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Words and images provided by Sqn Ldr Paul ‘Foo’ Kennard, RAF (Ret’d).

Sam, understandably, waxes lyrically about the immense privilege of flying vintage aircraft and warbirds. Having had the briefest exposure to them, I can attest to their seductive and addictive qualities. I can also confirm the sacrifices, both financially and in time, he has had to make to sit in that most envied of seats; in a Spitfire…with nobody in the back seat nagging…err…I mean, providing carefully calibrated guidance, encouragement, and advice.

Aviation is a small world though.

‘Rats’ sent Sam solo in the Spitfire at Duxford. Many moons ago he was gainfully employed by Her Majesty as a Chinook QHI on 27(R) Sqn at RAF Odiham while I was a tyro Support Helicopter pilot, learning to fly ‘the beast’. I had the pleasure of flying with him on the OCU and, shortly after graduating as a Limited Combat Ready (LCR) pilot onto the Front Line, had the fortune to fly in formation with him as part of a Change in Command ceremony for 27 Sqn where we flew two Chinooks (the answer to every military question…) in formation with the AirCo Blenheim (in its second MkIV guise). The pictures of that day still hang on my office wall – running in for the break at Duxford as number 3 with a Blenheim leading was, it must be said, pretty special….

Enough reminiscing, this article is supposed to be about flying the Chinook. Why don’t you join me for a virtual sortie in the Chinook in its ‘classic’ Mk 2 form, before Multi-Function Displays and such threatened to drag the aircraft into the 21st Century? Pick up your helmet, Life Saving Jacket (LSJ) and gloves. I’ve already completed the plan (we’re going to fly a low level tactical/gunnery sortie with some air combat thrown in – because it’s fun…), signed the F700 / auth sheet and out-briefed the Authoriser – it’s time to walk….

The first thing you notice as we stroll across the apron at RAF Odiham is that it’s actually not that big an aircraft. Compared to a Robinson R22 or a Chipmunk, it is, of course, comparatively large, but park a Chinook next to a Sea King or Merlin and it visibly shrinks. The latter is taller, has a longer fuselage and a larger rotor diameter than the Chinook. Only when you consider the tip of the front and rear rotors in the 12 and 6 o’clock is the Chinook larger. The reason is, of course, the compact design afforded by the tandem rotor configuration. ‘Half helicopters’ need to get their tail rotor far behind the main rotor to enable a moment arm of sufficient power to counteract the main rotor’s torque without requiring an awkwardly large tail rotor. This creates a lot of ‘dead space’ in the tail boom (for All Up Mass and centre of Gravity reasons), and tail rotors by their very nature, remove power from the engine/transmission to drive them – especially if ‘power pedal’ is applied to yaw the aircraft against the rotor torque. ‘Two rotors good, one rotor bad…’. The only time I’ve walked away from a Chinook and thought it looked small was when I parked one next to a Mi-26 ‘Halo’ at Berlin’s old Tempelhof airfield – but then, you can fit a C130 fuselage inside a Mi-26 it is said….

We approach the cab from the 6 o’clock, and I note that one of the Air Load Masters (ALMs) is already on top of the fuselage checking the aft transmission and the engines. I nod to the fire guard as we walk up the ramp, walking past the well-worn Vietnam vintage M60D 7.62mm machine gun and 200 round box magazine on its ramp pintle, to be confronted by the familiar cloying, comforting aroma of fuel, hydraulic fluid, oil and years of ‘patina’. We make our way up the cabin and ease our way past the large box-like structure which is the Extended Range Fuel System (ERFS) tank, offset to Port, on the fuselage floor. The ERFS is manufactured by Robertson LLC in the US and is inevitably called a ‘Bob Tank’ by the crews. Each can carry over 2000kg of extra fuel, and the Chinook can carry three of them – to add to 3200Kg of airframe fuel in the normal version. The ‘fat tank’ version of the aircraft has 6000Kg of fuel to start with and can still carry three ‘Bobs’ – and, frankly, that’s enough to fly well past the point of comfort!

As we approach the cockpit, the forward fuselage is dominated by two large magazines for the ‘crowd pleasers’ or, as they are more formally known, the Dillon Aero M134 MiniGuns. Today we have a mere 4000 rounds per gun. In the ‘old days’ we had variable firing rates on these 6-barrelled Gatlings – one button for ‘low rate’ (2000 rounds per minute) and both buttons for the full 4000 rpm symphony. Nowadays, the guns are fixed at ‘just’ 3000 rpm – which is still 50 rounds per second…per gun…). With the M60D on the ramp (which fires at a modest 550 rpm) we have 13 barrels of defensive firepower – in other words more rifle calibre barrels than a Lancaster, or an early Spitfire and Hurricane (and even more than the Hurricane Mk XII’s 12-Browning fit). The .303 Browning had a firing rate of just over 1000rpm. With 2x M134 and 1x M60 (well, using the old guns anyway….) the Chinook could just about match an 8-gun fighter, but unlike the Spitfire or Hurricane, it can carry enough ammunition for well over a minute of continuous firing and can shoot in 3 directions at the same time….

