Fighter pilot for a day on a BAC 167 Strikemaster
By Paul Jansen
A Rolls Royce automobile is a fine machine. They are not cheap. Few get to drive the marque. But the engine in the car bearing the brand is a plaything compared to the Rolls Royce turbojet lodged in the fuselage of the British Aircraft Corporation 167 Strikemaster.
The performance of the car may please its owners, but the Rolls Royce Viper Mark 535 in the BAC 167 will give you an adrenaline rush orders of magnitude greater than any Phantom or Ghost can deliver.
I say this with the clear memory of being slammed into the back of my seat by 3,410 lbs of thrust as VH-ZEP raced down the runway at Ballarat, Victoria one clear May morning.
The aircraft, painted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) livery with the NZ6361 mark linking it to its past as a fast jet trainer, had acquired a new life since being de-militarised.
The RNZAF had retired its Strikemasters in 1994, and VH-ZEP was purchased by Darren DeRoia, a former air force radio technician, who turned the 1972 jet into a “joy-rider” and show plane. It was the centrepiece of his company, Australian Jet Adventures, based in Ballarat, about 110 kilometres west of Melbourne.
I had gone there to chase a memory. More than 20 years ago, I was privileged to have the opportunity to put Strikemasters through their paces. The several hours I logged on the type with the Singapore air force left a lasting impression.
It was the first jet I flew. I never forgot the thrill of pushing the throttle to the stops, hearing the sweet whine of the engine blades hitting their stride, smelling the acrid tang of kerosene, and then seeing the edges of the runway turn into a blur before disappearing behind me. Just 300 metres from standing start to airborne.
Now, after a career in the media and marketing and getting my Private Pilot’s Licence, I was keen to relive those moments. A search of the Internet brought me to Australian Jet Adventures. Its website offered the most interesting and convenient opportunity to fly in a Strikemaster. There weren’t very many left. All told, about 140 had been built and bought by air forces in countries such as New Zealand and Singapore.
Age and a reported structural problem with the wings were among the reasons they were phased out. Only about 15 remained in airworthy condition worldwide. There were a few available for rides, but Australia was close and Darren’s had the added attraction of being painted in fighter colours, rather than a sponsoring company’s logos.
Australian Jet Adventures, the company he founded in 1998 with Christine Segaert, had built a business around VH-ZEP, and a Yak 52, a Russian military trainer. In a sense, Darren, formerly a maintenance crewman from the Royal Australian Air Force, was also re-living his past as an airman. albeit now in the cockpit.
Having first flown about 30 years ago, he had since obtained his Commercial Pilot’s Licence and turbine (jet) endorsement, allowing him to give joy rides to people like me.
His fixed base, Ballarat Airport (YBLT), is well-served by three runways. Runway 05/23 is 1,265 metres (4,150 ft) and 18/36 is 1,245 metres (4,085 ft), both with an asphalt surface. Complementing them is 12/31, a 568 metre (1,864 ft) grass strip.
The aerodrome is also home to such attractions as the Ballarat Aviation Museum. When I arrived, the main attraction for me, a lone BAC 167 Strikemaster, was standing just outside the doors to the museum. I felt a frisson of excitement.
It had been a while since I had flown in a fighter jet. Now, I was about to do it again, and not just any jet but the same type which I had flown before.
“NZ6361″ was typical of the type: bulbous nose to accommodate the tandem seats and dual controls, twin air intakes which made great perches for climbing into and leaving the cockpit, a 36 feet, 10 inch wingspan tipped at the ends with wing tanks and below with hardened points for drop tanks and ordnance, and a short undercarriage which always gave me the impression that the plane was ready to leap into the air.
Empty, the Strikemaster weighs 6,195 lbs. With a maximum takeoff weight of 11,500 lbs, it can carry two 7.62-mm (0.3-inch) guns, and up to 3,000 lbs of rockets, gun pods, and bombs, among other things. Some air forces used it as a ground attack aircraft.
Since we were not going to use that load capacity for anything other than crew and fuel, I was focussed on the speeds. The Strikemaster has a maximum speed of 481 knots, or 774 kmph at 18,000 ft (5,485 m). Fully-loaded, it can fly 1,200 nautical miles or 2,224 km. The less than graceful profile does not prevent it from climbing at a decent 5,250 ft/min and reaching a service ceiling of 40,000 ft (12,200 m).
As I was hoping to get Darren to push NZ6361 a bit, the other number I paid attention to was the stall speed, 85.5 knots (158 km/h) with the flaps down, as getting a jet out of a spin was no small matter.
Before I could get into the Strikemaster, there were several things to do first. I had already signed an indemnity form before arriving. I was met by Christine and introduced to Darren.
She ushered me into a room where I sat through a video presentation, giving me an idea of what my ride would be like (particularly important if you have never done any aerobatic flying) and covering safety issues as well.
Then it was time to suit up. I was given a flight suit, a mask which doubled as a conduit for the oxygen supply and a holder for the microphone, a helmet, and a parachute.
This last was necessary as the aircraft was not equipped with the explosives to drive the Martin Baker ejection seats out the cockpit in the event of an emergency.
While I was getting dressed, Darren got the plane ready. There were onboard cameras to record my flight so I could re-live the experience.
Walking up to the 10-foot plane was like walking back in time.
The Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC), forerunner to the Republic of Singapore Air Force, had a fleet of Mk 84 Strikemasters in the 70s to prepare its trainees for fast jets. Few reached this level of training, conducted over Singapore, Malaysia and the South China Sea.
In offering its jet flight experience. Australian Jet Adventures was broadening the pool of Strike fans, allowing anyone with the inclination, and money, to sample what those trainees experienced.
My wife had booked me for the 25-minute sortie. This cost A$1,700 then (a similar flight today costs A$2,695).
Darren and I did the walkaround and we climbed in.
There were no technicians to help us get strapped, pass us our helmets, stand by with a fire extinguisher, or ensure the area was clear for our start up. Air force pilots have it good.
Our flight profile was packed. I had let Darren know that I had some experience in a “Strike” and wanted to go through as many of the manoeuvres I did in the past as possible in the time allowed.
Darren made the radio calls and fired up the engine. The Viper 535 began hungrily gulping fuel at the rate of 1,100 litres per hour.
After start up checks were completed, we rolled down the taxiway. A few minutes later, and we were lined up, ready to go. The take off was fast: we hit 400 kmph in 15 seconds and we left the ground in a very positive fashion.
Once established in our operating area, we began our sequence. The most memorable – and my favourite – was the “inside loop”, an air show favourite too.
It consists of the aircraft making a complete vertical circle in the air. Pick a point on the horizon directly in front of you and make sure when you come out of the loop, you are still heading straight for it, a snake eating its tail, an Ouroboros of renewal.
Full power and we began the loop at 600kmph. Darren pulled the “stick” smoothly back and the plane’s wing tips cut the horizon at a 90 degree angle a quarter way through the turn. Then we were at the apex, 8,000 ft high, upside down and weightless.
The Strikemaster passed through the top and began its descent, still inverted. The ground rushed up at a dizzing speed and as Darren pulled us out of the loop, I felt invisible fingers claw the skin and flesh of my face downward. The “G” indicator zipped to 4, indicating that I was experiencing four times the force of gravity on my body. I didn’t need a meter to tell me this. Elephants were dancing on my head and lap.
Muscle memory made me grit my teeth and tighten my stomach. Though the blood drained from my eyes, starting my vision to tunnel, I recovered in tandem with the plane. Darren hit the numbers nicely, leveling at the entry height and heading and running right into our own turbulence created when we began our loop.
I have “looped” many times and in many different types of aircraft, but there is something about doing it in a fighter jet that puts this in a different category.
It is not the speed – the P51D Mustang I did it in is no slouch – or the diameter of the vertical circle. I think it is the fact that I am sitting on a tail of fire that gives the experience a different dimension. Without the comforting sight of a spinning propeller right in front, all motion seems magical, made possible by a force invisible to us in the cockpit. I had a Prometheus Moment. An epiphany on man’s inventiveness.
The barrel roll – in which the aircraft flies in a horizontal corkscrew pattern – was slower in execution and less hard on the body, generating “just” 2 to 3 Gs of force. No elephants pounding on my body here, just perhaps cuddle from a koala or two. It was almost leisurely. So were the Victory Rolls. Darren pulled the nose up slightly and then pushed the stick all the way to the right. The aircraft kept flying straight and level but twisted completely around its longtitudinal axis. The effect was as though we were sitting upright but the whole world had begun spinning 360 degrees in front of us.
During one of the manouevres, there was a tiny give in my seat straps and I felt my bottom lift off the seat. Fortunately, the seat belt was tight enough to prevent my helmet slamming into the canopy. Should have paid more attention to the safety video.
Wing Overs, more Loops and other manoeuvres followed and then we headed back.
I noticed that my body and vision were taking longer to recover than when I first flew Srikes a couple of decades ago. Aerobatics requires the strength of youth or regular practice. My stomach was still at the top of the Loop by the time we were near the airfield. It did not help that Darren came in for a high speed run and pitch up before joining the base leg and landing.
I was still woozy as I climbed out of the cockpit and was back to myself only after a nice hot drink at the office. But a sense of fatigue remained. I remembered how my friends and I, all then in our energetic teens, would nonetheless drop onto a sofa and quickly fall asleep after doing aerobatics in tight formation, so exhausted were we.
However, while my (much older) body was now a little tired, my mind was buzzing with the sights and sounds of the flight. Aerobatic flying is a skill and requires fitness as well as careful preparation and training. Companies like Australian Jet Adventures give General Aviation pilots who usually stick to straight and level flying in propeller-driven aircraft, and have neither the fitness to become aerobatic jockeys nor the time to train for it, a chance to peek into a different world and also to experience unusual flight attitudes and see how the pros recover from these.
Even aerobatic pilots who perform in propeller-driven aircraft could benefit from taking a flight in a fighter jet.
The end of my sortie left me with renewed admiration, and I must admit, a little envy, for the men and women of air forces around the world who get to fly high performance jets each day.
In the meantime, I have my video to watch.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.
Glory days for the Strikemaster
Singapore: These pictures were contributed by Merawan reader Kevin Muk Hon Keong, a former Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilot, and currently a fixed and rotary wing instructor. They were taken in 1976 and show him and his colleagues flying RSAF BAC 167 Strikemaster Mk 84s from Changi Air Base in close formation.
New Zealand: This picture shows Republic of New Zealand Air Force BAC 167 Strikemaster Mk 88s in formation.
For more pictures, visit our Gallery.
NEXT: Home, sweet hangered home