SeaKing meets SeaCat...
Aviation photography can be fraught with frustration, as most of us know. There is an 'eternal triangle' oft quoted, whereby one needs 1) the opportunity, 2) the weather and 3) a camera full of film. Rarely do all three come together to produce that memorable occasion, more likely we face the situation waiting for one of the first two points of the triangle to unfold, or loudly curse the fact that the third is a consequence of our bad planning or failing memory.
Just such an occasion faced your scribe and three friends, on the way to last year's Beauvechain airshow in Belgium. The usual way across the channel is by Mrs Thatcher's legacy to the British taxpayer, the Channel Tunnel, or at a push the RoRo (Roll-on Roll-over) from Dover. But, as time was short, it was decided that the SeaCat direct to Ostende from the Kentish port would be the best way to eat up some miles, plus it would be a novelty anyway. So, suitably ensconced inside a Ford Galaxy (by now dubbed the C5), we set out for Kent from the wilds of East Anglia at some ungodly hour to catch the 7am sailing.
Somehow, and don't ask me how, we approach the checking-in kiosk from the wrong direction, but successfully embark into the bowels of the vessel. This is when we make our big, big mistake. Discussion starts in the usual fashion on what to take up to the lounge area, as passengers aren't allowed on the vehicle deck while the ship is in motion. "Shall we take our cameras?" is a sentence uttered by more than one, but with the consensus that apart from a few seagulls and passengers vomiting, little but wasted film will be gained. So, to a man, we bury our camera cases in the boot, lock the car and venture upstairs.
By now, the early morning mist is giving way to bright sunshine, so spirits are high for a good weekend at the show. First is breakfast, an almost edible substance costing a King's ransom, which is taken up to the upper lounge where some seats are still free. Conversation takes its usual banter, ranging from what will be at the show, to the standard of totty on the boat. About half an hour out, Roger decides to tell us about his son's trip on the SeaCat, where some helicopter had appeared over the stern and proceeded to undergo a training exercise, dropping a crew member on board and subsequently retrieving him. "Lucky so-and-so" is the general conclusion, with an acceptance that "well, it can't happen very often".
With the sun now strong from the south-east, we settle back in the armchair-like seats and conversation drifts back to more mundane matters, the steady sway of the boat and the breakfast taking their effect. About ten minutes later, as the cabin announcements are being made in French, one of us thinks they hear the word 'helicopter'. A look of alarm spreads amongst us, as the awful truth is revealed by the following English translation; "a Belgian military helicopter will be performing a practice rescue mission, please remain in your seats". This could only mean one thing - a Sea King from 40 Squadron, Koksijde. Remaining seated is the last thing on our minds, as a 'Corporal Jones' mentality takes hold. Could we get down to get our cameras? No. Could we borrow one from the granny sitting opposite? Err, maybe not. Do they sell disposable cameras in the shop? Hell, look at the queue.
Before the announcement has faded away, from the stern appears the camouflaged nose of RS03, spearing through the plume of spray kicked up by the SeaCat's efflux. With the sun directly behind us, it is framed in a glorious rainbow, by now losing speed to match that of the seaborne craft. Closer and closer, until it disappears over the roof of the cabin, just off the port side. This is too much to bear for us hardened photographers, so a quick shove-and-push to get outside onto the open deck is necessary, where she sits not twenty feet above our heads, the pilot gazing down at us, the full force of the morning sun lighting the whole length of the helicopter. On reflection some time later, the consequences of a wrong move by the pilot don't bear thinking about...After dropping a couple of crew members on board, the Sea King turns to port and accelerates away, turning back across the ship's bow before running in for a very low, very fast pass across the stern. Once more it closes up, this time to retrieve its deposited crew, before salutes are waved and she is away. All over in about ten minutes, but we have expended quite a few rolls of imaginary film in the process...