Interview with Wing Commander Roland Prosper Beamont

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell in April 1991.

Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra, Lightning and even the ill-fated TSR.2 as well as writing several books. He passed away just over ten years after this interview on November 19th 2001.

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Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 3)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)
<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

The Avro 557 AvaAvro 557 Ava N171

World War I had completely changed the world’s perspective on the aeroplane as a weapon of war. Whereas before it was seen as little more than a tool for reconnaissance, now it was directly challenging age-old beliefs about the superiority of armies and navies. Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was still fighting for its continued existence and in order to prove its worth it had to show that it had the potential to truly affect the future battlefield. For Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Hugh Trenchard this was no easy feat as the RAF was constantly strapped for cash in the face of peacetime cuts.

Both the Army and Navy lobbied for abolishment of the RAF now that the war was over and to have their respective air arms reinstated but Trenchard and his political supporters put up a staunch defence. In order to prove the RAF’s worth, Trenchard was careful but ambitious about his service’s reequipment program in the 1920s hoping to make the most out of what little he had. One such role he envisioned the RAF undertaking was the defence of Britain against surface warships using air launched torpedoes. During the war, Britain had suffered humiliating attacks by German battleships which shelled coastal towns like Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby and those who supported the RAF believed that aircraft could prevent further attacks using both speed and firepower to intercept the raiders out at sea. Trenchard went further adding that in his opinion, combat aircraft had the potential to render the battleship entirely obsolete.

In 1922, the Air Ministry issued specification 16/22 aimed at acquiring an aircraft to fulfil the challenging role. Like the specification that produced the Avro Aldershot which was at that time undergoing flight testing, it was conceived around a possible war breaking out with France which was now the only real European superpower able to threaten Britain with Germany being crushed by the Treaty of Versailles and Austro-Hungary having broken up. The specification called for an aircraft capable of carrying a 21-inch (533mm) torpedo to a target around 500 miles from its base allowing it to attack shipping as far as Denmark and the entrance to the Baltic Sea. This was no easy feat since the 21-inch torpedo was over 3,000lbs in weight but Trenchard believed this weapon was the bare minimum needed to sink a battleship. To increase the type’s usefulness, the specification also stipulated that the aircraft was to be used as a bomber and carry the equivalent weight in bombs.

Avro and Blackburn Aircraft were both shortlisted to produce prototypes for testing with Avro’s project being led by the talented Roy Chadwick. Both companies had to work under a strict veil of secrecy however since at that time there were calls for world-wide disarmament and it was believed by some that an aircraft capable of sinking a battleship might be perceived as contrary to this. Initially, Chadwick opted for a single engined design centred around the 1,000hp Napier Cub engine which Avro had been testing on the original Avro Aldershot prototype. Blackburn adopted the same engine for their design but eventually Chadwick dropped it in favour of producing a twin engined design equipped with individually less powerful engines that combined produced even more power; something the Air Ministry was looking more favourably upon.

Chadwick’s design was for a three-bay biplane of wooden construction with a biplane tail that had a triple rudder arrangement. The two uncowled engines were mounted close to the fuselage but forward of the main wing resting on pylons that extended down to their relative undercarriage. Chadwick settled on the Rolls Royce Condor III V12 engine which churned out 650hp to power the type. The aircraft was to have a crew of five with two pilots sat in an open cockpit located at the top of the forward fuselage slightly ahead of the propellers. The navigator/bomb aimer worked in the enclosed cabin during the flight but could occupy a “dustbin” gun turret that retracted down from beneath the aircraft when it was under attack. The aircraft also had two dedicated gunners with one located in the extreme nose and the other in a dorsal position behind the wings. Each gunner was equipped with a single .303in Lewis machine gun.  The main offensive armament was carried on racks underneath the fuselage between the two innermost undercarriage wheels.

