Duxford and the Warbirds

24 April 2013

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In issue 6-2012, Dim Jones reported on training for the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, a unit formed, in the words of the current Chief of the Air Staff, to be “very much part of both the RAF’s and the Nation’s heritage… and…kept in the air as a living memorial to those who have gone before.” He now visits Duxford.

Some 80 miles south of Coningsby lies the former Battle of Britain airfield at Duxford, at that time home to fighter squadrons of 12 Group and Douglas Bader’s ‘Big Wing’. Duxford is now home to the air element of the Imperial War Museum; however, alongside the IWM’s static displays, several small companies - the Aircraft Restoration Company, The Fighter Collection, the Old Flying Machine Company and the Historic Aircraft Collection, to name but a few - ply a trade which has a lot in common with BBMF – the restoration, maintenance and flying of historic aircraft. Although there are many other companies, syndicates and individuals scattered around the UK engaged in similar activities, it can undoubtedly be said that Duxford is the spiritual home of ‘warbird’flying in UK.

However, whereas their core aim – the safe operation of vintage aircraft – may be the same as for BBMF, their specific objective, the operation of WWII aircraft in a civilian environment, and the challenges it presents, are subtly different. BBMF is a publicly-funded military organisation, staffed and run along Service lines, for which display flying, and the sustainment of the RAF’s legacy, is the raison d’être. The Warbirds are owned and operated by commercial companies, private individuals or syndicates. They may be displayed or operated for financial recompense – to offset the considerable cost of flying and maintaining them – but they are overwhelmingly flown by enthusiasts for pleasure, their own and that of the public. However, to suggest that any of this is done other than extremely professionally would be both insulting and untrue.

So how does an aspiring Spitfire pilot go about achieving his or her dream? Generally speaking, there are 2 principal avenues to flying one of these machines. You may be lucky enough to own it yourself, which generally takes a lot of money; or you fly it with or for someone who does and has. However, neither route absolves you from the requirement to undergo proper graduated training, with a view to gaining the required experience and licensing. There are a few Warbird aircrew who are serving or retired military aviators, although not as many as one might think; of these, some will have flown vintage aircraft in military organisations such as BBMF or the Royal Navy Historic Flight (the Fleet Air Arm equivalent). Others will have made contacts through the ‘display circuit’; however, although their experience – and certainly of flying powerful and relatively sophisticated aircraft - may be greater, the disparity between modern front-line aircraft and their vintage forebears means that military pilots are not that much better placed than their civilian counterparts when it comes to mastering the techniques required to operate the latter.

The majority of those who fly vintage aircraft on the civil register are, therefore private or commercial pilots. Either way, and even if their day jobs are at the front end of a 747, they may well have started their flying careers in flying clubs. This will almost certainly have involved time on single-piston aircraft and, for this reason, tailwheels, propellers, rudder bars which are more than footrests, and aeroplanes without all-round visibility from the cockpit, are the norm rather than the exception. True, a Spitfire is a bit more of a handful than a Cessna 180, but the principles are the same, as is the principle of graduated training, from a light tailwheel aircraft like a Chipmunk, Cub, Tiger Moth or Stearman, through something heavier and more powerful, like a Harvard, to the Warbird itself.

Training progression- Stearman and Harvard. Image credits: Author

So how is this activity regulated? Unsurprisingly, in the UK, the regulating authority is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and it has its counterparts in other countries. ‘Ex-military aircraft or replicas thereof’ with either: a Maximum Total Weight Authorised (MTWA) in excess of 2730Kg; a piston engine with a rating of 800 hp or more; or a turbine or turbojet engine, are generally operated on a ‘Permit-to-Fly’, rather than a Certificate of Airworthiness. This covers nearly all of the sorts of aircraft we are talking about, and the relevant ‘bible’ is Civil Aviation Publication (CAP) 632. CAP 632 covers all aspects of owning, operating and maintaining an aircraft on a Permit-to-Fly. This includes guidance and regulation on Organisational Control, Specialised Equipment and Systems, Pilot and Crew Qualifications, Technical and Operational Requirements and Recording and Audit Procedures.

Pilots wishing to operate Permit-to-Fly aircraft must hold a civil licence, with the appropriate class or type rating or, where no such rating exists, a CAA-granted exemption. All Single-Engine Piston (SEP) types can be flown on a SEP class rating, with endorsements for ascending levels of complexity, such as retractable undercarriage and variable-pitch propellers. Pilots undergoing conversion will require a further exemption, which will be granted only when the CAA and the person responsible for the training (normally the Chief Pilot of the appropriate organisation) have agreed a training syllabus; the Organisational Control Manual (OCM) will detail the minimum experience required to commence training. Pilots wishing to fly high-performance propeller-driven aircraft, or any jet aircraft, will require ‘conversion, refresher and technical training’, which ‘will be assessed on an individual basis. Pilots who have little or no military jet or high-performance piston-engine experience will invariably be required to undergo rigorous and detailed conversion training including, where appropriate, specific aviation medicine training.’ On completion of training and testing, a full exemption to the requirement for a class rating will be issued, renewal of which is conditional on maintenance of agreed levels of currency. Although the CAP gives some guidance on recommended experience levels, essential training requirements and dual checks, the emphasis is definitely on a syllabus agreed on a case-by-case basis, reflecting the performance and complexity of the aircraft to be flown, and the experience and ability of the individual trainee. Civil operators have one advantage over the BBMF, in that there are several 2-seat Spitfires around, mostly Mk IXs, so that the learning curve may be rendered a little less precipitous.

