Flying on 527 Squadron – Early 1950’s by Ralph Swift

All Material on this page is Copyright © Ralph Swift 2003 

It is probably true to say that the jet aircraft design of the early 1950’s was still partly rooted in the piston engine era. We were still only about ten years into the jet age and the aircraft we were flying were designed and tested in the immediate war time and early post war years and carried with them all the trappings of a learning experience. The instrumentation and navigation features were very definitely piston era throwbacks. Artificial horizons would topple at a modest 60 degrees of bank and we were in some cases still using the old compasses to set the directional gyro which would precess considerably under acceleration and had to be re-adjusted frequently. We had no VOR’s to rely on, the fuel consumption at low level was horrendous, and indeed, the early Vampires that I flew had an endurance of about an hour or less on internal tanks and required the constant monitoring of four or five fuel tank contents gauges.

Escape mechanism’s during an emergency were either non existent or primitive and complicated. Benny Lynch was still risking life and limb in a heroic attempt to try and perfect the Martin Baker ejection seat and was being ejected from the back seat of a modified Meteor Mk 7 and apart from trying to avoid back injury from the explosive charge that threw him clear of the aircraft and firmly attached to the seat, he was then required to release the seat harness, fall free of the seat and then manually pull the ripcord to deploy the parachute. All of this of course required not only a cool head but a fairly high altitude to achieve with any success but it was considerably better than nothing. Trying to climb out of a damaged and out of control aircraft at much above 250 knots was almost impossible physically and the danger of striking some part of the rear fuselage, tailplane or rudder was almost a certainty. So even if the early ejection seats were complicated to use and required considerable altitude to use with any real chance of survival they were welcomed among the crews of the time.

Some of the early jet aircraft were fitted with these seats and others such as the Vampire were without. 250 knots in a jet, especially if falling out of control, was a relatively slow speed and was to prove deadly to many a young pilot trapped in a situation and unable to abandon the aircraft.

Those Meteors that I flew on 527 Squadron, the night fighter NF 11 and NF 14 were not equipped with ejection seats but the coming of the Canberra rectified this situation, even though the seats were of the early type initially and require that you clear the seat prior to opening the parachute. The Watton Canberra‘s were B2’s and had ejection seats for the single pilot and both navigators but in both cases it was a requirement to get rid of an explosive canopy prior to ejection. In the case of the training Canberra, the T4, although the navigators had ejection seats the cramped cockpit for both pilots did not afford enough room for ejection seats and the only way out for the pilots was to slide the right hand seat backward, open the side door in the fuselage and bale out conventionally. In a situation that required the pilots to abandon the aircraft it was a very hit and miss affair and when the Canberra later had a problem with runaway tailplane actuators I think it proved impossible to get out in the time available.

I was posted to 527 Squadron, RAF Watton in Norfolk, as a Calibration Pilot in November of 1954 and having just come off a fighter squadron at Deversoir in Egypt I was not too happy with the assignment. Just 21 years of age I had hoped for and expected something with a little more action. My boss was to be Sqn Ldr Conquer and the flight commander of ’B’ flight was Flt Lt ‘Dick’ Ferre.

’B’ flight were all jets, Meteor NF 11 and NF14 whilst ’A’ flight under Flt Lt ‘Johnny’ Dean was the piston engine and long range unit and flying the Varsity aircraft.

I was already familiar with the Meteor 7 trainer that they kept at the station so a quick couple of trips with Flt Lt Brian Boundy and then Fg Off Hardie completed my familiarisation with the station procedures and the local geography and I was off solo to put in some circuits and bumps and a bit of asymmetric (single engine) practice.

My introduction to Calibration duties was to calibrate the ACR7 with a Mr Page, one of our ’boffins’ in the back seat. The ACR7 was known to us as the ‘poor mans GCA’ (ground controlled approach) and I actually enjoyed calibrating it. It was perhaps one of the few calibration duties where the pilot was doing a lot of the work and actually flying the aircraft on a series of short duration runs repeated over and over again until ground control were satisfied with the result. Unlike the usual ground controlled approach where the controller was giving the pilot corrections, the situation was reversed somewhat and my navigators job, using his ‘black boxes’ was to keep me strictly on track whilst I had to maintain a very accurate rate of descent and speed to arrive at the fixed distances at precisely the right time and altitude. The first couple of runs were used to work out the drift and heading I would require to maintain track and the power settings I needed to arrive at the distance markers at just the right height and time. There was no such thing as DME (distance measuring equipment) so it took a great deal of precision and co-operation from the crew and I found it demanding and satisfying to put in a few perfect runs. The Meteor was a delight to fly on instruments, very stable, and controllable to a minute degree even under turbulent conditions and I began to think that perhaps I was going to enjoy this calibration business after all. Time was to prove me wrong.

I was beginning to enjoy my return to the English countryside after a couple of years of the harsh desert vistas of Egypt. I had met several of the locals and enjoyed their amusing slow drawl and very pronounced Norfolk dialect. The Officers mess was very relaxed and comfortable, the food was excellent and certainly on a par with even the finest restaurants and the Station Commander, Air Commodore Rogers, loved a party and saw to it that there were plenty of them. One of the things I did miss was company of my own age, this to me was a station of older aircrew and far more sedate than the close confined company that I had enjoyed among the pilots of three fighter squadrons crowded into a mess overseas.

