(Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia National Park, on the border of England and Wales, near the northern edge of the boundary)
We’d pulled the car over to read the sign which marked the border – there were no other cars around and the extremely broad valley through which the road ran didn’t seem so much like a mountain pass as a hill-pass or something. Of course, the mountain passes we’d been driving through all year are those in Switzerland and environs, so my misapprehension of the pass is an error of degree.
It was cool and grey, probably a result of altitude. Sadly I can’t recall the information on the sign – I suspect it may have been an appropriately tricky Welsh name that caught our attention. I recall my mom and Suzy staying in the car, possibly erroneously. There may have been a stream and or a railbed all running parallel to the road. I clearly recall striated gravel next to the road, more than the shoulder accounts for.
As my father and I stood, car running, we heard a noise, like a large thunderstorm in the far distance, but unaccountably sustained, and growing rapidly louder. We looked around in confusion – it was impossible to tell which direction the sound was coming from. It continued to grow louder and louder, until we could feel it through the ground, still with no associated source. Was it an avalanche?
There were no peaks visibly near enough to provide for the rapid approach of the rumble. An earthquake, high in the mountains between Wales and England, seemed such an absurdity that it didn’t merit consideration.
My memories of the May 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens – or rather of the impact that the eruption had on relatives living in Washington State – led me to directly ask my father if the mountains we were in were volcanic or contained volcanically active features. Of course, I suspect my question was rather briefer than this description, and possibly less accurate.
The sound continuing to build, my father considered briefly, frowning, and then began to allay that possibility. Just as he began to say, “No, I don’t think so,” the noise increased to the point it was impossible to hear what he was saying, and hearts racing we turned to see a dinosaur of the sky racing toward, then above us. My father dove behind a rock. He says today, “It scared the whiskers off me.”
As the delta-winged jet scraped by less than 100 feet above us, the hammer of sound and wind that marked its passage hit us, releasing a great tidal wave of testosterone into my body. The Avro Vulcan climbed and banked in acknowledgement of the pilot’s prank. Grey and green stripes of midaltitude camo became visible as the top surface of the great wings inclined above us. I burst into the capering, leaping dance of the excited hominid, screeching and whooping in excitement, even joy. I tossed my arms above my head as language and culture fell away.
Just the experience of writing that paragraph charged me up again with the adrenaline rush of the moment. For a peacenik, I sure do love my flying military hardware, and I always have, ever since I was a child. I don’t recall my father’s reaction, but he helped design planes of the same generation as the Vulcan as a young man.
(My mother, who keeps detailed notes about more or less everything – love to see her blog – reports that there were two planes. I considered a rewrite, but I honestly don’t recall two planes. Is that a lie? Her notes, taken that day, are almost certainly correct.)
The Vulcan was the most prominent true delta plan aircraft ever placed in production, by virtue of the numbers produced. The nearly triangular plane is an ancestor of the just retired Concorde, also a true delta, a plane design with no independent tailplanes. In researching this piece I learned something that makes the fleeting experience of this anecdote that much more savory – between the June of 1982 and 1983, the RAF’s Vulcans were removed from active service, and as far as I can tell, the airbases used for their decommissioning are the RAF bases in Wales.
The delta that hotdogged us on the road that day was flying towards Wales, from somewhere else in England. In the mid-80’s, while Maggie was firmly entrenched in 10 Downing Street, there were incredibly huge protests all over Europe and England regarding the installation of U. S. Pershing missles, and in such a climate, it was unusual to see military gear employed with the sort of swagger that might cause spilt tea and noise complaints.
Returning to the car, my father noted, above my excited babbling, that he had been about to suggest that mountains that contain substantial coal deposits such as these were unlikely to be volcanic in nature. We then wondered, without resolution, how and why the pilot of that plane had felt empowered to pull a flyboy stunt like that. As we motored on, we were not to resolve that question at the time, the summer of 1982.
My hypothesis, freshly half-baked as I write this, is that we happened to see that bird’s final flight, and Group-Captain Hawley Reefer-Botch was wringing the old girl out once more as a salute and farewell. I was happy to see it at the time, and choosing to believe this latest bit of conjecture casts the whole thing into a new, even tastier light.