V - TRIALS FLYING

14 - Boscombe Down and A V Roe

As stated in the previous chapter, Wing Commander John Brignell had invited me to join his squadron when the current course at Manby ended. There were still a few weeks to run before the move. During this time the Manby grapevine gave me news that the Flight Lieutenant Personal Assistant (PA) to the C-in-C Training Command (also based at Manby) had been due to be posted, and was asked by his master if he had any preference for his next tour of duty. The PA had heard of my good news and asked the C-in-C (Air Marshal Constantine) if he could go to the Handling Squadron at Boscombe Down too. Constantine was known to be a powerful figure in the RAF and so I had visions of bad luck approaching once more. The Handling Squadron vacancy was in the 'Fighter' Flight of the Squadron and there were no other vacancies available.

John Brignell then telephoned me and gave an account of his difficulties. He said he was now in the position of having promised me the job and of having had it approved by the postings authority, yet being pressurised by Constantine to drop me in favour of his PA who, in John's estimation did not have the sort of experience needed for the post.

The solution came in a tragic way. Another vacancy on the Handling Squadron arose when the Canberra project pilot of the squadron's 'Heavy' Flight was killed whilst carrying out safety-speed trials on a Canberra B8. John Brignell knew that I was a very experienced pilot who had flown a good number of hours on the Canberra and had a fair crop of types of aircraft registered in my log book. He telephoned again and asked if I thought I could hack the 'Heavy' Flight vacancy. He advised that I would have to complete the unfinished work on the Canberra B8 and that my next major project would be to carry out the whole trial on the first production Avro Vulcan to come off the assembly line at the end of the year. I gave thanks to all the Gods plus some, for not only having saved my Boscombe Down posting but for having given me one which would broaden my flying experience considerably. When the posting notice arrived on my desk with a date of 25 May 1956 on it, I breathed a sigh of relief - something had gone right as I approached the final phase of my flying career. The C-in-C's PA, who took the job in the 'Fighter' Flight in place of me, was tragically killed in a Supermarine Swift accident some time later.

On my first day at Boscombe Down, I reported to Wing Commander Brignell for duty. After his welcome and a brief talk on events to come, he told me to get into my flying kit and said there was a hot-rod on the tarmac waiting for me, a Mk 6 Hunter with the new 200 Series engine - a deal more powerful than the 100 Series Avon of the Mk 4s which I had left behind at Manby. It certainly was exhilarating. But it is odd how quickly one gets used to any improvement in power and performance, and how one never stops looking for more! My next flight was in a Fairey Firefly, a demonstration of the variety expected at this unit. I was going to enjoy this, I thought.

I then let it be known that I was in the market to capture as many aircraft types as I could and gladly took the opportunity to get to know my future project aircraft by cadging dual and second-pilot work on some of the pre-production test aircraft on the base, eg Vulcan and Vickers Valiant, new Marks of Canberra etc. I mentioned to the commander of the A&AEE 'C' Squadron, the Royal Naval test squadron, that he had a number of aircraft on his books which I would like to sample in exchange for a promise for him to sit alongside me in my Vulcan, when it arrived. It was bribery, but there were few ethics in this game. I therefore flew the de Havilland Sea Venom, Sea Devon, Sea Prince and Sea Vixen, the Hawker Sea Hawk, in addition to our own Firefly and Fairey Gannet 4, which the RN had transferred to us on permanent loan. And I allocate a special place on this list to the Short Sea Mew, which was withdrawn before entering service, so I must have been one of only a few to have flown it. This pleasant little single Mamba-engined aircraft had one peculiarity, a distinctive automatic change of rudder position coincident with the selection of the flaps to the down setting; was this to pander to weak-kneed pilots? I never did find the answer, but I took fiendish delight one day when I was running in to join the Boscombe circuit in a Hunter and I heard a Navy pilot transmit from a Sea Mew "There's something wrong with the controls of this aircraft - the rudder pedals have just moved right on their own". He must have blushed brilliant scarlet when he heard me chip in "That's what they're supposed to do". I fancy he cringed at this exposure of his failure to read the pilot's operating notes for the type!

My Sea Vixen sortie was a bit of a laugh for me but not for my 'navigator' Flight Lieutenant John Cordery, the Handling Squadron adjutant. Everything was fine until I got to 50ft on the glidepath on the final approach to land, when suddenly my ejection seat raise/lower lever slipped out of its slot and the seat thundered down to the bottom of its travel. "Holy Moses" I yelled. "I can hardly see!". My navigator's required sitting position for landing was such that he couldn't see either. The aircraft was too low for me to try to recover the seat position I lately had, and in any case I was too busy with both hands occupied on throttle and control column to do anything about it. I had only a small area above the cockpit coaming to view ahead for the flare and landing, which I executed without much bother. But I had scared John out of his wits, for he was unsure whether or not we were in serious trouble.

