Interview: James Fielding (Part I)

As the chance to quiz a serving RAF pilot / qualified flight instructor with an abiding passion for combat flight simulators comes along once in a blue moon, this interview is the size of a Mil V-12. In Part I, splendidly forthcoming “atypical simmer” James Fielding talks about his path into aviation and provides a fascinating description of what it’s like flying Pumas in the busy, smoggy, peril-pregnant skies of Afghanistan. In Part II – set to appear at this time tomorrow – he tackles wide-ranging questions like “Would you rather tutor a student with flight sim experience or without it?” and “Does the Puma have any vices?”

THC: Can you trace your interest in aviation back to a particular event, person, or sim?

James: I must confess I can’t, I think its always been there. I’ve been obsessed with aircraft ever since I was a small boy, and although I wasn’t constantly surrounded by it in the various places that I grew up (Cayman Islands, Papua New Guinea, Malawi, but mainly Zambia – my Dad was a farmer, mainly coffee, now retired) there was enough of it about to keep me fascinated – mosquito control planes spraying in Cayman (I was too young to remember them, but apparently I used to sit and watch them from our balcony), WW2 wreckage at Popondetta airfield in PNG and crop dusting aplenty in Zambia. I devoured Biggles books, read everything I could lay my hands on about flying and was determined to become an RAF fighter pilot (clearly hasn’t quite worked out that way!).

My favourite game when I was about five was a simple DOS game called Sopwith purely because it involved a ‘plane, but it was until later that realised that flight sims were actually a thing and very enjoyable.

I know Star Wars: TIE fighter probably doesn’t fall under the category, but it was my first foray into ‘sitting in the cockpit’ on a computer and I loved it. From there I realised that relatively realistic actual flight sims existed, but living in the middle of Africa it was fairly hard to get your hands on games – the only way was to copy whatever friends had or wait for someone to visit ‘civilisation’ – I somehow acquired Microsoft Flight Sim 3.0 and shortly after that TFX, which just about ran on the 386 we had at the time with the help of a boot disk.

I played pretty much all the flying games I could get my hands on from that point onwards, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, Flying Corps, Red Baron 3D, MiG Alley, Falcon 4, Crimson Skies (I know its not a sim, but I enjoyed it!) CFS 1 and 2 etc, but it wasn’t until IL-2 Sturmovik arrived that I really realised the potential of flight sims.

THC: What was special about IL-2?

James: I suspect one of the reasons I enjoyed IL-2 so much was because I got into it just as I was also learning to fly the Grob Tutor with the University of Wales Air Squadron (which I barely managed to get into, and was then subsequently not invited to continue with in my third year of university, tantamount to being kicked out, but that’s another story!). It was the first time I had ever played a sim that just felt ‘right’ – the physics were spectacular – everything that happened in a real aircraft happened in the sim, especially the exciting bits at the edge of the flight envelope that make dogfighting such a challenge.

Stalls, spins, buffet etc, it was all there – you could actually fly by ‘feel’, the sim giving you all the cues you needed – getting a little slow on finals? The controls felt sloppy and you got light buffet. Pulling a bit hard, trying to crank onto someones tail? Buffet, and incipient spin symptoms like undemanded roll (as one of my real instructors pointed out to me, the aircraft seemingly not responding to actual roll inputs also counts as undemanded roll!). Even the yaw in the take off roll felt right. In short it was incredible, and more than that, the dogfighting was immense. It let me live out my fantasy of being a WW2 fighter pilot, doing all the things I couldn’t do in a real aircraft. Whilst I’d devoured flying games in the past, I think this was the first time that I really considered a game to be a simulator rather than just an approximation.

THC: Did you test your IL-2 skills online?

James: Frequently! After a couple of years playing by myself I moved into a university house that had a decent internet connection and started playing online through hyperlobby. After a while I fell in with a bunch of guys and joined the virtual ‘334th Eagle Squadron’, which I very much enjoyed. I was a very keen lash hound at the time and never missed an opportunity to go out in the evening, but over the year or so that I flew online with the 334th, I was just as happy sitting in front of the computer with a beer in one hand and my trusty Logitech 3D in the other, dogfighting – it was very social, with almost constant stories and laughing, and of course plenty of aerial combat thrown in.

