The shooting down of Whisky Hotel 799

Suez-Canberra-PR7-Gary-Eason-sm

Colchester, 2 August 2016

When was the last time that an RAF aircraft was confirmed as being shot down by an enemy in an air-to-air engagement?  

It was during the Suez crisis in 1956.

I call it an engagement rather than aerial combat because the casualty was an unarmed photo reconnaissance 'plane: a 58 Squadron English Electric Canberra PR 7, WH799.

Two of the crew ejected safely; the third – the navigator, 26-year-old Flying Officer Roy Urquhart-Pullen – was killed.

The Canberra was crippled in its starboard engine by cannon fire from a Syrian Air Force Gloster Meteor F8. The British-built fighter was one of two small batches that had been sold to the Syrians by Britain in the early 1950s.

I was unaware of any of this until I was asked to make a picture to mark the 60th anniversary of the encounter this November.

Stripes

The Canberra was a superlative aircraft, conceived in the 1940s as a jet successor to the equally brilliant De Havilland Mosquito.

In continuous service with the RAF for more than half a century, Canberras were also licensed to Australia and to the United States of America (as the B-57) and subsequently used by almost a dozen other countries.

Through a succession of improvements the PR 7 had evolved from the B 6 bomber version.

Suez – an embarrassment in British history – is not a conflict that brings any cause for celebration, aside from the fact that the RAF pilots did their job efficiently and bravely as usual.

The photo reconnaissance Canberras were stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Like all the allied aircraft in the region they were given a hasty, D-Day type treatment of high contrast fuselage and wing bands, in this case yellow and black - although a shortage of the correct paint meant the ones in Cyprus wore more sandy coloured 'yellow' stripes.

Observer corps

The Syrians were not directly involved in the conflict but were very closely allied with Egypt – their pilots trained there – and British commanders were very keen to know what was happening in the Syrian airfields amid reports of Russian MiG fighters being delivered.

An earlier overflight on 6 November had been thwarted by cloud cover but it had also been intercepted by the Syrians. It had been fired on – unsuccessfully, at extreme range, but you might think it surprising that a repeat mission was ordered in another unarmed and unescorted Canberra.

Syria had limited air defence resources but had devised a basic system involving ground observers telephoning in aircraft sightings. Centrally-controlled fighters could then be scrambled to intercept the intruders. Sound familiar?

So it was that as WH799 did the rounds of target airfields – and because the Syrians were already alert it was caught, in the vicinity of Homs, in a break in the cloud cover that had cloaked its mission.

In a diving stern attack one of the Meteors set fire to the Canberra's right engine.

Ejected

The normal crew on the photo reconnaissance aircraft was two. In this case the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter, who was sitting in an ejector seat. His navigator-cum-photographer, Flying Officer Urquhart-Pullen, lay in the transparent blister in the aircraft's nose, but also had an ejector seat in a compartment behind the pilot.

On this occasion however there was a third man aboard: Flight Lieutenant Sam Small. The PR Canberras at Akrotiri had received a field modification that had installed a periscope in the nav station so its occupant could look backwards to watch for attackers. You can just make this out in my picture. Sam Small was in the nav seat to do this.

Realising the aircraft was doomed the pilot ordered Small to eject, which he did. Hunter said he did not know what became of Urquhart-Pullen – possibly he tried to bail out through the normal forward entrance hatch. His body was found with the wreckage, which came down just inside Syria, and now lies in the Anglo-American Cemetery in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Hunter and Small landed on their parachutes just on the Lebanese side of the border. They were taken to a Syrian border post but after a tense few days they were repatriated.

At midnight on the day they had been shot down, Britain declared a ceasefire.

Details

Making the picture presented a number of challenges, as always. Checking the details of the aircraft proved tricky and I had to make a number of educated guesses. 

For example, I went with the widely accepted version that a lack of yellow paint for the detachments on Cyprus resulted in a more sandy mix for the identification stripes. 

And on many of the Canberra bombers the stripes around the fuselage were centred on the RAF roundel. However on another of the PR aircraft at Akrotiri I know they were painted further back, so I went with that as being the more likely. 

The trickiest thing to depict was the metallic sheen of the aluminium paint scheme. I settled on a mix of brightness and dark areas, with a partial overlay of reflected sky blue and clouds, as looking most effective to my eye.

As so often, it's all about the light.

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Halifax on low-level secret supply drop

Halifax-9U-K-SOE-Norway-Gary-Eason-sm

Colchester, 18 July 2016

All my commissions prove to be interesting one way or another, that is the nature of the subject matter.

