11 - More Aerobatic Teams

The 1948 season ended with two displays for the annual RAF station 'At Home' days to celebrate Battle of Britain Day; they were held on 18 September at Biggin Hill and at Manston, both in Kent. Finally, I was asked to carry out two solo aerobatic shows, one for the Italian press on 29 October and the other for a Swedish delegation on 5 November. The solo aces of the American tour had disappeared on posting, so there was a dearth of the necessary talent at that time. Apparently I was at the bottom of the barrel and was shoved into the breech. Squadron Leader Bobby Oxspring was replaced by 'Ricky' Wright as CO of 54 Squadron, and Buck Courtney by the famous 1939-45 fighter ace, Squadron Leader D E (Don) Kingaby, as CO of 72 Squadron.

The 1949 season began in April with a team now comprising Flight Lieutenant Bruce Wingate, myself and Roy Skinner, led by Flying Officer Wally Ashworth. The first demonstration was at the invitation of No 613 (City of Manchester) Squadron on 30 April at Woodford in Cheshire. Then on 14 May we represented the RAF at the International Air Display, then held at Orly, outside Paris. The weather on the day was abysmal; no breaks in low stratocumulus, the base of which was no more than 1000ft and probably lower in places, rain and poor visibility. Ricky Wright was positioned in Orly tower to field any questions put to him about the display. We took off from Brétigny, south of Paris, where our aircraft were based, and circled waiting to be called in by Orly tower when our turn to perform was due. At this stage I was about to call Wally, our leader, on the R/T, to say that if he started any aerobatic manœuvres he would be minus one at entry - when Ricky Wright called me (not Wally) from the tower and asked my opinion about the suitability of the weather for the show. (I have no recollection that Wally took umbrage at being bypassed, but he was probably grateful to have been, as he had little experience of the game at this time.) I replied to Ricky that even a line-astern roll was inadvisable and that a flat display (steep turns, fast and slow straight passes, all at low level) was the only option. I point out to the reader that the Vampire did not have a modern-type attitude indicator which we see in the instrument fit of most present-day fighter aircraft, giving pitch and roll information over the full 360 degrees of each. The Vampire's aged artificial horizon suffered pitch and roll limitations beyond which the instrument's gyro toppled, leaving the pilot with no indication of attitude if the limitations were exceeded. Pilots who ignored this danger in cloud, did not live long.

Our 1949 aerobatic season continued with the following demonstrations:

19 August - For the Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Tedder

25 August - For HM King Abdullah of Jordan and General Glubb Pasha

17 September - For RAF 'At Home' days at Odiham and Thorney Island

9 December - For Minister of Defence of Canada, Secretary of State for Air, C-in-C Fighter Command and others.

We performed our first five-aircraft demonstration at a practice over Odiham on 15 November. This number of aircraft became the minimum for any Vampire team aspiring to be the representative 'RAF Aerobatic Team'. But the one manœuvre we still did not attempt was the five-Vic roll; only a three-Vic plus two aircraft in line-astern (ie arrowhead, as I called it) was flown.

At the end of the year I was recommended for a commission. I was beginning to realise that my short-service NCO engagement was nearing termination and that I needed to seek job security for the sake of my family. It seemed that my best bet would be to try for a permanent commission and then attempt to climb the promotion ladder from the bottom rung. At this time I was aged 28 and my out-of-phase age/seniority situation would make it almost impossible to achieve any rank higher than Flight Lieutenant - a situation which persisted until the end of my service. Although I subsequently tried my best, my confidential reports from two of my commanders in my career as an officer would ensure, I believe, that I did not have much chance (only one poor report was enough to sink you, was the message from the grapevine). The continuance of my aerobatic appearances, now amounting to three years' experience, probably did not help either. There were not many such pilots around then and squadron commanders tended to hang on to them for as long as possible rather than bring in new blood.

Early in 1950, I said goodbye to my colleagues on No 54 Squadron and, with Paddy Hanrahan of 72 Squadron, motored up to Kirton-on-Lindsey in Lincolnshire in my 1935 Morris Eight, to begin a long-winded Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) course. Paddy had been doing some formation aerobatics too at Odiham, and we both wondered whether our aerobatic pleasures had come to an end.

