Pilot profile From Harrier to Warbirds

Following a number of aircraft profiles, including warbirds and supersonic jets, the one thing we’ve not actually got into, is the pilot! I think it’s not unreasonable to say that some of these aircraft ‘demand’ a certain type of pilot at the controls. Whether it’s managing 2,500 hp from a Sea Fury, or pressing against the shockwave of Mach 1 in a jet – some specialist training is needed in order to pilot these amazing aircraft. But what kind of training, what kind of background? Let’s take a look!

Jamie Chalkley  |  08th March 2023
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    Jamie Chalkley
    Jamie Chalkley

    Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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    Pilot profile From Harrier to Warbirds


    Lighting the wick 

    Our unsuspecting interviewee is Andy Durston. I say unsuspecting because he only came round for a curry and a catch up but left 5 hours later having been talked into sharing his fascinating background of flying. So mid first papadum, I asked him where it all started!? 

    “I have two distinct and long lasting impressions that I believe were the inspiration that lit the long burning candle within. The first was all the way back in primary school at the age of 7 when my dad (a Navy helicopter pilot) had coordinated a visit in his Lynx to my school. At the age of 7 it feels like a big deal when your parents come in to meet the teacher, it’s that x 100 when they come to meet the whole school and arrive in a Lynx! The second was a few years later on a trip to the USA. I was beyond excited to be allowed up on the flight deck of a 747 halfway across the Atlantic. That was back in the day when passenger visits were commonplace. The captain generously gave his time and talked about his experience and background in flying. I was lucky enough to be up there during a couple of course changes and was in awe at how easily he guided this great bird. So these two events were impressionable moments. And I guess that was that; I wanted more! 

    Andy’s flying career first took root when he was awarded an RAF flying scholarship at the age of 17, when at the time he didn’t even have a provisional driving licence! The scholarship granted him 20 hours flying toward a Private Pilot’s Licence at Manston Airport. A second scholarship (RAF Sixth Form Scholarship) helped with financial support to finish the course and Andy gained his wings in a Cessna 152. 

    Having got to grips with the Cessna, Andy was lucky enough to find a friendly group who owned a Piper PA-28. He started building some hours and also started gliding at Lee on Solent. In 2001 he joined the University Air Squadron (UAS) and through them, completed a 90 hour military flying course (RAF Elementary Flight Training) in a Grob 115E Tutor. This unlocked his discovery into aerobatics and close formation flying. With a thirst for more aerobatics, Andy found himself owning a share in a Yak-52. He was also advancing through the gliding fraternity taking part in gliding competitions and in gaining an instructor qualification. He took up the opportunity to help others aloft by piloting the tow plane.

     Andy’s flying skills and aptitude for aviation were endorsed by the instructors at Southampton UAS and he was put forward with a recommendation for fast jet training. In 2005, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Royal Navy and upon completion of their Elementary Flying Training course he was “streamed” for a fast jet course. Andy was now entering the elite, and whilst that sounds like a great intro for Top Gun 3, the reality was not breezing in and out of navy bars singing “you’ve lost that loving feeling” but an almost incomprehensible amount of hard work, dedication and pressure. Flying at the “hard deck” is.... hard, very hard! 

    Fast Jet 

    On qualifying from the Royal Navy Elementary Flying Training course, comprising of 60 hours in a Slingsby T67 Firefly, Andy progressed at the front of the class and was posted to fly the Tucano. This was now a hard and steep learning curve with the Tucano flying at over twice the speed of the Firefly, not to mention there was a huge power step. It’s fair to say from there on, each step in the program was a mighty one. Andy completed around 170 hours of intense military training in the Tucano including high energy aerobatics, formation flying, an introduction to low level navigation, Instrument flying and inverted spinning! 

    On graduation of the Tucano course, he was awarded his Navy flying wings, but there wasn’t much time to enjoy the success of having some new gold embroidery on the sleeves of his uniform, for those that graduated, were moved swiftly on to the Hawk T1. 

