10 - The First Jet Crossing of the Atlantic

At the end of 1947, the No 54 Squadron aerobatic team broke up with the postings out of Squadron Leader Lyne and Flight Lieutenants Colquhoun and Stacey, leaving me as the only Vampire display-team pilot in the Command. It was extremely unlikely that a fresh team would be allowed to be formed with myself, a Warrant Officer, as leader, so I reckoned that my display career had come to an end. Squadron Leader Howell was posted in to command No 54 in place of Mike Lyne, but he showed no desire to lead a new team. Colin Colquhoun was replaced by Flight Lieutenant Frank Woolley who also appeared unenthusiastic. But in early March 1948, Woolley asked me to show him the nitty gritty of formation aerobatics, viz what you have to do as leader. From this, a new 54 Squadron team was established comprising Woolley as leader, Warrant Officer Roy Skinner (who had done a few surreptitious formation manúuvres with me leading) as No 2, and myself at No 3. Our first authorised practice, I note, was on 9 March and was followed by virtually no other routine squadron exercises for the rest of that Spring. 'Why was this?', I wondered.

Now, behind the scenes at the Air Ministry, a letter from the United States Air Force had hit the desk of the Chief of the Air Staff, or one of his office, asking if it was possible to have a jet fighter squadron carry out the annual goodwill visit of the RAF to the USA. This had previously been done by Avro Lincoln bomber squadrons, but now the Americans thought a change to fast-jets would be beneficial. Presumably they had in mind that the aircraft could be shipped across on an aircraft carrier. The Air Staff must have been in a bit of a quandary, due to the difficulties arising and the cost. For example, where do you find a spare aircraft carrier skulking around in a dock waiting for something to do? Also, what about the hassle of transporting the aircraft to a suitable port, say Liverpool, and dismantling them for loading on board. (Without an arrester hook, you cannot fly them on - you could, but....) And who, at the American side, do you get to reassemble them, and reload the aircraft on the carrier, which has been waiting around for a month while the tour is progressing? And then there is the problem of the transportation of aircraft spares.

After the head scratching, they called in Squadron Leader Bobby Oxspring, the CO of No 247 Squadron at Odiham, and asked him how they should go about it - or should they just say 'No-can-do' to the USAF. Then, as Bobby told me later, someone, at the meeting which was called to discuss the matter, who wanted to air his voice, said "Why not just fly them across?". Bobby said he nearly fell off his chair, but all the brass thought it a great wheeze, and so they tasked it. "Come back in a week, Oxspring, and let us know your plan". It was taken as read that if a fighter unit was sent to the USA it would have to be the RAF Display Squadron, to present the new and exciting demonstrations as seen in 1947.

There were three Vampire squadrons on the Odiham Wing - 54, 247 and 72. I reckoned that the COs of all three had been ordered in early March to produce an aerobatic team apiece. Confirmation came when Squadron Leader Howell asked me to see Bobby Oxspring. I went over to 247's hangar and he gave me a sketchy outline of what was going on; he said that he had asked if my CO would mind having me show him the ropes of leading a team, so that he could work one up to display-proficiency as quickly as possible. He emphasised that this was a Wing requirement and that I should not withhold any information for the sake of loyalty to my own squadron. Since the 54 Squadron team had started practising

before that meeting, I took it that the work-up had already been ordered. So, after giving Squadron Leader Oxspring a thorough ground briefing on engine RPM settings, rates of roll, pitch angles above and below barrel roll axes etc, I took him aloft for a few sorties with him in the No 2 slot, until he considered he was satisfied he knew what was required. Shortly afterwards, Squadron Leader Howell was tragically killed on the ground when taking photographs of the Squadron's aircraft returning from an Exercise. He apparently misjudged his distance from the perimeter track while looking through his camera's viewfinder and was struck by the wing of one of the taxying Vampires. Squadron Leader Oxspring then took over command of No 54 Squadron.

