Sunday, 28 November 2010

The sad demise of G -TOMS

This Piper Tomahawk crashed in the Brecon Beacons in a blizzard on Friday. The pilot, the only occupant, was uninjured but the aeroplane is a write-off.

Way, way back in 1986 it was on the fleet of a flying club in Guernsey (hence the registration G-TOMS; Guernsey tomatos and all that) and I hired it to fly my wife and myself around the Channel Islands while on holiday there. It taught me a lot about lee-side sink; when landing at Alderney into a strong wind in the lee of high vertical cliffs I was expecting strong sinking air and positioned high on final to allow for that, but wow we went down like a an upside-down Harrier!

Full power and partial retraction of the flaps got us to the runway!

G-TOMS in happier times when I hired it in 1986 at Guernsey, here shown at Alderney after a hairy arrival over the cliffs in a strong wind!

It's always sad to see the demise of an aeroplane one has flown.

It seems from this picture that the engine was not running at impact (prop blades not bent), which might explain the crash!

We await the accident report to explain why the engine ceased to run.

This picture shows how close to edge of a precipice
the Tomahawk came before it nosed over

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Powering up the Nimrod

We now have a 400Hz AC power supply plugged into our ex-RAF Nimrod aircraft at the Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park. I spent some time yesterday on board with a couple of RAF techy types seeing what we could power up and how to do it. I returned today to see if I could manage to power the aircraft up and down on my own following the notes I took yesterday.

I connected the two batteries (we leave them unplugged so they don't run down), then went to the engineer's panel to check each was delivering > 20V. Next, I switched them each in on the DC panel, and checked the 'dolls eyes' lined up. On the AC panel a couple of other switches are set, then back over to the DC panel to set another. Then a trip outside to bring the inverter online and check its output voltage, frequency and amperage looks right.

Back onboard to find we now have cabin lights, and several power supplies and fans are running so the aeroplane feels 'alive'. On the engineers panels, the circuits now active are illuminated (very colourful!), and flight deck and panel instruments are lit. More switches on the DC panel bring on line 'essential supplies' and 'non essential supplies', and finally a couple of switches on the AC panel couple power to the rest of the aircraft. Back in the cabin I can now power up some more DC supplies to bring instruments and other bits of kit to life.

I had a 'play' on the flight deck. All the very interesting stuff that could cause problems if powered on has been disabled or removed by the RAF - radars, radios, heaters (pitot etc), hydraulic pumps, fuel pumps, engine controls etc. But all the cockpit alarms can be tested, as can the stick shakers (surprisingly violent!). The flight director moves the command bar with a satisfying whirr, and instrument flags can be made to flick in and out.

All this should add quite a lot to our tours. I just wish we could do the same with Concorde!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Riding the Cauldon Lowe branch; and some fog!

71000 'Duke of Gloucester' at foggy Froghall running around the train
after hauling us back from Cauldon Lowe.

(As ever, double click on the images to maximise size)

Following last Saturday's visit to the Churnet Valley Railway to see the opening day of passenger services on the Cauldon Lowe Branch (see earlier post on the blog), today I travelled the branch by train. Moorland & City Railways who have re-opened the branch (which last hosted a passenger train in 1935) are holding a celebration Gala from 13th to 28th November, and today was for members of the Churnet Valley Railway.

I became a member last year when the family bought me a 'driver experience' on the railway to celebrate my 60th birthday. I got to drive the big S160 2-8-0 steam locomotive up and down the Churnet Valley Railway from Froghall to Leekbrook and back, and part of the package was a year's membership of the railway which, in view of the railway's exciting developments with Moorland & City, I recently renewed.

It was misty and sunny at home when I left to drive to Froghall this morning, but it became foggy from Bosley, through Leek, down to Froghall, sometimes quite thick fog which didn't thin all day.