THC: You went straight into the RAF from university?

James: Yes. As I got towards the end of my degree (which regrettably took me 4 years rather than the customary 3!) I started to concentrate on preparing to apply to the RAF. I knuckled down and worked to finish my degree, embarked on the long process of getting myself fit (I went from a pretty chunky 15 stone to about 11.5!) and set about addressing the traits that got me thrown out of the University Air Squadron – I had some growing up to do, up to that point I’d presumed boyish charm and natural talent would pull me through, only one of which I actually possessed in any measurable quantity! Basically I acquired a work ethic. I suspect the UAS knew what they were doing, because they told me sort myself out and apply to the RAF when I had – I wouldn’t have changed without the boot up the backside.

Thankfully it paid off and I was offered a place at initial Officer Training with a view to commissioning as a pilot shortly after I left university. For a few years, all was pretty plain sailing, I graduated (with merit) as a Flying Officer from IOT, completed ground school and elementary flying training (EFT) in pretty short order (my previous UAS flying experience and the PPL I’d completed using a combination of money I’d earned during summer jobs but mainly Birthday/Christmas presents) and I was streamed Fast-Jet, my first choice.

I spent a short period ‘holding’ with the Red Arrows in their PR office, which gave me plenty of opportunities to go flying with them during their practices (It actually convinced me that I never wanted to be that close to another aircraft ever again!). I then went to RAF Linton-on-Ouse where I flew the Tucano and completed Basic Fast Jet Training (BFJT) which resulted in the award of ‘Wings’. At around this time, the RAF had decided to scrap the Harrier and reduce the number of Tornadoes in service, so there was clearly less demand for trainee FJ pilots – I’d been quite average during BFJT, and whilst I didn’t find it particularly difficult, I hadn’t found it easy either, so I wasn’t under any illusions about my chances of getting one of the few remaining Advanced Fast Jet slots to fly the Hawk at Valley.

I was selected to go Rotary instead, so moved to RAF Shawbury to start the Squirrel course. As it happens the 2010 Strategic Defence Review decided that the RAF had far too many trainee pilots in the system so around 200 were made redundant – I could write an entire page on how it was done, but suffice to say, each chunk of pilots was assessed against their peers – so I was judged against the other guys who had graduated from Linton, not the guys who’d been streamed multis or rotary, not the people who’d been streamed out of Linton without finishing the course etc, and so I was made redundant.

THC: What a facer. Did you have a ‘Plan B’?

James: At the time I had no idea what else I might want to do, so started trying to line up an airline job – clearly for this I required a commercial license and instrument rating – by combining all my available money with my current flying experience, I managed to get enough together to do the exams and flying required. (I was lucky, flying training is bloody expensive, I think I got away with paying £21K all in for the CPL/multi engine IR). For various reasons, apathy about flying airliners being chief, I didn’t pursue a career in the airlines, and instead fell into working in agriculture, initially as a temporary job and then full time. After a while I missed flying, decided to do an instructors course in my spare time, realised I really enjoyed it shortly after taking my first few students up, and decided to do it full time in 2015. It was shortly before this actually that I’d been contemplating changing entirely and applied to Dovetail!

THC: I’ve some questions about your your time in agriculture, instructing, and game development, but I’ll save those for later. When did the RAF welcome you back?

James: During 2015 they started to realise that they were short of pilots, so I wrote a few letters enquiring about the chances of going back in given that I’d done pretty well first time round and was still in current flying practice. Regardless of what I’d felt about being made redundant I still felt it was job worth doing and besides, it was an itch that I still wanted to scratch. So I was delighted when after a short interview at Cranwell to make sure I wasn’t harbouring a grudge (I assume!) I was invited to re-attest and pick up where I’d left off – just about to start flying the Squirrel. After Squirrel and Griffin courses, I was posted to the Puma HC2 and after finishing the OCU on 28 Sqn was posted to 230 Sqn, where I’ve now spent about 16 months, including 3 months in Afghanistan on Operation Toral.