My next 'sea' aeroplane sortie was rather more serious. The RN rang me up to ask me to fly a Sea Hawk at low level over the English Channel to act as stooge for a radar trial for two Sea Vixens. It was one of those days when the visibility had reduced to being measured in yards instead of miles, usually called goldfish-bowl weather. The Sea Vixens would be tracking my aircraft on their radar from various distances behind me, and on various headings announced by them. This was to be right out to mid-channel, so there would be no land in sight to relate to, just water merging into mist, with no visible horizon at all. I would have preferred to have been flying on instruments, but not at that height (50 to 100ft above the sea). I began to feel an odd sensation, almost vertigo, and I also felt myself tightening up, which made matters worse. I had to remain at low level, or the exercise would be wasted. I was sure I was about to make the biggest splash of my life! I just hung on as best I could and prayed for the time to speed up to finish the torture. Several times I was about to pack it in and climb to get some distance between me and the sea. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, a glimpse of land appeared and I recovered. I didn't ever find out what had caused the feeling. It may have been a problem with the balancing semi-circular canals in my ears, or a psycho- logical hypnosis (whatever that is) but I had never experienced it before, nor have I since. It was not pleasant. Perhaps it was just plain unadulterated terror!

My next target was 'D' Squadron (the A&AEE transport specialists) to add one more to my types flown. I was asked to co-pilot a Blackburn Beverley. Remember it? A short-haul elephantine transport aircraft which had the ability to taxy backwards to make parking easier. We made some live drops of stores platforms, which I enjoyed; it reminded me of my Dakota

days. Then, one morning in July, my next type arrived from Hatfield. It was the de Havilland Comet, the Mk 2C version for transport use by the RAF. We needed it only briefly to resolve

a possible handling problem which might be encountered if the control column was pulled to the limit of elevator travel on take-off, the fear being that the bottom of the rear fuselage might contact the ground in these conditions. But our 'Heavy' Flight concluded that it would not, after all of us had tried to make it happen. I really enjoyed handling the aircraft, but I found the control harmonisation of elevators and ailerons not too well balanced. The ailerons required a firm breakout force to apply them (at any airspeed, I seem to recall), but not so for the elevators. Too soon, the aircraft was whisked away to join its squadron - No 216 I seem to remember, at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

I had my own work to deal with though; it was not just collecting types for showing off in the log book. I found the B8 Canberra to be a really pleasant Mark of the aircraft, the best of the bunch unless you count the Royal New Zealand Air Force's B12, which just had the edge; it was identical to the B8 but had the additional comfort of an efficient air-conditioning system, which you needed badly in hot summer weather. I found, as did many whose early aviation background was in the fighter role, that the B8's cockpit layout was much preferable to that of the B2 and B6 variants, especially the change to a fighter-type pistol-grip control column which did away with the need for the snatch-unit required to pull your legs clear of the spectacled control column if you had to use the ejection seat.

The really serious work was approaching and, when not flying, I was committed to my desk going through the technical manuals on the various systems of the Vulcan, until I knew these systems thoroughly. But before the dramatic events of that period unfolded, I experienced helicopter flying for the first time. The RN Lieutenant Commander of our 'Fighter' Flight had a somewhat prolonged trial to do on the Westland Dragonfly and with some spare time left until the machine had to be returned whence it came, he ran a small course to convert all available pilots in the Squadron to the tricky art. This was in the days without auto-throttle control. Not easy at first - you had to put flaring to land out of your mind or you would find yourself going backwards.

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It was in the autumn of that year, 1956, that the aircraft which I had awaited for all these months since May was towed off the assembly line at A V Roe's factory at Woodford - Vulcan XA 897. But a delay in delivery to me occurred. I was notified by John Brignell that the Air Ministry had agreed to a request from C-in-C Bomber Command Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst (heir-apparent chairman of A V Roe) to allow XA 897 to be loaned temporarily to himself and A V Roe's resident Bomber Command liaison officer (a serving Squadron Leader) to fly it out to Australia to make some publicity flights over Melbourne prior to the opening of the 16th Olympic Games there. So my Vulcan had been pinched. After the departure of XA 897 for Australia, the Vulcan OCU at RAF Waddington received its first Vulcan XA 895 from the factory. You will need to know this as you read on.

