Saturday, 11 July 2015

28/6/2015 A little piece of aviation history - over Barnet!

A nice day for a walk in the park? Not really - not as far as the weather goes anyway... So why was I in the park then? Well I had to pop out to the shops to get some milk for my breakfast on Monday morning, and I like to take the 'scenic route' even if it takes a bit longer. While I was in the park I happened to witness a remarkable and never to be repeated event that lasted only a few seconds. Was it coincidence that I was in the park at that exact minute? Maybe not...

2015 is the last year ever that it will be possible to see a remarkable piece of British engineering in the skies. Avro Vulcan XH558 was built in 1960 and retired by the RAF in 1993, and that seemed to be that. Until 1998. A massively ambitious and expensive project was launched to get the now privately owned aircraft back in the air - with absolutely no help from the RAF or the government. Amazingly, both the project and the aircraft got off the ground - after 14 years XH558 flew again. It was originally thought that it would be possible to fly the Vulcan for another two or three years. It has now flown for eight years since it's return to the skies, but for a variety of reasons it has been decided that although the aircraft is in amazingly good shape and has been very reliable 2015 will be the last year it will fly. Ever.

The Vulcan is a remarkable piece of history in it's own right, and this particular machine is the last example of a British designed and built four engined jet aircraft of any type flying anywhere in the World - we shall never see it's like again.

As part of it's last year of flight it was decided to pay tribute to the RAF's old V-Bomber force (which also included the Victor and short lived Valiant bombers) by flying the Vulcan over every single remaining intact example of these three classic aircraft in the UK. This 'Salute to the V-Force' tour was planned to take place in two stages over this weekend, and on the Sunday it would be flying over London to pay tribute to the Vulcan at the RAF Museum in Hendon. The aircraft would only be making a single low level flypast over the museum at Hendon - any sort of air display there would be frowned upon these days - although Hendon aerodrome was once the venue for the World famous air display that has more recently taken place at Farnborough. I was thinking of jumping on my bike and heading over to Hendon (taking advantage of the free motorcycle parking at the museum) to catch the unique site of a Vulcan flying at low level of the site. However, it was raining in the morning and low cloud made it look possible the day's flight might not even take place - the Vulcan can fly safely in cloud and rain, but there isn't much point if no one on the ground can see it! I didn't much fancy getting a soaking on the bike as I slithered about on wet greasy London roads and then possibly standing in the rain and not seeing much anyway....

A little research provided the Vulcan's exact flight path - after it's flypast at Hendon it would be heading to Duxford in Cambridgeshire to fly over the examples of the Vulcan and Victor at the museum there. It's route to Duxford would take it right over Barnet! So maybe I didn't need to go to Hendon after all? I didn't think I'd see much from home - too many obstructions, but the park would be slightly closer to the Vulcan's flightline and is only a couple of minutes walk away so...

The rain had stopped and the low cloud was clearing. For once my planning actually worked out perfectly. The Vulcan was due over Hendon at 14.00 and by that time I had positioned myself in a carefully chosen vantage point in the park to get an unobstructed view. I looked over towards Hendon just a few miles away and sure enough at around one minute past two a small and very distinctive delta shape in the sky grew rapidly larger - accompanied by a growing roar! The Vulcan's planned flightpath would have taken it right over Barnet Church, but it seemed to be flying East of there and actually much closer to me than I expected! I may well have got a better view of the Vulcan right on my doorstep than if I had gone to Hendon to see it. I had occasionally in the past seen Concorde's flying over London, but they were much higher than this equally distinctive delta shape. The astounding Concorde is now history, and only to be seen in museums - soon the same will be said of the mighty Vulcan. But not today. I didn't bother taking my camera with me as past experience has shown that unless you have a massive telephoto lens an airborne aircraft will always look tiny - even if it's really close up. I wanted to soak up the sight and sound with my own senses as it happened, and I find wielding a camera really gets in the way of that - and this was a moment I would never experience again. I took a couple of very quick pictures on my phone before putting it aside and enjoying this unique moment. The Vulcan looked far far closer to me standing in the park than it does on the pictures from my phone - I felt I could almost see the pilot looking down at me! And of course there was the famous 'Vulcan roar' - a sound probably never heard so loud and so low over this spot, and never to be heard again over London.
I sort of expected a few other aviation enthusiasts to be in the park to witness this event - in much the same way as steam locomotive fans gather on the platforms in Barnet when they know an old steam loco will be hauling a special train through. As the Vulcan's roar grew quieter and the aircraft started to climb away over the woods leaving four trails of black smoke behind it I looked around me - I was alone in the park. It felt strange. I know many many other people over North London will have just seen and heard the Vulcan pass low overhead - even if many of them didn't know what it was or why it was there, and I'm sure there were hundreds at the RAF Museum in Hendon specially so see it fly over. But I was the only one standing in the park to witness this once in a lifetime event - it felt almost as if the aircraft had just flown over especially for me - a secret rendezvous in the park - my own private air display. A special and unique moment in time that I will always remember.

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