Monthly Talks


In view of Government guidelines on reducing the spread of Coronavirus, the SOFFAAM Council has decided to cancel our talks programme until further notice. The status of future talks is under review and will be publicised on this website, also on that of the Museum.

If you have bought a ticket on-line, the Fleet Air Arm Museum will be refunding those payments.

Enquiries about talks can be made to 07768 562976

Talks are held in the FAAM auditorium on the last Thursday of each month (except December) at 19.30. The entry price is £7.00 (unless otherwise stated). Non members are welcome. The price includes light refreshments, including a glass of wine. These are very popular events and numbers are limited. Tickets are available online and from the Museum Ticket Box during normal Museum opening hours. Remaining tickets can be bought on the night as capacity allows. For any queries please contact the Museum Ticket Box on 01935 842617.

For further details on any of the monthly talks, please contact us


Thursday 26 March – CANCELLED

NOW re-booked for 28 January 2021

The RAF Presentation Team

The RAF is engaged today in 15 missions across 22 countries.

The RAF Presentation Team delivers an exciting and informative talk about the modern Royal Air Force from serving RAF personnel.

Thursday 30 April – CANCELLED

NOW re-booked for 27 May 2021

Col (Retd) Rich Graham USAF

Flying the  SR-71 Blackbird from Beale AFB and around the world on TDY.

After seven years, piloting the fastest and highest-flying jet aircraft, Rich
was selected to be the SR-71 squadron commander
and went on to be the 9th Wing Commander.

Thursday 28 May

Flt Sgt RAF (Retd) Mark Service CANCELLED

NOW re-booked for 25 March 2021

A very entertaining speaker with anecdotes on his life in the RAF including being part of the Joint Helicopter Support Unit at Lockerbie immediately after Pan Am 103’s fatal crash.  Mark will also talk about being part of the C-17 Support Crew for a Red Arrows tour of the USA.

Thursday 25 JuneCANCELLED

Sqn Ldr (Retd) Rod Dean

NOW re-booked for 29 April 2021

Rod has been actively involved in aviation for over 50 years as both an RAF fast jet pilot and over 30 years as a display pilot, mainly flying vintage piston and jet engine aircraft.

Tonight’s talk is an in-depth study of the development and use of the outstanding de Havilland Mosquito and all its variants.

Thursday 30 JulyCANCELLED

Air Cdre (Retd) Graham Pitchfork MBE

Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork MBE is an aviation historian, award-winning author and highly-aclaimed speaker.  Since retiring from the Royal Air Force after a 36-year career, he has established himself as one of the pre-eminent British historians and writers specialising in RAF history.

After a tour on a Canberra reconnaissance squadron in Germany, he did a three-year exchange tour with the Fleet Air Arm as a Buccaneer observer.  This included a year embarked on HMS Eagle in the Indian Ocean and the Far East.  Later, he commanded 208 Squadron equipped with the Buccaneer making him the first navigator to command an RAF fast-jet squadron.

Tonight’s talk is about the operational use of the last ‘all British bomber’ by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, much of it based on the speaker’s personal experiences.

Talks start promptly at 19.30. Entry is via the lower (wheelchair) access.
Latecomers should ring the bell at the left of the gate to gain admission

February 2020 TALK

“Thunderchief, Lightning and a Mirage – Three Airforces at Mach 2” by Group Captain (Rtd) Jock Heron OBE – Trustee Aerospace Bristol

Like a school boy, I like to think that we British are the bees-knees and well up to our competitors at most things, if not better even. The talk this evening was a good opportunity to hear first hand how prominent front line aircraft of three nations compared in the 1960s. To our speaker, Group Captain Jock Heron, he was simply doing a job – albeit, he recognised that this was a rare opportunity. Not only was it a most enviable task, but he was paid to do it – and I do not begrudge him one penny of my taxes.

Jock gained these experiences and insights through Exchange postings, some short, some longer, while serving in the RAF. The period covered: 1963-65 English Electric Lightning at RAF Binbrook; 1963-64, Dassault Mirage at Armee de l’ air, Mont-de-Marsan, France; and 1965-67 the Republic F105 Thunderchief at Nellis Air Force Base, USA. In those balmy days, I remember the sun always shone and Jock reminded us that the aircraft flew on analogue instruments. Each aircraft had its own distinctive characteristics and each was fun to fly.

My inclination was to stop making notes at this point, because Jock then said that the Lightning was not really up to the job, whereas the Mirage was a very capable aircraft and the Thunderchief was a delight to fly. Good heavens.

To set the scene, Jock gave a brief history of the origins of each type before describing his impressions of the aircraft itself. In the beginning, so to speak, at the close of WW2, jet aircraft were already in service with the RAF and the need to develop a supersonic fighter aircraft was high on the priority list of aircraft designer “Teddy” Petter. By 1945 Petter had moved from Westland Aircraft to English Electric and his proposal to the Ministry of Supply (as the authority was then known) resulted in the issue of Specification ER100 for a single seat research aircraft. From the outset, Petter’s design envisaged a stacked twin-engine layout, with a highly swept wing to achieve Mach 2. However, the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) was unsure about the very acute angle of sweep. As a result the Short SB5 research aircraft was commissioned to evaluate the low speed handling characteristics of various wing sweep angles and the positioning of the tailplane – whether to be set high on the top of the fin, or set low on the fuselage. The outcome of the trials resulted in the wings ultimately being set at 69° sweep and the tailplane set below the level of the wings. The aircraft was known initially as the P1, then the P1A, which first flew in 1954 in the hands of Roland Beamont and shortly afterwards exceeded the speed of sound. It then evolved into the P1B, once the RR Avon re-heated engine became available. On the first flight of the P1B, Beamont exceeded Mach 1 and a few months later it went above Mach 2 – the first time for any British aircraft. Around this time also, the Ferranti radar was rather cleverly shoe-horned into the distinctive bullet nose cone within the air intake.

The Lightning’s primary role was defence of the ‘V” bomber bases and it was given an all missile weapon system. This was happening around time of the Duncan Sandys Defence Review and along with the Blackburn Buccaneer, it was one of the few projects to survive. However, hydraulic failures blighted its early days and caused many problems. Nevertheless, in 1962 it joined the AFDS (Air Fighting Defence Squadron) to demonstrate its range of operational capabilities, which extended from successfully intercepting a Spitfire (similar performance P51 Mustangs which were still in service with some air forces), through to successfully intercepting a Lockheed U2 spy plane at 70,000ft in October 1962. In all, the AFDS judged the Lightning to be super to fly, it accelerated easily to Mach 2 demonstrating its QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) capability, the hand controlled radar was good, as was the auto-pilot. Unfortunately, it also had poor range, no guns, poor manoeuvrability, poor reliability and it was hard to maintain. Jock kindly rubbed it in by saying that it also had poor external vision, the cockpit was cramped and it was also cluttered.

In due course the F6 was introduced with improved manoeuvrability, a greater fuel capacity and two 30mm cannon mounted in the front of the ventral fuel tank (yes, really). In the QRA role the Lightning could go from a cold start, be airborne in 2 minutes and achieve a high supersonic speed within 5 minutes, enabling it to easily intercept probing Russian aircraft at high altitude. Jock also told us that 330 Lightnings were built and ‘most’ crashed.

Meanwhile, in 1952 Dassault Aviation responded to a French Government specification for a light, all-weather interceptor. Jock was quick to point out that in his view, the French aircraft manufacturers spent more time assessing and thinking through a strategic requirement before putting pen to paper than did UK manufacturers.

The Mirage I appeared in 1955 as a multi-role delta wing aircraft, but due to the original specification it lacked power and substance and was soon superseded by the more ‘beefy’ Mirage 3 in 1956. Rather like the Lightning, it went through several iterations and emerged as the Mirage 3C in 1961. In 1963 Jock was sent on his detachment to Mont-de-Marsan and was very quickly taken for one flight in a two-seat Mirage 3B, before being sent off on his own to enable him to familiarise himself and evaluate its wide range of operational capabilities. These included ground attack, high altitude (50,000ft), high speed (Mach 2) flight, long range reconnaissance, gun range time, etc.. The Mirage has been a very successful aircraft capable of a wide range of roles including nuclear bomber, all-weather strike and attack, plus a string of other capabilities. It was so successful that it was widely exported and Pakistan is still operating its Mirage aircraft, having first bought the type in 1961. Is it perfect? No, but it is good according to Jock. It is multi-role, has excellent handling, easy to maintain, has variants tailored to customer needs, and was built with development potential. Not so good is its limited range, cramped untidy cockpit, poor airfield performance, and poor slow-speed performance. Having said that, Jock does regard it as a jolly good all round aircraft.

