Archive for the 'Flying' Category



Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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One Friday Afternoon’s Work

Gilbert Pate’s first flight – ever – was in a Tiger Moth from Mascot, Sydney in August 1939. His father, Sydney, wrote about it in a letter to Don Smith in July 1944, after the crew had gone missing (A01-346-003). Gilbert had gone flying with a good friend, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow. They even flew over the Pate family home in nearby Kogarah (“2-storey”, wrote Sydney Pate, “and in the nature of a local land-mark”).

Sydney also wrote that Andrew was “now alas deceased”. I decided to try and find out what happened to him.

It seemed likely that Andrew’s was a war-related death, so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database was my first port of call. I found a match:

Name: MacARTHUR-ONSLOW, ANDREW WILLIAM
Initials: A W
Nationality: Australian
Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Age: 25
Date of Death: 18/01/1943
Service No: 261535
Additional information: Son of Francis Arthur and Sylvia Seton Raymond MacArthur-Onslow, of Campbelltown.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Row A. Grave 6.
Cemetery: TAMWORTH WAR CEMETERY

Note that he died a Flight Lieutenant and is buried at Tamworth, NSW, the site of an Elementary Flying Training School. This suggested he was an instructor.

I next searched the National Archives of Australia for a service record – which exists, but is not digitised so I can’t access it from here. I did find a record of his enlistment in the Australian Army Militia pre-war. I also looked through some Tiger Moth accident reports but found no matches.

Perhaps Tamworth cemetery records would yield something. I found this page, which had the bloke I was looking for. It also had a record for another man killed on the same day – a Thomas Myles DAWSON of Queensland. Figuring two men was the normal crew complement at an EFTS, there was a good chance that both of these men were killed in the same accident.

Dawson proved the breakthrough. A search for his service number at the National Archives pulled up a service record (digitised) – and, more importantly, an entry in an accident file (also digitised). It was a simple matter to access the accident file, which answered the question of what happened to F/L AW MacArthur-Onslow.

Gilbert Pate’s great mate, who had held a pilot’s licence before the war and who took Gilbert for his first flight, possibly sparking Gil’s interest in flying, was killed in a flying accident while serving with the Central Flying School.  On 18JAN43  MacArthur-Onslow was flying with a Sgt TM Dawson in Wirraway A20-45, on an authorised practice low-level sortie 16 miles south-east of Tamworth. They crashed during the low-level segment of the flight and both were killed. The aircraft was written off. (A04-087-001, NAA: A9845, 102).

The most pleasing thing for me in this saga is that it all happened one Friday afternoon. I was reading through all of Sydney Pate’s letters in preparation for an article I’m working on about Gil when I read the July 1944 correspondence to Don Smith. That sparked the curiosity to find out what happened to Andrew MacArthur-Onslow – and over the course of a couple of hours I found what I was looking for. Another loose thread tied off, another facet of Gilbert Pate’s life uncovered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

First Solo

“I’ll always remember my first solo”

-463 Sqn navigator Don Southwell in conversation, October 2010

There is a certain mystique about a pilot’s first solo. It is one of those moments that separate them from the common ground-dweller. Quite simply, there are those who have flown solo, and there are those who have not.

I remember my own first solo well. It was 28 November 2002, in a Cessna 152. It didn’t take long – just one circuit, taking off from Runway 16 at Wollongong in NSW. Flying downwind, I distinctly recall the euphoric feeling as I looked at the empty seat to my right, where my instructor had been sitting just a few minutes before, and realised that I was flying the aeroplane – all by myself. I ballooned slightly in the landing flare, but at least it was a reasonably soft touchdown.

