“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” I think of this Douglas Adams quote every time I see a Hercules. Their huge mass seems so at odds with their grace, these great hulking ballerinas, dancing on air.
Cecilia Fage (right)
The first time I came close to a Hercules I had gotten lost on a walk with my young twins. We were making our way uphill through a beech wood of gently twisting trees, silent except for the sound of twigs snapping and the small voices of mildly protesting children. Clambering over a moss covered dry-stone wall, we finally emerged into sunlight and found ourselves in a farmyard. We stopped to rest against an old, rotting wooden gate, but before I could catch my breath I noticed a strange rumbling sensation.
It grew bigger; I could feel it in my body, as though I was being enveloped in an almighty purr. Suddenly two C-130 Hercules barrelled over our heads at no more than 500 feet, almost clipping the moors beneath them, and our involuntary shouts and gasps of awe were plucked from our mouths and carried away by their propellers. They drifted up the valley together, an almighty pair – they often travel in pairs, these beautiful beasts.
Living under a military low-fly training route, I sometimes hear them at night, driving my husband mad by saying “It’s a Herc! Ooh, I reckon 30,000 – no, 28,000 feet,” before being embarrassingly pleased with myself for confirming the altitude on an app and getting it right (well, within a couple of thousand feet anyway; I’m working on it). The sound of a Hercules going over your roof at less than a thousand feet, making you yelp as you brush your teeth before bed, is one you never get used to.
The skies have been quieter lately, perhaps due to cuts in defence spending and the pandemic. Gone are the days of screaming with excitement in my car seeing two Tornado GR4s (R.I.P.) tearing up the valley towards me, while trying not to veer off the road as I drove under their bellies. Or the wokka wokka of a Chinook cruising at the same level as my kitchen window as it headed towards the golden glow of the moorland. Or shrieking with delight in the kids’ playground as a pair of Typhoons ripped the sky above us, a group of bemused children looking at me quizzically (“Why is your mummy shouting?”)
I have to go further afield now to scratch my plane-spotting itch, and what better excuse for an annual trip to Those Famous Valleys in Wales. I’ve sat on my preferred hillside for eight hours at a time without seeing a thing, but it soon dawned on me that part of the enjoyment is in the waiting. Listening for the faintest clue. Watching the landscape, squinting at every dot in the distance. Is it growing? Is it moving nearer? No, it’s just a shadow.
Seeing the clouds play tricks on you, the sun dancing tantalisingly behind them, teasing you with the possibility of a perfect low-fly blue horizon. Accepting when those clouds descend in a blanket of disappointment and you realise you won’t get lucky that day.
But on the day you do get lucky, the excitement crackles in the air. The thrill is palpable as each little figure, determinedly dotted around the various ledges and peaks, leaps up in anticipation. You might even be blessed with the inside knowledge of one of the dedicated regulars, a wise Obi Wan Kenobi of an aviation enthusiast, appearing just in the nick of time at the summit to generously share the news, “Strix incoming! Two-ship.” Your eyes focus on that tiny speck, this time it’s definitely not a sheep in the distance, yes it’s getting larger, and larger, and then there she is – wait, there’s another one – and within seconds, they appear. That unmistakable ruler-straight wing, four massive propellers, the most elegant soaring whale of a plane, her sister a blink behind her, and that giant rumbling purr which you feel from your toes to your hair. Standing high on a hillside above a Hercules as she sweeps beneath you through the valley feels impossible, like a childhood dream of blissful flying and that feeling of freedom, so elusive in adulthood.
I get asked the question often, but I haven’t worked out why I love planes so much. (Many of us seem to also have a fondness for birds?) Perhaps it started with all those trips to Biggin Hill as a child, at a time in the 1980s before the advent of kids’ fashion, when trendless, practical clothes for girls bestowed a tomboyish sense of freedom. I wore a bowl cut so precise, you could have used a compass to measure its arc, and a terry-towelling tracksuit for all occasions. I feel the same way now, when I put on a Fostex flight suit (or as I call it, cosplay for those of us who will never be pilots). Practical and ready for anything. Ideally for sitting strapped in the back of a Hercules, looking out of her wide-open cargo door at the vista below as we fly through the gap between the high Welsh peaks, and waving to those familiar figures on the hillside taking photographs.
Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?
The new Cobalt Chapel album Orange Synthetic is available here