Follow that. Well needless to say, Jock did, with a vivid description of the Republic F105 Thunderchief, or ‘Thud’ as it was otherwise known. Republic had a reputation for building big tough aircraft such as the P47 Thunderbolt during WW2. In 1946 the company dipped its toes into the world of jet fighters with the straight winged F84 Thunderjet, followed by the F84F Thunderstreak, which was essentially a swept wing evolution of its predecessor. The US Air Force had Mach 1 capability, but in its search for Mach 2 performance, the F105 was born and first flew in 1955. It was redesigned many times over to reach the definitive F105D in 1959 and the F105F in 1964. In doing so, it reached a weight twice that of the Hawker Hunter. However, the Thunderchief was superb to fly. At very high speeds, the ailerons locked at 500kts and spoilers deployed to provide control and manoeuvrability above that. Even though only single engined, it could carry 14,000lbs of bombs and missiles and achieve Mach 2 at high altitude. The bomb bay could hold either a nuclear weapon or a 380 gallon fuel tank for extra range.

It was in 1965 that Jock Heron went on an Exchange to Nellis Air Force base, which at that time was quite a simple facility, not the enormous complex  that it is now, complete with 10,500ft runways. Despite the 24,000lb thrust of the Thunderchief in reheat, one thing a pilot learned quickly was to use and retain energy in combat. Jock’s abilities in this respect led to him becoming an instructor and gaining more than average familiarity with the aircraft. Its airframe was so slick that it actually gained speed when the reheat was turned off. In Jock’s eyes, it was a big, elegant, purposeful delight to fly and being American, naturally had a big cockpit. For in-flight refuelling, so important on operations in Vietnam, unusually it could use either the probe and boom or the drogue method.

From Jock’s perspective the Thunderchief was a very fine multi-role aircraft with good high speed performance, it could carry a heavy payload, had excellent handling and a logical cockpit layout. Its shortcomings included poor manoeuvrability, it was not at its best as a fighter due to the high wing loading, and due to moisture ingression its reliability was questionable and it gave maintenance problems in consequence.

What is the origin of the nickname ‘Thud’? As always there are a variety of possible answers, but one answer was ‘that is the sound it made when it hit the ground’! Jock quoted the figure of 780 built, half of which were lost over Vietnam.

Apart from evaluating these different aircraft during his exchange programmes, Jock was very pleased and satisfied with evaluating the co-operation and trust between the nations at working level. On each occasion he was accepted unreservedly as a pilot, regardless of the fact that he was from outside of the country. It is at the political level that national competitiveness overrides the desire for co-operation and trust.

What a splendid evening talk and it drew a full capacity 100+ audience. Well done Group Captain Jock Heron, and thank you. I hear that you have many more talks up your sleeve.

September 2019 TALK

“KC135 Operations, 1969 – 73” by Jack Froelich

Regular attendees at SOFFAAM talks will remember Jack Froelich’s entertaining talk on Caribou operations in Vietnam, so would have expected an enjoyable evening. We were not disappointed – the in-flight refuelling tankers of the USAF do not have a glamorous profile, but Jack’s lively delivery and copious illustrations brought these long-lived jets to life.

He started with a brief description of the evolution of the tanker requirement to provide support to the long range strategic bombers being developed after the Korean War. Early tanker aircraft included the KB50 (a modified B29) and the KC97 – a modified Stratofreighter that first introduced the flying refuelling boom. The limitations of these propeller-driven aircraft in support of the early jet fighters and high-flying B-52 bombers led to the search for a jet tanker. The KC135 was it, a fast sleek jet developed from Boeing’s remarkable Dash-70 prototype that also led to the widely used 707 airliner. Jack showed us a brief video of the Dash 70 being barrel-rolled at an air display by the renowned test pilot “Tex” Johnson.

Jack flew the KC135 with the 99th Bomb Wing of Strategic Air Command (SAC). They spent seven days at a time on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) and would take off with the bombers when they exercised. The initial model, entering service in 1957, was the KC-135A, powered by four Pratt and Whitney J57 turbojet engines. You needed a certain fatalism to fly these early models, said Jack, as they were always at maximum weight at take-off and had few of the aids expected by civilian pilots, such as anti-skid, thrust reversers and an autopilot. In particular, the engines used water injection at take-off to increase power. “You were out of luck if the water supply failed at under 1000 feet.” Water injection cooled the burning fuel, so that some remained unburnt, giving the charateristic black smoke trail behind the jet pipes. Even with water injection, you needed all the runway to take off, which was apparenly USAF philosophy in the nuclear support mission.

During their nine year support to operations in Vietnam, the KC-135A tankers few 813,000 refuelling sorties. This compares with the 18,000 sorties flown in the Persian Gulf. The main customer for the KC-135 was the B-52D, recognisable from its black underside. These aircraft had a tail gunner as well as pilot, co-pilot, two navigators and electronic warfare officer (EWO). These crew members all had ejection seats, of which the navigators’ seats ejected downwards. Additional observers often flew in the B-52, but on the rare occasion when they had to abandon the aircraft they would have to wait until the navigator had left and then drop down through the gap left by his departing seat.

The USAF is unique in using the flying refuelling boom, since all other western air forces use the British-developed “probe and drogue” system. The flying boom is operated by a crew member, who is responsible for guiding it into the refuel receptacle on the receiving aircraft. The boom is manoeuvred by two small winglets and also can be exended by up to 15 feet. Once engaged in the refuelling receptacle, the boom is locked in place, needing an axial disengaging force of 600 lbs. The main advantage of this system is that it enables much higher fuel transfer rates compared with the probe and drogue, a key requirement for the demands of strategic bombers.

The high break-out force of the boom was an advantage when refuelling fighter aircraft, such as the Republic Thunderchief, since if the receiving aircraft was damaged and losing fuel, the tanker could “tow” it a long distance home, refuelling it constantly as required. Jack reminded us that Republic used to name all its products with the “Thunder” prefix and said that the F-105 was universally known as the “Thud” after a Native American character called Chief Thunderthud in ”Howdy Doody” –  a popular children’s TV show at the time.

The USAF deployed the Douglas B-66 Destroyer in the Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) role in Vietnam. As this aircaft had been derived from the US Navy’s A3 Skywarrior, it had retained the Navy’s flight refuelling probe arrangement. KC-135 tankers had to be equipped with a drogue attachment to the flying boom to refuel these types, which precluded the use of tankers so fitted from refuelling other US fighter types. Another occasional customer for fuel was the high-flying SR-71, based in Okinawa. Jack showed us a picture of this phenomenal aircraft refuelling from a specialist variant of the tanker, named the KC-135Q. This variant was needed because the SR-71 used JP7, a specially-developed fuel with high flash point and high thermal stability to cope with the SR-71’s Mach 3 cruising speed.

A completely different task for the KC-135 was its modification, known as “Luzon”, to the airborne radio relay mission. These aircraft would fly in long (eight-hour) orbits over the Gulf of Tonkin, with the specific task of re-broadcasting signals from US aircrew who had ejected over the sea. This was an invaluable aid for the rescue services, since the range of the aircrew radio beacon was relatively limited.

Finally, Jack reminded us of the need for celestial navigation in those days before the satellite-provided Global Positioning System (GPS). Sun and star sights would be taken through a periscope, resulting in such accuracy that Jack was sure he was never more than 100 miles off course. It was always easy to navigate towards Hawaii, he said, as (like the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbour) you just had to home in on the island’s radio broadcasts. Other aids to navigation were LORAN and doppler, but these were never popular with navigators. Later models of the KC-135 were equipped with GPS, so that they no longer needed specialist navigators.

Once again, Jack has delivered a fascinating talk in his inimitable style. He told us he is developing another, on his later career. We have made an advanced booking!

July 2019 TALK

“The Trinity House” by Captain Rory Smith

As I walked into the auditorium a SOFFAAM colleague said “I am intrigued to know the origin of the name Trinity House”. Oddly enough that point was not really dwelt on in the talk, so where better to start these notes. According to Wikipedia ‘The Corporation came into being in 1514 by Royal Charter granted by Henry VIII under the name: “The Master, Warden and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St.Clement in the Parish of Deptford-Strond in the County of Kent”’.