I was sitting in the ante-room of the Boscombe Down mess just before lunch on a dreadful day, October 1, with monsoon conditions prevailing outside. The radio was on when the programme was interrupted for a special announcement that a Vulcan aircraft had crashed on approach to landing at London's Heathrow Airport, in which the rear crew of three had been killed but that both pilots had ejected safely. After a stunned silence, there was a buzz of conversation from the assembled officers and those associated with the Vulcan project made guesses as to what could have caused the disaster. It was my aircraft, of course. News of the tragedy began to filter in. The latest was that the aircraft had flown down the glidepath on a radar-controlled instrument approach (known as a ground controlled approach - GCA) but had disappeared off the screen at about a mile from the runway threshold, had hit the ground in the undershoot area, bounced into the air and then crashed on to the airfield. Any further guessing as to the cause of the crash was a waste of time; nothing sure would be known until the findings of the investigation board and the Accidents Investigation Branch report, were published. Yet even with my few hours on the type as co-pilot, I thought I knew how the accident had happened; but I need to set the scene for my hypothesis.

The Handling Squadron had a requirement to provide 'fixed' engine RPM settings for use on the approach and glidepath phases of instrument landings. These fixed RPM settings had two purposes. Firstly, by being fixed they were designed to reduce the stress which the pilot suffers due to the number of parameters he must monitor, eg airspeed, rate-of-descent, height, attitude, heading and engine RPM. Secondly, the known RPM setting can be useful in the event of failure of the airspeed indication if no other aircraft is available to assist in landing.

I wrote an article on Vulcan instrument approaches in which I said: 'At the bottom of the QGH (D/F let-down) slope with the throttles at idling and high-drag airbrakes selected, airspeed is allowed to fall in order to permit the lowering of the undercarriage within its speed limits. A fixed RPM setting then gives comfortable control on finals. When the glidepath is intercepted, power is reduced once again to a fixed setting and the aircraft nosed down to give the desired rate-of-descent. Speed should now be maintained at about 20 knots above threshold speed, which ensures better speed control and forward view. If the aircraft is allowed to sink much below the glidepath, the excess speed alone may not be sufficient to regain height and a fair increase in RPM may be momentarily necessary to get back on the glidepath and to recover speed. When the runway is sighted, power may be reduced and the speed allowed to fall to the recommended figure.'

Figure 11 - Vulcan Landing Drag/Speed Curve

But in a few of the second-pilot rides I had, I noticed that some of the pilots were adopting the technique of using the threshold speed value all the way from the start of the glidepath to the runway threshold and were continuously pumping the throttles backwards and forwards in an attempt to steady the airspeed at that value. At under 100,000lb all-up weight, the threshold speed recommended for the Vulcan was 125kt. From Figure 11 it can be seen that this is also the speed for minimum total drag in the landing configuration. I also wrote in the aforementioned article: 'Speed is gradually reduced to 20kt or so above threshold speed. Handling Squadron pilots found it more comfortable to maintain this speed on the final approach, to avoid an excessive nose-up attitude and avoid a symphony on the throttle levers - which can occur if the speed is low'.

Now, let us assume that the pilot uses the minimum drag speed to fly the glidepath. If his attention is diverted for any reason, or if he takes his eyes off the airspeed indicator, and the aircraft comes marginally below 125 kt to say 123kt (see Figure 11) a large drag factor will occur, requiring a considerable increase in thrust from the engines to regain the lost two knots; the airspeed may recover but is likely to overshoot the target 125kt, which will now require the throttles to be closed to idling to recover, and so on (hence the phrase 'symphony on the throttle levers'). In poor weather conditions, the additional work on throttles and speed could become too much for the pilot and he may reach a situation where the rapid speed and drag changes are such that the aeroplane loses significant height and strikes the ground in the undershoot. It was noticeable to me later, that the published investigation report of the Heathrow accident showed no evidence of speed variation on the Vulcan's final descent.

In addition, the state of practise of the pilots in carrying out GCAs in the conditions was not addressed, as far as I remember. I cannot believe that Sir Harry could have been in practise on this aircraft. And from my experience of flying from Woodford, I know that the only talk-down landing aid installed there was an ACR-7 which gives azimuth and range but no glidepath data other than a trigonometrical calculation of a glideslope angle (of probably three degrees) and distance to the runway (known as a step-down aid). The Bomber Command liaison officer was based at Woodford and therefore would have had little chance to practise GCA landings, if any. I believe that, had it not been for the publicity surrounding the reception arranged for the Vulcan's arrival at Heathrow, the pilot would have opted to divert to another airfield where the weather was better. Was pressure put on him to land at Heathrow at all costs? A few months later it would have been mandatory for him to break off his approach at 400ft and overshoot if he could not see at least two cross-bars of the airfield approach lighting, by the Aircraft Approach Limitation rules which then came into force for military aircraft.

