Sunday, 29 May 2011

An airshow with.... err.... no flying (well, not much). And a cure for ear wax!

At Bruntingthorpe in Lincolnshire is a disused cold-war airfield with a two-mile long runway. It is used for storing and testing cars, but is also home to an aircraft museum, some residents of which are kept in 'working order' in that they can't fly but they can do 'fast taxying' on that runway. They can only do this a few days per year on a bank holiday Sunday as the cars have to be moved off the runway on the Saturday, then replaced on the Monday ready for the start of the working week on the Tuesday. A few weeks ago, together with fellow Manchester Airport Concorde guides Ross and John, I attended such an event.

We had been invited to Bruntingthorpe by two of their volunteer aircraft engineers when they visited our Nimrod at the Manchester Runway Visitor Park to exchange a faulty no.3 starter motor off the Bruntingthorpe Nimrod for the one on our aeroplane. We were happy to do this swap as unfortunately, our Nimrod’s engines will not run again so we won’t need a working starter motor.

Arriving at Bruntingthorpe at about 08:30am, before the crowds arrived, we were invited aboard their de Havilland Comet 'Canopus', which had been the last ever flying Comet. Unsurprisingly, Canopus’s flightdeck is similar to that of our Nimrod at Manchester, since the Nimrod is based on the Comet 4. We also had a good look around the only aeroplane that looks as though it might have been designed by Jules Verne; the Handley-Page Victor cold war bomber.

Bruntingthorpe's Handley-Page Victor cold war bomber

'Canopus', a de Havilland Comet 4C, and the last Comet to fly

Canopus's flight deck; not dissimilar to the Nimrod, unsurprisingly

The Nimrod; same as ours at the Runway Visitor Park except this one can still move under its own power

The ex-Royal Aircraft Establishment English Electric Canberra. Engine start uses cartridges (£100 each!); when the start button is pressed, there is a loud 'whizzing' sound and an arc of thick black smoke from atop the nacelle as the cartridge burns, spinning a turbine which is geared to the engine, rotating it to 'light-up' speed.

One of three resident 'working' Blackburn Buccaneers at the museum

There was some flying; aircraft passing by gave us a fly-by, including this dH Venom, which was accompanied by a Jet Provost

.....And one of a pair of Sea Kings who transited through the overhead.

The preserved Vulcan bomber, XH558, was there as well. It had flown in the previous day following an appearance at the Southend Air Show, and was due to fly out of Bruntingthorpe after the show to its new home at Finningly ('Robin Hood' Airport).

The English Electric 'Lightning' lights its re-heats... Wow! It's literally painful for a second or so as they kick in, and certainly cleared any ear-wax the spectators might be suffering! It set off a cacophony of car alarms among the spectators' cars (the Nimrod also managed this!). My ears' finer frequency response is knackered by decades of unsilenced Gipsy Major blattering in our Chipmunk so further ear damage not a consideration today for me!

The show began with the ex-Royal Aircraft Establishment English Electric Canberra in its blue, white and red colour scheme. Engine start uses cartridges which cost £100 each! When the start button is pressed there is a loud 'whizzing' sound and thick black smoke arcs from atop the nacelle as the cartridge burns, spinning a turbine which is geared to the engine, rotating it to 'light-up' speed.

The aeroplane powered off down the two-mile runway, bellowing angrily at the Leicestershire countryside. But instead of easing back the stick allowing the beast, pulsating with energy and potential, to soar up into its natural element, the throttles were closed after a few seconds and amid the dying whine of the engines the aeroplane was braked to a standstill on the runway. I wonder if it was only me who found this unconsummated dash a tad frustrating?

About ten or so historic jets from single-seat fighters to four-engined bombers made the same short dash throughout the afternoon, some of them several times. But the highlight of the show, and the display of sheer energy that made the day worthwhile for me, was the amazing English Electric 'Lightning'. Its two reheated Rolls Royce Avon engines set off a cacophony of car alarms among the spectators' cars as it powered down the runway, though it has to be said that the Nimrod also managed that.

