“You’ve got your stuff right?”: From Street Clothes to Strapped In for the Ride of a Lifetime!
By most accounts, the 2019 edition of Airshow London’s practice day was a bit underwhelming thanks to Mother Nature’s intervention. Low ceilings kept the aircraft on the ground for most of the day limiting arrivals to instrument approaches, and an intense line of storms resulted in an early cancellation of the “Hour of Power” before the fun even started.
For a few brief moments in the afternoon though, the skies cleared just enough to allow for a few of the acts to get up for practice. As soon as ceilings reached the acceptable minimum, MAJ Cody “ShIV” Wilton took the A-10C up for a demo practice. PhotoRecon was fortunate enough to capture the pre and post flight activities from the other side of the rope, but that’s a story for another day.
Soon after the A-10 was pushed back to its parking location, preparations began for a flight from the trio of vintage jets on London’s hot ramp, a DeHavilland Vampire (Vampy Too, flown by Jerry Conley) and a pair of CT-133s (Canadair license built T-33s) known as “Red Knight” and “Black Knight”. The airshow setting for “Black Knight” was particularly interesting, as it was a homecoming of sorts with this particular airframe. “Black Knight” had just been restored to flying status in London the previous winter, with further work being completed by the new owner in the southern United States in time for it to win “Judge’s Choice” for best jet restoration at Oshkosh this summer. The “Black Knight” was joined by the London-based Red Knight flown by Todd Culver, which was restored and painted in the iconic Canadian single ship CT-133 demo team livery by the Jet Aircraft Museum. The museum strives to keep Canada’s early jet-powered heritage alive, operating multiple jet warbirds as well as offering educational programs and a display of a collection of Canadian aviation memorabilia.
Since these three particular pilots hadn’t flown together yet, it was important to run through the formation portion of their program in practice prior to flying for the crowd, which was a perfect opportunity to install an onboard camera for the Black Knight’s pilot for the weekend, Mike Terfehr of 45 North Aviation. Thankfully, I had fine-tuned over-the-shoulder camera angles for the T-33 a few weeks prior, and mounting the Virb was accomplished in short order! Having most recently used the camera during a formation training weekend, the Virb and its mounting hardware was still living in my helmet bag along with everything I needed to safely fly in jet trainers, a fortunate case of procrastination that was about to pay off in a big way. Mike is an experienced warbird and charter pilot with over 10,000 hours in his logbook, and has most recently been flying formation acts and solo aerobatics in his Traverse City based L-39. Terfehr is working closely with the Black Knight’s owner Bill Culberson to expand his airshow participation in future seasons in the Black Knight, L-39, and even a MiG-17!
Above are a pair of links to video shot during Marks’ flight…
As step time grew closer, it became clear that there would not be an active aerobatic box over the field due to haze-induced low visibility. With no waiver to worry about, yours truly was presented with a challenge: Get geared up, briefed, and strapped in prior to start time, and the back seat was mine! Much to the delight of the Jet Aircraft Museum’s ground crew, a flight suit soon covered the t-shirt and shorts, the 150-600mm lens had been swapped out for a 17-50mm unit with a rubber hood, and my helmet had been re-configured from a civilian radio boom mic to a military impedance oxygen mask. As more and more flight gear and camera equipment came out of the bag, Terfehr laughed, and quipped to the crew chiefs “This is why he gets to fly with us, he’s low maintenance! Who else is crazy enough to have all this stuff ready to go like that?”
Not long after the challenge was given, and shortly after the initial egress briefing, I was climbing the ladder and strapping in to the back seat of a CT-133 for the first time! While I’m fortunate enough to have a bit of time in the back seat of jet trainers, the T-33 is a different animal, a generation older than the L-39s I’ve flown in the past. Strapping in to the jet involved climbing up to the cockpit making sure to not hit my head on the canopy, and slipping into the parachute. The parachute was followed by a separate set of straps for the harness in contrast to more modern integrated setups. Thankfully there was still plenty of time before start for Mike to help me strap in and to ensure I knew how to get out of the cockpit in a hurry should it become necessary.
Once buckled in, I got my helmet and oxygen mask hooked up and secured the camera. A few short minutes later with the pre-start checklist complete, the Rolls-Royce Nene 10 centrifugal flow turbine howled to life, the flight checked in on the radio, and the Black Knight taxied out behind the Vampire and Red Knight, leaving the canopy open to keep the cockpit temperature bearable. After the Toledo F-16s cleared the active, the three jets got into position on Runway 15 in formation, and the Vampire took off. Seconds later, the two CT-133s ran their engines up released the brakes, and climbed away from the runway in tight formation, initiating a right turn to rejoin with the Vampire southwest of the field.