Air Ministry advised the Vulcan OCU at RAF Waddington that their sole Vulcan XA 895 was to be transferred to RAF Handling Squadron to replace the crashed XA 897. I arranged for my crew and me to collect it before Christmas, and we went up to the Lincoln- shire OCU by train to bring the Vulcan down to Boscombe. When we got there, we had to hang about for the rest of the day waiting for the aircraft to be readied. The OCU's Wing Commander Ops, however, would not release the aircraft until he had ascertained my competency on its workings. He had prepared an examination paper which his students were required to pass before flying the Vulcan and he insisted that I must take the exam too. I felt like telling him to take a running jump, but I wanted to get someone there to sit by me for a couple of circuits to legalise matters, so I refrained and tried to keep cool. I knew the answers to all the exam questions since it was my job to prepare the material for insertion into the official Pilot's Notes. Another spoke was put in the wheel when it was 'discovered' that the aircraft needed a Minor Inspection. They were doing their damnest to rough us up. We caught the train home. Someone in the OCU sent the squadron a Christmas card, designed by their resident cartoonist. The card showed a Father Christmas, labelled Handling Squadron, on a tractor towing Vulcan XA 895 out through the Waddington guardroom gates!

At lunch on 30 December 1956, I was idly toying with my meal when I was urgently called to the telephone to be told by my CO that the Wing Commander Ops from Waddington was in a Vulcan on the Boscombe tarmac with engines running, impatiently waiting to check me out before signing over the aircraft. I had to break off my lunch and, ill-prepared, rush down to my crewroom and get into my flying suit. The weather was similar to that at Heathrow on the day of the Vulcan accident. I climbed in, took over the controls, checked everything in the cockpit rapidly as though I was in a Hunter, taxied out and took off. A climb to altitude, a brief check of the handling characteristics and then down for three instrument approaches (GCAs) with a roller landing after each. The one thing I noticed in my rush to off-load the good Wing Commander was a tendency to overshoot the intended touchdown point in the heavy rain. The Waddington officer got out before me after I had shut down the aircraft, and I never saw him again. I don't think he spoke a word after giving me control before taxying for take-off. I now had in my hands the Vulcan I had been awaiting for seven months - though with a different tail number.

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The trials on the Vulcan passed all too quickly and without any further incidents that I can recollect. Four Group Captains got their ride in the co-pilot's seat; I didn't know a single one of them, nor who took the bribe money (it was not me unfortunately). I did hazard a stall or two and that is one of the things that sometimes keeps me awake at night; my thoughts are 'How close did you get to entering a deep stall?', remembering Ozzie Hawkins disastrous accident in which his Vulcan did not come out of one. And my colleague on Handling Squadron, Tod Sweeney, will no doubt recall some heavy breathing when we tried to see how far round the dial we could get the Machmeter pointer, with the auto-Mach trimmer gizmo switched off. It took four arms to level off! The Vulcan's controls were a bit unharmonised with a fairly heavy elevator control compared to the lightness of the ailerons. However, I remember Jimmy Harrison, Chief Test Pilot of A V Roe, asking me to do the odd flight test in XA 893 (which did not have the kinked leading-edge wing modification). It had well-harmonised controls all right, heavy as lead on ailerons and elevators. There was one phase of flying the Vulcan which was a real confidence-builder - the landing touchdown. Every single one I had to do in the aircraft was a greaser. It is true, every one! "Blowing his trumpet" you say; "Line-shooting so-and-so". But it is far more difficult to do a bad one. The bad one requires skill - anyone can do a good one. It is the cushion effect of the vast delta wing area which spoils the bad landings!

*     *     *     *     *

It was to be a year before my next major project arrived, the Handley Page Victor B Mk 1. Meanwhile there was plenty to interest me, switching from one aircraft type to another for bouts of activity on each. Types flown during this 'slack' period included various Canberras, Meteor VII, Sea Prince, Javelin 4 and 5, Hunter 6, Anson, Varsity, Shackleton 3, Valiant, Valetta, Pembroke and Sea Devon. Then, a few days before Christmas, my Victor XA 922 arrived.

I decided to get the usual check ride before the holiday break. Fortunately the Bomber Command liaison officer for the Victor project had come over to Boscombe from Handley Page at Radlett, to carry out some intensive trials. He had been one of the deputies to a syndicate leader at Manby during my time there, so he was happy to do me the favour. We climbed aboard. I liked the layout, especially to see the rear crew positions which gave them a decent view ahead from a raised dais behind me (although in seats facing the tail), instead of the Vulcan's dungeon-like positions with no view at all except a couple of small port-holes, one on each side of the fuselage. I went through the internal checks which took about twenty minutes to complete. (Later, I tried to shorten this time, and with my co-pilot carried out the checks from memory. On the first go, we missed a switch so we rejected the idea.) We started up and taxyed. Take-off was pleasant enough. To retract the undercarriage, the parking brake handle had to be selected down to expose the undercarriage 'up' button, thus applying the wheelbrakes to stop the wheels rotating before they entered the wheelbays - just what is desired.