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I will not bore you for long with the goings-on at OCTU. The only notable bits of the course were the relief of the passing-out parade, signifying its ending, and a brief three-day break from the unit to allow me to play for Odiham in the RAF Junior Challenge Cup Final at soccer - I was still regarded as being on Odiham's strength, apparently. I had captained the Odiham team during 1949, playing on Wednesdays in the season, and had also played for the local Alton Town in the Hampshire League on Saturdays, much to my family's chagrin. Having got Odiham past the Semi-Final stage, I was somewhat miffed to be posted to OCTU before the Final. But my kind station commander Wing Commander D C (Derek) Stapleton, leant upon the Squadron Leader in charge at the OCTU, with the result that an Airspeed Oxford turned up at Kirton on the day before the Final, to whisk me off to Odiham (with much protesting from the OCTU staff that it must not happen again).

We played Horsham St Faith in the Final, which was held at RAF Uxbridge in west London. The score at full time was 0-0 and we were down to ten men - our only professional, on National Service and on Everton's books, was our injured player. As we went into extra time I thought our only hope against the redoubtable Horsham team was to hang on for a replay or to get our 'Vinny Jones' (alias John Jennings) to do his best to even up the numbers, but found he was off-form at breaking legs that day! With one minute to go we got the winner - scored by guess who?

The twelve-week OCTU course ended in late April (the award of my permanent commission was dated 20 April 1950) and we awaited news of our postings. Before getting them, we had the distressing scene of the calling-out of certain names to go and see the CO, each to be told that he had failed the course; they returned to their places in the classrom close to tears. I cursed the creators of this system. These cadets had been selected for commissioning, and that selection had been made by officers who knew them. To have that selection overturned after twelve weeks by officers junior to those who had made the recommendation was, in my view, abominable.

The postings slips for the successful were dished out. I called out to Paddy Hanrahan

to tell me what his next job was. He said "72 Squadron". I called back "Funny, that's what I've got too". How come, we thought? We had guessed it before the day was out. It's been fixed, we agreed. And so it had.

What we did not know was that a competition of RAF aerobatic teams was to take place at RAF Thorney Island on the south coast to select an RAF team to perfom at the forthcoming SBAC Show at Farnborough that year. When Paddy and I arrived on No 72 Squadron, then based at RAF North Weald in Essex, we found that Don Kingaby's team comprised only three pilots - himself leading, with Flight Lieutenant John Jennings at No 2 and Sergeant John Watson at No 3. Paddy became No 4 and I brought up the rear as No 5. The main rival was the five-aircraft team of 54 Squadron, in which I had taken part when it started out on 15 November 1949, as previously described. On taking over No 72, Don Kingaby's dilemma had been the realisation that his squadron was clearly unlikely to succeed in the competition unless he could find an extra two pilots with the necessary credentials. But was it too late? Our arrival had left us with only two days for practise, ie two sorties on 2 May and one on the morning of May 3, the day the competition was to take place. I claim that we nearly pipped our rivals and reckon that all that separated us was the chandelle introduced by the 54 Squadron team, which I referred to in Chapter 9. The reason that it had not been done before was that it was considered preferable to have a single display line, parallel to the spectators, for optimum viewing and for reasons of safety for the spectators. If each manœuvre is restricted to this line, the team must carry out a dumb-bell pattern. With a double display line in the form of a St Andrew's cross, a chandelle at the end of each manœuvre keeps the team in closer view, with minimum time gaps throughout (see Figure 8). As it was, we were asked to do a display for the C-in-C Fighter Command ten days after the competition and were then given a quota of displays to do that season, on an equal footing with 54 Squadron. My guess is that Don Kingaby had informed the C-in-C, on the day of the competition, of the circumstances whereby his team had not had much time to work up to proficiency, and persuaded the C-in-C to view us again.

Figure 8 - Air Show Display Lines

Immediately after this show, the Squadron moved to RAF Acklington on the North-

umberland coast, on attachment for our annual armament practice, and we had little opportunity for aerobatic work during that fortnight. But display flying occupied our talk to a greater extent than our shooting scores on the target, and this was highlighted by a gathering of the team in a pub in Newcastle. Over our drinks, the conversation turned to the content and quality of our set display. As the chat got underway, a box of matches was produced by Don Kingaby, and from it we each took five or more, which from then on represented aircraft in our eyes. John Jennings had recently advised me that a Wing Commander Wootton had told Kingaby that he had heard that an overseas Vampire team had recently performed a five- aircraft Vic roll. We knew that if this was true, we had better get it into our programme as quickly as possible, if we were to remain one of the top teams. It would mean a shift in the order of the display, and possibly an extension of the number of manœuvres, as well as aircraft used. New formation patterns were proposed for future displays, and the drinks table became littered with match-stick formations. The clientele of the pub were absorbed by the goings-on, but were unable to decipher the rules of the new-style dominoes. Naturally, as the No 5, and in probably the worst formation position in a five-aircraft Vic roll to the right, I thought it would be desperately difficult to maintain station - but I did not say so at the time. Instead I later advised Don that I might not have sufficient engine power for the manœuvre, but was willing to try it. Our next display commitment was to be a demonstration for the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk, and so our aim was to work up the set display to include the Big Vic Roll, as we termed it.