That answers the origin of the name Trinity House, but why the Royal Charter? Our speaker, Captain Rory Smith, is a member of the Brotherhood and is of course steeped in its history. Most people have heard of Trinity House and possibly think of lighthouses, but generally it is a little-known and a low profile organisation. Nevertheless, it is still very important and influential in the world of developing maritime trade. As your keen eyes will have spotted, the year 2014 was the 500th anniversary of Trinity House, and it is still going strong.

Up until relatively recent times, the only practical way to transport goods was by sea. The roads that we are so familiar with simply did not exist and were, at best, tracks running across the landscape and consequently deeply rutted and unusable in inclement weather. At its very best, road travel was slow. Consequently, most goods made their way by river to sea ports for onward transmission. Additionally, ships traded world-wide exporting goods from Britain and in exchange, importing foreign goods. The economy depended upon it, so did the fortunes of the merchants and land-owners that invested in and commissioned the ships.

More often than not, the final destination for the ships was London and the final few miles on gaining entry to the River Thames were ridiculously hazardous and the cause of many ships foundering on the final leg. The Thames was (and probably still is) abounding with sandbanks, shifting sands and rocks. Pilots were hired to guide shipping, but they were freelance and unregulated and you only discovered their knowledge and skills, or total lack of them, as the vessels progressed. The losses became so heavy that a Guild of Mariners petitioned King Henry VIII to license all pilots on all ships up and down the river, hence the Royal Charter. It was a generous charter and gave a monopoly to Trinity House to charge fees for the provision of pilots, not only on the Thames, but for most of the coastline of England and Wales.

That was a real step forward, but sadly it was not the end of the problems. Between Newcastle and London many shipwrecks still occurred, caused by hidden sandbanks, rocks and other hazards along the coast. Further action had to be taken and this came in the form of the Seamarks Act, put in place by Queen Elizabeth I, which enabled buoys and ‘marks’ to be installed to guide shipping away from hazards. To remain stable, ships needed to carry ballast to one degree or another depending on the weight of the cargo. The Act also awarded Trinity House the monopoly on ballastage, for which they simply dug gravel from the Thames and sold it to ship operators. In 200 years they sold 400 million tons of ballast. On the subject of ballast, Trinity House proudly displays a painting of the 37 early Elder Brothers. A close look at the painting reveals that 37 ballast workers with broad shoulders and hands like spades sat for the painting, until finally the worthies themselves visited the painter to enable him to put their portrait on the shoulders of figures already painted in.

Ships were now able to make much safer transits, but when darkness fell and bad weather obscured reliable navigation, the need for more aids became a necessity. In response, in 1609 the first light tower was built in Lowestoft, illuminated by candles with reflectors. Two wooden towers were built and every passing ship had to pay a light-due of 4d every time, until six payments had been made. In 1698 the first lighthouse to be built in Europe in the open ocean was erected on Eddystone rock, off the coast of Devon and Cornwall. It was built as a private venture by Henry Winstanley, a violin maker, but also a member of Trinity House and a merchant. Sadly it lasted just five years before a storm destroyed it and, unfortunately, Winstanley himself in 1705. Its successor, built by John Rudyard, looked like a lighthouse as we know it, but was still of timber construction. It was also destroyed 50 years later when the lantern caught fire. In 1759, pioneering engineer John Smeaton built the third Eddystone lighthouse, using dovetailed Cornish granite stone blocks laid in the shape of an oak tree. Smeaton was the first to use the distinctive red and white bands, now so familiar to us. The lighthouse stood 59ft (18m) high with a 26ft (8m) diameter base. In 1810, the ownership devolved to Trinity House, who then installed 24 Argand lamps (a type of oil lamp) and parabolic reflectors. This lighthouse remained in use until 1877 when it was observed that the rocks on which it was sited were eroding and shaking from side to side whenever large waves hit. After decommissioning it was rebuilt as a memorial on Plymouth Hoe, where it still stands today. If you ever venture up to the Lake District and find yourself in Ulverston, you will also see a replica of Smeaton’s lighthouse standing as a memorial on the Hoad above the town. The current, fourth, Eddystone lighthouse was commissioned in 1882 and is still in use, although much updated. Electrification was first introduced to lighthouses in 1858, but for Eddystone it happened in 1959. Its original fog-warning system was provided by two, two-ton bells suspended from the gallery. Later these were supplanted by explosive fog signals and then followed a ‘Supertyfon’ fog horn powered by air compressors. Nowadays, sound is provided by an electric fog signal. Since 1999 the lighthouse has run on solar power and it was the first lighthouse to be automated. Maintenance crews arrive by helicopter, landing on the helipad at the very top of the tower.

Let me just stop there for a minute so that we can consider just what it was like in the early days. Rory Smith told us that a chandelier of 24 tallow candles with a reflector was used in Eddystone lighthouse; all glittering and sputtering away. Maintenance of the light was a full time task. Later, Argand oil lamps were installed, requiring less maintenance and wick trimming. Nevertheless, it still required teams of keepers working around the clock in shifts. Later, improved oil lamps had storage of 2,660 tons (note tons not gallons) of oil to provide 9 months lamp fuel. With the coming of electricity, Rory told us that early light bulbs stood 6/7ft (2m) high. How did they handle them? By comparison, lighthouses now use an equivalent of a 60 watt LED bulb about the size of a 5p coin, capable of projecting light over a 30 mile range (48km), due to the refined optics.

It was in 1838 that Grace Darling, daughter of the keeper of Longstone lighthouse off the Northumberland coast, spotted the wreck and survivors of the ship Forfarshire offshore. She very pluckily joined her father in a 21ft rowing boat in the really terrible storm, to undertake a rescue and become a legend.

Not all locations were suitable for a positioning a lighthouse, so in 1732, the first lightship in the world was moored near More Sands at the mouth of the Thames. A crew of six manned the vessel, which could be moved if the sandbank itself shifted. In WW1, the lightships were treated as neutral and kept their lights on, however, by WW2 the lights were turned off, although in fact a very narrow beam was retained for merchant ship guidance.

In addition to the lighthouses and lightships, Trinity House operates cutters, primarily intended for maintaining and positioning buoys and other sea markers, also as fast response vessels in the event of shipwreck. Within six hours of a wreck, the location is fully marked as a sea hazard. Following WW2 the cutters made an enormous contribution towards the clearance and marking of 81 wrecks that littered the shipping lanes, many of them dangerous because of their munitions cargoes. This task took decades to complete.

From the beginning, pilotage and buoy positioning was a key function of Trinity House, but in 1979 Margaret Thatcher overturned the monopoly and passed responsibility to Harbour Masters instead. However, pilotage and positioning buoys is a much specialised business and few Harbour Masters were equipped to handle it, so the work was put out to contract with ….. yes, Trinity House!

Transferring pilots to a ship via a launch was a long-winded, time-consuming task. In 1969 launches started to be replaced by helicopters, which could deliver a pilot in just 20 minutes, once being notified.

One way or another Trinity House earns a considerable income. However, it is a maritime charity and no general taxpayers’ money is used to fund any of its activities, which in addition to buoys, lighthouses and lightships include education and the welfare of mariners, from cadetships to almshouses. I could not write quickly enough to put it all in numbers, but Trinity House is also deeply involved with the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) which provides accurate ship location, plus the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which does as it says.

Finally, if you are looking for a different holiday, you can book passage on one of the cutters when it journeys off to position or maintain buoys, or you can rent accommodation in one of the now unmanned lighthouses – but be warned, the tower light stays on and the fog horn is frighteningly loud; but what an adventure and all in modern comfort. Thank you Captain Rory Stewart for an excellent evening.

June 2019 TALK

“Naval Fighter Pilots in the Battle of Britain (Forgotten Few)” by Paul Beaver

If there is one very simple fact that I have learned in life, it is that nothing in life is simple – and this absorbing talk clearly demonstrated the fact. You have probably heard of Paul Beaver already and attended his earlier talk to SOFFAAM on the subject of ‘Winkle’ Brown. Paul is an established aviation historian, writer and broadcaster, specialising in the 1930s and 1940s, and he tells us, a Group Captain in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Generally, when we think of the Battle of Britain we think of the RAF fighter pilots doggedly standing up against German invasion and domination. In truth it was won by the nation, not just by Fighter Command. We must also thank Bomber Command, Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm, the GPO (General Post Office) who provided and maintained invaluable land-line communications, farmers, butchers, bakers and grocers who fed everyone, and so it goes on. However, those who were recognised for their part in the Battle of Britain have been a cause of controversy ever since – perhaps more accurately, I should say those not given recognition.

