The Magic of Aeroplanes

by

This month’s tale is about aeroplanes but there will be special Christmas tale by Eric Sanderson concerning dastardly deeds at the Slip Inn .

Look out for it on Christmas Eve

THE MAGIC OF AEROPLANES
We have all spent our lives under the sounds of aeroplanes and I Say ‘aeroplanes’ not aircraft for that is what we called them in the 1940s and they landed on ‘aerodromes’ not ‘airports’, ‘Yeadon Aerodrome’ not ‘Leeds Bradford Airport’. Somehow the name ‘aeroplane’ seems to carry the magic better.
When we were young, in the 1940s, the air would be full of piston engine aeroplanes droning above us, there were so many and we were so used to seeing them we hardly bothered to look up. If we did look up we would see, Spitfires and hear their beautiful Rolls Royce Merlin engine note, Hurricanes, Mosquitoes with their snub noses, Blenheim’s, Lancaster’s, Halifax’s, Sterling’s, Wellington’s the American ‘Flying Fortress’s with its many gun blisters and the work horse Dakotas’ with one engine hidden behind the fuselage so it looked as though it had and engine missing. These were to name but a few. We recognised them by their wing tip arrangement some clipped some curved and by their tail fins. We were spoilt, we observed these beautiful aeroplanes oblivious that this was a unique experience which would not be repeated for future generations.  The German planes only came by night but you could recognise them by their sinister, irregular engine note. When an air raid was on and we were in the shelter and the drone of a plane could be heard overhead someone would say, ‘Is it one of ours or one of theirs’ even as a child I could always tell them.
There was an ack ack battery further down Knostrop in the middle of the woods. When they opened up they made a ‘pom pom’ sound so we called them the ‘pom poms’ the night sky would be filled with searchlights trying to light up the intruders. The raid would begin with the wail of the sirens and the boats on the river would blow their hooters too. My dad would say, ‘the mussel boats are going off it’s time to go to the shelter!’ When the guns went off they would rattle the door of the shelter and I, being child, was once heard to say, ‘Someone’s knocking at the door.’ Seemingly that lightened the situation but the dog we had, Bobby, ‘took his hook, and we never saw him again. When the ‘all clear’ sounded it was welcome and had a far pleasanter note, then we could return to the houses and bed.
In the mornings after a raid we kids would hunt for shrapnel for souvenirs. The Germans were dropping anti-personnel mines so Mam would say, ‘Don’t pick anything nasty up’; with her saying ‘something nasty’ I expected the mines would look something like dog droppings. A sea change event occurred on Friday night the 14th of March 1941 when a German Bomb hit Richmond Hill School. As it was at night no one was injured but the pupils of Richmond Hill School were scattered among the other local schools in the area or in some cases evacuated to places like Ackworth and to Lincolnshire. Betty Nevard (nee Gibbins) in her tale on this site, see Aug 2007, tells of how next morning she could see her poor little knitting on pins (the girls were knitting socks, gloves and Balaclavas for our soldiers) among the debris.

