Flying Circus

22Jul10

Sweating men in dark glasses carried coronary backpacks uphill from where the Triple-Seven was moored. That huge fish with a tail spread across the brown airfield turf.

Americans like Leo and Dan weren’t used to English humidity (I said humidity) and their ties squeezed their necks as if being throttled by a demented beast.

Folks, this is Farnborough week once again – ordinarily, a rich pond of kerosene and Champagne.

But this year was the austerity games, where the lunches weren’t quite so lavish and the aerospace suits and government agencies like the Pentagon were tightening their .. belts. A Northrup Gumman UAV surveillance drone that will be above us all within the coming decade sat alongside garden furniture and a parasol. No-one was there to bask in this Eden of aviation of course, only the odd Heavy with earpieces and necks.

I met an ex-Red Arrows friend who more sedately than before, now fills his G-filled veins with aerobatic adrenaline at The Blades. The team’s hospitality chalet was busy with catering staff placing highly-polished glasses on tables, ready for a lunchtime sitting of engineers and spotters.

The Dreamliner’s windows tinted themselves a blue-green and reporters poured over Boeing’s current starlet as they might fawn at a Première in Leicester Square. I walked back down the red carpet and beneath its belly thinking of Marilyn Monroe in the draughty grate scene then up to the lady craft’s bosomy engines. I touched their milk-white nacelles where in the future, the fluids of unknown engineers and service operatives will leave their oily secretions.

The Lockheed Martin hospitality chalet sits atop a sinister grassy knoll and from there, the crisp suited salesmen were shunting guests into buggies to see their maritime helicopter. The crew of a Seahawk (a perfect sea bird name combination for any marketing man, I’d say) were already fielding inane questions from the public and pleasingly, let me crawl across their brand new helo. Its airframe had only left the ground for 23 hours of its still short life. I imagined it as an old dog, reminiscing to young pups about it’s youth way back in the Tens, when spying dystopias was done in the old fashioned way. A lens up a pole.

Lining up on the threshold of the runway, my view forward was past the shoulder insignia of a Lockheed pilot and through the fly-like compound windscreen of their $70m C-130J Hercules. As statistics go, I usually leave them behind on the ground and after full-power was applied and the brakes let go, we were airborne 13 seconds later – this near vacant airlifter so light that it rose up to 2,000 feet as a lift shoots up the shaft of the tallest skyscraper. With Dan’s words still on my pad, I recalled his pitch to me about quite why this aeroplane is so important to our troops out in the heat and the dust.

Fully-loaded with bullets and burgers that an army needs to simply function let to alone win battles with, this vehicle of three men replaces up to 120 ground troops driving on hostile roads and over mountain passes. The on-board systems index the loads’ centres of gravity, even the plane’s altitude and speed to pop each pallet out of the lowered ramp to the hungry outpost below.

And when back on terra firma, as assorted jet fighters started their ugly post-lunch decibels, when one’s own sandwich jiggers around the stomach lining to their vibrations, I left behind the flying circus for the peace of London.

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