In an earlier post I related some of my flying training with the University Air Squadron. One of the perks was that once or twice a year cadet pilots went on camps to Royal Air Force (RAF) bases. You could be assigned to operational squadrons for a week or two. It was often a time to get more intense flying training. However you could occasionally also get rides on other aircraft. In June 1975 at RAF Marham I got the opportunity to go for a flight in an air to air refuelling tanker, the Victor K2. Initially they were bombers but most had been subsequently converted to tankers.
Another element of these camps was that you got to live in the officers mess. For a 19 year old it was an education to enter the traditional world of an RAF officer. Putting your shoes outside your door to be polished by a mess batman. Also strangely comforting to be wakened pre-flight with a cup of strong, sweet tea and a plain digestive biscuit by said batman. He was a superhero to me but not in the popular sense.
You had to be careful with manners at meal times. Never talk at breakfast, silence reigns. Instead read the newspapers laid out beside the food. I supposed it was that you should start the day well informed. Years later I wondered if it was a means of assessing your political leanings. The Cold War was still very much a reality. However I was naive regarding politics in those days. Whether a newspaper was left or right wing was not an interest to me then.
It required some training in order to fly as an extra (‘supernumerary’) with the Victor crew. The main bit was to learn how to get out of the plane in a hurry. An aircraft filled with nothing but fuel is hazardous. My seat would be between the captain and co-pilot. Sounds a good place but the catch was it was backwards facing. My view would be of the backs of the 3 navigators/ electronics engineers at back of cockpit. I understand that usual crew was 5 and suppose the seat I had was not normally occupied.
Back to the cockpit evacuation procedure. My seat was on a mini railway which basically meant I along with the seat would roll sideways out of the cockpit. Pilot and co-pilot had ejector seats. Theirs seemed like a better way of exiting than the mechanical method I and the other 3 crew had. However captain and co-pilot would be last to leave in any emergency. I imagine any fire would be catastrophic on a plane full of aviation fuel trailing hoses pumping fuel. Was best not to think about it.
Anyway with my seat training done I was ready to join in with a crew. Especially exciting as it was to be a test flight on an aircraft that had been serviced. We would be testing the flight envelope, the limits of the aircraft’s capabilities. Such as how high can it fly? How fast can it climb? How quickly can it descend? And yes we would be doing air to air refuelling!
The day came and pre-dawn I was woken by batman with the aforementioned tea and biscuit. Once ready I joined with the crew in an underground bunker facility. It was dominated by a huge map of the north east Atlantic. Indicators showed what planes were in the air and how many pounds of fuel the tankers were carrying. As said this was the Cold War and tankers were always in the air. Their job to keep the fighter jets up for longer. I understood captain and crew had no idea where they would go, orders only given at this last minute briefing.
Finally we were driven to the heavy, fuel laden aircraft. Soon after this lumbering yet immensely powerful machine was airborne. It was to be a long flight and not all filled with drama. My backwards facing seat meant for an uncomfortable twisting of the neck when wanting to see the view. All crew including myself wore oxygen masks which also didn’t aid comfort.
One view I didn’t miss was at max. height of 59,500 feet. Was that the curvature of the earth I was seeing or just my overactive imagination?
As supernumerary (basically passenger) I didn’t really have anything to do. I would listen to the crew chatter on the intercom and not always be engaged with what they were saying. Every 5 mins the captain did an oxygen check to ensure all crew were conscious. This was done by captain shouting “number 1” followed by each crew member in turn responding with their number. I am embarrassed to say that at least once I omitted to respond and say “number 6” when my turn came. This prompted captain shouting urgently to the effect of “come in number 6!” This would break my daydreaming. What an embarrassment at failing this my only duty. A minor one at that which was only for my own good. Ah well, at least I was living up to my supernumerary status.
When it came to refuelling a whole separate console of instruments was pulled down. The captain enthusiastically demonstrated how the plane could be flown with fuel pumps. Instead of steering he would pump fuel to either wing and the plane would turn. At one point without my being aware of what was going on the pilot said to look through the rear facing periscope. Quite a sight to see another plane thirstily drinking from the fuel drogue at the end of a hose. Like a bee sucking nectar from a flower.
This high altitude aerial dance was in contrast to the low level, high speed manoeuvres over land and sea. It was all in a day’s work for these crew but some 46 years later these memories still linger in the mind of a onetime 19 year old.