The Lightning's engine start uses 'Avpin' (Iso Propyl Nitrate) to spin up the engine start turbine. It sounds like a blast of compressed air as it burns, followed by the building whine of the no.1 Rolls Royce Avon engine. Then it's repeated for no.2. With two enormous engines and a minimal single-seat airframe, not for nothing was this aeroplane known by RAF aircrew as 'The Frightening'. This one had its wheels chocked while it ran both engines up to deafening full 'dry' power for at least a minute. The nosewheel strut compressed fully under the phenomenal thrust of the two Avons and the sound approached the pain threshold as the pilot nudged the throttles up. The circular intake on the nose turning white with vapour around the centre 'bullet' fairing as the two engines sucked air at such a rate that the pressure reduction through the intake caused water vapour to condense out of the air.

Some spectators wore ear defenders, surely missing the entire point of this event which was all about glorying in the sheer anti-social gut-wrenching noise of these old jets. Mind you, my ears have suffered decades of unsilenced Gipsy Major blattering in our de Havilland Chipmunk so further ear damage was not such a consideration for me.

The Lightning’s power was reduced to idle, the chocks removed, and the power brought on again against the brakes, once again compressing the nose strut as the aeroplane bucked and rocked behind its battering wall of sound. The brakes were released and it leaped forward as full power was applied (the brakes won't hold full power - you need the wheels chocked or it'll just skid along, wheels locked). The sound out of the tailpipes was brutally physical, like tearing cloth but a million times louder. The ground shook, and my chest was pummelled.

But that was nothing to what came next. The re-heats were engaged as the pilot pushed the throttles past their 'full dry power' position, and forwards to the stop. Fuel poured into the tailpipes where it ignited with a loud 'pop' and the sound intensity changed note, deepening and increasing to the point of ear pain, too loud now to be perceived as sound; it was a violent brutal thumping of the air, ourselves and everything around. Thankfully it was short lived at this intensity as the aeroplane was fast disappearing down the runway, two bright orange flares, one above the other, in the tailpipes.

In the good old days when Lightnings were allowed to fly, that incredible display of raw power expressed as sound was followed by the aeroplane lifting off to just above the runway, flying level as the spindly undercarriage was retracted and the speed built up to about 300 knots, then the Lightning would rotate up to the vertical and climb straight up like a Saturn Five space rocket, reaching 60,000 feet (11 miles high) in about 2 minutes!

But not today. Such sights and sounds are denied us now and this Lightning simply throttled back from its full re-heat dash, and braked to a halt with the dieing whine of the Avons spooling down. Nonetheless, for me it was the highlight of today's show and it took me back to airshows of the 60s and 70s when that amazing vertical climb was always demonstrated - it was the Lightning's party trick as no other aeroplane had the power to weight ratio to achieve it.

Our ears were singing - I half expected them to be bleeding! It certainly clears any stubborn ear-wax!

It had been a strange day – an airshow with no flying. Bruntingthorpe show is a unique if somewhat frustrating event and I’m glad I experienced it. But next time, I think I’ll head for a show where the participants can leave the ground and revel in that three-dimensional freedom that is the epitome of flight.


Saturday, 28 May 2011

We get to know The Cotswolds

Neither Chris or myself knew the Cotswolds other than superficially, though we have visited on a couple of occasions, including attending a Gliding course at Nympsfield back in the glorious summer of 1976. I've driven through the area many times on the major roads, flown over it (including a couple of visits to Kemble Airfield), and I once stayed a week in Cirencester but that was for a work-related course so I saw little of the surrounding area. We had a notion of quaint villages built of honey-coloured stone, winding lanes, and rolling hills.