THC: Where has your job taken you during the past year?

James: I’ve actually been extremely lucky over the last few. Whilst the UK has been in COVID lockdown I’ve managed to get to Scotland, Afghanistan and California. Before much was really known about COVID there was some concern that if remote areas got hit hard, emergency services would struggle to get to patients requiring urgent care, so the good old Puma was dispatched to RAF Kinloss to provide a last resort patient transfer service for the highlands and islands.

Thankfully we weren’t required, but the location provided wonderful opportunity for all sorts of training, chiefly mountain flying (which can be fraught with danger if you don’t know what you’re doing, and quite hairy at night) and operating to offshore landing platforms. Between October and Jan 21 I was out in Afghanistan on Operation Toral and more recently I travelled to California to make use of some of their ample desert to learn to land in ‘brownout’. Which, it transpires, is bloody hard at night on goggles.

THC: Would you describe a typical sortie in Afghanistan for us?

James: My stint in Kabul was at the height of COVID and during a period when the majority of the US forces there had already pulled out, so I got away with a relatively light workload, flying only a few hours a day. Occasionally I got a taste of what it would have been like a few years ago (The video above is from 2015 – Ed), spending the best part of six or seven hours in the cockpit, ferrying people and/or equipment around various sites in the Kabul green zone or to one or two sites further afield. I’ll describe one of the busier days, as that’s probably more representative of a typical Op Toral detachment.

The crews flying will meet about an hour and half before first lift (which can be very early depending upon the days tasking) in order to brief the weather, get intelligence updates to assess any changes to the threat level and talk through the days tasks, paying particular attention to any potential sticking points like hard timings that we have to make, or periods when we know the green zone will be busy with other aircraft.

Most tasks are a simple pick up/drop off of either pax, cargo or a combination of both, any complications usually arising from weather, timing changes or busy airspace. Briefs get pretty slick after a while, so there is generally a few minutes available afterwards for a last cup of coffee, or in my case a smoke, before we collect our kit – body armour, helmets, personal weapons, survival bags etc, and head out to the aircraft. It doesn’t take long to get a Puma flashed up and ready to go, especially as on Toral you fly with the same crew for an extended period, so the three of you on the aircraft (two pilots and a crewman) get really efficient at getting them running and set up for day. Usually any tasking is done by two aircraft, even if the job itself would only require one, so that they can provide mutual support to each other, so once both are up and running and have checked in with each other and ops on the radio, the first call is made to Kabul ground or tower at Hamid Karzia International airport (HKIA) and the day begins!

Each individual leg of our sorties tends to be quite short, up and away from the lift site, several minutes flying and then down to the next – for example from HKIA into the green zone only takes several minutes, and there are several sites within the green zone only 90 seconds apart, but this does mean that your time can be really compressed, with a lot to achieve in several minutes – all the radio work required to depart from HKIA, all the radio work to enter the green zone, pre-landing checks, defensive aid suite checks, radio contact with the unit you are visiting etc, as well as keeping a good ear and eye out for other traffic using the airport or doing something similar to yourself. Generally you’ll be working 4 separate radio frequencies at any one time, but this is divided up between the two aircraft so it’s quite manageable. Whilst I think I’ve only ever seen three other formations in the green zone at the same time as us (and its a small geographic area!), it has apparently got quite a lot busier in the past, and whilst there are routes and procedures to try and keep you separated from one another, it is absolutely vital that you’re paying attention to what’s going on on the radios so that you know roughly were they are and can get your eyes on them as soon as possible. This becomes especially relevant in poor weather, and in the winter in Kabul you get low cloud and horrendous visibility on a regular basis – luckily pretty much everyone that operates in and around the green zone, from US military units to civilian contractors, have been doing it for a long time and are well practiced.

