WHEN The Blades display team say that they are the world’s only aerobatic airline it’s not just marketing spin – it’s true.
Because the Bournemouth Air Festival favourites, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, don’t make the claim purely because they can carry passengers – they have fulfilled all of the legal requirements in the same way that British Airways or Virgin Atlantic have to do.
So that means that everyday Joes like me can fill in a quick medical questionnaire and hop in one of their Extra 300 stunt planes for an unforgettable ride.
And what a ride it is.
The Blades are popular with the crowds in Bournemouth and around the country thanks to their gravity-defying flying – loops, rolls, close passes, backwards flying and tumbles.
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And, if your stomach permits it – which mine did, thankfully – then you can experience what it’s like to be part of such a display.
The Blades are made up exclusively of former Red Arrows pilots, so you know you’re in good hands, and they’ve all got years of flying experience, both military and civilian.
They’re also, like every pilot I’ve met on the circuit, top blokes.
And that means that, if you are slightly nervous at the thought of riding in an airborne washing machine on a full spin cycle, they will put you at ease straight away.
My group was in the capable hands of team leader, Blade One, Mark ‘Cutty’ Cutmore, while my own pilot was the affable Andy Evans.
After a thorough briefing, which covered everything from what to expect from the flight to how to jump from the plane if it did go truly wrong, it was into flying suits and, complete with parachute attached to my back (you never can be too careful) and a ‘comfort’ bag attached to my suit should my breakfast decide to make an unwelcome appearance, Andy led me to our steed.
On a beautifully sunny day at Sywell Aerodrome near Northampton, which is where the team is based, walking across the grass to a plane in a flying suit and slim line shades makes it hard not to feel pretty darn cool.
Passengers sit in the front of the Extra 300 and I clambered up the wing to get into what is a pretty snug cockpit, as you’d imagine.
In front of you are an altimeter, your air speed and, the one of interest to me, a dial showing G Force.
Strapped in tight, we, along with two of The Blades' three other display planes, headed off into the skies.
The best thing about these guys is that they’ll show you what the aircraft can do, but they won’t push you too hard – the flight is on your terms.
Things get going with some gentle banks in formation, with the other planes just feet away side-by-side and then end-to-end, to get you used to things.
The first aerobatic manoeuvre you get a taste of is a loop.
It was my first experience of going upside down in a plane and it’s strange, to say the least.
With a loop being a relatively slow move, the G Force bears down on you in a progressive manner, making you feel heavier and heavier and pushing you yet further into your seat. I suppose it’s a bit like having a sumo wrestler sit on you slowly but surely.
Andy Evans is the team’s solo display pilot and, always checking to make sure I was feeling OK, we veered off from the other two and went to try some more demanding moves.
With his passenger adopting an attitude of ‘I’m up here, let’s do it’, Andy pulled off barrel rolls, stall turns and tumbles, each move more full-on and disorientating than the last – but brilliant fun. And flying upside down, hanging from your harness, is a really odd feeling.
When I’ve watched The Blades over the years at the Bournemouth Air Festival, there are always a couple of moves that make me think ‘that shouldn’t be possible’, notably the stall turns, backwards flying and tumbles. When we use the term ‘gravity defying’ those moves seem to be the definition of that phrase.
But what these planes – in the hands of supremely talented and experienced pilots – can do is unbelievable.
On a couple, notably the end-over-end tumbles, it was like being in a washing machine, with the view out of the window something like this: sky/ground/smoke/clouds/ground/sky – all mashed into a second or two.
The stresses on the body have to be felt to be believed, especially in the more complicated moves that I was now experiencing.
I’ll never forget the feeling of staring directly at the ground, or looking out of the window to my left to see things moving in a direction that they really ought not to have been.
For those who enjoy their thrills fast and furious there can be little to raise the heart rate as much as something like aerobatic flying.
Andy even let me take the controls for a brief time. Yes, I flew a former Red Arrows pilot. Well, a little bit anyway.
And then, all too soon, it was time to head back to Sywell.
If you thought watching The Blades was exciting, being on board is out of this world.