Chris Roberts FRAes 1945-
Brought up in Rhodesia, Chris, aged 16, unsuccessfully tried to join the Rhodesian Air Force in 1961 but, through the British Defence Liaison Staff in Salisbury eventually succeeded in joining the RAF after an initial rejection for "no aptitude". He now has 10,000 flying hours in his log book! Arriving in England by cruise ship, with a desire to fly Vulcans, he arrived at South Cerney for Cadet training. With the minimum education requirement he found the course a bit of a struggle but compensated by being very fit so shone in those physical exercises designed to stress the cadets. At flying school in 1964 he trained on Jet Provosts (JPs), where one of the instructors was Jim Hawkins, and decided he wanted to move onto Gnats, not the Varsity which would have led to 'V' bombers.
It was a big course and he finished second from bottom but his unbounded enthusiasm got him through to Gnats ahead of others who had passed higher. The lesson here was to work hard.
So at Valley he learned everything there was to know about the Gnat, made his first flight in November 1965 and fell in love with the aircraft; no 'V' force for him now. The downside was the fatality rate on the course which had a big impact on Chris. It was essential to learn the drills. This time he came second from top and received a posting to 20 Squadron to fly Hunters from Tengah, but on arrival at Chivenor he found he had been put on the pre- Lightning course. Chris complained to OC Flying whose attitude was that he decided who went where, whereupon Chris lost his cool and was thrown out. After 6 months he was reinstated and was told by a veteran Flt Lt Instructor that he was a "marked man", but "keep your head down and we'll look after you."
In 1966 he arrived in Tengah and flew Hunters at low level (200 ft) over the undulating jungle, a regime requiring great care in avoiding well camouflaged trees. When his time came to move on there were too many Hunter pilots and the Harrier, which Chris wanted to fly, was some time away so he had to find somewhere to 'lodge' meanwhile. He chose to volunteer for the Central Flying School Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) course, not a popular posting with most pilots, but being a volunteer he could choose his posting; Chipmunk, JP or Gnat. Of course he chose Gnat but found himself in the Hunter flight at Valley where he trained many foreign pilots, experience to be valuable in his later career at Dunsfold.
In 1971 Chris got his Gnats with the Red Arrows at Kemble. Here he learnt self preservation. You have to put your trust in the leader but if he lets you down you have to do something about it. Chris illustrated the role of a good leader in aerobatics in that he will fly at such a power setting that those in the most disadvantageous positions will have power in hand to maintain position. It was, said Chris, while he was there, "a hooligan period" of very low flying. At Athens International on Arrow cut cables between Air Traffic and the neighbouring single story building surrounded by trees...with his fin tip! There were several fatalities and near disasters due to hurried preparation or breaking agreed operating rules. The lesson was: don't mess around with the rules; stop and renegotiate them.
After two years Chris had had enough and took the option to leave the Arrows and move to the Harrier Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Here, already a QFI, he became a Qualified Weapons Instructor (QWI) and spent most of his time as an OCU instructor. He noted that there was a high accident rate because the Instructors were not well managed. Chris remembered Exercise Big 'T' where with one squadron they flew 100 sorties in 3 days by doing 5 flights per pilot with cockpit turn-rounds.
Next came the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) where he won the Hawker Hunter Trophy presented by the Dunsfold Chief Test Pilot (CTP), little thinking that the roles would be reversed in the future. He, with a partner student, did well at the ETPS,surprising the A&AEE by uncovering a problem with the Buccaneer and proposing an accepted solution. Now a qualified Test Pilot, Chris moved to 'A' Squadron at the A&AEE where he was recruited for Harrier work but for complex internal political reasons he was sidelined. However, whilst there he converted a number of RAF pilots to Harrier using BAe's demonstrator, G-VTOL, cleared a Red Arrow formation manoeuvre (a new requirement following another accident), and flew a couple of Sea Harrier night sorties on HMS Hermes. He was offered a posting as an ETPS instructor but instead enthusiastically accepted an offer from John Farley to be a TP at Dunsfold. His last task with the A&AEE, on a Friday afternoon, was to fly a Red Arrow Hawk in the exhaust stream, very close to the tail of Andy Jones's Hawk, to check for engine surges. Jim Hawkins was gripping the sides in the rear seat.
The next Monday he was at Dunsfold starting a very happy association with Hawk, of which he flew 17 versions. Chris highlighted the difficulties and pleasures of delivery flights which require self reliance and proper preparation. Only once after dozens of ferries was there a problem with the vital diplomatic clearances; and that was to Saudi...organised by Warton. There were too many fascinating anecdotes to quote them all. In Zimbabwe, after the sabotage attack on the Hawks and Hunters, Chris took a great risk to visit his wrongly imprisoned white ZAF officer friends, disguised as one himself. Due to a navigational mistake by his Iraqi co-pilot he found himself approaching Baghdad from the direction of Iran in a camouflaged G-HAWK loaded with bombs expecting to be shot down any minute. Again in G-HAWK, on the US tour, he suffered a massive fuel out of balance when one 190 gal drop tank failed to transfer because his US co-pilot was unfamiliar with the fuel gauging idiosyncrasies, leading to a fast, flat approach to Meridian.
Chris made the first flight in the second single-seat Hawk; and its last. It was being operated from Warton when Chris was asked to carry out some rolling pushover tests which were part of a progressive programme of which the build-up points had been flown, he was told. In the manoeuvre the fin stalled and the aircraft departed into an inverted spin at low altitude. After recovering to Warton Chris learned that the build-up test points had not been achieved and that the programme was trying to clear the aircraft to a two seater envelope that had been abandoned and never cleared. The aircraft was 120% overstressed and the wing had moved so much relative to the fuselage that instrumentation wiring was severed. It never flew again.
As a result Chris swore never to work there, and he didn't. He left BAe as CTP Dunsfold in 1984 and joined Airtours to fly MD 83s and Airbuses. He was a Captain on A330s so he was at last flying Big Jets (if not the Vulcan)! As General Manager for Airtours at Gatwick he made his last flight in May 2003 before leaving the company after disagreeing with their aircrew management method.