Display practices were now going on at a tremendous rate. The sortie count from 9 March to 18 May for the 54 Squadron team was 37. It must have been around this period that Roy Skinner and I dreamed up a variation to our display routine by the introduction of a formation change in mid-manúuvre. This was the first time it had been done, previous thought having assumed that any change during an aerobatic manúuvre would be too dangerous. But during a practice, we found that it was quite feasible and even less dangerous than the Vic formation roll. The proposed manúuvre was simply a change at the top of a line-astern loop to re-form into Vic. It should be noted, however, that the change could not be made the other way, that is from Vic to line astern, for the same reasons as are given in Chapter 9 concerning power margins in line-astern loops.

A competition was held on 19 May and judged by the C-in-C Fighter Command, to select which arrangement of the three teams would represent the Royal Air Force for the goodwill tour. He decided that two aerobatic teams, 54 and 247 Squadrons, would conjoin to perform the formation parts of the displays with the 54 team leader as overall Vampire Leader, and that three pilots from 72 Squadron would also travel, two to fly the solo aerobatic co-ordination sequences and the third to be deputy Vampire Leader.. The Government of the day, represented by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Arthur Henderson, rubber-stamped the decision following a special display two days later on 21 May. The composition of the aircrew element of the tour was to be:

Blue Section

Sqn Ldr R W Oxspring Blue Leader and overall Vampire Leader

Flt Lt E W Wright Blue 2 (attached to 54 Sqn for the tour)

WO S Evans * Blue 3 (attached to 54 Sqn for the tour) Red Section

Flt Lt F G Woolley Red Leader

WO R J Skinner** Red 2

WO W C Wood* Red 3

Deputy Vampire Leader

Sqn Ldr R N H Courtney Deputy Vampire Leader (attached to 54 Sqn) Solo Aerobatics

Flt Lt C I Colquhoun*** Solo aerobatics (attached to 54 Sqn for the tour) Flt Lt N W Heale Solo aerobatics (attached to 54 Sqn for the tour)

Notes:

* Became Pilot 1 after NCO aircrew rank change

** Became Pilot 2 after NCO aircrew rank change

*** Posted back to Odiham in time for the tour

Having solved the problem of the composition of the display teams, the next critical matter was whether or not the Vampire could do the job. The Vampire Mk 1 certainly could not, because it did not have the necessary fuel capacity. However, the Vampire Mk 3 was coming off the assembly lines at this time and six of them were bagged by the new-look No 54 Squadron. This Mark had an increased internal fuel capacity and was equipped to enable two external overload fuel drop tanks to be carried under the wings. The total fuel capacity gave sufficient range to cover each leg (see later) of the proposed Atlantic crossing with a small margin in reserve. From performance calculations to fit the non-standard flight profile which had to be adopted, a maximum acceptable planned flight time of 2 hours 45 minutes was imposed as a limit.

But that limit assumed little or no deviation from track, so very accurate navigation would be required; it was just not possible to achieve this level of accuracy with the Vampire's equipment fit. Its only pretension to a navigation system was a Magnesyn compass, which any jet pilot of the time will tell you was laughable - even for cross-countries in clear blue 20nm visibility over land. The drill for its use was to set the directional gyro indicator (DI) to the Magnesyn heading when the aircraft was perfectly still on the ground prior to take-off, and then at 10 or 15 minute intervals in flight - provided that absolutely straight- and-level conditions at a steady airspeed were maintained during the resetting. The DI became, in effect, the heading to monitor for virtually the whole flight. In addition, the constantly moving magnetic variation across the North Atlantic (from 14-degrees West to 28-degrees West on one leg) aggravated the situation. The solution could only be found by employing an aircraft to show us the way, using Loran (long range navigation system). As I recounted earlier, my convoy-leading days in India showed that this method of ferrying had its drawbacks and one of the problems encountered then was to show up again on this outing.

There was also little knowledge at this time on the behaviour of the upper winds, and any forecast wind velocity above 20,000ft on the route was not thought to be accurate, ie there were no 'actual' wind reports obtainable from the old-fashioned piston-engined airliners as there are now from the thousands of jet flights at the 30,000 to 40,000ft levels. Reliance at this time had to be placed on the reports from a mere three weather ships anchored in the Atlantic - plus those from the few land-based meteorological stations. So we needed yet another aircraft, capable of flying at the altitudes required, and ahead of the Vampires by at least two hours, passing the 'met' information back to the convoy leader by W/T.