    Back to the present day, we progress from papadum to peshwari naan, I find myself hanging off every word Andy says, but I’m so eager to hear about hovering the Harrier I want to egg him on. But we still have the Mach Loop to do in a Hawk back in the past, and a Byrani to do in the present. So I must be patient. 

    “The Hawk training program kind of happens in two stages, the first is how to fly a fast jet. During this time, you spend time redoing much of the Tucano syllabus, but now about 420 kts. Then there is the second stage, this moves on from simply flying the jet and gets into using it as a weapons platform. Training includes the use of weapons, air combat and evasive manoeuvring, bombing, strafing and tactical high speed low level flight. 

    Once more Andy passed the course achieving high standards throughout (or as far as Andy’s overly modest demeanour allows, in his words, he “satisfactorily progressed”). In between each of the courses there was a significant delay before a place was available on the next. This offered an opportunity to join the Navy’s support squadron, flying hawks to facilitate training for other units. Tasking included anti-aircraft weapons training onboard ships, providing aircraft for Fighter Controllers and occasionally providing aggressor aircraft for the front-line squadrons. 

    “One of the more fun tasks was flying low level over the sea” recalls Andy, “pretending to be a sea-skimming missile that the ships would have to try and defend against! We could normally reach about 550 kts down to around 100 ft above the water.” 

    “The air combat trips are really interesting; two pilots are pitted against one another. It’s an equal measured head to head combat scenario. You depart the base as a pair and fly to a designated area. Once in the designated airspace, you aggressively break formation and separate out to a few miles away, then turn back in, dive for the hard deck to maximise aircraft performance, call visual and make a high speed head to head pass. Then basically… you have a dog fight”.

    Like a game of chess, but at 500 mph! 

    Ok, so just to put this into context, the turn back to intercept could have a closure speed of up to around 1,100 mph and immediately from the pass, it’s all about who can get on who’s tail first to claim a victory. These are two equal aircraft, flown by two pilots trained to the same standard with the same tactical knowledge. It comes down to who can exploit the best performance out the aircraft. Andy continues; “It’s not who can pull the hardest turn, but it’s about understanding and managing aerodynamics, energy and engine performance. For example, there’s a best (lowest) radius of turn and a best rate of turn, far from the same thing, each have optimum parameters to execute the manoeuvre and extract the most out of the aircraft and with it each have their own advantages and disadvantages in air combat”. Surprisingly, it’s not about pulling the most g, but it’s like a chess game in the air. It’s hard on the body and the brain and the sorties could contain up to about 45 minutes of combat time. There’s high energy aerobatic manoeuvres a plenty, with many sudden changes to the flightpath in order to become the optimum aggressor in pursuit of the opponent. Many manoeuvrers often reaching up to 7 g! It’s truly about performance of pilot and machine and measured to the absolute limit in both cases. Andy convinces me that a pilot’s lookout is never better than when someone is trying to shoot at you. 

    “Perhaps one of my most treasured memories was being able to take my dad flying in a Hawk”. Not necessarily a normal opportunity, but as Andy’s father was also a serving Officer in the Royal Navy, it was permitted. “It was a unique father son moment, it’s not every day you get to take your Dad out, pushing 500 kts on a low level sortie, followed by some close formation jet aerobatics.” 

    Andy wrapped up this part of the conversation with one last gem; “During an air testing sortie, a crew mate and I had to perform a high altitude aircraft assessment, we took the Hawk up as high as we could reach, and it topped out about 48,000 ft” he casually remarked. “The view? Yeah, was pretty good actually” he responded. 

    But it’s not all smiles at high speed miles; just about every flight was under constant assessment, the wrong step, the wrong kind of day, or just underperforming, could get you either shifted down the progression ladder, grounded, or at nearly 500 mph in the Mach Loop... well as you can imagine there’s very little room for error. 