We managed to get in two practices between our armament work before returning to North Weald. It was apparent from these that an adjustment by Don would be needed in engine RPM and entry speed to give me a bigger power margin to ensure that I would not be thrown out of the formation, and we finally settled on an increase of 300RPM and about 50 knots, and we would probably need a steeper barrel-roll angle about its axis accordingly. It worked, but we would need all the practise we could get to smooth it out and to cut any 'saucering' of the Vic to a minimum. We managed another four practices before the West Raynham CFE show on 6 June. John Jennings recently told me the upshot to all this hoo-ha. It seems that the five-aircraft Vic of the overseas Vampire squadron which Wootton had quoted was not a five-aircraft Vic roll at all, but a three-aircraft Vic roll with the other two aircraft in line-astern on the leader, ie there had been a misunderstanding. All for nothing? Well, we had done something which no other Vampire squadron had, or has, done - but I am willing to be corrected of course.

On the 2 July we gave a demonstration at West Malling in Kent for an event beyond my recollection. The next one, however, I am unlikely to forget. We were asked to present our show at the International Air Display at Luxembourg on 6 August and were to be the star item on the programme. The 'Luxembourgeoisie' had never seen or heard a jet aircraft at that time, let alone five of them performing formation aerobatics. The hospitality throughout the short tour was absolutely fabulous. We night-stopped at Beauvechain near Brussels, on the transit outbound and were met by Wing Commander John Grandy (Air Attaché for Belgium and Luxembourg) who, with his wife, entertained us that evening at their house in Brussels. On the day before the show, we flew a sortie from Luxembourg airfield to carry out a short practice and then buzzed around the city to give the population a preview of what might be seen next day. On display day, our performance was received with rapturous applause apparently, and when we parked after landing, we were asked to change quickly for refreshing drinks at a British Embassy residence. The drinks on offer were champagne cocktails. I don't know what was used for the 'cocktailing' accompaniment to the Dom Pérignon, but it must have been a very powerful cognac judging by my condition after three or four. It was unwise to have had consumed so many considering that they were only a precursor to the dining arrangements which followed. All of us drove (or were driven, to be more accurate) to a pleasant restaurant on the banks of the Moselle river, where a banquet was given in our honour. More pre-banquet beverages were taken, before we moved into the large dining room. Many of the city's luminaries were in attendance. The meal comprised course after course, to the extent that I actually dozed off, to miss several of them - a breach of etiquette which our marvellous hosts were kind enough to overlook in the circumstances. Don Kingaby was lionised that evening, both for his wartime fame and for his team's display that afternoon.

On the return transit next day, we stopped at Beauvechain again and were escorted by John Grandy on a tour round Brussels. I must relate a near miss on our team's approach to Beauvechain airfield. We had taken a spare Vampire on the tour and so were running in to peel off for landing with six aircraft in two Vics of three, the Vics being in echelon starboard. Paddy Hanrahan had been given the lead of the second Vic, in which I was in the No 3 position, ie on Paddy's left side. The run-in was low and fast, and Paddy had taken up a position about 20 feet lower than Kingaby, when the order came "Aircraft echelon starboard". I began to drop down, ready to swing under my leader and his No 2, to get to my echelon position on the other side, when I took my eyes off them to look ahead. I was headed directly for a stand of trees, and just managed to delay my drop in time. Very close indeed!

We had a rather barren period for the remainder of the summer that year, and had no aerobatic commitments until 24 October and 17 November. However, a rather different show arose when 72 Squadron was asked by the BBC to participate in the first ever air-to-air television shots to be transmitted live to the public, with our Vampires as the camera's target. The event took place on 1 October and consisted mainly of formation runs past the camera- carrying aircraft. No aerobatics were performed. Peter Dimmock presented the programme and interviewed Don Kingaby on the ground afterwards, to wind it up.