I usually learn something along the way, to a greater or lesser extent. Greater, in the case of my most recently finished piece, which depicts a 644 Squadron RAF Halifax Mk III banking left after making a SOE supply drop in Norway on the night of 25 February 1945.

The aircraft, ME967 carrying the squadron codes 9U-K, returned safely to England after a round trip of 10 hours 50 minutes. It was this long journey time that caught my eye when I was asked if I could make a picture by the son of the flight engineer, who was Sgt James McBurney from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.

I reviewed the operations he had been involved with during his time on 644: a mixture of bombing, glider towing and SOE drops. The sheer length of this trip across the North Sea to Norway stuck out, and the mission was rather less than ordinary. So that became the subject. 

SOE was the Special Operations Executive, a secret branch of the British military in WW2 that was tasked with running agents, sabotage and helping resistance movements in enemy-occupied territories. SOE had an uneasy relationship, to put it mildly, with the established armed forces.

The RAF initially objected to having any of its precious aircraft diverted to non-core objectives, especially when they were regarded as disreputably underhand – which of course was the whole point of SOE's work.

Crew's detailed report

Nevertheless by 1945, when this operation took place, co-operation was routine. The operations record book for 644 Squadron, based at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, noted:

"Nineteen aircraft from Tarrant Rushton took part in SOE operations to Norway, nine aircraft from No. 298 Squadron and ten aircraft from No. 644 Squadron. Of these, 15 aircraft successfully completed their mission and two were unsuccessful owing to no reception in the DZ area."

For information about the DZ - drop zone - I had the benefit of one of the appendices to the squadron records in the National Archives, the crew's "parachute raid report".

In it they recorded having taken off at 1711 (just after 5pm). DZ 60,26,00N  11,07,30E  was identified by "ground reception, as briefed". Unfortunately there is no record of what that was: it might have been lights or even radio communication with the ground.

That location is in a remote wooded area in SE Norway, to the north east of Oslo: on the west shore of Tisjoen lake. The topography is largely low lying. As an aside, I have never been to Norway but from photographs that part of the country is uncannily similar to an area I do know in Minnesota in the USA, where about a third of the population is descended from Nordic immigrants, including about 17% from Norway.

The Halifax dropped 13 containers and 3 packages that night and was over the drop zone from 2143 to 2159 hrs. The approach was made at just 500ft AGL (above ground level) on a course of 330M (330˚ magnetic) at an indicated airspeed of 140mph.

There was no cloud and visibility was excellent. I looked up the Moon's position and it was waxing gibbous at 97.2% - all but full - on a bearing of 162˚ and an elevation of 44˚.

"No hang ups, all chutes opened", the report reads. They returned to base at 0417.

This makes it all sound very straightforward, but in the "Observations" section we see just how dangerous this sort of trip was: the crew watched on their way back as one heavy aircraft was shot down by intense heavy flak over the coast, burning on the sea for two minutes.

The aircraft was a Mk III Halifax with a crew of six: pilot, air bomber, air gunner, navigator, wireless operator and flight engineer. I took this as confirmation that it was one of the Mk III variants that had no mid-upper gun turret.

It is the first time I have completed a Halifax picture and found it a very attractive, purposeful airframe. I intend to reversion this as a more straightforward 'portrait'-type, air-to-air scene, and I am sure other scenarios will follow. As well as learning about the aircraft, its various types and roles, I also read up on SOE and on the development of supply containers and parachutes. 

Next on my plate however is something utterly different. Watch this space.

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Downed in the Channel: Kanalkrankheit played out

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.36.46

Colchester, 12 April 2016

The English Channel can make for some delightful sailing on a balmy summer's day, as it was when I shot the background for this latest headline image: Bf109 down in the Channel. I'm not sure I would want to swim far in it though. 

As so often the picture is one I have had in my mind's eye for some time, and in fact I began it ages ago and have been playing around with variations on the theme. 

Finally I had a little time between commissions to complete it. I lit and posed the 109 specifically for this scenario, while the Hurricane overhead is an adaptation of a photo that I had on file but had not used before: the lighting on it was just right already. 

As you can see this is one of my 'generic' images: the aircraft are not identified and I have not in this case researched a specific operation, but they stand for those that saw daily combat during the summer of 1940. 

TO PARACHUTE OR NOT

It prompted me to revisit things I had read about the horrors of the Channel for Luftwaffe fighter pilots in particular, obliged to operate at the limits of their fuel range when attacking Britain.

