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Spirit in the Sky

The MARA trip to the Royal International Air Tattoo 1999

By Bill Bimson

With so many UFO reports being the result of civilian and military aircraft, it is important for UFOlogists to have a basic knowledge of what aircraft look like and how they may be misconstrued as UFOs. This is especially important now that stealth technology has led to aircraft having airframes and shapes which are far less conventional than in the past. With this in mind and the fact that some of us have a healthy interest in conventional aircraft anyway, we decided that the Royal International Air Tattoo would be an appropriate day trip for MARA members.

We arranged to be picked up in Liverpool City Centre by luxury coach at 1.00 a.m. on Sunday 25th July for an overnight trip down to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. Of course this involved the consumption of several pints of real ale in the Ship and Mitre before departure to ensure a good sleep on the journey. We arrived at RAF Fairford at 5.45 A.M. but the gates to the display did not open until 6.30 A.M. so we had a bit of a wait. This was not too annoying as the sun had risen into a beautiful cloud free sky to give a light which I seldom see these days.

Once the gates opened we went straight to the static display of military and civilian helicopters where I observed for the first time in real life, two Apaches, as used to great effect in the Gulf War and deployed but not used in Kosovo. After this we made for one of the fast food outlets for breakfast and we found that price lists had been taken down for a good reason. We understand that the prices had been raised from the previous dayís display to make an even bigger killing and I was a little shocked to find that two bacon baguettes and two cups of tea cost £7.40. My advice to anyone going to one of these events in the future is to take as much food and drink with you as you can carry to avoid these extortionate prices.

We then made our way further along the static display of military aircraft consisting ofF-16 Falcons, various marks of Tornadoes from many different countries and other aircraft including maritime reconnaissance and transport types. One of the highlights of the static display was the Galaxy and Antononov transport aircraft which opened their nose doors and ramps and allowed the public inside the gaping tunnel that was the fuselage of the aircraft. In the case of the Galaxy we walked up the front ramp through the aircraft and down the back ramp. I recorded on my camcorder one person roller bladeing through the plane. Another nice aspect of the static display was that some aircraft had aircrew standing by which meant that we could ask questions and I am pleased to say that MARA members had some interaction with the aircrew on several displays.

By the time we had covered about two thirds of the static display it was 9.30 A.M. and the roar of reheated engines announced that it was time to get a good spot for viewing the first of the flying aircraft. To get off to an impressive start the MiG 29 Fulcrum took to the sky and gave its usual display of high acceleration and extreme maneuverability. The famous tail slide was also demonstrated whereby the aircraft climbs, appears to hang in the air almost vertical, then slides back slightly before dropping the nose to come out of the manoeuver in a vertical dive.

This display was followed by a number of other noisy jets including the F16 Falcon, an F3 (fighter version) Tornado, a Canberra and a SAAB Viggen. I had never seen the Viggen before except in the SAAB car adverts and I found it particularly impressive in terms of maneuverability for such a large aircraft. Its nice to see the Swedes display this sort of hardware but I canít help thinking it will never be used. When was the last time Sweden was involved in a shooting war? One thing flying triangle fans should note about the Viggen is that it is a Delta wing shape with a pair of large forward canotards (smaller front wings) and at a distance gives the appearance of two triangles, one in front of the other.

SAAB Viggen double triangle

The SAAB Viggen double triangle.

By midmorning the excitement of the display was starting to wear off a little on me as more classic aircraft were flown such as the meteor, the vampire, the Dakota, the Hercules and the Battle of Britain memorial flight of the Lancaster and Spitfire. This period of gentler age aircraft was punctuated by the noisiest take off of the day from an F/A-18 Hornet. This advanced aircraft demonstrated all of the usual aerobatics that you would expect along with a high angle of attack flight, meaning that the angle of the wing to the airflow was very high, up to about 25 degrees. This allows the aircraft to fly very slowly and goes against everything I was taught in principles of flight lectures when I was an air cadet about 25 years ago. I was then told that if the angle of attack goes past about 8 degrees the aircraft would stall and drop out of the sky. The high angle of attack flight is only made possible by computers and the fly by wire techniques which now operate the control services of the aircraft. The pilot simply selects the speed that he wants to travel at pushes the stick right back and the computers then take over and fly the aircraft at the maximum sustainable angle of attack.

