12 - Instruction For The Young

RAF Chivenor was an airfield set in an attractive geographical area, ideal in summer with three attractive beaches close at hand, Saunton Sands, Croyde Bay and Woolacombe Bay (the latter is actually mapped as 'Morte' Bay) and, to the north-east the lovely Devon coast between Ilfracombe and Lynton. The unit at Chivenor was No 229 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) which had been my second choice of appointment when Don Kingaby had asked where I would like to go on posting from 72 Squadron - my first choice had been a 2nd Tactical Air Force squadron in Germany, but there were no vacancies there at the time. At first appraisal. I appeared to be heading for an enjoyable two-and-a-half-year tour. Paddy Hanrahan had been given the same choice and had opted for Chivenor too. He accompanied me in my battered Morris Eight once again. My family remained at Alton in Hampshire until I had arranged accommodation for them, which I eventually found at Croyde Bay. I returned to Alton to collect them, and for the journey back to Devon all of our possessions were stacked on the back seat of the car and piled up to the roof, with a tiny space at the top centre into which was slid the carry-cot holding my baby daughter with her nose almost touching the roof. Everything in the garden seemed to be rosy.

But there were two faults to the situation, which were disturbing - one concerning the régime at the unit and the other the type of flying involved. Dealing with the first of these, the Cold War was continuing with no solution in sight and accordingly National Service remained a requirement for the young men of the UK. Those who preferred and were selected to carry out service as aircrew in the RAF were allowed to extend their prescribed period of National Service to enable them to train to wings standard plus a short period of squadron experience. In addition, squadrons were being brought up to strength in aircraft and aircrew. Consequently, a steady flow of student pilots was now running through the RAF training system and this was the state of play when I arrived on the instructional flying staff of the OCU. The aim of the unit was similar to that described in Chapter 6 for my OTU at Annan. Across the Bristol Channel from Chivenor, an OCU at Pembrey near Swansea in Wales, carried out identical instruction to that of 229 OCU, and also on Vampires.

Other units in the system did similar work using Meteors, the twin-engined fighter aircraft. On one of these units at Driffield in Yorkshire, adverse publicity arose because of its serious increase in fatal accidents which appeared to be due to instructional policy to do with asymmetric flying, particularly the simulation of the loss of an engine in the approach and landing phase of flight. Such a loss in this phase requires some skill to avoid any requirement for a savage increase in power from the good engine to recover from a deteriorating situation which might result in loss of rudder control. It was therefore safer to practice with the failed engine not actually shut down but simply throttled back to idling, so that it quickly could be brought into play again at any sign of danger. But if the engine has been shut down, the simulation has become a real emergency which a 'rookie' pilot may not be able to handle. The OCU in question had, as I understand it, been ordering pupils to practice in that fashion. The resulting furore caused an edict to be issued from Prime Minister Churchill to the RAF to 'have no more accidents in future'. You can imagine what the lads thought of that. It seemed that the ensuing reverberations were causing havoc with the morale of most of the pupils at all of the training schools. I do not know from what level the hysteria came, but the commanders at Chivenor were being accused by the students that tyranny was the vogue at 229 OCU. In fact, the grapevine from 229 OCU students back to the students at each Advanced Flying School (AFS) was to advise them to go to Pembrey and to avoid Chivenor like the plague. This I was told by three ex-colleagues who were serving as qualified flying instructors at the AFS at Merryfield in Somerset.

My concern about the type of flying to be done was that it was so repetitive for the instructors. For example, during a course intake, I was required to instruct, for every exercise on the syllabus, repeats of that exercise to every student on my personal list. Six weeks or so later, one had to do it all again for the next intake and so on for the whole two-and-a-half year tour of duty. It was standard routine for instructors at elementary flying schools, but it was not the type of flying I enjoyed - no freedom. I had one pleasant break though. I was sent to do a course at the Central Gunnery School at Leconfield close to the Humber estuary, in the mode of flying which I really loved. The qualification for the successful graduate was that of Pilot Attack Instructor (PAI). It was a title I was happy to hold - I rather fancied myself at shooting. We used single-seat Meteor VIII aircraft, in which I sat on my first ejection seat. The drill we used with the seat was to fly with the safety pin still inserted in the face-blind firing handle, a practice which would be laughed out of court today. If we had been required to eject from the aircraft, we would first have had the almost impossible task of feeling for the safety pin behind our head and pulling it out of its sear, before being able to pull the face-blind handle to fire the ejection gun. I blush whenever I recall it. Our reasoning was that if the pin was removed from the sear, an inadvertent ejection might occur at a very embarrassing stage on the ground or in flight. Mind you, some inadvertent ejections did occur on some Gloster Javelin types which I flew in these early days of ejection seats.

