RAF Brize Norton visit

One of the benefits of being a member of a Military Flying Club, is that occasionally we are invited to see things that normally we couldn’t. Before we left Lyneham, the Club’s ATC Liason arranged a visit to Air Traffic Control, and this evening Seb and Kev had arranged for a group of us to visit RAF Brize Norton.

This time we were to get a tour of a C-130J, and also to get a chance to fly the aircraft in the simulator used for training and evaluating RAF pilots. Naturally I jumped at the chance, and after a day somewhat disrupted by closure of the M4 and Luned not feeling great, I headed over to RAF Brize Norton in the evening.

It had been a while since I was last there (I left RAF Brize Norton Flying Club shortly after gaining my PPL in Summer 2008), but it felt strangely familiar making the drive over to the field (albeit in the dark for a change!).

On arrival, Seb was arranging passes for the visitors, and we chatted with Kev for a while while waiting for the last of the group to arrive. We then drove in convoy onto the base, following Seb for the start of the evening’s ‘entertainment’.

We split into two groups, with one group heading to the aircraft with Kev in a minibus, the other going into the sim with Seb. My first destination was the aircraft, and Kev drove us over to a C-130J parked on the apron, handily connected to external power.

First destination was (obviously!) the cockpit, where Kev powered up the aircraft and entered some basic details (time and date) into the aircraft’s navigation system. Once it had correctly determined our position, the screens began to come to life.

C-130J Cockpit

C-130J Cockpit

Kev talked us through the main differences between the older ‘K’ model, and the newer ‘J’ model. The main difference was that the ‘K’ cockpit was very much ‘traditional’ in terms of its equipment, and as such flew with a Flight Engineer to ‘keep an eye on the pilots’ (as Kev put it!). The newer model is much more automated, with glass screens replacing traditional instruments, and much more automation being available, enabling this aircraft to fly with just two pilots on board.

We were talked through some of the performance numbers of the aircraft, typical fuel burn of 2 tonnes an hour, with a typical cruise ceiling around 30,000 feet at around 0.5 Mach. Kev showed us how some of the screens could be reconfigured to show a wealth of different information, including demonstrating the aircraft’s HUD (Head Up Display), and talked a bit about his role as an Engineer on the type.

After that we had a quick look around the back of the aircraft, with Kev lowering the ramp so we could see what the view out of the back looked like. It was hard to imagine seeing that view when tearing along at low level at a rate of knots! After some more interesting information about the various roles the aircraft was used for, there was just time for a quick look around the outside of the aircraft, before it was time for us to return and for the groups to switch over.

Kev drove us back, and we chatted over drinks while waiting for Seb to be finished in the simulator. We talked about the new aircraft that have recently joined the Club’s fleet (which I’m yet to fly), while we waited (somewhat!) patiently for Seb to arrive and signal our turn in the simulator. We were surprised to see a photo of an attractive young lady in there, with the caption “Don’t call me Betty” (a reference to ‘Bitching Betty‘, the name given by pilots to the voice warnings in aircraft). This (it turned out) was the face behind the voice of the cockpit warnings we were all about to hear!

On our way to the simulator, we stopped off in a Conference Room, where Seb gave a short presentation showing the progression of an RAF pilot through flying light aircraft right up to low level sorties in the C-130. He also showed some of the wide and varied mission profiles that the C-130 is used for. It really is an incredibly versatile aircraft (seeing one land on and then take off from an Aircraft Carrier is truly impressive!) and one that it must be great fun (and challenging) to fly on a daily basis.

We walked into the simulator room, and Seb first of all showed us the two full motion simulators. One of these was in use (although very still so it must have just been in the cruise or something!), and the other was in the middle of an update by Sim Technicians. We were able to have a look in this one, and the visuals of the aircraft on the ground at RAF Valley were startlingly realistic. Seb talked to about how the simulators were used, with each pilot typically flying 3 sessions in the simulator every 3 months, including a revalidation style ‘test’ on the aircraft every year.

We then moved to the ‘static’ simulator, which has basically the same capabilities as the other two, with the exception of the configuration of the screens being a little different, with the P1 and P2 seats effectively having their own screen as opposed to the single continuous screen in the full motion sim (and the obvious lack of motion). The different screens meant the view wasn’t quite as realistic as the full motion sim, but (as we were to find out) the small limitations were soon forgotten once the action started!

