This is an expanded version of a post I put on Miss Demeanour’s Facebook page.
Following ill-informed comments and inappropriate speculation by self-call experts on display flying and Hunters in particular, I’m breaking cover from media calls and emails to me.
What follows must be read in the context that on Saturday 22nd August 2015 an aircraft crashed and not beyond that. I would have written almost the same words if the pilot had walked away from something other than a normal landing and no one had been injured, fatally or otherwise.
The AAIB will take what time is necessary to gather all relevant and perhaps what others might think irrelevant information, before even starting to piece together events. Only then will they go on to draw conclusions. Following that, they will undoubtedly make recommendations in the wake of their enquiry.
In the following I have used the expression “they will” but it is only my assumption of would seem logical, so take it as “they PROBABLY will”.
The AAIB will look at the operator’s Organisational Control Manual, (OCM) which sets out how an organisation operates its aircraft. (At the end of this post, you’ll see the sections in the OCM for Miss Demeanour.) They will look at the maintenance records, the After Flight and Before Flight (AF/BF) records which will show amongst other things, the pre-start fuel state, oxygen levels, Anti-G system nitrogen gas levels, etc. The Flight Authorisation sheet will show the details of the planned flight, such as where the pilot intended to land after displaying. They will rebuild his planned flight as if they were flight planning it themselves. I would hope they would use an experience Hunter display pilot to do this, someone not connected to the organisation. They will listen to the chain of radio communications from the departure airfield to starting his display. Just listening to what is said and how it was said will be factors, ranging from absolutely normal to there being intimations of other factors at play. They will look at radar tracks alongside those communications. Tracking around London from North Weald is flying in some of the most congested areas in UK General Aviation. Everyone else is also “going around” London but at less than half the Hunter’s speed. They will analyse in great detail and probably develop a computer model of the display flight profile, from his positioning for the run in until moments after impact. This they can do using combinations of primary and secondary radar information together with photos and video from the general public. There is the possibility that any GPS in the aircraft will have recorded the flight profile. Nothing near a Flight Data Recorder but it could give track, speed and height information. They will look at everything they can which is external to the aircraft. Such factors such as visibility, birds or other aircraft that could have been in the pilot’s view. Anything that could have distracted the pilot or physically affected the aircraft. Photos and video of the jet exhaust, its heat haze etc can provide them with information. There will be things which even I haven’t thought of. They will look at the pilot’s log book and any video they can get showing his previous displays in Hunters. They will look at displays he has flown in other aircraft. They will talk to people regarding personal details, medical history, occupational flying and to his Display Authorisation Examiner, etc. They will interview other Hunter display pilots to get an understanding as to what we do and the different ways in which we might go about displaying. They might even present those pilots with the information they have gathered and ask for second by second comments. They will obviously want to interview the pilot himself as soon as he is medically fit to be interviewed. All this will take some months and cannot be rushed. They may come up with an interim finding if there is something that cannot wait for the full report.
The CAA also has to play its part by way of immediate and future actions. I cannot fault what they have done so far. As I write this is the status: No flights by Hunter aircraft. Vintage jet displays OVER LAND will be ….. “limited to flypasts, which means ‘high energy’ aerobatics will not be permitted.” They are actively reviewing air show safety.
That is the LEAST they could do. They might easily have applied the ruling to all aircraft over certain horsepower and weight, warbird or otherwise. They might even have stopped all air shows pending their review.
The UK has the Gold Standard when it comes to do with everything related to air shows. Every year, the CAA holds seminars for Display Pilots and seminars for Display Authorisation Examiners (DAEs) such as myself. It is compulsory for DAEs to attend at least two out of three seminars. Display organisers may also attend these seminars. The Military Aviation Authority (MAA) likewise holds annual seminars, to which civilian display pilots are welcome to attend. Senior officers from the MAA also attend the CAA seminars. Finally we have the British Air Display Association ( www.bada-uk.com) who bring together civilian operators and pilots, military senior officers and pilots and display organisers, not only from the UK but Europe. BADA also arrange seminars. Safety is always the foundation stone of all these gatherings. Apart from reviewing the previous year’s display activities and any incidents no matter how minor, safety procedures are reviewed both in terms of compliance and coverage. Whilst these events might have lectures on a wide range of air show aspects, they are also an interactive event where everyone can have an open discussion.
