Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 3 : Mighty Mosquito

The author flew in one of the last flying Mosquitos at Bovingdon during the making of "633 Squadron". Two Merlin engines gave this twin-engined fighter one of the highest top speeds of any WWII piston-engined aircraft.

In the early years of the Second World War, de Havilland Chief designer R.E. Bishop’s team produced the Mosquito, originally an unarmed bomber powered by two Rolls Royce Merlins. The airframe was made mainly of wood to conserve strategic materials. During four years of combat, the Mosquito proved to be one of the fastest of contemporary aircraft. It was successfully developed as a fighter, a bomber and even as a reconnaissance aircraft. It was flown from aircraft carriers and was even pressed into service as a high-speed airliner in BOAC colors, carrying passengers in the bomb bay between Britain and Sweden.

Some twenty years later, only a handful of Mosquitoes remained flying. In the spring of 1963 United Artists planned to make the film “633 Squadron” starring Mosquitoes in a re-creation of Fred Smith’s novel about a fictitious Mosquito Squadron tasked with attacking a heavy water factory in Norway. Eight Mosquitoes were finally located to serve in the movie. Five came from the Civilian Anti-aircraft Co-Operation unit at Exeter, two came from the Royal Air Force and one from private owner Peter F.M. Thomas. The flying sequences were handled by Captain John Crewdson’s Film Aviation Services at Bovingdon, an RAF station just outside London, and on location in Scotland.

By the time the film project appeared on my horizon, although still a teenaged schoolboy, I was writing occasional aviation articles on a freelance basis. When John Crewdson offered me the chance to come and fly in a Mosquito during the making of the film I needed no second bidding. So one blazing hot day in an English summer I found myself taken back in time as I passed through the main gate at RAF Bovingdon.

Crewdson introduced me to the pilots. We briefed for the flight. I was to fly in Mosquito T.T.35 TA 639 with Flying Officer C. Kirkham from Royal Air Force Little Rissington. Kirkham was to be the leader of Red formation. The second of the three Mosquitoes making up Red formation was another T.T.35 flown by Flight Lieutenant D.J. Curtis. The third aircraft was a Mosquito T.3 flown by J.R.”Jeff” Hawke, an colorful ex -RAF Lightning pilot who was later to ferry two of the Bf 108s used in the film over to the USA.

I would be taking photographs from the right hand seat of the lead aircraft. Our formation would consist of these three aircraft only and the resulting camera shots from the ground would be multiplied by the film technicians to give a full squadron of twelve aircraft.

We walked out along the line of Mosquitoes, each now sporting a set of dummy guns in the nose, full wartime camouflage and markings and one or two with very realistic, but simulated, battle damage. At the end of the line loomed our Mosquito. While Kirkham carried out his pre-flight checks I struggled into my parachute harness. The sheer size of the machine made pre-flighting difficult as the engines and spinners were way above our heads. I watched in fascination as Kirkham extracted the hydraulic pump handle from the bowels of the cockpit and rattled it along the exhaust stubs of the Merlins to check their integrity, a latter-day version of the railroad wheel tapper’s hammer.

With pre-flight checks completed I followed Kirkham up through the hatch in the belly of the Mosquito. There was only room for one person to move in the cockpit at one time. Encumbered with parachute harness, flying helmet and camera I eventually managed to wriggle and fold my six-feet one inch height into the right hand seat. Once our ladder was handed up to us and stowed, the outer hatch was slammed shut by our ground crew, sealing us in the cockpit. I strapped in.

Our aircraft had been standing in the sun all day. Consequently it was abominably hot under the Perspex canopy and we were soon sweating profusely. We cracked the clear-view panels open to entice a current of air through the cockpit. While I fiddled with my window, Kirkham commenced his pre-start checks. An external power trolley had already been plugged into the belly of the Mosquito and the starboard engine was primed.

Kirkham gave a thumbs up to the ground crew and clicked the ignition switches on, followed by the starter. The huge three-blade propeller to my right shuddered, stopped and jerked into life again until the Merlin caught and burst into life with a thunderous blast of sound. Clouds of exhaust fumes swept in through the open clear-view panel. By the time I had closed and locked the panel the port engine had been cajoled into life.

Kirkham contacted the tower, obtaining clearance for Red formation to taxi to Runway o4. Altimeters were set to the QFE of 993 millibars. Power was advanced and at 1500rpm the brakes were checked. Slowly we moved forward and turned, brakes squealing, onto the perimeter track, leading the other two aircraft down to a disused runway where all three aircraft turned into wind to complete the run-up.

The pilots checked that the brakes were fully on. Now our throttles came forward and at 3000rpm the thunder of the Merlins battered through my leather helmet, shaking the whole aircraft. I could see behind each aircraft the grass flattening in swathes as the pilots ran up each engine in turn.

At the run-up area. Three Mosquitoes with six Merlin engines make an overwhelming noise, and flatten the grass behind them for many feet.