Really accurate 'actual' weather conditions at the destination airfields were also vital, as there were no diversion airfields at all on two of the legs. But I suppose the most daunting aspect of the crossing was that one was flying a single-engined aircraft which had no engine-relight facility. A flame-out over the ocean would, we knew (and notwithstanding the considerable precautions taken to save our necks) result in the probability of one's demise of about 0.99 I should think. Rescue equipment for such an 'unfortunate' consisted of an immersion suit to wear in flight, a standard inflatable Mae West, a standard dinghy/parachute cushion, a Lincoln aircraft carrying a droppable lifeboat (plying the Stornoway to Iceland leg) and a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress doing the same over the Iceland-Greenland-Labrador legs. There were the three weather ships (identified as I, A and B) as well, one on each leg, which would be on standby to pass radar bearing and distance information (to the guy in the sea?) and to do pick-ups. I wondered how long it would take to do a pick-up if, say, one dropped into the ocean midway between Iceland and weather ship 'A' (on the Iceland-Greenland leg) just 150nm away.

A 'small' aircraft spares pack was to be taken on the tour, plus a number of our most experienced mechanics, so yet more aircraft were needed. The engineers would have a lot of work to do between flights. In the main, Daily Inspections would have to be done on flying days, and the fuel drop tanks might have to be removed on display days, or re-fitted for a move to another airbase. There was also non-routine maintenance work which had to do with small defects usually, although it turned out that we were troubled by a period of engine starting problems while in Canada, and these took some non-standard drills to overcome; they had something to do with the hot sticky weather, we believed.

The support aircraft required for the trip were to be as follows:

a) Three de Havilland Mosquitos. One was to act as the convoy leader and as the navigation aircraft. The second was to be shepherd to the Vampires and a back-up navigator. The third, as previously mentioned, was to provide meteor- ological information on the route, recorded at least two hours in advance of the convoy. (This aircraft was flown by Squadron Leader Micky Martin, one of Guy Gibson's flight commanders on No 617 Squadron's 'Dambuster' raids.)

b) Three Avro Yorks. These aircraft were to transport the Force Commander, the technicians, the spares pack and our personal kit (plus any 'loot' collected on the tour).

The appointment of Force Commander was held by Wing Commander D S Wilson- MacDonald who would be able to control events, as required, by W/T communication with the Mosquitos. The formations which we used on the flights are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 - Atlantic Crossing Formations

The target date for blast-off was 1 July 1948. During the month before departure we were taken over the route in a York to see what faced us. The route to Canada was to be from Odiham to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Keflavik [Meeks Field] (Iceland), Bluie West 1 (Greenland), and Goose Bay (Labrador) then in slow time to Trenton in Ontario where we would have our Canadian base prior to the commencement of the tour in the USA. The airfield at Bluie West 1 looked the most daunting, and with no alternate airfields on the legs to it or from it, the forecasting of the weather conditions there would need to be accurate before we ventured past the point of no return. We made several long-distance Vampire flights in the UK in the company of the two navigating Mosquitos, to simulate a leg of the crossing. These flights lasted up to the two-and-threequarter hours limit we had imposed on ourselves. With no cockpit pressurisation and little, if any, cockpit heating, we found heavy icing forming on the inside of the cockpit canopy during the descent from what was considered then to be the very high cruising altitude of 30,000ft; we could foresee trouble there. Finally we flew some formation trips for the benefit of the Press photographers, and gave a display for the BBC and the Press reporters. We were ready to go. The rather peculiar flight profile we had to adopt was due, firstly, to the need to fly a compromise climb schedule to altitude. As most jet pilots will be aware, the piston-engined type and the jet-engined aircraft use different criteria to calculate their optimum airspeed to achieve maximum rate of climb. In this case, the airspeed for maximum climb rate in the Mosquito was much lower than that of the Vampire, so in order not to lose each other, a compromise speed was used - too fast for the Mosquito, too slow for the Vampire - and the penalty was a loss of range, vital in the Vampire's case. Secondly, the Vampires were required to suspend their climb at 25,000ft and cruise at that altitude until the fuel drop tanks had emptied, before slowly continuing to 30,000ft, where the rate-of-climb neared zero. A sort of bastardised cruise-climb. We had, the planners said, a 15-minute margin on the two-and- threequarter hours flight plan time limit before the tanks ran dry. Hence the worry about canopy icing on the descent.

