“Prepare for the mirror……..Rolling in three, two, one” At three hundred feet and around 170 knots, just kissing the 150 metre line at the runway’s edge, Mark leads the Extras from crowd right toward crowd centre. On hearing “three” Steve slides back a few feet, and on hearing “one” powers forward again as Mark rolls inverted. The transition from erect to inverted is always impressive when it’s in your face, and at the same time appears to be effortless; but a half roll that doesn’t sink, climb or tramp sideways, scaring your partner half to death is borne of many years in competition and display. Closing the gap to sit underneath Mark takes longer than it might, a reminder that we’re 5000 miles from home at an elevation of 4500 feet with an outside air temperature that hovers around 30 degrees Celcius: We are in Anshun, China, and right now the Extras perform as they would do back home at 8000 feet! This is day seven of flying, the final day of the Air Show. We left an England unaccustomed to prolonged dry weather just as thunderstorms arrived there ten days ago.
Markham Moor Services is on the A1 just South of Retford. Engineer Keith Taylor arrived there from Billingham to pick up Steve before heading off to meet Mark at Little Gransden. From Sandy our three were relieved to hear that their train would deliver them to Gatwick to meet Flying Display Director Mike, “Air Boss,” without a change in central London. Thunderstorms en-route delayed Air China’s 2230 departure, resulting in a missed connection for the internal flight that would put them within a 90 minute-taxi ride to the hotel: Total elapsed time, a little over thirty hours of travel.
A Global Stars’ expedition to the far side of the world requires a certain amount of stamina, and sometimes this means going straight to the airfield to start the rebuild. On this occasion, and as it’s gone midnight, the team decide to meet up with engineer Arunas at 0900 local. Arunas lives in Lithuania, travelled via Copenhagen and is nothing sort of a genius!
The rebuild of just two of the team’s aircraft, an Extra 300 and a 300L takes just over a day. The two pilots and engineers have probably visualised the process over and over again during the long flight. A 10 mm socket and spanner for this job, a pair of 8 mills for that one…..Finally the time came to run the engines. With a density altitude like this, a metering unit set up for sea level needs some tinkering with to find a mixture that will keep the engine running smoothly, rather than like a bag of old spanners. With his hearing so finely tuned to mechanical harmony, Arunas reminds us of the cartoon dog in the film “Aristocats” who identifies the motor cycle ridden by the arch villain as he approaches: With one ear raised, and in a deep Southern drawl he confirms that “It’s a two-cylinder chain wheel drive, with one squeakywheel!” Finally, mixtures set, and approval from Mike, the Extras are flight tested. Normally a take-off on hard is very impressive, albeit briefly, as the aircraft literally bound into the air like the proverbial scorched cat. Not so on this occasion, no Sir! Acceleration is glacial, and a quick glance inside reveals that the ASI needle appears to be stuck on 60! A little later-on in the afternoon, both machines lift, skip, and settle down again briefly before finally summoning the enthusiasm to stay airborne. Climb out is distinctly unimpressive. Mark takes one end of the performance area, the East, while Steve heads West for the catharsis which is a shake down to see what’s available. This is nothing new to Mark, he came here last year, and he’s soon reminded of the job of leader, to fly the formation with care and a fine touch, as you would a big old heavy aeroplane.
With performance in mind, Mark and Steve have put together a display sequence that is frugal, though no less dramatic. With only 23 inches or so of Manifold Power available, you cannot spend too long at speeds greater than the maximum straight and level speed of the aircraft. You can’t pull too hard either, and display smoke should be used carefully as this reduces the power available slightly. To ignore this advice, like that given by Mr Micawber to David Copperfield will result in your sequence running aground or at worst coming to a sudden halt.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen-nineteen, six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery…In Short you are for ever floored. As I am” (Wilkins Micawber)
There are two teams from Australia with a variety of Pitts, Extra, Yak and Sukhoi aircraft, the Wing Walkers from the UK, and The Italian Pioneer Team. Each team has a marquee in which to rig and maintain their aeroplanes, and finally de-rig for the journey home. The Global Stars share a marquee with their old friends the Wing walkers. An extra few pairs of hands is always welcome when it comes to lifting wings on and off; and every now and then one team will have a tool or a widget that the other one needs to borrow. Everyone travels to and from the hotel, some twenty-five minutes, or occasionally fifty minutes away when the city traffic builds up. The hotel is better than some the teams have stayed in; and food service is the usual buffet, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or that old chestnut dinner/ tea/ supper, (delete as appropriate). This kind of service suits many of the engineers and pilots who just want a bit of peace and quiet at the end of a long day, rather than the well intentioned, though sometimes unwelcome hospitality of our hosts.