We now know it better, and it is even lovelier than we thought. Today we returned from five days based in Broadway visiting Claire, our elder daughter, who is now working there as a veterinary surgeon. Trip Advisor web site recommended The Windrush B&B in Broadway, and it couldn't have come up with a better choice. It was delightful - Darren and Anthony welcomed us as valued house guests, the room was comfortable, clean, and tastefully appointed (as was the rest of the house) and the B&B in general and Anthony's breakfasts in particular have rightfully won tourism awards. Very highly recommended; here is their website:

Chris enjoys tea and home-made cakes in the Garden of The Windrush on arrival
on Tuesday 24th May

Darren welcomed us with tea and home made cakes which we took in the garden in the sunshine. Claire arrived shortly afterwards to show us some of the stunning scenery and villages in the area. We set off up Snowshill out of Broadway, routed along the edge of the high ground, to a structure we had spied from afar as we had approached Broadway; Broadway Tower.

Broadway Tower, high on the Cotswold ridge above Broadway
and the Vale of Evesham

Looking out over the Vale of Evesham from Broadway Tower. Broadway village is at the base of the ridge behind the trees in the foreground. The hills in the far background are the Malverns, on the far side of the Severn. As ever, click twice on the picture for a full size image to see the detail.

The Broadway Hotel, by the village green

Broadway during the day is packed with tourists and coach parties. In the evening, they've all gone and the village is eerily quiet.

We, with Claire, ate at the 'Swan' in Broadway on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, a bright and sunny day, Claire and Chris went shopping in Broadway. I headed for the Gloucester Warwickshire Railway (GWR - not unintentionally the initials of the Great Western Railway) at Toddington, five miles south of Broadway.

Ignore the Scottish destination; this diesel railcar came from that area, but now resides on the GWR and on the day of my visit provided the service on the northern section of this bisected railway.

Last winter the GWR suffered an embankment collapse at Gotheringham. With help from their insurance company but still involving a lot of debt that collapse was repaired. Then, following the winter's appalling weather, a second embankment (Chicken Curve) north of Winchcombe collapsed. This time the damage was worse and there is no help from the insurance company. These collapses, together with the cancellation of all the railway's 'Santa Specials' because of the terrible weather, almost bankrupted the railway. Individuals have donated funds, volunteers provide free labour, and most amazing of all many other heritage railways have run and are running special events to raise funds for the struggling GWR. But as soil experts take core samples at Chicken Curve, the railway is divided into a northern section based on Toddington station, and a southern section from Winchcombe to Cheltenham Racecourse.

A 1950s diesel railcar runs the northern section, leaving Toddington station to travel south as far as Chicken Curve, then reversing back to Toddington before proceding north to Lavenham, which is as far as the northern extension of the line to Broadway and Honeybourne has got. Work on this extension (which might eventually reach the original end of this line at Stratford-on-Avon) has temporarily ceased due to lack of funds caused by the two embankment collapses. The railcar then returns to Toddington station.

I drove the few miles to Winchcombe station to sample the longer, southern section of the railway. This is steam-worked, and when I visited Stanier 8F locomotive 45160 was running services. This locomotive was built in 1940 by North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow, and shipped to Turkey. The Turks called them 'Churchills' after the British Prime Minister, and in 1989 the 'Churchill 8F Locomotive Company Limited' repatriated 45160 to UK and it was restored at GWR.

8F 45160 at Winchcombe

Detail of 45160's cab side plates

The 8F barks away from Winchcombe towards Greet tunnel

Beyond Greet tunnel the train slows to cross the still settling repaired embankment at Gotheringham. Once past here, the driver 'opened her up' and the pulsing pull of her two powerful cylinders could be felt in the train, in time to the crisp bark from her chimney.

About 20 minutes later we arrived at Cheltenham Racecourse station. Beyond the empty overflow car parks is the grandstand

45160 detaches from the train at Cheltenham Racecourse station to set back for water, before running around to the front of the train to work it back to Winchcombe. In the distance can be seen the disused section of line continuing into a tunnel towards Cheltenham Spa station. A very long term ambition of GWR is to restore the link to the main line at Cheltenham.