We have been brought up to believe that the RAF was at the forefront of everything that happened in British air defence. However, according to Paul, the first accredited British air ‘Ace’ in WW2 was not an RAF fighter pilot in his inevitable Spitfire, but a naval pilot, Lt. Bill Lucy, in a Blackburn Skua of all things. Do you know the Skua? Throughout the talk Paul declared that the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was its own worst enemy. It was a clear indication that the Royal Navy still looked down upon its own air arm as the poor relative to the gunnery officers and their mighty battleships and cruisers. It is not too apparent that they have made up for it since either and we are indebted to people like Paul Beaver for making known what the FAA really achieved in its past.

For a great part of its early history, aircraft of the Royal Navy were flown and maintained by the RAF. On the 24th May 1939, under the terms of the “Inskip Award” that control was at last relinquished and handed back to the Admiralty. (Inskip was the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence.) On the 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. So, three months after gaining its independence the FAA was at war It was a straightforward instance of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’. It seems to be the British way, doesn’t it? Muddle through somehow. The most remarkable thing is that we so often got away with it. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were overrun by the Germans and shortly after, the Royal Navy lost its second aircraft carrier, HMS GloriousHMS Courageous having already been sunk. Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was awaiting evacuation from the Dunkirk beaches, which Paul remarked seemed to be a traditional role for the Royal Navy to be evacuating our soldiers from a beach somewhere. The vast fleets of modern German bombers and fighters were simply overwhelming RAF Fighter Command, despite our people having judiciously invested in outstanding early warning systems including the High and Low Chain radar networks, Observer Corps and of course the security of land-line communication. Hitler was on a roll – heseemed to be planning the invasion of Britain (subject to the world’s largest and most powerful naval fleet, the RN, not getting in the way).

Our prospects were daunting. What fighters could we put up in the air against the Germans? The RAF had Blenheim light bombers and its fighters were Hurricanes, Spitfires and Defiants. The Royal Navy could offer the Sea Gladiator, Skuas, Rocs and the Fulmar – each of which, apart from the Gladiator was a two-seater. How good were they and how effective would these naval aircraft be against the German air force? The Sea Gladiator was lovely to fly, but already an obsolete bi-plane with two .303 machine guns. The Blackburn Skua was designed primarily as a two-seat dive-bomber, but pilots were to discover that they were also regarded as fighters. Its speed was not a great deal better than that of the Gladiator. Meanwhile, the Blackburn Roc was of the same family as the Skua, but instead of a navigator/wireless operator/gunner in the rear seat, it had a four machine gun turret making it a bomber-destroyer, rather like the Defiant. Oh dear, what a failure. It could not even keep up with enemy bombers, let alone overtake them to shoot them down. The Fairey Fulmar was another two seat fighter, this time equipped with a Merlin engine, which gave it a potential 30 knot speed advantage over enemy bombers. Finally, in October 1940 following the submission of France to German invasion, the FAA took over the now redundant French order for Grumman Martlets. The first aircraft to be delivered still had their metric instruments, no shoulder straps, non-folding wings and some controls operating in the opposite direction to normal – but they did have much more powerful 0.5” cal machine guns.

No-one had given serious thought to defending the Home Fleet and its location was still not even decided. Wisely Scapa Flow was chosen rather than an established dockyard, because the first German operations against Britain were in search of the Home Fleet and the first German bomb landed on Hoy, Scotland. As a result 804 and 808 squadrons were established in Scotland at RNAS Hatston and RNAS Castletown respectively. In parallel, the RAF did not have enough pilots to man their fighter aircraft, which were in relatively good supply. Winston Churchill made it known that all trained fighter pilots were to be made available to fill the gap. The RAF was delighted to take on 57 RN pilots, all volunteers, of which 23 went straight into Fighter Command squadrons. It did not stop there. Succeeding in putting more aircraft in the air to fight also meant that these aircraft had to be maintained. So, naval riggers and fitters in their dark blue uniforms also joined RAF squadrons to work alongside their opposite numbers wearing light blue. By all accounts they worked together well and in complete harmony. An aside, apparently as recently as 2005, the RAF has been in denial that sailors served as ground crew in RAF squadrons, despite a photograph showing them clearly scrambling, along with their pilots to RAF marked aircraft. Likewise, it is known that at some point, RAF ground crews worked on board aircraft carriers due to shortages of experienced manpower.

I would love to list all, or many of the RN pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain, but space does not allow. If you want to see that, buy Paul Beaver’s book ‘Forgotten Few’ for £10. In it he lists the pilots and gives as much background on each as is possible, plus the squadrons they flew with and the aircraft. However, one or two are worthy of mention here. Douglas Bader a prominent RAF fighter leader and ace was known not only because of his two artificial legs, but also as a man hard to please. A little known fact is that at 242 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, he chose as his wingmen two RN pilots, one of whom was Sub-Lt Richard (Dickie) Cork, who Bader described and endorsed in Cork’s logbook as ‘Exceptional, Courageous, Leadership’. That is saying something, particularly coming from Douglas Bader. The other particularly outstanding pilot was Ronald (Ronnie) Hay, who, unusually, was a Royal Marine and consequently able to claim to be the only Royal Marine fighter ace. His first victory was in Norway, when he was flying the Blackburn Roc. Following this, he was posted to RAF Detling, flying the Blackburn Skua on photo-reconnaissance sorties, until his evident skills ensured that he was one of the 57 RN pilots loaned to the RAF for the Battle of Britain. In all he fought in the air all the way from the Norwegian campaign right through to the end of the war in Japan.

At the end of World War 2, an Air Ministry Order (AMO) dated 24 May 1945 announced the military award of a 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp to “those people who undertook at least one authorised operational flight with an accredited unit controlled by RAF Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October 1940”. This is further defined as “having flown that sortie in a fighter aircraft, in skies over the United Kingdom and its coastal waters, with the intention of providing defence against the enemy….” No ambiguity there then. So, if you flew in a Blenheim for example, it had to be the fighter version and not the bomber version. Clear cut? Sadly the answer is ‘No’. It was not until 1960 that 804 and 808 Naval Air Squadrons were included in the approved list. On top of that, some pilots shot down German aircraft between the magic dates of July to October, but did not belong to one of the accredited units listed. Almost 80 years have passed since the Battle of Britain and in 2020 it is intended that these anomalies will be rectified finally.

Thank you Paul Beaver for a most entertaining evening.



Mr Tim Prince OBE, FRAeS. “The Royal International Air Tattoo – from small beginnings.”

This was an exhilarating gallop through nearly 50 years of air shows, conducted by one of the founders of the Royal International Air Tattoo, Mr Tim Prince. Truly modest about his own contribution, our speaker explained that the first of these air shows was held at North Weald Airfield in 1971. Inspired by him and a fellow air traffic controller, Paul Bowen, this relatively low-key event, organised wholly by volunteers, was held in support of the Royal Air Force Association. Over the years this volunteer force has grown into an army, more than 3,500-strong, who bring with them a wealth of aviation and event-management experience that has helped the Air Tattoo grow into the enormous event it is today. The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) as it is now known has become the world’s largest military air show. After being held at a variety of military airfields, RIAT now takes place each year at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. Tim is the Vice Patron of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises (RAFCTE) which is responsible for staging the event.
Tim downplayed his personal role in managing to entice Air Forces from all over the world to take part over the years. Participating aircraft were copiously illustrated and it would be impossible to list all the varieties of exotic machinery shown in this compelling talk.
In 1983, Tim and the late Paul Bowen set up Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP) as a living memorial to the indomitable spirit of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, whose love of flying is the inspiration behind the Charity. After losing both legs in an air accident in 1931, Sir Douglas went on to achieve fame in World War II as a fighter pilot and a gifted leader of men, pursuing his talent into a long and successful civilian career in aviation. Throughout his life he was a dedicated supporter of physically disabled people, to whom he set an outstanding example of courage and perseverance. FSDP have now helped over 400 disabled men and women change their lives, by experiencing the joy of freedom in the air, learning new skills, regaining confidence, and who have “reached for the sky”. This was illustrated by Tim in a moving film of one of the participants, whose life has been transformed by the experience.
This talk was both highly entertaining and inspiring, given by a man who has not only made a major contribution to the general enjoyment of aviation, but also to the welfare of hundreds of disabled people and, of course, their families.


