Every year, Flying for Freedom organise Expeditions to increase the ability and experience of our Pilots.
The inaugural FFF expedition.
In 2014, Flying for Freedom had trained 4 pilots and it was decided that we needed to attempt our first expedition. Due to a lack of legs I was the slowest to step back so I stepped up to the plate to plan my first piece of flying outside of the safety net of Kemble and the surrounding airfields.
The plan. Fly around the whole British coastline in a clockwise direction, stopping at military airfields and visiting some of our colleagues still serving. Not to rub in our new-found skills in the sky… well not solely anyway, it was a chance to get some closure for some of us on what was a pretty tough chapter in life.
We visited over 30 airfields and travelled over 2000 miles around the UK, building relationships with the UK aviation world that are still going strong.
We experienced every type of weather you could in a British summer. From the bizarre tropical conditions of Scotland, to the often wet, windy, wild rides in Wales and the foggy coast of East Anglia. We saw it all and survived.
This expedition was both challenging, great fun and it created some superb pilots who have become the backbone of Flying for Freedom and the starting point for many more memorable Flying for Freedom expeditions.
If you haven’t seen the expedition movie ‘A Wing and a Prayer’, ask yourself, where have you gone wrong in life?
Contact Flying for Freedom for your copy of the DVD (£15 incl p&p) and see some award-winning cinematography.
Last year the team challenged itself to fly the coast of the UK which they remarkably achieved in 10 days. This year I took on the task of Expedition Leader which required a large amount of work over the last 6 months from initial planning of the route; ensuring we had aircraft and pilots available; to ensuring we had ground support at each location. This was an unprecedented expedition which had the aims of:
In June 2017, the team set of for France to vist the Battlefields of 2017 from the air.
The team assembled at Kemble before departing to Old Sarum, an original Royal Flying Corps Airfield where the expedition was starting.
After a press day, we flew down to Headcorn in Kent, and then made our first overseas crossing to Le Touquet to clear customs and then onto St Omer which was to be our base for the first week….
In 2018 Flying for Freedom flew to as many current and former Royal Air Force Airfields as they could
In February 2019, the team set off to Northern Sweden to begin our Cold Weather training in preparation for “The Coldest Flight” to the South Pole.
Several days before the pilots where due to depart, and with our aircraft safely packed up in the trailer, James and Richard set off by road. After a mammoth 55 hour (1900 mile) drive they arrived at our base Nr Arvidsjaur, just 40 miles outside the Artic Circle. We had a much easier journey, flying from Heathrow to Stockholm, then another flight up to Skellefteå, before picking up a hire car and a 2 hour drive to meet up with the ground party. But what a drive, total Darkness, on ice roads watching the Aurora Borealis dancing away. We finally arrived at about 2am to a cold beer and to be told not to use the toilets as the water wasn’t working!
The following morning we woke to see our spectacular home for the week, and after breakfast we started to help get the airfield and our aircraft prepared. We where advised that the runways had been prepared by Thomas and his Ski-doo but that to see them from the air we should cut branches and put these all down the edges of the runway, which was superb advice, as even when we had done it, they still took some spotting! Eventually after a long day though, our temporary hangers where ready, the aircraft had been fuelled, the wings rebuilt and we were ready to start training, we even now had water.
Day 2 and time to start seeing how we and the aircraft would perform on the snow. It was decided that we should leave the wings off and just have a go at taxing on the snow initially. This was one of the best decisions we made, taxiing our trikes, with a 100hp engine, mounted on 3 tea trays and no brakes is not for the faint hearted.
After finding out that once moving, there was so little friction that you had very little, if any stability in Yaw and that if you gained to much speed, they took forever to stop unless you cut the engine and that if you left the runway you instantly sank 4 foot into the powder snow and had to be dug out, the modifications began. But that is why we had come after all. Richard and Thomas got some angle Iron, and cut and ground it to make new bigger runners for the bottom of the Skis to hopefully give us better stability and the testing continued over the next few days. Eventually we were getting up to take off speeds and stopping before we got to the end of the runways. More importantly, we had learned a huge amount about just moving on snow and had gained the knowledge and confidence for the next stage, actually flying off the snow.
Sadly we then hit a period of un-flyable weather, but late one afternoon, it cleared enough for Richard to be happy for the first test flight. With the rest of the team watching, he kitted up, taxied down to the runway and was off. We could see that the winds where still strong up there, but after a couple of passes, in he came to land and after a bit of a float stuck it down on the snow. Once back with us, he declared that the skis and aircraft where fine, but described the flight as “Quiet Exciting” and the conditions where “Wing wire snappingly rough” So no more flying that day.
The following day the winds were still too strong, so we just carried on practicing ground handling, but again, in the late afternoon, the winds dropped and the sun came out. Time for us to have a go. I went first, after all, the rest of the pilots had been to Sweden several years before, so they had all already flown off Ski’s, or that is what I thought… I got in, and taxied down each runway to check the conditions and warm the engine and then stopped at the threshold for my checks. Everything was good, I lined up, and a little nervously applied full power and moments later was airborne, well at least the easy bit was over! I flew a couple of circuits, trying to familiarise myself with the local area and get a feel for the aircraft and the conditions and the set myself up to try the landing. The branches we had laid along the runways were invaluable, as even on finals it was hard to make out the runway, but l was on the centre line, speed was good and I touched down right at the beginning of the runway, it was a bit bumpy in the ruts we had made from all our previous taxing, but the aircraft slowed much quicker that I had expected and I was safely down. I taxied back in and only then found out that none of the team had ever flown on Skis! Luke, Alan and Mike all managed to get a flight in, but sadly we ran out of light before Kat could have a go.
The next day conditions where good. We found out straight away, that the snow conditions where different and that we now had to much stability/friction on the runners and that it was difficult to even get the aircraft moving. Time for more mods, the angle Iron runners where cut down a bit and we where good to go. I went up first again, and this time did 3 landings before taxing back in to hand over to Luke. All went well, until on his final landing, he caught a ridge on the runway and lost control, causing him to veer off the runway. In the UK it would have been a minor embarrassment as he’d have just gone on the grass and then steered back, sadly if you left our 5 meter wide runway you just sank! Thankfully there was no major damage (Luke described it later as a love tap!), just pride dented and we were now down to one aircraft for the rest of the training. Alan now got in our other aircraft and nervously taxied out and was soon airborne, but made a great landing and taxied back in.
It just left Kat to have a go at landing on Skis, and as you can guess, having still not had a go, and shortly before having seen Luke’s crash she was very nervous and quiet. But she was going to do this! As she taxied down to the runway, we all watched and soon she was off, after a few low approaches, in she came. The whole team watching and wishing her well. A perfect landing and then a secretive fist pump, but so secret that everyone else saw. Back she came and what a difference, the broadest smile you’ve ever seen.
So, we’d all done it, we had all managed to land on Skis, some more successfully than others, but Luke still had that dented pride to sort out and had to go home the next day for Paralympic training. But what better way to end the day, off he went again, only hours after a crash and he was airborne again and after a perfect landing, he taxied back to the start of the runway and did it again just to prove it wasn’t a fluke!
We managed to get several more days flying in and we all gained huge amounts of experience which will put us in a better place for the South Pole expedition. Sadly we didn't get the extreme cold we had hoped for, even though on departure day it dropped to -32 degrees C. We also gained useful information on the aircraft and the modifications that still need to be done be able to take on that flight. Hopefully next year we will all be back out to Sweden again for our final cold weather training before Antartica.