Best job in the world!
key.aero talks to Squadron Leader Ian Smith, who has just taken over as the ‘Boss’ of the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
“Ian, is this the best job in the air force?”
“Undoubtedly - it’s probably the best job in the world! My boyhood dream was to fly a Spitfire or a Hurricane. I’ve achieved that, realised that dream. Taking over from Al (Squadron Leader Al Pinner, former OC) as the boss will have its own challenges, which I’ll relish, but it’s an amazing opportunity. I’m extremely humbled, but very privileged to be able to do it.”
“You’ve been on the Flight for four years, is that right?”
“Four seasons, yes – it’s mandated that as the incoming OC you do four seasons, relevant for two reasons. The first is that we’re generally getting 55-60 hours a year on the fighters, and that means I’m now in a position to be able to air-test the aeroplanes in the early part of next year. I’ve got 237 hours on the big fighters, so it means that I understand them well enough and know whether they’re behaving themselves or not. Somebody with fewer hours than that would struggle. I also have enough experience on the fighters to be able to train new pilots coming in – that’s relevant not only from the conversion to type, but from also the fact that when we go away I know most of the venues, I know all the trouble-spots, I know where the risks are. Four years has put me in the right place to be able to take over the Flight – not wanting to appear that I know it all, I certainly don’t, but I’ve got a good team around me and between us we’ll be able to sort it out.”
“Tell us about your career so far…”
'Smithy' began his flying career on the Chinook HC1 in Germany.“My father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force. I remember flying with him in a Chipmunk and wondering if I was ever going to have the skill-sets to be able to be a pilot. But short of wanting to be a train driver and a vet for probably 20 minutes at a time, I was very sure that it was the only thing that I really wanted to do. I joined the air force in 1983, did aircrew selection at RAF Swinderby and then went to RAF Church Fenton on basic flying training.
“Unfortunately the air force and I had different opinions on where I was going to go thereafter. I almost left, but I ended up going to RAF Shawbury to rotary training. I was posted to Germany, flying Chinooks with 18 Squadron until 1989, but I always had a hankering to get back to something that was a bit faster. I’m very proud of my rotary wings, and of course the fighter boys are now very jealous of how they’re supporting our troops in Afghanistan at the moment. I would dearly love to go back one day.
“From 18 Squadron I was posted to the Central Flying School at RAF Scampton, qualified on the Jet Provost and taught basic fast jet training. In 1993 I went to RAF Coltishall and spent a long time on 41 Squadron flying the Jaguar before I was lucky enough to get into the Red Arrows, and was with them between 1997 and 1999. After that I was out in Saudi Arabia as the team manager for the embryonic Saudi Hawks aerobatic team for 18 months before returning to the Jaguar and 41 Squadron. I came to Coningsby in 2007 with 6 Squadron the Jaguar died a year earlier than we would have liked, but I needed to stay in Lincolnshire for my responsibilities as far as the BBMF was concerned, so I went to the Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Cranwell and taught on the Tutor. That finished in August of this year and for the last couple of months Al and I have been doing a handover process.”
Outgoing OC Sqn Ldr Al Pinner hands over to Smithy on November 5 at RAF Coningsby.“What attracted you to the BBMF?”
“Who wouldn’t want to fly a Spitfire? It’s been a lifelong ambition – I almost joined the Old Flying Machine Company at Duxford in 1996 but I got into the Arrows at the same time, so I couldn’t do it. I remember talking to Paul Day, ex-OC of the BBMF, and saying that I would have his job one day. When I applied to get onto the Flight I really had no idea that it was going to be a seven-year tour four years as an understudy and then three years as the boss, so I was very lucky. You make your own luck in some respects, but I was in the right place at the right time.”
“How was your first BBMF experience?”
“First was a Chipmunk: I did my training with Clive Rowley. I had a fair amount of ‘tail’ time before I arrived on the flight as I had owned a Christen Eagle for ten years or so by then. I’d flown a Chipmunk before on a few occasions, so the dynamics of tailwheel aeroplanes were known to me.”
“With Al leaving the flight, obviously there’s now a gap. Have you got a new pilot on board to keep the numbers up?”