April 2019 TALK

“The Defence of Malta from 1940 to 1942” by Christopher Shores

“Faith”, “Hope and “Charity”, were the three obsolete Gladiator bi-plane fighters based on Malta, that heroically and alone fought off the Axis Forces in those early days in the Mediterranean in WW2. It is a lovely story, but as Chris Shores reminded us, it is just a story, possibly created by a journalist to inspire optimism at home in Blighty, during an otherwise unsettling stage of the war. You will not be surprised to learn that this is just one possible version of the origins of the story.

Many of you will know our speaker, Chris Shores, not only as a long-standing SOFFAAM Council Member, but also as prolific and well-informed military aviation history writer. If you have not read any of his books, go to it now. You will learn a great deal. Meanwhile, what really happened in those early days on Malta? Well, there were no Gladiators to be seen in the Spring of 1940. In fact there were no operational RAF squadrons on Malta at all. The picture was still building. Italy had not yet formally declared war, but all the signs were there that it was simply a matter of time. HMS Glorious, the aircraft carrier converted from a WW1 battlecruiser, was recalled from her Mediterranean base to support proposed operations in Norway. On board Glorious were 18 crates containing Sea Gladiators, which, it was decided were to be unloaded at Malta before HMS Glorious continued her journey home. Due to the imminent possibility of attack by Italy, it was decided to erect four Gladiators and set-aside two for spares. All four had seat-back armour added during the process. While this was happening, arrangements were made to fly Hurricanes across France, to be based on Malta and in North Africa.

On the 11 July 1940, the day after Italy joined the War alongside Germany, the Italians quickly demonstrated their intent by making a heavy bombing attack on the Malta, which was of course of strategic importance to Britain in the Mediterranean (and was in fact a British Colony). Winston Churchill is quoted as referring to Malta as ‘an unsinkable aircraft carrier’. During this first conflict one Italian Macchi fighter was shot down. With the arrival of the Hurricanes, 261 Squadron was formed and sustained fighting continued against the Italian air attacks. Chris told us that the rather superior Macchi fighters were withdrawn temporarily around this period, due to mechanical problems and the RAF was instead up against the Fiat CR42 fighters, which looked remarkably like the Gladiator and were undoubtably agile, although not as fast as Hurricanes.

So far, the British forces on Malta had been constantly on the defensive and the time had come to take the war to the Italians. A reconnaissance flight made by Pilot Officer Adrian Warburton in an ex-French Martin Maryland aircraft, spotted the large build up of warships in the Italian Harbour of Taranto. The Italian fleet was largely modern and this was too good an opportunity to miss. Without delay plans were executed to launch the highly successful night raid by carrier-based Swordfish biplanes against the Italian fleet. Not only was this was a terrific blow for the Italian Navy (and a great inspiration to the Japanese for the later attack on Pearl Harbour), but Italian forces were becoming over-stretched due to the number of assaults being made by them against other Mediterranean countries. In parallel, it was all going wrong for them in Libya where the Army was beaten heavily by British 8th Army. The British Army had always had the upper hand in fighting the Italians and Mussolini needed help. He turned to Hitler who sent a German Army and aircraft to establish themselves and restore the initiative in North Africa and on Sicily. Among the aircraft now based on Sicily was the  formidable Messerschmidt 109e. In response, 12 Hurricanes were put on board HMS Argus, which was ordered to sail to within flying range of Malta and then the aircraft were to be flown off when within range of the Island. That was the theory. In reality, the Captain of Argus worried about the high risks to his ship and launched the Hurricanes before they were comfortably within range of Malta. Consequently eight of the Hurricanes ran out of fuel and crashed, leaving only four able to complete the journey and be of any use. Probably barely noticeable to the Malta defences, German aircraft were later being eased away from Sicily to support the occupation of Crete, Greece and operations in North Africa. In the meantime, HMS Ark Royal made several successful runs into the Mediterranean to fly off dozens of Hurricanes to bolster the defences of Malta. HMS Ark Royal earned a reputation for being a lucky ship, having survived many near misses during its sorties into the Mediterranean. However, in November 1941 a devastating blow was struck when she was torpedo by U-81, and sank the next day. By the end of 1941, Hurricanes were able to attack Italian and German aircraft and bases on Sicily. However, the attrition of British fighters on Malta was so heavy that RAF bombers were sent away from the Island because they could no longer be protected. By January/February 1942 there were hardly any airworthy Hurricanes left on Malta. By this stage of the war, the Hurricane as a fighter could no longer match the Me 109. Up to this point, the Spitfire had never been allowed to be sent outside of the UK, but had been retained for Home Defence. The time had come when this had to change and HMS Eagle was sent into the Mediterranean with the first 12 Spitfires, from 249 Squadron, to be launched for delivery to Malta. Also around this time, 89 Squadron equipped with Beaufighter night fighters were posted to Egypt and were used with great effect against Italian bombers making night raids on the Island.

In August 1942 another set-back occurred when HMS Eagle was successfully attacked by U-73 and sunk by four torpedoes off the Spanish Island of Majorca. This was a great shock and put an immediate stop to aircraft deliveries to Malta. The Island was in a desperate situation. Without these constant aircraft replacements, Malta would be lost very quickly. The German’s were once again building up their air strength on Sicily and along with Italian bombers were subjecting Malta and the supply convoys to intense bombardment and the fighter defence was simply being overwhelmed. Fortunately, USS Wasp, a large carrier, capable of handling fixed-wing Spitfires on board, was relatively close to hand and having put her own aircraft ashore in the UK, she took on board Spitfires and their pilots from 601 and 603 Squadrons, to ferry within range of Malta. Sadly, the first shipment flew off and although arriving successfully (all but one), an immediate air raid destroyed most of the aircraft shortly after their arrival. A second delivery by USS Wasp was quickly arranged. As the delivery pilots landed on Malta and climbed out of the aircraft, everything was ready for them and ground crews promptly re-fuelled and re-armed the aircraft, while experienced pilots jumped in and flew them immediately into battle, with great success. Further aircraft deliveries followed, to the point where Malta at last was well equipped with fighter aircraft and 601 Squadron was posted to North Africa. The Hurricane squadrons continued to fare so badly in combat that they were eventually disbanded.

The siege of Malta still continued and the lifeline of supply convoys was still very tenuous. ’Operation Pedestal’ in August 1942 was one such convoy, that was terribly savaged on-route. You probably already know the story, where the tanker ‘SS Ohio’, carrying precious aviation fuel, was set on fire, but so desperate was the need for fuel that the fire was contained sufficiently for the ship to be secured to escorting warships that pulled it into Grand Harbour, Malta. Only 5 of the 50 ship convoy arrived, but the delivery of the fuel cargo saved the Island.Coincidental with the build-up of RAF aircraft on the Island, was the departure of many German aircraft in support of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the surprise invasion of Russia, Germany’s supposed ally. By October 1942, the final big raid was made on Malta by the Germans. Suddenly the bombing stopped, due in part to losses, but also due to Germany becoming aware of the concentration of Allied Forces in readiness for ‘Operation Torch’, to retake North Africa. From mid-1943 onwards, the forces on Malta were, at last, able to go on the attack. The siege was over.

Thank you Christopher Shore for a very well-informed presentation on this intense and dramatic period.