I made two return trips between Winchcombe and Cheltenham Racecourse (my ticket allowed unlimited travel all day), and had lunch on the train. A bacon barmcake and a bottle of this rather good beer hit the spot!

I returned to Toddington to have another ride up and down the northern section of the railway. In the car park there is this Science Museum-built replica 'Iron Duke', a 7 foot gauge Great Western locomotive.

That evening Claire drove us to the Beckford Inn south of Evesham where we enjoyed another super meal out.

Next morning (as forecast) dawned wet, and after another of Anthony's top quality breakfasts I called Claire; "is that the old git's taxi service?" I enquired. Shortly afterwards my phone rang; "taxi for the old gits outside now" said Claire. This being a wet day, we needed to do some 'indoor' sightseeing. First stop was Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe, where we met this guy....

Henry VIII at Sudeley

Most of Sudeley was destroyed in the Civil War; only the wing with Henry and some of his compatriots in it survives.

Chris and Claire stroll at Sudeley

The church at Sudeley

Storm cloud over the Sudeley gardens give some attractive light effects here

The Pheasant garden was home to quite a few of these guys and gals. Some of them even found their way up 90 feet or so to the tops of the trees

We headed back to Broadway for a light lunch. The 'high road' we took afforded this view down onto Winchcombe (double clicking on the picture to enlarge it will show it better).

Sudeley was OK, but there wasn't a lot there except mannequins, information boards, and some ruins. After lunch we headed up out of Broadway to Snowshill Manor, a national Trust property and as interesting and quirky as Sudeley had been predictable and bland. But first, on the way up Snowshill, we stopped off at this church for a look around.

St Eadburgha's church in Snowshill just above Broadway. Well worth a visit for its setting and basic but ancient interior.

The church's website puts it well:

St. Eadburgha's church is listed in Simon Jenkins book 'England’s Thousand Best Churches' and is described as a 'well mannered church which has turned its back on the famous village, as if appalled at its capitulation with tourism.'

From its position nestled neatly at the foot of Snowshill it may seem as though time stands still for this ancient church, now marooned from the village.

Chris and Claire in St Eadburgha's churchyard

Not far up the road we came to Snowshill Manor. This National Trust property is not the usual country house and garden NT combination. It was the home of an eccentric 'collector', Charles Wade, and still contains his collection of mostly far eastern exotic furniture, chests, suits of armour etc.

The manor was owned by Winchcombe Abbey from 821 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. It then passed to the Crown, and was given as a gift to Katherine Parr, wife to King Henry VIII.

Since then, many alterations and additions have been made by the house's many owners and tenants. By 1919, the manor was a semi-derelict farm. It was bought and restored by Charles Paget Wade. Ironically the neglect that the house had suffered from was exactly what attracted Wade. A house with no modern additions or alterations was the ideal place to display his historic and unique collection. He insited on candle light rather than electric light to display his artefacts, and the Trust have continued this with use of low light (electric these days) both to preserve the delicate coulous of the collection and to present it as Wade intended.

Wade and his wife lived modestly in a cottage beside the manor, the Manor itself being reserved for his collections and for entertaining.

Snowshill Manor

Part of the garden at Snowshill

Claire drove us back to The Windrush then returned home to Evesham as Dave, her boyfriend, was driving across to join us. Later they both arrived to taxy the 'old gits' to The Kings Hotel in Chipping Campden. There, the four of us enjoyed the best meal of the holiday - fine dining in fine style.

The following day was the last we'd be together and we decided to spend it at The Cotswold Farm Park, or as BBC 'Countryfile' viewers will know it; 'Adam's farm'.

Claire and Chris at the Cotswold Farm Park admiring some of the many rare breeds of farm animal on display here

Kune Kune sow with piglets

The man himself; Adam Henson, star of 'Adam's Farm' on BBC TV 'Countryfile' and proprietor of the Cotswold Farm Park

Mother duck and family

By mid afternoon we'd explored the Cotswold Farm Park and returned to our favourite tea room in Broadway, Tisanes, for some Ceylon tea (for me - the others had their own pot of choice from the many available). Having had only a sandwich at lunchtime we were a bit naughty and enjoyed something from the Tisanes sweet cabinet (lemon meringue pie for me!).

