Sakhir, Bahrain 2022
During the last decade or so there came to aviation yet another new mantra in the form of a question: What are the threats? Sit in on any pilot briefing and you can bet that it’ll begin or end with this most pertinent of questions. How timely then came a threat challenging not just an individual, not just a crew, an airline or an entire industry, but everything! People who like buzzwords have called it an “existential” threat, and they use it at every opportunity.
Two and a half years on from the first whiff of a lockdown, the aviation industry is off ICU and well on the way to recovery; and this holds true for the air show sector too. So let’s zoom in a bit on the recovery process and look forward to November when four pilots and four engineers will literally coalesce at Heathrow’s terminal 4 to become the “Global Stars”again. They’re headed for the Kingdom of Bahrain for the first time since 2018.
With just a couple of shows in France this year they’ve not exactly been very global since Covid took hold in March 2020. And looking back to their last proper overseas expedition, little did they know on leaving Hyderabad with days to spare, just how much the world would change forever in the next two years, and then some thanks to Russian thuggery. The India shows gave the rare distinction of being the last UK pilots to display anywhere in the world before we were all locked in.
On this occasion the team’s chief engineer, Arunas, will travel from Lithuania to London first, in less time than it will take the Global Stars’ Northern contingent of Neil, Tom and Steve to leave base camp at junction 29 in Derbyshire to tackle the often formidable M1 motorway. In this part of North East Derbyshire the indigenous are often seen out and about, supermarket shopping in their slippers. Some of you will recall that for the Northern contingent the evening meal is “tea” because “dinner” is at lunchtime. This is irrefutably explained by former team member Tom Cassells, who points out that school meals were supervised by “dinner ladies” not lunch ladies, and you can’t argue with that!
Back to the M1, and its random speed limits, a symptom of medling masquerading as “Smart”. Around half-way down is the notorious stretch around Northampton that has seen many motorists simply give up the will to live, a bit like Michael Douglas in that film “Falling Down”. No one can remember when the roadworks began. Progress is glacially slow. There’s no end in sight. We might even think of a new road works metric based on Prime Ministers and their time in office. Of the 56 premiers since Robert Walpole in 1721 at least four have come and gone since the first concrete was poured. You can’t help think, that if this was China, they’d have it all sorted out in a long bank holiday weekend!
If you’re new to the Global Stars then you might well struggle at first to keep up with the Southern contingent as they leave Little Gransden for the A1. They are formation leader Mark and three Chris’s! Two of these Chris’s, Heames and Burkett are pilots and the other, Chris Jones is an engineer: affectionately known as “Junior”. For them the evening meal is not dinner: It’s “supper”.
Stick around long enough and you’ll also learn that a “black-un” is a welcome beverage consumed back at the hotel still looking tired and grubby before a shower and dressing for dinner/tea/supper.
They are the team, and on the 1st of November these eight ordinary looking blokes will be reunited in a busy airport terminal, looking lost and maybe a little out of place amongst the business types and holiday makers. They’re not on a golfing trip or travelling to see their football team at an away game. This mostly greying bunch are about to become the Global Stars again: Properly global. And, as you’ll see when they arrive in Bahrain, the whole will become, noticeably, greater than the sum of the parts.
Sat right next to the Formula one circuit in Bahrain and surrounded by desert, is the Sakhir air force base, home to the King’s impressive fleet of aircraft, and very big indeed. The three day international air show is held there biannually and organised by some very talented people from Farnborough. The line up this year will be impressive and truly international, with the UK represented by the Red Arrows, formally known as RAFAT, and our eight very modest looking individuals wandering around T4, one of whom has a long list for Duty-Free, chocolate and perfume, while another looks for a loo: An age thing.
Time to board the aircraft after an hour or so milling around in the shops. The Gulf Air flight to Bahrain’s main airport is a relatively short day time affair, time enough for a couple of films, or to get to grips with a good book: Time too for a glass of something nice with the in-flight service. The sky over Heathrow is in keeping with the season, a dark, damp, heavy pewter grey with scattered showers, and in complete contrast to the alien-like landscape that will be their home for nearly two weeks: Hot, dusty and dry.
As pilots and engineers they are also, in no small way, ambassadors for the United Kingdom. This is a privilege that carries with it the responsibility for our reputation abroad. Fair to say this reputation is currently in tatters, having been thoroughly trashed on all sides across the house by our less than savvy, less than self aware, less than statesman-like politicians in domestic and international affairs. There’s some ground to be made up then lads in the field of: How do others see us? For never has so much been owed to so many by so few. Apologies Winston.
On some previous expeditions the team have arrived at the hotel, dropped bags and headed straight to the airfield to sort out passes and maybe take a peep inside the containers. This trip will be a slightly more leisurely affair with time set aside to relax a little. That said, in a little over twenty four hours the team will be hard at work, hurrying in and out of two very large shipping containers fetching, carrying and reassembling the team’s four Extra 300. The golden rule here is one that’s known to every removals-man in the land: Never go anywhere empty handed, or at least don’t get caught!
