Monday, 3 October 2016

Turning base metals into Gold in Silvertown

Never mind that it's the civil engineering wonder of the 20th century (or that I had a very, very tiny and incidental part to play in the geotechnical engineering of it), or that it has kept Londoners safe from flooding since Oct 1982, the Environment Agency's PR team managed to make the announcement of the annual maintenance of the Thames Barrier sound about as attractive as a damp winter's weekend in Bolton.

Thames Barrier Park sunken gardens

Those who'd read the press releases and decided to give it a miss on Sunday 2 October 2016 ought to be kicking themselves.  The elegant curves of the pier roofs, glistening in the autumn sunshine, which dappled the flowing river combined with the lovely surroundings of the Thames Barrier Park and the wavelike topiary of the hedging in its sunken garden, on the north bank in Silvertown, made the whole thing like watching a Sunday cricket match - with the exception that something was happening all the time.

The Barrier is always impressive from the South Side visitor centre, even if the security nazis think anyone with a camera has the faintest interest in what's going on in the control room 30 metres up in the air, way over your left shoulder.

Thames Barrier from the South Side during Oct 2008

The road less travelled on the north side - there's even a free car park a few metres from the park entrance - at Pontoon Dock (DLR), has a much more interesting view of what the maintenance is really about.  Looking downstream from the London side of the Barrier allows an unobstructed view of the gates coming majestically into their raised positions,

Thames Barrier gates rising

brilliant views of wading birds paddling through the mud at low tide - and of course, it's forever low tide when the Barrier is up.

Then as the main span gates are raised half a metre or so to their underspill position, the accumulated head of water from the downstream Thames roars under the lower lips of the gates through the narrow gap, scouring mud and gravel away from the gate seatings and causing the river to apparently boil in the turbulence.  It's very impressive stuff; it makes quite a noise, oxygenates the water and enables a feeding frenzy for the sea birds whirling and diving above it.

White water Thames

And all this is helped along by the hidden gem that is the Thames Barrier Park cafe.  Lovely staff, providing an endless supply of delicious tea and coffee at reasonable prices, meant that even Granny in her wheel chair was simultaneously fascinated by the hydraulic spectacle, proud of the British engineering skills that made it so and refreshed by the tea.

Book yourself a place for next year - mind you the lovely weather might have played a part in such an enjoyable time.

Three cheers for the Environment Agency and the Port of London Authority; not something I'd dreamed I'd ever be saying, but there it is.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Observations on the RNAS Culdrose 2016 Air Day

With poor weather forecast for over a week, it was with some trepidation that I bowled up at RNAS Culdrose for Arrivals Day.  I hadn't booked an advance ticket as the official Arrivals Day on base had been hiked from £25 to £40 this year, which at a 60% increase certainly didn't produce a 60% increase in value. The weather as forecast, was poor for most of the day and the arrivals only really began trickling in around 14H30 and then in numbers, just as people were being encouraged to leave.

Caught up with an old friend from my youth, who felled me with some terrible news about his health. He was being taken to the show the next day by his granddaughters and he confidently, if stoically, expected it to be his final one.

Air Day itself dawned on 28 July in poor visibility and although it showed signs of lifting during the day, never really improved much.  However, given the forecast, one would have thought alternative arrangements could have been planned.

After years of taking my chances on the crowd line, this year I decided to plump for the Seahawk Enclosure, which was a brilliant call. A large marquee, with a few tables and chairs, an attended pay bar with an adjacent grandstand and portaloos, all in a prime location meant many of the discomforts were removed at a stroke.

Went to photograph the static display in the mist and ended up getting lost, after I'd been coming here since 1972. Gazelle HT.3  ZB627/A

Even if you could find the display, Lynx HMA.8 ZF562/404

once again, the barriers around some of the static aircraft were far too close. Avenger T.1 ZZ500

Just for once, please rein in the lust for Mammon through the commercial pitches and move them all back a bit ?