richmond-hill-bomb-damagen

At one point I was sent off to stay with my aunt in the country as seemingly being safer than Leeds but the first night there the Germans dropped a flare right outside her cottage, evidently searching for the massive Avro munitions factory
Towards the end of the war I recall a full week when nearing dusk the sky would be filled from northern horizon to southern horizon with endless formations of bombers their red and green lights winking. We were used to seeing a lot of aircraft but this was obviously something quite special. I wonder now, looking back if they were the 1,000 bomber raids or perhaps the build up to the invasion. It was such a sight I have never forgotten it. When the RAF lads came home on leave in their blue uniforms they were the celebrities, especially if they had wings above their left breast pocket, one wing for aircrew and a double wing for a pilot and a god.
Sometimes there would be an exhibition on a spare space in the centre of Leeds and there might be a Lancaster bomber and you would be allowed, as a child, to clamber in and wonder at how tight the space was inside and the marvellous array of dials and gadgetry and the smell that went with them, there seemed to be so much that could go wrong.
After the war we saw the first of the jets: the Gloster Meteor, De Havilland Vampire, with its twin fuselage, The Hawker Hunter and the English Electric lightening. All were beautiful aeroplanes getting faster and faster – the goal was to break the ‘sound barrier’ which at the time appeared to be some sort of a mysterious barrier where the plane would be buffeted about, some thought bizarrely that the controls would become reversed. We went to the cinema to see films such as Test Pilot and The Sound Barrier. 762 mph at sea level was the sound barrier but I remember 606 mph being the record at one time. Test pilots were now the new heroes; it was a dangerous job De Havilland lost three of their family testing planes
I would regularly take on the congested traffic around tiny roads to watch the air shows at Church Fenton. There’s a pub there still, The Fenton Flier, filled with photos of wartime aircrew and general memorabilia you can get the feel of the RAF guys piling into there for a few pints after sorties, having survived another day in the skies. On one occasion there was a Harrier vertical take of plane practicing the day before the show, it hovered about for a bit then it put on full power and climbed nose first vertically the back draught from its engines was so powerful caused huge mature trees to bow as if they were twigs.
Along came national service for me in 1959, I was drafted into the REME attached the Army Air Corps The Army Air Corps function was primarily to act as eyes for the Royal Artillery to help them target their guns but we also had a liaison duty, which entailed ferrying VIPs around. It did get a bit over the top on occasions. For instance, sometimes we would pick up a general and fly him for hundreds of miles to attend a meeting but then we would have to drive a petrol-tanker to the same destination to ensure the helicopter could be filled up with the correct fuel for the journey home. I recall going along for a ride with the bowser driver all the way from Detmold, in Germany all the way into France to complete such an operation.
At 652 Squadron we had fixed wing aircraft: Austers and Chipmunks and rotary wing aircraft in the form of the tiny Skeeter helicopter which could just hold the pilot and one passenger; later we acquired the larger French Allouette helicopter. The Auster actually had its tail wheel attached by means of a thick rubber band – this was the correct monoculture for the job but it enabled the RAF lads to have a laugh at us and our ‘toy planes’. In theory, the lightweight Austers could actually fly backwards. It is air passing over the wings of an aircraft, which actually keeps it in the air. So if the if the wind speed is 50 knots per hour and the engine is only making 40 knots per hour, then the plane is losing distance at the rate of 10 knots per hour but can still stay in the air. The advantage of the Auster, was it could land on a sixpence. When we went on schemes, any old field could present a landing strip. One had to take care around aircraft: if a plane came into contact with a solid object there was hell to play. Everything had then to be checked out with a fine toothcomb before it could fly again. There was danger too. The main rotors blades of the tiny helicopters dropped to below head high as they were slowing down so you had to keep well clear and the tail rotors were lethal, they revolved so fast that you didn’t actually notice they were there at all. On one occasion, walking blindly into a spinning tail rotor decapitated an unfortunate Alsatian. The method of starting the light aircraft was to ‘swing the prop’ but you had to make sure you arm was out of the way before the engine fired or there was a danger of losing it. That was not a job trusted to a humble clerk.
After a major servicing had been carried out on an aircraft the mechanic who had been responsible for the servicing was supposed to make the first flight with the pilot. This was a safety precaution to encourage him to carry out the job correctly but as long as someone went up with the pilot they were not too fussy as to whom it was. The safety procedure was quite rigorous though, loads of forms had to be signed and counter signed before the aircraft was released back into service. If the mechanic didn’t feel like flying I would often volunteer to take his place, I loved flying; couldn’t get enough of it. Sometimes they wouldn’t have even have bothered putting the doors back on yet, when the pilot banked you were looking out into nothingness but we were strapped in and somehow looking out of an aircraft is not so frightening as looking down from a high tower or a bridge. Once in the air the noise from the engine was terrific, you were sat next to the pilot but you could only speak to him over the radio.
Flying was so exhilarating, especial when you went above the clouds after a dreary period of weather and saw the sun which might have had been missing for days: the sun always shines above the clouds in daytime of course. The servicing would likely have been carried out by one of my airframe, engine or electronic fitter mates from the billet, who might well be complete ‘nutters’ in their off duty periods but I never worried, I knew they would be spot on when aircraft safety was at stake.
Helicopter rides were my favourite, I recall a particular helicopter flight when the pilot followed a herd of deer running through the fire breaks of a forest at tree top height, and it was a sight you don’t easily forget. Helicopters sometimes have to encounter a phenomenon known as a ‘vortex ring’; these are pockets in the sky where the air will not support a helicopter. Apparently there is no warning when you are about hit one of these things