Returning to the accusations of tyranny, I think it was all triggered by the constant watchfulness of the instructors over the students, and the underlining in red on their flying documents of any dangerous tendencies they had in flight. These documents (named the Form 5000 series) would follow the offender for the remainder of his career, which, if he was in that category, might not end with the termination of his National Service if he elected to try to extend his RAF time into a longer term career. An adverse red-inked remark at Chivenor therefore, could seriously jeopardise a student's future. There also appeared to be a lack of the fun which I had found so pleasant in my operational training in Annan. In short, the morale was not good.

The Chivenor instructors were also watched. An illustration of this affected me personally. Following the 'no accidents allowed' edict, a requirement to have an instructor stationed at the end of the runway-in-use to monitor take-offs and landings was introduced. I was on guard there one day when I noticed the nose of a staff-car peeping out from behind some trees at about 100 yards range, just off the perimeter track. From its nose, a pennant flew. I knew that it must be the Station Commander and I also knew what he was up to. A batch of Vampires landed, then I heard the sound of the car creeping up behind me. Out he stepped and asked if I had filed a report on the last aircraft in the batch just landed. "No sir", I replied. "What was wrong with the landing?" he insisted. "Nothing at all" I said. "Did you not notice his airbrakes?" he demanded. "Yes, I did sir". (I was getting absolutely acid with this interrogation by now.) "Well then ...?" he barked. I then said that I didn't know what he was getting at, that the student's airbrakes were at the out position which is a quite valid landing aid to slow the landing run, which I and most other experienced Vampire squadron pilots had used since I first flew the aircraft six years before. I added that there was no danger in using them; had the student been flying a Meteor I certainly would have booked him, but I could not do so against a Vampire student since I used that procedure myself on the aircraft. He then turned back to his car without any reply. It should be noted that pocket checklist cards were not used then and that a check of the airbrakes did not form part of any landing check given in the Pilot's Notes, as far as I can remember. I had no wish to be rude to my Station Commander, but I strongly objected to his veiled accusation of negligence on my part and I found it necessary to defend my corner. But what I really disliked was the method employed and, more to the point, that it was not the student he was after, it was me. I believe his obvious dislike of what I had said had filtered down to the OC Flying and to my Squadron Commander by their behaviour to me following an airborne emergency I had on 8 May 1952.

I recall that it was around lunchtime on that day and there were only Master-Pilot Tony Cobon, his pupil and me in the crewroom. I was acting Flight Commander over the lunch period. Tony asked me if I would fly as target for a dummy air-to-air sortie to demonstrate the attack pattern to his pupil before he could be allowed to fly a live attack sortie on the flag target towed by a Hawker Tempest aircraft. I agreed and authorised the flights. Tony would be in the rear seat of a Meteor VII with his pupil in the front. As target, I was in a Vampire. The pattern (Figure 9) was to be flown at 1500ft and I had to fly a simulation of the Tempest's tow-line pattern used on a live-firing sortie. The tow-line was a straight line of approximately 15nm, flown about 10nm out to sea, from north of the town of Ifracombe to north of Lynton, with a dumb-bell turn at each end. The Meteor's flight path was in the form of a quarter-attack from roughly 500ft above the tow-line, in the opposite direction to the target, turning in to the attack when the target is at the 1.30 o'clock position with the target running east, or 10.30 o'clock with it running west (the attacker had always to be pointing out to sea during the firing period). The exercise proceeded normally until I reached the Ilfracombe dumb-bell on one of the runs. Just as I was turning out to sea, I noticed a slow steady drop in my engine RPM. I immediately turned to the south towards the coast and opened the throttle progressively, which stopped the drop momentarily, but it then continued and with my throttle now hard against the full throttle stop, I knew that my engine was about to fail completely.