With a set of misty and rather unsatisfactory pictures, I collected the pre-booked picnic lunch; it was very good and we made our way to the grandstand seating, which gave an elevated view around the base.  Not that much could be seen though; even the seagulls were walking.

Seagulls on the ground

Rather like Kenneth Wolstenholme and football, George Bacon is an institution amongst air show commentators. After his upbeat welcome and assurances that all would be well, his incessant chatter was broken by an interview with Rear Admiral Keith Blount who gave an informative, inspiring and uplifting view on the future of Naval Aviation.

The flying started badly when the Belgian F-16s cancelled and continued directly to Spain.  This rather set the pattern for the day and it wasn't long before the Belgian Sea King (waiting tantalisingly over at Bravo South) then cancelled and was towed across the duty runway to augment the static display.  With more reassurances from George, the radio revealed that the Sea Vixen was circling over Falmouth Bay in blue skies, with plenty of fuel, waiting for a break but was eventually sent away.

Then the curfew tolled the knell of parting day when Commander Ian Fitter gave a lacklustre set of excuses and announced that he had cancelled the flying display.  The @RNASCuldrose and @CuldroseAirDay twitter feeds were notable for the lack of replies to the many "What are you going to do about it ?" queries, presumably due to acute embarrassment; it is not like Culdrose is a stranger to poor weather (Air Days 2008, 2009, 2011 for example).

The Sea Harrier ground display was already a feature in the programme, with two SHAR FA.2 and a Harrier T.8 taxying up and down the runway, in front of the crowd.

SDFO SHARs taxying
This theme could easily have been built upon.  Culdrose has so much to offer and it is quite lamentable how little thought had been given to a bad weather plan, where people could stay on the crowd line; the Helston Twirlers in the arena and the Worm World stand in hangar C2 just isn't enough:
  • there's bound to be an airfield bird-scarer or two; bring that on and play the calls from the Land Rover loudspeakers with a commentary ?  Do they have live birds of prey as well; put on a display in front of the crowd ?
  • no-one is asking aircrew to take unnecessary risks during peace time but couldn't we have seen some hover taxying ? It was done a few years back in even worse conditions.
  • there are Fire and Rescue vehicles all around the base on standby, why not drive them up and down and put out a burning car wreck on the grass ?  In the 1970s, an announcement used to come over the PA "Would the owner of car xxx please move it, as it is blocking...". This would be repeated at half-hourly intervals in an increasingly irritated tone until just before the flying was due to start,  a final warning was given and a Wessex picked up an old banger and inevitably dropped it near crowd centre.
Where has the Royal Navy's improvise, adapt, overcome innovative creativeness gone ?  Down the drain with the Treasury budget cuts, I suspect.

Sea King ASaC.7 XV656/185 of 849 NAS puts on a ground display at the 2011 RNAS Culdrose Air Day. It can be done. Sea King ASaC.7 XV656/185 of 849 NAS puts on a ground display at the 2011 RNAS Culdrose Air Day

It's a bl**dy long way to Helston and the day certainly wasn't saved but a few incidents for me, put a tiny bit of the shine that the Royal Navy is usually so good at producing, back on:
  • 6 Hawks returned from a Thursday War tasking and found about the only break in the mist during the afternoon, to recover.
  • there were a couple of premature departures.
  • because many people had cleared off as soon as the announcement of flying cancellation had been made, access to the static display in the late afternoon improved enormously.
  • I was shown around an 820 NAS Merlin by Observer Chris Ford, who turned it into a really memorable experience with his expert knowledge, personal charisma and excellent delivery, peppered with astute and ascerbic observations.  This officer has a bright future as an after-dinner speaker.
After so many miserable Air Days at Culdrose, of course I'll be going back next year.  And while I won't be ripped off for the Arrivals Day, I will be returning to the Seahawk Enclosure, if only for my wife to have somewhere dry to sit.