The Germans called it Kanalkrankheit: Channel sickness, a condition that could spawn a range of reasons for returning to base rather than having to cross the miles of water between France and England with the ever-present risk that you would not make it back. 

Come the following year of course the tables began to be reversed, driving the widespread adoption of long-range drop tanks by Allied air forces to extend their fighters' reach onto the Continent. 

I vacillated for a time on the inclusion of the parachute: has the German pilot escaped certain doom or not? In the end I have shown him having bailed out, but now descending for a swim.

Later advice to such pilots from the veteran fighter leader Adolf Galland was to stay in the aircraft and ditch it if necessary, because you would then have an inflatable life raft for some protection from the elements – but obviously that works only if the aircraft is still capable of a controlled splashdown. In this case, with the hydraulics shot up and one of the undercarriage legs deployed, it would not be an option. 

So the pilot had to jettison the canopy, unstrap himself and jump out. Incidentally, I keep seeing references online to aircrew "ejecting" from WW2 aircraft. Maybe it is just sloppy use of English. Do some people really think they had ejector seats? 

CONTROVERSY

What might happen next opens up a host of other possibilities. Assuming the pilot is not too badly hurt he might last in the water for a time. Would he be picked up? If so, by which side? 

The Germans, certainly in 1940, had a far more organised air-sea rescue operation or Seenotdienst. In comparison the British response was lamentable: to begin with there was no organised rescue service. 

As an aside, British standing orders (Air Ministry Bulletin 1254) were that all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed on sight. The Germans protested this was a violation of the Geneva Convention on recognising military field ambulances and ships. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill later justified the policy on the basis that rescued pilots might come back and bomb British civilians again. 

Even in the height of summer the temperature of the water makes survival highly time dependent. Even if a pilot were picked up he might succumb to 'secondary drowning': collapsing later. 

All sobering thoughts for a sailor like myself, and one of the reasons yacht crews practise "man overboard" drills so everyone knows immediately what to do in an emergency. That was something I was grateful for when I went over the bow 35 miles south of the Irish coast on a crossing from the Scilly Isles. But that's another story. 

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Seven seconds: the Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter incident

Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge Gary Eason sm

Colchester, 5 April 2016

Just after midday on 5 April 1968 RAF pilot Alan Pollock, senior operational flight commander on No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, flew Hawker Hunter FGA.9 jet XF442 through the span of Tower Bridge in London. The unauthorised action - which cost him his air force career - was part of a personal protest against the RAF's decision not to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a flypast over the capital.

While en route from RAF Tangmere in West Sussex to his squadron's home airfield at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk, Flt Lt Pollock flew into central London, circled the Houses of Parliament three times – carefully avoiding the 387 feet tall (118 metre) Millbank Tower – then headed down the River Thames at very low level.

Tower bridge Hawker Hunter BW detail Gary EasonHe said afterwards that it was only as the "matronly structure" of the world's most famous bridge loomed ahead that the irresistible idea of going straight through the middle of it occurred to him.

As he approached he could see that the crossing traffic included a double decker bus. He kept as close as he dared to the upper walkways – which were not open to the public in those days – and for a heart-stopping moment thought the Hunter's tail fin was going to collide. Happily it did not, and he continued downriver and back to base.

When he landed he was arrested, and was retired from the RAF a few months later on medical grounds: denied a court martial at which he could have presented his case.

I liaised with Alan Pollock while making the picture. Initially I had placed his Hunter in the centre of the gap. He insisted however that it was much closer to the top.

He estimated his airspeed at 350 knots (403 mph, 591 feet per second, 180 m/sec), and got out a map of central London to calculate that it would have taken just seven seconds for the jet to travel through Tower Bridge from when the thought of doing it first struck him, as he approached London Bridge further upstream.

I imagine that if it happened tomorrow any number of smartphone videos would be online within minutes and some people would even manage 'selfies'. Then, however, if anybody did capture his escapade on any sort of film it has not emerged that I am aware of. I could not resist making a Flight Artworks version, showing the Hunter in scale with the bridge (and the bus), as if photographed at 1/4000 sec on a high resolution digital camera.

RE-MAKING HISTORY

The most complex aspect of making the picture was reconstructing Tower Bridge as it was in 1968. For one thing, its metalwork did not acquire its now-familiar red, white and blue colours until the Queen's Silver Jubilee in the 1970s. Various online sources, including the official Tower Bridge website, say that before then it was chocolate brown.