Show days began with a briefing from Display Director Mike. One of the few times that you might hear the phrase Power Point and manage to avoid self-harm. Mike sits in that rare section of the Venn Diagram, the overlap of confidence, competence, likeable and generally being very nice! Next, comes the herding of cats onto the coach. This one looks as though it’s been around the block a few times, the sort that can conjure up sensations and smells familiar from school trips, upholstery, dust, diesel and sick. The driver treats the gears in an egalitarian fashion, sometimes flirting with reverse as we edge forwards through the traffic. Arrival at the airfield is a mixed affair. On day one we gained access through the main airport terminal. There was talk of demolishing a large wall close to the marquees so that we could speed things up a bit. Sure enough, the following day, this not so great wall in China was little more than a big pile of rubble that lay between us and the charade that was the security check.
Aircraft are then pulled out, refuelled, cleaned and made to look beautiful. An event like Anshun is a great opportunity to offer and receive peer review, something that is now lacking back home with the advent of so many seaside events in which the participants often never meet and chat.
The days are long, and taking care of yourself is vital, keeping hydrated and fed are top of the list. The Global Stars have a particularly long day as we are the last item in the evening session, taking off after sunset for our, by now, celebrated pyro display. Pyro shows require some additional vigilance in low light levels especially when they’re off airfield. Here we have the luxury of a well-lit runway beneath us, and should anything untoward occur, a blocked injector for instance, then we can land on in no time at all. On this occasion the team have the latest addition to the six tip mounted pyros: large Roman Candle pyros mounted in place of the spats. This is our thirty second finale! The aircraft are flown more widely spaced during a pyro show for obvious reasons. On completion a standard curving approach is flown to touch down; after which a long taxi back sees our engineers with torches lead the aeroplanes back to the marquees for a once over, and to remove any smouldering remnants. Then it’s back to the coach for more grinding of gears and torture courtesy of poor suspension and uneven roads. A “black-un” some-times follows soon after arrival. This is Northern slang for a beer before scrubbing up for dinner, tea, supper.
All good things come to an end; and after seven days of practice and displays, sometimes flying three times in the day, we are all ready for the journey home. Time now to play the film backwards as the aeroplanes must be de-rigged, packed two to a container and ratcheted firmly to the walls and floor. This is a job for the high priests of packing. The containers will be bounced mercilessly in their journey home or to the next display, so those ratchets must be positioned with skill and tightened carefully. We managed to complete the task in one long day, allowing ourselves a quiet day in preparation for the journey to a new hotel closer to the airport.
Our last day began at around 04:45. A short journey by minibus to the airport for the flight to Beijing. An hour or so in to the three-hour flight we were told that we’d be diverting to somewhere unpronounceable due to weather: Oh dear! A little later, with thunderstorms long departed, we landed at Beijing later than advertised eating slightly into our four-hour stop over. Finally, after an hour’s delay we began our westward race ahead of the night for the eleven and a half hours it took to fly home. At Northern latitudes, and with a very northerly component, this is quite easily achieved. Finally, Heathrow via the Lambourne Arrival, then it’s immigration, bags, goodbye Mike, M25, A1, Little Gransden for coffee and cheese on toast, goodbye Mark, A1 again and road closures with no prior-warning: “smart motorways!” Markham-Moor truck park. Steve heads for Derbyshire and Keith continues North into more bloody road closures! Until next time.