9 - The First Jet Aerobatic Team

Following the repatriation leave at my home in Glasgow, during which I made no headway towards deciding my future when I was demobilised, my posting notice ordered me to proceed to HQ Fighter Command at Stanmore in Middlesex. When I got there, no-one knew what I was supposed to do, so I filled in the time by helping out as a sort of clerical assistant. I was still on the staff of the LNER and, therefore, entitled to five free railway passes per annum and any number of privilege tickets (about 10% of the full cost), so I was able to travel at low or zero cost to anywhere on the rail network at weekends. But it was all so dreadfully boring. I really could not understand why I was at Stanmore. Two months went by when out of the blue an aircrew officer whom I got to know came into the room and asked if I fancied a posting to a fighter squadron. My eyes lit up. "Spitfires?" I queried. "Well no," he said. "Actually its jets."

In case I might suffer disappointment if I accepted, I told him of my estimated demob date, but he said not to mind that since I might like to carry on in the RAF for a time on a short-service engagement (for five years, if I remember correctly). He told me it was Vampires, then about the fastest aircraft in the world, and there was only one squadron of them, No 247, at Chilbolton, a few miles from Winchester in Hampshire. I was elated. Life seemed worth living again.

No 247 Squadron was at this stage in 1946 heavily involved in demonstrating the new type in straightforward formation flypasts. This unfortunately meant that my prospects for getting converted to the type were low priority and for the first month I was occupied flying the Harvard whilst waiting. I was becoming somewhat annoyed and had a feeling that my face did not fit vis-à-vis my Flight Commander of B Flight. I became friendly with the A Flight Commander however, and used to have a few beers with him in a local pub where I quizzed him on whether he would accept me into his Flight if I asked the Squadron Commander for a change. He said he would not object, so I sought the interview; but my application for a transfer was turned down brusquely. At least some note had been taken and I flew the Vampire soon after. I was still stood off from the main activity and, with my demob date rapidly approaching, a decision on my future had to be made. I discussed my quandary with the Squadron Adjutant and he advised that I had to go forward with the demob but could put in for the short-term engagement on offer if I applied before the end of my demob leave. It seemed to me to make good sense. To demonstrate my reasons for the change of tack, I had now flown the Vampire on only five occasions over the four weeks or so from 29 May to 27 June, each flight authorised as 'experience on type', resulting in a paltry total Vampire time of two-and-a-half hours. It was almost as bad for my morale as the job at HQ Fighter. From the crewroom chatter with my colleagues, I had found that I was probably the most experienced pilot of them all, bar perhaps the Squadron Commander; certainly more flying hours and more types flown. And here I was, being treated like a brand new rookie straight out of Elementary Flying School. By the end of July my annoyance had turned to anger, so I packed my bags, said goodbye to the friends I had made, and went off to get my new zoot suit at a demob centre.

When I left 247 Squadron, it had moved, in the company of the two Hawker Tempest squadrons of the Wing, to RAF Odiham, also in Hampshire. On one of the Tempest squadrons was a colleague I had flown with at Trichinopoly in India, who had been dealt with in a fashion similar to myself by HQ Fighter, and had accepted the offer to serve on 54 Squadron; his name - Paddy Hanrahan (he seemed to follow me around in posting after posting).

I arrived home in Glasgow faced with the long demob leave at the end of which my connection with the RAF would terminate if I did not do something about it. I could only drum up three possible courses of action. I had two cast-iron jobs waiting, back to the railway or back to the RAF. The third option was to follow the other two Ws into education with, in my case, an additional string to my bow (see later). Phil Williams became an art teacher and Malcolm White wanted nothing so much as to teach English. I have a sneaking suspicion that Phil would have preferred to stay in the RAF, and so follows the luck of the draw sometimes, as described below.

Some months before the end of the war, the three of us had been recommended for commissioning. In the case of experienced aircrew, the recommending unit's write-up seemed to be given great weight at the rubber-stamping interview which, I was told, usually consisted of a pleasant chat on aircrew matters with a Wing Commander pilot at Air HQ Delhi. In other words you went through on the nod. Phil and Malcolm had already gone for Boarding before my very belated turn came, probably because I was away on flying duty somewhere. When I reported to Air HQ in Delhi, I was conducted into an ante-room. Neither Phil nor Malcolm had briefed me on this; they had indicated that you just made an appointment to call at the Wing Commander's door. Anyway, the ante-room business unsettled me, but I was even more unsettled when I saw that several people were waiting and were already officers, none of whom sported a flying brevet. Very odd, I thought. I asked one of them if he was waiting for the Wing Commander I was expecting to see. He said no, and that they were all candidates for permanent commissions in the Engineering Branch. I said I had better check with the Orderly Room, but he pointed to a notice giving the rank and name of each of the four (or was it five) members of the interviewing Board, and beneath, a list of the candidates to be Boarded. I checked it and found that my name was entered at the end of the list. My surmise was that the Wing Commander I had expected to see had been posted or was on leave and that he had asked the Engineering Board to see me, to clear me off the HQ's slate. I went in last to face these dour middle-aged men with naught on their left chests but long-service and 1914-1918 ribbons. Where were the wings, the DSOs, the DFCs or even a friendly DFM? It was a total fiasco. They did not understand what I was talking about, and I did not understand what they were talking about. They needn't have bothered with the letter they sent telling me I had failed; I knew it even before I left the room.

