The two weeks passed by, we had no significant problems, our troops collected their fortnight’s pay plus (I think) their Annual Bounties; we said Goodbye to Martlesham and went back to Thornaby. There training was suspended for a week or two to give everybody a rest and allow the regulars to get in a spot of leave.
I’ve earlier described my failure to get a full career Permanent Commission, and my acceptance into the humbler Limited Career PC in the GD (Air Traffic Control) Branch. This would, of course, mean the end of my flying career. The details had not been worked out, but I imagine that the transfer between Branches would have taken place after my current tour at Thornaby.
That they would allow me to continue as GD (Pilot) until the end of my SSC (in’57) was too much to hope for.
But now, five years before that date, AMO A499/52 appeared, extending the LCPC offer to the GD (Pilot) Branch. Naturally I immediately applied for my LCPC to be switched to that. And it was approved, too. But (and it proved a very big But), it was conditional on my passing the full aircrew medical board again. I didn’ t anticipate any difficulty.
From the very first, in 1940, I’d known that my mother’s concern over my Weak Chest was not without foundation. But this had been no hindrance to me in any way; I saw no reason to mention it and the medics couldn’t find it. On my two previous full Boards (in ’40 and ’49), I’d blown up the mercury for the full 60 seconds: that satisfied the Board that my lungs were good enough.
And 35,000 ft in an unpressurised Meteor had been no problem.
Since my return to the RAF in ’49, I’d had a blameless aeronautical conduct sheet, I hadn’t bent or scratched a single aircraft, or committed any misdemeanour. It was a pity that I managed to blot my escutcheon so late (as it would prove to be) in the day. I shall tell the sorry story in my next two Posts.
If you have tears, prepare to shred them now (Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)
4th May 2013, 01:47
It was a Sunday afternoon in late ’52. I was strolling back from lunch to my office when the howling of Goblins indicated that 608’s first detail of interceptions was getting into the air. Sooner ’em than me, I thought.
For it was a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year (E.A. Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher ). This was one of them. Weathermen call it Anticyclonic Gloom.
A huge high-pressure system was anchored over the UK. There was little or no wind; over all Teeside lay a thick blanket of haze from ICI, the blast furnaces and coke ovens, together with the chimney smoke from hundreds of thousands of coal fires. In those days the Environment hadn’t been invented, and nobody would have cared a jot for it if it had.
Slant visibility was very poor, but it is a feature of this smog that you can see straight down through it fairly well. And it usually goes up only 1500-2500 feet into an inversion, which effectively traps it into a layer above which all is (more or less) clear and blue.
I’d settled back into the regular routine of the day; everything was running smoothly in the Unit, and my afternoon tea and biscuit had just arrived at my desk. The phone rang. It was John Newboult over on the squadron. Look, he said we’ve got a Vampire just in off routine inspection.
The Boss wants it on the line ASAP, but it needs an airtest. I’m up to my eyes in it here, and Mike’s in the air with the Auxiliaries. Could you possibly.
You do not look gift horses in the mouth. Stifling a suggestion that his Boss might get off his rump and do the airtest himself, I agreed (well, you’ve got to help a mate, haven’t you), collected my kit, hopped on the bike, and went over to Flights. It was now mid-afternoon and the light was starting to fade.
I went straight up through this stuff into the clear air above. The Vampire seemed sound in wind and limb, my last check was to take it up to 35,000 to make sure that the Minimum Burner Pressure light didn’t flicker at max continuous – (I never heard of a Goblin flaming-out, did anyone else ?)
Now I was up high with not much else to do. I did a few rolls to keep my hand in, which entailed a bit of mental arithmetic at the end. A Vampire has a group of five fuel gauges: you have to tot-up the five readings to get the total. That isn’t too hard if the fuel stayed in its own tank, but if the aircraft is thrown about a bit, it all goes walkabout.
A tank which previously showed full is now half empty, another which showed empty is now half full. One which was three-quarter is down to a quarter. You have to do the sum all over again.
Then I thought, I’ll do a nice big loop. Going down was fine, gentle pull up with full throttle fine, over the top with just enough G to keep me comfortably in my seat, throttle closed and start on down. We hadn’t got all that far when the old snatching and thumping started, and I realised that I was well on my way to my first (and last !) supersonic Vampire. Idiot.
I slammed the dive brakes out, hoping that the structure would hold together (yes, I know that the book says you can put them out at any speed, but. ) This brought us up all standing, but the wings were, thankfully, still in position when I looked out. I started to breathe again and we reached equilibrium once more.
Now it has always been my practice that, once you have tried the patience of Providence and got away with it, not to do anything silly again on the same flight. It would be SL and gentle turns from now on. I’ll do a Controlled Descent.
It’ll give the Auxiliary Controller a bit of practice, and save me having to scratch about in this murk trying to find the field. If it works OK, and I have fuel, might do another one.
As the squadron was still out on exercise, I was the only customer and the QGH should be straight out of the book. I was soon overhead. All the QGHs I’d done there before had been done on a NE SW Safety Lane.
This brings you in over Tees mouth, and there are plenty of landmarks from then on, culminating in Thornaby cemetery (the many white military headstones show up a treat) acting as a sort of Inner Marker for the 22 threshold.
But today he sent me out SWNE. I didn’t even know they had a second safety lane, but you learn something every day. I thought he was a bit slow letting me down outbound, but no matter – it would give me more time to settle down inbound. Check Height 2,500, and I’m skimming over a sea of mushroom soup.
Descend to Visual – call field in sight. Down into the clag I go, at 1,500 I can see a circle of ground perhaps half a mile wide below me, but nothing further out. But not to worry, the steers are 040-045-040, I’m right in the groove, the field must appear any moment.
