From Fast Jets to First Principles

The Thursday War......

It was actually on a Tuesday in early September when I was privileged to fly with the sleek, black-painted BAe Hawks at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. The fleet, owned by the Royal Air Force, yet flown and maintained by civilians on behalf of the Royal Navy, is known as the FRADU(Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit) Hawks. Pilots come from a variety of backgrounds, but all are experienced fast-jet operators, with the Hawk, Tornado, Jaguar and Sea harrier predominantly in their logbooks. Its most important role is to fly simulated attack profiles against RN and NATO ships in order to train weapon systems operators.

Having arrived the day before, I was put through a careful medical checkup to ensure I was physically up to the stresses of fast-jet flight, then sent off to be measured and fitted equally carefully with helmet, oxygen mask, G-suit and other pilot paraphernalia. This was rounded off with a quick, grim instructional on emergency ( ejection )procedures. I was also reminded to always have a visor down over my eyes, for added protection in case of bird strike ( "you won't paint very well without your eyes, Ron…")! We roared off on time in the early afternoon…..with me in the rear seat…. quickly gaining operational height( 19,000 ft ) and panoramic views over the western extremities of Cornwall.

In the peaceful, sunlit skies we soon met up with another Hawk and a pair of blue FR Aviation Falcon 20s out of Bournemouth, and the exercise began in earnest. Bristling with antennae and underwing pods containing electronic warfare threat simulators, they can jam radars and communications systems or simulate hostile aircraft and missile radars. Over the following hour and a half we would repeatedly drop down from on high and skim across the wide ocean until the grey silhouettes of cruisers and destroyers would suddenly appear ahead of us. One could almost see their crews at Action Stations scrambling to bring their defensive systems to bear on the incoming missile and/or hostile aircraft threat their sensors were registering. The ships that day seem to have been mainly German and Dutch Navy, and we were simulating anti-shipping attacks by Sukhoi SU-24 Fencers. We would roar over them triumphantly at little more than mast height, sometimes waggling our wings in salute.

Visibility was excellent out of that big Hawk cockpit. At times pressed into the seat by G-forces, and at other times dangling upside down by my seat straps, but always surrounded by magnificent vistas of sea and sky, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and never once needed the pair of vomit bags thoughtfully clipped to the dash in front of me. Every time the G-suit automatically clamped tight( as the dramatic vortices trailed off the wings to either side of me ) I would instinctively contract my abdominal muscles. An old Karate reflex perhaps, but I was told it was the correct thing to do!

Back on the ground the painting and prints commissioned by the unit were presented the following day. Titled "The Thursday War", the painting(see below) depicts a four-ship simulated attack on HMS Cornwall, a Type 22 Frigate, with FRADU Hawks crossing over the ship from different directions and stacked at different heights…..roughly 100, 300, 500 and 700 feet. The rest of my brief visit was pleasantly spread between the pubs and sea food restaurants of Cornish villages, and long walks along the picturesque but blustery Atlantic coast.


.....and The Wright Stuff

A couple of weeks afterwards I found myself in Dayton, Ohio for the second time this year, this time courtesy of the 20th Fighter Wing Association 2003 Reunion. As Guest Speaker at the Banquet held at the sumptuous Crowne Plaza Hotel, I gave an illustrated talk on my work with the assistance of projector and screen to a packed audience. In spite of the busy ( and highly enjoyable) schedule I was able to fit in a flight on a 1911 Wright "B" Flyer( an obvious advance on the original 1903 machine, and more akin to the Farman which made the first powered flight in Hong Kong in 1911 )! In the few minutes we were in the air I rudely discovered the meaning of not having a cockpit and fuselage between you and the elements, even on a calm, sunny day at about 50 mph! The other thing I was keenly aware of was that busy motor and those large, chain-driven (counter-rotating!) prop blades pressing us forward, all just behind my bum. One would not wish for anything to suddenly halt the forward motion of the fragile contraption.....

On the return flight to London from Dayton I stopped over at Washington DC to meet up with some long lost Hong Kong schoolmates( class of '58 ) now resident on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. Among many other things I at last stepped inside the renowned Smithsonian Air and Space Museum( accompanied by an old schoolmate who is a dean of the MIT, and another who is ex-CIA!). Something of an anticlimax in terms of capacity and content after the vast and overflowing USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson, but made up for by some fascinating displays on the missile and space exploration side. That erect Soviet SS-20 ICBM from the Cold War era for instance, in khaki camouflage and with its unique cluster design of multiple warhead ( anyone watch that monster thriller "Tremors"?), positively exuded evil intent!
And yes, that famous B-17 mural by Keith Ferris is still there in all its glory.

Ronald Wong GAvA
10 Oct 2003