The simulator was setup at the threshold of runway 31 at RAF Valley (a place I’d love to be able to fly into for real!), and Seb initially talked us through the basics of flying a circuit in the Hercules. Full power on the runway, rotate to 15 degrees nose up at 100 knots, before lowering the nose once clear of the ground to accelerate to 150 knots and climb to 1000 feet. Then a left turn onto downwind, followed by a 90 degree turn onto base leg, reducing speed to 140 knots. Once the speed is below 140 knots, select full flap, reducing the speed to the threshold speed of 115 knots, while lining up for the runway. Then it was a ‘simple’ matter of flaring the aircraft about 20 feet above the runway, reducing power to idle and landing. Easy!

Seb later clarified that due to time constraints (and the fact that we were all inexperienced C-130 pilots!) he had given us a simplified version of the takeoff procedure. The true procedure is to pitch up to around 10 degrees and bring the power back to maintain the required climb speed, rather than climbing at a higher pitch rate to keep speed below gear and flap limiting speeds as we had done.

Obviously nobody was in a great hurry to volunteer to be first, but Mark was closed to the P1 seat, so he sat down to take the first go. Seb acted as PNF (pilot not flying), setting the heading bug and target speed (that would appear in the HUD for Mark to follow) and managing the flaps. Mark headed off down the runway, rotating and climbing out at the appropriate speed. Seb engaged the auto-throttles for a while, before Mark elected to fly the remainder of the circuit manually. Downwind and Base legs went well, and Mark brought the aircraft in for a bouncy but acceptable landing.

I happened to be next closest to the seat, so the pressure was now on me to repeat the performance as PF (pilot flying). For the takeoff roll Seb again acted as PNF, and I think I managed a relatively good performance once I’d got used to the initial feel of the aircraft. Mark took over as PNF for the rest of the flight, and I flew a fairly tidy circuit (altitude and speed control being a little wayward but a passable performance), managing to get nicely aligned for the runway and at or close to target speed.

On climbout from runway 31 at RAF Valley

On climbout from runway 31 at RAF Valley

One thing I noticed when turning Downwind to Base (the first time I really applied any significant angle of bank) was the slight disorientation I felt at seeing realistic visuals without the accompanying motion cues that you would get when flying a real aircraft (or indeed one of the full motion simulators presumably).

Sadly the final part of the flight (the bit everyone remembers!) didn’t go quite as well, as I also bounced the initial landing, then failed to arrest the descent on the second touchdown. As a result I was rewarded by a big red splodge on the screens indicating that I’d crashed. Ah well, it took me something like 40 landings to learn to land a Warrior, so it’s early days yet!

The remainder of the group took their turn as PF, while I acted as PNF for a couple of the flights. In general the standard of the flying by the whole group was pretty good, all of us getting used to the unfamiliar handling of such a large aircraft and the amount of information displayed on the HUD in a fairly short time.

After everyone had their turn at flying a circuit, it was then time to make things a little more interesting! The advantage of using a simulator for training is that any number of failures can be introduced, without the risk of damage or injury. Seb briefed us on what to expect should an engine fail on takeoff, as well as the appropriate remedial action to be taken.

Again Mark went first, with Seb failing one of the outboard engines past V1 (the speed at which you will continue the takeoff should an engine failure occur). Mark continued the takeoff, and the amount of aileron and rudder input that was required to manage the asymmetric trust (despite the aircraft’s FADEC systems automatically reducing thrust on the opposite engine) was quite surprising. Mark did a good job, managing the initial excursion, and building enough speed for the opposite engine to again be spooled up automatically.

My turn now, and I had the advantage of having seen someone else’s attempt! During my takeoff roll, Seb simulated a tyre failure above V1, closely followed by an engine failure! I somewhat over-corrected, leading to Betty advising me of an excessive sideslip, and suggesting I apply opposite rudder. I did this, only for her then to warn me of excessive rudder in the direction of the failed engine, requiring another swift reversal of the controls! I finally got things under control (one of the differences with a heavy aircraft is the amount of inertia, meaning it is easy to get into an ever increasing serious of oscillations from stable flight) and got to the point where I could lower the nose and build up flying speed.

Mark grappling with a Number 1 engine failure

Mark grappling with a Number 1 engine failure

The remainder of the group took their turns, with the final pilot being treated to a whole gamut of failures, as Seb failed 1, 2, and then 3 engines. These failures were all handled well, but when Seb failed the fourth (and final!) engine all hydraulics were also lost, and there was little chance of a successful landing (despite Seb’s tongue in cheek suggestion of ‘flare’ as the aircraft descended towards the trees!).

Sadly, this brought our time in the simulator to an end, despite all of us agreeing that we would happily spend the entire night here. Both groups met up again in the kitchen for a last chat, where we all expressed our gratitude at being able to attend today. There is a chance that the format might be repeated soon, and if there is space available I’ll definitely try to attend again.

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