Oh boy, what a day! Just like being a kid again!
After 3 years of living in Ostrava, I’ve finally made it to NATO Days! A day of gettin’ up close an’ pers’nal with a whole bunch of mind-numbingly destructive hardware.
From the aerodynamic to the awkward, a schoolboy’s dream catalogue of aviation bad-boys. A whole arm of human technological development honed over generations and fine-tuned to the ever-necessary art of bombing those suckers back to the Stone Age! All lined up and ready for inspection by ME!!!
The liberal papers would have a field day with this… YOUR TAX MONEY SPENT ON WAR!!! etc. Has war become so commonplace on TV that we fail to recognise the sinister undertones of this spectacle? Or does the primal ape within us all just get a thrill out of the bone-crunching thunder of those engines, the shaking, howling screaming release of all that power? The very Earth trembling under foot as a bloody great bunch of jet fighters does a formation take-off, with the roar of Hell itself, into the wide unattainable sky?
Who cares? Look at them go! Jet noise; the Sound of Freedom! I mean, when all’s said and done, what’s the difference between the inner ape which is awed by power and the inner schoolboy jumping up and down screaming for more?
That’s right, NATO Days, a fun day out for all the family or a sordid display of fascist brutality, depending on which papers you read. NATO (as it’s known to the whole world except the French) Days 2012, held at Ostrava Airport against the rather photogenic backdrop of the Beskydy mountains. A short train ride from Ostrava Svinov station, a white-knuckle ride in an overloaded, top-heavy bus and a 45 minute walk behind snail-paced sluggards in the warm September sun. Flowers wave in the breeze, birds chase through the crops in the fields, a far-off whispering suggests an approaching aeroplane, the English ear strains for the slap of leather on willow and the air, the AIR… is torn asunder by a P51 Mustang, bouncing over the trees, a fleeting silhouette, flame from the exhausts and brutal, unrefined SOUND. Ears battered as if a thousand Hell’s Angels had just ridden through your world at 600 kilometres per hour, kicked over the dustbin and trashed the garden. My inner schoolboy could hardly contain himself and even Our Lass was moved to wonder if such things ought to be allowed.
The Mustang buzzed us a few more times for good effect and disappeared. Calm returned for a few minutes as we continued the long walk to the entrance and almost noiselessly compared to the Mustang, a C 27 took off. We paid it no heed in our attempts to negotiate the congealed crowds with their disengaged brains. We were here to see fast things go whizzing around, not some twin engine baby Hercules.
Finally, the entrance! Some idiots were blocking the way, staring at something behind the trees but we got past them in time to see what they were staring at; the C27 came barrelling back at a reckless altitude, zoomed over the crowd and then pulled up into a graceful, climbing barrel-roll. OK, maybe it’s not just a baby Hercules, then. We waited for the wings to come off but somehow they didn’t and the pilot used the altitude to put in a bit of dive-bombing practice on something the other side of the trees. He disappeared and Our Lass made plane-hitting-the-ground-and-exploding noises in the back of her throat, to the general amusement of the crowd, but before you could scream ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to die!’ this supposed cargo plane went shooting back up into the sky and pulled a loop. Not a stall-turn or anything, a proper, round, I-can-do-it-whenever-I-want-to loop. My inner schoolboy nearly wet himself and Our Lass demanded to know if that sort of thing was normal but I could tell she was as excited as me!
The C27 pilot continued to show off for another 20 minutes, occasionally appearing upside-down attempting to plough the fields with his tailplane or steal washing off the line with his landing gear but he didn’t seem able to fly backwards or below ground level so we went to have a look at the nice tanks on display.
Our Lass once got nick-named Tank Girl for reasons I won’t go into without a lawyer present, so we were looking for a nice little tank with a shiny gun to take a romantic holiday snap next to when we came across a specialist unit of the Czech Army trained to wash military vehicles in beer. This should not have come as a surprise. After all, many of the top spas offer a ‘beer bath’ where you can relax in a tub of warm mash for a small consideration. In fact a beer shower is sometimes included in a Friday night visit to small village pubs but this often comes with free samples of broken glass and smashed furniture.
This beer wash turned out to be a chemical decontamination unit but the barrels of decontaminant were clearly marked ‘Pilsener Prazdroj’ so either someone was taking the mickey or this was an example of being able to use a non-reactive container which is easily obtainable anywhere in the country in times of emergency. I wanted to ask the crew but Our Lass had found a tank she liked so I hurried off to do the portrait work.