“Design & Development of the Gloster Meteor” by Rod Dean, Aviation Consultant

This was the fourth different talk given by Rod Dean to SOFFAAM and I do hope it is not the last. Every one of them is so different from its predecessor, yet you know that it will be absorbing from beginning to end and lavishly illustrated throughout. The Gloster Meteor is a subject that will always grab my attention. There is no accounting for taste and I might be alone in this, but I doubt it – of all the aircraft that have been created so far, the Meteor ‘does it’ for me consistently. It has been a favourite of mine since I was a spotty lad running out the house to watch them on very short finals at RAF Tangmere. Ah, nostalgia is not what it used to be. We had a full-house again at the talk, requiring extra chairs to be squeezed in. The programme opened with a short but highly impressive B&W film from the 1950s showing a squadron of Meteor F8s taking off in pairs at five second intervals; two keeping low, the following two climbing out high, then two low, etc. In total 3,947 were built, in 34 variants and with 21 different engine types. It was a tough, durable aircraft, two of which are still in service 60 years later, with Martin Baker as test-beds for ejection seat development,

As we know, Frank Whittle created one of the world’s first jet engines in the 1930s despite being thwarted by the Air Ministry at every turn. At the same time, Germany was also developing jet power completely independently. Germans rightfully claim to have made the very first jet-powered flight, on 1 August 1939, in the Heinkel 178. The flight lasted just 10 minutes, limited by the very high fuel burn, but the aircraft was said to be capable of 435mph from its 1100lb thrust engine. The main difference between the British and German engines was that Frank Whittle used a centrifugal compressor, in which the air drawn in is accelerated outwards and then compressed in chambers to convert velocity into pressure. This made use of known supercharger technology and was consequently robust and reliable. It enabled Whittle to keep the main shaft as short as possible to avoid “whirling” and results in a squat and rotund profile. The downside was that the engine has limited efficiency and thus low development potential. By contrast the German jet engine used an axial flow compressor, in which the air flows in a straight line through its multiple pressure building stages, resulting in a reduced frontal area.The design is more complex to manufacture, while limitations in metal technology and wartime shortages of raw materials meant it was much less reliable and had a short in-service life. Although his engine was starting to show potential, Frank Whittle’s company, Power Jets Ltd, was badly treated by the Government and the design was eventually given to the motor car manufacturer Rover to develop further. Progress was very slow under this arrangement and in November 1942 Rolls Royce stepped in to take over jet engine development. In exchange Rover was given the business of manufacturing the RR Meteor tank engine (a de-rated Merlin).

As the Whittle turbojet engine became a serious prospect, Gloster Aircraft was contracted by the Government to build two jet-powered aircraft to specification E28/39. The first of these, W4041G, flew successfully on 15 May 1941, powered by the W1 engine. It achieved 338mph, weighed 3,800lb and had a wingspan of 29ft. It was an effective technology demonstrator but lacked military capability. With the thrust currently available, Gloster concluded that a war-fighting aircraft would require two engines. That was how the Meteor (specification F. 9/40) was born. The engines were set at mid-length along the wing, giving gave easy access to them and allowing a short jet-pipe to minimise thrust losses. It also enabled the undercarriage to be set between the engines and fuselage. A serious shortcoming of this design is the limitation on directional control in the event of loss of one engine. The tailplane was set high to be out of the way of the jet efflux. The first flight was on 5 March 1943 (Serial No. DG206/G) and the Meteor commenced operations with 616 Squadron on 27 July 1944, armed with four 20mm cannon and not six as originally envisaged. The Germans had come to the same conclusion about power and introduced the twin-engined Me 262 jet fighter, which came into service around the same time. They never met in combat, but how did the Meteor compare with the Me 262? The Meteor weighed 13,795lb; the Me 262 was heavier at 15,720lb. The Meteor’s top speed was 420mph, whereas the swept-wing Me 262 was much faster at 559mph. Unlike the Meteor, the Me 262 required an engine change every 10-25 hours, whereas the life of the Meteor engine was closer to 180 hours. The first victory by a Meteor was the ‘downing’ of a V1 “doodlebug”, not by gun fire, but by wing tilting the V1 into the ground.

Originally eight Meteor prototypes were built, mostly with a different pair of engines as insurance against any insurmountable difficulties with the Power Jet engines. These prototypes included: the Rolls Royce built Power Jets on aircraft No. DG205/G, the Rover built Power Jets on aircraft DG202/G which first flew on 24 July 1943 (after problems with turbine blades, resolved by RR). These engines had a thrust of 1,600lb. The next variant (DG206/G) used de Havilland Halford engines  and was the first Meteor to fly, in March 1943. These DH Halford engines later became the DH Goblin engine used in the DH Vampire fighter (originally to be called the ‘Spidercrab’!); another, DG204/G, which first flew on 13 November 1943, had the Metropolitan-Vickers F2 (Metrovick) axial flow engines, which were very slim, but unreliable and fragile (later it became the Metrovick Beryl engine, flown in the Saunders Roe SR.A/1 jet flying boat fighter, and ultimately the Sapphire engine). Next came the Rolls Royce Welland, which became the Britain’s first production jet engine, delivering 1,700lb thrust. The letter ‘G’ following the aircraft serial number denoted that the aircraft was to have an armed guard at all times while it was on the ground.

Twenty of the RR Welland equipped F1 Meteors were built. This was soon followed on 11 September 1944 by the Meteor F3, now predominantly equipped with the more powerful RR Derwent engines of 2,000lb thrust. 210 Mk3s were built. The F3 also had a sliding canopy in place of the earlier, rather odd-looking ‘tilt’ canopy. Interconnection of all fuel tanks was introduced so that in an emergency all fuel could be directed to just one engine. Jet engines were always thirsty and Meteor pilots kept an eye on the fuel gauge constantly. To this end the 325 gallons of fuel in the fuselage were supplemented in due course by a ventral fuel tank holding a further 175 gallons. On the plus side, to the delight of pilots the Meteor had a trailing link undercarriage, which has a knuckle half way down each leg. This type of undercarriage is very forgiving and makes every landing look smooth – whether or not it is really. With the introduction to squadron service of the Meteor F4 in May 1945, the wings were shortened and ‘clipped’ to improve manoeuvrability.

The Meteor Mk 3 piloted by Group Captain Wilson, shortly after he broke the World Air Speed record at 606 mph in November 1945

Immediately after the end of the war, Britain’s supremacy in jet propulsion was undisputed and a great deal of interest was being shown overseas. What better way to demonstrate than to beat the World Speed record? This was done on 7th November 1945 by Gp Capt Wilson at 606mph and then again a year later on 7 September 1946 by Gp Capt Donaldson at 616mph. In the meantime, Gloster, at its own expense, prepared a very striking, scarlet painted F4, civilian registered G-AIDC for demonstration purposes. However, following an accident while landing with a Belgian pilot, Gloster decided that a Company pilot must always be present during demonstration flights. Consequently, G-AIDC was rebuilt as G-AKPK and flew in March 1948 as the first two-seat trainer called the T7, still in its brilliant scarlet colour scheme (I remember it well at Farnborough Airshows). It was fitted with RR Derwent engines, now with 3,500lb thrust. In total, 650 T7s were built and unsurprisingly there are records and photographs to show that it carried out aircraft deck landing trials. Rod Dean did mention that in his experience the rear pilot in T7 had a very poor view ahead and that the rudder pedal loads were huge when flying on one engine only.

The next development was in October 1948 when the FMk8 was introduced. Up until now, all Meteors carried lead ballast in the nose to keep the centre of gravity within limits.To improve performance and to accommodate new equipment, the Mk8 had its nose lengthened by 30 inches, ammunition was moved forwards and a 50 gallon extra fuel tank fitted in the space created. Ballast was therefore no longer required – they said. Having burnt off the extra fuel and expended the ammunition, not surprisingly the pilot was left with quite different handling characteristics. Having settled on the Derwent range of engines, Gloster concentrated on developing the airframe for a very wide number of roles in addition to the standard F.Mk8 fighter, including the: FR.9 fighter reconnaissance (based on the F.Mk8); PR.10 photo reconnaissance; NF.11, NF.12, NF13 and NF.14 night fighter variants (developed by sister company Armstrong Whitworth); U.Mk15 and 16 unmanned target drones; and the TT20 target tugs, (one of which is held in the FAA Museum’s reserve collection in Cobham Hall). At this point Rod Dean made no secret of his aversion to being a target tug pilot. The target was towed on a 600ft cable at around 180kts, necessitating a steep climb out on take-off and nerves of steel when attacks were made on the target itself.

There were several additional Marks of Meteor beyond those more commonly known. This was due to the robust design of the aircraft and a very long talk could be given on the subject of variants alone. Let me try and list a few: engine test-bed;; flight refueling trials with Lancaster, Lincoln and Canberra tankers; radar test-bed for numerous companies and establishments; ejection seat trials, which commenced with the first live ejection on 24 July 1946, following which Bernard Lynch made a further 15 ejections in all. Meteors are still in service today with Martin Baker who have enough spares to see them comfortably into the future). Other trials included weapons trials; prone-pilot trials, whereby an additional prone cockpit was added to the nose of a Meteor F.Mk8 (still to be seen at the museum at RAF Cosford) RR Trent turbo-prop test-bed, which were very successful and required the undercarriage height to be extended to give sufficient clearance for the propellers; Vertical take-off engine trials for the Shorts SC.1; The list goes on and on. Not surprisingly export orders rolled in and the Meteor saw service with at least 14 countries from Argentina alphabetically through to Syria. Although it served in Korea it was easily outclassed by the newer MiG and Sabre fighters. At present there are still five flying world-wide. Long may they continue to do so. Tons and tons of facts, but never a dull moment in the way that Rod Dean presented and illustrated them. A splendid evening.

