13 - Instruction For The Old

My old friend and fellow Scot, Roy Bowie, who had joined me on No 54 Squadron as a brand new squadron pilot when I was becoming aged and experienced as an aerobatic-team member, had been running a desk in the Air Secretary's branch of the RAF. And I believe it was he who, in April 1954, got me the post of Flight Commander of a flight of Vampires and Meteors at the RAF Flying College at Manby in Lincolnshire, to instruct senior officers on the 'pfc' (passed Flying College) course in the arts of air defence and land/air warfare. (On graduation, these officers could wear the letters 'pfc' as a qualification.) The set-up at Manby was that half the tuition time dealt with ground instruction at the unit's Tedder Block on Air Warfare matters, and the other half on flying instruction to give the students a refresher on handling jet aircraft and their use in bomber and fighter operations. My task was to run a flight to produce enough serviceable aircraft to satisfy the demands of the flying programmes for the refresher and fighter phases, and to give lectures on 'weaponeering', and also to assess each student's performance in the air defence and land/air warfare phases - in other words, a mini PAI course. In the bomber phase, Canberra B2 aircraft were used in another Flight, both Flights coming under the command of a squadron leader who was not qualified to impart the specific instruction on these phases. The students' progress through the syllabus was handled by a few syndicate leaders who were QFIs, each controlling a batch of pupils. These pupils were senior officers, the majority at Wing Commander level with a few Squadron Leaders and a few Group Captains. The whole show had at its head an Air Commodore Commandant named Augustus Walker.

When I arrived on the Station, I reported to the Squadron Commander in charge of my flight (I will refer to him as Squadron Leader 'x' to save writing his appointment each time, and because he might not like his name to be mentioned). Have you ever gone into your new boss's office, taken one look and said 'Hello, there may be trouble ahead'?. I was given a brief outline of the job, then I got out and authorised myself for a sector recce in one of the Vampires. I swanned around for a bit, looking at the nearby Theddlethorpe firing range layout and memorising the main navigational features in the area. Then the aircraft's pitot head suddenly failed and I had no airspeed indication. I called Manby tower and asked if they had any aircraft in the vicinity capable of leading me in to land. Someone intercepted the call to tell me that he was in the area and was flying a Meteor. I got back over Manby to rendezvous with him and told him the speed I wanted on the approach and to let me know when he was about to deploy airbrakes, flaps and undercarriage. The Manby runway was quite short and I needed some accuracy in airspeed from the Meteor, but it all went quite well. I thanked the Meteor pilot on the radio and when I got back to the crewroom, asked the tower to give me the pilot's name so that I could know who it was who had helped. "Gus Walker" was the reply. Gus then rang me to ask if I had any problems with his approach. "Absolutely perfect" I said. Knowing Gus later, I realise he would have been very bucked by my reply. I tried to convert him into a guns/rockets fighter ace with several sorties on the firing range, but he was a dyed-in-the-wool bomber who preferred flying on instruments. A more pleasant fellow would be hard to find.

Gus Walker became famous for his bravery when he attempted to prevent a major catastrophe at RAF Syerston where he was Station Commander in 1943. He was observing a raid of Avro Lancasters taxying for take-off with another being readied as a reserve; this aircraft was loaded with incendiary bombs and one 4000lb 'cookie', and its bomb doors were still open. Some of the incendiaries fell from their containers and ignited on the ground. Gus rushed to the scene in his car with the fire tender in train. He seized the tender's long rake and started to clear the burning incendiaries from under the aircraft when the 4000lb bomb exploded and as well as inflicting other serious injuries, severed his right arm above the elbow. In due course Gus recovered and continued his flying career using a mechanical arm in conjunction with a mechanical 'hand' clamped to his aircraft's control column. Gus had been a well-known rugby player, capped by England and the RAF. He became a respected referee.

The length of the Manby course was just under one year, although subsequent courses were whittled down to six months. I had about two months to get the flight organised and was rather worried about the lack of aids to back up the lectures and sorties, and there was not even an exercise-completion display to show what was outstanding for each student.

While I had been beavering away at getting things ready for the next course, my Squadron Leader 'x' had been beavering too. He asked for, and obtained, a second PAI - Charles Maugham - who happened to be senior to me in the Flight Lieutenant list. I was told by 'x' that Maugham would be superseding me. I was devastated. I badly needed a command post to enhance promotion and realised that the Squadron Leader's act had probably killed my chances. At this stage I had been studying hard to attempt the 'Q' examination which was a requirement for selection to a Staff College, which in turn was a 'must' for promotion. I continued with my studies, however, and hoped for the best despite this set-back. I took the 'Q' exam early in 1955 and the subsequent Air Ministry Order announcing the successes showed that I was the only Flight Lieutenant to have passed the exam, amongst a list of more senior officers.