Diverting now for a moment, if you then wished to lower the undercarriage, the parking brake handle had to be moved to the up position to expose the undercarriage 'down' button and so ensured that the parking brake would not be on during landing - again, just what you desire. So the wheels/parking brake interconnection makes the system's operation fool-proof, doesn't it? Well, doesn't it? We'll see!

I continue my climb to high altitude to assess the handling, get over the Channel and dive to achieve Mach 1.0 on the meter but just fail; it goes stable at about 0.99M, as it did on all other tries. So I go into a let-down to get a few circuits and a couple of GCA instrument approaches. I select the variable-position airbrakes to out; nothing happens. I look at Tony across the fuel tray which divides our seats, with its dozens of booster-pump switches and lights. He stares back in disbelief. The descent becomes unbelievably slow because this aeroplane does not appear to have any drag at all and the airspeed is approaching the limit for the airframe. After what seems an age, I lose enough altitude to get into the circuit area. I call for a GCA approach and get vectored to about the ten miles downwind point of the extended centreline of the runway, and select the nose flaps to out. Only three of the four flaps move to out. I look at Tony across the fuel panel and he stares back in disbelief. We progress on the level part of the centreline waiting for something to happen. I select undercarriage down when we intersect the glidepath. One green and two red lights. I look at Tony across the fuel tray and he stares back in disbelief. I overshoot and call the tower. "A wee bit of bother; request another GCA please". Round we go again to the downwind point, turn in to the extended centreline heading. I intercept the glidepath and gradually descend. At about three miles finals and a height of 1000ft, I hear the undercarriage move to the fully down position with all three lights at green, the wayward nose flap extends, the airbrakes operate to the fully out position. I look at Tony across the fuel tray and ..............! I select full flap and land.

The whole of the hydraulic system was suspect so, what with the Christmas break and the wait for space in the Weighbridge hangar to jack up the aircraft, it was one month before it came out of the technician's hands. They had suspected that a fault had caused an idling circulation of the hydraulic fluid and thought that they had found it when they inspected the nose-flap selector boxes adjacent to the nose flaps, and found the boxes full of water. Everything was then dried and put back together again, all services tested and the aeroplane brought back to the flightline. I took off to airtest it but the same faults recurred. The aircraft was stripped bare on its next visit to the hangar. Then, when the technicians were reaching desperation, one bright electrician realised that all the faults had one thing in common - selector wiring which passed through the plenum chamber junction box. He unscrewed its panel and looked. Inside were several terminal block columns with the wire coming from behind the block and crimped at right angles to allow the spade-ends to be screwed in position in the block. Examining the wires at the crimp point, he saw that many had the protective covering worn away by contact with the junction box panelling, causing random short- circuiting. A serious defect report was transmitted immediately to all users of Victor aircraft. A life or two may have been thereby saved. My use of XA 922 had been cut by almost two months, but we now had a serviceable aircraft with which to complete the trials. The fault was rectified by painting the inside of the panel with a substance called Paxolin.

But the fault leads us back to the parking brake/undercarriage business, ie is it fool-proof? One morning during the period when my Victor was in the Weighbridge, and before the cause of the fault was discovered, I drove into work via the Boscombe back gate as usual. This route requires you to cross the end of the main runway and go along a road parallel to the perimeter track. As I crossed the runway, I wondered why a Victor was lined up in the take-off position but with its engines shut down. As I came alongside, I saw with horror that all sixteen wheels of the main bogeys had their tyres burnt black with the rims showing through. I was intrigued. When I got to my office I heard the news from our engineering officer that the pilot had suffered similar hydraulic trouble to ours, which had rectified itself after about twenty minutes, as it did for me on my first sortie on the type. I also heard that he had landed with the parking brake on. Does that not ring a bell? If I tell you that on my second sortie, the hydraulic-trouble air test, I had recycled the undercarriage several times but eventually just left it at its unlocked state with the down button in, and let it come down and lock when it felt inclined. Now let's say the pilot got a bit frustrated and decided after several recyclings that he would try one more time then leave the undercarriage to lock down by itself. Then, as he reaches to press the up button which he has now exposed, the undercarriage now decides to lock down and the green lights come on; he withdraws his finger from the up button. So, have you got it? His undercarriage is locked down and his parking brake is on!