allouette-helicopter

and the ‘copter drops like a stone. The pilot would practice the procedure for dealing with a vortex ring or indeed for engine failure should it ever arise: you cannot glide down a plane without wings. The method employed to prevent a helicopter from actually hitting the ground was to disengage the rotor blades and let the machine fall. The action of falling through the air causes the blades to rotate faster and faster, and then just before the ground arrived the pilot would re-engage the clutch that would alter the pitch of the blades, which hopefully would be just enough to hold the machine for a soft landing. Of course, when carrying out these exercises, it was the pilot’s game was not to warn you what he was about to do in advance, so when the plane dropped you turned green and left your stomach a few hundred feet above. The lads always had a laugh at my expense when I took a helicopter flight in the tiny Skeeters. These small aircraft were not advised to take off vertically, except in emergency when carrying more than twenty-five stone. As few pilots were under ten stones, our flights fell into such a category, to compensate for the extra weight the helicopter would take off along the runway like a normal aircraft, generating much laughter from the lads. We didn’t get much pay on national Service, If I recall it was about £2 10 shilling per week but the c/o helped us out by giving us an extra 7 shillings and six pence a week if we could become ‘observers’ for this we had to be able to recognise aircraft silhouettes from a card, which was a ‘piece of cake’.
Originally I had been posted to a small airfield in Detmold, West Germany but eventually I was posted with our flight to RAF Wildenrath, still in Germany. Here we were part of a huge RAF station. It stretched for three or four miles in every direction. One would have been talking about ten miles plus, to walk around the perimeter fence. It seemed a bit of an extravagance that our little Austers, which only needed thirty yards to take off, used their giant runway. The fact that the RAF did all the guards was a bonus too, as it meant we did not have to do any ourselves. The station was equipped with Canberra bombers they were bombers but handled like fighters and were flying somewhere in the world for almost fifty years.

v-bomber
All the three ‘V’ bombers: The Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and The Vickers Valiant, would drop in from time to time. It was the time of The Cold war and all three aircraft producing companies had been commissioned to come up with a plane that had the ability to carry a nuclear bomb to Russia and return. It was a marvellous sight to see them landing and taking off. In my spare time, I would enjoy just sitting on the grass and watching them: there is an exciting smell and a sort of magic just to be around aeroplanes. There were regular open days at the station, when all sorts of exotic aircraft would arrive to take part and we saw it all for free. I recall one day prior to an open day air show two jets arrived one coming from the east and the other from the west and they crossed right over my head it was a memorable occasion another memorable sight and one I have never forgotten to this day because the odds against it happening were so great happened a night with a lovely silver full moon,