Today being a weekday, I was surprised to find Froghall almost as busy as it had been last Saturday. The usual car park for the railway was occupied by a large marquee with trade stands and catering inside, with parking available in car parks on the other side of the river Churnet. Both these big car parks were full by the time I arrived at about 10:00, but I was lucky that someone left as I slowly drove to the exit, and I got their space.

I purchased a 'Day Rover' ticket (£10 for members, £25 for non-members) and planned to catch the second train of the day to do the round trip to Cauldon Lowe and back, leaving at 11:25. At 10:40 a local train comprising a DMU set hauled by the unique Black Five with Stephenson valve gear, appropriately named George Stephenson, set off on a train to Leekbrook and back, but it was almost empty. A long queue was forming for the 11:25 and railway staff seemed not to be allowing people onto the platform, so I went to the front of the queue and asked if that was the case. "You can go onto the platform to use the toilets or the tearoom" came the reply. A cup of tea sounded a nice idea, so through the barrier I went to enjoy a cuppa by a roaring fire in the cosy and surprisingly empty tea room.

At 11:05 Bullied Pacific Eddystone clanked into the station with our train. I drained my cup, wandered out onto the platform, and boarded. The train soon filled up and it was obvious that some in the queue would not get on. Eddystone passed our carriage window as she ran round the train to couple on to the front to haul us north up the valley. At 11:25 with a whistle and hisses of steam, our full train set off leaving probably a quarter of the potential passengers behind still in the queue.

The train called at Consall and Cheddleton, arriving at Leekbrook Junction at 11:55 where it crossed with the earlier train of the day, which was returning to Froghall from Cauldon Lowe. That was hauled by the crimson 8F 8624, and banked in the rear by 71000 Duke of Gloucester. 8F 8624 took the train on to Froghall unassisted, while The Duke ran around our train to couple on at the back to provide banking assistance up the 1 in 40 gradients to Cauldon Lowe.

At Leekbrook the line down to Stoke on Trent could be seen running in from the left. This is still being restored, but if it proceeds at anything like the rate the Cauldon Lowe restoration did, there will soon be another gala opening on the Churnet Valley Railway! The original Churnet Valley line northwards to Leek is long gone, but the track bed was clearly visible and it is intended to once again run trains as far as Leek in the not too distant future. I was in the first coach of the train, and Eddystone's efforts as she hauled the heavy train up the gradient were all too evident, with occasional slipping as she lost her feet on the damp rails in the foggy atmosphere.

As we climbed towards Ipstones summit we came out of the fog into brilliant sunshine with clear blues skies, and many photographers were snapping away by the lineside as we passed. But after the summit the line descended back into the mist at Cauldon Lowe. At this terminus of the branch there is no station, just the sidings that used to be occupied by the trains taking the stone from the Cauldon Lowe quarries out onto the main line at Stoke, and then to destinations beyond. After a short wait here, our train set off back again, hauled by 71000 now at the front, with Eddystone on the back.

71000 was working hard with frequent slipping on the climb back up to Ipstones summit. As we were now at the back of the train following its reversal at Cauldon Lowe, the sound of distant hard work at the front of the train meant the now almost silent Eddystone just behind our coach was having a rest. This was later confirmed to me by 71000's driver when I spoke to him on reaching Froghall; Eddystone had done all the work from Leekbrook to Cauldon Lowe, and The Duke did the honours on the return journey. "There's no point working two big engines hard" he reasoned.

The only place to be; the footplate of the unique 71000 'Duke of Gloucester'

'The Duke' at Froghall after she'd hauled us from Cauldon Lowe, doing all the work. "There's no point working two big engines hard when one can do it" said her driver.

Once more we descended into the fog beyond Ipstones summit, and at Leekbrook we crossed with 8624 again on the next train up to Cauldon Lowe. Eddystone dropped off the back of our train here, and after we departed she would position onto the back of 8624's train to bank it up the gradient to Ipstones summit.