As I began to get more into the job of calibrating I came to realise, that in fact, the pilot was little more than a taxi driver, at least for those tasks carried out by 527 squadron and as time passed I found it to be monumentally boring. The navigator or crew were working like a one armed paperhanger whilst all I had to do was to maintain an accurate heading, height and speed. It was a question of flying straight and level and on the same course for forty five minutes and then the big excitement came when you carried out a 180 degree turn and retraced your track. There was no such thing as an auto-pilot in the Meteor so it was necessary to fly manually the whole time and paying strict attention to the instruments, making minute changes at the navigator’s command. I longed for an opportunity to fire some guns or carry out a few rolls and loops and though I loved the Meteor and the Norfolk area I began to resent the twist of fate that had placed me there.

I cannot say if the official secrets act after all these years prevents me from indicating the radar stations that were calibrated but there were plenty of them and all over England and the continent and the Meteor, having a relatively short endurance, even when fitted with a variety of external fuel tanks that made it resemble a Christmas tree, had to quite frequently stay overnight or refuel away from base.

I suppose it was the secrecy and the development of new system that kept much of the work activities of Watton outside my direct knowledge. We had five squadrons operating there and there were several areas that I was denied access to and the variety of aircraft on the base was surprising. Everything from Sea Furies to Washingtons could be seen in the circuit on any day of the week, Lincolns, Varsity’s, Meteors, Hastings, Venoms and Avengers all came and went as well as a variety of visitors.

527 Squadron was based on the far side or southern edge of the airfield, known as the Griston site, in a wartime black painted tin hangar. Just to the east of us was yet another similar hangar where the Royal Navy kept the Sea Furies and Avengers and presumably did similar work to ourselves on behalf of the Navy. I nearly always cycled to work and it became quite a chore if the wind started to blow, but fortunately the wind blew mostly in a west to east direction so you had it against you on one side of the field and with you on the other half, always one leg of the journey was against the wind.

Some time after I arrived at Watton I got married and lived in a cottage on Watton Green which increased the length of my daily commute by about a mile each way but I did not mind, I was young and it got the blood flowing prior to a day’s work sitting strapped and motionless in the cockpit.

In May of 1955 I was sent on a short course at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire to convert on to the Canberra B2. We had had one on the squadron for some months as I recall, the Meteor’s fuel range was a factor in deciding to go to the longer range and higher flying Canberra. I know this was a great boon to the powers that be and allowed us to expand our task somewhat but I was sorry, personally, to lose the Meteor. It was a great aircraft to fly with perhaps a reservation as to it’s ability on one engine, it’s asymmetric qualities could be difficult and dangerous as many pilots were to find out to their cost. For me, the Canberra was no less vulnerable to asymmetric flying it also increased two or threefold the agony and boredom of flying straight and level for hours at a time. I was not designed by nature for the Canberra. I am of short stature and have relatively long legs for my height and I could never see adequately out of the thing, even with the seat raised to it’s maximum height I was doomed to be flying mostly by instruments or looking sideways out of the cockpit bubble. The constant stretching to try and look over the cowling resulted in a very painful backache which eventually entailed going to Headley Court in Surrey for a month in order to do back strengthening exercises and try to straighten me up a bit.

In addition to my personal discomfort, the early models of the Canberra suffered a number of built in mechanical and electrical problems. For example, when descending from a prolonged flight at altitude and particularly if you were trying to intercept a flight pattern, the engine intake vanes or PV rams (I forget which) could remain in the open/closed position due to icing and deny you engine power just when you needed it. You just had to sit there and wait for them to thaw out in the warmer air at the lower altitude whist you gradually lost height without engine power.

But a much more serious and deadly fault was to raise it’s head in the form of an electrical fault to the tailplane actuator that initially caused many fatal crashes that were not understood nor yet even acknowledged in the early stages. I think most of the fatalities were put down to pilot error when in fact what was happening was that the tailplane actuator that adjusted the tail trim position was running away to the fully nose down position and at any speed above 250 knots it was beyond the pilots strength to hold the nose of the aircraft up. As the nose dropped the situation was totally uncontrollable, the increasing speed worsened the situation and many aircraft actually flew into the ground over the vertical, ie straight down or worse. The fact that the navigators were unable even to eject suggests something of the trauma that was taking place inside the cockpit, extreme negative ‘G’ forces and a very rapid descent into unconciousness due to the ‘red out ‘ effect of the blood rushing to the head.

Fate spared me when my instructor Pilot Officer Spokes and his other pupil died in such an accident whilst I was converting onto the Canberra at Bassinbourn late May 1955. It could just as easily have been me in the cockpit that night, I was sitting in the crew room awaiting their return before going flying with P/O Spokes for my night dual check when they crashed over the vertical some miles short of Bassingbourn. It was only a couple of days beforehand that P/O Spokes and I had been struck by lightning during the course of a progress check.

I believe it was after another horrendous crash at Six Mile Bottom on the old A11 road to London that the authorities finally got serious about investigating the cause. The Canberra B2’s were finally grounded for modifications to install a ’dead mans’ switch to the trim switch in the cockpit. The pilot was required to use both switches simultaneously and any malfunction to the trim system was arrested on release of the ’dead man’s’ switch.

I was to experience a number of other incidents and near fatal encounters during my time on Canberras and although many would say it was a fine aircraft and they enjoyed flying it, it had presented it’s worst side to me and had hardly endeared itself to me and I was heartily glad to see the back of it even though I was later to become a ground instructor in the Airmanship Hall at Bassingbourn instructing on fuel management, cockpit drills, survival and rescue and high speed high altitude flight. The Canberra and I were never destined to see eye to eye.

Ralph Swift, April 2003.

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