Posts Tagged 'Flight Engineer'

Vale Cliff Leach

I’m very sad to report that Clifford Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, died last week after a short illness. Cliff, perhaps unusually for his generation, plunged right in to the world of computers and forums in his later years, posting on a number of forums about his wartime experiences as ‘cliffnemo’. His magnum opus, however, was a thread that he started on PPRuNe in June 2008 called ‘Gaining an RAF Pilot’s Brevet in WWII’. Cliff posted about his experiences while in training, backed up with original notes and drawings. This drew a number of other contributors into the open, among them the much-missed Reg Levy, a 51 Sqn Halifax skipper who later  (among other things in a very long and varied career) flew Boeing 707s with Sabena. Four years and close to 2,500 posts later, that thread is still more than going strong, with a former Vultee Vengeance pilot named Danny now holding court.

On another forum, one of Cliff’s first posts was typical of the modesty of his generation:

I didn’t do much only three opps

Well, you might not have thought so, Cliff, but what a legacy you leave behind. The PPRuNe thread likely would not have come into existence without Cliff’s input. And it’s the interactive nature of those kinds of threads that makes them so valuable – being able to read experiences written first-hand, then asking questions either about those stories or on anything else even remotely related to the topic at hand. That little post in June 2008 brought into the open many fascinating stories and the thread now contains a goldmine of information for researchers like me – adding colour to the dry facts and figures.

His son Bill has posted on the thread following the death of his father, saying how proud Cliff was of the thread and how he had arranged for a printed copy of it to be left for his grandson. He also related the story of Cliff’s final flight, just a week before he died. A friend arranged for a local flying school to take him up, and he was, says Bill, “astounded that he was ordered straight into the pilots seat and took the controls for the whole flight. He was told that if it wasn’t for a strong cross wind he would have been allowed to land the plane.”

I never had the chance to meet Cliff, though we corresponded through the thread and through email over the last few years. His input assisted greatly in my earlier post on Flight Engineer training, and his recollections about the Lancaster contributed to th final look of the painting of B for Baker that I commissioned a couple of years ago. “On final check before switching off engines [the] engineers final check included raise flaps”, he wrote. “I think that if we had arrived at ‘dispersal’ and found the flaps down, we would have informed ‘Chiefy’.” And that settled it, so I asked Steve to depict B for Baker with her flaps up!

Another remarkable man has, in the words of the late Neptunus Lex, ‘stepped into the clearing at the end of the path’. Blue skies and tailwinds, Cliff. Blue skies and tailwinds.

Edit 25APR12: Link to a story in the local newspaper of Cliff’s final flight, published only a few days before he died.

(c) 2012 Adam Purcell


Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

a05-226-001-orig copy

The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.


B for Baker now has a flight engineer.

This afternoon, I received in the post a slightly fat envelope from England. As I opened it, a dozen or more photographs tumbled out onto my desk. The letter inside was from Steve Butson, to whom I had sent the latest of my speculative letters.

“In answer to your question”, it said, “yes, Kenny Tabor was the Uncle I never knew”.

With that simple phrase, the great relative search was complete.

Steve wrote me a fantastic four-page letter in which he explained a lot about his family. Some of the names were familiar, thanks to Chris Tabor’s careful work on Some were new to me. But they were all connected to the buck-toothed young chap who appeared in some of the photographs.

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Sgt Kenneth Harold Tabor had an older brother and a sister called Bill and Betty, and a younger brother called Don. He worked at a garage in Westbourne before he joined the Royal Air Force on his eighteenth birthday. Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that he would train and fly as a flight engineer. Ken was killed when Lancaster LM475 B for Baker failed to return from Lille on 10 May 1944. The youngest member of the crew, he was just nineteen years old.

The crew is complete. I am now in contact with relatives of each of the seven men who were on board B for Baker when it was lost. It’s taken about three years of fairly steady work to reach this point. Now it’s time to find out as much as I can about each one, to give a human face to the story.

And ultimately? The seven men in the crew of B for Baker were drawn together long ago by events well beyond their comprehension or control. These same forces now forever link their seven families. It’s my goal to one day bring all seven together again – for the first time in nearly seven decades.

Like crewing up, once more.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Still looking

In recent weeks I’ve stepped up the search for relatives of
the last remaining member of the crew of B for Baker. Sgt Kenneth Harold Tabor was the crew’s Flight Engineer. His service record (which I have just received from the RAF) shows that he was the youngest on the crew, enlisting on his 18th birthday. Sadly he was killed before reaching his 20th.

To this point, the search has been a case of sending letters willy-nilly to Tabors scattered all around the UK, simply because that is their name. I’m up to 12 so far. Many of those I have heard back from have been related to each other. Not all have replied yet but to date I have hit dead ends. As it has turned out, there are many more Tabors around than I previously anticipated and, well, to continue in this direction will take (a) a very long time and (b) lots of money. So a new direction has been needed.

Enter Chris Tabor, the latest to receive one of my speculative letters. He is no relation to Ken, but it happens that he is into family history research, has an membership and, most importantly, knows how to use it. So he’s been doing some digging for me. Chris has uncovered records showing that Ken had two older siblings – a sister and a brother who appear to have been twins. Both married and had children who would now be in their 60s. I plugged the names that Chris sent me into a useful website called, and it has come up with postal addresses for a number of people of those names.

Those six people will shortly be sent one of my now legendary speculative letters. Only this time, I’m hoping that the letters are slightly less speculative than they have been in the past. This time there is a document trail that suggests we might be on the right track.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

© 2011 Adam Purcell