International Air Show 2009

The Flight Engineer’s Day

The BBMF motto is “Lest we forget” and our core business revolves around veterans, reunions, parades, funerals etc.

In fact, last month my tasking included the dropping of a WW2 pathfinder’s ashes and the 100th birthday celebration of the oldest surviving member of Bomber Command. But I am not sure much is known about the Flight outside of the people who are part of the Unit; so I wanted to provide a little ‘insight’ into what being part of BBMF entails.

So how does someone become part of the Flight? The answer to that depends on your trade. Our flying season aligns with the good weather of the British summer months, so there is insufficient work to justify full time aircrew; therefore the BBMF is an additional duty for aircrew. As you can imagine, this can impact heavily on an individual’s primary role and relies on good will from your boss to release you to fly. The Flight’s pilots are either multi-engine or single seat fast jet qualified, and will either fly the Flight’s bombers or fighters respectively. Navigators are predominantly drawn from the fast jet fraternity and fly on the Dakota and Lancaster. Loadmasters crew the Dakota and are selected from both fixed and rotary wing aircraft types. As a Flight Engineer, I fly on the Lancaster. Unfortunately, the trade is currently in decline because of the retirement of our remaining aircraft types: VC10, Tristar and Hercules K. However, the E3D Sentry is potentially a longer term survivor that requires a Flight Engineer, so eventually all Lancaster Flight Engineers will be drawn from RAF Waddington.

BBMF aircrew tour lengths are generally 5 years. When a vacancy appears a trawl for volunteers will be promulgated; however, you are free to write a letter of application at any time. Selection is based on your performance in the air and on the ground, operational experience, instructional ability and finally, on your performance in a selection interview. Unlike the aircrew, our groundcrew are full time RAF personnel who are also specially selected to serve on the Flight. They will have already proven their technical abilities on modern mechanical and avionic aircraft systems. However, historical aircraft require a different skill set which is seldom tested by modern aircraft. So part of the selection process will include a familiarisation visit to the Flight, where informal vetting will occur, before an offer for a place is awarded.

So what about the aircraft I fly on as a Flight Engineer? PA474 is predominantly a Mark 1 Lancaster that was prepared to operate in the Far East as part of the Tiger Force. However, as the bomber rolled out of the factory the war ended, so she never saw combat and as a result is one of the few surviving Lancasters. The aircraft was employed on several peacetime duties including photographic reconnaissance and experimental wing design trials before eventually making it to the BBMF. As with all the aircraft on the Flight, the Lancaster is painted to represent a famous airframe from WW2; this season PA474 wears the colours of a 617 Sqn aircraft ‘Thumper Mk 3’ to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Dambuster Raid. During WW2, Lancasters usually flew with a crew of 7 that included air gunners, a wireless operator and a bomb aimer. Today, we routinely fly with a crew of only 4 which comprises 2 pilots, a navigator and a flight engineer.

So what does my day consist of? I generally arrive at Coningsby 3 hours before take-off and, if it’s a longer flight, collect crew rations from the Airmens’ Mess. I then go to the BBMF hangar and check the aircraft log book. This details ‘snags’ from the last flight, any maintenance work carried out and provides essential engineering information like: engine power readings, weight and balance data and the amount of fuel loaded.
This leaves me with a small amount of time to read any new orders, thereby ensuring I am up to date and subsequently ‘in the green’.

The navigator and the pilots are now gathering in the planning room and, with 2 hours left before take-off, we all attend a meteorological brief. After ‘met brief’, I calculate the All-Up-Weight of the aircraft and determine the Centre of Gravity position. This ensures the aircraft is balanced and not overloaded, which preserves the fatigue life of this vintage aircraft. Up to this point my job has been somewhat academic in nature, so it’s now time for a change of emphasis. I walk to the aeroplane and carry out a thorough ‘pre-flight’ internal and external inspection of the engines and airframe structure, flight systems and instrumentation. We now have 1 hour to go before take-off and the whole crew gather in the planning room for a detailed brief on our tasking; this will include but not be limited to: routing, flypasts and displays. It is at this stage that I give any passengers or flying groundcrew a Lancaster safety brief. We generally roll into the ‘out brief’ which confirms we are authorised and fit to fly.

The Lancaster’s mighty Merlin engines are started up, regularly drawing a crowd on the public road next to our hangar, as people watch the start, taxi and take-off of the iconic aircraft. In the air, I stand behind the Co-Pilot; this is because his sits in my seat! My job is mainly lookout and system monitoring; however, in the unlikely event of a malfunction or failure, I am integral to the running of the emergency ‘red card’ drills. With my technical knowledge of the aircraft I am in an ideal position to provide advice on the implications and corrective action required. I also operate the undercarriage and fuel system, and am responsible for the safety of passengers and the security of fuselage load.

It only remains for me to say that we are all volunteers on the Flight and we rely heavily on a stream of applications from suitably qualified air and groundcrew. So if you fancy a challenging, once in a lifetime step back in time, why not give it a go?

FS Mark Fellows.

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