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Recent Developments in Martin-Baker Ejection Seats

As we entered the auditorium this evening we were greeted by the sight of a very colourful parachute canopy draped and spread wide from ceiling to floor, plus an ejection seat and if that were not enough, a table full of rocket motors and other critical actuators necessary for ejection. No ambiguity about the subject then. It would be a folly for me to claim that Martin-Baker is a house-hold name, but there is no doubt that they are well established world-wide in their specialised business of saving lives through their aircraft ejection seats. To put that into some sort of perspective, Martin-Baker is the 96th largest aerospace company in the world, they have supplied 85,000 ejection seats, 16,500 are still in service and 7,569 lives have been saved – including 10 so far this year, and finally they have a 53% share of the supply of ejection seats world-wide. The main factory is based at Denham, Bucks and flight tests are made from Chalgrove in Oxfordshire. There are sister factories in the USA and Australia, plus both French and Italian joint venture enterprises. Those are the key facts, now the story behind it.

Our speaker, Philip Rowles, grew up alongside a neighbour who, Philip told us, had made the first ejection from a Harrier ‘jump-jet’. The Harrier had just completed a practice bombing exercise and was on finals to land, when the engine died at 100ft altitude. The pilot instantly pulled the eject handle and was shot to safety. Now that is the stuff to fire the imagination and ambition of a young chap and it was not wasted on Philip. Philip chose engineering as a career and when the opportunity came in due course to join Martin-Baker, his dream was coming true. Philip referred to them as Crew Escape Systems, with the intention of ejecting crew members well clear of the aircraft structure (tailplanes, engines and goodness knows what other appendages) and with inter-seat connections to stop crew members ejecting into each other, etc.. The more the talk progressed the more we realised the complexities and variabilities that have to be taken into account every time. Fascinating and without doubt ‘deep’ engineering is involved.

Martin-Baker is still a family business and founder James Martin was born in 1893 to a farming family. Naturally, he was expected to take-over and run the family farm, but James enjoyed working on the farm equipment and soon became a self-taught engineer. Before long he had teamed up with Captain Valentine Baker to form the Martin Aircraft Works to build the M.B.1, based on Martin’s own design patents. That was in 1934. Several designs for fighter aircraft followed as private-ventures to meet Air Ministry specifications, but none were taken up and converted into contracts. If you scan reference books and the internet you will see that some of these designs looked very good indeed. The M-B 5 is a good example. It was designed to be easy to manufacture and to service and it also set the benchmark for cockpit layouts. Its performance was considered outstanding by test pilots, including Capt Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. However, whatever skills James Martin developed as an outstanding engineer fell short perhaps in terms of diplomacy. He had a tendency to upset politicians (I know the feeling) and that is not a winning way. Sadly, Valentine Baker died in 1942 during a test flight of the predecessor M-B 3 aircraft.

Nonetheless, the Company won contracts to manufacture aircraft components during WW2, such as machine-gun feed belts, balloon cable cutters for bombers and a successful canopy jettison system for the Spitfire, because it had previously been a real problem. In 1944 Martin-Baker was approached by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to investigate systems to enable pilots to bail out of high speed aircraft and Philip showed us a splendid piece of film. I believe it was taken at Farnborough and showed a Spitfire fuselage mounted on the ground in front of which was a huge wind-tunnel type propeller. Behind the Spitfire was a large wide-spread net. A ‘pilot’ entered the cockpit, the wind generator propeller started and gradually built up speed while the ‘pilot’ attempted to climb out. It was soon clear that above speeds of 150mph this was more and more difficult to achieve successfully. As you will have surmised, when the pilot did successfully bail-out in the these trials, he ended up in the net. With the dawning of the jet-age the need for more a effective escape system was unavoidable.

Martin-Baker did not invent ejection seats. Both Germany and Sweden had already fitted aircraft with them during WW2 (both had aircraft with pusher propellers), but in general they used compressed air to launch the seat. Philip then showed us another B/W film sequence from October 1944 in which a modified Bouton Paul Defiant demonstrated a swing-arm catapult ejection system. In the very early days having ejected from the aircraft, the crew member was required to separate himself from the seat manually. If you were incapacitated in any way, that was not an easy task and your problems were far from over.

The first emergency use of a Martin-Baker ejection seat occurred on 30 May 1949, when Test Pilot “Jo’ Lancaster encountered severe pitch oscillations at 320mph in the Armstrong Whitworth AW52 (Flying Wing). He decided to eject fearing imminent disintegration. Everything happened as briefed and ‘Jo’ was lifted clear of the aircraft to land safely, unharmed to fly another day. In those days, it took a good many rather long seconds before you were actually suspended beneath the parachute. Seat ejection was gun-driven using gas in the early days. By the mid 1960s, the Mk7 seat was introduced and was the first to use an under-seat rocket which extended the lift of the seat and gave a zero/zero performance (zero altitude/zero speed at ground level). To date these seats have saved 2,430 lives and are still in service in countries such as Greece, Germany, Egypt, USA, Turkey and Japan.

The next significant step was the Mk10 seat which enabled ejection at 600kt speeds and necessarily restrained limbs to stop them flailing around. It was also configured to suit a large number of aircraft installations without adversely affecting the design and operation of the seat. 860 lives have been saved by this seat, which is in operation with a vast number of countries.

The US Navy has long been a Martin-Baker customer and 1985 it contracted Martin-Baker to develop the NACES (Navy Aircrew Common Ejection Seat) for the F-14, F-18 and the T-45 Goshawk. 2,400 seats have been delivered to date. Also known as the Mk14, this seat provides high performance and high-technology to, for example, clear crew members when crashing on take-off in front of an aircraft carrier. It is also the first seat to be comprehensively electronically controlled, whereas predecessors were mechanical. It is in use by several countries and has saved 130 lives to date.

The latest and greatest seat is the Mk16, or US16, as fitted to the F-35 Lightning, Typhoon, T-6 Texan, T-38, etc.. Clever and capable as the previous seats have been, this seat represents a marked step in technology to meet very high set parameters. It uses a twin-ejector gun propulsion system as a part of the seat structure and is entirely self-contained, requiring no power from the aircraft. It has its own batteries and a large back-up supply of oxygen. It takes less than 20 milliseconds for the computers to fire-up (as on all Martin-Baker seats) and the seat rockets give 4,000lb of thrust in 3.5 seconds – whoosh, off you go! It has a single parachute harness as a part of the seat and now has only one pull-handle to initiate ejection, whereas previously seats also had an overhead handle. To make it all happen so quickly, a great many pyrotechnics are used and redundancy and duplication abound to make it all as fail-safe as possible. All Martin-Baker seats are capable of operating underwater and carry enough on-board oxygen to keep you breathing while a ship passes overhead. This seat has already saved lives. In one instance a test pilot was carrying out engine re-start tests at 42,000ft, which for one reason or another completely drained the aircraft batteries leaving the pilot totally ‘powerless’. He ejected and then had to wait 2.5 minutes until the descending seat allowed him to separate from it safely at 16,000ft.

Each contract to supply ejection seats has to be won against stiff competition from international suppliers. After their own Martin-Baker seats, Philip opined that Russian-made seats took second place, ahead the USA and other alternatives. The number of parameters to be taken into account during an ejection is almost endless. The obvious ones are speed, altitude, attitude and terrain. However, with the Mk16 seat, for example, it has to be a standard fit in several, very varied aircraft sizes, shapes and capabilities – one-size fits all. Crew members being ejected are are all dressed in appropriate survival gear and might be as big as hulking great rugby players, or by contrast, very petite females. Big differences. Similarly, Helmet Mounted Displays add inertial and aerodynamic loads that could inflict significant neck injuries. There are plenty more parameters, on top of which the crew member might be injured or infirm for other reasons. Finally, we are not dealing with sacks of coal, but human frames, which do have physiological limits. The seats have to take all of this into account with the objective of presenting you completely unharmed in a place of safety. In fact, progress now has reached the point where the F35B has an auto-eject capability. Events happen so fast that reactions must keep in step.