The course intake of students arrived. The jet flying part of the College had been moved to Strubby (about ten miles south of Manby) which had longer runways. Maugham and I had completed a reasonable set-up for our main phases of their tuition. Camera projectors and film assessment had a special room allocated. But we had a problem which took some solving. Prior to this course, rocket firing had been done in Vampires which had a valid sight-setting for rocket aiming; but the Vampires had been replaced by the Meteor VIII aircraft which did not. The gyro gunsight graticule used for rocket firing was a centre dot with a set of six diamonds around it (refer to Figure 10). The requirement was to switch the graticule to a set position at which one of the surrounding diamonds (the aiming mark) was positioned below the centre dot at the six o'clock position, by an amount which represented the gravity drop of the rocket. But we had to discover the correct value to employ. We telephoned frantically to the manufacturers, to the Leconfield gunnery school and even to Australia House in London (the RAAF had been using Meteors for rocket attacks in the Korean war). But nobody knew. The Australians had been firing their rockets in salvo, with sight aiming accuracy ignored. I tried mathematical solutions, but did not know how to calculate the curved bunt manœuvre of the ideal attack. In the end we flew rocket sorties galore until we achieved a reasonably accurate solution and locked the associated equivalent range value on the range drum of the Meteor's gunsight.


Figure 10 - Rocketing Sight Picture 

When the 'weaponeering' phase of the course arrived, Maugham and I were heavily employed in briefings and in dual flight demonstrations for all of the forms of attack. The students were paired throughout the course, to fly attacker or target for the many sighting exercises (and also in the bomber phase in the Canberra, where they took turns as pilot or navigator). The majority of the students had difficulty with these exercises, having not used a gunsight or fired a cannon for years. A few, however, had been able to keep their hand in and a competitive spirit ensued between them and the PAIs. On a subsequent course I had great, but friendly, rivalry with a pilot known as 'Big Sandy' (Wing Commander Sanderson) whom I had known at Odiham; we fought tooth and nail to achieve the best gunnery and rocketing scores. I confounded 'Big Sandy' on one shoot-out on the air-to-ground target using the guns, with a score of 100%. Try as he might, the wing commander never equalled it. But he was a great shot nevertheless, especially using rockets.

The climax to our phases was a mini air battle between the Manby fighter defence and the Canberra force of Bomber Command plus the Manby Handley Page Hastings and Avro Lincoln. The local GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) radar was used to track the incoming 'enemy', passing the order to the Strubby Operations Room (Maugham and myself) to scramble the pairs of Meteors we had standing by on the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP), which was an extended part of the runway-in-use. It was all great fun and I am sure enjoyed by the students. We also arranged ground targets for close support work, where two pairs of our pupil attackers would be given an order requiring one of them to brief the sections on the tactics to be employed, then all to hare for their aircraft, take off for a low-level run to the target area, pull up at a briefed point and carry out a ciné-gun simulated rocket attack, all within a strict time limit. Also good fun. That part of the syllabus ended too soon and the syndicate instructors took over for the final stages of the course.

Maugham had been selected for the RAF Staff College course and disappeared from the scene before our next intake arrived. I assumed that I would automatically take over command of the flight. But 'x' had other ideas. A new PAI was posted in to take the vacant slot. I was told by 'x' that the new chap was to replace Maugham as flight commander, and I again cursed my luck. We employed some staff navigators in the Canberra flight and, after the newcomer had settled in, one of the navigators looked him up in The Air Force List of permanent officers, to find that the new chap was junior to me. I was dumb-struck. I immediately asked for an appointment with 'x'. I asked him what the devil was going on and showed him a copy of the List. I sought an explanation there and then, but all he was able to say, rather lamely I thought, was that the students on the course did not like me. I knew this to be untrue and said so. He asked me to accept that although I could be senior to the newcomer (who was a Cranwell College graduate) in all flying matters, he still wanted the Cranwellian to be the nominated flight commander. I could not believe what I was hearing and walked out in anger.

Next day, I put an application for a posting in an envelope addressed to the OC Flying ('Fitz' Fitzpatrick, a good pal of mine) through 'x', rather than to 'x' himself, to ensure that the OC Flying actually received it. A week later the situation was reversed, but I knew (and so must 'x' have known) that my Confidential Report (Form 1369) - which 'x' had completed and despatched prior to all this - would have finished my promotion hopes for good. The 'course does not like you' accusation was seen to be manifestly untrue when a former student of the Manby course telephoned me after his subsequent posting to command the RAF Handling Squadron at Boscombe Down, to ask if I would like to fill a vacancy he had on his squadron. I knew that an atmosphere like that of Boscombe Down was just the uplift I needed then.

My Squadron Leader was posted at the end of that course, but to become a pupil on the pfc course about to begin, so he was going to see for himself how well or badly I could run the affairs of the flight. I deliberately set out to show him the error of his poor assessment of me. The performance of the flight on that next course went like clockwork. Squadron Leader 'x' apologised at the farewell party to celebrate the end of the course, but the dirty work had been done by then, and could not be reversed.

The final course of my tour was blessed by the re-equipping with Hawker Hunter Mk 4 fighter aircraft, but my mind was on the opportunity I would have to fly the many different types available at a ‘grown-ups’ station, Boscombe Down. I was finished with instructing.


Copyright Ó William C. Wood 1997.