Extract from Norman Conquest, by Vic Norman
by Vic Norman
One of the highlights was when HTV Television wanted to make a TV programme about me being at that time one of only five aerobatic pilots in the UK earning their living from flying air displays. The programme followed me around at various events and also featured my family of three young children and, of course, Anne, who was running her own fitness and dance studio called STUDIO 23 in Cirencester. To my embarrassment, they filmed me working out.
Above: ready to give 16-year-old Michael Figures his prize, after dad Roger won a flight in a charity tombola at the Colt Car Company’s Christmas ball.
Above: In 1985, HTV chose me as the subject for a documentary. Aeroplanes Bite Fools was aired in April of that year and showcased the life of an aerobatics pilot.
I was booked to give an aerobatic display on the morning of the Grand Prix at Monaco on the Sunday, and on the day before Eric Stewart was going to let me race his Type 35 Bugatti Grand Prix car in the historic race.
The event started for me when I left the UK to make my way down to the south of France. I had left early on the Monday morning and the flight across the Channel was fine. I stopped to refuel at Le Touquet, my dad’s old hunting ground, and on checking the weather I saw it was very low cloud and foggy, so I decided to stay at Le Touquet for the night and do a weather check the next morning. If you have time to spare, go by air.
The next morning, Le Touquet was fine and my next refuel stop, near Lyon, was also clear of cloud. I had no instruments in my aerobatics aircraft and so I navigated by dead reckoning and map reading. This was before the arrival of GPS and sat-nav, which eventually made the whole job much easier. Before setting off, there was another four-seater private aircraft heading south and they had a full set of instruments and could fly in cloud, so I asked if I could follow them because I still suspected some areas of broken cloud before it all opened up and cleared. In retrospect, this was a big mistake – I should have just done my own thing. We both took off and everything was going well but the cloud started to build up and we were flying in and out of small areas of cloud.
Above: Receiving my cup for an aerobatic competition from the station commander at RAF Finningley.
The cloud was getting thicker and I should have just turned back but I kept in close formation with the other aeroplane. I kept asking for the other pilot to climb. We were up to about 7,000ft by now and in solid cloud, with me just keeping my wings level with the other aeroplane. He then told me he could not climb anymore and I looked down at my instruments for a split second and when I looked back the aeroplane had gone. I was now in cloud and didn’t know if I was the right way up so I just opened up my throttle and I saw a slight pin prick of light above me, which I aimed for. The next moment I shot out of the clouds into bright sunshine on top of the clouds.
I was so relieved but I knew I had to work out what to do. I decided to turn around and head back towards where I came from because I knew sooner or later the cloud cover would break up and that I could see the ground and find out my position and land at the nearest airfield. I checked my height and realised that I was in controlled airspace so I decided to make a ‘pan-pan’ call declaring that I was uncertain of my present position. I called up Paris’ radar and they got me to do some turns and headings and asked for my height. I told them that I was at 10,0000ft and they told me to descend because I was in controlled airspace. I told them that I could not descend because I had no instruments and they got very agitated and gave me a heading to steer for the nearest airfield that was clear of cloud.
I settled down to flying the aeroplane. After about 20 minutes, the cloud had cleared and I told them that I could now descend as requested. By checking my map I worked out my position, which was about ten miles from Beauvais-Tillé airfield, where I was passed onto the local airfield air traffic system and cleared to land. After landing, I asked to go to the fuel pumps, which was refused. I was directed to park in front of the control tower and a very official-looking policeman escorted me to a room in the building where I was told to wait.
Above: Eric Stewart and his Bugatti Type 35 at Monaco – my good friend John Hewitt serving as his mechanic.
I knew that I was in trouble. I was put under open arrest and told not to leave the terminal building. About two hours later, a senior official from Paris came to take a statement from me and I decided the best policy was to own up and just tell the truth. I explained exactly what I had done and then the official went off and told me to wait. Half an hour later, he came back and told me how stupid I had been but I was free to go.
I got myself a quick cheese sandwich and refuelled my aeroplane, having checked the weather, which was now all clear, and I took off on my way south to Mâcon, which was my next refuelling stop. The rest of the trip to Nice airport was straightforward and I landed between jumbo jets and got permission to park next to the airport fire station. I made friends with them and told them that I would be back the next day to get the aeroplane ready for my display just around the coast at Monaco.
I met Anne and the film crew at our hotel and at last I could relax for a while, although I was still on edge. The next morning I had to visit the airspace controller who oversaw Monaco and I was told that I had to display over the water and that I would be arrested if I flew over the Principality.
I then went with the HTV cameraman and my mechanic and friend John Hewitt to mount a huge 35mm camera behind my head and seat, and also two small Zap cameras (this was before anyone had GoPros!) on the wingtips. Then I fuelled up and got ready for Sunday.
The next day, Saturday, was the race and the Bugatti had a few problems in practice. I was hopeful that it would be better in the actual race itself, but unfortunately it broke down. While it lasted it was great fun, we had a good evening, but the next morning I woke up and I guess the bad weather had caught me up. It was pouring with rain in Monaco.
'The next morning, I had to visit the airspace controller who oversaw Monaco and I was told that I had to display over the water and that I would be arrested if I flew over the Principality.'
I got to Nice airport with the visibility still very bad and low cloud, and was told that the helicopters had stopped flying taking VIPs from the airport to Monte Carlo. I just had to do the display, the film crew were waiting and the pressure was on. I took off in drizzle and decided to just follow the coast along to the harbour. It started clearing a bit and I managed to climb to 1,500ft, which was the minimum height that I needed to do the display. It went very well and I could not wait to get out of the aeroplane and back to the hotel. The film crew were pleased and I slept really well that night and woke up to even more rain. I just could not face getting in my aeroplane and fighting my way back to the UK, so I arranged for my friend Brendan O’Brien to fly the aeroplane back home and I went with Anne on British Airways.
The programme must have been pretty good because it won an award and the director flew Concorde to New York to collect the gong. I, of course, was never told about it until much later. I did, however, do some presenting later on in the programme about the 1986 World Aerobatic Championships and I got paid union rates.