At last the day that we had awaited at Odiham dawned, with.medium cumulus at Stornoway. Our take-off drill was for the two accompanying Mosquitos to take off first (the 'met' Mosquito had already departed). We in the Vampires then lined up on the runway in Vics of three formation, with sections line astern. When the Mosquitos were running in off their wide orbit of the airfield, they would call 'go' to the Vampire Leader who released his brakes and rolled, followed by the other section at 1000yd interval astern, with the overflying Mosquitos taking up station behind (Figure 4). A snake climb followed, and then the formation changed to the cruise pattern when cloud penetration was complete. The flight from Odiham to Stornoway took just two hours for the 458nm leg, with no problems on the way. On landing we were told that the upper winds for Keflavik were of jetstream strength, on the nose at 120 to 150kt, and there was no hope of continuing that day! Our 'met' Mosquito had gone through Stornoway for Keflavik and had confirmed the forecast. These upper winds continued unabated for the next eleven days!

At some point during this time I got out my Vampire Pilot's Notes handbook, which I carried aboard my aircraft. I wanted to confirm the aircraft range data tables given in it. There was no other source of performance data to which we could refer (unless we telephoned de Havilland's). For the uninitiated, optimum range in a jet aircraft is always obtainable at the higher altitudes due to the reduction in air density. But our flight plan time was being extended beyond our time limit by the powerful forecast winds at these altitudes. When I checked the Pilot's Notes range for a lower level profile at, say, 5000ft, I concluded that, with the windspeeds greatly reduced at this height, we could trade the hurricane-speed winds at high altitude for the increased-fuel-consumption penalty at low altitude, and could get to Keflavik with fuel to spare, and with the additional bonus that we would gain by having no canopy icing to delay us when we arrived for landing. I put my findings to Buck Courtney, the Deputy Vampire Leader, but the idea was turned down after discusson with the Force Commander and Bobby Oxspring - but I believe it would have worked. Micky Martin could have obtained accurate winds at low level, and the Mosquito navigators could have worked out a flight plan to check the elapsed time and therefore the consequent fuel consumption, to determine whether or not it was feasible. Hell's teeth, at least it could have been simulated, without a Vampire having to leave the ground.

I should add that my main reason for trying to get the circus going again was that the grapevine from the British Joint Services Mission in Washington had alerted us that a team of USAF Lockheed F-80s (Shooting Stars) were preparing to beat us across, under the command of a Colonel Schilling, and that his attempt was imminent. I felt that we were being too inflexible, and not trying hard enough to explore other options, and that we had better do something quickly or the Yanks would beat us - and that would be bad news for the RAF. As the F-80s were armed with a radio compass, the US team did not require the level of navigational support which we needed, and they could operate their aircraft at optimum

Figure 5 - Atlantic Crossing Nav Card & Chart, Stornoway to Keflavic

conditions and follow some of the principles which the '3Ws' had laid down in our convoy- leading days in India. Certainly, they might also inherit the high altitude winds we were suffering, but in their case these would be tailwinds (since their crossing was to be west to east) and it would be 'on' for them to cross in one day. The race would go to the wire, by the look of it.

The days dragged on in idleness. On 7 July we air-tested our aircraft and buzzed around the Hebrides to wake up the 'Wee Frees'. Then we lapsed into idleness again. On the morning of the 12th however, the winds relented and were down to the 50 to 60 knot mark. Hurriedly the aircraft were checked to be fully topped-up with fuel, then towed to the end of the runway (to save fuel) and lined up ready to start. Having emptied our bladders (the Vampires were not fitted with 'pee tubes') we climbed in and waited for the Mosquitos to take off, then started up. With the Mosquitos running in, we released brakes and rolled. The cloud was stratocumulus, a rather thickish layer from about 1500ft to 5000-6000ft tops. We snaked up to penetrate. All seemed well until we broke through the cloud tops, looked ahead for Blue Section, but saw nothing. 'What the hell,' I thought, 'What's gone wrong now?'. "I don't believe it!" I bellowed inside my cockpit. Luckily, very luckily, I spotted them way off course by about two miles, level at 9 o'clock, heading for mid-Atlantic; they were very small specks at that range. I vectored them in to join the convoy, now led by the Mosquito leader. The problem was, I am sure, that Blue Leader had set his DI to the Magnesyn compass heading on the runway all right, but had forgotten to pull the DI button to uncage the gyro. So he had to try to steer his aircraft by using his Magnesyn, which it was not possible to do with any accuracy, given the constant corrections needed for instrument flying in cloud - which in turn causes acceleration errors in the compass - which in turn causes constant needle swing - which in turn requires you to reset the DI when and if you have found the clear conditions needed to stabilise the aircraft's attitude and speed. Had I not spotted Blue Section when I did, another few minutes would have resulted in lost contact and a return to Stornoway to rendezvous, with an almost certain requirement to land and refuel. But we got away with it, with no severe loss, and pressed on.