You can see some more pictures (just) from the Arrivals Day and Air Day at the RNAS Culdrose Air Day 2016 flickr group page.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Proposed air display and low flying permission charges: 2016/17 review

1 Background
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has reviewed its administration costs following the tragic accident at the 2015 Shoreham Air Show.  It has published CAP1373b, currently at version 2, here:

2 Finding out about it
I urge you to:
* Read it (it's only 9 pages, plus an Appendix).
* Read it again, very carefully.
* Pinch yourself.
* Ask yourself "Did it really say that" ?

As a back-covering exercise for Shoreham 2015 and a whitewash going forward, it has declared that it wasn't recovering its full costs of pushing Air Display paperwork around and is now going to recover a further £250K (for costs it is introducing) from Air Display organisers.

3 Its conclusions
A shortfall of administrative costs had previously been absorbed and was part of its total, reported operating costs.

Let's examine what that means:
* The CAA was quite content to absorb these administrative cost - otherwise it would have brought forward proposals to recover it, years ago.
*  All other UK airspace, air infrastructure and airspace management service users were paying over the odds to allow the CAA to operate the airshow sector at a loss.

4 Deadline
We have until 29 Feb 2016 to provide formal comments on CAP1373b, by completing an online form (see 8.2 below).

5 What the CAA should do with our comments
That means between 1 March (when comments close) and 1 April 2016 (when the new charging regime for the 2016/2017 season begins), the CAA, within 30 days, is going to carefully:
5.1 Scrutinise every comment submitted
5.2 Classify and prioritise every comment for consideration
5.3 Conduct its analysis
5.4 Generate a series of options as responses to the comments
5.5 Make recommendations to its policy and charging board
5.6 Amend and re-publish CAP1373b to take account of the changes accepted
5.7 Amend all the stationery that's already been printed for the forms
5.8 Change its online web presence to include the amendments based on the accepted comments.
5.9 Count the pigs flying past its Kingsway windows.

6 What the CAA will do with our comments
The CAA is going to make these charges from 1 April 2016, no matter what comments it receives to its paper CAP1373b.  You know how the civil servants work:
* Don't play the ball, play the man.
* Never explain, never compromise, never apologise.

7 There's more...
And that's not all.  The last paragraph on p.4 of CAP1373b version 2 essentially says that there's going to be a root and branch review of the regulations and the charges for Air Displays from the 2017/18 season going forwards.

So we can kiss goodbye to air displays in the UK from then.

8 What can we do about this ?
8.1 - Read CAP1373b and make up your own mind (I am a bit ranty about this, as you can tell from the above).

8.2 - Whatever you think, tell the CAA on this online form BEFORE 29 February 2016

It gives you 6 opportunities to comment on different paragraphs of the report.  If you decide to do nothing else, please respond to the official consultation, via the link above.

8.3 - Sign  Darren Willmin's petition to Parliament, here:
Ask Civil Aviation Authority to rethink their charges to the 2016 Airshow season

8.4 - Write to your MP about the matter so they know your view, when it comes to a debate:     or

8.5 - Write to as many UK commercial aviation organisations as you can find and tell them that the CAA has been overcharging them for its services for years and to demand a refund from them.  If the CAA wants to push paper around, it can push it around getting its own house in order.

8.6 - Please tell others about this page.

8.7 - After 29 February 2016, make an application to the CAA under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, to force it to explain how much of the 8 stage response to consultation (see 5.1 to 5.8 above) it actually carried out.

You can write to the CAA at:
Civil Aviation Authority
CAA House
45-59 Kingsway

Main Switchboard: 020 7379 7311

8.8 - Procedural approaches
8.8.1 Ask the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee to take a closer look at the charging structure of the totality of the CAA's business and examine it for value for money.
8.8.2 Appeal to the Equality & Human Rights Commission on the grounds that the CAA has not carried out an Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA)
8.8.3 Ask the CAA to extend its comment deadline until it has supplied you with a usable/understandable version of CAP1373b in large print, Braille, Easy Read, on audio cassette, or in your first language (Hindi, Cornish, Xhosa, Cherokee, Suomi etc).

