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6 February 2024

Airline Pilot to Passenger “Loop the Loop, Sir?”

The British airline ‘2Excel’ is the only globally accredited airline that is licensed to perform aerobatics.
To gain that unique accolade every aspect surrounding the airline has to meet the highest standards; the pilots are not only all RAF war zone veterans with over 25,000 fast-jet flying hours, but former members of the Red Arrows team.  Their aerobatic ’planes are the German built Extra 300 LPs certified to +/- 10g. with the same power to weight ratio as the new Ferrari 458.  
The closest comparison to the ’planes I can make is a Porsche Carrera Cup race car; satisfyingly quick, very taut and noisy.  Bizarrely the ’planes seem to be on rails whatever the manoeuvre easily pulling 3g.+ through any turn, they are stripped out but with a comfortable seat.  One of the quickest Cup drivers took me at full racing speeds around Brands Hatch, a real treat but the thrill gauge has been raised several notches by these ’planes flown by some of the world’s mostly highly trained and skilled pilots.    
After an early start, the welcome breakfast at Sywell Airfield near Northampton gave us all – eight ‘flyers’ and two guests an opportunity to meet the pilots together with the rest of the team members.  Any mainly unspoken qualms of being thrown around the sky were put to rest by the opening brief which followed.
This was to be a day of thrills, not fears to be challenged and overcome, this outfit was so much more than smart premises and a bunch of talented pilots.  This is a young company to be watched as it sets a pace and a standard having all the hallmarks of making the grade as a Hi-Tech, high growth stock.  The brief set out their case well; their activities comprise two core elements; defence aspects with contracts for providing air cover and logistics for armed services training, plus flying test beds for the defence industry equipment.  The other element is the high-end private ‘airline’ providing a personal service in their eight-seat ‘King Airs’ and ‘Navajos’ across Europe and of course, ‘The Blades’ air display team of four ’planes.  As mentioned it is also uniquely fully licensed as part of the airline.  Their base is kitted out and team set up so that both major corporate events and individuals can be equally well handled.  To cap it all, a lovely throw away comment was that they perform manoeuvres that had to be computer generated in the film ‘Top Gun’.  Confidence was now universally high.    
We divided into two teams for a navigational exercise to give us an idea of how flights are planned and executed.  We each played a role everything was planned from very tight timing to identifying marks.  One in each team flew the course using radio checks, quite involving and it gave us an insight into flight operations.
With tongue in cheek, I say this was a bit of theatre to create some drama and more fun than simply a safeguard; parachute drill.  We rolled around on a gym mat and listened to instructions on how to exit from the cockpit.
Lunch was excellent, only the slightest concern about over-indulging and anticipating following with looping the loop or something called a lomcevak – the latter appears to be what happens if you spill your hot soup in your lap whilst flying.  
The passenger sits up in front of the pilot with a clear view all around, the clear canopy allowed uninterrupted views whichever way you are up.  Strapped tightly into the seat there was still room to move, in front were three instruments; air speed, height and G. meter.  In addition, a control stick and foot controls were fitted to the front but not to be used.  There was a tiny camera in front for the pilot to see his passenger and we wore headsets so we could converse, the pilot periodically checking that I was OK.     
I knew it was to be close formation flying but this interpretation was almost that of dancing partners.  The four ’planes were tightly bunched to the extent that it might just have been possible to jump between them on a flat stable platform.  We were almost glued together from take off through a whole litany of manoeuvres – twists and turns, barrel rolls, aileron rolls, upside down runs, a loop, stall turn and so on.  Only exacting precision and discipline made this aerial ballet possible.  The speed was consistently about 125 knots (maximum 220kn.) and our height at around 1,500 feet as the cloud base was low, so we could relate closely to our surroundings.  This was absolute magic, truly astounding and all without a care in the world.   
Flying in formation adds greatly to the experience, the sight of three ’planes below you all heeled right over on their sides or visa versa is extraordinary, as is the precision with which these manoeuvres are carried out.  I just had to watch the air speed indicator go off the scale on the stall turn and then fluttered like a butterfly as we plummeted and then swooped out of the set piece.
Everyone was equally thrilled at the whole experience.  As a gauge of those thrills a fellow ‘flyer’ whose thrills are normally sated by his super-bike, a Ducati 998 said he was literally lifted into another dimension of pleasure.                 
I could not tell you how long the flight lasted, we seemed to have plenty of time to do everything as we danced across the sky, but I wished we could continue in this magic playground which is the sky.         
Back to earth and afternoon tea.  The next flight really flummoxed me, trying to hold a helicopter in a stationary hover.  Next time, I will fly in their alternative, a simple vintage Tiger Moth.
We ended the day with a welcome glass of champagne whilst The Blades pilots put on a stunning display which included their hallmark; a full +10g. break.  This endorsed a determination that the experience has to be repeated.  Perhaps even giving up a ski trip to repeat the experience.  Forget the books with titles like “100 things to do before you die” this is the one experience to top them all.