Photograph by Ben Mayfield
Do you remember your first display?
I don’t know what year it was, but it was the Southport Air Show in Lancashire. From about the age of 10 I became obsessed with aeroplanes — initially the big commercial aircraft — but soon learned that fighter jets were far more interesting. Then I started to be a little bit of an RAF geek when I was younger. Growing up I joined the Air Cadets and then the Air Force straight from university.
Can you sum up your career in less than 100 words?
When I joined the RAF I was classed ‘ab initio’ which means I’d never flown any front line type before. I went to RAF Wyton, flew the Tutor and then the Tucano at RAF Linton on-ouse. Immediately after that I was streamed to fast jets and went to RAF Valley flying the Hawk T2. From there I came to Coningsby for my first Typhoon tour. After that I joined No 1 (Fighter) Sqn and did a three-year frontline tour. That was the best three years of my life to date. Then I became an instructor here, gained lots of qualifications and successfully landed this job.
What experiences with No 1 (Fighter) Sqn stand out?
Taking the jet to major international exercises like Red Flag at Nellis Air Base. Red Flag was the first time I really felt part of something. And in Typhoon terms we fully deserved to be there. We were surrounded by world-class aeroplanes and never felt out of place because we knew we’d be able to do a good job there. The thing that really impressed was the level of situational awareness we had thanks to all the sensors and systems.
The combination of the performance of the jet, the weapons integration and the onboard sensors made me feel at home in what is a high-end war fighting scenario. Typhoon has always performed really well on Red Flag, which I imagine is partly why the Americans keep inviting us back. As a junior pilot brand new on my squadron, I was able to compete against the best in combat using a Typhoon…that’s how good the aeroplane is.
An exercise like Red Flag is also a great demonstration of Typhoon’s ability to integrate with 5th generation aircraft and that’s obviously very relevant for the RAF with what’s happening with F-35.
How do you rate the aircraft?
From a pilot’s perspective, the aircraft is very easy to fly, which is good because it frees up your mental capacity to achieve your given task — and do it well. Many aspects of the Typhoon free you up to be able to operate effectively. That’s related directly to what I was saying about Red Flag in that the sensors do a really good job of providing you with situational awareness, whilst not maxing you out and overloading you with information.
When you combine air to ground and air to air capability — roles traditionally performed by multiple different aircraft types — it puts increased workload on to one person. Because of that you need a jet which is able to perform the tasks which maybe needed a second person to perform in the past. It’s all about freeing up your mental capacity.
Over the seven years as a Typhoon pilot have you noticed it changing?
Through the various software drops the aircraft is continually incrementally improving and with it the human-machine integration (HMI) is always improving. When I arrived on Typhoon in 2012 it was good then, but it’s even better now. Of course, there are always improvements that can be made and that’s another good thing about Typhoon — we’re able to make them incrementally because they’re mainly software-based.
You can see this progression with Project Centurion, which transfers capability for the RAF from Tornado to Typhoon. The HMI is now the best we’ve ever had, and it’s needed because we have so many more weapons on the platform.
Do you remember your first Typhoon solo flight?
Yes, I flew the D-Day painted jet and everybody was looking and taking photographs. The thing that sticks in my mind was the power available. It’s one of the most impressive things about Typhoon. If you speak to pilots who have flown multiple aircraft types they all say the same thing — ‘you’ve never ever felt anything like the power of Typhoon’. That power can get you out of a lot of situations, and it also can make you very effective.
What was it about the display pilot role that attracted you?
I applied because I’d been told by all of the previous display pilots that it is the best flying they’ve ever done in their careers — and some have had very illustrious careers.
It’s a huge honour simply to present a snapshot of everything that is great about the aircraft and the RAF. I’m not talking about me flying loops, I mean it showcases our ability to deploy all around the world at the drop of a hat, and to be incredibly reliable whilst doing it. For me it’s about an aircraft that does a great job and that’s relatively easy for the engineers to maintain. Last year, we had close to 60 engagements, yet we didn’t miss a single weekend display due to unserviceability. That’s because we’ve got fantastic people and a really reliable aircraft.
The display pilot role represents a completely different challenge for me — especially when you’re pulling 9G very close to the ground. Thankfully Typhoon’s aircrew equipment, the G-suits and so on, are awesome. It means you can pull 9G instantaneously but feel confident you’re going to be able to stay awake whilst you’re doing it!
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Do you get to select what the routine is going to be like?
Yes, it’s entirely my gift. The Station Commander will have a look at it to make sure he’s happy, but the display is mine to come up with. In fact, I’ve been giving the display a lot of thought. Primarily that’s meant trawling through YouTube to see what looks good and what doesn’t. I could be having a great time in the cockpit but ultimately, it’s about how it looks and sounds to the crowd watching.
In practical terms, how do you go about putting the routine together?
You start in the simulator where you can hone different elements. Then you go live in the aircraft at 5,000ft, and work your way down over the course of a winter work-up. From 5,000ft to 1,500ft, to 1,000 ft and ultimately down to minimas, which is 100 ft.
What elements of the display are you particularly looking forward to?
My personal motivations aren’t necessarily related entirely to the flying. I’m really interested in taking the aircraft to different parts of the UK and the world and working with a great team of engineers. The role is one of the few opportunities on the Operational Conversion Unit where you can feel like you’re still on the frontline. It’s about going away with the whole Typhoon Display Team to achieve a job and that gives you a great sense of satisfaction and camaraderie. At the same time I’ll have some great flying as well. I’m also really looking forward to interacting with the kids. I’m a father of two myself.
It's a punishing schedule, how will the aircraft cope?
I’ve been all over the world in the jet — QRA, Baltic Air Policing, the Falklands, Malaysia, all the major exercises —and I’ve operated in extreme heat and cold weather, and I’ve never had any issues with Typhoon. The Falklands is probably the best example of the Typhoon working in extreme cold and the jet holds 24/7 QRA there regardless of the weather. It’s shown it’s able to operate in some of the most inhospitable climates in the world.