    Following an amazing three years of Hawk experience Andy was informed of his next step, “you’re being streamed for the Harrier!”.

    Jump Jet 

    A few issues ago we presented an article about the Concorde. Like Concorde; the concept alone seems like something out the future. And also like Concorde, the Harrier was one of the most iconic aircraft ever made. 

    With only half our curry left, it was finally time to learn more about the Harrier, and from no better person than the guy that looked through the HUD [Head Up Display]. 

    “Pre getting into the actual aircraft”, Andy tells me “There was a sort of, ‘initiation’ course”. Basically, an introduction into the world of ‘stop then land’ rather than ‘land than stop’… or in other words; hovering before touch down. Very important to get that the right way round! This took the form of five hours of intense helicopter training. You might think of it as an accelerated ‘appreciation course’. And you would be forgiven if you thought they gave you a nice large field to try it out in, but no, once you can prove you know the difference between up and down, you’re flying out of confined areas and landing on unprepared terrain. 

    Andy recalls ‘day one’ of Harrier school; “I arrived at the training facility to find a former course mate sat on the floor, semi-broken and well, let’s just say he was ‘reviewing some life choices’. Basically, he had an experience earlier that day of a very near miss [of the ground] during a hovering detail, it was obvious mastering the Harrier was going to be no easy task! Definitely not the opening moment of encouragement I was hoping for!” 

    The course is ten months long, approximately 130 hours of flying, and a lot of sweat and nerve! Following some hard core ground school days and many tests requiring exacting recall of complex normal and emergency drills, the time came to progress on to the simulator. Just a single session took place in the fixed-base simulator to ensure drills and procedures were correct prior to the first flight in the aircraft. I asked why he thought there was no full motion sim given how different it was to fly. Andy considered the question and said “I believe it’s because they can’t simulate sustained g-force, therefore a key sense of realism is lost.” 

    I enquired about Andy’s first impression on finally seeing the aircraft up close, he recollects; “Well it’s bigger than I expected”, “much bigger than a Hawk” he added. “And it’s quite a change when you start flying with a HUD. On the first trip out I kept asking myself, why has someone installed this framework in my line of vision. I spent most of the flight looking around it. But by flight #3, the HUD had become an absolutely essential piece of equipment”, “on the flights that followed, it would have felt like a full on mayday if it had failed” he laughed! 

    So how about the first time you started it up and headed out? I enquired, “Well certainly in the early days there’s huge pressure on following the enormous checklist accurately, it just felt like such a foreign cockpit”. 

    “And Taxiing out, that’s an adventure in itself; you have to select either nose wheel steering or anti-skid braking. There is a ‘paddle’ on the stick to flip between the two. You could easily end up swerving all over the place in the early days trying to coordinate between feet and button selection. The Harrier is quite an artform to manoeuvre well on the ground, let alone when you start to introduce use of the nozzles, which if in the wrong position would either melt the tarmac or overheat the brakes trying to keep the speed under control. The aircraft was designed to taxi around on the limited space of an aircraft carrier… the taxing manoeuvrability was incredible” Andy went on to add “by the time I got to the threshold on that first trip out… I was exhausted just trying to get it there without melting the ground, setting the brakes on fire or swerving off the taxiway!” 

    But finally came the first take-off. The sensation and experience of the first time you open the throttle and release the brakes is a one-off Andy remarked. “The power and rate of acceleration is out of this world”. “Within a blink of an eye you were airborne, lifting the undercarriage, adjusting the nozzles, and configuring the aircraft for the climb. 