A further slight hazard came when my Squadron Commander, the most morale- boosting commander I ever knew - who, while maintaining tight control of all operations, kept us all happy and never had a stern word to say to any of his team - asked me to give him his conversion ride on the Victor as one of the perks of his appointment. The name of this gent, Wing Commander J D (Derek) Thirlwell. It was one of those mornings with moderate but continuous softish rain. I sat in the co-pilot's seat to watch over him. We took off but couldn't see much ahead as we gained speed, because of the rain streaming up the windscreens. It is usual for the rain to be blown off by now, I thought, but it did not do so until we were well airborne. Anyway, Derek hurtled up to high altitude and we dived into the standard demonstration act to try for the elusive Mach 1.0 figure. No luck though. We came down to get him grooved into a few good circuits. As we lost speed for the first time on finals, we realised we could see nothing ahead but waterfalls. We went round and tried again. Hopeless! I toyed with a possible Spitfire type approach or a diversion, but rejected both in favour of me doing a direct vision landing, ie viewing through panels in the quarterlights which can be opened if required (I had to do one to complete my trials, so why not now?). Being on the co-pilot's side however, and with a mandatory left-hand circuit in force, I had to get Derek to turn in and line up with the left side of the runway as best he could, then I would open the panel and do the rest. I needed three goes at it to get the height correct at the threshold. If you estimated that you were at the correct height at the threshold, I found that you would touch down well up the runway. I do not know why, but as I say, it took three tries. Derek got his conversion next day. The rain clearance problem normally only occurred in these conditions of soft rain, and then only because the early Victor has no windscreen wipers - a facility which was added later.

As my trials were coming to an end, the awful news came in that one of the Victor B Mk 2 pre-production aircraft had gone missing over the Bristol Channel with all the crew presumed dead. They had been doing buffet boundary tests at high altitude and in goldfish- bowl visibility. The Accident Investigations Branch report on this disaster is an example of the expertise of that department. It is a lengthy report but well worth reading, even today, so many years later. I can only refer to the salient points here. The recovery of the aircraft wreckage forms, by itself, a testimony to the brilliance of the recovery planners and it is from that wreckage that the reason for the accident stems. The aircraft had been at high altitude, high Mach number, in tight turns up to the onset of buffet and, with no horizon, would have been flying on instruments. Now if the first pilot was in control and something went awry with the starboard pitot-head (which feeds his air data instruments) and it breaks or bends (which it did) the airspeed and Mach indications would begin to show a false drop which the pilot would try to regain by putting the nose of the aircraft down. Taken to the limit and if no cross-reference is made to the co-pilot's air data instruments, supplied by the left-hand pitot, the aircraft would now be in an aileron turn in which the only way to recover would be to level the aircraft by reducing bank angle to zero then pulling hard back on the control column to bring the pitch angle to zero also. But in this case the airspeed would now be so great that the force required to centralise the ailerons is likely also to be so great that the power-control jacks will stall and recovery will be impossible. I now wonder how close I got to entering a similar situation in the several attempts I made to beat John Allam of Handley Page for the accolade of being the first Victor to reach Mach 1.0. A touch of say, 20 degrees of bank perhaps? When I wake up at night and think ........! I said that before, did I not?

One Sunday morning, 19 April 1958, I climbed into XA 922 for the last time, took off, circled Boscombe, asked for permission to do a low run over the heads of my groundcrew, roared over the Officers' Mess waking everyone up, and delivered my 'Great White' back to Handley Page at their airfield at Radlett.

With the departure of the Victor, the remainder of my time on the Handling Squadron centred again on flying aircraft of lesser importance than my recent steed, in the sense that they were not new types entering the Service. In other words, the handling trials for these were undertaken to evaluate material for amendments to the Pilot's Notes following recommendations from Accident Boards or from new modifications which affected aircraft handling. In addition, many visits were made to the aircrew of the operational squadrons and the training establishments in all theatres, to advise them of the reasons behind the published amendments and also to review any criticisms or new techniques which they thought should be incorporated in any of the official aircrew publications. Thus the number of types flown increased steadily and by the time my Boscombe Down tour ended in October 1959, I had amassed 42 types in the three-and-a-half years of my stay. Over the period from the Victor trials to my posting from the squadron, I collected the following new types to add to my previous quota: Hunter 7, Twin Pioneer, Jet Provost 3, Britannia 252 and Beaufighter TT10.