I felt extremely bitter about the affair; how could I have had such awful luck? This was the first time in my adult life that I had been unsuccessful at anything. But I consoled myself eventually by believing that, as a Warrant Officer pilot, I was a big well-paid fish in a very small sea, whereas as an Acting Pilot Officer I would have been a small poorly-paid fish in a very big sea. With the end of the war however, the bad luck then, would become the good luck now - and but for that ghastly interview in Delhi, this epistle would not have been written. Many, if not all, of the temporary commissioned officers of low rank, who may have hoped to be appointed to a short-service or permanent commission with the prospect of a long and fruitful career, were disappointed when they found that there was a monumental shortage of suitable appointments, a situation which became even worse with the cut-back of squadron strengths to cadre units, reducing the demand by half, probably. So Malcolm and Phil did not have a chance of a flying career with the RAF, even if they had desired it. In my case, the door was open to serve on, possibly to get a commission later, but I did not mind that. I was quite content to continue to fly and was happy enough as a Warrant Officer doing it. I was able to wear a decent stores-issued barathea uniform; and also I had a tailored suit of the same material, which I had bought from a sleazy outfit in India, with the intention of using it as a uniform.

I had no sooner started my demob leave when I learned that an old friend, a Flight Sergeant whom I had known for some time in Santa Cruz, wanted to see me. He said that he had organised for me to be introduced to Mr David Meiklejohn, a legendary football Captain of Glasgow Rangers and Scotland in the 1930s, who was at this time the sports editor of The Daily Record, the most popular newspaper in Scotland then. The suggestion was that Mr Meiklejohn would take me out to Ibrox Park to see Mr Struth, the Rangers manager, if I was interested. This was the additional string to my bow which I mentioned earlier. The meeting took place, and Mr Meiklejohn drove me to Ibrox, leaving me with his old boss, Mr Struth. I hadn't the foggiest notion of how my name had reached these giddy heights. I had a pleasant meeting with Mr Struth and he suggested that I should get fully fit by training with Rangers at Ibrox for about a month and then have a trial, playing for the second-eleven team. I agreed and I think I signed amateur forms there and then. This would give me something to do during the long leave and it would be a challenge to play five-a-side behind the Govan-end goal in the company of international players when we had completed our quota of laps of the cinder track. I had, of course, informed Mr Struth that there was the possibility that I might rejoin the RAF when my leave ended. I then applied to a physical-training-orientated college in Glasgow - the Jordanhill Training College (the Scottish equivalent of Loughborough College in England), to see if they would take me on as a student maths teacher. But they wanted me to have a bit of paper to testify that I had taken and passed the subject at Higher Leaving Certificate level; but I had not, for the reasons described at Part I. They advised a crammer course, so I got the books out. It did not take me long to find that my lengthy lay-off from mathematics had blunted my enthusiasm for the subject and for the prospect of teaching generally. I continued my training at Ibrox, still watching out for some other job opportunity to magically appear, but none did. Finally, I reluctantly told Mr Struth that I had to return to the RAF, so I never got the trial to test myself in big-time football. I thanked Mr Struth for one of the most interesting periods of my footballing times.

My application for a short-service engagement went off to the Air Ministry and I was accepted, then ordered to report for a medical and to be kitted out at Burtonwood near Warrington in Cheshire. I then went back to HQ Fighter Command to see the postings people where I was asked what I would like to do. I told them I was qualified on Vampires and would like another stab at them, but not on 247 Squadron. "Would 54 Squadron do?" I was asked. "It would", I replied.

I rolled up at the Squadron, still at RAF Odiham, on 16 January 1947 at the start of one of Britain's coldest winters. I had just time to get in one Harvard flight before the icy blast shut down flying until late March. We tried with our Vampires to melt and blow off the snow from the perimeter track and runways but it was soon evident that we were wasting fuel and time. In late March the thaw commenced and flying restarted. After a couple of Harvard flights to get my bearings, I was soon in the groove on the Vampire, hoping to demonstrate to those of No 247 Squadron who had remained since my departure in July 1946, that they had 'done me wrong' in treating me as a flying sprog. Gratification was not long in coming. My log book shows that I flew many sorties during April and that formation flying was taking a large bite out of the whole training programme. This suited me admirably since I have always enjoyed this mode of military flying.