8.9 Air Display Organisers
You are already paying your Control Tower costs for the necessary air traffic services.  Don't organise any Air Displays.  Instead, organise a Fly In on the day(s) you had planned.  Encourage all participants to make several Missed Approach practices (either procedural or under Radar Control).  You will not need any special permissions nor low flying permits, as your visitors will not be "Low Flying" they will be making normal approaches.  This should also legitimise your penchant for bouncy castles.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Questions that weren't answered when MPs voted to bomb Syria.

* Who is it we will be bombing, exactly ?
* How will we tell one set of bad guys from another ?
* How do you propose that we establish effective operational coordination with the Russians, to avoid casualties to their people on the ground ?
* Can you really see the Americans sharing their dispositions with the Russians ?  If not, how can this possibly work without a catastrophe ?
* Will we be sharing our dispositions with the Russians ?

* What exactly will be the scope of our operations ?
* How will you get the Russians to agree, or at least to stay well clear ?
* How will you convince the Turks and other adjoining nations, not to shoot us down ?

* We may be able to deploy ISTAR/AWACS assets from say Akrotiri but we don't have UAV/drones which are qualified to deliver munitions. That means manned bombers.
* What will the bombers we deploy, otherwise not be doing ?  Can we afford to neglect that ?
* We have Brimstone. Do we have sufficient airframes fitted for its delivery, or will that be a last minute lash-up ?  Do we have enough launcher sets ?
* Do we have enough Brimstone stocks ?  Have we been ordering more Brimstone, without getting taken to the cleaners by the supplier ?
* What arrangements have been made to prove the Brimstone logistic supply chain when demand is high ?
* If we are going to use munitions other than Brimstone, what will we do to avoid collateral damage ?

* How will we identify and validate actual targets for the strike packages ?
* Do we know enough about ad hoc target defence capabilities to surpress / destroy them ?  With what ?
* How will we determine that those targets have been destroyed ?
* How will we measure capability / numeric degradation of ISIL as a result ?
* How do we know we aren't just going to provoke ISIL growth ?  How do we prevent that; we have been remarkably unsuccessful so far.  What's different now ?

* If damaged aircraft make it back to a land base, what arrangements have been made to beef up the military fire and rescue services, to increase chances of survival ?
* Given we have no "proper" Aircraft Carriers with arresting gear for conventional aircraft, what will they do if they have put down in the sea ?
* What arrangements have been made with our NATO allies (principally, the French and the US) for our aircraft to be able to make emergency landings on their Carriers ?
* How many RAF crews are currently qualified to land on a carrier ?  If they aren't, are we prepared to risk those crews and lose our bombers in the process ?
* Are all our bombers even equipped with arresting gear, to make this a possibility ?  What will it take to embark on an equipment fit ?
* If they can't land at sea when damaged, they'll have to ditch. What Royal Navy assets will you be deploying to recover the crews ?  Will they be sufficient for the scale of operations ?

* If they are shot down over Syria, surely a nightmare scenario, how will we get the crews back ?
* The UK Search and Rescue service has just been privatised. You have about 2 months before RN 771 Squadron and RAF 22 Squadron have gone for good.
Sea King HU.5(SAR) ZA130 / 19
Sea King HAR.3 ZE370

* You would have had the option to deploy them for Combat SAR and contract at home to cover the domestic SAR gap.  That possibility has evaporated.  How will we get our crews back ?
* What arrangements have been made with our NATO allies for a Combat SAR service, while we work out what we will do and how we will do it ?
* How will our "Expeditionary Air Wing" (however it is constituted) fit into the overall Allied combat command ? (How will they know we need crews rescuing ?)