Aletha Huston 1521 tower bridgeIn fact on the outside it was grey. That is apparent from archive photographs – including this one supplied by an American relative of mine that was taken in 1968 – and was confirmed to me by historical paint consultant Patrick Baty, who worked on the most recent complete analysis and restoration of the paintwork.

Structurally the biggest difference by far is to the upper walkways. When the bridge was built in the 1890s these were intended for pedestrians to use when the bascules were raised as they were frequently then. But they were essentially a metal lattice open to the elements, rarely saw any legitimate use, and were closed off in 1910.

They stayed that way until 1982, when the visitor exhibit inside Tower Bridge was opened. They were then opened again to pedestrians, having had roofing, glazing and ornamental parapets added. I have rebuilt them as they appeared before the remodelling, when they also did not have the big crests that adorn their outward faces.

POLLUTION

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.53.16An unpleasant environmental fact of early 20th Century architecture in London is that it was absolutely filthy – so black with pollution that I struggled to make the present pristine structure look revolting enough. In an odd contrast the pointed tops of the two towers, which are now clean stone, were painted white at the time and I have tried to portray that.

The finials were a later addition so I have removed them. And numerous other details have changed, such as the signal posts for river traffic.

Winding back the clock on The Photographer's Ephemeris gave me the direction and inclination of the sun at noon on the day in question. The Thames of course is noticeably tidal: I consulted the Port of London Authority on the state of the river at the time. The very helpful Port Hydrographer, John Pinder, hindcasted for me that there was an average low water at 1240 that day of 1.3m; at noon the tide was still ebbing, with a height of 1.5m.

Tower Bridge now Gary Eason _DSC7329The weather was described by Pollock himself as "one of those rare perfect, 8/8 Gordon's, crystal, gin clear days when all the colours shout out brightly", with not a breath of wind and no clouds: call it artistic licence but I left in the little puffs of cloud that were around when I made my background photograph because they gave a sense of depth to the sky, and in fact the Met Office's archive suggests there was some scattered low cloud over west London.

I felt it needed this once all the City skyscrapers that now form the bridge's backdrop had been painted out. From the low angle viewpoint across the river there really would have been nothing much visible beyond the bridge apart from the Tower of London.

Finally the London Transport Museum customer services assistant Katy Green kindly unearthed the bus timetables for that day. The red double-decker Pollock saw heading south over the bridge as he flashed above it would have been either a 78 or a 42, and probably a Routemaster. I opted for the 78, as a tribute to "the bus that jumped the bridge" in the previous decade. But that's another story.

So there you have it: the Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter incident.

Prints are available in various formats via the Jet Age gallery on the Flight Artworks website at www.flightartworks.com. Licensing enquiries are welcome. 

You can hear the whole story from Alan Pollock himself in a lengthy interview in the Imperial War Museum's collection: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80027439

Some statistics:

  • Tower Bridge is 800 ft (240 m) long overall with two towers 213 ft (65 m) high. The central span is 200 ft (61 m) between the towers, with a height from the road deck to the upper walkways of 141 ft (43 m). The width of the towers is 60 ft (18.3 m).
  • The Hawker Hunter FGA.9 was 45 ft 11 in (14 m) long with a wingspan of 33 ft 8 in (10.3 m): one sixth the width of the gap between the towers.
  • A London Transport Routemaster was 14 ft 4 in high (4.4 m).

Swan like progress

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 19.00.25

Supermarine Spitfire prototype K5054 © Gary Eason 2016

Colchester, 8 March 2016

If things have seemed serenely quiet lately, rest assured I have been paddling furiously below the waterline. 

I am delighted to have announced a new picture this weekend: the prototype Spitfire K5054. The usual range of prints is available here in the 1936-40 gallery on the Flight Artworks website.

This is one of those pictures I have had in my mind's eye for some time. I was finally prompted to make it by the anniversary of the first flight 80 years ago of the prototype Vickers Supermarine Type 300 – to be named the Spitfire.

I chose to depict it in its unashamedly pretty early livery, before it acquired warlike camouflage. It was a delight to work on, it is such a beautiful thing. Sculpture in flight. You know the old adage that if an airframe looks right it will fly right: it was obvious from the outset that this was going to be a brilliant machine.

What a terrible pity that its designer, RJ Mitchell CBE, did not live to see the legend that his invention would become. 

As an aside, anyone who has researched it will know that debate continues to this day as to quite what shade of blue, grey or green it was painted – at first, soon after, and not long after that. I am not going to join in. 