The so called Lazy Lunch display started at one O-clock. This consisted of a number of aerobatics teams, but not the red arrows and we took this as our cue to view the rest of the static display. After all, we still hadnít seen what we had especially come to see. We made our way back to the static display and before long we came to it!!! A beast with the wingspan of an airliner, the colour of night, the radar signature of a gnats testicle (one only not a pair) and an airframe from Zeta Reticulli (possibly). It was of course the B2 Spirit stealth bomber. Please take note campers, this aircraft WILL be mistaken for a UFO. The only time I can remember being so awe-struck by an aircraft was when I saw my first Vulcan take off but I was only about thirteen years old then. Words canít describe this aircraft but I have made a VHS video for any MARA members who would like to borrow it. We were within about 50 feet of the aircraft at the enclosure boundary which also held the F117 Nighthawk stealth-fighter. However, after viewing the B2, I couldnít feel impressed by the F117.

B2 Stealth Spirit bomber side view

The B2 Spirit stealth bomber side view

In the enclosure opposite the B2 was an old U2 spy-plane to remind us of the history of stealth. Even though the U2 doesnít have stealth capability it was meant to be untouchable by conventional weapons of the time by virtue of its high altitude capability until surface to air missiles became a force to be reckoned with.  Further along the static display we came across Starlifter transports, the B52Stratofortress, the B1 bomber, and the A10 Warthog tank buster. The nice thing about the A10 was that the area was not roped off and they had a pilot clutching one of the tank busting shells answering questions beside the cockpit. I went straight up to the cannon and peered down the barrels to observe the rifleing.  You canít get any closer than that.

After this we made our way back to the flying display grabbing a rip off fast food lunch on the way. The next display to impress me was that of the B52Stratofortress bomber. This 8 jet engined monster which formed the backbone of the USAís nuclear deterrent during the early years of the cold war, was used during the Kosovo conflict and is still expected to be in service 40 years from now. This aircraft demonstrates how constant upgrading can keep it an effective weapon throughout many decades. The landing was also impressive on the fuselage wheels with the wings tipping over just before it came to a halt to land one huge wing on a tiny wheel mounted at the wing tip.

Another aircraft which impressed me (because I fell in love with its rocket like fuselage and tiny wings when I was a teenager) was the Lockheed F-104SStarfighter. This aircraft reminded me of the X series of high speed test planes used in the 50ís and 60ís by the US airforce to test the maximum speed of atmospheric aircraft. During its demonstration, the commentator pointed out that its tiny wings meant that it had a very high landing speed and a large turning circle because of its high stall speed. From a combat point of view this plane would be no match for the advanced fighters of today which can appear to do 180degree turns in an airspace the size of your back garden. Anyone who has played a combat flight simulator computer game will know that the ability to fly slowly and hence turn quickly is of paramount importance for a fighter.

After this display the excitement seemed to wane a little as a Crusader followed by a Nimrod, a Sea King helicopter and a Lockheed Orion took to the sky. By this time, I was constantly looking at my watch and the program to see how long it would be before we had a Spirit in the sky. The excitement picked up again as both a MiG29 Fulcrum and a Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker demonstrated their abilities including the impressive tail slide. I am on a military aircraft e-mail distribution list and I have learned something rather interesting from this. The US Navy has purchased a pair of Su-27ís from the Russians at the bargain basement price of $8million a piece. About a quarter of the cost of an F-16. MARA could do with one of these for chasing UFOís but the last time I spoke to our treasurer we couldnít afford a new BIC biro. There are various theories on the e-mail list as to why the US Navy have purchased the Su-27ís. One person suggested that they were to be used as aggressor aircraft for realistic dogfighting training.  Someone else suggested that they were cheap enough to strip everything out of the airframe and replace the engines, avionics and fuel system to produce an American compatible aircraft which is better than the F-16 for less money.  Another suggested that it was someoneís way of making the US Senate sit up and take notice that defence spending cuts were having dire effects on the US Navy forcing them to buy Russian aircraft in the hope that the purse strings would be loosened in future years. They canít all be right but I bet one of them is.