The British aviation community has been and continues to be world leaders when it comes to openness and examination of anything to do with aviation. Even the medical fraternity has taken lessons from this ability for introspection.
Comments about Hunters in general. I’m often asked if they are difficult to fly. The answer is absolutely not. As part of my flying training in the Fleet Air Arm, my first solo flight in a Hunter was at the age of 19. At the time I had a total of 194 hours in my log book and only nine flights dual in a Hunter. They are one of the most delightful and simple aircraft to fly. In the military, you routinely flew under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and in Instrument Meteorological Condition (IMC) and when you did, you could fly the Hunter with the stick held only between the thumb and two fingers, so light and responsive were the controls. IFR and IMC flight is not permitted by civilian Hunters despite them having full instrumentation to do so. Yes the aircraft is more demanding than a light aircraft because things happen more quickly. Their weight and speed also makes inertia a big factor compared to a light aircraft. From a systems aspect, you could lose all hydraulic and electrical supply (they have two generators and batteries) and fly safely to land. In a Hunter in the UK, a suitable runway is no more than ten minutes away. I would go so far as to say that the skill level required is not as great as flying a Spitfire. In a Spitfire or other big piston warbird, a pilot must have a definite feel for aircraft, an affinity for flying. I had flown the Hunter in question, G-BXFI many times. Jet Heritage Ltd carried out the civilianisation of G-BXFI while I was Managing Director and Chief Pilot of Jet Heritage Ltd. I carried out the test flights and went on to convert other civilian pilots on to the Hunter. Jet Heritage had already “civilianized” several Hunters prior to this, including my own single seat Hunter. Jet Heritage also invented the solid state electric start system for Hunters and other Avon engined aircraft.
With regards to the Hunter’s age, these aircraft are still be operated by civilian contractors providing the military with services for which the military do not want to tie up their own more costly assets. Before the Hunters were allowed in to civilian hands, the type’s service record was examined by the CAA to assess its reliability. It was and I believe still stands as the UK’s largest exported military aircraft and was revered by all countries and pilots who flew them. It’s Avon engine is regarded as one of the most robust engines ever built by Rolls Royce. It is still used by power stations for auxiliary power generation and the London Underground also used them, I think again as an auxiliary power source or something to do with ventilation. When I was in the Fleet Air Arm, we had a Rolls Royce engineer talk to us about the Phantom’s engine. He had also worked on Avons. I asked him how long could the engine run without oil pressure. I think his reply was something on the lines “we gave up try to find out after eight hours”. Hunters, along with all ex military jets, indeed all ex military aircraft, are maintained and inspected beyond that called for by normal aircraft. That is NOT because they need it. It is because those who have the responsibility for the rules of their operation but do not understand the aircraft in fine detail, will see the buck stopping with them. Their age is a positive aspect in that after 60 years of operations, there is a wealth of documented knowledge regarding the aircraft. I would go as far as saying, nothing goes wrong with a Hunter that is not already known about. By way of comparison, the Americans are still operating the Boeing B52 bomber after 60 years and plan to continue to until 2040. There are pilots flying the B52 who are grandchildren of B52 pilots! By the time they come out of service, there will great grandchildren flying them.
I will put on record here, that I and other EXPERIENCED Hunter pilots disagreed with the AAIB’s findings relating to the accident with the single seat Hunter G-HUNN at Dunsfold in 1998. That is another story but from what I have seen by way of the many videos and still photos of G-BXFI, utterly unrelated in any way to the G-BXFI accident.