World War Two provided many aircrew with the opportunity to join that elite ‘solo’ club. Phil Smith flew alone for the first time on 28 November 1940 (exactly 62 years to the day before I did so myself). He flew a Tiger Moth from No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Despite the achievement, Phil’s letter to his father written later that day is in the same measured, almost formal language as all the rest of his correspondence:

“I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time” (A01-132-001)

Don Southwell was originally chosen for pilot training. He was posted to 8 EFTS in Narrandera, NSW, and before he was scrubbed and re-mustered as a navigator, he managed to go solo in the Tiger Moth. His solo flight was not entirely uneventful however. He told me the story when I visited him in October 2010. Don was at one of Narrandera’s four satellite fields, which he described as ‘a paddock with a hut’. Shortly after he took off the wind changed. His instructor came up beside him in another Tiger Moth, gesticulating wildly and pointing to the windsock, but Don couldn’t work out what he was trying to tell him. So he simply landed in the same direction that he had taken off in, in a significant crosswind – and made a ‘pearler of a crosswind landing’. I commented on this because I know from experience how much Tiger Moths do not like crosswinds – Don admitted it had been a ‘bit of a fluke’!

Amusing anecdotes aside, however, some aircrew did see their early solo flying as special. In his memoirs published posthumously in 2009, 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon described his first solo cross country flight in slightly more descriptive terms:

“On 17 June 1943 I flew my first solo cross-country. It was magic. The thrill of sitting alone in an open cockpit with the wind in your hair floating above the earth is something to be experienced.”

I can only say that the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself – in April 2010 – I knew exactly what Brian had been getting at. To look forward and not see the back of the instructor’s head in the front cockpit, to hear the wind through the wires and to feel its force on your face is to experience in a small way something of what it was like for so many aircrew of the Commonwealth air forces of World War Two.

Brian’s writing encapsulates a lot of how much it means for pilots to join a very special club:

“They say that flying is as close to heaven as you can get in this life. I think it is so, for you could not help wondering at God’s greatness as you flew around flirting in and out of the clouds with the earth stretched out below, its cultivated squares looking like a quilt. Up there I had a feeling of detachment from all the petty squabbling in society and could not bring myself to believe that all was not right with the world below.”

If there was one good thing to come out of World War Two, it was the opportunity for so many to experience that joy of flight that Brian writes about.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Chipmunk

And now for something completely different. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going for a flight in a de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk. I know it isn’t quite connected with the overall topic of this blog, but I had a great time and felt I had to share it… Normal service will resume shortly!

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From the outside, it’s a very pretty-looking aeroplane. A narrow nose, with a single metal propeller. A single sliding canopy covering two seats. Beautifully shaped wings and the unmistakably de Havilland tail. It’s not a very big aeroplane, and it’s not particularly powerful, but it shaped a generation of British pilots in much the same way as its immediate predecessor, the famed Tiger Moth.

But inside the cockpit, underneath that narrow framed canopy, ‘pretty’ is not the word to describe the DHC-1 Chipmunk. The design dates back to the immediate post-war period in British aviation, and it shows. The concept of ergonomics simply hadn’t been invented yet and many of the controls are tucked into slightly bewildering places around the cockpit. The master switch is positioned on the sidewall, down near your left shin. Sticking out of the floor nearby is the brake lever – pull to activate, then push the appropriate rudder for something approximating differential braking. The mixture control is pulled aft to select fully rich – the exact opposite of more or less every other aeroplane ever built. The throttle lever has a little ball on top (helpfully marked with a “T” in the Tiger Moth fashion) and is mounted with the mixture lever on the left side of the cockpit. The flap lever, with a ratchet to keep it in place, is reached for with a nearly fully-extended right arm and pulled up like a really big handbrake. The designers did away with the need for a complicated mechanism to adjust seat height by simply bolting the seat firmly to the floor. If it’s too low for you, get some cushions. If it’s too high, bad luck!

Priming the engine on VH-AKB, the Chipmunk that I flew recently, is accomplished by the highly technical means of pouring a small amount of fuel into the carburettor intake (the original priming mechanism having long ago given up the ghost). Once settled into the cockpit, the start procedure feels like it needs four arms. You cradle the stick in the crook of your right elbow, while keeping pressure on the brake lever with your right hand. Your left hand cracks the throttle open, then moves across to the starter button which is positioned about as far away from the throttle as it physically can be, high up on the top right-hand corner of the instrument panel. Once the engine fires, that left hand needs to be quick to move to the throttle to ‘juggle’ it and catch the engine before it dies – otherwise you need to unstrap, climb out to reprime the engine, and try again.

