Challenges of the Chipmunk
– My RAF Journey Part 20
Challenges of the Chipmunk
Finally, it was time to fly. Johnny and I got airborne in a JP Mk 3 for our first familiarisation flight on 27th November 1981. Everything was alien: the smells of grease, rubber oxygen mask, burning AVTUR aviation fuel, floppy control movements, zinging engine hum in the taxi, disorientating physical sensations and pure anxiety. But then, there was a visceral thrill of expectation as the Viper engine wound up to full thrust, brakes released, a rush of forward propulsion and acceleration down the runway. She lifted skywards with ease, like a homesick angel.
Unlike the messy torque challenges of the Chipmunk, the JP was mercifully well aligned and balanced from the get-go. She responded gracefully to inputs, with a forgiving nature fit for a basic jet trainer encapsulating one clueless novice. Instruction comprised repetitive handling drills, with emphasis on progressive accuracy in straight and level, climbing, descending, turning, speed and thrust setting maintenance. And then – more by magic than mastery – the grunting, perspiring, agonized, flailing fool that I was, gradually began to grasp the infinite range of slippery variables and confidence began to build.
Circuits were the most difficult to crack. Tightening the margins for error intensified in the rigid ‘racetrack’, ‘glideslope’ and ‘climb-out’ geometry of the runway and airfield configuration with high-cockpit workloads of downwind, landing and post-take-off-clean-up checks in what the RAF termed ‘rolls’ (traditional British military reference to the more common ‘touch and go’ aviation nomenclature). Landing required a very precise anticipation of flaring at exact speeds, applications of full throttle and going around the circuit with dizzying repetitiveness. Just when it seemed to be coming together, it all fell apart and just when it seemed to be falling apart, it all came together.
We learned how to recover from stalls, incipient spins and full spins. I felt supreme relief to be strapped into a ‘bang seat’ (a crude early-generation ejection seat, unlike the later generation rocket propelled versions) with three ballistic charges set to fire in rapid succession to deliver a 25 G exit from the cockpit if it all went pear shaped and contact with the ground became imminent. At 25 Gs, you wouldn’t walk for months with the resultant spinal compression, but you would probably live.
Frustratingly, the weather suddenly set in as blizzards hit Northeast England for weeks. We were assigned to shovelling snow off the apron and runway to get the odd flight under our belts and maintain some semblance of flying continuity. It was heavy manual work, though as military men we expected to endure hardships to keep moving forward. Unbegrudgingly, and with good humour, we did all we could do for the rewards of getting airborne every chance we got.