Figure 9 - Air-to-Air Gunnery Tow-Line Pattern and Forced Landing Glide

We were using a quiet frequency channel on our VHF radio. I immediately called Tony to report my predicament to Chivenor tower and to tell them that I wanted to remain on the quiet channel, and also for him to come back to this channel after passing his message to the tower. I then assessed the situation (at the speed of light!) as follows. I had, I thought, only two choices - to bale out or to ditch. I immediately rejected the bale-out option for three reasons; firstly, the sea temperature was at its lowest and I would not last for long, even in a dinghy, and I didn't believe that a lifeboat from Ilfracombe could be manned and get to my splash point, ten miles away, in time to fish me out alive. In addition, if my parachute harness snagged on climbing out of the cockpit (there was no ejection seat) or if I struck any part of the cockpit, I did not believe I would survive. (A colleague had recently advised me that a strike against the tail boom was a probability during Vampire bale-out.) Finally, I felt I was too low at a height of only 1500ft to bale out manually with any degree of confidence in the outcome.

I then set up the aeroplane to achieve maximum gliding range at best lift/drag ratio which I seem to remember was at around the 180kt mark, with 21 degrees of flap selected. When Tony came back to the quiet channel (which thank goodness I had selected to on instead of switching to the emergency 121.5 megacycles channel and making a 'Mayday' call, for I did not want to be bombarded by suggestions and orders from all quarters). I advised him that I was gliding towards Ilfracombe to get as close as possible, and to ditch just outside the harbour - or better, to ditch right into the harbour if there was clearly room to do so. Tony quickly passed on that message to alert any assistance organisation at Ilfracombe. Having done all that, I made a rapid calculation that I had about three to three-and-a-half minutes to go to cover the ten miles to the coast, and with my vertical speed indicating a 400 to 450 feet per minute rate-of-descent, I might just make the harbour with a small margin to spare.

It seemed an interminably long three-and-a-half minutes but I was surprised that I felt so calm and detached in so life-threatening a situation. Don't get me wrong, I am not claiming to have nerves of steel or any such rubbish; it was just that I was surprised not to feel terrified, almost as though I had accepted any fate dished out to me.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the excellent gliding quality of the Vampire. The only operational aircraft I have flown which would out-perform the Vampire at gliding is the English Electric Canberra. As the distance between me and the coast reduced, I had to change my plan twice more. I called Tony to say that I thought I might be able to scrape in to a field on the plateau on top of the escarpment to the west of Ilfracombe, so I began to scan ahead to see if I could find one that was suitable. But just as I was about to line up, I saw through a gap in the rugged peaks of Mortehoe's ridge, the wonderful Woolacombe Beach, a two-and-a-half mile stretch of smooth sand. I jinked smoothly to starboard and made doubly sure that I had enough height to clear the lowest point in the gap. I cleared it and then thought about trying to get the wheels down. But I rejected it because I did not know whether they would lock down, or remain unlocked in an asymmetric state which would hazard the landing, or for one wheel to dig into soft sand. It was not worth it; the belly landing was the best bet. 'Put it down nice and gently on the smooth sand about ten yards above the waterline. Leave the flaps where they are, at 21 degrees and symmetrically at that, use your airbrakes only when you clear the boulders and for heaven's sake don't try to stretch your glide.' It landed beautifully.

I dismounted and checked the aircraft, which seemed to be perfectly OK, although the belly panel was probably scraped. The Woolacombe population started to gather around and a farmer came along with a tractor and a length of stout towing rope. He advised me that the tide was coming in and would reach the aircraft in about half-an-hour, so I switched on the aircraft's radio and selected the channel for Chivenor tower, advising them that I had an offer of a tow to get the aircraft above the high-water mark. I remained on the radio whilst the OC Flying and the engineering staff were consulted. They refused to give permission, although I had stressed that speed was of the essence if the aircraft was to be saved and that the deadline was in 30 minutes. It took over an hour for the recovery party to arrive, so for want of a bit of flexibility the airframe was ruined by sea water corrosion; only the engine was saved.