The next display was by a pair of Jaguars followed by the French Dassault Mirage 2000.This is a delta wing aircraft and hence a contender to be mistaken for a flying triangle but it is just as noisy as the other jets and anyone with a bit of common sense should recognise it for what it is.

Dassault Mirage 2000

Dassault Mirage 2000

After this, the B1-B Lancer bomber took off and showed its swing-wing capability. I might be wrong about this but I think it is the largest swing-wing aircraft flying. This is another aircraft that was used in the recent Kosovo conflict.  This was followed by another much smaller swing-wing aircraft, the Tornado. When the Tornado has its wings swept fully back to the 67-degree position, there is only a small gap between the wing and the rear stabilisers, which gives the appearance of a delta wing from a distance.

Tornado with wings swept back to the 67 degree position

The Tornado with wings swept back to the 67 degree position.

A number of other aircraft took to the sky after this but they are hardly worth mentioning as the next display was by the Red Arrows. While this was impressive as always, I couldnít wait for it to finish because the display after that was the Northrop Grumman B2 Spirit stealth bomber. The B2 rolled down the runway with about as much noise as an unloaded airliner but that in itself was not impressive. As it lifted off, I noticed that the control surfaces were you would expect the ailerons to be, were split pointing both up and down at the same time. I can only assume that this is something to do with the fact that the shape of the aircraft is aerodynamically unstable and if it wasnít for the host of computers on board providing stability to these unusual control surfaces, it would fly like a dead cow.

It flew about 3 or 4 miles out, then turned gradually towards us making it very difficult to see. It had been clear all day, where did that mist come from that made it so difficult to see? Does this thing have a partial Klingon cloaking device. IĎm getting carried away now. As it did its first flypast it turned to display its shape in plan view.

  Split controls surfaces rear view on the B2 Spirit

The B2 Spirit bomber. Note the split control services on the wings.

The commentator described it as looking like something out of the new Star Wars movie, my wife described it as a piece of a jigsaw in the sky but others around me described it with strings of muttered four letter words from gaping mouths.  You couldnít fail to be impressed by this. On one of its close flybys it demonstrated its quiet mode of operation making about as much noise as a light propeller driven aircraft. The B2 was flying straight back home to the USA after the display without refueling. It was to be escorted by a pair of fighters which joined the B2 as it left. You can bet that these were the first two aircraft to be seen that day carrying live ordnance. Incidentally, they would not make it across the Atlantic without refueling at least once.

The B2 Spirit bomber plan view in the sky

The B2.Star Wars? Jig-saw?

The cost of building each B2 is alleged to be $1.3 billion. Thatís about $4 for everyman woman and child living in the USA. If this cost is true then I can believe the Americans when they say they have only built 5 of them. Just think, you could buy an airforce of 162 Su-27s for the cost of one B2. The B2 was used in the Kosovo conflict but thankfully, the stealth aircraft that was shot down was a much cheaper F117 and the pilot escaped unharmed.


The next display was the F117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. During its display, I tried to imagine it as a flying triangle and there are many angles which make it look triangular. However, I still think that some of the other more conventional aircraft such as the Mirage 2000 and the Viggen are more likely contenders to be mistaken for flying triangle UFOs. I noticed, as the F117 came in to land that it had three landing lights on its three wheels, which gave it another classic flying triangle characteristic. The commentator was interviewing the pilots wife as he came into land. The pilot and his wife were British and it was commented that there are now five British pilots trained to fly the F117 so we shouldnít be too surprised to see them in our airspace.

F-117 Night hawk with landing lights on

TheF-117 Night hawk with landing lights on.

In conclusion, I would say that this was the best air display I have ever been to and I must have been to about ten. I have also gained a little knowledge which may help in future UFO cases, especially the flying triangle variety.

F-117 triangular aspect

Could you mistake this for a Flying Triangle UFO?

All pictures were taken from camcorder footage shot at the airshow and frame captured on a PC courtesy of Mike Kakoulli.

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