We drop our nav bags and helmets in the cockpit, check that the Battery Master is ‘OFF’, then walk back down the ramp to conduct the walk around. Today the Chaff/Flare dispensers are not loaded, but as this is a tactical sortie, we respect their firing arcs. It’s always worth looking underneath the aircraft at the plethora of aerials to ensure the previous crew haven’t bent one landing in a soft field. Once satisfied that all seems in order, we make our way back inside and squeeze into the unexpectedly tight cockpit. I get in first, in the Right-Hand Seat, which is traditionally the Captain’s seat in a helicopter – and the opposite to a fixed wing. The rationale is normally explained that early helicopters only had a central Collective lever, so flying from the RHS enabled the majority of pilots (who are right-handed) to control the Cyclic better. As you try to work out how to contort yourself into the Left-Hand Seat, my left hand instinctively goes up to put a gloved hand on the roof mounted Engine Condition Levers (ECLs) – you’ll almost certainly bang your head on them if I don’t. At least today we’re not wearing operational combat vests with chest plate armour, survival aids, a pistol / ammunition and PRC-112 survival radio, nor having to mount our SA-80 carbines to the seats. Once settled into the snug armoured ‘tub’ and strapped in, my hands dance around the cockpit in a vaguely pleasing and eye-catching manner ensuring, as with most aircraft, that most of the kit is turned ‘OFF’ before I will turn it ‘ON’ later. Satisfied, I shout ‘Helmets!’ and flip the Battery Master on. A quick Comms check to ensure all the crew are ‘up’, and I radio ATC for clearance to start engines and rotors. I check with the ALM at the ramp that he/she’s happy to start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) and, with their permission, I ring the troop alarm bell for a couple of seconds to let everyone know it’s about to get noisy. The APU starts with its typical ‘woooooshhhh!’ before warbling its way accelerating to normal operating speed.

With the APU online, it’s time to start turning kit ‘ON’ after the APU Generator is selected. The flying controls are exercised, the Nav Computer fired up and several other sub systems checked. Before long, it’s time to start the engines. Traditionally, if it’s an ‘odd’ day of the month we start number 1 first and vice versa. One of the joys of flying turbine-powered aircraft, especially those with a Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC), is that starting is so simple compared to a piston engine. Even a venerable Lycoming on a light piston can be awkward to start, especially when hot – hands are often moving rapidly between fuel pumps, magnetos, starter switches and mixture controls – and I can’t conceive of what starting a Merlin must be like (and thinking about how much it will cost if you get it wrong….). In the Chinook, ensure the ignition lock-switch is turned on, the fuel crossfeed is open, select a forward booster pump ‘ON’, ensure the FUEL PRESS captions clear, set the ECL to ‘GROUND’ then select the start switch to either ‘1’ or ‘2’ and hold until the N1 (turbine speed) reaches 10%, then release. Put your hand on the ECL in case the FADEC malfunctions, but invariably the engine is sitting merrily at Ground idle within a few seconds. Check the engine has stabilised, the controls are neutral, turn on the upper red strobe and let the ALM out the front know you’re about to start the rotors with a vertical twirl of your right index finger. Your left hand moves to the rotor brake and gently releases it – the rotors start immediately, and you check each of the front blades are ‘flying’ normally before you stow it. With minimum transmission oil pressure achieved, disarm the rotor brake (which prevent the ECLs from moving forward of GROUND) and advance the ECL to the FLIGHT position and ‘gate’ it. A few quick checks, noticeably to ensure the flight hyd system is functioning before you disengage the APU driven system, and the other engine is started and set to ‘FLIGHT and gated’.

A quick set of post start functionals and it’s time to taxy. We settle on the taxiway, and I call for lift and departure from present position. ATC consents, and after a quick set of pre-take-off checks (mainly to ensure we’ve remembered to turn AFCS Stab on – much hilarity ensues at the ‘wobbly hover’ if we forget…) I ease a couple of inches back on the cyclic (in the Mk2) and gently pull on the Collective. The Chinook wants to fly at this relatively light weight, and we settle into a 10ft hover with plenty of power in hand. A quick scan of the instruments tells me all is well, and I push the nose down, positively, to start the transition, applying increasing amounts of Collective to maintain height as I go. I’m already doing 60+Kts as I hit the taxiway/runway intersection, and I’m at about 40ft. ‘Coming right…’ I inform the crew and crisply roll the aircraft to 40-50 degrees angle of bank to continue my acceleration down the runway. We reach 120kts quickly and I start a climb up to 1000ft – which doesn’t take very long as I use more power and trade 40kts of airspeed via a zoom element at the start to reach the preferred climbing speed of 80kts. Power is one thing the Chinook never lacks when light. From the hover, in a lightly loaded aircraft, if you pull to 100% the aircraft will happily climb vertically at over 3000 feet per minute. In fact, the RAF imposed a rate of climb limit on the aircraft, fearful that a double engine failure could leave so much pitch on the blades, that the subsequent drag would slow them down too much to safely enter autorotation…however, I have it on good assurance it will hit nearly 4000 fpm….vertically, out of dispersal….

