Formation flying is one of those things you can never really portray in a video. You can be the best cameraman in the world, using the most advanced technology, but it will still be impossible to convey just how unbelievable, beautiful and faintly unnerving it is to look out the window of an aircraft and see another one so close alongside that its wingtip is just a metre or two under your feet.
I was extraordinarily lucky to be granted the chance to experience this for myself last weekend, with an excellent civillian aerobatic team called Aerosparx based up at Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire. I was there to make a video of the weekend, and I was fully expecting to be told we'd do a short flight if the weather held, perhaps do a couple of interviews, and then head home. Instead, when a friend and I arrived on Saturday morning, we were told right off the bat that, to all intents and purposes, we were going to be a part of the team for the weekend. That suited me just fine.
Aerosparx fly a pair of Grob G109 motorgliders and are one of the only aerobatic teams in the world to be able to launch fireworks off their planes mid-display. It's a lot of work to set up - the two pilots, Guy Westgate and Rob Barsby, had already been at work for two days and yet the cockpit of the second plane was still a tangle of exposed wiring. By midnight that day, the control panel had been re-installed, but little else had changed.
Both planes were finally ready for flight on day two, and relitavely early we were joined by a photographer from Pilot magazine and a Cessna 172, which would be our cameraship for the day. I was told I'd be in the back, with the photographer leaning out of the open window in front of me. "I'm wearing five layers", he informed me, cheerfully commenting that, with wind chill, it would be -20°C where I was sitting. I kicked myself; I hadn't that of that. What had I expected, sitting in the back of an aeroplane with one of the windows out? Fortunately I was able to borrow several layers from the others, who would be flying in heated, enclosed Grobs, although my slight fear of freezing to death or getting frostbite never fully rescinded.
Shortly after midday, the second plane finally emerged from the hangar, and ten minutes later the wings were on. Over lunch the three pilots and the photographer briefed thoroughly. The plan was for the two components of the formation to take off at ten minute intervals and meet up over the airfield at 4,000 feet. We'd then enter a right-hand orbit and slowly descend to avoid passing through our own smoke trails, finishing off by flying in a straight line while Guy's plane banked aggressively into and out of the formation.
Almost immediately after that, we were in the air, starting the slow and laborious climb to our agreed altitude and carefully joining up. The photographer was right: it was cold. Very cold. With all my extra layers, I was feeling cheerful, although even two days later my unprotected nose and lips still don't feel quite right. For the next 20 minutes we circled gradually down, the two Grobs bobbing dynamically in the turbulence almost within touching distance. On occasion I tore my eyes away from the camera - just long enough to think "that's amazing" and swiftly resume my work. At one point, Bob Grimstead caught my eye, grinning from the passenger seat of his Grob. He is an acclaimed airshow pilot in his own right and was being recuited into the team that weekend. I suddenly remembered that I ought to be grinning my head off as well, and made a concious effort to smile back at him. It wasn't easy in the wind, so I switched back to steely-eyed determination, broken only occasionally by grunts of frustration when I mucked up a shot, until finally, we broke to land. I stepped out of the plane, buzzing and slightly breathless. Never before has a freezing winter day felt quite so warm.
By this time, the light was already starting to fade. In the hangar, Bob and I were helping insert igniters into the fireworks, which were then being brought outside and strapped to the wintips and wheel spats of one of the aircraft. Pyrotechnics are expensive so we knew we'd have two bursts of one minute each in which to capture all the photos and videos we needed. With the last of the pyrotechnics being loaded, three of us lept into a car with a box of lanterns with which to mark out a runway to guide us home. Almost before we knew it, we were back in the air, this time much lower, our view filled with brilliant white sparks and burning balls of red. It attracted quite some attention from the locals, who thought they were watching some kind of firey accident - indeed, our antics later made it into The Mirror and ITV News.
Landing back on our makeshift runway some time later, we were slightly surprised to be greated by six Police cars and two fire engines. They'd recieved reports of an accident, they said, and needed to take our details. "You'd better film this", prompted Guy, who found the whole thing rather amusing.
With the Police and the Cessna eventually going on their way, there was time to get creative with the two Grobs. Pointing them nose-to-nose on the ground and surrounding them with lights, we re-loaded a new set of fireworks and fired up the engines. Meanwhile, in a car, I'd set up a tripod on the back seat and wound down the window, and we slowly circled the planes, driving through billowing clouds of smoke and capturing shot after impossibly smooth shot.
It was to be another long night, with work continuing until midnight and then a drive of more than two hours, followed by a lengthy train journey home the next day. I arrived just in time for my afternoon politics lecture (sorry, Ben - that's why I looked so sleepy). So quickly, I was back at university - back in the real world. But for one short weekend, I most definitely wasn't. And I think that weekend will stay fresh in my memory for ever.
You can find my video of the flight here, on Aerosparx's Facebook page. I am indebted to everyone who assisted that weekend for making it possible, but especially to Rob and Guy for their limitless hospitality. Also, thanks to Alex Prins for helping me to get there and to caputre those stunning shots from the moving car!