In September, Derek Thirlwell called me into his office. "Bill" he said, "I have news of your posting from the Air Secretary's Branch, which you will not like". He then said that I was to be Adjutant at some obscure station, a decision made because someone at the Branch had noted that all my confidential reports submitted since I had become a Flight Lieutenant and passed the 'Q' exam had stated that if I wanted to be promoted further I would need to do a ground job to gain experience in that field. In view of the type of job proposed, Derek had entered me in the starting blocks for a course assembling in October, the OATS course (Officers Advanced Training School), held at Bircham Newton in Norfolk. I replied to Derek that the Air Secretary's postings man had failed to take into account that my age would be 38 in two months' time, giving me a maximum of five years to retirement, or even less if I opted for voluntary retirement, which was now allowed. I added that a ground tour would be totally worthless to me, especially since I had recently been seen by Group Captain Ivor Broom (then the Air Secretary's deputy and an old friend of mine at Manby) who had given me the real 'gen' on my promotion prospects, which was that my age and seniority were so out of phase now, that there was no hope. I suggested that the postings man should be told that I would be better employed by serving out my time in a more useful way in a flying job. Derek agreed and said I should leave it to him .Two days later he called me again and told me the ground job had been cancelled and I was to be posted to command the V-Flight at RAE Farnborough. I gave three cheers, but he said that I would have to pay the price by doing the OATS course first. That took the gilt off the gingerbread but I was profuse in my thanks to Derek. I will not here give you the details of the OATS course. I suffered painfully at having to go through the same old routine I had gone through at OCTU!

Meanwhile, when I motored home to Salisbury at the weekends from the course, my wife and I were busy discussing our future. With a firm posting now on our plate and a probable single tour to complete my RAF service, we came to the conclusion that we should purchase a house in Fleet, near Farnborough, so I put a deposit down on a new one now building. Within a month, however, I was being pressurised by the Air Secretary's people to change my Farnborough posting to carry out the Blue Steel missile trials at A V Roe's airfield at Woodford. The carrot was that after the initial phase of the trials had taken place over Aberporth Range, they would be moved to Edinburgh Field near Adelaide in Australia for completion. This, if accepted, would be the last chance for my wife to have the pleasure of an overseas posting. We accepted the change and cancelled the house purchase. With hindsight we regretted the alteration to the posting, but in the long term I think the luck turned again in our favour.

I finished the OATS course just before Christmas and returned to Salisbury to prepare for the move to Woodford. My wife and I attended the New Year party at Boscombe and got rather merry. After midnight, some awards in the Honours List were being discussed, but nothing coming my way it seemed. Next morning, feeling awful, I went in to the squadron and had a few cups of coffee. I was the only one around by the look of it. Then a couple of my colleagues arrived, rushed in and shouted their congratulations. I had been awarded the Air Force Cross apparently. I wondered why I had not known about it at the previous night's party. It seemed that all the other awards had come via the Ministry of Supply, whereas mine came through much later from an RAF source. I was quite pleased that my work had not gone unnoticed.

A few days later we loaded the Pickfords van and got into our car for the drive to an RAF married quarter - at Wilmslow. At this time, Wilmslow was a recruit training centre for WRAF personnel; it would have been nice to have had the same unit there in 1941!

*     *     *     *     *

We arrived at our married quarter and sorted ourselves out. Jim Catlin looked me up. He was the only other pilot on the strength of the unit, a Valiant jockey who was not yet qualified on the Vulcan. He tried with some difficulty to explain to me the set-up. Next day when I went in to make my first appearance, I began to understand why he had difficulty. We, the pilots, seemed to have three bosses. For RAF administration purposes we came under a body called No 14 Joint Services Trials Unit (JSTU). The personnel of the JSTU were split, by 10,000 miles approximately, into an advance party residing in Adelaide, Australia, and the other here in the UK at Avro's. The JSTU commanding officer was with the advance party, leaving the UK end controlled by a Squadron Leader navigator. Contractually, however, test flights were under the control of Avro's Chief Test Pilot - Jim Harrison. Catlin and I therefore used a section of the test pilots' office as our base. Between these two units was the Avro WRD (Weapons Research and Development) unit which was in overall control of the Blue Steel programme for the Ministry of Supply's 'Controller, Aircraft' (CA) - the procurer.

We hung about the test pilots' office waiting for things to happen. There was no such thing as taking to the air to freshen up one's flying - a few circuits and bumps or an instrument approach session perhaps. It cost money! In the first month of my stay, my count of sorties amounted to only four, three of which were as co-pilot for Avro test work, with only one sortie on Blue Steel development. I also discovered that three Avro test pilots were in the Company's employ specifically to do the WRD flying - but they were permanently positioned in Adelaide with no aircraft to fly and no likelihood of getting any for several months. The Australian contingent had, for me, the distinct look of a super Butlins. The great carrot which dominated all the talk at this end in the UK was of the perk of the posting, a sail in a luxury liner to Australia - a four-week holiday all expenses paid, doing nothing after doing very little.

