Optima were asked by the Lincoln College Group to devise a memorial sculpture to pilot Sam Bailey at their Monks Road campus, the site of the UK’s first Air & Defence Career College.
Sam Bailey was a pilot who worked his way up the ranks in the RAF to become Squadron Leader. After gaining an Aeronautical Engineering Degree, Sam commenced officer training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire and then joined XIII Squadron of the Tornado Force in 2001. After serving front line tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he became a flight instructor at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
Sam was tragically killed along with two other pilots while flying a training exercise over the Moray Firth on July 3, 2012. As well as being an expert fast-jet pilot, Sam was a much-respected leader, a devoted husband and an adoring father. He left behind his wife Fiona and their young daughter Erin.
The Bailey family wanted Sam’s memory to live on in a way that would help inspire young people to reach for their dreams in the same way that Sam had done. They also wanted to create a place where Sam’s daughter Erin could go to remember her father in years to come.
It was therefore decided that a memorial sculpture located in Lincoln, where Sam and Fiona had first met when training at RAF Cranwell, and on the site of the Air & Defence College, would be a fitting tribute.
After much research and brainstorming, Optima uncovered a beautiful poem written by a pilot based in Lincolnshire during the Second World War and used it as the inspiration for the sculpture concepts.
John Gillespie McGee was a Canadian Spitfire pilot who also tragically died in a mid-air collision training accident over the skies of RAF Digby in 1941. RAF Digby is 10 miles from the location of the sculpture and in a perfectly straight line with it, the new Bomber Command spire memorial and Lincoln Cathedral – the same landmark path that many WW2 bomber crews used to navigate by.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
This poem led Optima to devise an abstract sculpture concept that encapsulated the joy of flight. The final design directly referenced elements within the poem by containing a sun-split cloud structure with a silver wing or spike representing an aircraft rising up through the clouds to reach the sanctity of space and ‘touch the face of God’.
Because of the parallels between the two men’s lives, the poignancy of the poem and the geographical alignments, it seemed the perfect fit.
Delivery of the project involved several stages over many months, from creative concept drawings and paper models through materials specification, technical blueprints, prototype fabrication, final build, transportation and installation.
Throughout the project, Optima worked in partnership with Lincoln engineering company Rilmac, who led on the technical aspects of manufacture, production methods, fabrication, materials and installation, whilst Optima led on the creativity, style, sizing and positioning.
The ceremonial unveiling
The ceremony to officially unveil the sculpture was an incredibly moving experience which brought tears to all our eyes. It was attended by a small group of Sam Bailey’s family and friends, along with representatives from both the RAF and Lincoln College. The RAF chaplain held the service and in a moment where time seemed to stand still, the last post was beautifully played on the bugle by Sam’s sister.
The absolute highlight for Optima was the opportunity to meet with and speak to Sam’s wife and daughter, Fiona and Erin for the first time.
Lincoln College Group Director of Marketing and Communications Jim Newall said:
“We are really proud of Optima’s sculpture, as are the Bailey family, who joined us for a poignant blessing ceremony earlier in the year. The sculpture is a permanent memorial to Sam, a reminder of the sacrifice of service to our students and the community and a wonderful addition to Lincoln’s cultural landscape.”
To be involved with this project was an absolute honour, one that was so positively life-affirming and that will live long in the memory, every time we pass down Monks Road in Lincoln.