Back to Features

I'd never been translated into Hindi before I started writing for Shubh Yatra, the in-flight magazine of Air India. My first piece for the magazine was about the Global Stars, the display team that I joined on its visit to Ahmedabad. Shubh Yatra wanted a brief, diary-style piece describing what's involved in being part of a flying circus.

Join the circus!

Dubai, Australia, Korea, South Africa, New Zealand: Mark Jefferies’ airshow CV reads like the labels on a well-travelled steamer trunk. Now the nine-times British aerobatic champion is bringing his display team, the Global Stars, and its combination of formation and solo aerobatics to new audiences around the world. Behind each of its 15-minute shows, however, is a story of days of hard work and practice as, like a travelling circus raising its Big Top, the team assembles its aeroplanes and rehearses the display. For all the drama of its climax, however, the story of the Global Stars’ journey to Ahmedabad, and the Gujarat Aero Conclave began quietly…

Day 1: The circus arrives

You don’t expect a flying circus to arrive on a scheduled flight, so no-one notices the Global Stars land in Ahmedabad for the Gujarat Aero Conclave. Outside the airport, Chris, Mark, and Steve Carver - the team’s third pilot - might pass for English tourists as they study the glare of a dust-laden sky that only promises to compound the difficulties of flying a display over the centre of the city in the days ahead. Somewhere beyond the haze, far to the west of us over the Arabian peninsula, the team’s fourth pilot and larger-than-life leader, Tom Cassells, is in his CAP 232, flying the penultimate leg of his five-day solo journey from the UK to India. This morning he left Saudi Arabia amid thunderstorms; by the time we’re sitting down to dinner, he’s on the ‘phone with a string of cheerful expletives that let us know that he’s landed safely in Muscat, Oman.

Day 2: Setting up ‘shop

It takes Tom six hours to fly from Muscat to Ahmedabad - six hours that we spend signing forms for our airport passes. Today’s Friday, first practice is Sunday, but the drag created by paperwork is keeping us earth-bound: as bureaucracy creeps from shade to shade with the soft footfall of rubber stamps on ink pads and the sibilance of sheaves of paper tattooed with red, blue, black and green signatures, the aircraft crates - which have been brought by road from the port in Mumbai - sit on the baking apron, with not a single spanner turned to unpack or assemble the aircraft.

When he travelled to Bahrein to display, Chris tells me as we sweat out our impatience, he was halfway through building his aeroplane when the airport authorities realised that he didn’t have an airside pass and threw him out; it took another day and a half to sort the paperwork. Tom, meanwhile, for all that his five-day odyssey has crossed sensitive borders, is making better headway, and lands at Ahmedabad before we’re allowed airside in the late afternoon when the temperature on the apron is 42°C.

It’s even hotter in the shipping containers as we unstrap the aircraft wings and fuselages, and move them to the workshop - a hangar where our troupe works into the evening setting up makeshift benches and laying out tools. The sun’s long gone before we’ve finished, but with three aircraft to build before the first practice on Sunday time is against us. Tom’s arrival, though, means that the team is now complete, and dinner’s a noisily cheerful affair.

Day 3: Sweat & spanners

Saturday: a long day in the hangar. The team has to be self-sufficient when it comes to rigging and repairing the aircraft; each pilot works on his own machine, and I pair up with Chris. The heat makes a salt-sweat water torture of working in the confined spaces: small jobs like fitting rudder bolts, where access means that nuts can only be tightened by an eighth of a turn at a time, and perspiring hands and slippery tools make it all too easy to drop a spanner inside the control surface. If the task isn’t awkward, it’s both heavy and awkward: the Extras’ 90kg wings have to be lifted and carefully slotted into the fuselages, where they’re secured by pins driven through the carbon-fibre spars with a combination of force and finesse. Luckily, Nick Peel, the team’s engineer, is on hand with a whole bag of tricks for getting jobs done, and these - together with the mechanical skills of Keith Taylor, the sixth Global Star - all help to speed the plough.

Throughout this, Tom is unbearably cheerful because his aeroplane is already in one piece - or nearly so. The tailwheel of his CAP was damaged during the flight to India, but Tom, a Royal Armoured Corps tankie in his day, effects a ‘battle-damage repair’; he’s depending, however, on the arrival of a replacement from the UK in time for the flight home next week. In the meantime, he banters endlessly: “I’m on it like a car bonnet,” he says, turning to lend a hand here; “I’m watching it like a dog watching a sausage,” he says, stepping in to help there.

Tom, with his barrack-room knack of carrying people with him (“You can always lead men by making them laugh”), is the formation’s ringmaster. Mark, on the other hand, is the team owner and impresario: his tireless deal-making is what stitches together these commercial opportunities from the fabric of the fiercely competitive air show world; and when teams have to hustle for territory and ever-diminishing airshow budgets, it’s a fabric that can easily tear. I suspect, for instance, that Mark might see Chris’ simultaneous involvement with both Global Stars and another combo’, the Twister Duo, as hunting with the hounds and running with the fox. Like Steve Carver, however, Chris comes to the team as an owner-pilot with an aerobatic and display pedigree, and as such he’s a key player whose involvement in Global Stars is more as an investor in Mark’s deals than simply a hired gun.