But things are not always what they seem.
Have a good weekend, gentlemen (Part 2 on Sunday, D.V.)
It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
6th May 2013, 02:33
There it is. Field in sight. Over to local. Silversand 21 joining. The bored Local Controller puts down his Sunday paper: 21-04left-1019-circuitclear-calldownwind.
I watch the runway as a cat watches a mouse, never taking my eyes off it. For I know, from bitter experience, that in these conditions you only need to look away for a couple of seconds and it’s gone. Thrashing around trying to find it again is no good, you have to swallow your pride and go back to Approach for steers to bring you home again (this does no good at all to your image).
21 Downwind. Call finals-surfacewind-020tenknots. The local Controller hasn’t seen me, but in any case he wouldn’t expect to in this smog, and besides, I’m behind him as he sits in the Tower. And he’s entitled to assume that a pilot is where he says he is. 21 finals, three greens..21, land.
I swing round and down to the runway.
Half way round, something strikes me as odd. Prewar, there had been a small road running close to that side of the boundary. The runway was extended during the war, a section of the road was closed off, and had been incorporated into the new taxiway.
Post war, the road had been reinstated, some 200 ft of the runway had been cut off with an angle-iron and wire fence across. (The useless stub of runway and its verges were a popular picnic spot for the locals; there they could watch the flying as they scoffed their sandwiches).
Landing on 04, you came over this fence to the displaced threshold. But the fence had gone. Someone had taken it away. Nobody had told me.
I hadn’t flown for ten days or so, had I missed something on the crewroom blackboard. I was very low now, concentrating on the piano keys (did we have them then ?). For the first time, I had a quick glance to my left.
There were one or two gliders far over on the grass. Thornaby didn’t fly gliders. Help. – I’m having a nightmare. – Where am I ?
Even then the penny didn’t drop, but instinct (at last !) took over. Get out of it ! I slammed the throttle open, but the Goblin spools-up only slowly. The Vampire settled and I felt the wheels rumbling on the tarmac.
And then, at the far runway intersection, an old sit-up-and-beg cyclist appeared, making slow and stately progress across my bows from left to right.
Clearly, he hadn’t heard me (must have been deaf as a post) – and there was no reason for him to expect aircraft on a Sunday. I’d to decide whether to swerve in front of him, or behind, or wet-hen over the top, for I knew instantly that we would arrive exactly at the middle of the intersection together. Time started to pass in milliseconds.
At this point, some sixth sense warned the old chap that all was not well. I cannot swear to it, but I’m sure I saw a puff of smoke from the back tyre and the bike do a wheelie. It shot out of my field of vision.
Back in the air again, over the far end of the runway, and all became clear. In an impossibly small field lay a crashed Meteor. A few days before an AFS student had stalled on finals to runway 22 at Middleton, and pancaked into this tiny spot. No one could imagine how he had done it; it hadn’t done him any good, he was severely injured and the aircraft, seemingly undamaged, had a broken back.
It was still there as the engineers couldn’t work out how to shift it. The fame of this incident had spread round the North East, eveybody in the air with a few minutes to spare had gone to have a look, and MSG were getting quite stroppy about it.
This sad sight clinched it: now I knew where I was. A few seconds more, and I was over the railway viaduct at Yarm. No way of getting away with it -there had been too many witnesses. I sighed and called Local: Ring Middleton and apologise for me – I’ve just done a roller there by mistake. Now 608 had come back on the frequency, so it was a public confession.
Guffaws and catcalls filled the air (I’m afraid R/T discipline was rather poor in those days !).
I nipped back ahead of them into the circuit, round and down. There shoudn’t be anyone in the Flight Office just now, I should be able to book-in and get out without anyone seeing me. Too late! – the snitch in ATC had phoned the Squadron as soon as he’d hung up on the SDO at MSG.
Boss Martin was there, and he addressed me more in anger than in sorrow. What the devil was I thinking about, a pilot of my experience, to do a damned silly thing like that. The Squadron would get the blame for this: it was one of his aircraft, they would be the laughing stock of the Command. And what about the gliders.
Supposing there had been a tow wire awaiting pickup on the runway. How far would I get with that wound round a wheel.
I thought it unlikely that MSG would be doing aerotows in these conditions, winch-launched CBs at the best, but it didn’t seem advisable to make the point just now, or to mention the little matter of the cyclist. Boss had got his Vampire back without a scratch, hadn’t he. I’d done his airtest for him, hadn’t I. What had he to moan about ?
All my service life, I’d enjoyed stories of pilots who had done just this very thing (the favourite being the tale of a Very Senior Officer who landed somewhere or other, but remained very taciturn until he’d a chance to read DROs – and so found where he was !) How could anyone be so stupid. I thought. Now I knew.
In my defence, I could say that the runway patterns, the orientation of hangars and control tower, and the main runway headings were identical. The fields were only six miles apart (say little more than two minutes’ flight), and the visibiltiy was appalling. I couldn’t even see the oxbow in the Tees (about a mile to the west) which points like a dagger at Thornaby. But none of this exculpates me.
I should have overshot as soon as I noticed the missing fence.
Good news travels fast. It had got back to my unit before I did (tail between my legs). People were very kind to me at tea in the Mess.
Jack Derbyshire answered the phone and came over, sympathetically: Old Man wants to see you in the morning – 0900.
Malcolm Sewell was a man of few words: Three extra auxiliary weekends SDO. No more than I deserve, Sir.
That’s all, folks.
Please sir, I’m not lost – it’s just that I don’t know where I am.
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