As always, I’m anxious to clear with ATC and get into low level. Flying a helicopter much above 500ft is, well, a bit boring in my opinion – not to mention risky from a Mid Air Collision perspective. As we’re authorised for a tactical sortie, it’s time to ‘get in the weeds’. I brief the crew that we’re about to conduct a tactical descent, ensure the Rad Alts are set to 50ft with the light on my side, and I ask you to set 40ft with the noise your side. I can see my intended low-level entry point and initiate the Tac Descent by lowering the lever and rolling on 60 degrees angle of bank – normally accompanied by a reference to the Drop Ship sequence in ‘Aliens’ – ‘Express elevator to Hell….going down!’. The rate of descent is prodigious. Throughout out the descent, I complete series of rapid heading and attitude changes to confuse any would-be enemy gunner, and I ensure I call key Rad Alt heights to the rear crew to indicate, simulated for training, that I’m aware of the vulnerability to the various weapons systems on the ground as we descend (and our ability to shoot back), and also to give them a ‘warm and fuzzy’ that I’ve not lost my ground-proximity awareness with a very high rate of descent in all the excitement. I pick some markers to help judge my initial roll-out heading and ensure the last heading change puts me neatly onto track at 50ft and 130-140 kts.

Low level navigation in a helicopter is, well, different. The ground flashes by with indecent haste and there’s always that lingering feeling that you’re being, well, a bit naughty.

If you’re lucky, your route takes you past or close to a feature with a lot of vertical extent, like a TV mast. If not, it’s a combination of small features that, hopefully, correspond to the black line and ‘miles to go’ tick-marks on your paper chart and the route you’ve punched into the GPS-driven Nav Computer. For ‘route’ flying, we set the kit to tell us miles to go to the next turning point, a cross-track distance (ie left or right of track) and an ETA at the next turn. The patter is something like:

“Ok….12 miles to next turn…route takes us just to the right of that farmhouse in 3 fields…look beyond that, 2 o’clock, small hill, mobile phone mast on top – that mast is 0.5 mile right of track….take us left, but no more than 1.5 miles left – avoid…stables..beyond that, looking for a set of 100ft wires joining from the left to parallel track from about 8 miles to go, planning to cross 2 miles before the turn….’.

At 50ft, in the UK the ‘nav patter’ can be continuously like that – unless there’s that convenient TV mast somewhere near track. If we’re running a timing plot to give us a ‘wheels down’ time on a LZ/HLS (aiming for plus/minus 5 seconds), one of the ALMs will pipe up at every turn with ‘late or early’ and we’ll need to either adjust speed or cut a corner to get back ‘on time, on target’.

Flying at 50ft/140kts puts you fast and ‘in’ the terrain. You are barely above rooftop height of most buildings, and any decent sized wood can provide visual cover, as can a valley. Its why military helicopters need to practice ‘proper’ low level often – in wartime, depending on the threat, flying between 30-50 ft might buy you safety from all manner of optically and radar guided threats, and minimise your acoustic signature – denying the enemy much notice you’re about to fly over and reducing the time they have to find and prepare weapons. It’s also a very perishable skill – crews need to practice planning and flying low level missions as both a singleton and a pair. I ease the height up to 100ft, reset the Rad Alts to 100ft / 80ft and give you control. You can’t quite conceive how light and responsive the power-boosted controls are – and like the best performance cars – the aircraft feels like it’s physically shrinking around you. You rack the aircraft hard to the left at 60 degrees angle of bank, then snap back the other way. The aircraft willingly responds – you find it hard to comprehend the 60ft of cabin sat behind you – and only a smidge of collective is required to hold the bank as you manoeuvre past villages, woods and meadows. In the distance I note a set of 250ft pylons which we need to cross. I take the aircraft back, reset the RadAlt, and settle back at 50ft. As we close with the wires, I pick the pylon in my 1 O’clock, brief the crew, and then pull hard and smartly roll the aircraft to cross the selected pylon about 30ft over the top then, as soon as I hear ‘tail clear’ from the rearcrew, I reverse the bank and dump the lever to get us back to 50ft the other side as quickly as possible – the harshness of the manoeuvre minimising the time we spend sky-lined crossing the wires and ensures that if we suffer a power loss in the couple of seconds before we cross, I can roll away from the danger.

