Chinook Display Captain Interview 2009
Talk to almost any airshow attendee about their favourite performers and it's rather unusual to find one that doesn't rate the Chinook display as being right up there with the best. It's such a big helicopter, with such an imposing sound, that continually performs manoeuvres which to the logical part of the brain seem impossible! With the type currently deployed in Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK duties, the display flying responsibilities are split in two, with one crew flying the first half of the season, and another flying the second. The distinction of holding the Chinook Display Team captaincy for the second half of the 2008 airshow season fell to 18(B)Sqn's Standards Pilot, Flt Lt Russ Norman.
spoke to him about how the season went and the plans for 2009. Words by the author. Photography as credited.
The Chinook is currently deployed in Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK duties. As a consequence the display flying responsibilities are split in two, with one crew flying the first half of the season, and another flying the second.
Performing the honours in the first part of the 2008 season was Flt Lt Rich Simpson who was later replaced by Flt Lt Russ Norman. I question Russ about what's involved with the initial planning stages.
"As last season was my first with the team, and I was away for the first few months of the year in Afghanistan, I'm not sure what the entire planning process involves yet. That said, I do know that the Station Commander has written to Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) highlighting his intent to display again in 2009, so hopefully we'll get the initial approval through soon!
"Assuming we receive it (approval) the crew will be decided early in 2009, once those interested in taking part have had chance to nominate themselves. They will have to have approval from their Flight Commander to take part, and be available for the majority of the summer - something that restricts many potential co-pilots or crewmen given the frequency of operational detachments and exercises. The groundcrew are provided by the Expeditionary Chinook Engineering Squadron (ExCES), and are allocated as required throughout the season."
It's clear that Norman loves to fly the aircraft and relishes a challenge, as he explains his motivation behind getting involved with the team.
"The Chinook is such a capable aircraft that it never fails to impress when displayed, and it's an absolute joy to fly. Each time my wife Rebecca and I saw the display in 2007 she asked me, "Could you do that?" I suspected that she didn't believe me when I said I thought I could, so I decided to prove her wrong!"
I wonder if we, as enthusiasts always appreciate the efforts required to bring the displays to the airshow circuit? Just how is the routine decided, and what processes need to be gone through in order to ensure it meets with the CAA's display regulations?
"The display is only limited by the imagination of the team and the aircraft Release to Service, which details the aircraft's limitations. The display must ultimately be flown in front of Commander JHC and gain his approval before it can be performed in front of the public.
"None of the 2008 routine required special permission to be sought. The guidelines that we're governed by allow pilots to put on great displays without compromising safety, which must always be the primary consideration. We are hoping to introduce new manoeuvres for the 2009 display.
"During our workup, each of the manoeuvres in the display will be flown separately, then in sections, before slowly being linked together into the full display. When ready the display will be flown in front of Commander JHC, who will hopefully sign the Display Flying Clearance Form! The display supervisor has an important role to play in ensuring that the workup is safe. He will always have previous experience of display flying - in 2008 I was lucky enough to be supervised by Sqn Ldr Dave Morgan, a vastly experienced and extremely capable Chinook pilot. The "Morgan Turn" was one of the most popular parts of the 2008 display!"
I ask about the requirements in maintaining display currency during the season, particularly in such a stop-start year as 2008 was.
"To be allowed to display in front of the public the pilot must have flown either another public display or a practice within the last eight days. In addition to this the display must be flown in front of the supervisor at least once every 30 days.
"By the end of the season the team had completed over 20 public displays, as well as several others at military events. There would have been quite a few more if the weather had allowed at Fairford, Sunderland and Culdrose!"
The Chinook Display Team performed additional roles on several occasions during the 2008 season. With the RAF unable to provide a Hercules for the display circuit, the Chinook regularly acted as jump platform for the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team, as well as playing an active role in the now defunct RAF Role Demo. Flt Lt Norman explains the extra considerations and requirements that go with these tasks.
"Working as a jump platform for the Falcons requires a second crewman, whereas when we do the solo display we fly with only one. This means we have to plan the display schedule to allow for one of the crewmen to get off, and explains why we had to land on the beach after the Falcons drop at Jersey to drop off a crewman! The RAF Role Demo requires a separate display approval, and particularly close co-ordination between ourselves and the Army Air Corps Apache. It's great to be able to display with the Apache, as it's a fantastic aircraft, and the Role Demo is a good reflection of how closely we work together on operations."
Because of Russ's role as 18(B)Sqn's Standards Pilot, it was important that the display flying didn't have much of a negative impact on his day-to-day responsibilities.
"I'd say that the captaincy resulted in working longer hours during the week as well as weekends, in order to make sure that my normal duties and flying didn't suffer, however the extra effort was all worth it given the reception and feedback we received at the airshows.
"I really enjoyed getting to chat to the public, answering questions, explaining the capabilities of the Chinook and describing how the RAF is currently employed around the world. We tried our best to have the aircraft open to the public as often as we could, which was well received.
"As good a year as it was, there were plenty of frustrations caused by the British summer!"
It's easy to forget that without the many volunteers involved, none of the displays we're fortunate to witness, particularly in these times of extremely strained resources, would happen. Given what he knows now, I wonder if he'd have volunteered his services to begin with?
"Being the display captain did take more of my time and effort than I had expected, however it was extremely rewarding and I'm looking forward to doing it again in 2009!"