Archive for the 'Flying' Category



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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