By Howard Cook, Vintage Wings of Canada
Not a test pilot? Not a multi-thousands hours airline pilot? Not much hope of being admitted into the world of warbird flying? There is one other way to come up through the ranks to fly vintage military aircraft - but it takes determination, stamina, skill, and the right people at the right time to make a dream like that come true. Howard Cook takes us through his early years of air demonstration flying on his way to flying the fighters of the Battle of Britain.
When sitting in the cockpit in the midst of a melee of great historic aircraft at events like Flying Legends at Duxford or a Vintage Wings Open House, it brings a smile to my face when I think how far away it seemed when I started out - on the road to displaying historic aircraft. I am often asked “how did you start?” This is a part of that story.
When I set out on the road to get into display flying I had already “moved up” through a range of types – right up to the Spitfire Mk.V and along the way developed my formation and aerobatic experience. However, unless you are an owner or a many-houred fighter pilot or test pilot, it is not an easy matter to get the chance to display them.
We call display flying “Feeding the Lions”, a matter of getting the necessary documents and display experience to be considered safe to show the particular aircraft. In the UK all pilots have to possess a Civil Aviation Authority Display Authorisation which is also known as a DA. They are usually issued on an incremental basis and according to examined and approved skills. Starting out with a flypast approval followed by formation member and/or leader and then on to aerobatics. They are also issued as Type A (Aircraft under 200hp such as the Tiger Moth and Chipmunk), Type B (Aircraft up to 600hp such as the Stearman, YAK and Harvard) and then Type C - the fighters. The DA is checked annually by Display Authorisation Examiners who are highly-rated display pilots such as John Romain or F/L Charlie Brown of the RAF Central Flying School at Cranwell in my case.
As a result of doing some four-ship training with Harvards, I wanted to be able to develop a formation team, preferably with four aircraft. I did not own an aeroplane, so setting out in the world of air displays was not going to be easy. I could not get hold of a Harvard but the thought had crossed my mind that the nine-ship Diamond Nine Team of nine Tiger Moths had stopped flying and there could be a gap in the display world to fit in a team of four Tigers. Running a formation team would be a great introduction to display flying.
I had been given a very practical “apprenticeship” in operating a display aeroplane when working as part of the Messerschmitt Display Team operating the 109 G Black 6. In addition I was the Display Director of the Rougham Air Display for 5 years during which time I was working with a number of display pilots and teams, as well as the CAA and got me well-used to the environment. After five years, I wanted to participate rather than watch – Gamekeeper turning Poacher.
While our winters in Canada do plummet to minus 40ºC, our Tiger Moths were equipped with a canopy to keep the slipstream from flash freezing the Tiger's occupants. And while the rare -15º C winter days in England might be thought balmy by Canadian standards, British pilots must don cold weather gear to fly in the open cockpit of a British Tiger Moth, Here Howard (right) and Dave Kirkham look determined to face the challenge. Photo via Howard Cook
I was flying Tiger Moths at the Cambridge Flying Group which, at the time, was the only place in the world where a pilot could be trained from Ab Initio to fly the Tiger Moth. I had been doing a lot of formation flying in recent years with Dave Kirkham. Dave was part of the now-retired Diamond-Nine and after a brief chat following a freezing winter formation sortie in the Moths – the winters are warmer in the UK but we don’t have roofs on ours – we thought we might be able to interest a couple of the former Diamonds to come in and make a four. In the end two of them found out about our plans and wanted in. Pete ”PJ” Jackson had been flying Tigers for “donkeys’ years” and Mike Vaisey, who, in addition to his years of Tiger escapades, owned the vintage engine rebuilders Vintech. Just the sort of experience we were looking for.
My plan was that unlike the Diamond Nine which flew its big formations and sweeping cascades at 500ft, being smaller we would be flying with multiple formation changes lower and tighter in that being a four ship we would be able to do so. We would use the RAF “Minimum Movement” system where all manoeuvres would go through the Box (Diamond) formation and where only one aircraft moves at a time in any one direction. Although our aeroplanes dated from the 1930’s, the team flew to the current RAF formation operating procedures.
The Diamond Nines perform at RAF Halton's Tiger Moth Charity Day. Some members of this team would come together with Howard Cook to form a four-ship formation team known as Little Diamond. Photo: Lauren Richardson
The nine Tiger Moths of the Diamond Nines sit on the grass at Woburn in 1999. Photo: Geoff Collins
Dave and I continued 2-ship formation training with regular display practices at Duxford at display height i.e. down to 100ft. We then added PJ to work up the 3-ship routine and then Mike joined us for the 4-ship. This was very useful in that in addition to having the full team routine we also had back up routines in case we lost an aeroplane through unserviceability. These have proved useful at various times over the years as you never know when a team member will have a problem as happened a few years back at Seething when my number four force landed just after takeoff.
A four-ship formation can be very flexible with a number of options and it can be a good controllable display unit. The team has to be able to remember a number of changes, go on the order and keep it tight with the little power and speed provided by the Tiger Moths. Our aim with the Little Diamond team was to change formations throughout the routine and to keep it tight and low and in front of the crowd throughout.
A training sortie would start with flying each of the formation positions in turn, getting our references properly lined up for Echelon, Box, Swan, Finger Four Port, Finger Four Starboard, Echelon Port and Starboard. This makes up the repertoire for a varied routine. With sufficient grass we could take off as a four-ship. We also practiced the join-up from 2 x 2 aircraft formation take offs and the recovery; echelon run and break or 2 x 2 aircraft formation landings. Every week, weather permitting, Dave and I would practice our routines and formation take off and landings and then enhance this further when we had the full team together – practice makes perfect, there were no short cuts. Developing a routine requires not only practice but clear briefing and debriefing. We also have the advantage that my wife – Vintage Wings volunteer Peta Cook – filmed our routines from the ground or in flight, very useful for critique purposes.