PRINT SALES AND LICENSING

I would like to say a brief thanks to all my latest print buyers. There has been an upsurge of interest recently – not least because of the double-page spreads featuring my depiction of 602's Finest Hour in the March issue of Britain at War magazine.

Another exciting licensing development should be appearing soon but I won't say any more about that until the exclusive item is available – except to reiterate to publishers that if you have a hole to fill, whatever shape, please do ask me about creating something suitable. 

Meanwhile I have been working on some complex but thrilling pictures about a quite extraordinary event. Under wraps for now but it has involved a considerable amount of time – one of those scenes that make me ponder my general policy (so far) of pricing all pictures in essentially the same way, by print size. Should a 'simple' photo cost as much as something that took me two weeks to make, along with often considerable incidental expenses?

Swings and roundabouts, or flexible pricing? As always, your thoughts on that or anything else are welcome. I enjoy the e-mail or social media dialogues. 

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Really realistic Lightning lightning picture

WIP-captures-Gary-Eason
Snippets from the creative process 

Colchester, 1 February 2016

This is about art imitating life without even realising it.

I often carry around pictures in my head for ages without getting around to making them. I might even have the ingredients to hand, but it takes a nudge of some sort to get me started on a particular image. 

In this case, someone on Facebook asked me if I had any pictures of the BAC (EE) Lightning. That was the spur I needed finally to get around to making one.

I already had the backdrop - from a series of pictures made during one of the frequent thunderstorms at our family holiday place in Minnesota, USA. I blended a few of these together to get the composition I wanted, but other than that it is real Lightning. I believe there are Photoshop techniques to try to mimic it but they never look satisfactory to my eye. 

Lightning-storm-loupes-Gary-EasonThe Lightning is a superbly made (not by me!) scale model, which I lit starkly from behind and photographed to suit the scene, using focus blending to get an appropriate depth of field. I then went to work adding or adjusting details and finally harmonising the whole [see detail crops]. You can see the finished picture here.

As my pictures go then, this was a fairly straightforward one. I happened to mention it to former RAF Lightning pilot Clive Rowley. He was concerned to be sure that the gun pack was there on the front of the ventral tank (it is, just hard to see in the shadow) and he pointed out that an F6 would have been more likely to be toting Redtop missiles rather than the Firestreaks I had used, although they weren't wrong.

Radome punctured

Otherwise he thought the picture "clever, if a little frightening to a pilot!" - which prompted one of his anecdotes:

"I was hit by lightning once in a Lightning, in cloud," he recalled.

"I was recovering to Binbrook and coasting in over Spurn Point, on minimum fuel as always [Lightnings were notoriously fuel-thirsty], for an instrument approach in thick cloud, when there was a bright flash and a loud bang, which was disconcerting to say the least. Being such a steam-driven, non-electronic aircraft, everything seemed to be functioning normally except the radar, which failed.

"After I had landed safely we discovered that the lightning strike had burned a hole in the radome in the nose air intake."

The radome on a Lightning is the distinctive pointed nose cone, which I believe was made from glass fibre.

Clive added: "Being hit by lightning in a Lightning has always seemed to have a certain ring to it, but it’s not a memory I would like to perpetuate by having that particular image on my wall!" 

Happily for me my Facebook enquirer loved it and ordered a print straight away.

She later reported back: "Arrived today and it is superb, even the Postman said 'wow' when I opened it, thank you for your very prompt service."

Here's a funny thing: I started drafting this blog post then had to break off to run someone to the rail station. On my way back I realised I was following a van belonging to a company that does lightning strike protection testing. I kid you not. 

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


The view from the back seat

And-finally-Gary-Eason-blog-version

Colchester, 23 January 2016

The blog has taken a back seat recently. Of course there was Christmas – my first in a new household, with 17 at our dinner table – New Year and my birthday all in a rush; wonderful company, great meals and long country dog walks and musical parties and so on, but not a time of the year that is conducive to getting any work done.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 22.33.07Happily some previous work formed a surprise Christmas gift for the man who was subject of it, thanks to the generosity of one of my clients, Graham Cowie, of Project Propeller fame. So it was that Bill Viollet found himself signing the depiction we had devised of his escape from a burning Lancaster at Mailly-le-Camp in 1944. (Picture courtesy of Graham.)

And I have been re-organising my office around having my son here: so you might get Joe – actor, designer and illustrator – answering the phone at Eason Media rather than me. Again, a pleasant turn of events but also disruptive.

I am told I am deluding myself when I imagine there was a golden age during which I just made pictures and somehow all the household stuff and travelling and relentless admin either did not exist or somehow took care of itself (ok, maybe just did not get done).

