When I first posted about returning to my old plane-spotting hobby I suggested I might do a weekly update. That might be a bit too frequent though for a ‘this is what I saw’ type of post. So here we are nearly 3 weeks later with an update which conveniently ties in with Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge of Jets and Planes.

Since the last post I have refined my knowledge of ADS-B websites and how they function, my spotterscope has arrived and I’ve actually taken a couple of photos too! I mentioned in that first post that FlightRadar24 obfuscates some data from ADS-B. I have now started using an enthusiast website called ADS-B Exchange which doesn’t. It’s a bit clunky compared with the professional site with a slower refresh rate but all the key info is there. I had some examples of FlightRadar24 hiding, not just info but the existence of flights this very morning – Airforce 2 was noted departing London Stansted and 2 KC-135 tankers were also noted passing over east London. So using ADS-B Exchange makes sense for the enthusiast. However, FR24 is still a very useful site and it’s sometimes good to crosscheck between the two.

Last post, I expressed some concerns about the accuracy of the aircraft registration info recorded in the ADS-B data displayed. I had seen some debate about this on the website forums. That debate seems to be old – dating to 2016-17. I now have quite a lot of ‘confirmed’ registrations that tally with the ADS-B data. It appears that the ADS-B is required to transmit the aircraft ‘Tail Number’ as part of its response. That would make absolute sense to me as a pilot because the full details of an aircraft can be very important to ATC in an emergency situation. Another thing that suggests this is the case was a 2019 law change in the US where aircraft working on Homeland Security can turn off the ADS-B transponder for security reasons – quite how that benefits flight safety at a time when ADS-B has become mandatory and is due to completely replace normal Radar for flight control I don’t know? In the words of Buffalo Springfield “Paranoia runs deep!” Anyway, my conclusion is that the information received is probably 99% accurate – at least within European jurisdiction. And that means that anything I can get a good look at with my ‘scope to confirm operator and type is going to be logged 🙂

The last couple of weeks have seen some good days for watching the skies and others that were best spent driving trucks or farming on the computer. Today started good and I logged an ACE Belgium Boeing 747 freighter passing over on a flight from Liege to New York. In a week when most passenger airlines are retiring their 747’s – BA announced this last week and Qantas flew their last one today on a farewell special – it’s good to see one flying and to note that one of UPS’s 747 800’s was flying out of Stansted to Hong Kong as well.

Flights over my garden are generally in 4 different altitude bands. The ACE 747 was at 29000ft, so lets call that the 30kft band and is usually aircraft transitting UK airspace from Europe to the US. Then we get the 15kft band. This is where we get aircraft inbound to Stansted, Luton, Kidlington. Sometimes I also get military aircraft transitting in this band on their way to Brize Norton and Upper Heyford, for example an RAF C17……apologies for the quality – heat haze becomes an issue in the middle of the day as evidenced by this shot of an Etihad Airways Boeing 777 freighter in the turn at around 7000ft inbound to Heathrow……that represents our 3rd band – most Heathrow bound flights that come over my house are descending through 7000ft.

The final flight band is between 500ft and 4000ft – this is occupied by general aviation types including the Air Ambulance, Police and TV helicopters as well as some private flights. It is also where I get aircraft inbound to RAF Northolt like this Bombardier BD-700……with a KLM flight passing above at 32kft, and this Embraer Phenom……both representative of business jets or biz-jets as they are commonly called. There are also some RAF aircraft but I haven’t got a photo of one to show in this post, maybe next time 🙂

617 Squadron
617 Squadron Badge (The Dambusters)
Copyright of the Royal Air Force and produced here under fair use guidelines.

Yesterday evening at 21:55 UTC I made contact with Amateur Radio Station GB5DAM in Lincolnshire, next to RAF Scampton. The call-sign of the station recalls Operation Chastise in 1943 and is operated on the night of the 16th/17th of May which is the anniversary of what became known as the Dambusters Raid. It was from Scampton that three formations of Lancaster bombers took off on the raid with the first departing at 21:39. The intention of the raid was to breach three large dams and to flood German industry in the Ruhr region. The dams concerned were the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe, of which the Möhne and Eder were actually breached whilst the Sorpe was slightly damaged.

In our modern world where technology has allowed the production of weapons that can be dropped with a precision of a few metres, the indiscrimate broadbrush tactics commonly used for bombing in the Second World War seem primitive and excessive though it was almost certainly the only possible way to attack at the time. Modern military commanders often refer to a small number of civilian deaths as Collateral Damage. I cannot think of a term to adequately describe the huge numbers of civilian casualties caused by the massed raids of WWII. And, it’s fair to say that, the Dambusters Raid was planned in the full knowledge that it would cause significant loss of civilian life. At the time of the start of the Second World War, the philosophy behind bombing was still entrenched in the 1930’s belief that the bomber would always get through and that taking the war to the opponent’s civilian population would force a rapid end to hostilities as they turned against their own government. That was wearing a little thin by 1943 and of course, the lesson from WWII is that such ideaology was false – civilians, both British and German, bore up under the assault and tried to carry on as normal.

However, looking back to that raid in the early hours of 17th May, we can see the dawning of the idea of precision bombing. The methods used were crude but efforts to provide accurate bombing enabling more precise targetting were rapidly coming on line in 1943. The dams raid was a strange mix of an attack requiring extreme accuracy with an outcome that would be widespread and indiscriminate. I doubt that we will see its like again – the modern military commander is as aware of flak from public opinion as he is of anti-aircraft missiles.

Returning to GB5DAM – The station is operated by the Lincoln Short Wave Club to remember the RAF Aircrew and the German Civilians who lost their lives in the famous raid on the Ruhr Dams of Northern Germany. To quote from their entry on QRZ.com “Sixty Nine years ago tonight we could have stood outside our shack and counted the Lancasters out and back in again next morning.” 40% of the aircrew were lost and over 1600 civilians and pow’s died on the ground. Whatever else we may think about the actions that night there is no doubt that the attack was pressed home bravely. There must certainly be many untold tales of bravery on the ground that night too.

And so to the present morning of 17th May – my first contact just before starting work was with German station DK0YLO. The Young Lady, Mareike, was talking from Sundern – right beside the Sorpe Dam that was attacked on that night 69 years ago. The station was one of several on the air this morning to highlight the mining activities of the area. A number of mines were flooded after the dams were breached but there was no mention of wars, bombing raids or flooding today. Just a friendly Amateur Radio exchange of call-signs, names and signal strengths. The pain of the past has healed over the intervening years just as the dams were repaired in a few short weeks. Whilst Amateur Radio can’t take credit for the present friendly relations enjoyed between British and German people, it is a force for friendly contact between the peoples of the world regardless of race, colour, age, gender or creed.

In the shack
Operating in the Shack in 2008 – photo by Alasdair Addison

You can read a detailed account of Operation chastise , including an analysis of its overall effect on the war, on Wikipedia.