As regards equipment, the CAA expects ‘that the aircraft will be operated as far as possible to the standards used in military service.’ and that specialised systems, such as oxygen, pressurisation, ejection seats, flying clothing, emergency and back-up systems, brake-parachutes, and external fuel tanks and pylons should be serviceable, and ‘operated in accordance with the instruction manuals used whilst in military service’. The Operational Requirements section gives guidance on some aspects peculiar to the operation of Permit-to-Fly aircraft, such as: airspeed and g limitations; ejection seats, the policy for their use, and associated flying clothing; high speed and low level flight; and flying with jettisonable external stores. It recommends some essential training requirements, and encourages owners and operators to ‘take into consideration the age, the rarity value and the need for continued preservation of an aircraft’ when imposing any additional limitations on themselves.

Major surgery on Lysander and OV-10. The bicycle is not being refurbished. Image Credit: Author

Turning to maintenance for a moment, British Civil Airworthiness Requirements (BCAR) are published by the CAA, and CAP 553 Chapter A8-20 details the specific requirements for the ‘Approval of Organisations Responsible for the Restoration, Airworthiness Control and Maintenance of Aeroplanes and Rotorcraft of Military Origin’. Like CAP 632, the guidance is comprehensive, and includes: the qualification and experience requirements for nominated personnel, both technical and management, to include sub-contractors; organisation co-ordination; quality systems, technical accommodation, equipment; and publications and technical records. Again, in common with CAP 632, maintenance programmes are agreed between the organisation and the CAA on an individual application and approval basis, and ‘the maintenance programmes and schedules should, where possible, be based upon the original aircraft documentation and must account for the original servicing elements and additional CAA requirements’. Aircraft engineering personnel are licensed and regulated by the CAA under Part-66, which ‘provides a common and mutually acceptable standard across EASA member states’. Like their aircrew counterparts, licences are issued in various categories, and supplemented with Type Ratings, which allow the holder to work on a specific aircraft type, subject to the appropriate training and assessment.

The restoration and maintenance of vintage aircraft is a specialised business, and most definitely a ‘labour of love’; it often involves the repair of components which are no longer available in new or restored form, or the bespoke manufacture of a new part, either from technical drawings, or by using a life-expired, damaged or corroded part as a template. Although one might expect this area to be the domain of the more elderly technicians, when I visited the Aircraft Restoration Company, I was encouraged to find that their technical staff included some very young people (by my standards, anyway!). The common factor across the age spectrum is that they all clearly love what they do. The ARC is an acknowledged leader in its field, and apart from the daily maintenance of various types, including several marks of Spitfire, aircraft undergoing overhaul or restoration included an OV-10 Bronco, a Lysander, and the second of the BBMF’s Hurricanes. ARC provides many of BBMF’s spares and, at the end of the 2013 display season, the BBMF Lancaster (PA474) will receive a major servicing in a specially constructed hangar at ARC’s Duxford facility.

Bespoke engineering. Image Credit: Author

Returning to the flying side, many of the vintage aircraft are involved in display flying, not only because it shows the aircraft off to best advantage and provides a public service, but also because it can offset the considerable cost involved in owning and running such machines, and is a lot of fun. Display flying is also regulated by the CAA, this time through CAP 403, issued by the Safety Regulation Group, which gives a clue as to the main aim of the document. Both civil and military display flying are covered by Article 162 of the Air Navigation Order, and the regulations clearly need to be compatible, since many flying displays involve both civil and military aircraft. A pilot wishing to display an aircraft must apply to a CAA-appointed Display Authorisation Evaluator (DAE), who will mentor the applicant through a programme of training in display manoeuvres, and education in the special demands of display flying. On successful completion of the approved programme, the DAE will recommend the issue of a Display Authorisation (DA), based on the applicant’s experience and ability; CAP 403 designates 4 levels of competency, each with its associated permitted manoeuvres, and gives comprehensive guidance on the DA process and such issues as display currency and formation flying. An initial DA is specific to an aircraft type, is valid for 6 months, thereafter renewable annually, and can be upgraded to reflect increased experience.

Anyone wishing to organise a flying display must apply to the CAA, who will appoint a suitably qualified and experienced Flying Display Director (FDD), who is responsible for the safe and proper conduct of the display. At larger shows, the FDD will be assisted by a Flying Control Committee. All display pilots must hold the appropriate DA, and operate in accordance with it; failure to do so can result in a warning from the FDD, and serious infringements may merit exclusion from the display, referral to the CAA, and recommend-ation for the withdrawal of DA.

In seeking to regulate civil display flying, the CAA faces a much more disparate task than the supervisors of the tightly-controlled RAF displays – a large number of pilots, of varying experience and competence, flying a wide variety of aircraft in events ranging from a flypast at a local fete to the Royal International Air Tattoo. CAP 403 does its best to rise to this challenge, and the CAA staff responsible – many of whom are Warbird or display pilots themselves – are most supportive. There are concerns – currency can be an issue, especially for those who are lucky enough to fly several different types of aircraft, and those who operate within the more regulated environments such as Duxford, with the attendant peer evaluation, are easier to police than individuals operating in isolation. The instructors, DAEs and FDDs are key to the success and safety of the activity, and it is important that they are both appropriately qualified and themselves current in their respective activities. Another concern is that few of the pilots, and none of the aircraft, are getting any younger; mercifully, there seems to be a steady stream of more youthful aspirants, and the odd restored aircraft, to bolster the ranks. It is to be hoped that this vastly emotive and enjoyable activity will continue unabated and in safety, for the joy of the participants and the entertainment of the public.


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