Still, I have managed to produce some pictures: various Vulcan images which seem to be highly popular, including a couple of B1 variants in anti-flash white paint.

Building an image

The Vulcan image at the head of this article, which I call "And finally", is a composite like most of my work and as usual has a bit of a story to it.

The background was photographed in Lincolnshire late in November 2014 after a visit to the BBMF at RAF Coningsby and to Avro Lancaster Just Jane in her hangar at the East Kirkby Aviation Heritage Centre. The sun and the rest of the landscape were photographed a few minutes apart in locations a few miles apart, and blended later.

As an aside: when I saw it up close the sun had two dark marks on its face. I thought at first they were "dust bunnies" – blemishes resulting from dust on the camera's digital sensor. When I looked more closely still, I realised they were sunspots. A bit of research online revealed that I had by chance photographed some unusually flamboyant solar activity. The trouble is, they looked like blemishes, so I removed them for the purposes of my picture.

The Avro Vulcan – XH558, the last flying example of its type  – was photographed passing over a field in Essex, not far from my home. I did not have time on the day to get to Clacton Airshow but thankfully the Vulcan's operators had published a map of their intended route.

Distinctive smoke plume

I figured that if I headed over towards Ardleigh Reservoir, north east of Colchester, I had a reasonable chance of seeing it passing by. At the allotted hour, alerted by their Twitter feed, I did indeed see a puff of dark smoke off to the north east followed by that unmistakable delta shape turning to an arrow in profile, low over the flat landscape, about half a mile to the east.

I then stood around for a while, checking and re-checking the camera settings, photographing a hovering bird of prey and a circling light aircraft, chatting with car drivers who slowed to ask why a man with a fancy, monopod gimbal-mounted long lens was loitering in the corner of a nondescript field (one of whom guessed correctly and wished me luck).

Finally, another smudge of smoke on the far horizon and a dark dot that became steadily bigger – and I realised with a sudden rush of excitement that XH558 was not only on its way back but was heading straight for me. With a purposeful but steady roar the huge airframe sailed majestically almost directly overhead. Fantastic!

I made a series of pictures – not without difficulty because it was closer than I had anticipated and low enough to fill the Nikon's viewfinder through the 600mm lens. These included several as the sleek shape with its distinctive exhaust trail headed away to the north. It is one of those that I realised was at the perfect height and angle to take pride of place in my Lincolnshire sunset. Given how many people have since bought a print, I think I got it just right. 

Canadian pilot

From a completely different era comes my depiction of that rare bird, the Westland Whirlwind - a single-seat, twin-engine RAF fighter-bomber that saw service from 1940 to 1943 but never in the large numbers originally envisaged for it, suffering as it did from a lack of development and being constantly superseded by other aircraft that were just better in every niche it might have occupied.

Tiger-Moth-low-level-flight-Gary-Eason-blogOnly two squadrons were equipped: 263, and the one shown in my depiction, 137. Among its pilots was a Canadian: Arthur 'Art' Gaston Brunet, one of whose relatives asked me if I had any Whirlwind pictures. I do now!

Talking of back seats: you might recall I was treated to a flight in a vintage Tiger Moth biplane last autumn. It was huge fun. I have a video to treasure as a memento, shot on small cameras strapped to the wing struts.

Needless to say they do not stretch to an air-to-air photo of your flight – so I had always had it in my mind's eye to make one, and finally I have got around to it. This gave me the chance to pull on some WWII pilot gear and go solo, in the back seat, into the bargain. I hope this picture might strike a chord with anyone else who has had the same opportunity.

A striking feature of the Tiger Moth – especially so when you consider it was a basic trainer – is that the forward visibility is very limited unless you hang your head over the side. 

My own road map for the year has some very exciting personal developments in it – and a string of picture plans stretching out to the horizon.

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, and on Twitter @flightartworks.


Dambusters Lancasters practising ... in Essex?

Dambusters at Abberton Gary Eason

Framed print: Flight Artworks picture 

Colchester, 17 November 2015

One of the delights of this part of the world is the number of nature reserves within a short distance of my office.

Among them is the Essex Wildlife Trust haven at Abberton Water, a reservoir – recently expanded – that is a specially protected, internationally important wetland because of its resident and transient wildfowl populations.

In spring 1943, when the reservoir was only a few years old, it was visited by a flock of altogether more sinister 'birds': the specially adapted Avro Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron - who in May that year would undertake an extraordinarily daring raid against dams deep in Germany and in so doing acquire their famous nickname, the Dambusters.

