Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chapter 4: College Days

Tiger Moth G-ALNA was to play a large part in my time at Southampton University. I did a Stability and Control Project on this old biplane, and had a lot of fun flying it.

Southampton University was a revelation to someone from the industrial north of England. The campus was pleasantly situated on the outskirts of town, with the countryside only minutes away. Students came from all parts of the UK and had come to study both arts and sciences, which made for a very cosmopolitan student body. At that time the university was still small by modern standards, having barely 3000 students. This meant that teaching was still on a very personal level. I had made Southampton my primary choice because of the excellence of the Aeronautical Engineering course.

There was one other factor that was very important in my situation. Southampton had a University Air Squadron. More than that, the Southampton UAS was unusual in having an Engineering Flight in addition to the usual General Duties (i.e. Flying) Flight, both within the RAFVR. Being still passionately interested in flying, as well as Engineering, I wanted to join the UAS. However I was very aware that my medical records from my previous application to join the RAF would still be on file in the Air Ministry. I was sure that if I applied directly for a position within the General Duties Branch, my application would be summarily dismissed because of the medical technicality (a minor vision defect) which had tripped me up before.

Although glider flying had proved that my vision was adequate for normal flying, I was convinced that those records were still in existence and would raise a red warning flag with the Air Ministry. So I applied to join the Engineering Flight of Southampton UAS. After all, Officer Cadets in the Engineering Branch were permitted orientation flights in the UAS Chipmunks. Being accepted into the UAS was an initial step. The rest would be up to me.

There were more forms to fill in. And more interviews. Meanwhile we were initiated into the mysteries of aerodynamics, structures and propulsion. Our days were full of lectures, and our nights were spent on project work. We were kept busy. Eventually the selections for the UAS were announced. I was lucky enough to be one of those selected for the Engineering flight, and after a couple of regular rear-seat orientation flights in their Chipmunks I convinced the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Johnston, that I knew enough about the Chipmunk to be allowed to fly it as a regular student from the front seat. So by the spring of 1964 I was flying again, when the rigorous schedule of the engineering department permitted.

Now that I had been allowed to start flying from the front seat, life became much more interesting and of course demanding. My instructors were Flight Lieutenants Doug Brady and Phil Alston, who were sympathetic to my cause and in effect trained me up to the standard required for solo. At this point I applied for a special transfer from the Engineering Branch to the Flying Branch, so that I could go solo and complete the flying course. Despite the CO pursuing this with some vigor, the medical people at the Air Ministry just quoted the facts shown in my original medical report and quashed the request.

Down again, but not yet out, I continued with my instructors’ help through the rest of the syllabus, although all my flying was of necessity carried out with an instructor in the rear seat to keep the situation legal. We progressed to formation flying and aerobatics, which had always appealed to me. Aerobatics were practiced over the Isle of Wight off the South Coast of England and the hours spent at this were a solid base for my later flying. The disciplined RAF training I am sure made a difference. My instructors were all experts at their craft and the Chipmunk was a superb aerobatic mount. We flew from the grass field at Hamble, which we shared with the College of Air Training who trained the airline pilots for British Airways.

This flying was not without its humour. Our Chipmunks had cartridge starters. They also had two sets of ignition switches in the individual cockpits, front and rear. It was not unknown for a neophyte aviator, flying solo from the front seat, to attempt to start without checking that the rear switches were on. The immediate result of pulling the starter ring in the front cockpit would be a loud bang from the cartridge (basically a shotgun shell),a weak twitch of the propeller, an asthmatic wheeze from the engine and a gout of gray-blue smoke oozing out from every chink in the engine cowling. The red-faced cadet caught out in this way was then privileged to drink the traditional yard of ale at the next Squadron Meeting by way of penance. Our evening meetings, together with formal social occasions, were held in the imposing Headquarters Building down on the waterfront in Southampton.

It was all good fun. But I could see the Air Ministry was unlikely to relent over my situation and so I sought an additional avenue to continue flying. Normal civilian flying training was temporarily out of reach on economic grounds as I only had the bare allowance of an impecunious student on which to exist. However during my first term I had come across an exuberant flying enthusiast named Pete Tanner who was a Professor in the Sound and Vibration Institute, part of the Engineering Faculty at the University. Pete was also the President of the Wessex Flying Group, which operated a Tiger Moth biplane from Thruxton airfield. This method of group operation meant that the group members did a lot of the maintenance chores themselves, thus keeping the flying cost down to a fraction of the rate charged commercially.
So I promptly scraped together enough money to buy my required small share of the aircraft. By now I had obtained a student pilot’s license (the civilian eyesight requirements not being as exacting as those for military flying) and started spending a greater proportion of my weekends flying Tiger Moth G-ALNA.