The nav is going on rails, and soon we’re approaching the Initial Point (IP) for our target run to a simulated troop insertion behind enemy lines. At this stage, the tactics subtly change – I’m now thinking not only about the aircraft’s safety but getting the troops into their location without being seen or tracked if possible. This will call for a ‘Concealed Approach and Departure’ (CAD). I run through a set of pre-IP checks, mainly looking to minimise the aircraft’s signature (if not already) and to start thinking even more tactically. Once we positively ID the IP, we put down the 1:250K map we’ve been navigating off hitherto and pull out a 1:50k for the CAD. On it, marked prominently are the suspected enemy positions and areas we might be exposed – as well as all manner of small wires and obstructions. I change the Nav Computer setting from ‘Route Steer’ to ‘Tac Steer’ – the steer bars on the instruments now ‘point’ directly at the target’s GPS position, and the display on the computer gives us wind corrected headings to steer and time/distance to go. Finally, as it’s a CAD, I’m now authorised down to 10ft MSD…a single contour line is 10m / 32ft and the Chinook is about 20ft high. So, if I fly at 10ft, theoretically I can use one contour line to shield me from an enemy position.

Initially, the ‘enemy position’ is well screened by high ground, so I keep the ‘smash’ (speed) on and, when appropriate, drop the height down to 30ft. We approach the trickiest part of the CAD, a 300m run across a valley floor. I haul the cab into a Quickstop and assume the 10ft hover before we risk exposing ourselves. The map says that there should be a small amount of slope to hide us. I gently trickle the nose into the valley and look ‘up threat’. The Radar Warning Receiver is quiet, and I can see the corner of the wood close to the suspected enemy position – but confirm that we do have some defilade to work with. I scan the far side of the valley for my entrance back into deep cover and see the opening of a wooded re-entrant. A quick check of the map confirms that it is indeed the planned route. I back up a little, then accelerate hard wishing to both minimise my exposure time and give me options if anything is lurking across the other side of the valley – I flash across the terrain at 15ft and 120 kts and reach the safety of the high ground on the other side – before easing up and nudging the speed back. As we’re now nearing the drop point, I start to slow the aircraft down again and focus on flying as low and smoothly as possible to minimise our noise footprint (we selected our route to give us a favourable wind direction for both tactical and performance reasons). I can see our LS appear as we edge around a small gully and with eyes on stalks for unmarked wires and obstructions, we slowly creep towards our target grid. We reach it and assume the 10ft hover to simulate landing as the ALMs go through the expected patter ‘ramp down, troops moving, 20 to go….10 to go….troops gone, ramp up, clear lift and manoeuvre….clear above and behind…’.

Now time for the ‘D’ part of CAD.

In short, on this occasion, I’m going to try to fly the reverse route back to the IP. It seemed to work and by staying concealed I hope to have given the troops a head start of the ‘enemy’s’ attempts to ‘find’ them. After a minute or so of retracing our route, I call ‘knock it off’ as we’re on a tight timeline with external assets today. I ease back up to 50 feet, reset the RadAlts, and set off back to the route to our offshore gunnery range.

After a short but enjoyable blast around the UK countryside, almost inevitably including a couple of disused WW2 airfields as turning points / navigation features, we arrive at the coastal gunnery range. I make radio contact with range control who confirm that the range is ‘cold’ and gives us approval to enter the restricted airspace. I confirm that switches are ‘cold’ / weapons unloaded and ask to conduct a recce and ‘clear range’ procedure. With control’s assent, we fly a quick pattern around the range, refamiliarizing ourselves with the targets we intend to use and, at the same time, confirming that no stray boats or wildlife has entered the range or firing traces we intend to use. When happy, I call for permission to start shooting – which is immediately given. Although notionally as Captain, I hold responsibility for the weapons and where/when they’re fired, in reality, in the heat of combat, it’s impractical to do so. Our ALMs are highly trained; they don’t just handle the troops and shoot the guns. They play a full part in the navigation of the aircraft and will often re-programme the nav computer for the cockpit crew and take charge of the navigation completely if the Left-Hand Seat is task saturated with ‘fighting’ the aircraft or controlling the EO/IR turret. They are essential for conducting safe underslung load operations and normally run the Tac FM and HF radios. As such, there’s a bond of trust between Captain and ALM re gunnery; in no way can I withhold the right of self-defence from them and they will, if possible, warn me they are about to open fire under RoE. On a more practical basis, whilst I can see the fall of shot for most of the weapon arc of the starboard door gun, I can see only a fraction of the port gun’s (though you can see more from the LHS) and, clearly, almost zero of the ramp M60D’s. Therefore, that trust is often absolute.