The missile programme seemed to be going backwards rather than making any progress. It was taking ages to complete the preparation work for a missile launch. I accom- panied Ossie Hawkins on 18 February 1960 on a planned launch sortie, but we had to abort the release because of shipping in the Aberporth Range, notwithstanding the alerting Notam (instruction signal) to all shipping to clear the area. Much later, on 26 April, after Jim Harrison had handed over the Blue Steel flights to me, I had a go at releasing the same missile, but again shipping caused the launch to be aborted. We resorted, within the lengthy launching gaps, to carrying out telemetry and inertial navigation (IN) trials in the simulated missile set-up within the bomb bay of one of our Valiants. I managed to increase my flying time a little when Jim Harrison asked me to do some of his less important test work, as he was busy preparing for the first flight of the Avro 748 turboprop, and Tony Blackman was equally so in structural and negative-g work for the strengthening modifications for the Vulcan's low-level role, in which I took part as co-pilot on occasions. A bit of a break occurred when I was let off the leash to demonstrate our Blue Steel equipped Vulcan at RAF Cottesmore to the Minister of Defence - whose name I have long since forgotten. I made some slow and some fast runs over him, which I heard had ruffled his hair somewhat. June was given over entirely to IN runs against a radar site, to check the E3 IN for accuracy, but only six sorties were flown.

Soon Jim Catlin disappeared to Australia taking one of the Valiants, leaving me alone at the UK end with the Vulcan and the other Valiant. Catlin was desperate to get out there to scout around in preparation for a possible emigration. It was not until July 27 that I made my first Blue Steel missile launch.

I climbed away from Woodford en route Bardsey Island, south of Anglesey, where I was held waiting to commence the run over Aberporth to the launch point. I was at 30,000ft approximately when the release run began and I was fully expecting yet another abort due to shipping, but on we went. I turned in to run over Aberporth on the briefed heading and was given the order to arm the system (by use of a large key on my left console), which I did. When the release signal was activated, the missile dropped from its fuselage bay and fell ballistically like a big bomb. It was programmed for this free fall to take several seconds, when the rocket fuel would ignite and the missile autopilot would take over. This was the danger point for the Vulcan and its crew. We could see nothing of the missile's behaviour since, for a reason which escapes me now, we were ordered to remain level and on course until we reached the end of the firing range. So, for all we knew, the missile could have been on a collision course with us and we would be blissfully unaware of it. Only when we looked ahead and saw it climbing away steeply did we feel safe. It was a beautiful sight to see, especially when it finished its programmed run in a blinding flash - when Aberporth energised the destruct button.

By autumn, things were getting dreadfully frustrating. There was nothing I could do to accelerate progress, being nought but a driver for the missile engineers. I worked out the sortie rate achieved during my time on the project at Avro's and it was three to four sorties per month. There is nothing worse for the morale than having nothing to do and all day to do it in.

I began to feel that I had made a bad mistake by changing the Farnborough V-Flight posting to this. The unease was accentuated when we began to hear rumours of a faction war breaking out at the JSTU in Australia. My wife and I realised that the dream end-of-service holiday we

had so looked forward to had crumbled and my wife suggested that we should now leave the RAF by going for voluntary retirement at the first opportunity. This view was reinforced by the strong rumour going about that the Duncan Sandys policies being prepared would result in the announcement of a cut-off age from flying for officers beyond 40, regardless of rank. That really did it. To continue to serve in the RAF in a ground appointment was not for me. We began to look around for a suitable let-out. And along one came!

Around the Christmas period, I was tipped off by an ex-Handling Squadron colleague that the boss of the Ministry of Supply unit RDT3 was on the look-out for a new recruit to fill a vacancy and had his eye on me. RDT3 was the official authority for the procurement of the Pilot's Notes for all the military aircraft on the UK inventory and, as I well knew, used the Handling Squadron as its agent to supply the aircraft handling information for its documents. I had worked hand-in-glove with RDT3 throughout my three-and-a-half years at Boscombe Down. It was an ideal job for me, and I reckoned to be the ideal person to fill the vacancy. I discussed it with my wife and sensed her relief that her nomadic days might be coming to an end. I sent off my application forms and early in 1961 was Boarded for the post; I thought I knew a lot about flying and about aeroplanes and their systems, but was a bit nonplussed by some of the technical questions shot at me - but I was successful. As soon as I heard the news, I applied for voluntary retirement from the RAF, and my application was accepted. My final period of RAF service had ended, but not in the scenario I would have chosen to bring the curtain down.

We put down a deposit for a house then building at Sunningdale in Berkshire, and occupied our new home in April 1961. On 1 May I became a civilian with a new aviation career just beginning, as an Experimental Officer in the Scientific Civil Service.

Copyright William C. Wood 1997.