Here’s a picture of me, crossing my heart and hoping not to die before jumping off a ledge higher than a very big house.
The RAF Falcons had invited me down to RAF Brize Norton to show me what they get up to when they’re not parachuting into Wembley Stadium, dropping in on country fairs or dodging Red Arrows jets at air shows. The Falcons are the RAF’s parachute display team (I know what you’re thinking… isn’t that the Red Devils? No, that’s the Army). They’re sponsored by Victorinox, the people who make those lovely watches and Swiss Army knives.
So, when they’re not putting on a show, their day job is all about training our brave boys and girls in the art of jumping out of planes. That’s everything from static-line insertions of large numbers of troops, to highly specialised, super-stealthy, long-range, high-altitude freefalls across enemy lines – real-life Splinter Cell stuff. Not sure how much I can talk about it actually, but by cripes, these chaps do an incredible job. Sorry, went all posh there for a moment…
We had a go at abseiling too. Scary at first, then a lot easier than I thought it would be. Must do better next time. Didn't get as far as the old head-first fast-rope breach through an office window - one step at a time. Then we tried out some of the latest weapons and combat gear, including a surprisingly comfortable flak jacket (well, comfortable when you're standing around in an aircraft hanger, not fighting a war in the desert) and a disposable rocket launcher thing that could take out a house in a single shot.
Best of all though was sitting in the driving seat of a C17 cargo plane. These babies cost £150m each. According to the pilotess (is that what you call a lady pilot?) half the buttons are for the aircon, but then there’s a lot of air to be conditioned in a C17 – there’s enough room in the boot to fit a Chinook helicopter and plenty more besides. They’ve got a proper HUD display (it's quite exciting to see one for real after so many years playing flight sims and shoot 'em ups) and there are buttons with safety caps and cross-hatched outlines for when things get serious. Basic up/down/left and right movements are controlled by something resembling a Quickshot joystick, and you can steer the front wheels with your feet - I got told off for "dry steering" and wearing out the rubber on the tyres. I guess they're not cheap.
And while I was in the cockpit, twizzling the controls and chatting to the pilot, I thought I'd put a long-held theory to the test: that my experience of computer flight sims would allow me to land a plane in an emergency. Well, I reckon after my little refresher course, I actually could: put all four engines into reverse (you can actually do that on a C17 - check the clip below to see how quickly it can land and stop), flaps up, nose up, gear down, left a bit, right a bit... bosh. Job done.