Taxiing in this aeroplane is an exercise in coordination. Juggling the throttle and the brake lever with your left hand while holding the stick back with your right (as is essential in any taildragger), weaving down the taxiway to see past the nose and trying not to hit anything is quite difficult. Slow and steady is the answer. Hopefully you’ll manage not to bend the aeroplane before taking off.

But get the aeroplane in the air and all the niggles involved in its ground handling simply disappear. The controls are beautifully light – ailerons especially so. A standard turn requires very little control movement. Even an aileron roll can be flown with much less stick than I was expecting. Aerobatics are graceful in a Chipmunk. Sure, there are many more capable aerobatic aeroplanes out there. But not many have the combination of finely balanced ailerons, responsive elevators and sheer old-world charm that this one does. She loops, rolls, stalls, wings over and generally has a whale of a time. And that all-over canopy gives a beautiful view of the ground when you’re upside down.

Back to the airport, then, to see if modern-day spamcan pilots like me can land a Chipmunk. Like the Tiger Moth, this machine likes the ‘wheeler’ style of landing, with a trickle of power on, because the oleos soak up any excess sink rate on touchdown. The actual touchdown is relatively easy to judge. But the problems start once the aeroplane slows up and the tailwheel came down. The rudder is extremely light and it’s very easy to overcontrol, leading to some not particularly dignified swerving down the runway if you’re not careful. The second attempt – once you tell your feet to wake up on the rudder bars – is usually much neater. But slow down to taxi speed and once again you need to juggle that awkward but very British brake system to get back to the hangar. It’s almost like the aeroplane doesn’t want to stay on the ground, like it’s trying to convince you that up in the air is where it belongs.

One thing that Gypsy Majors like is oil. After some aerobatics, the engine bay of the Chipmunk certainly shows why:

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Apparently that’s normal. Like all good vintage aero engines, if it stops dripping oil, it simply means it’s run out.

Despite her awkwardness on the ground, there’s no doubt that these aeroplanes have a certain ‘class’ that modern-day aircraft just don’t have. The heritage of the Chipmunk, stretching back to the Tiger Moth days, is certainly evident. Many pilots learnt to fly on aeroplanes just like this one in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s great to try and capture some of that era of flying if you ever get the chance.

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Accidents

Life in Bomber Command was a hazardous affair. Apart from the obvious – anything the Germans could throw at them – aircrew faced many other dangers in the long road to an operational squadron. Out of more than 55,000 aircrew killed serving in Bomber Command, some 8,000 died in accidents.

In the early 1940s, the aeroplane had existed for just four decades. Equipment was still primitive – especially compared with modern aircraft. Engine and other system failures were common, particularly when pushed beyond their design limits by the realities of wartime all-weather flying. Aircraft used at Operational Training Unit level – the unit at which airmen would ‘crew up’ and learn to fight – were often older, tired-out aircraft because the priority for the best equipment understandably lay with the operational squadrons themselves.

The aircraft on which most of the eventual crew of LM475 completed their OTUs in late 1943 was the Vickers Wellington. This was the type of aircraft on which Phil Smith flew his first tour of operations with 103 Squadron from Elsham Wolds from October 1941-June 1942. Phil’s first operation was as a second pilot on 16 October 1941 to Duisberg. Due to an oil problem they shut down one engine crossing the Dutch coast on the return flight. The second engine faltered shortly after crossing into England so they sought out an emergency aerodrome and, in Phil’s memorable understatement… (B03-001-016)

“…we crash landed rather unsuccessfully…”

All got out with only cuts and bruises.