    The use of hybrid short field technique, was something that fascinated me… I asked for more info. So for those that are interested, getting a Harrier airborne, goes something like this… 

    First things first… nozzles!? The Pegasus turbojet engine, capable of producing some 23,800 lbs of thrust, delivers its mighty power via four pilot controlled vectoring jet nozzles. There are two on each side of the fuselage controlled by a nozzle lever in the cockpit situated outboard of the throttle. A standard harrier take-off would require the pilot to select an initial (partial) take-off thrust value, hold the aircraft on the brakes, then with everything ready to go and the jet nozzles in the full aft position; release the brakes whilst advance the throttle to the full take-off thrust value. At a pre-calculated speed (around 80 kts depending on weight, altitude, temperature) the pilot would move the jet nozzle lever to a pre-determined position vectoring the thrust partially downward and thus lifting the aircraft off the ground to achieve a shorter take-off roll. Once airborne on a mix of ‘jetborne’ and ‘wingborne’ performance, the aircraft would accelerate to a purely wingborne flight regime requiring the pilot to carefully move the jet nozzles further aft again in a transition to achieve a normal fast jet profile. Andy recalls the acceleration as being “phenomenal”, “there was nothing to prepare you for just how incredible that feeling was, within 30 seconds you’re passing 300 kts”. And it’s a fairly busy 30 seconds, you can’t just sit there pinned to the seat, the procedure required a cool, calm and composed pilot, ready to apply delicate and precisely timed transitional flight control inputs. “The Harrier was just unlike anything else” Andy added.

    Having survived taxiing it out and getting this unique fighter jet off the ground, there were a lot of new concepts that Andy had to get used to. But none more so than the obvious: ‘Hovering a fighter jet!’ Having been scorching the skies for several years at around 500 kts, Andy was now expected to bring ‘this’ jet to a stop… IN MID AIR! And the first experience of that was… “weird” he laughed. “A lot of power is required but unexpectedly, there was no vibration and it was all very smooth. Looking outside felt like someone suddenly just started slowing the world down. On the inside the engine pitch (sound) steadily increased to a loud whine as the provision of staying airborne transitioned from wingborne aerodynamics to that of pure jet thrust”.

    I asked about aircraft handling during the transition from forward flight into hovering flight… “there is limited roll control when slowing down below 90 kts so it was important to keep the aircraft pointing into the relative wind. At slow speed and in hovering flight the roll attitude was adjusted by a number of small ‘puffer jets’. These were supplied with high-pressure bleed air from the engine and were located outboard on the wings. Pitch attitude was assisted with puffer jets on the tail and nose and yaw control via puffer jets each side of the tail. During the transition from forward flight to the hover, if the relative wind moved too far away from the nose, the aircraft was liable to roll and could exceed a recoverable limit, at which point, the only exit from the manoeuvre was via the ejection handle”. It’s for this reason that a wind vein was installed on the nose of the aircraft so the pilot could see where the relatively wind was coming from during the deceleration. 

    Due to very limited hover performance on the heavier two seat Harrier, hover training was only available at the end of a training sortie, usually with less than five minutes of fuel remaining! Literally only a handful of seconds through to perhaps a minute was available each time. And students weren’t allowed to solo fly the two seat aircraft, so the first solo hover exercise was in the single seater. The learning curve was as steep as the vertical take-off. And amazing as it sounds, Andy had only accumulated around 2-3 minutes of dual hover training before trying it solo!! 

    VIFF’ing 

    With conversation flowing, we move onto stuff I hadn’t even considered a ‘thing’ before. I can sense an excitement bubbling under Andy’s usually ultracool exterior. And I can appreciate why, it’s the ‘Harrier effect'. During a normal airshow day the general public all trickle about the place in a never stopping flow of movement. All the time various flying displays are taking place and depending on your particular interest, you stop for some and carry on during others. Except that is for the Harrier. When ‘that’ aircraft comes to a stop, mid display line and hovers, and then takes a ‘bow’ to the audience at the end of the display; ‘wow!’, the whole place is at a standstill aka the ‘Harrier effect’! Anyway, back to the ‘thing’ I’d never even considered, moving the jet nozzles around ‘during’ high speed air combat. 

