“For a microsecond time stands still. The huge red letters on the top wing and fuselage of the Pitts Special spell the name of a well-known cigarette. They sweep past my canopy in slow time. An open-mouthed, white-faced pilot looks across the incredibly small gap between us,” Ian Smith, Former RAF Jaguar Display Pilot
The following article contains excerpts from Flight Lieutenant Ian Smith’s story titled Showing It Off which appears in Ian Hall’s book Jaguar Boys.
Speed 100kts decreasing; top of wingover.
It’s the 1979 RAF Innsworth display, and I’m operating out of Rhoose airport.
Fuel check; yes, just enough for the final high-speed pass.
Hard pull back down, and there’s the crowd line over my shoulder. Should get 600kts plus on this pass; not too much g on the pullout, don’t want to bleed off the speed. Radalt height 300ft, 200, 100; push forward to stop it climbing as the speed continues to increase. Best not go too low on my first display; as well as all the brass, the aircrew appointers work here and I’d like a good posting at the end of this tour.
Background static coming through the headset: “Pitts positioning from hold to display point overhead at 8,000ft.”
“Pitts, hold off. Jaguar high-speed pass and display climb complete in one minute, acknowledge.”
Perfect; timing spot on. There’s crowd centre; 7g; pulling like a bastard into the vertical; quick check left, right, yup that’s vertical; boot full of rudder and aileron to get vertical roll going; 5,000ft, 6,000ft, 7,000ft, 8,000ft; looking good. Where’s Rhoose? There’s the Bristol Channel, it will be somewhere over that way then.
What the hell’s that?
For a microsecond time stands still. The huge red letters on the top wing and fuselage of the Pitts Special spell the name of a well-known cigarette. They sweep past my canopy in slow time. An open-mouthed, white-faced pilot looks across the incredibly small gap between us. In an instant he’s gone, leaving a shocked and very grumpy Jaguar pilot. I swear if it had been one-to-one aerial combat I could have shot him twice in the head with a 9mm pistol, it was that close.
The Pitts pilot had ignored display protocol and ATC’s implicit instructions to hold off, and had manoeuvred, unobserved, into the overhead. The consequences of a mid-air crash over the display don’t bear thinking about.
However, no time to dwell on that, I’ll be able to have a frank and meaningful discussion with him later. I now need to head back to Rhoose, that high-speed pass had used up more fuel than I thought. A quick calculation; from my altitude of 20,000ft an idle/idle approach shouldn’t use up much fuel. An idle run-in and break, and there’ll be enough fuel to taxi onto the ramp where the ground crew wait to get the aircraft turned round for the Rhoose display in the afternoon.
“How did it go, Sir?” asks Mac as I sit as in a trance, locked silently in my thoughts at 8,000ft over Innsworth, musing about what could so easily have been my premature demise.
“What? Oh, no problems. Well, nearly no problems. Where are the bloody Pitts team parked?”
What a start to the first display of my first season of Jaguar display flying. During this and the following two seasons I can honestly say I never got closer to an early retirement to the big crew room in the sky. I learned my first lesson in display flying that sunny day; never ever relax until the jet is in the hangar and you are in the bar.
Photo credit: Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) and Rob Schleiffert from Holland via Wikipedia, and Fickr