Once we’ve bounced around our initial pick ups and drop offs, it’ll usually be out of the city for one of other sites that we visit, such as Bagram airbase or one of the forts dotted around, which generally take between 15 and 20 minutes to transit to – on good weather days this is generally done at height, but for poor weather we also have routes up our sleeves that can be done at low level, and these are regularly reviewed for obstructions etc. Without giving too much away, away from the city we fly in a manner that honours the various threats that exist in Afghanistan (or any comparable war zone for that matter), trying to make ourselves as hard as possible to shoot at, should anyone be inclined to do so – luckily its a rare occurrence, but one that we always have in mind and mitigate against. Perhaps one of the reasons its so rare is because we’re so good at making it hard?!

Anyway, these slightly longer legs are very enjoyable – the landscape surrounding Kabul is absolutely spectacular, huge mountain ranges, often capped with snow, vast valley floors, settlements, rivers and little green oases give plenty to look at. To the North towards Bagram the, often brightly painted, 100ft furnace chimneys of brick kilns break up the landscape and give you something to dodge as you approach the airfield. At these slightly more exotic locations, the job is the same – drop pax or equipment off and probably take on more for the return trip!

At this point its back to base to negotiate with air traffic to re-join the airfield – HKIA can get extremely busy, and some of the best air traffic controlling I have ever seen is done there – the controllers are a mix of Americans and Afghans and all of them are extremely good. At any one time there can be commercial traffic inbound or outbound, rotary formations joining or departing from the two taxiways parallel to the main runway, military fixed wing and helicopters in the circuit, formations calling up to join from the green zone etc, and the guys in the tower do a very efficient job of making it all work. I was always impressed with the controllers at Biggin Hill (where I used to teach) dealing with a busy mixed-type airfield (jet on the ILS, fixed wing of various speed in the circuit, helicopters cutting about), but the Kabul guys are on another level. There was an American when I was there who especially impressed – he had bags of capacity and also sounded like the most American guy in the world (I pictured him wearing a cowboy hat for some reason). Anyway, I digress.

Once down, there is usually time for some lunch (the food is really good, provided by some Sri Lankan guys who work extremely hard and consistently turned out good grub, especially on Mexican dinner theme nights!) and if you’re really lucky also time for the gym. There isn’t a huge amount to do in the down time that you do have out there, so the outdoor (picture ‘prison gym courtyard’) gym is a popular destination – people tend to come back from Toral in better shape than they went out, and I was no exception. I managed to master muscle-ups whilst there, which I was pretty happy with, however I don’t think they did me much good as I have subsequently damaged my shoulder, possibly due to doing them, and the recovery process is taking forever! Sometimes there is only time for a quick smoke and a cup of tea before heading back out though and afternoons tend to flow along similar lines to the mornings. Sometimes we manage to squeeze some essential training into these sorties, such as practising air to ground gunnery on the various shooting ranges within striking distance. We can carry up to two (one in each door) crewman operated general-purpose machine guns (GPMG) for self-defence, and giving the crewmen regular practice is essential, as apparently shooting accurately from a moving platform is pretty tricky! Whilst it sounds exciting, and it is the first time you fly along the range with the gun chattering from the cabin, the novelty quickly wears off, as you’re essentially flying circuits around the range providing whatever sort of profile the crewman wants or needs to shoot from. It is cool hearing, “1’s off cold,” your cue to take up your firing line and call, “2’s in hot”, though. Tracer also looks incredible on night vision goggles, provided its going away from you! Thankfully I’ve never been shot at, or been in a situation where we’ve had to use our own guns in anger.

After several more hours of tasking, if you’re lucky, the day will be done and it’ll be back to HKIA for a debrief and some dinner – if you’re not it’ll be back out after dinner for some night flying! I don’t know many people who enjoy flying on goggles and I’m no exception – its hard work and something you just have to get used to. Whilst goggles make a huge difference in that you can generally see well enough to fly visually, especially on lighter nights, flying with them is still hard – they are heavy, they limit your field of vision (imagine looking down a toilet roll tube where everything is green) which means you have to move your head to look directly at whatever you want to see, and since you’re essentially seeing an image of the world relayed on a small TV screen you have no depth perception. Bright lights, such as car headlights, runway lighting, or any brightly lit building/structure can cause bright smears that effectively blind you, and in a large city they are inescapable, so flying around Kabul is a case of having to ‘flip-flop’ between looking through your goggles and looking under them for a normal image.