Nor is this a gentleman’s flying club, you see; it’s more robust than that: Mark’s enthusiastic curry-eating, for example, means he’s already succumbed to the bugs of India, but he still puts in a day at the hangar with periodic dashes to the noisome toilets via an industrial-sized roll of paper tissue on our workbench.

Eight o’clock: the mosquitos are being drawn to the hangar lights, but the aircraft are nearly assembled; an early start will see the job done.

Day 4: Testing the air

“I still can’t believe I’m here,” says Tom as we wait in air traffic control to file a flight plan for the morning’s practice. Of his flight out, he says, “Monday to Friday is one hundred and twenty hours; thirty two were flying; fifty were sleeping; the rest were eating, chasing fuel, planning…” There probably aren’t many pilots of small, single-seat aircraft who’d cross seas, deserts, and skirt the edges of restless territories where shoulder-launched rockets are a published hazard below 20,000ft, in order to lead a display; it’s the stuff, I suggest, that pioneering adventures were made of in the 1920s and ‘30s. “Some of the challenges,” Tom agrees, “are the same - water, weather, stamina.” But while he wasn’t setting out, like a latter-day Alex Henshaw, to set records, Tom nonetheless had the pressure of needing to reach Ahmedabad in time to join the team and lead the displays. Moreover, aviation adventures in the modern world suffer the headwinds of enormous fuel and handling charges, and the bureaucracy that surrounds borders and passports: “Getting airborne,” he says, “means achieving escape velocity to break free of the bureaucracy that’ll hold you down.”

But then, Tom is Sgt. Bilko with a South Yorkshire accent: he’s sussed how life’s levers and pulleys are worked, and his determined playing of the game is coloured with robust humour: as time ticks towards the 1100hrs practice slot, it seems that the call-sign ‘Global Stars’ won’t fit on the flight plan, so Tom goes for ‘Rhino’ instead. “I’ve always wanted to use that ‘cos I’m thick-skinned and walk round with…” Yes, well; thank you Tom. The system’s also struggling with flight planning a formation: it can’t cope with two aircraft types, so he has to submit two plans to run in parallel. Still the time keeps evaporating, and at the end of a hurried briefing and walk-through, Tom reminds the team of the principal aim: “To enjoy it - and survive.”

As the first practice unfolds over the airport, everyone - from hangar sweepers to tower staff - comes out to watch. I wonder if, in their eyes, the display begins to transform the eccentric Brits in badly fitting shorts into real pilots? As someone in the control tower remarks, however, the enthusiasm for aviation in India is such that if the team put on a show at three o’clock in the morning, it’d still attract a crowd.

Afternoon: second practice is scratched when the heat whips up a dust storm that falls upon the airport like djinn from the desert.

Day 5: …Or is it day six?

On Monday and Tuesday, twice a day, the team practices at the display site, centred between two bridges over the Sabamarti river. They aren’t rehearsing their routine so much as fitting it to the conditions and the site. The high temperature exacerbates the performance differences between the aircraft, making the co-ordination of formation manoeuvres in the bumpy, thermic air even more challenging. As the display swoops from 2500ft down to around 100ft, the tall buildings and bristling aerials bordering the river become hazards, and in the hazy light, spotting on-coming aircraft in the high-speed cross-overs is difficult. The team has to be able to fly the routine using just 70% of their mental capacity, leaving the rest free to deal with unexpected problems - problems like the birds. The black kites that haunt the rubbish dump bordering the river seem curious about the aircraft, and flock towards them in increasing numbers as the display progresses. For the wingmen, concentrating on the leader, they’re only briefly glimpsed, but to Tom, the kites – large enough to cause catastrophic damage – look disconcertingly like anti-aircraft fire.

These practices, of course, are like sending the strongman and trapeze artists into town to announce the arrival of the circus; momentum is starting to gather ahead of the first full display on Thursday, and it’s stoked by the local papers, which are running pictures of the practices. At the hotel and airport, people begin recognising the team from the newspaper photos, but the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle is taking its toll, and all the jokes the team made about Mark’s illness are now being visited upon them.

Day 7: All Fools’ Day

Another post-practice debriefing, and Mark and Tom are comparing antlers again: “Breathe!” Mark tells Tom. “If you take a breath you won’t be talking which will allow me to finish; it’ll also help to oxygenate your brain, so that you can listen.”

Given the recent history of the British unlimited aerobatics championship, during which Mark and Tom passed the trophy back and to between them, it seems surprising to find them in the same team. “When we were competing against each other, we were very aggressive,” Tom admits; but, “it’s like barristers,” Mark adds. “We’re adversarial in the court room, but then go for a drink together.” Together, they bring different qualities of leadership and organisation to the team; besides, they make entertaining foils for each other. So instead of stopping to breathe, Tom’s riposte is to needle Mark about flying the solo sequence in the middle of the display - both of these showmen know the value of a chance to grandstand in an arena removed from CAA restrictions. The only fly in the ointment is the smoke oil which, like the fuel, isn’t available on-site and had to be shipped in by lorry, and is now running short.

