James Brown takes to the air for an exhilarating ride at the hands of a very polite torturer
Not your everyday question
My friend Trevor called on Tuesday and said, “I’m going formation flying on Friday in Northampton. Do you want to come?” I didn’t even think about what it would be like—I just knew this wasn’t the sort of question you get asked every week. I said yes. Three days later and I’m ready and willing to fly with a team of former Red Arrows called The Blades. The small Art Deco airport at Sywell is coated in fine rain, and until some blue sky cracks through the dark cloud and dries the day out, we’ll be confined to the meeting room.
We’re shown the weather forecast for possible flying, and the cheery team leader Mark explains weather fronts and what’s supposed to be happening. For the first time ever, I realise how much further the weather goes than “Do I need my coat?” The good news is that, in about 90 minutes, we can fly. We climb into our black flying suits and sunglasses, so we now look like very stylish mechanics.
Learning the basics
There are four stages ahead of us: “looking out onto the field at the four small planes as they bump across the grass”, “flying”, “landing”, and finally “seeing the others do it”. We’ll be flying smart little red planes called Extra RA-300s, which are “low-wing, high performance aircraft designed for the most aerobatic manoeuvres”. I’ll be at the front and my pilot Andy will be just behind me. We’re so close that I’ll obscure his vision when we’re on the ground, so he’ll zigzag across the field to get to the runway.
At this point, as we bump across the field looking at the other planes zigzaging ahead of us, I’m thinking about the very clear but terrifying parachute information we’ve been given. I’ve fallen out of a plane once at altitude before—deliberately— and I don’t really fancy doing it again, especially in an emergency.
Thankfully we’re in good hands: the pilots have impeccable credentials in Harriers and Hawks, on active service in Afghanistan and the Cold War, and leading and flying in the Red Arrows. Hearing all this, I know I can trust them and I never once feel scared of the actual flying.
Time to fly
Then we’re off! The nose lifts, rain-lines race across the cockpit and pool in my lap, and Andy is asking me how I feel. I feel utterly exhilarated, and before you can say “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” there’s a burst of inter-pilot chatter and we move into formation. A bloke I was chatting to ten minutes ago over a cup of tea is now 15 feet away waving at me in mid-air. Pilot Andy proceeds to ask me very courteously if I’d like to do all sorts of amazing manoeuvres—he’s like the world’s most polite torturer.
“Are you ready for a thumbscrew now, James?”
“Shall we try the rack?”
“Molten gold down the throat?”
I’d have said yes to pretty much anything he suggested. Ground down into my seat by the G-force, I don’t want to miss anything, despite going through the experience of twisting and turning at high speed through the sky. Imagine a roller coaster times ten, but without the rumble of the tracks.
Once we’ve done a massive loop in formation and watched the earth, then the sky, then the earth, then the sky again— all tumbling over each other—we proceed into barrel rolls and all manner of gyroscopic manoeuvres. For 15 minutes I experience the most amazing twists and turns. I try to laugh in exhilaration, but somehow nothing will come out of my mouth, no matter how big my grin.
I find myself thinking about my recently deceased father-in-law Alan Baker, who used to stunt-fly on his own for fun. I think about the freedom of the sky and the control needed to enjoy it. Some people claim that being in their car is the only time they get to be alone, but up there in the sky—darting through the clouds—must have been a totally unique joy.
After flying like this, I can tell you that land is totally overrated. When I climb out, it feels like the earth has had a row with my insides. I stroll back to the flight buildings trying to look nonchalant while my stomach is staggering. A lady on a day off from her job as a Virgin air stewardess helps me on my way, but walking on terra firma just feels wrong.
Shortly afterwards, two of us are at a local railway station getting used to solid ground—slumped on the platform and falling at the feet of Archbishop Nausea—when we notice the other passengers looking up at two tiny specks tearing the hell out of the atmosphere. I turn to a stranger who’s gawping at our mates still up there and say, “We’ve just done that.”