My Squadron Commander at No 54 was Squadron Leader Mike Lyne and I began to notice that he was was spending an unusual amount of time in the air leading formations of two. After a few sorties with him, he came to me on the way out to our aircraft for another formation practice and quizzed me about my experience, viz "Have you ever done any hard manœuvring in fairly close formation?" and so on. I replied that the two-ship formation I had been taught at Advanced training in the USA was just such a formation, and that I had been able to hold position fairly easily in any semi-violent manœuvring at ranges around 50 yards as No 2 to a section leader. From then on he seemed to put on the pressure a bit during formation, to see if he could shake me off, no doubt; but we were not in a dogfight practice, so it was easy enough to keep station. I cannot remember now when he started doing complete rolls and loops, or even if he briefed me that he was going to do them. Soon my Flight Commander, Flight Lieutenant Colin Colquhoun, who had also been put through his paces, appeared on the scene to make up a threesome, with Colin as No 2. I was always, to the end of my aerobatic team days, No 3 in a three-aircraft formation, and No 5 with five aircraft, ie. a continual tail-end charlie. It all then started in earnest. The authorisation of these flights appears in my log-book as 'Formation : Aerobatics', the words having a colon between, as if two separate exercises were to be performed. This was done deliberately to keep the lid on what we were about, until the time was ripe; then the colon was removed.

The Vampire's controls were light and well harmonised and so just right for formation aerobatics. The drawback with the type in this mode was that the Goblin engine, rated at about 3000lb static thrust, was not powerful enough in a couple of areas in the manœuvres and therefore careful leading - to ensure that the No 2 and No 3 could keep station - was vital. There was also the typical slight lag in the engine's reponse to throttle movement, due (as most jet pilots will be aware) to the requirement to have an acceleration control device in the system to limit the fuel flow to the combustion chambers, to prevent over-fuelling and engine flame-out during slam engine accelerations.

Regarding the 'lack of power' effect, it was apparent when in a line-astern loop and in a Vic roll. In the line-astern mode, the aircraft are stepped down, so in a loop the No 2's flight path describes a wider circle than that of the leader, and the No 3's path is wider still. The No 2 can manage fairly easily to hold station, but he nevertheless requires more power than the leader to do so. The No 3 however, requires double the power increase of No 2, so he may be very close to the limit of the full throttle stop. Also, if the leader pulls too much g at the low speed when the formation reaches the apogee, the No 3 will not be able to react to the change quickly enough and will probably have insufficient power to maintain station. In Vampires therefore, the leader is advised to go over the top of a loop at 1g and to maintain this value in the ensuing dive until speed has increased; otherwise the No 3 may be thrown out of the formation by several aircraft lengths. Thus, it is for the foregoing reasons that no    Vampire team ever achieved a four-aircraft, line-astern loop. So it can be seen that all this has an effect on the steady-state power setting selected by the leader. It must be at a high enough RPM for any manœuvre undertaken, yet low enough to leave the formating aircraft with a reserve margin sufficient for any power increases they may require. In the case of a Vic formation and considering a roll to starboard, the throttle requirements for the No 2 on the right side, are to reduce throttle and therefore power for the first 180 degrees of roll, and then to increase them for the next 180 degrees until the roll is completed. Conversely, the No 3 on the left side of the leader must increase power for the first half of the roll (and, because he is on the outside of the roll throughout, the power requirements appear to be accentuated) then reduce RPM for the second half. The points at which the throttle changes had to be made were very critical on the Vampire and it was vital that the leader made his entry to the roll at 1g and as smoothly as possible with a low roll-rate. The wing-men needed to anticipate the start of the roll with an early change in RPM, just before it was needed, otherwise there might not be enough power to regain lost ground. When No 72 Squadron attempted their first five-aircraft Vic roll however, it was evident that the RPM setting and entry speed for a three-aircraft roll did not suit the five-aircraft requirements, and the manœuvre only became viable when power was increased by 300RPM and entry speed was also increased, by about 50 knots. The assertion here is that the RPM increase, rather than reducing the power margin available, was actually increasing it, due to the compensating ram effect from the steeper, faster dive, and the increased RPM at entry. I am no expert in this field, but this explanation seems to me to be the only one that fits.