    “There were some, well…. ‘unique’ attributes to the aircraft, and this became especially evident to me during one particular air combat (dog fighting) training sortie. Before we got airborne, the instructor had briefed me on something called ‘VIFF’ing”. Andy explained that ‘VIFF’ing’ stood for ‘Vectoring In Forward Flight’. “Combat manoeuvring in the Harrier added the use of puffer ducts to enhance your position… simply put, you could make the Harrier do things that a fast jet just shouldn’t be able to do! But, that does come at a cost. During normal air combat manoeuvring it’s all about managing stored wingborne energy. This is potential energy and it’s critical to keep it stored and ready for your next manoeuvre. When it depletes you have to aerodynamically build it up again. However, if ‘VIFF’ing’, this heavily depletes the potential positive energy carried by the wing. But, what it did allow was a unique opportunity to gain authority in combat and if executed well it could get you ‘sights on the target’. So it was a useful tool to have in the box, but, you had to be sure it was the right tool to apply as it was a critical aerodynamic choice and usually only used as a last ditch effort.” 

    Andy continued; “So on this one particular sortie, I was pitted against a staff instructor to develop the ‘VIFF’ing’ skill set. During the ‘fight’ I could see a potential victory by using this new technique, I smoothly pulled the nozzle lever to cause a downward movement of the nozzles but didn’t quite manage to prosecute the target as the aircraft responded. So, it didn’t quite go to plan, but the fight was still in full swing so I needed to get energy back on the wing and try something else. And it was just at that moment that I got my ‘education’ in the essential smooth handling of the nozzle lever during recovery; in my attempt to return the aircraft to a more normal fast jet regime, I rather abruptly moved the nozzle lever back toward its aft (or so I thought) nozzle position, unexpectedly this departed the jet into a spin! I recall the instructor calmly commenting over the radio and I could almost sense his amusement in what was clearly obvious (to him): ‘nozzle error’! I was less amused, and I needed to get the aircraft back pointing the right way”. 

    To emphasise the context of Andy’s ‘predicament’ I’d just like to add that this was in a single-seat Harrier, there was no reassuring instructor hand on the dual controls to help out. “After a few turns of the spin” he continued, “with no obvious indication of a recovery, the instructor came on the air again, this time shouting “NOZZLES!” At which point, I moved the nozzle lever the last few mm’s (nozzles fully aft) which aided the recovery and all was well again”. 

    As the course continued toward preparation for front line deployment, the training shifted toward being ‘battle ready’. Essentially, the crew were given a role play scenario, told to prepare for launch but to standby for the whistle. With the numerous pre-flight preparations done, the crews would hang around waiting to be called. At any random moment an alarm would sound. Each pilot then had just a few minutes to get out to the aircraft, get in, start up, taxi AND get airborne.

    Andy went on to complete around 100 hours flying the Harrier before the forces regrettably announced the aircraft was to be withdrawn from service. But that unexpected end of the adventure aside, Andy considers the Harrier to be one of the most incredible types of aircraft to have ever been made. It’s clearly a pilot’s aircraft through and through and a type that did nothing less than ‘demand’ the pilot stayed at the top of their game. If you started to feel comfy… then you were probably about to be bitten, it wasn’t forgiving! But indeed it was a wonder of engineering and Andy reflects that it was a very special privilege to fly. 

    So what did he do next? Having spent several years at the hard deck, what has any of this got to do with a Spitfire? Well, on civvy street Andy continued to find himself in some amazing front seats. Including entertaining crowds during exciting displays sequences and training pilots to fly aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang and various Spitfires. And it’s this transition into warbirds that’s of particular interest. But having taken over more pages of this publication than I intended already, you’ll need to tune in the next issues to hear about looping a Sea Fury and having a thrilling tail chase between a Messerschmitt 109 and a Spitfire!

    For more info on owning and flying a Warbird check out www.TASCvintage.com where Andy is on hand to assist!  


    Part 2 will be in the GA Buyer May 23 Magazine

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