George ‘Smokey’ Bacon MBE is probably best known by airshow regulars as the calming, informative voice to many aviation events up and down the British Isles. However, George’s achievements and roles within the aviation industry go far beyond just commentating on airshows. Duncan Monk talks to George as he takes time out of his busy schedule to discuss his past, the future of the AAC display teams and all things airshow with AeroResource.
TA Reserve Pilot, Pilot selection and displays for AAC, Deputy Chairman of BADA, Flying Display Director, Crew Resource management Instructor, Ambassador for Aerobility, Broadcaster, Air display manager for Blue Eagles and The Army Historic Flight and a Civil Pilot License holder – this distinguished and impressive list of titles all belong to George along with his treasured MBE, awarded for support to NATO Operations in Kosovo.
Unlike some youngsters who grow up dreaming of a career as a pilot, George didn’t join the Air Cadets nor were his family from a military or aviation background. It was whilst at University that he made a decision to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) from one of his three passions in life; Sailing, Aviation and Broadcasting. It was the ambition to excel that drove George forward during his career with the RAF.
Joining the RAF in 1975, he completed Officer Training and, during initial flying training, flew Bulldog’s and Jet Provost 3‘s where he won the Sword of Merit. Destined for fast jet, he moved to 1 Flying Training School where he trained on the Jet Provost Mk3a however his career was cut short due to an air incident that sadly lead to a medical grounding after blowing an ear drum. George recalls:
“We were doing some maneuvers at high level and lost control of the aircraft, there was an issue with it, and we ended up in an inverted spin. We lost 10,000’ and by the time we got to the bottom of the spin and recovered the aircraft I had screwed up one side of my head. I was taken to hospital once we landed, and although I was not incapacitated, I was totally deaf. Obviously we got the aircraft recovered and as it turns out the aircraft was fine.”
After various medical tests it was discovered he had an imbalance in his ears and would no longer be allowed to fly within pressurized cockpits curtailing his dreams of becoming a Harrier pilot. Obviously disappointed, George got his head back into one of his other passions, broadcasting, by working as a freelance with the BBC and British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). It was during this time someone suggested talking to the British Army about resurrecting his flying career due to the British Army having no pressurized cockpits within their fleet of aircraft. After initially serving as an Education Officer he was declared fit to fly and, after being selected for aircraft training, gained his wings with the Army Air Corps in 1981.
George initially trained and flew on the Agusta Bell 47 (Westland Sioux AH Mk1) and then converted to fixed wing, flying the De Havilland Beaver operationally in Northern Ireland.
“We used to focus on photo reconnaissance and various intelligence gathering. Although it was pretty rudimentary, it was cutting edge technology back in those days and it was essentially all counter terrorism work.”
As well as Northern Ireland, George served tours in Canada, the Persian Gulf and European theaters becoming a specialist in manned airborne surveillance projects.
Today George is still flying with currency on the Grob Tutor (based at AAC Middle Wallop) and the aircraft of the Army Historic Flight for which he is the manager and comprises of Auster Mk9 XR244, de Havilland Beaver Mk1 XP820, Alouette II XR379, Sioux Mk1 XT131, Westland Scout Mk1 XT626 and Chipmunk T10 WD325 currently on loan to the RNHF). Because of his fixed wing background, George focuses mainly on those and his opposite number, Matt Roberts, acts as the rotary specialist. Although currently ‘grounded’, the Army Historic Flight is in a state of change with the aircraft being transferred to the civil register after the army pulled funding, George explains:
“The army has decided in conjunction with JHC not to support the Army Historic Flight anymore. We were forced into this and although it was a relatively small amount of money, it was withdrawn at short notice. To get the aircraft flying again we have now got to do essentially a lot of governance work; set up a charitable trust, create a maintenance contract and try to convince the MOD not to sell the aircraft, and let us fly them, but fly them outside of military regulation, and we hope to have them back in the air during spring of this year.”