By 14:10 we were back at Froghall. The picture below gives an indication of the crowds present at this gala event, as they admire The Duke after our return trip up the line.

I visited the marquee at Froghall and enjoyed a lovely roast pork bap for lunch, washed down with a pint of superb real ale. I also picked up a copy of the Gala Re-opening brochure and Basil Jeuda's 'The Leek, Caldon & Waterhouses Railway' book. Basil was present, and we had an interesting chat about the modern railway scene compared to that of a few decades ago while he signed my book.

I decided to drive home avoiding Leek, and took the ancient 'Morridge' road that follows the edge of the high ground above Bradnop, Leek, and Tittesworth. Once I started the climb to Morridge, I popped out of the fog into glorious sunshine with breathtaking views of The Roaches, Hen Cloud, and other local hills protruding like islands through the sea of brilliant white vapour filling the valleys.

Hen Cloud and The Roaches rise out of the fog. The 'Post Office tower' on
Sutton Common is in the background

My rather grubby MX5 on Morridge, returning from the Churnet Valley Railway

Another view of Hen Cloud and the Roaches, with Ramshawe Rocks in the foreground.

I sincerely hope that Moorland & City, together with the Churnet Valley Railway, achieve their aim of running stone trains from Cauldon Lowe quarries out onto the main line via Stoke, passenger services from Stoke and Leek to Alton Towers, perhaps sand trains from Oakamoor, and heritage trips along the entire system encompassing Leek, Alton, Cauldon, and Stoke.

A main line connection at Stoke would also open up the possibility of charter trains running onto the M&R / CVR system from all parts of the country.

Here's a link to Moorland & City Railways 'Gala re-opening weekend' website:

Monday, 15 November 2010

The best flying weather for ages!

Sometimes, but not often, a day comes around which might have been tailor-made for flying. Today was such a day.

I hadn’t flown for several weeks and was getting withdrawal symptoms, so a few days ago I went on line to our flying group’s internet diary and booked the aeroplane for today. The weather forecast was favourable, but that could easily change. And it did. Early fog, becoming mist was the Sunday evening Met Office forecast for North West England for today and I resigned myself to probably having to cancel my booking. But when I woke this morning the room was bright with sunlight. “Probably shining though the low level fog” I thought as I reached into my bedside table draw for my airband radio. This little marvel is smaller than a mobile phone and I keep it tuned to the Manchester ATIS, or Automatic Terminal Information Service, a continuous broadcast from Manchester Airport Air Traffic Control giving information for inbound or outbound aircraft updated twice an hour. I switched it on:

“Manchester information Bravo at time zero seven five zero; departure runway 23 right, CAVOK, surface wind 070 at 4 knots, temperature +1 dew point +0 QNH 1015, runway wet wet wet.”

Wow CAVOK! That means ceiling and visibility OK with no significant cloud and at least ten kilometres visibility. Our aeroplane is at Liverpool John Lennon, too far away for me to receive their ATIS broadcast, but the chances were it would be much the same as Manchester’s. The ATIS is available by phone as well as radio, and a call confirmed that Liverpool was CAVOK as well. But would it last the day? After breakfast I went on line to the Met Office Aviation web site and checked the Liverpool TAF, or Terminal Area Forecast. The TAF’s arcane codes which date from the days when this information was transmitted around the globe on slow teleprinter lines told me this fantastic weather would be with us at least until dark. By 10:30 I was at Liverpool checking the aeroplane for flight and half an hour after that I was airborne, climbing out over the Mersey estuary towards Chester. Often, once in the air, the weather turns out not to be as good as it looked from the ground; but not today. It was the best flying weather I can remember in years.

The blinding sun lanced sideways through the blue, with just occasional high cirrus streaks above. The air was cold, and absolutely dead smooth. Not a burble, not a ripple. It was almost uncanny. The aeroplane sat in it as solidly as if it were standing on the concrete apron back at John Lennon, not suspended by thin air a couple of thousand feet over Cheshire. The cold made the handling particularly crisp as well as making the wings and engine perform at their best. It was one of those rare days where, with a nice handling aeroplane like the dH Chipmunk, you can position it to a fraction of a degree in pitch or roll almost as if it was mechanically detented into the air. So no excuse for sloppy aerobatics today!