Day 8: VIPs, dreams & daredevils

Thursday: today’s the show for the VIPs and invited guests who’re gathering in the enclosure on the riverfront; along the embankments, as many as 50,000 more spectators are expected. This expectation, however, is also tinged by nervousness: a couple of recent airshow incidents elsewhere in India have created a fear of negative publicity; this - coupled with an institutionalised deference and avoidance of responsibility - meant that decision over the Global Stars’ appearance went all the way up to the desk of Mr Modi, India’s PM. Even so, the organiser is worried about birdstrikes, and turns to ask me - me, the oily rag and snapper in the troupe - if the show should be cancelled; it’s almost as if he’s making certain that it’s understood the decision to display isn’t his.

Even as he wrings his hands, Mrs Anandiben Patel, Modi’s successor as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, is addressing the schoolchildren bussed in to see the first display: “When you begin learning to fly,” she says, comparing flight to aspirations, “you ask yourself if it’s even possible. But with work and perseverance you can realise your dreams.” It’s not dreamers that the local press calls the Global Stars, though, but ‘daredevils’, and when the pilots attend the conclave dinner after the (birdstrike-free) VIP show, one delegate - Sunil - asks a curious question: the display is indeed daring, he agrees, so is there anything more than the pilots’ flying skills keeping the Devil away? Does the divine form part of their back-up plan? It’s a sincere inquiry, and one that highlights the cultural frontiers that the team crosses in its travels; science so often overshadows religion in the West that it’s easy to forget how faith can inform outlooks in India.

Day 9: Good Friday; great display

Every vantage point around the display site is packed with the holiday crowds; traffic across the Ghandi and Nehru bridges comes to a standstill; the police are beating the autorickshaws with bamboo sticks to make them move, but it’s no good - cars and motorcycles are stopped, people hang out of bus windows.

On climb-out from the airport, the pilots test their smoke systems, leaving short smoke trails that telegraph their impending arrival to the spectators. An enormous cheer goes up, and almost before it dies away, the display breaks above the crowd. For 15 minutes all eyes are on the smoke trails stitching the team’s signature across the sky as the avian loops and rolls of formation flight give way to the tumbling, gyroscopic figures of Tom’s solo aerobatic sequence. Throughout, the noise of the crowd, horns, and aeroplanes is tremendous, and the enthusiasm is genuine and uncomplicated - this is something unusual, exciting, free, and very close. I wonder if we haven’t lost this sort of unvarnished excitement some time ago in UK?

To the pilots in their cockpits, the enthusiasm of its audience’s welcome is made clearly visible by its size. “I wish I was thirty and doing this,” Tom tells me later. “There’s a whole new airshow world to conquer out here. You could run a flying circus - you could also die.” Tom has been to the funerals of more than a dozen display pilots in the last 20 years.

Every vantage point around the display site is packed with the holiday crowds; traffic across the Ghandi and Nehru bridges comes to a standstill despite the efforts of the police. On climb-out from the airport, the pilots test their smoke systems, leaving short smoke trails that telegraph their impending arrival to the spectators. An enormous cheer goes up, and almost before it dies away, the display breaks above the crowd. For 15 minutes all eyes are on the smoke trails stitching the team’s signature across the sky as the avian loops and rolls of formation flight give way to the tumbling, gyroscopic figures of Tom’s solo aerobatic sequence. To the pilots in their cockpits, the enthusiasm of its audience’s welcome is made clearly visible by its size; India is revealing itself as a whole new airshow world waiting to be explored.

Day 10: The end’s in sight

After this morning’s display, Ahmedabad’s mayor, Meenaxiben Patel visited the airport to present gifts to the team, catching Mark in a grubby polo shirt instead of clean blue overalls. Whatever the paper’s say, this isn’t an altogether glamorous game: there’s the weariness, the heat in the cockpits, the illness, and with them comes again a prickling sense of being just one step ahead of the dangers.

“I’m just praying for it all to be over,” Chris confides as he readies for the final sortie. “It’s the last display, we don’t want anything to happen now.”

“Right,” say Tom, when it’s time to start up. “Let’s have one more go at losing a canopy to the birds.” Sunil might’ve called it tempting fate, but perhaps this dark humour is a talisman against trouble: half an hour later, the formation emerges unscathed from the haze over the city. Within minutes of shutting down, the aircraft are in the hangar and the process of disassembly has begun. The circus is folding its tents; by this time tomorrow they’ll be nothing to show that they were here save half-a-dozen drums of fuel awaiting the team’s return next year.

Day 15: On the road again

With the aircraft en route to the port, and Tom (with a tailwheel borrowed from an Extra; the replacement never arrived) already past the long leg from Saudi to Cyprus and well on his way home, what’s left of the team - having enjoyed one day’s R&R - leaves town on an early flight. Ahead lies the UK display season, after which the Global Stars go on the road again, first to China, then Bahrain, and back to India. It isn’t an easy way to earn a living – and a living is all it earns – but Mark simply shrugs: “You get to travel, to do things that others haven’t; it’s fun.”

© David Roberts 2019