Pilot profile: Warbird display pilot Howard Cook on his return to flying following serious injury
PUBLISHED: 16:53 10 September 2019 | UPDATED: 17:10 10 September 2019
Making a characteristically determined recovery from the accident that nearly ended his flying career and his life, PPL warbird display pilot Howard Cook is back in the cockpit
I don't come from a family with military or civilian aviation connections, but flying was all I ever wanted to do and I was encouraged to do so. The '60s diet of war films was reinforced by crawling through the fence at Duxford with my father to see the making of the Battle of Britain film.
I ran home from school each week to catch the title sequence of a TV programme called The Flaxton Boys because it featured a Spitfire flying low level, and I watched Ray Hanna and Neil Williams display Spitfire MH434.
In my teens I applied to the RAF but due to a lateral distortion in my right eye (which later cleared up, but too late) could not be selected for aircrew−and I only wanted to fly. I found another route into the air, albeit briefly, when serving with the Parachute Regiment. I made many military parachute descents from the balloon at 700ft, or the Hercules, and also the Transall C160 for my German Fallschirmjäger Wings.
The only RAF aircraft I ever flew in in service I never landed in! I took up skydiving for a time, which was helpful when I learned to fly−you still fly downwind, base and final with a Ram-Air parachute and it gives you excellent height perception.
Career-wise, I ran leisure centres, swimming pools, gyms, football and other sports facilities; wrote funding bids for various sporting projects; and built amenities like athletics tracks.
Whilst running sports centres in Eastbourne it was my wife Peta's idea that I take three weeks off work and get my PPL; she said that I would be miserable if I never got my licence! Before I started training I attended the Fighter Meet at North Weald and arranged to meet Robin Bowes with his Fokker Triplane.
Robin encouraged me saying that with taildraggers "the wheels were in the right place". I aspired to these types and thought that one day I might work up to a Pitts Special or the back seat of a Harvard. I lived in hope. The stars of the show such as Stephen Grey's Mustang, Spitfire and Corsair seemed way in the stratosphere to me at the time.
Looking for somewhere that trained on vintage or classic types I settled on a 150hp Piper Super Cub at Clacton Aero Club, was sent solo after seven hours by Trevor Butcher (who runs Classic Wings at Duxford) and completed my General Flying Test within three weeks after 37 hours and then 'topped up' to the forty hours needed at the time. This was July 1989.
With forty hours and five minutes in my log book and PPL in hand, I joined the Cambridge Flying Group (CFG) and first flew the Tiger Moth in December 1989, completely under-aweing instructor Jock Hay with my flying skill.
I tried to fly regularly but the three-hour drive from Eastbourne to Cambridge often precluded this−which probably pleased my principal CFG instructor, Tim Routsis (now Aviation Trustee at the Shuttleworth Collection) as he did not have to fly with me that often!
Concurrently, I became involved with Messerschmitt 109 'Black 6', nearing the end of its restoration at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire and thus started my work in the world of air displays. Moving to Bury St Edmunds for a new post running leisure centres, I was only thirty minutes from flying the Tiger Moth and working on Black 6 which had moved to Duxford.
At the time 'Black 6' was the only genuine airworthy Messerschmitt 109 in the world and I was very lucky to be in Russ Snadden's team looking after her. I was learning from skilled engineers such as John Dixon, Paul Blackah, Chris Starr and the late Ian Mason, who all became good friends.
Besides crewing and fundraising on the Black 6 stand at shows, I would film displays for record purposes and display flying critique purposes which gave me a chance to work with Black 6's display pilots, who had to be serving RAF pilots with 200 hours on Spitfires: Air Chief Marshal Sir John Allison, Dave Southwood, Charlie Brown, and later Air Marshal Cliff Spink.
An almost priceless experience of being part of the team was working with Luftwaffe veterans such as Knights Cross holders Jules Meimberg, Fritz Losigkeit, Ernst-Wilhelm 'Erwi' Reinert and Gunther Rall.
I met other famous aces (Experten) in Germany, Herbert Kaiser and Walter 'Graf Punski' Krupinski, who signed items to help us fundraise, and the 'ace of aces' Erich Hartmann, with whom I spent some inspirational time.
Now I wanted to move up to a T-6 Harvard but where could I find someone who would let me fly one? I was recommended to Jack Kehoe in Lakeland, Florida. Jack had a 1944 SNJ-5 (the Navy T-6) resplendent in Russian Stars to commemorate the 83 T-6s sent to Russia as part of lend-lease.