I managed to convince my tutors that I should be allowed to complete my obligatory stability and control project on the Tiger Moth, with Pete Tanner acting as safety pilot, and we had fun proving that this old biplane followed the same laws of physics as newer aircraft, as well as exploring the South Coast of England from Thruxton and later from Hamble.

Once summer exams were over, I managed to wangle myself into summer camp with the General Duties Flight of the UAS who were going to Bicester to fly their Chipmunks. By coincidence Bicester was the main airfield for the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association. I had flown with them before.

Bicester was fun. It had a grass airfield which the Chipmunks shared with the gliders. After work was done for the day I would fly in the T.21s. On Wednesdays – RAF Sports Afternoon by tradition – we had the afternoons free. Rick Bishop, son of de Havilland designer R.E.Bishop, was a fellow UAS member and had somehow contrived to arrive at camp in a Hornet Moth. One busy Wednesday afternoon we flew from Bicester in the Hornet Moth down to Thruxton, where I flew the Tiger Moth, then flew the Hornet Moth back to Bicester. I rounded off that very satisfying day by glider flying until the sun went down.

By now I had a car, a Morris 10 of 1948 vintage and uncertain reliability. It was essential to have a car to drive the 200 miles or so between Liverpool and Southampton, in those days prior to freeways. It was also pressed into service transporting young ladies to UAS functions and on one blind date we squeezed six people on board, including as it turned out my future wife. But that as they say is another story.

Due to academic and other conflicting interests, the remainder of that year passed with little opportunity for flying. My Tiger Moth flying was restricted by persistently bad weather during the fall and winter, and Thruxton was closed down on more than one occasion solely by its proximity to Boscombe Down, where the TSR2, the newest strike bomber for the RAF, was due to make its first flight. Invariably the field was closed down just as we pushed the Tiger Moth out of the hangar, and invariably the day proved to be fruitless as the TSR2 failed yet again to fly and our day was lost.

It was not until the summer of 1965 when a course on Performance Flight Testing at the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield promised something new. Cranfield lay in the depths of Bedfordshire, north of London, and was the very opposite of the university town atmosphere of Southampton. We flew in a pair of twin-engined Doves which the College had modified extensively for flight test work. This was interesting flying, as the Doves were flown about the sky trailing a static bomb at the end of a long hose, to get accurate airspeed readings. They were also patterned with wool tufts to allow us to study airflow behavior, and generally subjected to all kinds of indignities. I learned a lot from this intensive course.

Two days after the flight test course had finished, I was off with the UAS to summer camp in Malta, droning over Europe in a twin-tailed Argosy transport. We stayed at RAF Luqa to see how the RAF operated abroad, with a side trip to Tripoli in Libya to visit the USAF base at Wheelus Field, with F-100s and F-105s thundering off at all hours on gun-firing and bomb-dropping missions and the oppressive heat of the North African night making it difficult for anyone to sleep.

In the summer of 1966 I graduated from Southampton with an Engineering degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. I was very conscious of knowing very little about the practical side of aircraft design and had determined that my next step would be to go to Cranfield to complete the two-year postgraduate course in aircraft design. I was accepted at Cranfield on the course which was due to start in September. During the summer I joined A&AEE ( the Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment) at Boscombe Down, working as a Flight Test Engineer on the operational acceptance trials of the Andover Transport. We flew day and night in an accelerated operational assessment of the aircraft. This was great fun.

At summer’s end I packed yet again and drove my trusty Morris 10 to Cranfield. The College of Aeronautics had a famed reputation in aviation circles. David Keith-Lucas was our Professor of Aircraft Design, having previously been Chief Designer at Short Brothers in Belfast and worked on designs as diverse as the Short Belfast heavy transport and the SC1 VTOL jet aircraft. Denis Howe was in charge of our education and later in his career became Professor of Aircraft Design. The reputation of the College was built on solid theory combined with practical experience covering the whole range of aircraft engineering. In the Department of Aircraft Design we had real aircraft on which we could practice.

The Department of Flight, which operated the Doves, also had a French Morane-Saulnier MS 760 Paris jet for flight testing. The department also operated a Supermarine Swift jet fighter (later replaced by a Hawker Hunter) for aquaplaning trials carried out on the main runway. To facilitate these trials the runway was checker-boarded with rubber dams which formed artificial lakes. Cranfield also had a gliding club and in addition the Department of Flight operated a Training Flight using Auster Aiglets. This was my idea of heaven.

A pair of jet visitors. In the foreground is a MS 760 Paris, sister ship to the Paris operated by the College of Aeronautics, my first jet flying. Behind the Paris is a Jet Provost of the Royal Air Force, which would feature in my life in the following few years

I joined the Training Flight. Bert Russell was our Chief Flying Instructor. Bert was a mustachioed individualist who sported a monocle and was to be found with a tiny Jack Russell terrier permanently at his heels. Bert flew everything from the four-engined Lincoln bomber, used by the College for icing research, to the World-War One vintage Bristol Fighter and the replica Avro triplane which he used to fly on display days at Old Warden, the small grass airfield a few miles away, and home of the Shuttleworth trust.