But while Phil’s first crash in a Wellington was caused by mechanical failure, accidents could also come about from somewhat more mundane problems. Chief amongst these was human error. “I have come to the conclusion since I have been flying”, wrote Phil Smith to his mother in 1941, “that the machines are much more reliable than the humans that fly them.” (A01-147-001)

While the truly unsuitable were theoretically weeded out at the elementary flying training stage, even the best could occasionally make mistakes. On first arrival at Elementary Flying Training School in Tamworth in November 1940, Phil Smith wrote to his mother: (A01-126-001)

“The discipline up here appears unpleasantly severe, partly, we are told, because there was a fatal accident not long ago due to lack of flying discipline.”

An accident in a Tiger Moth witnessed by Phil at Elementary Flying Training School at Tamworth, NSW, in January 1941 was, according to the RAAF Preliminary Report of Flying Accident, put down to (A04-072-001)

“Poor technique and lack of anticipation on the part of the instructor”.

What happened to the instructor’s career subsequently is not recorded.

Inexperience played a big role in air accidents. The pilot of the Tamworth accident that Phil saw was lucky enough to walk away – but sometimes aircrew were not that lucky. During Phil’s time at 21 OTU, Moreton-in-Marsh, between August and October 1941, he witnessed or heard about many incidents. At least four are recorded in his diary – ranging from less-serious accidents like a burst tyre in August to an aeroplane flying into a hill and killing all seven on board in early October. The cemetery on the road between the airfield and the town of Moreton-in-Marsh bears witness to the appalling loss of life both from this accident and, sadly, from many more just like it. In all 46 airmen from the OTU are buried there. In a similar way, just outside the site of the old RAF Lichfield airfield is Fradley Church. 35 airmen rest here – which, according to Chris Pointon (RAF Lichfield Association historian) are only casualties from the period prior to August 1943. To avoid taking over the church yard, he says, following that date burials took place at Chester Blacon, almost 100km to the north west of RAF Lichfield. – there are 35 more there. A further six casualties were buried at Oxford Botley, 100km south.

Even then, that is not all of Lichfield’s victims. One of the men to die at Lichfield was Sgt AH Ashwood. He was killed on 27 September 1941 after sustaining serious burns in a Wellington crash which Phil Smith witnessed while out on a training flight himself (B03-001-013):

“We went first to Lichfield which is north of Birmingham.” […] We landed and no sooner had we got out of the plane than we saw a Wimpy start to burn on the runway. A very nasty memory, these planes are certainly death traps if they catch alight.”

Sgt Ashwood was buried in Margate, Kent – which was where his parents lived during the war.

Phil, of course, was not entirely immune himself. On squadron at Elsham, he was flying night time practice circuits with another pilot in January 1942. Bad visibility hampered their efforts but all went well until Phil’s last landing. They touched down nicely, but then (B03-001-015):

“the wheels collapsed and we settled down on our belly in the middle of the runway. It looks as though I selected the wheels up instead of flaps.”

Phil received a negative endorsement in his logbook following this incident, the cause being called “faulty cockpit drill”, put down to “inexperience”.

Perhaps the saddest epitaph of them all, however, is carved into one of the headstones in Moreton-in-Marsh and has nothing to do with aeroplanes.

“Killed in a road accident”, it reads. “Thy will be done.”

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Tiger Moth

How I imagine Phil Smith’s solo might have happened…

“It’s all yours, Smith – just do what Maguire told you to”, the senior instructor yelled into Phil’s ear, as he dropped off the wing and walked away from the Tiger Moth. It was early on one of those mornings that had the promise of turning into a real stinker in Tamworth. “And don’t bend it!” He waggled the elevator up and down – oh yes, keep that stick back, Phil, you twit – as he left. Phil blipped the throttle to get her moving, pushing the rudder pedals one way and then the other to keep the Tiger Moth weaving but heading, on average at least, in the direction he wanted it to. As the nose moved to each side, he peeked down the other side of the fuselage to make sure they would not taxi into anything.