There is a public outcry for “something to be done”. It is natural. The question is where is the line drawn? Accidents, at the most banal, it is not golf balls that kill people, it is the golfers who hit the ball. Why else do most Golf Clubs insist that their members have indemnity insurance? It must happen enough times that this is deemed necessary. It’s not cars and lorries that kill it’s the people driving. I am NOT saying pilot error, I’m saying that wherever there is an inanimate object under the control or lack of control by a human, accidents happen. Ban flying, driving and golf, problem solved. There will be lessons learnt and things will change. Whether there is an overreaction we will have to wait and see.
You will have been disappointed if you were expecting comments or views on what happened on Saturday. It is human nature to speculate but such speculation should not be made public where others might take it as gospel. It doesn’t help if that person’s speculation was based on the fact that they looked in their log book and saw they once flew a Hunter forty years ago.
What follows has been added since my Facebook post with the previous paragraph. I make it in light of the amount of video and photos available and from speaking to EXPERIENCED and CURRENT display pilots who witnessed the accident. I do not have the detailed information that will have been gathered by the AAIB which will have established speeds and heights amongst the plethora of other information.
There is a feature of the Hunter’s control column which is unusual (the Spitfire has the same feature) in that the control column (stick) is articulated. By that I mean that it has two joints. The first is at the base of the stick, which allows the stick to be moved forwards and backwards, controlling the pitch of the aircraft (nose up or down). The second joint is about half way up, which allows the top of the stick to move left and right, controlling the roll left or right. The grip at the top of the stick is also slightly cranked left for better ergonomics. The movement of the stick is something you get used to in the first 30 seconds and never notice any difference between that and any other aircraft after that. BUT it does have points to consider. The top of the stick has a white painted area and the instrument panel has a white dot painted on it. The reason being that in the military environment, intentional spinning was permitted. In the civilian environment, intentional stalling and spinning is not permitted. When spinning a Hunter, which I did many times while in the Fleet Air Arm, part of the recovery actions for an erect spin, is to move the stick forward to un-stall the wings. It is important to have the ailerons central otherwise the spin can be aggravated or recovery delayed. Therefor the procedure was to move the stick forward to meet the white spot, ensuring the ailerons were in a neutral position.
Now why have I mentioned this?
Let’s ASSUME for the purpose of examining POSSIBILITIES, that there were no external factors in the aircraft’s flight profile. I have mentioned how light the controls are in a Hunter. Unless attention is paid when pulling stick back, there can be a tendency to introduce some left aileron (causing the aircraft to roll to the left) simply because of the geometry of joints at your shoulder, elbow, wrist and the sticks aileron joint. Sit in a chair and imaging you are holding a stick in you right hand between your knees. If you concentrate on moving your HAND back towards your belly button, you will see that your right elbow has to move to the right or back and right. This will happen in a normally articulated stick but in a Hunter the result is magnified. This MIGHT explain the reason why the loop was skewed. I don’t believe for a minute a “1/4 clover loop” was intended, since that manoeuver is normally carried out by pausing in the vertical up, rolling through 90° before continuing the loop. If loop had not been skewed but still flown with the same entry dynamic, then a little more height would have been gained at the top, which may or may not have been sufficient to safely complete the loop but if insufficient, the aircraft would PROBABLY have impacted within the airfield boundary. In that event it is unlikely there would have been any third parties involved. That is why we have different regulations for the displaying of aircraft, depending on their performance (speed). Putting in crudely, how far the wreckage would reach in the event of a crash. When a display pilot practices his display manoeuvres, one of the many skills honed is the ability to enter a loop and come out exactly on the same line as the entry, even to the extent of taking in to account any cross wind that might displace the aircraft from its “still air” flight path.
Again, as in my previous post, my heart goes out to all the families and friends of those innocent people who were traumatised, injured or died as a result of the crash.
I have removed Heritage Aviation Developments OCM from here and put it on the website as a separate page.