We continued to keep in practise and prior to the traditional Battle of Britain 'At Home' day at North Weald on 16 September, we made some history by performing the first seven-aircraft loop on 8 September, followed by a seven-aircraft roll on September 12 (ie with five in Vic and two in line-astern - which I have previously termed 'arrowhead' to avoid confusion). The seven-aircraft Vic loop was, of course, rather easier than the 'arrowhead' roll; in theory, there is no limit to the number of aircraft in a Vic loop. The two additional pilots to our five-man team were Flying Officer Bill Sewell and Flight Sergeant Victor Sznapka.

Our 1950 season ended with a display for the Commonwealth Ministers given at West Malling in Kent on 24 October, followed by a display for HRH Princess Elizabeth at HQ Fighter Command on 17 November. In the following year, 1951, our displays were becoming few and far between and I recorded only four for the year. Two of these were to be the climactic act to parades at RAF College Cranwell, the first on 11 April with Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser taking the salute, and the second on 1 August with Princess Elizabeth again on the dais.

We were the chosen squadron to give the formation aerobatics display for the 'Fifty Years of Flying' commemorative show arranged by The Daily Express at Hendon aerodrome on 21 July - so we followed in the wake of our illustrious Hendon predecessors of the 1920s and 1930s in a memorable event.

The final show for the No 72 Squadron team was, unremarkably, the 'At Home' at North Weald on 15 September 1951. On 16 December I motored down to RAF Chivenor in North Devon to join the staff of No 229 Operational Conversion Unit. My aerobatic display career had come to an end; I had completed 42 displays in that time, and 169 practices.

But before closing the 72 Squadron story, I must relate one of my closest encounters with death during my flying career, which occurred while I was still serving with that squadron. Prior to November 1949, Vampire squadrons in Fighter Command had to carry out simulated instrument flying in Harvard or Oxford aircraft, neither of which was really suitable for high-speed, jet-fighter training. Subsequent to that date, each Vampire squadron was provided with a Gloster Meteor Mk VII, a twin-engined, two-seater jet, fitted for such training. Few Vampire pilots at this stage had much experience of twin-engined jets and the mysteries of asymmetric flying (flying on one engine) in them tended to be avoided. Such were my qualifications when, on 30 March 1951, I was asked to use the squadron's Meteor to pick up one of our pilots from the Central Flying School (CFS) at Little Rissington in Gloucestershire. I took off full of the joys and in twenty minutes had Rissington in sight. I hurtled into the circuit and performed my usual procedure of running up at speed to the dead side of the runway, peeling into a climbing turn to the downwind leg, reducing speed by selection of airbakes out, throttles to idle stop, a touch of flap and then undercarriage down when below the lowering limiting airspeed downwind, as I continued the turn to finals. The two mainwheel legs go down out of sequence on this type, and no sooner had they deployed than I found myself in a vicious sideslip into the inside of the turn with no control response from ailerons, elevators or rudder, and I was losing height alarmingly. I was certain that this was my lot and there seemed to be nothing I could do to escape it (the Meteor VII was not fitted with ejection seats, and I was already too low to bale-out manually). I had always wondered how my demise in the air would occur if I was fated to die in my aircraft - whether I would know it was coming or if I would know nothing of it. In this case, it looked as though I would know about it all the way to the ground. I had to do something, so I tried to correct the slip by applying some rudder, but it was to no avail. My last and final act (I thought) was that since the sideslip had occurred following selection of drag-inducing parts of the aircraft (viz airbrakes, flaps and undercarriage), I would reverse the selection of these to the 'everything in' settings; I then shut my eyes and awaited the almighty crash. But to my astonishment, control recovered and I was able to overshoot and advise Rissington tower of my problem. I then gingerly made a long straight-in approach from about three miles, turning as little and as gently as possible, making sure that no sideslip was generated on selection of undercarriage down. After landing, I asked the Engineering Officer to have the rigging of the aircraft checked, but that proved to be satisfactory. I then had a long discussion with a senior CFS instructor who said that he had heard of similar occurrences on this type, which had acquired the title 'phantom dive'. Since then I have never read of any satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, but have heard that it was aerodynamic and to do with drag effect when the airbrakes are deployed and the undercarriage is then going through its asymmetric lowering sequence. There was little added to the Pilot's Notes as I recall, but the standard pre-landing drill was amended to demand that the airbrakes must be selected in before the undercarriage was selected down. One must ask, were all those fatals which occurred at Meteor training schools to do with single-engine practice landings - or were some due to the Meteor VII's phantom dive?

Copyright Ó William C. Wood 1997.