A supersonic joyride in a bullet-holed combat plane

SOARING at almost 10,000 feet above East Anglia in a jet aircraft, the view of the coast and out to sea never fails to amaze and delight. Far below, villages and <br />towns are just tiny specks, while cities form darker smudges on the ancient rural landscape.<br /><br />Rolling the jet onto its back and pulling back on the control column makes the ground fill the windscreen, the fields revolving around the nose as we line up for a high speed dive back to earth.<br /><br />It&rsquo;s a far cry from bumbling along at 2,000 feet in a more common propeller-driven light aircraft and a thrill that is surprisingly easier to attain than signing up for a military career.<br /><br />By far the most common ex-military jet flying in the UK is the Jet Provost, a former RAF trainer that was exported to several nations including Oman and Saudi Arabia and was used for ground attack missions.<br /><br />I was invited to see what jet flying is like for myself with a sortie in a real combat veteran &ndash; complete with patched up bullet holes &ndash; and now can only wonder how anyone can climb into such machines day after day and ultimately go to war in them.<br /><br />The experience was nothing short of overwhelming. After encasing oneself in flame-proof overalls, flying boots and leather gloves and strapping on life jacket, helmet and survival gear, the crew are literally secured to the aircraft with a series of belts leaving them practically immobilised.<br /><br />The experience was given an extra edge by the knowledge that I was sitting on a live ejection seat capable of blasting me out of the cockpit in the blink of an eye. Most sobering was the safety briefing, which mentioned that if forced to eject I&rsquo;d stand a good couple of inches shorter for the rest of my life due to spinal compression.<br /><br />But once under way and screaming into the sky I found the jet to be a unique and exhilarating flight and a memory to be treasured. It is the easiest way for a civilian &ndash; pilots or non-pilots alike &ndash; to experience exactly how it feels for those in the RAF or Royal Navy who fly fast jets for a living.<br /><br />Because the Civil Aviation Authority bars ex-military jet operators from offering paid passenger flights in their aircraft,&nbsp; anyone interested in flying has to join a group as a member. Someone cannot just turn up with &pound;1,000 and go for a flight. For my flight I paid a share of the fuel costs to make the sortie legal.<br /><br />Once you&rsquo;ve joined a jet syndicate the training programme with ex-RAF fast jet instructors begins. Those who already hold a private pilot&rsquo;s licence are likely to be capable of going solo in the Jet Provost within 10 hours given continuity of training and sufficient application. Within 20 hours of flying time they can be taking passengers aloft on their own.<br /><br />Richard Sullivan and Mike Garfield run the Swords Aviation Jet Provost syndicate at North Weald airfield in Essex. They are among a privileged bunch of aviators flying just 50 ex-military jets in use the UK today. Most of these flyers are high net worth individuals because each flight can cost an eye-watering &pound;2,000 depending on the type of sortie to be flown and therefore fuel burned.<br /><br />Trial flights can be arranged but anyone interested in more than just a joyride must be prepared to dedicate themselves to the training. It&rsquo;s no good turning up in the Ferrari and shades and expecting to just fire up the jet and go flying.<br /><br />&ldquo;The type of person who is going to thrive on jet flying must be prepared to put the hard work in, and to learn the training manual inside out,&rdquo; Garfield explains. &ldquo;It is very technical and covers everything from starting the engine to what to do in various emergency scenarios.&rdquo;<br /><br />The level of training became crystal clear during my flight when a fire warning light was suddenly illuminated. Garfield&rsquo;s calm reaction and methodical checks quickly ruled out a real emergency and determined a faulty circuit somewhere to be checked later on the ground.<br /><br />While cheap to buy now thanks to the surging cost of fuel, the Jet Provost is an expensive aircraft in terms of maintenance. It typically costs &pound;20,000 a year to maintain, or the same as a twin-engined propeller aircraft. Insurance is around &pound;4,000 and hangarage &pound;6,000. Group members then pay &pound;200 a month and &pound;100 per sortie to take the aircraft flying before fuel even comes into the equation. It is roughly &pound;500 an hour just for fuel.<br /><br />However, Garfield and Sullivan argue the costs are not extravagant, with the annual outlay for members not too far away from membership of a decent golf club. It is certainly a more exciting subject to discuss in the bar afterwards.<br /><br />And for your money you get to fly twice as fast as the average light aircraft &ndash; up to 250 knots or almost 290mph below 10,000 feet. It is a unique experience that can take you from Essex to Norfolk in just 15 minutes.<br /><br />The grin plastered on my face after flying with Garfield took the best part of a week to subside and it is easy to see how pilots quickly become addicted to flying jet aircraft.<br /><br />&ldquo;Every pilot and anyone else who has ever wondered what it is like to fly a jet should have a go,&rdquo; Garfield says. www.swordsaviation.co.uk