The flight (Figure 5) from then on was uneventful, passing over a weather front near Iceland. We sighted land through broken cumulus with about 80nm to go, discarded the Mosquitos and snaked down to land at Keflavik, the journey taking 2 hours 40 minutes for the 586nm leg distance. Sea fog began to roll in that afternoon and persisted all next day. Another day lost, making twelve lost from 1 July. We heard that the Schilling team were now at Goose Bay preparing their aircraft. A contingent of the USAF had for some time been a feature of the field at Goose Bay, with so many of the USAF's heavier piston-engined aircraft operating from there; quite some rivalry existed between the US personnel and the Canadians of the RCAF. We realised that we could not afford to lose another day.

The fog at Keflavik cleared on July 14 and the forecast for the leg to Bluie West 1 was the good one we had been waiting for during the last fortnight. This was just as well since this leg (Figure 6) was the one most feared because of the severe limitations at Bluie West's airfield. The leg distance was 652nm and the safety height around Bluie was 10,000ft (the height below which you must not descend if you cannot see the ground because of cloud); there was no alternate airfield on this route. In instrument flying conditions, no let-down was allowed. Just yards from the eastern end of the single runway rose a glacier to the 8000ft ice cap, and a long narrow fjord housed the airfield at its head, the whole surrounded by mountains up to 5000ft. There was a decoy fjord branching off the one you wanted, and up which you must not go unless you wished to commit suicide! All landings must be made towards the glacier and take-offs must be made towards the fjord. But as it turned out, things went well enough and all the apprehension was for nothing.

It was clear blue all the way, with the awesome Greenland scenery appearing mid-way. However, we noticed some stratus at the fjord's entrance, which gave us some concern for the next leg. When we landed, the forecast for that afternoon mentioned that the stratus would become fog and creep up towards the airfield. So we got out of our flying kit and went off to sit out the day. We had lunch and won some money from the one-armed bandits, when we heard the roar of jet aircraft. Schilling and his F-80s had arrived from Goose Bay. We went out to meet them when they had dismounted, then we all gathered round a Vampire and an F-80 for an historic photograph. When the US flyers went off to eat, we returned to our respective messes. Shortly, panic let loose. Transport arrived for us. 'Get into your flying gear at once' was the order. We tore down to the aircraft dispersal, viewing the F-80s taking off for Keflavik. We had to go - caution was chucked out the door; we had to get airborne as soon as possible, before the stratus became fog and ruined our chances. We got airborne in a snake but did not climb immediately. The stratus was fairly low, about 1000ft if my memory serves me right, and we were therefore presented with a tunnel formed by the sheer sides of the mountains along the fjord with the stratus forming the roof. The drill was to use plenty of RPM to get sufficient speed to 'zoom' climb, hoping to avoid hitting the sides, and get through the stratus to pick up the formation leader's section - which had to be, repeat had to be, straight ahead on the centre of the fjord's track. We formed up speedily enough and things seemed to settle down to normal as we climbed to 25,000ft. We heard on the R/T that the fog had extended to cover the airfield at Bluie, so we then knew that there was only one place on the planet where we could put down safely - our destination, Goose Bay, which, at 675nm was positioned at the greatest distance of any of the legs. The forecast for the route was that a weak occluded front was lying across our path about mid-way, with cloud tops at 14,000ft, and that there was a possibility of cumulonimbus around Goose Bay itself.

