I reached out and touched the face of God
Or how a dream came true: a short story of a flight in a former Royal Air Force Hawker Hunter T.8B
Alan J. “Addo” Addison
© Addo Addison July 2010
All photographs © Addo Addison
Saturday September 18th 2004; it was a cold and wet start to the day. I had stayed overnight with my brother Tony and his wife Linda, at their home in Ashill, Devon. After a light breakfast Tony and I set off for Exeter airport, today was a very special day in my life. After years of flying in just about every shape and size of aircraft, today I was going to realise a life-long ambition and fly in a fast jet, a Hawker Hunter.
The Hawker Hunter I was to fly in was first flown on 8th June 1955 . The aircraft was built as a single seat airframe later converted to a twin seat (side by side) training aircraft and given the MoD serial WV322. It saw service with the Royal Air Force until its retirement to RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire where it was used as a Ground Instructional Trainer. In 2000 WV322 was now given the civilian registration G-BZSE and was “rescued” from the Ground Instructional role when she was purchased by an airline pilot and consortium of his friends. A year after the rescue, she was flown to Kemble, Gloucestershire, where she underwent full restoration, which was completed in March 2002. One year later WV322 moved to her new home in Exeter, Devon where to this day she remains in flying condition.
When we (Tony and I) arrived at the airport it was still raining; I was introduced to my pilot for the day John Hurrell. John does this pleasure flying in his spare time; his day job is as a Hawk Test Pilot for British Aerospace, based at Warton, Lancashire. I was all ready to go dressed in my own flight suit, flying boots and having been issued with the mandatory bone dome (crash helmet) and oxygen mask, it was time to receive instruction on the Martin-Baker Mk.4H ejection seat that I would be attached to for the duration of my flight. This seat, unlike modern contemparies, is not what they call a zero-zero , seat in other words you must be travelling at least 90 knots or above or the seat will not function and you will make a soggy red and bone mess on the adjacent surface you land on!
An hour or so later, I followed John to the survival section where I was issued with “g” leggings, a Mae West and my life support equipment which supplies the oxygen and enables me to communicate with John whilst airborne. It was a bit of a struggle getting the zips done up on the “g” leggings, I hasten to add the zips were quite old and a little tarnished, a lot like the person about to wear them. After a little tenacity and gentle persuasion the zips finally zipped up. Trussed up like a chicken ready for the oven, I was at last equipped for take-off.
To my dismay and slight consternation it was still raining; John checked the TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) issued hourly by the Meteorological Office it wasn’t looking at all good for today’s flight. The option was that I would have to re-book and travel back again from my home in Hertfordshire to Exeter to make the flight. This was a very daunting prospect. My spirits were lifted by a good old fashioned cup of tea and biscuits, kindly provided by another John (Rodd) at the Hunter Flying Club.
John Hurrell checked the weather again this time the TAF showed that there was possibly a “window” of good weather heading our way. Clutching my helmet, gloves and oxygen mask we walked towards the aircraft; the ground crew including John Rodd were busy preparing WV322 for flight. Depressingly it began to rain again, John Rodd and I sheltered under the starboard wing of the aircraft. Calls of its only a passing shower did nothing to convince me of the fact that at any minute the flight would or could be cancelled! Thankfully, it was only a passing shower and a few minutes later I climbed the ladder to the right hand seat of this magnificent aircraft. Both John H and R assisted to strap me in, attach my leg restraints to the seat and made sure all but one of the safety pins were removed. The final pin I would have to remove myself! The ladders were taken away and it was just John H and me in that cockpit. It was time to remove the fifth and final pin which was then stowed with the other four on the cockpit window rail. With the cockpit checks complete, John H signalled that we were ready to start the engine. This was achieved by a rather large cartridge; a loud bang, a puff of blue/grey smoke and the Rolls-Royce Avon whirled into life. All the dials and gauges springing into instant life; the EGT rose sharply from the ambient outside air temperature towards rather hotter than I cared to think about. A final check by John and he signalled for chocks away; the first test was a brakes check, fortunately they seemed to be working well. We taxied slowly off the dispersal , John choosing to close the canopy, all bar the final two inches or so for taxi-ing. John got us onto the taxi-way when he said “do you want to have a go?” How could I refuse such a generous offer; I only wish I had had some practice on a simulator beforehand, as I took us well to the right of the centre line then to the left anything but on the centre line of the taxi-way. I gladly gave John back control of the aircraft.