I looked up and a Vulcan bomber passed exactly over the moon and for a brief second its delta wins and the moon fitted perfectly together.
On one of these open day occasions I remember having the doubtful pleasure of sitting astride a nuclear bomb. From time to time, the RAF had to practice night flying, which could be quite noisy. It kept you awake the first few times then you got used to it and never seemed to hear it at all.
I would have loved to win a flight in a Canberra sometimes as a money raising effort the RAF would raffle a flight in the nose of a Canberra bomber they would whisk you out across the North Sea and back. Alas I was never lucky enough to win a ticket. That would have been something special for me.
The mighty Vulcan bomber made its finest and farewell flight – in fact its only flight in anger – in 1982 when it was already out of service making its daring flight from Ascension Island to the Falkland island to put the airstrip at Port Stanley, held by the Argentineans, out of commission. The flight was far beyond its range but a planned series of thirteen Victor Tankers continually refuelled it and had to be refuelled themselves to achieve the objective. It must have been a morale lifting sight for the subjected Falklanders to hear the mighty roar of the Vulcan delivering its pay load over runway and know that although Britain was 8,000 miles away they were not abandoned. After being refuelled by the last Victor it became apparent to the crew of the Vulcan the fuel load to complete the mission was inadequate they could carry on and complete the mission but not have enough fuel to return or they could abort the mission altogether. They decided to a man to complete the mission whatever. Only one bomb hit the runway, the first, but it was enough it put the airstrip out of action and could not be used for the duration of the war by the Argentineans. On the way back they met our fleet on the way out to the Falklands who thought the Vulcan to be an enemy aircraft and nearly shot it down. It would seem the Vulcan was out of fuel and out of tankers and they were preparing to ditch in the sea, then in the nick of time a Victor turned up out of the clouds to refuel the Vulcan and save the day. What a welcome sight it must have been for the brave crew of the Vulcan; surely a tale fit for a ‘Biggles’ adventure.

Today, faced with the enormous cost of producing a new plane from scratch it is beyond the scope of individual companies to produce their own new aircraft, it’s even beyond most countries and the European countries pitch in to produce a new plane between them. We have The Typhoon and The tornado fighters but you hardly ever see them in the sky and unless you are taking a trip on a faceless commercial airliner plane spotters are restricted to watching vapour trails in the sky and wondering how the bodies of tiny sea creatures produced so much oil to fuel them all.

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16 Responses to “The Magic of Aeroplanes”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Marvellous reminiscences Peter. My memories connect with the early bits. I was a child at Richmond Hill when it was bombed, and was horrified that the coat lobby which had been assigned as the air-raid shelter for my class had been completely demolished. Thank goodness that it was a Friday night. The stick of bombs that straddled the railway tunnel – I think under the big boy’s playground – also flung a railway sleeper against the house wall of my cousin, Brian Monk. Thank you for the very graphic descriptions of your experiences in the national service. I had just emigrated to Oz and so missed this experience. In retrospect I think I missed out on a very useful experience.

  2. peterwwood Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Doug. Yes, Brian Monk told me about that railway sleeper and if you think how deep the railway cutting is near Richmond Hill it must have been some blast to lift it right up to Lavender Walk.

  3. Eric Says:

    A really well informed & interesting article Pete .During the course of my work, I had occasion to visit several RAF stations including Scampton & Coningsby – home of the dam-busters – & was granted the privilege of clambering into the last flying Lancaster as well as the last Vulcan bomber. The latter was very claustrophobic & had only an escape chute for the flight engineer which he had to slide down in an emergency & I was told that in doing so , the likelihood would be that he would clatter into the undercarriage whilst the two pilots escaped via ejector seats.
    The Lancaster was of particular interest to me as I had an uncle who was a Lancaster pilot in WW2 , flying from Scampton & taking part in some of the 1000 bomber raids – although in later life, he said he regretted doing so.
    Your descriptions of the air raids & recognition of different ‘planes from their sound were very realistic. Great stuff.

  4. peterwwood Says:

    Wow! we are exchanging 75 year old memories here. Great stiff.