The last time anyone looked inside the containers was in early September, just after the show at Gransden. Each one carries two aircraft, carefully and closely packed. In and around the aircraft is an array of tools and spares. Hopefully, nothing has moved, and it never has so far! Back in 2017 the team were in China for the World Formation Aerobatic Championships. The Australian team’s pilots were reduced to tears on seeing the inside of their container. The strapping down was a bit lax. A violent tropical storm during the sea crossing had left carnage on the inside of the container and an undercarriage leg was poking out through a hole it had worn in the side: some storm!
As the container doors are heaved open the task of reassembly feels briefly overpowering. Everything has to be unfastened by first slackening the many ratchet straps that criss cross their way towards the darkness at the back. Each piece, a wing, fuselage, tool box has then to be transferred to, and laid out in the marquee, prior to assembly. Hence the golden rule about carrying something with you wherever you go.
Each aircraft will be assembled by its engineer and pilot. After a couple of hours the tail end will begin to take shape, and the task doesn’t look quite so onerous from here on. Our four engineer and pilot teams will then ready the fuselage for the main event which, as you might expect, is the wing lift. There’s quite a lot to do prior to asking everyone to stop what they’re doing and join you in lifting the wing out of its frame, over the fuselage and lowering it down into position ready for the two main pins holding it firmly to the fuselage. This is definitely not the time to realise that you’ve forgotten to remove some widget or other, and now have your teammates standing around, hot and sweaty, while you look for a pair of 8mm spanners. Not endearing!
By the end of the first day the team will have what look like four aircraft, minus all the top bits of fuselage, canopy, fairings and so on. By mid-day the following day Arunas will do his final inspection so that everything else can then be screwed down or bolted on ready for engine runs and maybe even a test flight or two. So you see, don’t judge a book by its cover. Some people make things happen. Some watch things happen, and some say hey, what just happened? Back in the terminal, they were just a bunch of largely middle aged blokes, up to no good probably. Now look at them!
As day two draws to a close there’ll be some sort of routine, beginning with breakfast and the faff of getting everyone ready to leave the hotel at the same time. There’s usually someone who’s forgotten his pass, or needs to go back upstairs to the loo, or has a note from Matron. Some may even have sussed the lights in their room: Which switch does what, and how to get in and out of bed with the minimum of faff.
Four years have passed since the team was last in Bahrain, and one of the highlights in 2018 was the flypast in formation with a DHL 767. Several miles out over the desert, closing in on this Leviathan for the first time was profound, a bit like formatting on a small village or a shopping centre: The 767 is a very big aircraft! By day three, the feeling of awe was accompanied by a sense of routine. It was a busy week too, with little or no time to spare. On this occasion the organisers at Farnborough have built in a few extra days during which everyone can take a break and recharge a bit.
The team’s last show was at Gransden in August. There are six practice flights in the schedule, just enough to get up to speed. It’s not just a case of being current on paper, they’ll need to feel current too after a ten week break. A new routine will evolve, everyone pulling together with aircraft fuel, oil, smoke oil and cleaning. Pilots will attend a daily briefing at around 10:00, sorting out the order of events for the day, any special requests or notices to crew. Then it’s a case of pacing yourself, keeping hydrated and being ready to go at a moment’s notice.
The three display days begin on the 9th and will consist of four-ship, solo and twilight pyro shows. This makes for quite a long day, not forgetting all the additional preparation required for the wing-tip mounted pyrotechnics. No sooner has it started though, it will all be over again for another two years. At this point it’s a case of playing the film backwards. Disassembly is fairly straightforward and will be completed in just one day. The most vital part of the operation being to secure everything back down again in the containers for the journey home. Fair to say that this process requires a skill that is possessed by just a few high priests of the ratchet strap.
Then, one more night in the hotel, a late meal, bags packed for the flight back home. The food will have been excellent during the stay, but after a while there’s always a craving for something simpler: Fish pie maybe, or sausage and mash, garden peas and onion gravy!
Within a few days memories of those long hot days in a desert will begin to fade. Right now, looking at the horizon from Flight level 350, you could be almost anywhere on the planet. The light is a blinding bright white, into dark blue. Heading West towards Europe, there’ll be a hint, just a suggestion of green now and then before complete cloud cover. Initial descent comes with a slight change in the cabin soundscape, and slowly but surely, that heavy overcast comes up, looking increasingly formidable. And all with no sense of forward speed at all. Einstein was right, Newton wrong: absolute rest, absolute motion are just phantoms, convincing nevertheless.
Final descent comes along the Thames estuary for the Lambourne arrival into Heathrow, with maybe once or twice around the hold. There’s a moment, little more than a moment, when our colossal speed is very real indeed. A sudden rush through the cloud tops, as our familiar blue and white are snuffed out, replaced by grey, getting darker and more grey as the track miles countdown to touchdown on 27R. Straight in then, no holding, thanks to flow control and a speed restriction that probably began way back over Germany over an hour ago.
Just under two weeks away, and even in the grey light of an afternoon in November, all that green comes as a striking contrast to the landscape around Sakhir and the grand prix circuit over there on the horizon. Six miles out, gear down and another stage of flap. Down there, Londoners and tourists make their way home or back to a hotel, cold, damp and probably more than a little weary. It gets late very early at this time of year: Dark by four thirty! Welcome home to 53 degrees North and nought West: The Goldilocks lat’ and long’ perhaps? Seasonal weather, sometimes all four seasons in one short day. Some like it, some don’t. Takes some beating though, don’t you think?