As we were approaching the mid-point, we began to encounter cirrus cloud as we started our climb to 30,000ft when the drop tanks had emptied. Initially I thought it might be some isolated cirrus which would soon clear. But it became evident that it was not, and that it was becoming thicker. My previous experience of flying in cirrus at these altitudes was that the visibility in the cloud was quite sufficient to allow us to fly in a reasonably loose formation at about 100 to 200yd spacing, but this cirrus was reducing visibility, by the minute, to below that. Oddly, I thought, neither of the section leaders was closing up on the Mosquito, and, from my ferry work, an internal alarm began to sound. I straightaway swung over from my far port position, flew under the section leader and Red 2, and took up a close-formation position on the lead Mosquito. After a pause, the others then followed suit. It was not as bad a situation as might be found in monsoon heavy cloud, but when there is a fear that if you don't do something to avoid being stranded on your own over the Atlantic with a useless navigation system, you are a damn fool not to act quickly. The Vampire Leader then called for a continuation of the climb to 35,000ft to get above the cirrus, but when our climb-rate had fallen to zero, the cirrus was still there, and was probably stretching up to 40,000ft; he then called that he was going to descend to get below the cloud and into the clear. So down we went and my heart sank with every foot of lost altitude; if this carried on much longer, we were not going to have enough fuel to reach Goose Bay. At 18,000ft the penny dropped when it became evident that the cloud was sloping right down to deck level, so a call went out for us to clamber back up to 30,000ft. We had no means of calculating accurately the extent of fuel lost by this deviation from the flight plan, and each of the Vampire pilots must have known that he was facing the distinct possibility of a bale-out, at best over the barren Labrador tundra, at worst into the sea. From our navigation card for the route (Figure 7) we would be over a tongue of land when we had 125nm to go to Goose. On the run-in to the coast, the cloud cover beneath us was complete, and incessant calls, it seemed, were coming from the Vampire Leader to the lead Mosquito to give him time-to-go to landfall. An 'argument' developed between them when we crossed the coast.

The Vampire Leader wanted to descend immediately to establish contact with the ground, but was persuaded by the Mosquito Leader to remain at height; the distance to go was still in the order of 100nm and fuel was really running low now. I knew that we needed some reserve to allow us to de-ice the canopy before landing, and that it would be touch and go. With about 50nm to run, we entered a cloudless region and peered ahead for a sight of the airfield at the far end of Lake Melville, over which we were now flying. Ahead we could see heavy cumulonimbus backing Goose Bay. It was now nearly dark and we had no night- flying equipment other than navigation lights. It was a race to get in and beat the cu-nimbs before they reached the airfield. At last we were overhead and the whole formation broke up

Figure 6 - Atlantic Crossing Nav Card & Chart, Keflavik to Bluie West 1

into individual aircraft, the pilots desperate for the heavy canopy-icing to melt away and worried about the number of teaspoonfuls of fuel left in the tanks - and the fear of colliding with others.

There was tremendous relief when the wheels greased onto the runway and we had all gathered in the RCAF hangar in the semi-darkness to celebrate that we were the first jet pilots to cross the Atlantic! We had landed 2 hours and 55 minutes after leaving Bluie, ten minutes longer than our flight plan limit. The official total flight time from Stornoway to Goose Bay was 8 hours 18 minutes. I reflected that we had beaten the USAF F-80s by just a single leg of the route. Sure, we had some bad luck, mainly with the weather, but I also saw flaws in the planning - which is easy to say with hindsight. Finally, I have always wondered whether or not the occluded front forecast, which nearly defeated us on the last leg of the crossing, came as the result of an R/T transmission from someone unknown who voiced '40,000 feet tops' which was misheard by another unknown as '14,000 feet tops' ......