And that visibility! From overhead Chester looking east the widely spaced distant white plumes of the power stations along the Trent curved up to the heavens, the cooling towers generating them being out of view below the horizon. To the south the Wrekin looked near enough to touch but was almost lost among the background of further-away hills not usually visible. To the west were the hills and mountains of Wales in unusual clarity, while on the Peckforton hills a couple of miles away beneath the left wing a few trees still wore the russet browns and yellows of this particularly colourful autumn.

The Peckfortons were behind us now. Dipping the nose at our cruise speed of 90 knots I watched the fields expand in front of me as the slipstream became a rising insistent roar until we had 120 knots and I eased the stick back and sank down in the seat under the G force, as the sleek black Chipmunk pointed up at that cirrus-streaked blue. I pushed the stick gently but firmly to the left as far as it would go and the whole world steadily rotated to the right, sky becoming land and land sky. I went light in the seat as Shropshire passed over the top of the canopy, and the engine momentarily coughed and ran rough until we rolled level again, a simple aileron roll executed in exuberant celebration of this fabulous day.

I dropped into Sleap airfield, near Wem, for lunch, curving round at exactly 60 knots to the threshold of runway 23. The big white-painted numbers on the end of the runway centred in the windscreen tilted towards me and slowly grew bigger, rolling level as we passed through 50 feet onto a short final, all so super precise as if on rails in this wonderful cold still air. The speed bled back to 55 knots and the runway reached up and kissed all three wheels simultaneously, a perfect 3-pointer.

Lunch at Sleap is always a pleasure, in one of the finest airfield cafes in the UK on the first floor of the control tower so overlooking this ex-RAF wartime airfield to the distant Welsh hills.

We didn’t return directly to Liverpool but flew south to have a look at the recently closed Sherlowe airstrip near Telford which closed at the end of September when the lease on part of the land expired and it returned to agriculture. I dropped down to treetop height for a low pass along the now ploughed up runway before climbing away to the north reflecting on the past 11 years of fly-ins and fun and hospitality at Sherlowe. It might return, as Bob the owner is constructing a new runway on the remaining land which he owns, but at 300m that’ll be a bit short for our Chipmunk.

It is a sin to fly an aeroplane like the Chipmunk straight and level on a day like today, so we indulged in some more aerial ballet while enjoying the freedom to do so that the uncontrolled airspace over Shropshire and south Cheshire allows. As we approached the invisible but very real boundary of the strictly controlled environment of the Liverpool control zone at Oulton Park racing circuit I called Liverpool Radar on the radio for clearance to enter. In the zone all frivolity ceased and we became a ‘serious aeroplane’ under strict air traffic control as we followed height and heading instructions just like the airliners to slot us in between the Easy Jets and the Ryanairs, to take our turn to touch down on John Lennon’s runway 27.

Taxying in I slid the canopy open, and the roaring propeller flickered in the sun and ruffled my hair. Even taxying the Chipmunk is fun – it’s like driving a magnificent open vintage car with the unsilenced blatter of the engine occasionally popping and banging at such a low power setting, and the smell of hot oil and exhaust. I swung round onto the flight line, braked to a halt in line with a gaggle of rather dull training aeroplanes, switched off the magnetos, and silence reigned as the prop bounced to a stop between compressions. I felt warmth in the sun on my face, and for a while I sat back in the reclined seat of the tail-down Chipmunk enjoying that, and listening to the slowly declining whine of the instrument gyros running down and the tinks and clinks of cooling metal.