Long gone are the days when Bernard Lynch made 40 experimental ejections and ‘Doddy’ Hay actually volunteered to join the team in the ‘hot’ seat. Now very advanced instrumented manikin dummies perform the role on very high speed ground sleds and in the air. Having said that, Martin-Baker still prefers their two 50+ year old Meteor aircraft for air testing. Why? Because they are very reliable, stable, less affected by bird strikes and the engines are set well away from the fuselage, so that they are not affected by the ejection blast of the seats – Martin-Baker also has oodles of spares to keep them in the air. I can well understand what drew Philip Rowles to Martin-Baker. It is an endless challenge and successful results are very visible and gratifying. An excellent, fast paced evening, thank you.


C-7A Caribou Operations – Republic of Vietnam 1968-69


The very mention of the name de Havilland Canada conjures up several really interesting and enduringly successful designs that have each made their mark worldwide: Chipmunk (or Chipfire as some have called it due to its manoeuvrability), Beaver, Otter, Twotter (Twin Otter), DH6, DH7, Buffalo and of course, the subject of tonight’s talk the Caribou. It is not a pretty aircraft and I suspect the Caribou is something of a Marmite design – you either love it or you don’t. For me, and no doubt the 70+ people that attend these evenings, the talks are always extremely entertaining, but the prospect of hearing about the Caribou was unmissable – yes, I like the Caribou. It is certainly not handsome, but it looks absolutely right for what it did so well. Our speaker Jack Froelich knew the aircraft first-hand as a pilot in the US Air Force. His job was to support the US Army in North Vietnam. Originally, the Caribou was operated by the US Army, but in 1967, Jack tells us, they were forbidden to fly any aircraft weighing over 12,500lb, so the Caribous and any other large aircraft were transferred to the USAF. The USAF meanwhile had to hand over its helicopters to the US Army in exchange.

So, what was the Caribou and what made it different?  It was designed for Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) operations; it could carry up to 3 tons payload; it weighed 13 tons; in American operations it had a crew of two pilots and one Loadmaster. It was designed to operate from rough landing strips inaccessible to most other aircraft; it had a large ramp at the back to enable rapid loading and unloading of troops and cargo; and it needed around 1,000ft in which to take off. A typical cargo could be 32 Infantrymen, or 14 stretcher litters, plus 10 seats, or as frequently happened, animal transport! The DHC4, as it was first known, flew in 1958 and was the third STOL aircraft by DHC, preceded by the Beaver and the Otter. To achieve its very impressive performance, it was powered by two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp R-2000 7M2 radial engines producing 1450hp each from the 14 cylinders. The same engine had proven its reliability in the Douglas DC4 and Skymaster. What was different in this instance was that the engine cowlings had no cooling gills and the Hamilton Standard propellers were fully reversible. The engines also had two augmenter tubes extending backwards over the wing, which in theory helped to boost performance. However what did work was the flow of air blown over the flaps. The flaps were full-span, double slot (in effect two flaps – one hinged behind the other) Fowler flaps with an 80 degree droop. In addition, when the flaps were operated, the ailerons also drooped. All this, with the augmented air being blown over the wing meant that very high lift was achieved, enabling a typical approach speed of 60kts and touch down at 35/40kts. That is the equivalent of a typical small, light aircraft, rather than a 13 ton cargo carrier. Not only that, but it was a joy to fly, although it had to be flown 100% of the time – no casual hands-off flying while you fidgeted with the chart. In its original form the DHC4 was designed for single pilot operation, but that was not the American way of doing things, so two pilots it was.

The payload was less than that of a DC3, but the great benefit in many forward bases was its STOL performance. The fin and rudder are absolutely huge and they earned their keep on operations from small dirt airfields requiring a steep climb out. According to the operator’s handbook the minimum speed in these circumstances should be 80kts. However, it was soon discovered that on short fields just 75kts was feasible by holding the aircraft straight and steady using the enormous rudder until proper flying speed could be gained. Niceties are set aside when people are firing live bullets at you from just over the hedge. Small arms fire was effective up to about 3,000ft. To minimise the risk of small arms damage, crews either flew high, or as Jack preferred, very low. On these operations it was essential to ensure that at least 1,500lb of fuel was carried in the wing tanks to maintain their stiffness. Internally, the floor was made of plywood and could carry standard 4ft x 4ft pallets. Seats were built into each side of the aircraft facing each other, or two Jeeps could be carried instead. For comparison, it could carry more than a Chinook helicopter. The pilots’ cabin stood 3 to 4ft higher than the cargo deck. The instrument panel was quite basic and was designed for daytime, visual operations, where you check landmarks against a chart. It was not designed for night flying and instrument flying, but simple bush-flying. If you had the misfortune to fly through rain you got wet, because the Caribou leaked like a sieve. It was also very, very noisy. One luxury that USAF Caribous had that Royal Australian Airforce Caribous did not have, was weather radar. This enabled pilots to take some of the guess-work out of navigating by heading for the coast and following its contours and spotting rivers on the radar as they progressed.

The aircraft itself was reliable and so were the engines, which was fortunate, because all maintenance was conducted outside in sweltering heat and tropical storms. Engine access was helped greatly by the barn-door type engine cowlings. At the end of the Vietnam War around 50% of the Caribous went back to the USA and were used by the Reserve, while Australia kept theirs in ront line service until the 1990s and retired the last one in 2009. Operations were typically to move both military and civilian passengers (Jack openly acknowledged that they hadn’t a clue who most of the civilians were, because their travel passes were printed in Vietnamese and they could easily have been North Vietnamese soldiers going home on leave for all he knew). In addition they moved many cows. Most of these were dropped by keeping the aircraft at a steady 110kts at 300ft and then sliding out the crates containing the cows, to float down on two cargo parachutes to a soft landing. In all the time he was in Vietnam, Jack knew of only one cow to receive any form of injury, and that was a broken leg. As a change from dropping cows, they also dropped chickens in crates. The idea behind all this was keep the mountain tribesmen (Montagnards) on the side of the USA. The tribesmen were nomadic, but the intention was that by dropping cows to them, they would stay in one place to breed them and in due course the tribesmen could be trained as soldiers. That was the theory. The reality was that the cows and the chickens very quickly became the meal for the day. An expert also proposed that it was essential to drop trained German shepherd dogs, which the tribesmen were delighted to receive as a change in diet.

The Caribou often supported Special Forces into and out of forward bases, as well as such mundane, but important tasks as returning for reuse all the Chinook underslung cargo nets and slings deposited in the remote drop-off points. Finally, Caibous were used to provide occasional support for Air America’, the quasi civilian airline that conducted covert military operations in areas that the authorities preferred to not talk about.

Home base for Jack Froelich was Cam Ranh Bay. From there they would fly to places such as Dak Pek where special training was required before any pilot was allowed to attempt a landing. It was very tricky and touchdown had to be made in the first 10 ft of the runway to successfully get in. One thing it did demonstrate was the crashworthiness of the Caribou. It was a tough aircraft and of the relatively few that crashed, most occupants survived. Plei Me airfield was a Special Forces base frequently attacked by the North Vietnamese. The runway was only 1,100ft long which made full use of the STOL features and full reverse thrust; Lei Khe airfield near Saigon was surrounded by a Michelin rubber plantation still in full operation. The plant manager operated a Cessna 190 to enable him to do his job properly and to take the family shopping in Saigon. The fact that he was in the middle of a war zone appeared to be no problem to him; Man Buc airfield in the Central Highlands required nerves of steel and determination ‘to get it right’. The runway was surrounded by hills and the approach to land required a climb all the way up. At the last minute, at a set point a 90 degree turn was required before you dropped the aircraft onto the runway. By way of compensation, one of the bases had a Michelin Star chef and any run into that base was always welcomed.

Jack made comparisons with other similar aircraft, such as the C123 (Fairchild Provider) and DC3, both of which were much in use. In each case these aircraft could carry more cargo, but required long runways to operate. They could not do what the Caribou did so well on small, inhospitable airfields. I was interested to learn that South Korean troops were also involved in the Vietnam war, primarily to provide base security. From Jack’s experience, they were very hard people and genuinely took no prisoners. This was a very interesting, very lively and different talk about an unusual aircraft. I loved it. Thank you Jack Froelich for a most enjoyable and informative evening – and thank you to the backroom ‘boys’ of course for freshening us up halfway through.

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