I do have some level of control over the Miniguns. I have a Gun Master Safety Switch (GMSS) in the cockpit to permit electrical power to pass to the guns – and I can also control which gun(s) get it. There is a wire gated ‘pull through’ over-ride on the guns themselves, but the breaking of the wire absolves me from any responsibility for any action thereafter. I ask the ALMs if they’re ready to go ‘Hot’. They confirm, and brief that the first run will be a 100ft/120kt pass with initial engagement from the starboard M134 with the ramp gun joining in when ‘on target’. I roll onto the heading, flip up the guards on ‘Master Arm’ and ‘Starboard’ switches on the GMSS and make both ‘live’. I tell the ramp gun to ‘make ready’ and get confirmation it is. ‘Chinook rolling in Hot….target 6… for starboard and ramp guns’ I radio – ‘Clear Hot’ responds range control. I focus on flying an accurate 100ft/120kts so the ALMs can get their ‘eye in’ for the more dynamic serials to follow. ‘Target, right 2 o’clock….500m….’ I announce…’Target seen’ comes the response from the starboard door…’clear engage, ramp gun in turn….’ I announce…’Target sighted….Engaging……..’.

The Minigun opens up with its distinctive, gradually accelerating, ‘buzz’ as the gun winds up to max rpm. I look out of the window and see the first burst arc away, straddle the target and start to foam the water around it. The curved line of tracer looks almost unbroken to the naked eye, and you have to tell yourself that the gun is firing ‘8BIT’ – 8 ball rounds / 1 tracer – so there are eight bullets between every near continuous tracer. No wonder the water is foaming……The line of tracer reveals a small kink in it as the ALM has not quite allowed for the torque of the barrels as they spin up, but now, at full rate of fire, the Minigun is highly accurate as the initial rounds have almost blasted a channel of ‘clear air’ for the rest to pass through – the dispersion on the target is a deliberate ‘by-product’ of the design – allowing for the suppression of an enemy position, not pin point ‘sniping’. Each burst on the Minigun is, ideally, 5-7 seconds to help prevent jamming by allowing the gun to fully spool up. The 10 second burst that is fired puts over 300 rounds onto the target area and as the ‘Buzz’ winds down I hear the ramp gunner state ‘target seen… sighted….opening fire’…followed by the very different ‘thud, thud, thud, thud…’ of short bursts from the M60D. After a few short bursts, the ramp gunner announces, ‘off target’, I safe up the Miniguns in the cockpit, confirm the M60D is ‘safed’ and tell range control we’re off target and ‘cold’.

It is like Vietnam redux on a Chinook every time you fly such a gunnery sortie; the buzz of the Miniguns echoes the strafing runs of a ‘Huey Hog’ and evokes memories of the circling rain of fire wrought by the AC-47 ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ gunships, whilst the M60D, inevitably, just is the Huey door gun it once was. As we set up for run #2 the cabin is flooded with the smell of cordite – something the Vietnam war movies doesn’t give you – and I grin as I see you close your eyes and breathe it in – evocative stuff. It’s a heady smell, and only serves to heighten the adrenaline by now coursing through our veins. The next few runs are more dynamic; we simulate being engaged on the approach and the departure with the ALMs trying to lay down suppressive fire as I manoeuvre the aircraft to make the ‘enemy’ gunners’ job harder – the key to survival is to close down the engagement as quickly as possible. Shooting back and suppressing the enemy is a good way to do that, as it either manoeuvring behind cover/terrain (or clouds!) or out-ranging the enemy via distance or altitude. All too soon our time is used up, and I can hear a USAF F-15E call up on the range frequency for the next slot. I confirm that the M134 switches are safe in the cockpit, and that the feeder/de-linker has been detached from the gun to prevent more rounds entering the barrel chambers. With the gun pointed ‘down range’ the barrels are manually rotated to ensure they are all empty. The M60D is unloaded and confirmed as ‘safe’. I call range control and let them know we are ‘switches cold’ and heading off-range having fired approximately 3600 rounds from the guns (about a minute of M134 and two 200-rd boxes from the M60D).

One more tactical skill before RTB – and it’s the most fun. Air to Air combat.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years. I was taught the rudiments of air combat against the Hawk and Tornado F3 on my OCU. As a Qualified Helicopter Tactics Instructor (QHTI) I was taught how to instruct air combat on my course in the early 2000’s, and then spent a further 5 years teaching the course, instructing would-be instructors, when I was posted to the Operational Evaluation Unit. You’re in safe hands today; I’ve flown over 350 air combat sorties in the Chinook – against a wide range of Fast Jets and Helicopters. The former has included the Hawk, F3, Tornado GR4, Jaguar, Harrier, Typhoon, F15C, F-15E, Dassault Falcon 20 and Alfa Jet, whilst the latter has included everything from the Gazelle to the AH-64. Today I’ve managed to grab 30 minutes with a 100 Sqn Hawk T.1 in their ‘Aggressor Role’. Even better, I’ve got ‘The Boss’, Chris, who I’ve ‘fought’ many times over the years – he knows the line between me demonstrating the teaching points I need to impart (which, often requires me to deliberately ‘lose’) and the ‘freeplay’ element where I will most assuredly be trying every trick in the book not to get ‘shot down’!