It is fairly common knowledge, thanks in no small part to the celebrated 1955 film about the operation, that the aircrews trained for it in the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, at Howden and Derwent Dams.

Less well known is that they also tested their extremely low-level precision attack at Eyebrook Reservoir, near Uppingham on the Leicestershire-Rutland border - and here, at Abberton.

Topography

Remarkably, in their final rehearsals, Abberton was the stand-in for the Edersee. I remark on it because the landscape through which the Eder reservoir twists is picturesque, steep-sided wooded valleys. I have been there; it is pretty, green countryside as you can see from my photo.

Below the Eder by Gary EasonThe terrain at Abberton on the other hand is rather flat and largely featureless. To the casual  observer the two locations could hardly be more different.

It has been suggested that they look similar from the air. Well, no they don't - and in any case the Lancasters of 617 Squadron were not exactly going to be approaching "from the air", they were tree hopping.

It seems more likely that it provided a useful navigation exercise: Abberton is about the same bearing from the Eyebrook as the Eder is from the primary target that night at the Möhne – albeit nearly twice as far.

Even weirder, you might think: the Derwent Dam with its distinctive towers was the stand-in for the Sorpe, which has a totally different construction and no towers, and was hit along its length rather than at right angles – by the Upkeep dropped by bomb-aimer George Johnson, now the last British survivor from those who took part. 

Full dress rehearsal?

The squadron's official historian, Dr Robert Owen, told me: "Somewhere in the Lake District, such as Ullswater, would have been a better representation if a realistic rehearsal for the attack on the Eder were intended.  

"This perhaps reinforces the view that Abberton was used rather because it was a large stretch of water at a location that was conveniently placed in relation to the cross country routes, rather than for its physical characteristics of the target."

At any rate the squadron's leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, recorded in his flying log book that a "full dress rehearsal" was carried out at "Uppingham Lake and Colchester Res."  (his terms for the Eyebrook and Abberton) on the night of 14 May 1943, two days before Operation Chastise itself. He added: "Completely successfull [sic]".

Now, I have been involved with a fair bit of theatre over the years, and the point of a "full dress rehearsal" is to run the whole show as if it were the real thing.

What is the single most defining characteristic of the dams attack? Surely the extraordinary sight of those huge, revolving, 4.6-ton cylindrical depth charges bouncing across the water after being released at a precise speed, height above the surface and distance from the target.

Steep climb-out

Of course in a rehearsal they were not actually going to let off these massive weapons – the only live test of one had taken place many miles off the Kent coast. But the description "full dress rehearsal" does suggest they did spin up inert ones and sling them across the water to test all other elements of what was to unfold – no? 

"The aircraft did not drop any weapon, and it is unlikely that they even carried an inert Upkeep on these runs," Dr Owen said.

"The aircraft ran in across the lake, using their spotlights to achieve the correct height, fired a red Very light [pistol flare] as they crossed the dam, then climbed steeply away (possibly to simulate the manoeuvre required for the exit from an attack on the Eder dam)," he said.

This steep exit was necessary because the bluff beyond the dam rises to almost 1,400ft (425m) within about half a mile, the river valley turning sharp right.

You might recall that the 1955 film The Dam Busters does show 617's Lancasters dropping small practice bombs near a floating target buoy at the Derwent. Never happened, apparently, not on any British reservoir. This aspect of the training was done on the Wainfleet range on the Lincolnshire coast.

Which brings me back to my picture, depicting the special Type 464 (Provisioning) Lancasters running across the water at 60ft as determined by their spotlight altimeters — but not carrying any weapons.

What prompted me to double check all the details was that a big framed print of this is going to be hanging in the Layer Fox pub near Abberton reservoir, and I promised to write an extended caption to accompany it. Look out for it if you're having a pint.

Cheers!

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Here's one I made earlier: silver Spitfire PR Mk XIX PS852 - or is it PS915?

Silver-Spitfire-in-BBMF-Guide-DSC_1935

The Flight Artworks 'silver Spitfire' as it appears in the BBMF Visitor Guide

Colchester, 29 October 2015

A complimentary copy of the new Official Visitor Guide to the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight plopped on to my doormat this morning, to my delight.

The reason I have been sent a copy is that the whole of page 34 is given over to one of my pictures, as you can see at the top of this article. 

The editor, Clive Rowley, asked if I would be interested in having a shot at making it, to help them out of a hole. 