In preparation I spent hours and hours 'hangar-flying' in Norman Lees' Harvard IIB at Duxford, practising the drills so that I would know all of the 'taps' and the numbers necessary to fly the aeroplane. It got me some friendly abuse−"Howard's playing at aeroplanes again"−but hangar flying and my general preparation held me in good stead then and does to this day: it costs nothing, and it works.
I flew my first 22 hours in the T-6 and, back in England, did my checkout in a G model Harvard and was sent solo after thirty minutes. This had not been possible in the US for insurance reasons and I finished off the season flying the aeroplane in the morning of the Duxford Autumn Air Display.
After a run-and-break landing I looked over at Mark Hanna giving me a wave as he taxied in next to me in a Corsair. "What a lucky sod−I wish I was there." In the back seat my wife Peta came back with "You've just landed a Harvard in front of thousands of people calling you a lucky b*****d!" That put it in perspective.
About this time, 1993, I had the rare experience of engine-running 'Black 6' with the awesome power of its liquid-cooled 37 litre supercharged Daimler-Benz 605A, when display pilot and RAF A1 Flying Instructor Charlie Brown joined the team to fly the Messerschmitt.
I sought Charlie's advice on the right type of experience to progress further. "More aerobatic experience next, Howard." Charlie became my mentor at that stage, many years before it became a requirement in the display world.
I did the excellent AOPA Aerobatic Certificate course with Slingsby Test Pilot Pete Clark in Yorkshire, and Tom Cassells (who went on to become National Aerobatic Champion). It was fantastic experience and a great confidence builder.
At Duxford I often saw Tim Routsis watching over the testing of the latest of the line of Spitfires that his company Historic Flying Ltd (HFL) was restoring at Audley End. Tim offered me the chance to train on the T-6G Harvard Thumper based with HFL; the condition being that I had to fly with Charlie Brown. Charlie set about getting rid of my American-style 'racetrack' and-straight in approaches and taught me fighter handling.
This was the greatest single change to my flying and took my disciplines to another level; Tim's generosity allowing me to do this was considerable.
In 1995 I became Air Display Co-ordinator for the Rougham airshow. The then landowner, Sir John Agnew was highly enthusiastic about air events to bring the former home of the 94th Bomb Group USAAF back to life for a few days a year.
I learned a lot from Display Director and ex Harrier and Tornado display pilot Bruce Monk, and in 1997 became Display Director myself, introducing a number of 'firsts' such as free admission for children.
Working with a range of people across the display world was great experience: Aircraft Restoration Company, Historic Aircraft Collection, Carolyn Grace and Rob Davies to name but a few. After three years, though, I decided to go from gamekeeper to poacher−display pilot.
I wanted to fly behind a Merlin, and there was then only one place where you could train and make the takeoffs and landings and that was Lee Lauderback at Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida. As usual, I did hours of hangar flying and drills thanks to Stephen Grey letting me practice in his Mustang Moose and Mark Hanna in Big Beautiful Doll which meant I could maximise my time (and very limited budget).
Lee and I worked out a specific training schedule and he was a great instructor, really pushing me: circuits, aerobatics, low level display work, emergencies, circuits, and more circuits−a fantastic experience, flying at another level.
I started helping Charlie Brown when he was converting Spitfire owners to their aeroplanes. This included them flying in the front seat of the Chipmunk before moving into the rear seat to simulate the lack of visibility of the Spitfire; then front and rear seat of the Harvard.
It gave me the opportunity to fly the Chipmunk and Harvard, and learn the ways of the Spitfire−all I needed now was a Spitfire! We also ran a couple of Harvard training schools at Duxford for European Harvard owners.
Unfortunately, in 1997 Black 6 crashed at Duxford, its pilot Air Chief Marshal Sir John Allison thankfully escaping the overturned aeroplane without injury. (The aircraft is now displayed in the excellent Axis aircraft collection at the RAF Museum Cosford.)
When Charlie was converting Historic Aircraft Collection (HAC) principals Angus Spencer-Nairn and Guy Black for their first solos in the beautiful MkVb Spitfire BM597, I helped. HAC was being set up to display its own aeroplanes rather than have them flown by other operators, and Angus and Guy asked me to join.
Charlie was HAC Chief Pilot and my role was mainly groundcrew and promoting the team. I helped prepare the Spitfire and keep it immaculate after its displays. I was also hangar-flying the Spitfire, learning the numbers, videoing the cockpit and listening to advice from Charlie on the aeroplane.
Once Guy had soloed BM597, he and Angus asked me if I would like to fly her! After checks in the Chipmunk and Harvard ("Howard, you are one knot out…") to get me up to standard, Charlie cleared me as ready and my first Spitfire solo was in September 1999, the first 'Excellent' in my log book.
