Flying the Meteor . . . by Ralph Swift

All Material on this page is Copyright © Ralph Swift 2003 

The job proved to be just as boring as I had suspected and the following weeks were spent learning my new trade. The aircraft were Meteor night fighters, NF11 and NF14. and I carried a navigator for the first time in my life. I still flew the things with my old fighter style panache, much to the distress of my first navigator who had recently come off Lincoln bombers and had hardly ever done a steep turn in his life. My normal arrival back at base after a trip was to run in and “break” doing a steep turn short circuit and a tight turn onto finals, standard fighter stuff. My navigator was used to a five mile, gentle approach to landing and never did get used to what he considered to be a scary procedure. He did not last long and after complaining to the commanding officer, managed to get himself reassigned to the more gentle Varsity piston engined transport type of aircraft that also formed part of the squadron and were used for the longer range jobs.

My new navigator turned out to be a Flight Sergeant Mike Thomson a native of Liverpool and well versed in fighter type flying since he had recently come off a night fighter squadron. He and I harmonised well and formed a good team, I had every confidence in him as a navigator and he in me as a pilot and we were to stick together for the whole of my 527 Squadron service thereafter.

Meteor NF11 of 527 Squadron taken in 1954

Meteor NF11 of 527 Squadron taken in 1954

The Meteor aircraft was a twin engined jet and if all was going well it was a delight to fly, well balanced and very stable on instruments, it did however, like all Meteors, have it’s Archilles heel. Most of the early jet aircraft that had twin engines suffered from a problem of design that probably harked back to the days of propeller driven types. In those older aircraft, provision had to be made to accommodate room for the propeller to clear the fuselage, and therefore, space had to be available between the wing mounted engine and the main body of the plane. The jet engine had no such propeller to worry about but the designers were still in the habit of situating the engines quite far out on the wing, this was also partly to avoid air turbulence around the intakes caused by the fuselage. That, combined with a rather small aerodynamic fin and rudder created a control problem whilst flying on one engine.

If the pilot had sufficient power applied to the live engine to maintain flying speed, especially at the lower speeds, then the turning moment of that engine could no longer be controlled by the rudder and the aircraft would yaw and eventually roll over. If the power were not reduced to counteract this yawing tendency, despite the pilot having exerted every ounce of his physical strength by applying rudder, the aircraft would simply rollover out of control, and if one were close to the ground, crash. This problem still applied to the later Canberra aircraft. The speed at which this control difficulty was experienced was around 140 knots, just about circuit speed and the time when the pilot was selecting undercarriage and flaps for landing. Of even greater danger was the take off segment, the aircraft would lift off the ground at around 100 knots and would not be controllable on one engine until 140 knots, any engine problem between these two speeds meant either rolling over and crashing or reducing power on the functioning engine and crashing straight ahead, not much of a choice!!. These aircraft were not fitted with ejection seats so either choice meant almost certain death for the crew. With a jet, you do not select a field to force land in, you select a line of fields, and in this case, selection was out of the question, you just had to accept whatever was in front of you.

Even on the approach a decision had to be made at four hundred feet, on one engine, as to whether to continue and land or, with great difficulty, gently increase the power on the live engine and try another circuit. At four hundred feet it was thought that you could maintain sufficient control to go around. At anything below this height, on one engine, you were committed to a landing, come what may.

It was an unfortunate fact of life that in order to train for this eventuality, and engine failures were not that uncommon, the pilot had to simulate these conditions by training with one engine purposely shut down. Thereby hangs a tale. It takes a good deal of time to relight one of these engines and even then it took something like seven seconds to go from throttle closed to full power. In other words, even when you got the engine going you could apply full throttle and the engine would take seven seconds to wind up. The situation got so bad and so many pilots were being killed by practicing on one engine that a plea for “no more training accidents” was issued by the authorities. It became law that you were only to practice with the “dead” engine throttled back and even then it had to be at 4000 RPM !!! The Meteor had a somewhat abysmal safety record in it’s early years, mostly as a result of asymmetric flying.

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