How privileged we are to do this. What a fantastic day out!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Cauldon Lowe Branch Line Re-opening

71000 'Duke of Gloucester', working hard with that distinctive three-cylinder beat, yet still with surplus steam blowing off from her safety valves, climbs towards the summit of the line near Ipstones with the first passenger train on the branch for three quarters of a century on the late morning of Saturday 13th November 2010

Today public passenger trains ran on the Cauldon Lowe branch of the Churnet Valley Railway for the first time since it closed to passenger traffic in 1935, closing completely in 1994. This morning I photographed the unique Standard Class 8P Pacific steam locomotive 71000 Duke of Gloucester (above) as she headed the first train, banked from the rear by the Churnet Valley railway's resident crimson Stanier 8F 8624. That's a lot of power - but the branch has gradients as steep as one in forty, one of the UK's steepest.

Churnet Valley 8F 8624, wreathed in steam and smoke, banks the train up the gradient

For many years the Churnet Valley Railway has operated preserved steam and diesel trains between Oakamoor and Leekbrook Junction (a couple of miles south of Leek) along part of the former North Staffordshire Railway Company's North Rode to Uttoxeter line. The Cauldon Lowe branch runs from Leekbrook Junction eastwards to the stone quarry at Cauldon Lowe and until the 1980s stone trains ran from there via Leekbrook Junction to Stoke on Trent where they joined the main line. Main line trains also used to run up the Churnet Valley from the sand quarry at Oakamoor to Leekbrook where they too turned west to join the main line at Stoke.

Stoke---------------------------------Leekbrook------------------------Cauldon Lowe

Schematic of the geography of the Churnet Valley Line (Oakamoor to Leekbrook), the proposed Leek extension, the link to Stoke, and the recently opened Cauldon branch

For decades the lines from Stoke to Leekbrook, and on from Leekbrook to Cauldon Lowe lay unused and overgrown. Moorland & City Railways has now purchased both these lines and the first to be restored to use is the Cauldon Lowe branch. Moorland & City intend to reinstate stone trains from Cauldon Lowe out onto the main line rail system at Stoke, passenger services between Stoke, Leek, and Alton Towers, and perhaps sand trains from Oakamoor too, and are allowing the Churnet Valley Railway running rights over these lines.

Today is a landmark day for the Churnet Valley with the first of these passenger trains operated by 'The Duke' and the 8F. Also brought in to work trains over the opening gala celebrations as well as Duke of Gloucester are Southern Railway rebuilt Bulleid light pacific 34028 Eddystone and LMS Black Five 44767 George Stephenson.

These are exciting times for rail enthusiasts in North Staffordshire. Roll-on the re-opening of the Leekbrook to Stoke line!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Rock Radio interview

I went down to the Runway Visitor Park at Manchester this morning to meet Steve Berry of Manchester's Rock Radio, and Rachel, his producer. They wanted to record a piece about our Nimrod for Steve's breakfast show (6 to 10am daily) to be broadcast either Friday 12th November or Monday 22nd. Steve is into motorcycles as well. He used to appear on BBC TV's 'Top Gear' years ago, when they occasionally had a Bike spot. I remember his advice on transporting a family.... "a Ducati and three bus passes"!

Rachel had a hand-held microphone linked to a pocket disc recorder, and once we were on the flight deck and Rachel was recording, Steve just launched into a 'conversation' with me. I've done a few radio interviews before (and the odd TV one as well!) but even so Steve, ever the consummate professional, made it easy for me to deliver what the station wanted in what I hope was a relaxed and informative manner.

We moved down to the back to talk about the Nimrod's missions, and then a quick trip outside to give the listeners an impression of this big, brooding aeroplane bristling with aerials.

Of course from the Visitor Park's viewpoint it's all good publicity! There will almost certainly be some editing before the piece is broadcast, but let's hope they retain the details of how to book on a Nimrod tour or purchase a gift voucher - they make a great Christmas present!

UPDATE! Interview broadcast this morning, 22nd November 2010.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3