The visitor guide has, as you would expect, articles on all the flight's aircraft, including their history - and why they carry the colour schemes and squadron markings that they do, which change from time to time. In this case, Spitfire PR Mk XIX PS915, one of the relatively rare 225 photo reconnaissance Spitfires made.

Big Griffon

For the 2016 season it is going to be in the guise of another of the type, PS852, which was based in the early 1950s with 81 Squadron at Kai Tak, Hong Kong, where it was the usual mount of the record holding pilot Flt Lt Ted Powles. 

The trouble was, the guide had to go to press long before the BBMF Spitfire was going to be repainted - so no photograph of it would be available.

Hence the idea of having one of my Flight Artworks depicting the all-silver finish that PS852 bore from 1952 and PS915 will be getting.

We chose to have it almost head-on from a little above. This showed off the long Griffon engine cowling and the very smart red and white spinner on the five-bladed propeller, high above the South China Sea. It also allowed for a composition that could be used horizontal, vertical and square, as required. 

Free copy

The visitor guide is a beautifully put together, 42-page, 21cm (8in) square publication, with a glossy cover whose silky smoothness has to be felt to be believed. Well worth £3 of anyone's money I would say and perhaps you will pick one up if you go to visit the flight at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. 

If you want to support the BBMF it is worth joining the official Club - whereupon I gather you will be sent a free copy of this guide as part of the membership pack (see comment below). 

If you would like to have a picture of just the Silver Spitfire they are available to order as high quality photographic posters and fine art prints in a variety of sizes - as well as greeting cards and other products - via the Flight Artworks website at www.flightartworks.com, and selected print partners. 

The picture is also available to publishers to license via Alamy or you can contact me direct.

 


Seat of the pants flying

Tiger Moth flight Melanie Wright _DSC4812

G-ANRM taking off on Duxford's grass runway. Photo © Melanie F. Wright

Colchester, 27 October 2015

The blog gets a new profile picture: me in old-fashioned leather helmet and goggles and looking very pleased with myself because I had just been for a flight in a Tiger Moth biplane.

Apart from some gliding years ago, all my GA flying has been in the usual types: mostly Cessna 150s and 172s, Pipers of differing sizes and so on. All with the sort of three-point seat belt you find in a car and increasingly, over the years, with a fine array of instrument technology: the last Cessna I was in had an entirely 'glass cockpit', with two big LCD screens.

It is the exceptions that are the most memorable. A Piper Cherokee that I jumped out of twice, for charity, at Ipswich Parachute Centre. A Cessna 150 Aerobat in which my chum used to take us somersaulting around the hills of North Wales when I worked in Shropshire years ago. 

"Golf Alpha" (G-BFGA) was a Rallye 150ST in which I had my first proper flying lessons, at Denham Aerodrome (EGLD), Buckinghamshire. That was flipped upside down and trashed overnight  by the 'October Hurricane' - so that dates me. 

And now a bright yellow DH.82A Tiger Moth II in the markings of the RAF basic trainer it used to be. Hence the grin on my face. 

Open air

Being helped in to a four-point harness with a centre buckle concentrates the mind, as does the functional sparsity of the interior, control wires visible. The instruments are so basic there isn't even an artificial horizon. 

Pinch myself: I am flying at IWM Duxford, wartime home of Bader's Big Wing and now the venue for some of the best airshows. Amazing in itself. 

There is no lid on a Tiger Moth. It is noisy and a bit windy - hence the requirement for a helmet - and there is remarkably little forward visibility even in the front seat. I presume the windscreen is there to, well, screen you from the wind and stop flies and debris hitting you, because you certainly can't see much through it. 

But being able to lean out to the side and look around in the fresh air is a delight. And the flying sensations are marvellous. Bumping around a bit at 1,000ft, the harness holds you snugly so that you feel part of the machine, of it rather than in it.

My pilot, hugely experienced ex-RAF and commercial airline captain and instructor Andrew McNeile, was charming company. He did the take-off and the final part of the landing, on grass runway 24, and pretty much let me fly the rest so far as I could tell. 

Continuing the "back to basics" theme, there are no brakes: you just let the tail settle and drag, which stops the small airframe smartly. 

I know some long-time pilots who have never been in a tail dragger, let alone an open cockpit biplane one designed in the 1930s. Have a go, you will love it. 

It was all too brief, and unfortunately they make you give back the fantastically comfortable sheepskin flying jacket. Of course I now want to go again.

My flight was arranged through Classic Wings at IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire as a gift from my partner. They also operate a T6 Harvard. And, following changes in the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) rules, you can actually fly in a T9 Spitfire. Just saying.