Air to Air Photography
Flying with Polly Vacher
'Wings Around Britain'
221 Airfields from May 21 to July 31, 2007
Polly Vacher MBE is a very remarkable lady, a mother of three children at 50 when she learned to fly. By 60 she had flown solo around the World twice, landing on all seven continents. On July 31 Polly completed her tour of all the major airfields of Great Britain when she landed at Kidlington, Oxford. To visit 221 airfields Polly had flown 19,000 nautical miles
in 158 hours and of the 163 passengers carried, 96 were disabled. Polly raised £40,000 for the Flying Scholarships for the Disabled (FSD) charity.
Polly to date has many other flying achievements and records;
From January to May 2001, Polly flew the smallest aircraft to be flown solo around the world by a woman via Australia and across the Pacific.
From July to August 1997 Polly flew her first Trans Atlantic Solo flight. With 500 hours and a newly acquired instrument rating, she flew solo across the North Atlantic to Boston and back in her single engine Piper Dakota.
From May 6, 2003 to April 27, 2004 'Wings Around the World' II (Voyage to the Ice), Polly flew 60,000 nautical miles in 357 days and raised £320,000 for FSD.
- First woman to fly solo over the North Pole in a single engine aircraft,
- First woman to fly solo in Antarctica in a single engine aircraft,
- First person to fly solo around the world landing on all seven continents.
She clearly loves flying, but her drive is not solely for fun. Her considerable flying achievements are designed to increase awareness and raise money for the 'Flying Scholarships for the Disabled' (FSD) charity. The FSD is a scheme whereby disabled people can rebuild their confidence by learning to fly. The six-week residential courses are totally free and provide 40 hours of dual and solo flying. Flight training currently takes place at flight schools in South Africa and in the USA.
Polly's book 'Wings Around the World' details her record breaking Solo Polar Flight. Her royalties and fees are going direct to FSD as is a percentage of the publisher's profits. Currently Polly is on another marathon fund raising tour, 'Wings Around Britain'. This time her aim is to fly solo and land at every airfield in Britain using the Jeppesen VFR Manual. Jeppesen are one of her much valued and generous sponsors. She will be using Jeppesen VFR+GPS Enroute Charts and a Tablet PC provided by The Tablet Store and PaceBlade Technologies. This tablet PC will contain Jeppesen's electronic IFR & VFR charting solution JeppView 3.5. So where do I come into all of this? Working for one of her many sponsors I was asked to capture just part of the tour, I covered the journey from RAF Wittering to Wickenby airfield in Lincolnshire. These two airfields are number 161 and 162 for Polly of a total of 221 airfields listed in the Jeppesen VFR Manual to be visited. My first challenge was to get on base at Wittering to meet up with Polly. It was Friday July 6 at 17:00 and Sqn Ldr Mich' Webb had agreed to meet me at the gate to take me out to Polly's aircraft, parked on a very deserted Harrier ramp. Today had been a family's day at Wittering and by the time I got on base everyone had gone home. Polly, dressed in her familiar orange flying suit, quickly made me feel at ease. I was welcomed in to her flying office, a Piper PA-28 Cherokee Dakota painted in orange and black (for the polar flights) and adorned with sponsors names and logos. We discussed where I would like to sit. I elected to go in the back, to have access to windows on both sides of the aircraft. I had been told that for this leg aircraft of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) would be escorting us to Wickenby. To say I was excited would be an understatement, but almost immediately on meeting Polly, she said that the BBMF would not be able to make it, due to strong winds. I was gutted, hopefully I did not show my disappointment. However, a short while later her well used mobile phone rang out. It was Al Pinner of BBMF at RAF Coningsby. The winds looked like they were dropping and we should make our way up to their home base.
|Left to right: RAF Wittering's new Harrier Ski-jump, to simulate aircraft carrier take-offs, landing at RAF Coningsby, with the Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) in the background, Polly and Al Pinner (BBMF) sorting out the final details and Polly's Cherokee parked along side the BBMF Sptfire and Hurricane outside the BBMF hangar at Coningsby.|
Following her pre-flight checks Polly was optimistically calling Wittering tower for clearance for engine start-up and later for taxiing to the end of the runway. On all occasions her calls to the tower went unanswered. Without anyone to object we roared down the runway, and were airborne at 18:38 adjacent to the new Harrier ski-jump. 18 minutes later we were cleared to land at RAF
Coningsby, Britain's Eurofighter Typhoon air base, with its Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) standing out distinctively in the evening light.
Al Pinner was there to meet us as we taxied up to the BBMF's Spitfire and Hurricane, which were being prepared for flight. Obviously warm friends, Polly and Al discussed the flight details. 'Parkie' was to fly the Hurricane, initially for a practise display and minutes later to join up with Al in the Spitfire for the ten-minute flight to Wickenby. The pair of World War II fighters were to fly on to Bristol for the weekends displays.
We were the last aircraft to get airborne at our cruising height of 2,000 feet; the Spitfire and Hurricane joined us on our starboard side. Almost immediately the Hurricane moved across to the port wing and was now for me, strapped in the back with headphones and lip-mike, silhouetted against the very low sun, it was 19:30. The sun was breaking through puffy clouds; the conditions were perfect for some beautiful shots of these magnificent aircraft. As we approached Wickenby, Polly was told to; 'descend now' to a previously agreed 300 feet, for a low-flypast over the old wartime bomber base. The Wickenby runways nowadays have been cut in half, leaving just 500 feet remaining. Apparently Polly was not descending fast enough and Al shouted over the radio, 'faster if you can'. With a crowd gathered we swooped low over the airfield, the Spitfire and Hurricane broke left and right. Wow, those last few seconds were so spectacular from where I was shooting. We turned left for runway 34 for what I can only politely say was for an unexpected 'touch and go'. Second time around we glided gracefully into Wickenby and to meet Polly's numerous friends and well-wishers. The Spitfire and Hurricane with superb professional timing roared over the airfield as Polly stepped down from the Cherokee's wing.