I was taken back to Chivenor's sick quarters, given an examination by the Medical Officer and told to go home immediately and rest for 24 hours, since the MO suspected I might be suffering from shock; I felt quite normal though. I arrived home and had lunch with my family at Croyde and an hour or so later I had a telephone call from an irate commander who wanted to know what the devil was I doing at home and that there were reports to be completed by me, so get back immediately. I let him know about the doctor's orders and asked him whose orders took priority. I heard no more. When I reported for duty on the following day, I half expected there might be some congratulations and 'well done', 'good show' etc from Flight, Squadron, Wing and/or Station Commanders. No words came, only a query from my Squadron Commander as to whether or not I would have been better to have lowered my undercarriage. I heard nothing more for some weeks, until I was summoned to see my Squadron Commander. He invited me to have a seat, then read me a letter of commendation from the Air Officer Commanding the Group. The Squadron Commander did not add his own commendation, neither did he offer to give me a copy of the letter nor the letter itself. Such was the quality of the régime there then. Later I heard that the engine run-down was caused by the failure of the drive to the fuel pump; no one informed me officially.

On 20 October 1953 my promotion to Flight Lieutenant was promulgated, but for the remainder of my tour at the OCU I became more interested in the armament side of the business as I was the only PAI on my squadron. While there, I instituted a fairer method for counting the scoring hits in air-to-air attacks, because I felt that the Central Gunnery School method was open to misuse by some pilots and unfair to those who strove to achieve hits at the more difficult higher angles off the target. It was possible to assess shooting accuracy by using the ciné-camera mounted above the gunsight of the aircraft, which viewed the target area ahead and at the same time showed sighting information from the gunsight. After the exercise, the film from the camera was processed then run through a projector on to a screen adjusted to the harmonisation point of the guns and the sightline. The film could be stopped to allow each frame to be assessed, to provide a score of the estimated number of hits achieved in each attack. In the Central Gunnery School method, the knave was the pilot who opened fire at ten degrees angle-off the target rather than the, say, thirty degrees angle-off required by the exercise; thereby he might achieve a very high score of hits, while the pilot who had striven to achieve a thirty degree angle-off might get a lower score because of the greater difficulty in aiming at the larger deflection angles. So I gave a bias to those who hit the target at the higher angles and a reduction to hits scored at the lower angles. I carried this system on to my next post at the RAF Flying College at Manby, but I am not sure that it was taken up by Fighter Command squadrons.

Apart from a collision near-miss after take-off, the remainder of my flying at Chivenor produced little excitement. The near-miss occurred when I led a group of students for a low-level battle-formation sortie. I took off and began an orbit to port, shallow enough to enable the students to join up with me easily and rapidly for the close-formation climb to operating altitude. I saw the No 2 cutting inside my orbit to close on me as briefed, but as he came closer I could see that he would be unable to decelerate in time, nor was he increasing his bank to stay close when (and if) he passed to my starboard to take up his position on that side. He simply pressed on, on a collision course with me, with no sign of an alteration in his flight path to avoid me. I had to jink upwards to let him scream past underneath. I cannot recall whether or not I had him down in red ink in the little blue book, the Form 5000 series!

Even my last act at Chivenor was not without some nastiness. My wife and I, on the morning of our departure from our RAF-rented hiring, now at Woolacombe, were packing all our possessions for carriage by Pickfords, and I had just started checking the inventory (of the chattels we had to leave behind, which were the property of the landlord) with the RAF Hirings Officer, when I saw a staff-car approach round the Woolacombe to Mortehoe road and climb the hill to the house. The activity in the house was rather chaotic and I had a lot to do quickly to give us an early start to get to the Manby area where we were to occupy another RAF hiring at Sutton-on-Sea. The Station Commander entered through the open door, without ringing the door-bell. He gave no greeting to myself or my wife, but walked round the interior examining it thoroughly. After a while he departed, not having spoken a word to us. I was aware that it might be his privilege to make such an inspection, but what a way to behave to a junior officer like me and, particlarly, to my wife. Much later, when I was serving at Manby, I heard that the RAF hiring I had been allotted at Sutton-on-Sea was owned by a former Wing Commander instructor at Manby who had telephoned the Chivenor Station Commander to ask him to find out the state of the house I was in the process of vacating, before he signed the contract to hire out the Sutton house to the RAF for my occupancy.

After all that, I was pleased to get out of the Chivenor frying pan, but there was a little bit of fire to follow at Manby.


Copyright Ó William C. Wood 1997.