Next on our itinerary was a C130 Hercules. A proper one, the right way up and with 4 engines. Our Lass wanted a look inside because I showed her some pictures I took of Wales out the back of one many years ago before I grew up. She wanted to see the rest of it, not just pictures of sheep and my mate filling his sick-bag so we joined the queue. This particular Hercules was from the Niagara Air National Guard and staffed by typical friendly Americans, immaculate in freshly-pressed flight-suits and smiling for the tourists, full of facts, figures and enthusiasm. When Our Lass saw the car air-fresheners hanging from the bulkhead, the flight engineer explained the intricacies of the toilet and made me look a mug because I told her there was a thing that looked like a rubbish bin that you peed into and which vented directly outside but maybe the RAF bought the cheap version. And given the fact that this was quite a few years ago, there may since have been upgrades for female flight crews!
We eventually gave up on trying to reach the flight deck because of the queue and the fact that we didn’t have Our Kid with us. Judging by some of the unhappy screaming going on around us, that was probably a wise decision but a kid is definitely a ticket to the flight deck, especially with the ever-friendly Americans… must remember to bring him next time!
Next to the Hercules was a NATO (for everyone except the French) E3 Sentry which we both wanted a look inside but we couldn’t actually find the end of the queue so gave up on that. It appeared to have an international crew, with Norwegian, Swedish and German blokes, like the Americans in immaculate flight-suits although all with beards, like the Navy. It sounded a little odd to hear a group of people who obviously work closely with each other joking around in English when all of them had foreign accents. They spoke better English than a lot of native speakers I know as well!
We were attracted to another E3, this one queueless but there was something odd about the crew’s appearance. They all had the standard green flight-suit but the general immaculate uniform-ness had been stretched to include a variety of baseball caps and an afro wig.
‘Are they British?’ Asked Our Lass, who has an eye for that sort of detail. Indeed they were; Fergie, Phil and Steve, Britain’s finest, from 56 Squadron at RAF Waddington. Like a good amateur journalist, interested in their opinions of the land I call home, I asked them what they had seen, visited, liked the most, etc and got the same answer to all three questions: Stodolni.
Aah, Stodolni, the Street That Never Sleeps… the Union Street of Central Europe. Crammed with late-night bars, clubs, fast-food stands and the obligatory Irish pub. Everything the lonely serviceman stationed far from home could possibly want, in fact. A Sentry is apparently an ideal aircraft for combining NATO Days with a hotel on Stodolni because you can bring a big crew and work shifts, thus maximising the potential for waving the flag during the day and giving the ball a good kick at night.
We bid the Sentry crew farewell and started looking for a good vantage point for the Red Arrows, which let’s face it, makes even the most cavalier C27 display pale into insignificance. On the way, we passed a Czech Air Force CASA C-295M. Our Lass pointed it out because although they don’t meet the Czech Ministry of defence strategic outlines, do not have enough range or lifting capacity for the Air Force’s needs and were not exactly top of the Christmas List for a variety of other reasons, the Czech Republic now possesses 4 of them and the former Defence Minister is currently under investigation by the anti-corruption police for breach of trust and abuse of public office. There are 1509 unwanted off-road vehicles out there somewhere as well, maybe some of you 4×4 fans can make the Czech MoD an offer!
Due to the dense crowd (208,000 people over 2 days, according to the news on TV), we had only the vaguest idea where the runway was. The Red Arrows commentator was on the PA but we couldn’t hear what he was saying over the noise of seven Rolls Royce Adour turbofans wound up and spoiling for a fight. The ground was shaking and we were on the wrong side of a fenced off compound. The mini-earthquake ramped up a notch, Our Lass was shouting something I couldn’t hear, two puffs of red and blue smoke appeared over a tent and the awful noise began to fade. That was it. We watched in the direction where we had seen other aircraft take off but there was nothing. Wherever they’d gone, they were keeping close to the ground.