*     *     *     *     *

On that evening, 14 July 1948, the senior NCOs of the RCAF Sergeants' Mess wined and dined the three RAF aircrew NCOs of No 54 Squadron and congratulated us on winning the race against the rival F-80s of Colonel Schilling's USAF team. Following a few loosening-up beverages however, I quizzed one or two of the RCAF NCOs concerning our ragged arrival at Goose Bay and got out of them that they had been somewhat disappointed, considering that Schilling's team had arrived at Goose Bay in some style. I then decided to give Bobby Oxspring a call at the Officers' Mess with the suggestion that we ought to put on an aerobatic show next day for the RCAF personnel, to compensate for their disappointment, and so lift their morale vis-ŗ-vis the Yanks. Bobby said he would try to persuade the Force Commander, and he rang back half-an-hour later to say that it had been agreed. It meant a one-day delay in the itinerary, but the schedule was not tight at that stage and there would be no need to alter the dates of the other events of the tour. In the morning next day, the word got around and the ranks of supporters gathered at both ends of the Base to witness the display. Blue Section carried out the formation aerobatics and I think both Jeep Heale and Colin Colquhoun filled in the time gap between formation manúuvres with superb solo aerobatic performances. The RCAF lads were overjoyed. They saw us off on July 16, bound for a short stop for lunch at Mont Joli on the southern bank of the St Lawrence river, then on to St Hubert near Montreal and finally Trenton on Lake Ontario where we were to base ourselves for nine days to give displays there and at Toronto, before leaving for Washington DC in the United States. I fear I must question the wisdom of the planning which required us to stage through Mont Joli. It is (or was) a small airfield by a small town. Whoever had invited us, or had agreed to accept the invitation had, in my view, completely neglected to take account of the take-off performance of a Vampire at high all-up-weight and at less than maximum take-off RPM. (As described earlier, take-offs were made in Vic sections line astern, which required a power margin allowing throttle corrections for station-keeping purposes, and that is before consideration of any allowance in the take-off run for variations in wind velocity and ambient temperature.) In the event, I clearly recollect that Red Section consumed the whole length of the runway to get airborne at Mont Joli, bar the last five yards! The St Lawrence river was a mere 100yd beyond the end of the runway, and we almost had an early bath!

On 21 July, we commenced our Canadian programme with two demonstrations at Trenton, viewed by a fair number of spectators, including several RCAF air officers. These two displays were the first using two co-ordinating teams in a single display, rather than one team plus a soloist. Apart from a series of engine 'wet starts' (non-starts) on the first display, which delayed the beginning of the show, the performances were well received. The RCAF pilots had also experienced this starting problem with their own recently ship-delivered Vampires. On the 22nd we moved to Downsview airfield, from which Red Section carried out a display over the waterfront at Toronto; Colin Colquhoun was the soloist. The display made major headlines in the next morning's newspapers, but not all were complimentary. The good reports in the Toronto Telegram and the Toronto Globe and Mail were 'Aerobatics of the British Jets Made Wartime Pilots Gasp' and 'Arrival Here of Six RAF Jets May Presage a New Aviation Era'. But the Toronto Daily Star said 'Murder if Jet Plane Crashed in Toronto'.

On July 25 we flew from Trenton to Andrews Field, the USAF base near Washington DC, and were given a military greeting by the USAF and some of their well-ribboned brass. It

Figure 7 - Atlantic Crossing Nav Card & Chart, Bluie West 1 to Goose Bay

must have been on this day that a reception was later given to all the aircrew of the party, at which No 1 Dress was required to be worn. Now I have to bring in some bitterness concerning dress. The officers of our contingent were arrayed for this occasion in khaki of the finest quality, a smooth gaberdine-like cloth, and probably tailored in London's Savile Row for this special visit. For the NCO aircrew, the treatment was rather different.