At the time I was told I was the only person in the world flying historic fighters who was not an RAF or professional pilot, engineer, restorer or owner−just a volunteer who earned his living outside aviation. It was thanks to Angus and Guy and Janice Black's generosity, and Charlie's outstanding training that I was able to do so.
The day, however, was memorable for joy and sadness as it was the same day that Mark Hanna crashed in the Buchón at Sabadell. Mark and I had had a long chat about fighter operations just before he departed to Spain.
Charlie's answer to "what next?" was "formation". I had been learning the art of formation flying from Bill Ison and Den Cash at the CFG and, following the demise of the original Diamond Nine, formed a Tiger Moth four-ship called Little Diamond in which I led Dave Kirkham, Pete Jackson and Mike Vaisey, formerly of the Diamond Nine.
We flew a variety of shows including Old Warden and Little Gransden. I did not own an aeroplane which meant display flying was a logistical exercise of monumental proportions but we found a way to use the two CFG Tigers in the four-ship for evening shows or on group fly-outs to displays.
I also made my first aerobatic display, in the Chipmunk, at the 2002 Little Gransden show, run by David Poile−a great venue and event. I added my Harvard aerobatic and formation Display Authorisations.
Clive Denney and I, together with Pilot contributor Ian Davies, formed the Red Sparrows−originally set up to keep our aerobatic and formation DAs current year-round. We were joined in the 'Reds' by Air Marshal Chris Harper at No 2. Besides serving our currency objective it was great fun.
Remembering what it is was like to be a child on the other side of the fence, I have always taken time to go over and chat. While on the management committee of the Spitfire Society, I proposed the concept for the Spitfire Days at Duxford which were very successful. Clive Denney and I proposed this concept for the Malta Day at Duxford in 2004, launching the Merlins Over Malta project, which took the HAC Hurricane and Spitfire to Malta for a week of battle commemorations in 2005.
It was a huge undertaking and two years work but the project team−including Malta Story film star Muriel Pavlow−made the unique commemorative event possible. It was thrilling to see the Hurricane and Spitfire over the island and the faces of the veterans of the much under-recognised Battle of Malta. I got to fly the HAC Hurricane, which brought to life the incredible efforts of the defenders of the islands.
In 2005 I was invited to join Mike Potter's Vintage Wings of Canada, which was developing into a collection of worldwide significance. My role was flying 'Brit types'. I made regular trips to Gatineau looking for new types and suppliers for the collection. With Mike at the helm it was like a great big family and a joy for my wife and me to be part of.
As a project manager I had run a number of events, including with the US Air Force. In 2006, I was asked to become Honorary Commander of the 493rd Fighter Squadron USAF 'The Grim Reapers', callsign 'Magnum'−it's my trademark moustache!
Over the years, I have taken a number of the squadron up in the Tiger Moth ("Where are the instruments?" "That's all you've got!") I also had the very rare opportunity for a Brit to fly the F-15 Eagle−quite a first jet type for me−and was even able to fly my Hurricane display routine in it, thanks to 'Reaper 1' Lt Col Mike 'Gomez' King. The Eagle does a Derry Turn par excellence and, to quote Nick Grace, it has a bottomless pit of power.
My next type was HAC's beautiful biplane Hawker Nimrod II, which always reminds me of the glory days of the Hendon Air Pageants of the 1930s. I love it and wrote my first flight test article about it. Displaying it at Biggin Hill and especially Flying Legends was a joy.
With old aircraft you never know what is around the corner and August 2009 was a critical month in my life. I did some spinning recurrency at RAF Cranwell and also displayed there. Then I displayed the Hawker Nimrod II at Yeovilton Air Day in front of my good friend Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown, only to have an engine problem mid-display and had to force land with a fifteen knot crosswind on the main runway at Yeovilton.
Not ideal in the Nimrod but it ended without a scratch on me or the aeroplane. I renewed my DA in the Hurricane with John Romain and displayed it at Rougham, also flying an air-to-air sortie with Keith Wilson.
I then went to fly with Vintage Wings of Canada, flew the Harvard a number of times and passed my Type Rating in the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk. I was probably about as current as it is possible for a civilian pilot to be, but on 28 August−the morning after the P-40 Type Rating−a Tiger Moth nearly killed me.
Following engine failure after takeoff, I was lying in the wreckage of the C model Tiger Moth, which looked like Douglas Bader's crash in Reach for the Sky (I was actually wondering how he felt). As I lay there, I did my own head to toe triage.