Despite the fact that a photographer was on board, this was not an air to air photo flight by any means, rather a formation practice flight that would (hopefully) yield a few photos from an incredibly fortunate avgeek. The initial rejoin and maneuvers were performed a few thousand feet up in the skies near London, first a somewhat loose formation before tightening up to show spacing as everyone got comfortable. Most of the maneuvers were flown in Vic formation, with the Red Knight off the Vampire’s left wing, and Black Knight mirroring on the right hand side. A few shallow turns and a formation change to trail was enough to judge the conditions and get a feel for flying with each other.
Vampire flight turned back towards London International Airport and began to descend for a rehearsal of the demo profile over the field. The first pass was a Vic flat pass from show right, made quite challenging by gusty winds and a bit of turbulence. At this moment, the photographer in me was thrilled to be in formation with jets, being able to crank the shutter speed up and not worry about frozen props as the bumps shook the formation. The formation changed to trail off to the left and behind the crowd, and entered from the left for a trail formation flat pass. Approaching show left, the turbulence picked up, aggravated by the wake of the two aircraft ahead of Mike and I in Black Knight. In the span of a few seconds, the D500 nearly hit the top of the canopy and the lens hood did bump off the canopy rail, over two feet of vertical jostling from a bit of “light chop”. Coming off show right, a quick rejoin to Vic was executed followed by a tight turn to line up behind the crowd.
Approaching show center from behind the crowd, the three aircraft executed a bomb-burst break. The break represented the biggest (and only) noteworthy G-load for the flight, about three and a half Gs which immediately turned the manageable D500/17-50 f2.8 combo from a 3.5 pound kit into a 12+ pound load! Despite the relatively low seating position for a T-33 backseater compared to the L-39 (and the occasional “rapid unscheduled weight gain” of the camera), the Black Knight proved to be a solid air to air photo platform. The massive tip tanks were simultaneously difficult to shoot around and an interesting prop to use when framing another aircraft to show off the close formation nature of the flight. As always, the thrill of air to air photography outweighed all the challenges.
Due to the lack of an aerobatic box, both the Red Knight and Black Knight entered the downwind for a landing on Runway 15 after the break, followed by Vampy Too. Touching down smoothly despite the winds, Terfehr opened the canopy, bringing a rush of air into the cockpit providing a welcome relief from the rapidly escalating temperatures due to the low engine RPM (and associated drop in air conditioning).
Despite the lack of a crowd, it was still quite a thrill to taxi back in to London’s hot ramp, passing show center and getting a small taste of the feeling the show pilot get after flying an act in front of tens of thousands of spectators. All too soon we pulled into position next to the Red Knight and shut the engine down. At that point it was time to carefully extract myself from the cockpit, and get back to work, helping the crew get the jets buttoned up and covered prior to the rapidly approaching line of thunderstorms that resulted in the cancelled twilight show.
With the aircraft repositioned for overnight parking, the most important part of the flight commenced with a debriefing to review all aspects of the sortie. As per tradition, the highest numbered wingman (and their back seat ballast) provides their input first followed by the lower numbered wingmen and finishing with lead. One benefit of participating in the debriefing as the photographer is that suggestions could be made to benefit those of us on the ground with lenses pointed skyward for the rest of the weekend.
In this case, a few passes were added (A Vic topside photo pass and a two ship photo pass with the CT-133s in echelon) and one modified (adding a pull to the three ship break to show the topsides of the aircraft) to better show off the historical jets to the crowd. Needless to say, being in a position to provide that kind of input to ensure better photo opportunities the rest of the weekend was an honor, and the photos that resulted hold a special place in my portfolio!
With the debrief complete and the jets put to bed it was time to head back to the other side of the fence and resume the role of a spectator to enjoy everything else that Airshow London had to offer. While there wasn’t much more flying on that Friday, a long night of editing was ahead thanks to the 45 minutes spent in the back seat of one of the sharpest looking T-33s on the airshow circuit today!
The author would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Mike Terfehr for once again inviting me along to witness formation flying from a perspective so few get to see. Additionally, I would like to thank the Black Knight’s owner Bill Culberson, the Jet Aircraft Museum, the ground crew volunteers, and of course Airshow London for having the Black Knight return to Canada for a homecoming!
For more information on Mike or the Black Knight, please visit: https://www.45northaviation.com/flight-operations/airshows/