Before flight, and while you were being fitted for your helmet/jacket, I was on the phone to Chris at RAF Leeming going through the legally required Air Combat Training proforma, known universally as the ‘TI 4/84’. The form includes timings, callsigns, radio frequencies, purpose of the sortie (experience for you!), location of RV and ‘towline’ (the nominal straight line we’ll use for engineering our merges), simulated weapon load outs, ‘kill criteria’, countermeasure employment (we’ll be simulating IR decoy flares), weather limits, safety rules and, finally, actions in the event of an emergency. Chris has briefed ‘Fox 2 and guns’ as his loadout, and I’ve told him we’ll be off-range with real ‘shooters’ but, laughing, I assure him they will be unloaded and safe before we meet. Honest…..

I let you fly us to the RV, which is usually one end of the ‘Towline’. I dial up the ‘fight frequency’ on one radio, with the nominated back-up on another. ‘Javelin 01 this is Vortex – radio check’. ‘Vortex….(breathe)… this is ahhhh Javelin 01…(breathe)…2 minutes out….(breathe) from over the top, then will head down…(breathe)…the towline and…(breathe)…call inbound for Serial 1’. If you’ve ever listened to a jet mate speak on the radio, the ‘breathe’ comments will be obvious!

Chris arrives on time on target (of course, he’s The Boss and he’s probably put a minion in ‘the boot’ to do the Nav for him…) and flies off down the towline. I get you to guess the ranges as he goes out and brief you that the next event is that he will turn at about 10km distance. You lose sight of the Hawk outbound but, suddenly, get a ‘Tally’ as it turns hard, followed by a small puff of exhaust smoke as he changes power settings for the run in. ‘Jav 01, 10km, running in, ‘Fights On’ Serial 1′. I acknowledge ‘Fights On’ and we hover an wait. The purpose of Serial 1, a ranging run, is to calibrate our eyes to the size of the Hawk at various tactically important ranges. These ranges dictate the level of threat, the weapon it may employ and the manoeuvre/countermeasures we will deploy against it. Chris counts down the Kms as he bears down on our GPS position. I get ‘Tally’ at about 6.5km and steer your eyes onto the Jet. ‘5….4…..3…..2….1….over the top’ calls Chris before he enters a pre-briefed series of orbits which allows all four of us to calibrate our look-out arcs via the clock code, so we all understand where the jet is at all times…..assuming at least one of us is ‘Tally’ and we’re not ‘No Joy’. I call ‘Terminate Serial 1….Jav 01 reset north and call ready’. Chris acknowledges and sets off up the towline at 500ft. I transition away and explain that the first engagement will be ‘head sector’ and ask you to remind me of key ranges – which as you’ve been listening well – you do (but sadly not for this article!). Chris reports ready and I call ‘Fight’s on’ for a Head Sector engagement and I help him out by updating our heading and location from the start point. Chris needs this information. A Chinook at low level, painted dark green, against a green terrain, is seriously hard to find for a Fast Jet – especially one with no radar like the Hawk. For the purposes of our training, I need him to see us so I fly just over 100ft and have all of my nav and anti-collision lights on. I see him at about 7 km, slightly offset to the left of our track. I make a threat call on the intercom, and gently turn the aircraft to face the jet. At about 4 km, the Hawk suddenly turns hard towards us – he’s seen us! I turn hard into him and call ‘FLARES!’ on the radio to hear a gratifying ‘GOOD FLARES!’ back from the Hawk. He gets closer – I pump out some more simulated flares and then turn the aircraft very hard to port to ‘unmask’ the starboard M134. Chris knows this is coming (I’ve ‘killed’ him before like this…) so he pulls hard into the vertical, vortices streaming off his wingtips as testament to the severity of the ‘pull’. I call ‘no joy!’ on the intercom and roll off some of the bank to get some ‘energy’ back. The ramp ALM spots the Hawk as it rolls off the top of its climb – ‘Bandit high 7 o’clock, nose turning hot….BREAK LEFT…FLARES!’ – I haul the aircraft to a ‘visually judged’ 60 degrees AoB and pull as hard as I can, feeling the ‘blade slap’ shuddering off the rotors and hearing the transmissions scream with effort. Chris calls that we put out effective flares but must get under him as he heads back down to make him really uncomfortable about the rapidly approaching ground and therefore abandon any attempt to convert to guns. He pulls early and breaks left – I reverse and point my nose at his as he goes. It’s now stalemate; fast and nimble though the Hawk is, it has no chance of converting into a nose on aspect for a ‘Heater’ or Guns shot from this position. His only choice is to extend and then re-engage. We ‘Terminate’ the serial and I ask him for ‘playtime remaining’. He has about 15 minutes on task as he’s holding Diversion Fuel for some marginal weather at Leeming. Since this is not a formal ‘teach’ for you, I ask Chris for a couple of ‘freeplay’ serials which he readily agrees to. Chris takes himself off to plot his ambush, which can now come from any aspect. I know exactly where he’s going to come from – his favourite tactic is to fly very high in the overhead and dive over the ‘spine’ of the aircraft, hoping to stay in a blind arc until Fox 2 and then Guns range. To counteract his, I start a gentle weave, allowing the crewman hanging out the right door and out of the ramp to clear our blind arcs. Lucky you’re on your game…..