As with most large cities, although Kabul seems worse than most, there are masts, antennas and wires affixed to every building, some of them extending hundreds of feet in the air, especially if they are mounted to the top of large towers, which can make flying, even by day, but especially by night or in bad weather quite daunting until you know your way about and know that the route you are taking is obstruction free – it took me quite a while to get comfortable with flying around the city at night. Anyway, flying at night is an essential part of a support helicopters job and one that we train extensively for to ensure that we can do it safely and efficiently and doing it in Kabul into the same sites we visit by day is no exception. When I was there, visibility tended to drop rapidly once the sun had gone down due to smog from domestic fires, so any night flying was kept brief and we only went if it was absolutely essential, which suited me. About the only cool bit of night flying was watching our flares shoot out from the aircraft when the defensive aid suite occasionally, mistakenly, thought we were being shot at, and feeling their heat on the back of your neck as they popped off.

We would tend to use the recovery after a stint of night flying to practice an emergency IMC procedure back into HKIA, as it needed to be done and the airfield is generally much quieter at night. Because the terrain surrounding Kabul is so mountainous, if for whatever reason, mainly rapidly changing met conditions, we lost visual contact with the ground at any point whilst operating in and around the city, we’d be unable to climb above ‘safety altitude’; Kabul also has a number of tethered observation balloons anchored at various points around the city with cables that extent many thousands of feet into the air. Both of these facts mean that losing visual references (I don’t think anyone has actually found themselves in this situation) would be an emergency and something you’d want to rectify as soon as possible, by climbing to an altitude that would keep you clear of city obstructions, by taking a route that keeps you clear of balloon cables and high terrain and intercepting the HKIA ILS to get you back down as soon as possible. Practising it gives you the best chance of getting it right if you ever need to use it for real, and keeping your instrument flying hand in with an ILS is never a bad idea to end a sortie.

Once you’ve shut down and de-kitted the aircraft, its time for a debrief, a chance to give the intelligence Officer (IntO) any interesting facts you might have picked up during the day (unlikely when I was there) and to discuss anything that could have been done better. After several months of doing the same, or extremely similar, tasking on a daily basis, its amazing how you can still find points to raise that will make your performance just that little bit slicker the next day – that said, perhaps unsurprisingly after several months of flying together as tightly knit crews, pet peeves and minute, irrelevant points also get brought up, usually in good humour though. Banter can be merciless and anyone who’s performance was found wanting can expect both barrels – I remember a particularly shameful event where I made a complete pigs ear of the radios, listening to one, and transmitting my replies on another frequency altogether, much to the confusion of literally everyone involved, me, the people trying to talk to me, and the people I was inadvertently talking to! There was much mirth from the from the other cab and the guy I was flying with, until he eventually put me out of my misery and said, “my radios, Jim” and put it all right.

(Part II)

6 Comments

  1. Fascinating interview with a fascinating guy. I really enjoyed this… looking forward to part two tomorrow.

    The nerves of steel it would take to do a job like that in Kabul… I suspect that if I was flying and flares went off unexpectedly during a night flight, I would feel a spreading warmth not on the back of my neck but somewhere a bit further south.

  2. I’m surprised the puma is still in use. I still remember fondly sitting in the back of one in the 80s as it did low level training over Germany – low enough that it had to gain altitude every time we reached a power line.

    Definitely an under rated airframe.

    • This year is it’s 50th anniversary in RAF service, and there will be a 10 ship formation next week to celebrate it. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be retired next year to make way for a new medium lift helicopter.

  3. Very interesting interview. Thank you.

  4. Great read, thank you for bringing it to us!

  5. Fantastic read, both parts. Thanks!

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