The commentator had been joined by a translator who was telling everyone that the smoke was made from coloured diesel and we finally got as close to the runway as we were going to get without crowd surfing. More facts and figures were translated but no aircraft were to be seen. My inner schoolboy was tugging at my sleeve with impatience and hopping from one foot to another when we finally heard the words we all remember and love from the air-shows of our youth:
‘And if you look to your left, you will see the colours of the British flag and this year’s team in V-formation….’ And there I was, 6 years old again, with my jaw hanging open, blinded by the sun, the inner schoolboy thoroughly outed. They cruised past us, lifted lazily up to the heavens, casually changed formation during the manoeuvre and curved gracefully into a loop. The wind rather spoilt the effect by blowing the smoke out of shape but it was probably done out of jealousy.
Using the trees to good effect, they changed formation a few more times, disappearing and reappearing as the commentator and his translator continued feeding us information, ‘This is the Concorde formation… this is the Flanker formation named after the Russian Su27 Flanker aircraft… now trailing the colours of the Czech flag (which by happy coincidence are the same colours as the British flag)… This is the Gripen formation (named after another Czech arms-procurement corruption scandal)… The aircraft are now flying at 600 kilometres per hour, with 2 metres between each aircraft…’
Did I detect some hesitancy in the translation? Did the translator think he was being had? Could these crazy fools REALLY be covering nearly 2 football fields per second with hardly more than the pilots’ arm-spans between them? Our Lass was having none of it.
‘No-one can do that’, she said, ignoring the evidence of her own eyes. ‘Can they?’
They continued ‘not doing that’ into the smoothest barrel-roll the world has ever seen. ‘You can if you’re good enough.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the first half of today’s performance….’ The translator managed that one with conviction, at least.
I looked around, the crowd was clearly impressed so far but my inner schoolboy remembered shows gone by and was jumping up and down, squealing with anticipation, demanding more, ‘Where are they? Where are they? Where are they?’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you look to your front, the team are returning for the second half of the show…’ To add a little flavour, the crews’ radios were broadcast over the PA but there was still no sign of them. Something unintelligible garbled over the PA followed by the command ‘Smoke ON’ and right in front of us, how the hell could we have missed them, well they ARE rather close to the ground… ‘Watch this, watch this!’ screamed the schoolboy, beginning to foam at the mouth.
Five aircraft shot up into the air, quite distracting our attention from the other two, the Synchro Pair, which carved off parallel to the ground.
‘The rest of the team is now flying at around 700 kilometres per hour,’ the now-recovered translator informed everyone, but that’s OK because they are now 3 metres apart.
‘What happened to the other two?’ Asked Our Lass.
‘Watch out in front,’ the Inner Schoolboy burbled, eyes glazed in deep religious fervour. ‘Watch out to the left’, advised the commentator. The crowd duly watched in amazement as a lone Hawk approached from the left at 600 kilometres per hour, barely 30 metres above the ground. Thousands of pairs of eyes followed it in and totally failed to see the other one approaching at the same speed and altitude from the opposite direction until a fraction of a second before they crossed. By this time my inner schoolboy was in the sick-room with Matron waving smelling salts under his nose.
A noise like a constipated Sergeant-Major barking orders through a privy door came over the PA. This, said the commentator, was the Synchro Leader, compressed by a 7g turn, co-ordinating the next manoeuvre. Assuming a body-weight of 75kg, he would now be feeling like 525kg. No wonder he sounded constipated!
After a few seconds, they appeared head to head again and by the sound of it were setting up for a third go but the this time each aircraft was actually completing a barrel-roll as they crossed. Even over the incredible noise I could hear the crowd screaming their appreciation. Not to be outdone, the other aircraft appeared again, at the dizzying altitude of around 50 metres, performing barrel-rolls within their own formation and leaving platted trails of smoke in their wake. The Synchro pair had zoomed off into the wide blue yonder somewhere for ‘A tribute to all the lovers’. White smoke duly blossomed in the distance as they performed perfectly timed opposing loops around the sun, leaving a heart shape in the sky.
Like some MC at a rock concert, our commentator told us to make some noise for the pilots. Apparently we made enough to coax them into an encore, as with several more low-level passes, seemingly suicidal cross-overs and a flourish of red, white and blue, they came back to take a bow.
‘They are insane!’ Declared Our Lass. ‘They must be!’
A wave of national pride suddenly swept over me. First the Olympics, now this! Basking in reflected glory, I wandered off with Our Lass to watch a display of police dogs savaging terrorists. Behind me an Inner Schoolboy lay in a medically-induced coma.
And here’s a final thought; while I’m getting to the age where the policemen and the doctors look young, aircrew still seem to be gray and older than me!