“Yes, we have Mark Pearce, a Typhoon pilot on 29(R) Squadron, was selected from a cast of five who applied for the slot. He’s already started training with us on the Chipmunk. The guys that are fighter pilots stay current on the Chipmunk over the winter – today we had ‘Parky’ (Flt Lt Antony Parkinson) and Squadron Leader Duncan Mason flying together just to keep their skill sets up. We do 25 hours in the ‘Chippy’. Ten are in the front, and then you migrate to the back seat, with a ‘stick monkey’ in the front who can start the thing and shut it down. We fly from the back seat to get more ‘nose’ and a bit of wing in front of you.
“By the time you get to the Harvard, which is the next stage of training, it’s a bigger aeroplane, obviously a lot more powerful. We do an hour in the front and an hour in the back you’ve got an enormous nose and lots of wing in front of you. You can’t see over the nose, so there’s a lot of techniques relevant to big-piston-engined aeroplanes that a young Typhoon fighter pilot is not used to. Looking forward you can’t see anything so your eyes are dancing from left to right, quickly looking for the cues that you need not necessarily to get it airborne, but certainly to land it safely. That’s the most complicated bit!”
Novice BBMF fighter pilots start with the Hurricane as it's easier to handle when landing.“Will Mark be primarily in the Hurricane at the start, as it’s an easier aeroplane to handle than the Spitfire?”
“We are mandated as new pilots to fly the Hurricane. It’s a beast, but there’s a massive performance difference between it and the Mark 19 Spitfire. I vividly remember my first Hurricane ride I was nothing short of shocking, bearing in mind that you go from a Chipmunk to a Harvard, and then to a Hurricane. Spitfires are more nose-heavy and prone to misbehaving on the ground, more so than the Hurricane. It’s not as easy to fly once it’s airborne, but easier to ground handle with a bigger rudder and tail and doesn’t overheat on the ground, which is not true of some of the Spitfires, so it gives the boys the opportunity just to ‘get their feet under the table’.
Spitfire Mk II P7350 is the 'baby' of the team and its most prized fighter, being a genuine Battle of Britain veteran.“Midway through the season, having done some Hurricane time, we’ll usually put a new pilot onto a ‘baby’ Spitfire conversion, ideally the Mark 9 because it’s got a larger rudder and tail than the Mark II’s and doesn’t overheat quite as quickly as the II or the Mark V.
“Normally it’s the second season we’ll let him have a go in the big Spitfires which, of course, have the Griffon engines. The difference is that a ‘baby’ Spitfire say the Mark II has about 1,000 brake horse power, but the Griffons have got 2,000, even though it’s essentially the same aeroplane. That’s a big step."
“Are there any plans for next year that you can tell us about?”
“We have a few ideas to enhance the display but I’m not going to tell you what those are! I’ve yet to have them sanctioned by our lords and masters, but I am in conversation with them and the Civil Aviation Authority with a view to changing the display subtly. It’s exciting, and the other reason for not telling you is the fact that when we do it, it will be a surprise for everybody!”
The Griffon-engined Spitfires are twice as powerful as the Mk II and are left to the more experienced pilots.“Will there be a big flypast over London on September 15 to commemorate Battle of Britain Day?”
“The events team is currently going through all the bids – there are 1,500 for next year so far, regardless of the 70th anniversary celebrations. I have been to a number of meetings in London with the RAF Public Relations team and not surprisingly there are lots of people wanting us next year.”
“Are there any subtle changes you’d like to make to the Flight?”
“No, it’s a very well-rounded wheel. Al did a marvellous job as the OC, but history will prove that we’re very different animals. I will put my leadership style on the Flight. There were some big anniversaries that Al had to deal with, but none bigger than next year of course with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. We plan to celebrate it ourselves as well, so there are lots of things going on next year. I have to be very careful; it’s my first year as the OC, so in that respect, there will be nothing too ‘maverick’, because it’s time to gather everybody around me and for them to protect me for the first year whilst I get my feet under the table!
The flagship of the BBMF, the mighty Lancaster.“BBMF pilots are weekend warriors – there are 25 aircrew on the Flight, of which only one is a full-time individual – me! All the other guys have got ‘proper’ jobs in the air force; we’ve got a Harrier pilot and three Typhoon pilots for the fighters, and the Lancaster and Dakota pilots could be from E-3s at RAF Waddington or King Airs and Dominies from Cranwell. They all come in and support us at the weekends – my last four years have been as a weekend warrior, in that you come to work on Saturday, fly these things and then go home on Sunday, leaving the Boss with all the headache that goes with it, but of course now that’s my responsibility!”
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