Bert was an intimidating figure on first acquaintance. His office had a complete shelf bulging with his logbooks. But once the ice was broken Bert was revealed as an individual with a fine sense of humor, as well as an exceptional pilot. He checked me out for aerobatics, and the dog came along, sitting on his lap. The dog sat there contentedly as I rolled the world around, but looked a little worried and its legs bowed under the g-forces as we pulled out of a loop.

Training Flight operated from the grass triangle between the paved runways at Cranfield. The Gliding Club operated on the far side of the runway. I briefly flew with the Gliding Club, but reluctantly had to give it up because of the time commitment required. It was much more productive to fly the Austers at lunchtime and during any free periods I might have. So when time permitted I was building up my flying hours and perfecting my aerobatics out over the countryside at Olney.

Breaks in the generally gloomy weather provided me with some really spectacular flying. One sparkling spring morning I climbed between towering cumulus clouds to six thousand feet where it was so cold that my breath was condensing in the cold air. From this lofty perch I could see as far as the balloon hangars at Cardington. I went through my repertoire of aerobatic maneuvers, culminating in a spin and then a falling leaf down to more normal altitudes. This was a welcome break from lectures. On another occasion I climbed through a corridor between the clouds only to find at altitude a thunderstorm with an impressive anvil building upwind of the home field. An immediate return was necessary and I raced back to the field, sideslipping down to a landing in a rising crosswind as a wall of rain started creeping towards the field.

We had to keep our eyes open for other traffic in the air. Cranfield lay on a link route between the east coast USAF bases and Upper Heyford and we often saw sections of RF-101 Voodoos and the occasional KC-135 coming across the field just above pattern altitude. After a near-miss when a section of RF-101s were forced to split to either side of a hapless Cherokee in the course of an avoidance maneuver, we all redoubled our vigilance near the field.

During that summer we occasionally heard the radio crackle with strange messages from long ago:”Spitfires –Watch out for the 109s. Go for the bombers” Of course this was the re-enactment of the Battle of Britain, now being fought out over the English countryside for the benefit of the film cameras in the film of the same name. Much of the flying was done over and around Cranfield and Duxford. One day I happened to look down when flying over the airfield at Duxford to recognize, with an eerie feeling, a solitary Messerschmitt Bf 109 parked on the otherwise deserted airfield.

Academic work at Cranfield was all-embracing. As a class project the students on the aircraft design course each year completed a design of an unconventional aircraft, thus introducing them to the type of problems that would occur in industry or in the services (we had a number of military and foreign students on our course.)

Theory was not everything. We used real aircraft to check our theoretical results. Sometimes we did this in the hangar, torturing the CF-100 jet fighter to check the torsional stiffness of the wing, or flying in the Doves to check performance techniques. Flight testing had its moments of humour, such as the day in the Dove when we laboriously climbed up through numerous layers of cloud while pilot Ron Wingrove attempted to find some clear air for us to observe the behavior of the wool tufts on the wings during stalls. During the climb through cloud the tufts had been saturated with moisture. By the time we found clear air at nine thousand feet we were above the freezing level and the tufts were frozen rigid on their metal masts.

I volunteered to do an extra flight test course on the little Paris jet, the four-seat Morane-Saulnier MS 760 operated by the Department of Flight for aerodynamic and handling work. This was quite absorbing, with the faster and more responsive jet widening our experience after the more pedestrian Dove. Sandwiched between our grueling academic work, once a week we whistled off for a sortie in the Paris.

At weekends I still managed to fly the Aiglets. Now that I had my pilot license, I started flying my fellow students around on cross-country flights. Some of them wanted to be shown aerobatics. I obliged by performing my aerobatic maneuvers at a safe altitude.
After watching an air show routine, Max Stevens and I decided to try our hands at toilet roll chasing. I tried it alone the first time. Nothing to it…right. I climbed to five thousand feet, slid open my side window and tossed out a toilet roll. As it fell it unfurled, I started a diving turn with the intent of cutting the roll with the propeller. It was surprisingly difficult as the fluttering snake of paper would slide off to one side or the other as the aircraft approached. It was only when I remembered to co-ordinate with the rudder, balancing the Aiglet carefully to center the ball, that I managed to cut the paper with my prop.

I was rather pleased with myself when I landed, only to have Bert Russell storm out of the Flight Office, mustache bristling and demanding to know what the hell I’d been doing. Warned by the sight of the other flight students falling about laughing as they peered round the door of the Flight Office, I kept quiet while Bert, dog trotting along at his heels, strode past me to the aircraft.

I turned round.

About twenty feet of pink toilet paper was trailing behind the Aiglet, having caught on the bracing wires of the tail unit…

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