It was never going to end well. "You're a tall, skinny guy, you're tired and dehydrated, and your blood pressure is low," the air force doctor told me, about four hours before I was due to strap myself into the back of a BAE Systems Hawk jet trainer for my first flight in the type. "You'd better stay off the coffee and drink plenty of water."
I don't tend to function too well without coffee in the morning, especially when I've only been in country – on this occasion Canada – for a matter of hours. All in all, maybe I wasn't going to be best prepared for my second ever fast jet ride, which was to follow my inaugural blast in a UK Royal Air Force BAE Harrier T10 trainer earlier this year...
My visit to Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan was to be a short one. Home to the Bombardier-run NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) school and the Canadian forces' Snowbirds aerobatic display team, the base is located on the flat plains of central Canada. My journey to the school called for an almost three hour hop to Regina from Toronto, Ontario with Air Canada Jazz, after enduring a hellish transatlantic flight from Gatwick in the UK with low-cost carrier Air Transat. If anyone finds my kneecaps in the back of the armrests on one of their Airbus A310s would they please let me know?
Having been passed fit for my Hawk ride I picked up my flight clothing, was fitted with g-pants, a helmet and oxygen mask and received my ejection seat and parachute safety briefing. I then met the air force Wing Commander in charge of base activities at Moose Jaw, and some of the Bombardier officials responsible for delivering around 120 sorties per day with NFTC’s active fleets of 24 Raytheon T-6A Harvards and 18 Hawk 115s; the latter of which are also used to conduct Phase IV lead-in fighter training work from Cold Lake, Alberta.
Next – and I’ll blame this for my undoing – we packed in a quick lunch of salad and a ‘Hawaiian chicken’ dish that I will never forget, before I got into my flight gear ahead of a pre-flight briefing and the Hawk ride itself.
My sortie was flown with Dragon Flight, which conducts Phase III flight training at Moose Jaw for nations including Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Singapore and the UK. Call-signed ‘Dragon Dogs’ 1 and 2, our two-ship Hawk formation was to form part of a six-aircraft flypast over a new industrial building of some sort (nobody seemed to know), along with two Harvards and led by two of the Snowbirds’ Canadair Tutor jets. Reflecting NFTC’s multinational flavour, my pilot was a Hungarian air force 1st Lieutenant, while our sister ship was flown by a Canadian colonel conducting his last flight in military service, with an instructor from the German air force riding in the back seat.
Time was tight after the briefing, with Dog 2 (tail number 155215) running late from its preceding sortie and Dog 1’s rear crew member proving rather hopeless at strapping himself into 155217. But thankfully Bombardier’s ground crews can turn a Hawk around within as little as seven or eight minutes, including refuelling, and the aircraft isn’t lacking in the speed department. We conducted a close formation take-off before accelerating to about 480kt (890km/h) to make it to our rendezvous over Wood Mountain by 13:50; 10 minutes before our flypast was due to take place.
With a few minutes to spare in the hold at 4,000ft (1,220m) my pilot – “Bondy” – let me have a couple of minutes at the controls for some simple manoeuvres. The Hawk was as easy to fly as I had expected, although I found it difficult to read the speed, altitude and heading cues on the screen in front of me which repeated the view through my pilot’s head-up display. This was more a factor of my long-sightedness than poor design on BAE’s part, much like the discomfort that I was now experiencing from my oxygen mask because of my past decision to break my nose while playing football several years ago.
Bondy then brought us into position to follow the smoke-trailing Snowbirds aircraft over our intended target, maintaining a 10 second separation between our formations, with the Harvards following us at our leisurely speed of 280kt. Not much of a challenge for a pilot with a frontline tour on the RSK MiG-29 and over 600 hours on the Hawk under his wings, and to be honest I wasn’t really aware that we had even passed our target before it was all over.
Perhaps it was from the repeated 3g turns we had been doing in the hold while our formation came together, but by now I was starting to find it hard – and incredibly hot – going in the back seat. The two small air vents weren’t doing a great deal to get over the fact that I was wearing standard-issue thermal underwear, thick flight socks, a flight suit, flying jacket and life jacket in bright sunshine.
As a precaution I thought I’d better check on the location of my sick (or ‘barf’) bag, but this brought bad news; I didn’t appear to have one. Conscious of the fact that any passenger illness could have a negative impact on the school’s aircraft readiness statistics, I decided that common sense should get the better of bravado, so when Dog 2 started to lead us into some formation barrel rolls I had to ask Bondy to break away. It was a real shame to have to miss out when the fun part of the flight was about to start, but I felt that it would have been foolish on my part to push it any further.
When we touched down at the end of our 50min sortie I took my mask off to find that I had perspired so much that it was like pouring a small bottle of water away, and my post-flight photo shows me looking a few shades whiter than when I had embarked. I won’t tell you what happened to my lunch after we had landed and reached the safety of the crew room, but I quickly knew that I had been right to skip the aerobatics!
Once I had regained a bit of colour and completed a quick debrief with Bondy I went on to have a quick tour of NFTC’s ground-based training system with an ex-UK RAF Harrier instructor. This gave me the chance to fly one of the facility’s Hawk flight training devices on a brief sortie from take-off roll, around the circuit and then back in for a safe landing, which did a lot to restore my confidence. It was probably just as well that NFTC doesn’t use full motion simulators though.
My father – who did a bit of hairy flying in Lockheed Martin C-130 transports during his service with the RAF – says I should be popping travel sickness tablets before I fly, so I think I’ll give that a go whenever my third sortie comes along. But if anyone else out there has any tried and tested advice on how to avoid feeling ill in the back of a fast jet then I’d welcome your comments below.
On my way back to the UK I got the chance to give Air Transat another try; at least I’d have more freedom of movement and be a bit cooler than in the back of a Hawk, I thought. But just 15 minutes into our flight we began to make a steady turn to the left, and our captain announced that we were going to have to return to Toronto because our nose gear wouldn’t come up. At least they had a sense of humour about it though: on landing ahead of an approximately 90 minute delay, a message appeared on the TV screens saying “Thank you for flying Air Transat”. Or maybe they knew it would probably be the last time that many of their passengers would be choosing to travel with them…