We were invited to eat at Claire and Dave's house, so they went home to get the meal ready and after some last minute shopping we returned to the Windrush before driving over to the house at Evesham. The meal was delightful, and afterwards Claire produced something called a Wii. Was this some strange Geordie invention (I though it was pronounced 'why-eye')? Apparently not. It goes by the unlikely pronunciation of 'wee' (are they serious? why didn't they go the whole hog and just call it a 'p*ss', which must be what they are taking?). It is a computer game system. I was quite good at 10-pin bowls, rubbish at archery, and didn't bother with golf. It does have a 'flight simulator' but this involves nothing more than pretending the control console is an aeroplane and 'flying' it around. The on-screen aeroplane image just does whatever you do with the console.

The system's complex modelling of the golf game, and ludicrously simple (let's face it, they didn't even bother to be serious) flight sim tells me that a Wee is not for me!

We bade Claire and Dave goodbye, and next morning after the last of the Windrush's excellent breakfasts, we had a look at an arts and crafts show in Broadway Village Hall before hitting the road for home.

The Cotswolds are lovely. Perhaps too lovely? One can have a surfeit of honey-coloured stone and idyllic villages set in a postcard-landscape. But I think I could get used to it!


Thursday, 19 May 2011

First flight from our aeroplane's new home....

Our dH Chipmunk has been hangared at Keenair at Liverpool John Lennon for a few years now, but following her annual maintenance earlier this year she was moved into the care of Ravenair at the other end of the apron at John Lennon. The reason for the move was brought about by increased security on the General Aviation apron; high anti-terrorist fences with CCTV-controlled electrically locked and unlocked gates have been installed and any individuals who wish to access the apron have to have an airside pass, which is very expensive and quite inappropriate for the sort of limited flying we do.

The way around this is for our handling organisation to allow us through the gates, effectively 'signing' for us to have access to the apron under their authority. This means, of course, that they have to be there when we require such access. Keenair are a nine-to-five operation (often less at weekends) so would probably not be on site to allow us off the apron when we have 'put the aeroplane to bed' following flight and needing to leave the apron. Ravenair operate eight-to-eight, which should cover our requirements.

Our Chipmunk, G-BCSL, on the John Lennon GA apron this morning

Today was my first flight from Ravenair and I was off to Sleap, near Wem in Shropshire, to renew my passenger carrying qualification by doing three landings (to carry passengers a pilot must have carried out three landings in the previous ninety days), and for a spot of lunch. But the aeroplane had somehow missed the Esso refuelling tanker on its grounds this morning. The arrangement is that the aeroplane is wheeled out of the hangar when Ravenair open up their hangar, and it should then get fuelled by Esso on their rounds of the apron. I don't know why Esso missed it, but it took me about half an hour this morning to get them to come back round and fill her up.

I was soon on my way, despite Air Traffic not having received my booking-out details which Ravenair ops had entered on their computer. No matter; the Controller took the details over the air and I was cleared to line up and take off, Runway 27, with a left turnout.

This strange whale-shape in the sky is the Airbus Beluga transport aircraft, inbound from Toulouse to Hawarden as it passes through the Liverpool overhead. It will collect Airbus wings from the North Wales factory and transport them to the production line at Airbus Toulouse.

Soon after take off Chester sweeps under the right wing with the Dee estuary in the background as I leave the Liverpool Zone and head down over the Peckforton Hills into Shropshire. As with all pictures in the blog, click twice on it for a full-size image.

About twenty minutes after take off, Sleap airfield comes into view. It was built in WW2 for bomber crew training (again, click on it twice for a full-size image to see Sleap clearly).

I do a 'centreline join' overhead Sleap. The town of Wem is visible behind the left wing.

Sierra Lima viewed from the balcony outside the cafe in the old Control Tower at Sleap. Lunch at Sleap was well up to usual standard.