* Once we have bombed, how will we tell when we have finished the job ?  When ISIL is gone (really) ?, When a free and fair election has occurred ?
* If it's a free and fair election (which I seriously doubt can possibly occur), what if we don't like the result ?  Are we going to bomb again ?
* What if the Russians, or the Iranians, or the Saudis don't like the result ?

* I believe everyone is agreed that an air campaign alone cannot produce whatever the result we think we need.  Boots on the ground are required.
* Where is this source of "regional" manpower ?   Which Arabic nations have committed to supply them ?  How many trained Brigades, Divisions, Regiments ? Are they enough ?
* How will they be brought into the command structure ?  How will we deconflict our missions and avoid bombing them by mistake ?
* Do they have the same objectives as we do ?  How will that potential disjoint get resolved ?

* Once the bombing is over, what is our plan then ?  Reconstruction ? Humanitarian Assistance ? Protecting Historic Sites ? Nation Building ?  For how long ?
* Who do we think the good guys are ?  We need to be cultivating them now (and probably for the previous 10 years) to prepare them to govern.
* Are we sure they are the good guys, or just the least worse guys ?  If the latter, how will that help the people of Syria ?
* If we judge we have finished in Syria, what about ISIL in Iraq and East Africa ?

* What instructions is the FCO going to give to our embassies and consulates in the region ?
* What travel restrictions / additional security arrangements will be put in place if this all kicks off ?
* What "message" are you giving to organisations such as the British Council ?
* What will we need to do to be seen to assist the Red Cross, Red Crescent, Medicins sans Frontiers ?

* Do we really believe the UN vote gives a mandate and legal cover for all of this ?

* How long will it last ?  How much will it cost ?
* Where will Mr Osborne fund it from ?  Please tell me we are not proposing to borrow more to achieve this ?

* And lastly, those who usually get overlooked:
* How are we planning to brief our servicemen and women ?
* What improvements are we making to care for the injured ?
* What welfare arrangements are being put in place for the families of those involved ?

The end of the Royal Navy Search and Rescue service - my verse isn't very good but someone needs to say it.

The Royal Navy has shouldered its fair share of the UK Search and Rescue Service, with 771 Naval Air Squadron, from HMS Seahawk near Helston and 819 Naval Air Squadron (since Nov 2001 as HMS Gannet SAR Flight of 771 NAS), from HMS Gannet near Prestwick.

In the past, 705 NAS and 772 NAS also contributed.

At RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk), 771 NAS operated from the west side of the base, near the main road from Helston to The Lizard. Its Sea King SAR helicopters were a welcome sight in the skies over Cornwall and Devon.

Sea King HU.5 ZA166/16

What shall we do with D site now that 771 has gone ?

In the rough and in the night time
771's brave boys patrolled,
bringing safety and salvation
to those poor, imperilled souls.

They've done our Search and Rescue
'til January of sixteen.
The job's now gone to Bristows
and they all seem quite keen

to carry forth that blazing torch
(it must be quite a thrill).
Three cheers now for those Bristow crews;
they've got big boots to fill.

And so around our coast they flew
from Penzance to Lundy's Isles:
A final lap of honour, which
brought waves and beaming smiles.

The threshold of Three Six now quiet;
an engine hoist stands lone.
No sounds of tired maintainers
or the whining of those Gnomes.

The hangar's bare, the birds have flown,
no need for Sea King spares
and Westland's icon now has gone
to scrapheaps here and there.

The service lapsed, the crews have gone,
no aircraft for the role.
The training value of these flights
was worth its weight in gold.

We cannot have our Navy
doing jobs that could be paid
for from that Government Department,
that was the Board of Trade.

But Whitehall's full of Knaves and Fools
who've never known the need
to get our shot down aircrew back
from combat zones, at speed.

Let's hope our erstwhile cousins
have Jolly Greens enough to spare,
when hostile acts upon our crews
cause mayhem without care.

What shall we do with D site
now that 771 has gone ?