing something hugely enjoyable. Once the rotors have stopped turning, the still air is warm again, a reminder that although summer the draught had been quite cool while buzzing around in the sky exposed to the elements. True to form, the sun pops out for the remainder of the day once we disembark. Just time enough to thank the crew and apologise to Ken before the bus comes to collect them, I now try to find my colleague Roger Cook who was in one of the 'Soup Dragons', otherwise known as the AH9 version of the Lynx (the one with the wheels). The experience has been superb, it is not often that anyone has a chance to be part of an official flying display, even though it was only a practice, but there were plenty of people to see the action as the Friday was just one day in a week of action comprising the International Helicopter Exhibition and Helimeet International.
We would like to extend our thanks to the MWIAS press staff for their hospitality and look forward to future events.