Ready for the off! On take off from Sleap I flew a circuit and landing before finally departing en-route. This gave me three landings - two at Sleap and the final one back at John Lennon - which makes me legal to carry passengers again (to do so, a pilot must have flown three landings in the last ninety days).

A low-level run home across Shropshire included a look at Rednal Airfield, near Oswestry, above.

Liverpool Approach was busy when I called them for re-join to John Lennon, but professional as ever they cleared me from the Zone boundary at Oulton Park to Helsby, then after half a revolution of a holding orbit south of the Mersey they cleared me to left base (an immediate steep right turn out of the left orbit ensured I took full advantage of this approach opportunity!) slotted me in nicely behind a preceding light aircraft and an Easy Jet Boeing on a visual approach.

Well done chaps!


Sunday, 15 May 2011

First day firing 'Agecroft No.1' at MoSI

Since before I joined the railway at the Museum of Science & Industry (MoSI) in Manchester 'Agecroft No.1', a Robert Stephenson 0-4-0 saddle tank engine built in 1948 that used to haul coal from Agecroft pit to Agecroft power station, has been under restoration. She was steamed a few weeks ago and first ran last month; today was my first rostered turn firing her.

'Agecroft No.1' on the pit at MoSI getting up steam this morning

Agecroft's cab. Until I get steam pressure and can use the blower to draw the fire, evil thick smoke frequently fills the cab from the ill-fitting fire hole doors when the wind blows the wrong way.

It takes around three hours to raise steam from cold on Agecroft, about the same as it does on Planet, the replica 1830 locomotive I have fired up to now on this railway. One advantage Agecroft has over Planet on what turned into a very wet day, is that the former has an enclosed cab. What a stroke of luck that the first really wet day in a while on the MoSI railway coincided with my first firing of Agecroft!

Once we have 'first pressure' (which is usually after about an hour) I can use the blower, which directs steam up the chimney from below, drawing the fire and sucking any smoke forwards instead of it drifting back into the cab.

With 'full pressure' of steam (about 140 psi - she blows off at 160) we can commence passenger services. The ex-BR coach will not negotiate the sharp curve on our 'Pineapple' line so with Agecroft each run is from the station to the far end of the site (just over the Irwell into Salford) and back - twice. With Planet and her two replica vintage 4-wheel coaches we normally reverse from the Salford end down the 'Pineapple Line' (adjacent to Granada Studios), then run back to the station, reversing again at the Salford stop (so a 'Y' shaped journey).

Agecroft passes the Power Hall on her way to Salford. Her train comprises an ex-BR suburban compartment coach (hired-in from the Llangollan Railway) and a brake van for the guard.

The view from Agecroft's cab at the Salford end of the site. The Network Rail Manchester South Junction line from Deansgate to Salford Crescent is on the left, while the locked gates ahead are across MoSI's link to the main line. We will reverse from here back to the station, but when working with Planet and her train, we would reverse from here down the 'Pineapple Line' which diverges behind us to the north and runs alongside Granada Studios, then retrace our route back to the station.

Agecroft has a vacuum brake to brake her train, unlike Planet's air brake. This means the ejector which creates the vacuum to keep the brakes off has to be 'on' the whole time the train is running, which uses quite a lot of steam and therefore coal. This, together with her generally larger boiler and firebox means that she needs a fair bit more work with the shovel than does Planet.

Finally, here's a short video of Stuart driving (and banging his head!) as we reverse at the Salford end of the line and set off backwards to the station:

He puts the loco into reverse gear, gets the 'right away' from the guard, toots the whistle, and very gingerly opens the regulator. As Agecroft starts to creep backwards, he leans out to check when she is fully buffered-up to the train before opening the regulator further before notching the valve gear up to the next setting. That continuous hissing sound, by the way, is not the loco blowing off; she wasn't. It's the very noisy live steam ejector which uses a lot of steam to generate the vacuum required to keep the brakes off.