The Goblin engine's power shortage at 9000RPM in the Vampire, would not, in my opinion, apply to RAF display teams from the time the No 111 Squadron ('Treble One') Black Arrows took over the mantle with their Hunters, especially the Hunter Mk 6 and others with the 200-Series Rolls-Royce Avon engine which had over three times the Vampire's thrust level. So the members of teams since then will probably not know what I am going on about.

My log book shows that 'legal' authorisation of these sorties commenced during the last week of April 1947, just one month after my first Vampire flight on the squadron, and that we had approximately eleven practices before we were asked to demonstrate our display to our masters at No 11 Group, and at low-level for the first time. By then, Mike had got a routine going and had gradually lowered the practise height, making the job easier for Colin and me in the denser air at lower altitude. On 10, 11 and 13 June, we were asked to put on the show for the SASO (Senior Air Staff Officer) of 11 Group, and then for a Wing Commander Chater (who was he?) and finally on the 13th to obtain the accolade of approval from the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group in the morning, and Air Marshal Robb the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command in the afternoon. The C-in-C flew in aboard his well-known Spitfire which was always paraded in a photo-recce pale blue livery. Apart from one small blip on the first of these shows, when I was thrown out slightly from a Vic roll, the displays went well and all was perfect on the shows of 13 June.

Our first public display as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team occurred at an air show at Blackpool's Squires Gate airfield on 2 July 1947, organised by 'Raz' Berry (a famous RAF body, then SASO at 12 Group) for the 'Lancashire Aircraft Company'. Our next appointment was to perform at the International Air Display at Melsbroek, outside Brussels, where we were given the grand finalé slot and astonished the spectators apparently, so bringing us to the attention of world aviation. A signal to Air Marshal Robb from the Secretary-General of the Belgian Aero Club stated that his council 'was greatly impressed by the brilliant British display' and passed his congratulations and thanks. All the aviation magazines carried reports of the Show. Subsequent displays were given to Miles Aircraft at Woodley, de Havilland at Hatfield, then at Southend Aerodrome for a public open day, and at our base at Odiham for a Brazilian delegation.

A short anecdote about our display at Hatfield. We put on our show before lunch and then were taken to the oak-panelled entertainment suite by Chief Test Pilot John Cunningham, to be treated right royally by the de Havilland staffs. A few noggins passed the lips and Colin and I assumed that we would be put up for the night. At the conclusion of the rather lengthy lunch, the de Havilland men announced that they had brought swimming trunks and towels for us to have a dip in their pool (or tank, to be more accurate). "What the devil is this in aid of?" we asked. "Well, it's just to get you to walk straight when you go to your aircraft" they replied. So we took off, a bit gingerly, having been suitably doused. As we approached base, Mike called Colin and me in to close formation in Vic; we expected to be called into echelon starboard for the standard run-in and peel-off for landing. Instead we went zooming up into a loop, and, after a couple of rolls, thankfully landed and staggered into the crewroom!

At the Southend show we expanded the display by introducing a fourth member, John Stacey, to occupy the 'box' in the Vic loops and rolls. We also had, since Melsbroek, Flying Officer Nick Carter of 247 Squadron to carry out solo aerobatics in co-ordination with each of our manœuvres, to fill in the time-gap which existed then between our display items. This was not a requirement when, some years later, 54 Squadron carried out a 'chandelle' at the end of each manœuvre, thus keeping the formation continually within view of the spectators.

Mike Lyne's perspicacity revolutionised air displays world wide. Nowadays, the formation-aerobatics slot in nearly all displays is the pièce de résistance. The No 54 Squadron team was the First Jet Aerobatic Team in the world, and it is my belief that its historic place in the annals of aviation should not be usurped by either of the two brilliant displays of the pre-war RAF Pageants at Hendon - the tied-together Vic loop and the pass by a Vic of three with the leader inverted.- flown by the famous fighter biplanes of the time. Criticise me if you will, but in my view that was a different sort of display flying to our fast-jet, smooth as silk, lovely to watch, effort; a dare-devil circus event compared to a staged ballet, perhaps. We did not have coloured smoke or powerful engines then and our main priority operational task was still fighter defence, which occupied the major part of our work; but the public was nevertheless enchanted by this new sight in the skies. So, I would amend the Guinness Book of Records (if there is a suitable listing) to call this 1947 team 'The First Aerobatic Team in the World', ie however engined!

Mike Lyne was awarded a bar to his Air Force Cross in the Honours List at the end of that year, and he graciously advised Colin Colquhoun and me that we each owned one third of it. I do not believe that Mike ever received the publicity he deserved. A bit like Frank Whittle's early jet engine days, I always thought.

Copyright Ó William C. Wood 1997.