  5. Edward Blackwell... Says:

    I enjoyed the tale Peter, I’ve always had a liking for Aeroplanes, from being a small boy, my Dad was in the RAF during WW 2 and even though I couldn’t read he left me a book called the history of flying, which eventually I read from cover to cover. However I’m putting you on a charge, hands in your pockets no creases in your trousers and your hair is so long if the rota had been turning you’d have been lucky to escape without being scalped. For all that it’s a great tale and very well put together. It’s amazing how our paths have seemed to run in parallel, I was doing National Service about the same time as you, I was in the R A S C and went into Air Dispatch, I was in the training Wing and did a lot of flying from R A F transport Command at Abingdon Oxfordshire, we flew in all kinds of military aeroplanes, Valetta, Hastings, Argosy, Blackburn Beverly, Single Pioneer and Twin Pioneer, and Helicopters at Boscombe Down. We used to do what was called a Bomb Cell drop, these were metal containers shaped like a bomb hinged so they opened into halves loaded with weapons and ammo then closed and locked with a clip, and were fixed under the wings a 4 engine propeller driven Hastings Transport, and we would Fly over the Dropping Zone at a height of 50 ft to make the drop, very exciting you could see the eyes of the people looking up as we went through, then the cells were released over the marker and away we’d climb, The Single Pioneer was a light aeroplane just the pilot and a passenger, it had slots or slats on the leading edge of the wing and if we had a wind of about 40 knots the pilot could turn into the wind put the brakes on, deploy the slots rev his engine release the brake and lift off, but he had to know what he was doing I recall one time the pilot lifted off and a gust hit the aeroplane and it side slipped into the ground and crumpled the Port wing luckily the Pilot wasn’t injured and our Fire Crew were prompt on the scene covering everything with Foam, there was fuel everywhere, some of the lads took some for their cars, which they regretted later on..

  6. Dave Carncross Says:

    I’ve always felt I missed a great experience by not getting ” called up” although at the time it was better for my job if I didn’t. It’s obvious from the detail in your tales Peter that it all made a deep impression on you. I had to do a fair bit of flying on business over the years and can’t honestly say I fell in love with the experience. I had a pal in Lincolnshire who had two planes of his own and enjoyed the odd trip with him in them. A lot different to commercial flying – his airstrip was a field with reinforced grass ( plastic honeycomb webbing under the turf). We would push the plane out of its home built hangar onto the strip and would be airborne within minutes. I think it was alll the airport nonsense that took the enjoyment out of it for me. I once went to sleep immediately after getting on a plane in Schiphol and woke up as were descending into Aarhus in Denmark. Good flight that.

  7. peterwwood Says:

    Enjoyed your comment, Eddie and I remember the Hastings now you mention them. they were good workhorses but ugly beggers We called them: ‘The Flying Pigs’

  8. Edward Blackwell... Says:

    It’s amazing when you think back Pete, there were some ugly Aeroplanes in those days, one of them in my opinion was the Blackburn Beverley, it was a Pod and Boom design with twin tail fins, the idea was that the Pod would carry a vehicle provisions and munitions, and the Boom would carry the Paratroopers, they would fly over the enemy lines into a forward position open the clam shell doors and drop the Vehicle and provisions whilst the Paratroopers jumped from the boom following up, then additional supplies would be dropped by the Twin Pioneers or back up Aeroplanes, once a forward position had been established, for the main forces to move forward into. They were great times (and bad times as well, I once remember having to clean the toilets with a toothbrush, and the Guard Commander came in and said it’s absolutely filthy you idle fatherless son of a bitch, or words to that effect, do it again) Happy days without any money, but the future to look forward to, unfortunately it’s not as clear as that today. Thanks for stirring those memories for me Pete, and Dave you did miss a great experience my friend. By the way Pete we called the Valetta the Pig, because the Main-spar of the wing which was about 36″ deep ran through the fuselage of the plane and to keep the plane in trim for take off all the supplies to be dropped had to be loaded above that spar, this meant all of those supplies had to be humped over that spar whilst in flight to dispatch through the open door. We always had the door removed before take off to enable the supplies to be dispatched…

  9. peterwwood Says:

    I’m in awe of your grasp on the technicalities of aircraft, Eddie. Sometimes I wish I was born a couple of years earlier so that I could have experienced and understood ‘The War’ better – but then I might be dead now! As for National Service I have loads of National Service memories if we ever run out of local tales, especially the time I was lost in Germany, on three charges at the same time, or had a prang with a German bus while learning to drive in a one ton Bedford. Happy days through. I think Dave and Eric would be too young to remember ‘The War’ and too young for National Service what a shame, and all the girls too who never got the chance to experience the great comradeship and just the chance of living something entirely different for a couple of years and knowing that eventually they would return to normality..

