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'I'd the plane on the runway with an atomic bomb on board...it was nearly the Third World War'

Ex-RAF test pilot Geoff Bainbridge, now living in Portrush, tells Helen Carson why he can't wait for tomorrow's air show in the town

Published 04/09/2015

On a wing and a prayer: Jeff Bainbridge, who is a former RAF pilot
On a wing and a prayer: Jeff Bainbridge, who is a former RAF pilot
Flying high: top, Jeff (second row up, third from left) with his RAF crew
A Vulcan

When Geoff Bainbridge joined the RAF as an 18-year-old fresh from the cadets, little did he know what a crucial part he would play in world history as a test pilot.

Not only was he part of an elite engineering team which helped develop and refine one of the RAF's most important aircraft, but he piloted the plane carrying the atomic bomb destined for Russia during the Cuban Missile crisis.

Now aged 92, and having lived in Portrush for half his life, the Yorkshire-born veteran pilot is most proud of the fact he "survived the war", and his favourite story to share is the one of how he met his Antrim-born wife, Peggy-May (89) at a dance when they were both working at RAF Aldergrove.

The couple spent their married lives in Portrush in Northern Ireland, where they raised their four daughters Carol (67), Valerie (64), Lorna-May (58) and Donna-Myrel (51).

Geoff was first stationed in Northern Ireland 68 years ago, and is the only surviving member of the original RAF test crew for the Vulcan bomber in the Fifties which formed a vital part of the UK's military defences. During his long career as a test pilot, though, he was also a crew member of the aircraft which was loaded with an atomic bomb on standby to attack Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"That was very, very nearly the Third World War," explains Geoff. "There were just four minutes to go and I had the plane on the runway with an atomic bomb on board ready to go. Thankfully the Russians withdrew. That experience made a big impression on me, especially when I knew where I was going."

Tomorrow Geoff will be able to see the aircraft he was so pivotal in developing - the Vulcan XH558 - when it makes its only appearance in Ireland this year at the Air Waves Portrush show.

The Vulcan is a prestigious example of British aerospace engineering at its world-beating best, and Geoff was one of only a handful of experts who knew the aircraft "inside out". Operated by the RAF from 1956 to 1984, it was used as a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War.

But while it was an airforce career that brought Geoff to Northern Ireland, it was a young woman from Dunadry who made him settle here.

"I was working at Aldergrove at the airfield and Peggy-May was working as an administrator in the office. There was little to do there on a Saturday night but go to the Mess, so I went to the dance and my friend introduced me to Peggy-May. I asked her to dance, as I was pretty good and so was she - in fact, she could easily have been a dancer with Riverdance. I wanted to see her the next day, so I rode my bicycle up to Dunadry but there was no sign of her. I didn't see her again until the following Saturday's dance and that was how our romance began."

As a 16-year-old, Geoff had a memorable placing at RAF Linton-on-Ouse where he was to spend 15 weeks at the beginning of his airforce career.

"Leonard Cheshire, the famous VC winning pilot was based here too, at the time. I was a cook, so I served him his meals - he was an absolute gentleman. When he returned from a raid he would buy me a drink and being 16 at the time, I had a shandy."

Even as a young airman, he knew the quickest route to promotion was to become a pilot - but developing the aircraft was to prove Geoff's forte.

He was based in Cornwall for four years, where he was involved in research in air sea warfare development then transferred to Woodford where he would spend his time in the intense study of the Avro Vulcan aircraft.

"We spend the morning in lecture rooms then went out on the floor where we put into practice everything we had learned that morning on the aircraft. The plane had 14 fuel tanks which were controlled by electricity. We discovered the four batteries which powered the engines would not give enough airtime before they were depleted by radio, radar and then the controls. A plane was lost this way in a test flight over Detroit."

Geoff was part of the team which had to resolve technical issues such as this, which are crucial to the safety and the development of the aircraft.

But it was a more mundane association which proved pivotal in getting him a place on a special air crew.

"When I was in Cornwall I bought an A30 car and my commander Frank Dodd didn't have a car, so I gave him a lift. It was no surprise then that he chose me to be part of his crew - you needed to have, at least, 1,000 hours flying experience too, which I had."

He was also part of a display team for over two years, during which time he showcased the mighty Vulcan at military occasions: "I flew planes at displays attended by everyone from Princess Margaret to Japanese and German generals. The shows then weren't as restricted as they are now."

Geoff was also part of the team which saw the Vulcan go through the sound barrier in 1956 - two years after a Hunter aircraft broke the speed record.

Geoff acknowledges the huge risks faced by test pilots, but adds it wasn't something that bothered him back then. "You don't feel any fear or nervousness. It was work, so it was a bit like going into the office everyday."

Despite the attitude he had as a young man, Geoff was more aware of the risks than most. He recalls a horrific crash in 1954, when a De Havilland Comet tragedy resulted in the loss of 140 people. "This happened because a window blew out and the aircraft simply disintegrated," he says.

Geoff remembers this incident well as he had a similar experience when flying at 30,000 feet: "There was a blinding flash of light in the aircraft and the cabin filled with mist and we couldn't hear anything, therefore didn't know if we had any engines, because of the air pressure. It was as if the plane had stretched by several inches. We managed to get down to 10,000 feet and eventually safety - that was the most frightening experience I have had on an aircraft. I knew the risks and at that time I would have said my chances of survival as a test pilot were about one in 10."

As well a spending two years developing electronic counter measures against the Soviets during the Cold War years, Geoff also trained young pilots helping them to get their wings. But it was in the Sixties he was part of the display team turning planes like the Vulcan a full 360 degrees to the joy of crowds who turned up to see the aerial feats.

While he loves to watch displays now, ever the test pilot, he is cautious, but points out how well planned these events are.

But old habits have never left him and he noticed on a recent commercial flight to Leeds that a window beside him didn't look safe and alerted the cabin crew. "I remembered the incident with the Comet and that is what made me cautious."

He believes, nowadays, we are all rather blase about flying with budget airlines making cheap flights affordable by all. Geoff adds, though, that modern aircraft and all the advances in aerospace engineering had made air travel safer.

"I think flight now is very simple. An aircraft can be landed completely on instruments."

So, how does he feel about seeing the Vulcan aircraft he played such an important role developing? "I am quite looking forward to seeing the Vulcan again. I still feel amazed when I see the aerobatics that planes and their pilots can perform."

With 100,000 spectators anticipated tomorrow to see displays by the RAF Red Arrows and, of course, the Vulcan the Air Waves Show is set to be an important event in the aerospace calendar. Other big attractions on the day will be a Hollywood A-Lister - the Sally B, B-17 bomber is part of the line-up. The Sally B, which starred in David Puttnam's 1989 film Memphis Belle, is the last airworthy B-17 in Europe and this year celebrates its 70th birthday.

Ground attractions from 11am, Air displays from 12.30pm Spectating is possible all along the eastern peninsula (1.5km) but the best viewing of the air displays is at Village North (Lansdowne Green).

Exhibition space is divided between two main areas - Village North (Lansdowne Green) and Village South (East Strand car park). Visit airwavesportrush.co.uk for maps and full details on tomorrow's activities

Belfast Telegraph

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