Now Kirkham cycled the pitch controls, checked the trims and switched the fuel boost pumps on. We had trouble contacting Red 3, who started on his internal batteries and whose transmissions were rather weak at low rpms. Finally Kirkham checked the fuel panel, located awkwardly between and behind our seats. With checks complete we taxied round to the duty runway. The wind was calm.

Our Mosquito lined up, with the other aircraft trailing us, propeller discs shining in the sun. Power was advanced to 3000 rpm against the brakes. The noise and vibration were overpowering. Brakes were released with a jerk and we were rolling. Jabs of differential brake kept us tracking straight as the Mosquito tried to swing to the left under the torque of the Merlins. At fifty knots the tail came up and the rudder was becoming effective. As we accelerated more rapidly the noise was undiminished but the vibration was lessening. At 110 knots the Mosquito lifted off, and at 130 the gear was folding itself majestically into the nacelles. We climbed straight ahead to two thousand feet and Kirkham throttled back to zero boost to maintain 150 knots at 2,400rpm, then turned us gently to let the others catch up.
By now I was half-turned round in the bucket seat, craning to see rearwards to report on the progress of Red 2 and 3. As we turned through a lazy circuit, the others gradually closed up behind us and took station with their wingtips level with our tailplane. I started taking photos again.

Twisted round in my seat, straining against the straps, and attempting to aim the camera behind my pilot, I reported on Red 3s position as the Mosquito slowly slid into position off our left side

With Red 3 aboard we tightened the turn and started to dive towards the field.
Speed drifted up to 220 knots as we tracked towards the camera crew out on the field. Bumping in the turbulent air over the boundary fence we bottomed out of the dive at 250 feet and pulled up to an altitude of two thousand feet again. The radio squawked that the next run should be lower and steeper.

Down we went again, the slipstream wailing over the noise of the Merlins. The quartering sun picked out the colours in the roundels and squadron markings on the fuselage of the aircraft hanging just off our right side, turning the arc of the propellers into shimmering discs. I attempted to take some pictures of Red 3 during the dive and luckily managed to squeeze the release for the last time just before the onset of g-forces at the bottom of the dive pushed me firmly down into the seat. Once more we motored up into the quieter air, circling the field while we changed formation into echelon starboard as briefed. We were now ready for our third dive.
Now the tower called us to wait as the technicians had some unspecified problem on the ground. For five minutes we orbited over the peaceful English countryside.

An impressive sight with two Mosquitoes in formation with us over the British countryside.

Through a transparent panel in the hatch below my feet I could see tantalizing glimpses of cool rivers and ponds. My harness was damnably tight and the cockpit was still oven-hot. On this heading the sun was a blinding disc in the sky ahead of the nose and we were slowly being roasted.

We turned south and mercifully the sun was blanked off by our wingtip, leaving the black silhouettes of the other Mosquitoes gently rising and falling against the blinding light.
The tower came back on the air:”One more run, please, and make it closer.” Kirkham looked across at me and grinned. The other aircraft crept closer to our tail. I turned my head to the front as we started the dive to see the airfield framed in the windscreen. Kirkham reached up and wound on the rudder trim handle to keep us straight as the speed increased. Then the g-force was pulling hard on my camera as we bottomed out of the dive. The perimeter track whipped past underneath, the grass of the field expanding and blurring. I had an overwhelming urge to pull my feet up. A hurried glance at the altimeter showed that it was registering a mere hundred feet. Our true altitude was somewhat lower.

We flashed over the camera crew and pulled up smoothly to a thousand feet.

“That’s all, Red Leader,” crackled the radio. We broke formation, preparing to make individual landings. The engine noise took on a more strident note as the propellers were moved into fine pitch. Now at 2350 rpm, boost pumps were switched on and as we pitched out on to the downwind leg the flaps came down. Kirkham checked the brake pressures. As we drifted down through five hundred feet the audio horn blasted our eardrums until it was silenced by edging the throttles forward. We descended in a long left-hand turn. Gear extension was marked by a slight nose-down pitch and an interminable wait before the gear locked down. At 120 knots we came round onto finals, calling:”Red Leader, Finals. Two greens” We rumbled down finals to a wheel landing, with the usual Merlin ear-splitting popping and banging once the throttles were closed. Finally the tail dropped and we turned off the runway, taxied back and swung into dispersal. Kirkham switched the booster pumps off and pulled the fuel cut-offs, and the slowing prop blades became visible as they jerked to a halt. Under my feet the hatch was opened and in turn we climbed down the ladder, deafened and relishing the cool of the evening air. Our aircraft loomed over us, engines ticking as they contracted, the air shimmering over the burning exhaust stubs, with the smell of hot oil in the air.

The Mosquitos are parked after the mission, prior to refueling. They were to fly again for the film "Mosquito Squadron" before vanishing into aviation history.

This was the last of the big twin-engined piston fighters to see wartime service in the Royal Air Force. It was indeed a privilege to fly in this old warbird -the Mighty Mosquito.

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