I could move my neck, shoulders and hands although they were smashed, my right leg was shattered, bent underneath the seat, and I could not feel my legs. I knew from the pain my back was broken, and it felt like my mouth was hanging off (it needed 64 stitches, as I had gone right through the Tiger's harness into the instrument panel). Fuel was dripping on to me but I thought I had better hang on for the emergency servces or I would snap my spine clean through getting out.
I was thinking that I was not quadriplegic or dead, and could still do project management work in a wheelchair. It was the only time that week that Peta was not with me at the airfield at Gatineau. She was told "Howard has been in an accident but is walking around and has a broken nose" only to turn up at hospital to be told I had broken my back. To stitch up my face they wanted to shave off my trademark moustache but I told them if they did that my wife would divorce me (she told them that too!)
I was sent to Ottawa Civic Hospital. My back was broken in two places, one lung punctured, various ribs broken−as was my left hand−and my right leg was shattered. The operation lasted eleven hours and I was in intensive care for four days.
'Armour plate' was fitted to me as a back brace (and I detest the sound of Velcro to this day). I remember setting myself a 'triumph of the day' target−one day this was being able to sit up for a cup of tea. After a month there, I flew home laid out in Air Canada First Class and went on to Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.
I was confined to one room and in a wheelchair for three months. My injuries were life-changing: because of the spinal damage I can only walk on my heels and will never run again, as I used to do everywhere. After hours in the gym I learned to walk again and told my physiotherapists what I would do−perhaps too much but it drove on my recovery.
I was back at work in just over three months. My first day walking was at the Historic Aircraft Association Symposium at the RAF Museum when I had to tell ninety-year-old Swordfish Bismarck-attack veteran John Moffat to slow down for me! I used a stick that day and threw it away after that.
Five months after the accident the 48th Fighter Wing USAF had me in the F-15 simulator. As I shot down a couple of aircraft in the sortie and my takeoffs and landings were fine, they guessed I was OK. Support from Brig Gen (now Lt Gen) 'Tonto' Silveria, Colonel (now Brig Gen) 'Pulse' Wills and the Reapers was outstanding. Two days later I was at RAF Cranwell with Charlie Brown checking me in a T67 Firefly.
Because of the damage to my legs I had to fly with my shoes off for the first sortie. When I took off, I started laughing and was doing aerobatics and spinning in no time. Charlie said to me "you're fine" and this inspired me to train harder in the air and on the ground with his comment "you will be better than ever". Not long after he cleared me to fly fighters again.
I did my medical flight test with instructor maestro Carol Cooper at Andrewsfield Aviation and the CAA was excellent in helping my rapid return to flight. My great friend, Aachen-based Harvard display meister Jurgen Kraus had me back in his 'Limited Edition' Harvard in short order and I also flew his 450 Stearman. (NB if anyone should be in a fighter cockpit, it is Jurgen).
In 2012 I took part in the opening event of the Olympic Stadium although I was either last or second-last over the five miles. As part of my ongoing recovery I took up the Japanese martial art of Kendo to help my balance and I am now a Black Belt 3rd Dan and instructor.
The gym and mountain biking help keep up my fitness levels and the only time it does not hurt is when I am flying, researching or writing−so I do lots of those! Peta suggested I get a share in a Chipmunk, which I consider the greatest light aircraft of all time.
28 August 2019 marks ten years since the accident, and in accordance with Luftwaffe tradition told to me by 197-victory Experte Walter Krupinski, "if you survive a near fatal, that date becomes your birthday".
I have long had an interest in history and early retirement from project management enabled me to do an MA in Air Power History at the University of Birmingham, and to take up research−most recently with Eleanor Wadsworth, the last of the ATA 'Spitfire Women'.
I have had the pleasure of knowing many aviation greats. Getting a new generation of pilots involved in flying and working on historic aircraft are two things I feel very strongly about, and I have worked for a number of years with the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers with the Sir Geoffrey de Havilland Flying Scholarship at CFG, helping get younger pilots into flying vintage aircraft.
My greatest pleasure is teaching future display pilots at Duxford, and in 2018 I formed the Four Chip formation team with David Petters, Paul Green and Jon Higgins to enable them to make their display debut at Duxford's May Air Festival with myself as lead.
If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you are only as good as the help you have along the way. The support and encouragement of people like Tim Routsis, Lee Lauderback, Jurgen Kraus, Angus Spencer-Nairn, Guy Black, and particularly my flying mentor Charlie Brown set me on my way.
I would like to fly the Hurricane and the Hawker biplanes again, with others such as the Corsair and Skyraider on my bucket list.
The cockpit was the first place I felt 'normal' again after the accident but I now check things three times whereas before it was once, to try to prevent anything similar happening again.
And what I have learned is that, if you have a dream, then never, ever give up!