In terms of display hours I was the “sprog” compared to Dave, PJ, and Mike. I had developed the routines and organized the training so that I could fly any position. The chaps liked me leading - so I stayed there. Leading looks easy. If anyone says that to you – let them try – and they soon realise how difficult it is.
Howard Cook leads the Little Diamond Tiger Moths in across show centre at Little Warden. Photo via Howard Cook
Normally for the issue of a formation Display Authorisation, one would fly as a team member for a season or two and then move up to leader. I was leading Little Diamond but the CAA was very understanding and after flying my test with Charlie Brown as Examiner I had my Formation Display Authorisation issued. This also included approval for formation landings and tail-chasing which is quite a different display skill to acquire.
Now into displays. Dave and I were flying Cambridge Flying Group aircraft whilst PJ and Mike owned theirs. For Dave and I to get the use of the two CFG Tigers for displays we had to go the extra mile to organise flying days for the group members to the air display, giving other members a chance to fly the Tigers into such illustrious shows as the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden or smaller shows like Rougham`s Wings, Wheels and Steam event. It was certainly not a case of “here is my aeroplane please display it”.
We had done a couple of 3-ship shows but our first 4-ship show as the complete Little Diamond was the Children in Need Air Display at Little Gransden. This is an annual event to raise funds for a national charity and in my opinion out of the many displays that I fly or work at is one of the best of the year.
I had already flown an aerobatic display earlier in the day in a Chipmunk. With that complete I took Dave with me in the Chippie and flew him to Cambridge to pick up the two CFG Tigers. They were in use all day so we had to pick them up for our slot and then fly from Cambridge in the Tigers and over to Little Gransden 20 minutes away. PJ and Mike would be on the runway at Gransden lined up and waiting for us. The plan was that we would fly a formation “pick up”, this would mean that I would move Dave to Line Astern as we run in, call PJ and Mike to roll and they would take off and fly up and join in their 2 and 3 slots as we passed over. I wrote these notes after landing from this display
Looking ahead looks a capacity crowd here, very knowledgeable one too. On time, check in with Little Diamond 2 and 3, Diamonds ready “2”, “3”. Dave in Echelon so signal him (hand behind head thumb back) into Line Astern. Running in 100ft “Diamonds 2 and 3 roll”. They’re off and climbing, my speed back for their catch-up 2 and 3 close into position in Box. All aboard. Run around the corner in Box. On time. “Little Diamonds running in”. Stopwatch on, signal the turn round the corner, pick up the “A” axis and hand signal straighten, level off, first change Box to Swan “GO” and off we go. 120ft – no.4 at 100 - watch the trees and land clear areas as a just in case.. Looking down on Mike in his Red Tiger on the inside of the turn looks good. RPM, t’s & P’s. Check positioning with the on-crowd wind; keep the display tight to the crowd. Box to Swan “GO”. PJ and Mike slide back, Dave’s closer underneath.
Each pass in front of the crowd change to another formation. Swan to Box “GO”. 270 left and run back in from the intermediate back to the “A” axis (main crowd axis). Move Dave from Box to Finger Four Left, then move him to Finger Four Right, then into Box for the turn. He is good at rapid transitions so it has all fitted in the A line pass.
On time,Box to Finger Four Right then Mike across to Echelon Right checking that I have allowed room for Mike on the outside to be the right distance from the crowd. Breaking on my call. “Little Diamonds breaking, breaking GO” No1, 2, 3 4 – follow the leader one second apart. I am now at 100ft looking over my shoulder to check the spacing, looking good, call “last pass” – on time - and wave at the crowd, grief this is fun! Can see them waving back. Climb to 500ft, curved approach a la Spit to land and down on the wheels landing long so that PJ, Mike and Dave can get in behind in one go. Down and vacate, all down and taxiing in. Line up, shut down checks, look over at the team, hand on the mags (outside the cockpit on our Tigers) , nod, and formation shutdown. Complete. Phew! – The crowd was clapping, we must have been OK!
Then a reality check with the team whilst it is “hot” on what we need to work on. This is best straight after the flight. The video looked very good, nice and tight, concentration good, transitions good although as perfectionists we want it better every time.
Another notable display that we flew as Little Diamond 4 was to open the first Duxford Proms in 2003. Proms concerts are a popular type of show in the UK. Held at stately homes such as Castle Howard or Leeds Castle and with displays flown to music. The Duxford Proms was an early evening show and as it took place after Cambridge Flying Group operations ended for the day, David and I could fly over and meet PJ and Mike and park up next to the crowd enclosure ready for the show. We were requested to display to the music from the film “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” so I therefore worked out an appropriate routine to the music. Timings were critical which focussed the mind a tad as did the weather when the rain began to fall. The showers were light but I recall wiping the water off my goggles as we ran in for the display. All going well with the stopwatch running throughout the transitions. With 15 seconds to go we started to turn in for the breaking dive to finish, 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, “2 AND 3 BREAKING< BREAKING GO”, 1AND 2 GO” – Box break to finish. It worked! Crowd is clapping again. Can’t have been a fluke last time!
There are few joys greater in flying than the Moth, except perhaps to fly in a display with four of them. You can multiply the joy by four.
Little Diamond was a great apprenticeship. Keep in tight in a Box 4 at 100ft - with little power and lots of drag at Duxford or Old Warden and you can keep in tight in anything. It is a great introduction to the world of display flying. I still fly the occasional Moth display which reminds me, even years after Little Diamond, of what a great trainer the Tiger Moth is, display work or otherwise.