Holding short of the runway John called the tower for clearance; read back was correct and we lined up on runway two-six (260 degrees magnetic) for take-off. The canopy clunked shut, for me it was time yet again, to check that I was still breathing the adrenaline surging through my body in anticipation of what I was about to experience. John advanced the throttle to full power whilst holding the aircraft on the brakes; when the brakes off we zoomed down the runway rapidly gaining speed we were already past 90 knots so I could now use the bang seat if anything went Pete Tong (wrong). At 1355 Hrs BST at over 150 knots we lifted off the runway and climbed steadily to 2,500 feet to follow the River Exe out towards the English Channel. It was at that point that John said ,“Addo you have control”. I felt a further rush of adrenalin; excitement and fear kicked in as I took of this wonderful flying machine. I climbed WV322 to about 6,000 feet where I levelled off, John instructed me to turn right towards Brixham; amazing at 400 knots at 6,000 feet how soon that comes underneath you! I executed a tight left hand turn out over the English Channel and headed back towards Exeter; nearing the mouth of the River Exe John said, “I have control”. I don’t mind admitting that my heart-rate was slow to return to normal, such had been the “rush” I had experienced in just level flight at 400 knots and 6,000 feet above the sea.
During the morning on the ground John and I had discussed the flight and what I had wanted from it; so no straight and level flying from point “A” to point “B” for me. I wanted to see what this aircraft could do! John had descended to about 2,500 feet above Exeter and bought the Indicated Air Speed (IAS) back to about 250 knots for the transition of the lower controlled airspace around Exeter airport. We headed for some uncontrolled air space above mid-Devon, by uncontrolled, I mean that we weren’t going to infringe on any air corridors and thus commercial aviation traffic in the skies above Devon. We climbed back to around 6,000 feet and John increased the speed to about 600 knots [691 M.P.H. or 1111 K.P.H.]
Keeping WV322 at 600 knots John pulled back hard on the stick and cut the power to idle even so we seemed to climb at a phenomenal rate. I cannot remember the exact height when we ran out of climb but I do remember what happened next, John dropped the left wing on the aircraft and increased the power from our Rolls-Royce Avon engine as we raced back down to 6,000 feet above the earth. We repeated the exercise again but this time John dropped the right wing , yes the side I was sitting on, and yet again we raced back to mother earth. Okay it was still six thousand feet to our hard deck for the flight. For the next thirty minutes or so we rolled, twisted and turned the aircraft in the sky over mid-Devon. The piece de resistance came when John asked me if I wanted to do a loop. I thought to myself is the Pope Catholic? My reply was a resounding yes please. Levelling off at 6,000 feet John accelerated back up to 600 knots pulled hard on the control column and kept it there, we topped the loop at 14,500 feet. You have seen it in the films where when the pilots go upside down all their hoses and harnesses float, well now I have seen it for real! I felt the pressure of the “g” suit kick in more than once during the flight this actively forcing the blood back towards my brain. The sky was the ground and the ground the sky albeit momentarily as we rounded out of the loop and headed back down towards the hard deck. John’s next question took a nano second to answer, it was “do you want to do another?” But this time I had control; John accelerated the Hunter back to 600 knots and maintained 6,000 feet. I pulled hard back on the stick (control column) and we began our climb back to 14,500 feet; what an awesome sensation being in control of an aeroplane that is going to turn your world literally upside down. I am not known as a believer but I am sure that I could see my Mum and Dad watching me piloting this aircraft as I neared the top of the loop, I am sure too that their God was watching over them watching me.
All too soon the experience of flying in the Hunter, twisting turning and looping was drawing to an end and we began the recovery to Exeter airport, however, John had one final treat for me. He asked the tower for permission to do a couple of Touch and Go manoeuvres, permission granted, we lined up or rather John lined up the Hunter for the first Touch and Go. A Touch & Go is when the aircraft prepares to land normally, however, having landed the throttle or throttles are then pushed fully forward and once again you rotate into the sky. On each of the three we did it was a very tight left hand turn off the runway heading back down the River Exe, to turn left again to run down wind of the runway before finals to land. For the final landing we crossed the piano keys on runway two-six at 180 knots IAS a silky smooth landing followed. I was told later that our drag chute came out as expected. Judging by the deceleration I am sure it did.
John taxied the aircraft back to the dispersal, where my brother Tony was waiting along with John Rodd and the other members of the ground crew. But before I could go anywhere, I had to put the first of the five pins back into my ejection seat to make it safe, John Rodd then put the other four into their respective locations. Unstrapped I took off my helmet and oxygen mask which revealed the biggest Cheshire cat grin ever. I had done it. My lifetime ambition had been fulfilled I had flown in a fast jet and like the RAF Poem states I felt that I had reached out and touched the face of God.
None of this would have been possible if it were not for my late parents, Joan and Arthur, who through their kindness and generosity left me an inheritance that enabled me to make this flight.
My thanks to my wife Debbie, who has suffered many a long lonely hour, while I have been away from home pursuing this hobby which now borders on an obsession.
My thanks also to my brother Tony and his wife Linda for their support before and after the flight in the Hawker Hunter.
Finally there is one person, who I can no longer say thank, my late Uncle Gordon for it was he who inspired my fascination and interest in aviation from the tender age of ten.
© July 2010