‘BREAK LEFT! BANDIT 10 o’clock…FLARES!’ you shout. The sneaky sod has come in very low and very fast from the front left. As I literally bend the aircraft into a turn I hear ‘GOOD FLARES!’ from Chris and then continue the turn to attempt to evade the guns shot – there’s no call of ‘GUNS GUNS GUNS’ as he flashes over us so we must have done enough, but this time, instead of pulling into the vertical, Chris is staying ‘flat’ and bleeding speed as he tries a stern conversion. He’s ‘fangs out’! I respond to his turn rate then ease off as I need him closer for our weapons. I then suddenly reverse towards him and cut across ‘the circle’ trying to get into range for a ‘SNAPSHOT’ from one of the M134s. He’s too experienced to fall for that so he also eases the turn, unloads the ‘g’, and starts to extend. I take a glance at you – you’re a bit white but smiling, check the crew are ok and scan the Ts and Ps / fuel to make sure all is well before what will be the likely last merge. We’ve held the ‘Tally’ throughout and watch Chris describe a gentle arc of a wingover before running back in low and fast. We counter, we flare, we break again and end up chasing each other around a circle. Playtime is over. I call ‘Terminate’ and clear Chris off-station for his RTB and ask for any ‘hot debrief’ points. He notes zero kills, good flares, good breaks and excellent post merge manoeuvring before adding, laughing, ‘you were expecting high in the 6 on the last one weren’t you?’. I laugh back, agree, and tell him our bacon was saved by our guest. I wish him a safe transit back before thoughts return to the same for us.

Post air combat I always like to settle the crew and aircraft down. I ease up to about 1500ft agl, and hand control to you, while we conduct a thorough check of all of the aircraft’s systems. Everything is in order, the weather nice and the sky seemingly quiet so we use the transit time to slow heart rates and ponder our arrival home. I suggest, much to the groans of the crewmen, that we’ll fly a Procedural IF approach back into Odiham. You drive, I’ll non handle. ‘Odiham Approach this is Vortex, Chinook, 4 on board, just past Compton at 2000ft / 1031 inbound to you request TAC-ILS.’ I call. Odiham acknowledges, and asks us if want to practice any holds? Under threat of the fire-axe from the rearcrew I politely decline, and we are instructed to proceed directly to the Initial Approach Fix (IAF). I go ‘heads in’ briefly to ensure the Odiham TACAN is tuned, selected and identified and dial the ILS frequency in the Nav box

On the way there, as we’re at a safe altitude, I let you experience the foibles of the Chinook with the Stab Out. I ask you to reduce speed to 100kts then ‘AFCS coming off, 3,2,1…now’ as I turn the AFCS selector knob to ‘OFF’. You feel an instant ‘slackening’ through the controls, but not anything too untoward. You sense a slight tendency for the aircraft to yaw so, instinctively, apply some opposite pedal – with similar pressure to before. Whoa! This time the pedal movement slews the nose rapidly, so you apply the other pedal, again, too much. Now the aircraft starts to roll, and you overcorrect this tendency as well. Smiling, I take control back and damp it out, before letting you into the secret of flying stab out in the Chinook – ‘Firstly’, I explain, ‘move the controls as little as possible – that way you don’t disturb the equilibrium’. ‘Second, only apply half as much input as you think you need, then return to neutral and wait to see if you’ve had the desired effect’. Without the AFCS the aircraft actually responds more crisply in many ways, but the safety net the AFCS gives you disappears. This safety net is the way the AFCS ‘cons’ you into thinking that you’re flying a conventional helicopter. As the Chinook is a tandem design, it’s aerodynamics and controls are actually markedly different. For example, the rear rotor is more efficient that the rear rotor, so the aircraft has a mild tendency to want to swap ends! The AFCS nulls this out via extensible links in the Integrated Control Actuators (ILCAs), and also provides a ‘positive stick gradient’ – ie pushing the stick forward increases airspeed – a gradient that is provided by the Digital Airspeed Hold (DASH) system. These features are disabled with the AFCS ‘OFF’ so the pilot has to compensate. As the aircraft is now markedly more unstable, we’re not allowed to fly ‘stab out’ in cloud for training and, in terms of sheer effort, stab out triple Underslung Loads, at night, on NVGs still give me the shivers over a decade after I stopped flying the beast!