But first I must relate that before this touring affair of ours began, all three of our NCO pilots had held the rank of Warrant Officer and as such would have been qualified to wear togs similar to those of the officers. But alas, at the last moment some idiot at the Air Ministry had decided that there were too many aircrew Warrant Officers in the RAF, resulting in some friction between the aircrew and the ground-based Warrant Officers who generally wore the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal ribbons. So his remedy was to introduce a new ranking system for the aircrew, with which he could achieve, at a stroke, the demotion of the majority of the aircrew upstarts. Thus was born, it was alleged, the new-fangled rank titles, which were abominated by all NCO aircrew. Warrant Officer aircrew became Master-Pilot (for previously lengthy WO aircrew service), Pilot 1 (for previously medium-length WO aircrew service) and Pilot 2 (for previously-short length WO aircrew service). Of these, only Master-Pilot rank equated to a ground Warrant Officer. Pilot 1 was a demotion to Flight Sergeant level equivalent, and Pilot 2 was a demotion to Sergeant level equivalent. As for the poor Pilot 3, his rank was reduced to Corporal equivalent and he was booted out of the Sergeants' Mess. In the case of this tour therefore, the three aircrew NCO members, being in the eyes of the Air Ministry beyond the pale clothes-wise, had nothing to wear but stores- issued, appallingly coarse, khaki-drill, ill-fitting garments which hung on us like sacks and, the last straw, with the new rank badges made from hard cardboard-backed cloth, stuck onto our sleeves by snap-fasteners! Can you believe it? Well, the Air Marshal commanding the British Joint Services Mission who attended the function, couldn't either. He was outraged at the sight of RAF aircrew attending an upmarket party in the USofA dressed as clowns. So he had Wing Commander Wilson-MacDonald up against a wall and told him to get down to the PX (Post Exchange, the US military on-base department store), buy three USAF officer's off-the-peg uniforms and have them slightly altered to RAF uniform requirements by the PX tailors, then rip the cardboard from the rank badges and sew on the cloth, charging the cost to the imprest fund. The garments were ready for use the next day! As a postscript, the RAF stores back at Odiham demanded that these uniforms must be handed in! The hated aircrew NCO rank system was chucked out a few years later, after universal criticism - except for the Master-Pilot rank, which was retained.

The calendar for 26 July had us down to do a display at Andrews Field for the assembled USAF troops in the morning, to be followed by a transit to Greenville in South Carolina in the afternoon. The morning display was timed to begin at 10 00 hours, as far as I can recollect. However, with all the spectators in place at about 0945, our officers had still not showed up. The time ticked on. 'They were hitting the gin bottle too hard last night' I thought, 'and are probably non compos mentis'. "Strike a light" (or similar topical phrase) I shouted to Evans and Skinner, "Get into your flying kit double-quick, we're going to have to do this show ourselves". We ran to the crewroom where I asked the other two if they foresaw any problems if I led the team. They didn't. We were dressed and ready to run to our aircraft when Bobby Oxspring & Company arrived. They didn't look too good to me, but Bobby insisted on performing as usual. They did quite well, considering.

At Greenville next day, Red Section performed without any alarms. On the 28th we were scheduled to take part in an exercise called 'Operation 200'. All that was notable about it was that the Lockheed F-84 Thunderjet squadron with whom we had to formate in trail, were too speedy for our Vampires with full drop tanks, and we had the awful embarrassment of having to call the Thunderjet leader on R/T to ask if he would mind slowing down a bit!

Our next port of call was the Naval Air Test Center at Langley Field in Virginia for one day, where Blue Section did the business, and we then transited on the 30th to Mitchell Field on Long Island which would be our base for the next ten days, during which we were to perform at the event we had especially come to do, the opening of New York's Idlewild Airport (now JFK). Six displays were given, alternating in turn per section and per soloist. We also took part in interception exercises against 'attacking' Boeing B-29s. As I said to Red 2 in the final week "I seem to be doing these formation aerobatics in my sleep". There was some truth in it though; the manoeuvres then seemed to be no more traumatic than Rate 1, 30-degree banked turns.

We returned to Trenton on 10 August and on the 17th took off from Goose Bay for our return across the Atlantic, stopping for a few days each at Bluie West 1 and Keflavik to recuperate. All the aircraft had behaved well throughout, if the wet-starting problem at Trenton is discounted. But when we peeled-off to land at Stornoway, Buck Courtney suffered engine trouble, though he managed to get the aircraft down safely. I can no longer recall what the fault was, but it must have been severe because I had to return to Stornoway from Odiham to collect the aircraft on 5 October following its resultant engine change. Summarising, we seemed to have done the job we set out to do, but in my opinion the ferrying was a bit of a 'muddle through' in places. Our aerobatic displays however, were well done I would claim, and very well received - except by the journalists of the Toronto Daily Star.

At the end of the year, the gongs were gazetted. Bobby Oxspring was awarded the AFC and Colin Colquhoun and I received the AFC and the AFM respectively.

 

Copyright William C. Wood 1997.