The other team that George manages, although currently in abeyance, is the AAC Blue Eagles. The Blue Eagles have been ‘on hold’ for a number of years, due mainly to the pressures of continual deployments to Afghanistan. It is very doubtful that we will ever see the Blue Eagles in their old guise with Apache, Gazelle and the fully aerobatic Lynx AH7 due to the lack of availability of Gazelle airframes and the imminent retirement of the Lynx AH7. It is hoped that a new ‘Blue Eagles’ may emerge, albeit without the trademark ability of the Lynx. George details why:
“Losing the Lynx AH7 at the end of this year is a huge loss to the Blue Eagles as it is what they are known for, having a fully aerobatic display helicopter. Although the other aircraft may be aerobatic capable, to get that clearance approved, we have to put it through a QinetiQ trial, and there is no money in the pot for that.Although we have lost our aerobatic ability, we are considering putting a pair of Apaches together for this year, which would be interesting. Obviously the Dutch have the AH-64D non-Longbow model which is cleared for full Aerobatics, but our Longbow versions, although capable, do not have the release to service to perform aerobatic manoeuvres. The other restriction of the Apache is that we are unable to display it over water despite it being used over water on operations.So the Blue Eagles as was will never return again. We are however definitely building up a crew for Wildcat for this summer, although there are a number of teething troubles setting up a new team, so we are unsure of how many times we can get it on the road this summer. The other thing with Wildcat, as the Royal Navy has discovered, is that they are also restricted on the flight envelope, so the Wildcat will not be given a full aerobatic clearance.”
One of Georges more important roles is that of Vice Chairman of BADA – The British Air Display Association. Founded in 2009, BADA was formed to bring about a more cohesive community within the airshow industry. The aim is the safe development of the air display community bringing together display pilots, event organisers, display directors, Air Traffic Controllers, photographers, enthusiasts and those serving aviation such as BAE Systems. Through this work it is hoped to build relationships and engage in discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN), Military Aviation Authority (MAA) and Historic Aircraft Association (HAA).
With the pre-season conference at Shrivenham recently completed, it was heralded as a huge success and was very well attended. Topics up for discussion were numerous and prior to the conference George remarked on a few areas that would no doubt come up:
“We have to reflect as an industry what the growing trends are across the public requirements. I’m talking about reflecting on the success of Seaside shows for example, which have been enormous. Reflecting perhaps that some well-established enthusiast shows such as RIAT aren’t necessarily as good as they used to be. It’s a contentious topic but none the less these are issues that need addressing. One thing we have all come to realise is that they aren’t just about aviation but are actually a classic good value day out for the family. There is a lot of work going on about managing an airshow in a much broader perspective, other than just aircraft, but of course BADA is only there to represent the aviation interest.”
When questioned about his thoughts on display regulations at airshows and whether they are getting too strict, George responds:
“The problem with the regulations has been the interface with foreign nations. I think from a UK perspective there are no major issues and I still think the CAA display authorisation is a relatively flexible beast, and I think it works very well for that market. If there is an inflexibility, it is within the military side of the industry where it is very prescriptive indeed and we are trying to encourage a little more flexibility and it is one of the major subjects under discussion. It is the regulatory side of the military which has caused more angst to our foreign visitors not the civilian side.”
George is always keen to give something back to the community and, in doing that he has chosen a charity that is linked to aviation, namely Aerobility. George was approached by a member of the Aerobility committee to bring them air display support, which he did without hesitation:
“I got display teams involved, sorted auction prizes and as a presenter I was asked to be MC/auctioneer for their annual ball and it snowballed from there. The most significant development, and because I’m a military man as well, was tying up with the military Battle Back campaign that’s to do with the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen/women. So I was in a unique position as a well-known member of the air display community and a military pilot to open doors and make contacts. I give as much time as I can, they are my first port of call when I’m at a loose end, but it’s not the only charity I am involved with.”
George has little recollection of his first commentary, having been a presenter on and off for 30+ years, but he believes it was probably during his time as manager of the Blue Eagles. If George hadn’t joined the RAF as a pilot or been able to resurrect his career with the Army Air Corps, there is no doubt broadcasting would have been his path forward in life and you will again hear him commentating at various airshows this year. There has been some negativity aired towards George on his commentary last year but he isn’t bothered by the snipes:
“I do try to stay out of the chit chat on forums but I will be back at the Royal International Air Tattoo this year with Ben [Dunnell]. Under the new show direction at the Air Tattoo I take a slightly different role to Ben, which is less aviation. It is a specific directed policy from the new management, and there are one or two sour faces out there that haven’t quite understood that. It’s very easy to snipe but an awful lot harder to contribute.”
So looking ahead to the coming year, what was George looking forward to during 2014?
“I think greater development of things like the Bournemouth and Carfest Model and greater development of variety of events with ‘air’ in general. I think the industry is being tested. The shortage of military displays and military commitment will have a bigger impact in the next 3 to 5 years. The heyday of vast military support we had is over and will not return. Events need to become more diverse and more appealing to a broader audience to survive and most event organizers have recognized that. It’s also the 100th anniversary since the first deployment of Royal Flying Corps to the western front and I am working on two separate projects to La Ferté-Alais involving an aviation tour in September.”
AeroResource would like to thank Major (Retired) Bacon MBE TD for taking the time out of his schedule to talk and wish him well for the 2014 season and beyond.