Having restored the aura of pilotage (the aircraft is far too easy to fly stab in – you may start to doubt our God-Like skills!) it’s time to prep for the approach. I get the approach plate out, describe the procedure to you, and let ATC know we’re approaching the IAF which is a point in the sky at a fixed range/bearing from the Odiham TACAN at 3000ft on the Farnborough QNH, we hit the IAF and ATC tell us to report ‘Beacon Outbound’ for the Procedure. I direct you to turn the aircraft to put the TACAN (green) needle on the HSI in the 12 o’clock and, after 30 seconds or so, it starts to fluctuate as we begin to enter the ‘cone of silence’ over the TACAN. I tell you to hold heading until the needle ‘drops’ past the 3-9 o’clock, then turn outbound onto a heading of 110 degrees. ATC confirm that we’re clear to descend with the procedure, and I complete the pre-final approach checks to confirm that the pre landing checks are complete, nav aids are properly configured (and backed up with the Nav Computer), IF checks, including discussion weather and diversions completed before, finally, a reminder of the Missed Approach Procedure (effectively, climb straight ahead initially and call Odiham Approach). We continue our shallow descent outbound, and we’re transferred to Odiham Director then as we approach the base turn at 11 miles on the TACAN, then to Odiham Talkdown for radar monitoring of the approach. I get you to level at 1500ft on Odiham QFE, then roll left to achieve a ‘cut’ onto the ILS localiser. I ‘drive’ the HSI steer bar around to the inbound heading (273 degrees) for you then tell you to ensure you have ILS selected. The flags clear and both glideslope and localiser are ‘live’. The ‘cut’ looks good as the localiser bar drifts in and I tell you to roll left again to capture it, offsetting the heading by a few degrees for cross wind. A quick check confirms we are approaching the glidepath from below and, as it comes in, I tell you to reduce power by 5-7% Torque and we settle onto the ILS. I call ‘Fully established’ to Talkdown and gently coach you to hold headings/power settings for a few seconds to prevent ‘needle chasing’ by letting small changes damp out. We pass 1000ft and I remind you that the beams are now more sensitive so the corrections will need to be smooth but positive. It’s a lovely day so I’m visual with the runway and circuit traffic, and I can see the Tac Park to the left of the 28 threshold is busy, so I call Talkdown and say we’re good visual, switching to Tower. ‘Odiham Tower, Vortex, with you 2 miles from radar’. ”Vortex, Odiham Tower, clear land runway 28, wind 310 at 10-15 knots, two in Tac and one downwind’. I call visual with the traffic and tell you to look up but keep the ‘smash’ on down the runway before I coach you through a quickstop before we reach the disused.

We hover-taxy off the runway, call ‘vacated’ and then trickle forwards and down to land on. The AFCS comes off and we ground taxy back into dispersal, apply the parking brake and flash up the APU. With the PTUs and APU generator ‘ON’, shutdown is a reversal of start-up. The main Generators are selected ‘OFF’, then both ECLs pulled to Ground Idle for the FADEC checks then, with the clearance of the rearcrew, ‘chopped’ to ‘STOP’, a quick glance at the engine temperatures to ensure they are declining, and as the rotors wind down, turn off the fuel pumps, crossfeed and any remaining electronics apart from the radio. The crewman will conduct a quick BITE check of the chip warning system and I arm and apply the rotor brake to bring matters to a halt. The PTUs come off, the APU generator is turned off, the APU follows and after a quick radio call, we finally turn off the battery master.

We remove our helmets, ruffle our inevitable ‘helmet hair’, and listen to the gyros spin down and the ticking of expanding metal. I open a cockpit window and a gentle breeze cools us as we discuss the sortie. Eventually, reluctantly, we unstrap, and I guard the ECLs as you shuffle out of the cockpit. We gather our kit, walk down the ramp and stroll across the tarmac to the Sqn for a debrief and cuppa after I’ve signed the aircraft in and checked in with the Duty Authoriser.

It’s hard not to glance over our shoulders at the magnificent flying machine we’ve just savoured. A true ‘Swiss Army Knife of the air’ – She’s a beast and I still miss flying her every day…..