  10. Dave Carncross Says:

    Peter. You are right about a Eric and I being too young. I think I am right in saying that the last quarter to be called up were those born July to Sept of 1939 and at the time they were staggering the call ups so that one wouldn’t necessarily be called immediately after your birthday. Even if they had called the next quarter, I would have missed it by a day being born 1.1.40. I do remember quite clearly sitting on our step once watching wave after wave of bombers going overhead late on in the war. Funny thing is, in my mind they were all silver ones. It was during the day and a clear sunny one at that.

  11. Eric Says:

    Lots of interesting info on here & Eddie is obviously in his element.
    I was in the last group to register for Nat’l Service Pete but was deferred . By the time I’d finished my studies , Nat’l Service was ended but it was with mixed feelings for me.
    I believe that after N.S had finished , insufficient recruits came forward & the last lot of inductees had to do an extra 6 mths. This happened to a friend of mine but he managed to play the game by getting married , buying a house & furnishing it on the tick which the Army had to pay for. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say

  12. Gloria Blakey Says:

    Just read all the comments above, I think this is man’s stuff, hence no women have replied!!!!!

  13. Edward Blackwell... Says:

    That was a clever move your friend made Eric, I was taking H N C at Leeds Technical College in 1959, and I couldn’t understand why so many of the Lads failed their final year, with hindsight they failed so they could get an extra years deferment and avoid National Service which finished about six months before I got demobbed. I have to say without any disrespect to the people concerned, but the recruits that came in after National Service end were not the same quality as the National Servicemen, and the Army seemed to waive a lot of it’s rules to try and accommodate them and make them welcome but they were not the type to conform to the discipline required. In my experience the first thing that happened during basic training was you were, stripped of your individuality and became part of a machine that didn’t think but just obeyed the commands it was given, if you said I’m not doing that, it was fall in two men and you were marched at double time to the Guardhouse and put on a charge, and you only did that once because the consequence of your action could seriously damage your future…..Great Days I’m sure Pete will agree…..lol..

  14. peterwwood Says:

    You know I do hope many of our readers get around to reading the comments, I often think the comments are best part of ‘the blog’ but I bet a lot of folk never find them or know how great they are.
    I’ve just got to add this little tale about deferment, I’ll not mention any names as you don’t know who may be reading this. Right my friend was in the middle of his apprenticeship and his City And Guilds. At the time he was also courting a lass (who shall also be nameless) her dad was so possessive that when they went to the pictures he came along too. My friend should have got deferred OK due to his ongoing studies but his deferment didn’t come through. It turned out the guy who approved deferments in Leeds was his girl friends dad!. He obviously didn’t fancy my mate as a son-in-law. As it happened my mate was the winner, just like me he loved the experience of National Service. When he met up with her years later she told him this is indeed what had happened. .

  15. Edward Blackwell.. Says:

    Pete your tale about aeroplanes has sparked of my love for the old “V” bombers I’ve just been looking at the Vulcan, the Valiant and the Victor, I built a model of the Vulcan from a picture I saw in the paper in about 1952, it was a delta wing as you are aware and my first attempt did a creditable nose dive and landed on it’s back, much to everybodies amusement, I was on a learning curve, eventually I got it to fly in a fashion, but it made me look more closely at the technical aspects of aerofoil design, and center of gravity. So I’ve decided to build another “V” bomber, and as I’m partial to the cresent wing it will be the Victor, it’s a project for 2017, it will be gravity powered and Radio controled about 7 foot span, I have scale drawings on the web that I can blow up (lol), and when it’s finished I shall fly it from the old Pit Hills in East End Park as a slope soarer, it will be just like old times, I’ll keep you informed on progress…..something to look forward to for the New Year…..Merry Christmas to everyone..

  16. peterwwood Says:

    Great stuff Eddie, I’ll look forward to your progress and eventual success

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