Still rolling, Phil pushed the throttle forward to carry out his run-up checks – reaching outside the cockpit to flick the magneto switches off and on one at a time while  listening for a faint drop in RPM, closing the throttle and checking it idled smoothly, ‘stirring the pot’ with the control stick and rudder pedals – then released the trim. Nearing the far end of the field now, he checked the windsock, satisfied that from here he could take off directly into the light breeze that was blowing. He checked for any approaching aeroplanes, then turned into the wind and opened the throttle.

As the Tiger started to accelerate, he added progressively more left rudder to counteract the swing to starboard – the tail came up and suddenly he could (after a fashion) see ahead. Like the graceful creature she was, the Tiger Moth lifted from the grass, seemingly all by itself. Wow, he wasn’t kidding, they do climb better empty. Phil pushed forward slightly on the stick to place the horizon just below the edge of senior instructor F/O Maddocks’ windscreen (speaking of Maddocks, where was he?), adjusted the throttle back to 2150 rpm and checked the airspeed indicator. Good, he thought, it’s reading about 55 knots, just where it should be. Gee, it’s chilly up here. Keep those b—-d wings level – still got the power on, still got the left boot jammed into the rudder pedal. Sneak a glance at the airfield behind, the slipstream clawing at the top of his leather cap. Flying straight, that’s good.

Approaching 500’ on the altimeter now – lead the turn with a little rudder, then ease into the bank. Stop the turn. Still climbing. Nearing 1000’, circuit altitude. Turn downwind, lower the nose a little and reduce the power to about 1900 rpm – there, that sounds about right. Trim out the control forces – airfield off to the left, its far boundary just outside the wingtip. There goes another Tiger, he thought, as a little yellow biplane lifted off. With the power back it’s marginally warmer, but it’s still jolly cold in here. Wow, I’m actually flying – by myself! He looked all around, but it was true – he was the only one in the aeroplane. Solo!

“Wings level”, growled Maddocks through the Gosport.  Or he would have, had he been there. Whoops. Phil came back to reality. His touchdown point slipped past the left wingtip and it was time to think about the approach. I thought I’d be more nervous than this. Pull the throttle back to idle now – the engine coughed a bit, must have moved the throttle a bit too fast. It settled, and Phil kept the nose up as the aeroplane decelerated. Rolling into the base turn – don’t forget that rudder – he looked through the wires at the touchdown point. Looks a little high, he thought. Wait… don’t fall for that one again. Maguire had always told him it was easier to lose height than try and find it again. With the power at idle, all went comparitively quiet and he listened to the sound of the wind through the wires. Whoops. The singing wires turned higher in pitch. Too fast. Nose up a bit – the noise fell away and the aeroplane slowed down. There. That’s better. He shifted his backside on his parachute – the aeroplane wobbling from the inadvertant rudder movement. Aiming point – that rough patch of grass – stayed framed by the wings, just where it should be.

He started rolling into the final turn – added a bit of right rudder to sideslip neatly towards the ground. Too high – watch that airspeed – more aileron and more rudder to steepen the sideslip, then the aiming point disappeared below the nose and it was time to straighten up. Kicked her straight, brought the wings level – put on a trickle of power for the extra control authority. Transitioning into the flare, Phil brought the stick back a little bit. Feeling for the runway – lots of little, almost imperceptible jerks on the controls – then he felt the wheels kiss the grass. Power off – a tiny bounce – then she settled. Stick forward a tiny bit to pin the wheels onto the deck. Keep her straight! The Tiger Moth slowed down and Phil’s view forward disappeared as the tailskid dropped neatly onto the ground. Keep her straight! At walking pace now. Phil turned off the runway. There’s Maddocks, out to the side – how curious, he almost looks pleased. Taxied to the flight line, weaving back and forth – there’s that erk again, waving him in. There now – throw the switches, the engine stopped, the Tiger Moth rolled tidily to a halt, perfectly lined up with all the others. Helmet off, harness unbuckled, stand up – on shaking legs – climb out of the aeroplane (don’t forget to turn off the front switches). It’s only then that he realises what he’s just achieved.

Big silly grin.

Solo.

First Solo in a Tiger Moth

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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