Gerald Cooper part owner of Wickenby airfield helped Polly jump down from the wing and asked if she would mind inspecting a line of Air Cadets. Polly, bless her, was concerned that I might not be able to get out from the back easily, I just said go on, enjoy the moment.
Next day I had been invited by Polly fly with her in a brief formation with her friends the Red Arrows. She certainly knows all the right people. We meet up at 08:00 as arranged, and soon we are airborne to practise some timed approaches over Wickenby for when the Red Arrows were due for their flypast at 08:43. Polly got her timings worked out and we make our final turn on a heading of 160 degrees. Where are you, was her call on the radio for the Red Arrows. They were delayed and Polly had to orbit north of the airfield and in the path of seven Red Hawks. We were both anxiously looking out, but there was no sign of them. On the radio comes 'start your run now, we have you sighted'. I see them, the Hawk's nose lights and they had just started to smoke. I gave Polly a running commentary as best I could as they passed below and to the side of us. Photography was almost impossible; it was all over in a flash. After a second and equally thrilling pass by the Reds, we landed and Polly admitted that her legs felt like jelly. I had sacrificed the chance for the best 'formation' shots, by flying with Polly. The experience was incredible, something that I will be boring my friends with for the rest of my life, the day I flew with Polly Vacher MBE in a formation with the Red Arrows.
Polly had asked if we could have a quiet coffee together, as in all the time we had been flying and preparing to fly, we had not had a chance for a chat. Despite having to drive down to Duxford's 'Flying Legends' show, I was keen to get to know her a little better. Everyone at Wickenby was very keen to greet Polly and to buy her book. Some photographs needed signing of the flypast. They were hot off the press, thanks to Geoff Hill. £3,000 was raised at Wickenby the previous evening and the cheque was presented by Stephen Turley (Thruster Aircraft) with Gerald Cooper. The general buzz of Polly's increasing band of friends prevented any sort of quiet chat over a calming hot drink. I said my goodbyes, wished her well for the rest of the tour, but really hoped I would get the chance to meet up somewhere later on the tour.
|Left to right: On our way to Coningsby. The Spitfire breaks right over Wickenby and we turn for the airfield to land.|
|Left to right: Very short finals for runway 34 at Wickenby. Polly's Piper PA-28 Cherokee Dakota (G-FRGN) at Wickenby.|
|Thruxton to Middle Wallop, the home of the Army Air Corp's (AAC) Blue Eagles display team
July 18 and Polly is heading for Middle Wallop which is airfield number 181 of a total of 221 UK airfields of her 'Wings Around Britain' tour. This time George Bacon (Manager of the Army Historic Aircraft Flight) was very keen that the 'Blue Eagles' could escort her in to their airfield. The formation which flew out to meet her consisted of Lynx AH.7 with WO1 Barry Jones (Blue Eagles team manager) and WO2 Paul Stoneman at the controls, taking the lead. Each side of Polly's Cherokee is a Gazelle AH.7 piloted by Staff Sgt John Stupart and in my Gazelle WO2 Nick Palmer. Yes, I was there again to help record Polly's remarkable tour and her continued aim to raise awareness for the 'Flying Scholarships for the Disabled' (FSD) charity.
Polly was greeted at the AAC's aircraft museum situated at the side of the Middle Wallop airfield by Colonel Bill Sivewright, Regimental Colonel of the AAC. George Bacon and Barry Jones were also able to share refreshments and chat and later listen to Polly deliver a heart warming speech about her tour and the FSD, during her two hour visit. Disabled people keen to be part of the adventure are invited to apply to be passengers on each leg of the tour. Today Michael Wincote (heart) and Albert Gype (leg amputee) flew with Polly from Thruxton.
|Left to right: Colonel Bill Sivewright, Regimental Colonel of the AAC welcoming Polly to Middle Wallop.
The signing of the Jeppesen VFR Manuals by noteworthy officials to verify that Polly had visited Middle Wallop on the 'Wings Around Britain' tour.
Polly and Stuart Boreham just before departing to Brize Norton. On chatting to Stuart he told me that by coincidence his farther had flown from Brize Norton and he himself had also flown there at 16 when with the Air Cadets. On reading Polly's tour diary later I discovered that Stuart, who has cerebal palsy, had driven a lawn mower from Land's End to John O'Groats to raise money for his entry on to the Global Challenge Yacht Race which raised a million pounds. He has also rowed solo across the Atlantic in 109 days, now that is some achievement.
|Polly Vacher and one of her 'Blue Eagle' escorts, AAC Gazelle AH.1 (XZ338 'Y')|
|Left to right: Polly Vacher's Piper PA-28 Cherokee Dakota (G-FRGN) enroute to Middle Wallop. The AAC Lynx leading her in was creating wake turbulence which at times caused the Cherokee to be thrown around dramatically. Her passengers all took it in their stride I was told later.|
|Left to right: Polly is joined by the 'Blue Eagles' for her escort in to Middle Wallop and a reception at the AAC Aircraft Museum outside which the aircraft is parked.|
|AAC Westland Lynx AH.7 (XZ663) of 671 Squadron, 2 Regiment landing at Middle Wallop|