Avro 557 Ava (1)

The first prototype of the new aircraft was completed in 1924 and given the in-house number 557 and the serial number N171 before the name “Ava” was assigned to it. The origin of the name is unclear but it is likely a derivative of the Latin word “Avis” which means “bird”. Avro test pilot Bert Winkler was at the controls during the type’s first flight and being a man of rather short stature, he had to be propped up in the seat with a few cushions to allow him to see forward over the nose. Not long in to the test program, the central rudder was removed as it was deemed unnecessary. Work also began on a second prototype, N172, which was to be of all-metal construction reflecting this growing trend amongst aircraft manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Blackburn Aircraft had begun test flying their own aircraft to meet the Air Ministry’s specifications known as the Cubaroo – a name likely inspired by its powerful Napier Cub engine. Despite the Air Ministry emphasizing a preference for a twin-engined design, Blackburn submitted their single-engined Cubaroo which was at that time the largest single-engined military aircraft in the world. Despite this fact, flight trials showed that it had good flight characteristics although Blackburn would suffer a temporary setback when the prototype crash landed in January 1925.

As work on both aircraft continued, the grey clouds of cancellation began to form over their respective aerodromes. Naval observers of the project argued that these relatively large and lumbering aircraft would offer an easy target to the newer anti-aircraft guns being fielded aboard surface warships around the world. They also argued that they would be vulnerable to interception by modern carrier aircraft equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Fairey Flycatcher which was significantly faster than either the Ava or the Cubaroo when carrying their torpedo.

Avro 557 Ava N172In 1924, the Fleet Air Arm was formed within the RAF to handle shipboard operations and this new branch argued for smaller torpedo-carrying carrier aircraft to fulfil essentially the same role as was envisioned for the Ava and Cubaroo. These aircraft would be equipped with the 1,800lb Mark.VIII torpedo so could be smaller, faster and tougher to shoot down with defensive fire. The Air Ministry agreed and had rescinded specification 16/22 by 1926 rendering both the Ava and the Cubaroo surplus to requirements. With the veil of secrecy having been lifted, Avro demonstrated N171 during the 1926 Hendon Air Pageant while at the same time continued work on the second prototype which would not be completed until 1927, flying for the first time on April 22nd. In terms of design, the only difference between the two prototypes was that the second prototype had more rectangular shaped wing tips than the first prototype.

Avro quickly began scouring the Air Ministry’s order books for a requirement that the all-metal Ava could possibly fulfil and settled on the recently issued B19/27 which was designed to produce a replacement for the Vickers Virginia and Handley Page Hinaidi bombers. With some more development, the Ava could just about squeeze in to this requirement which demanded a night bomber capable of carrying a 1,500lb bombload, 920 miles from its base at an average speed of 115mph. However, Avro faced stiff competition from Bristol, Fairey, Handley Page and Vickers all of whom were working on newer designs with Fairey even offering up a new monoplane design in the shape of the Fairey Hendon. The Air Ministry weren’t interested and the Ava joined the list of Avro’s failed attempts to produce an operational bomber.

SPECIFICATIONS

Crew: 5
Length: 58 ft 3 in (17.75 m)
Wingspan: 96 ft 10 in (29.51 m)
Height: 19 ft 7¾ in (5.99 m)
Empty weight: 12,760 lb (5,788 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 19,920 lb (9,036 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Condor III water cooled V-12, 650 hp (485 kW) each
Maximum speed: 115 mph [3] (100 kn, 185 km/h)
Armament;
3 × 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis Guns (Nose, dorsal and retractable ventral positions)
1 × 21 in (553 mm) torpedo or 4 × 550 lb (250 kg) bombs

Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)

The Avro 549 Aldershot

AvroHaving expanded exponentially over the previous four years, the end of the war in 1918 and the vicious cull of advanced aircraft projects for the still infant Royal Air Force threatened the very existence of the plethora of British aircraft manufacturers that had emerged. Even producing some of the war’s most legendary aircraft was no guarantee of survival as was proven by Sopwith who having made a name for themselves with their Camel and Pup fighters, disappeared in 1920 after entering voluntary liquidation and then having their assets absorbed by Hawker.

The name A. V. Roe (Avro), had become most associated with trainer aircraft during the war and so was less of a household name than the more glamorous manufacturers like Bristol, Sopwith or the Royal Aircraft Factory. This overshadows the importance of types such as the Avro 504 trainer to the war effort which as well as being used as a warplane in its own right, produced thousands of pilots for the front. Avro used this experience after the war to begin producing sporting aircraft for the civil market to be bought up by many of the demobilised military pilots who wanted to keep flying. This would then generate the money to keep it functioning while waiting for impending lucrative government contracts.

An early success story for the company came in the form of the Avro 534 Baby which went on to take part in numerous races and set distance records at the hands of the “Australian Lone Eagle” Bert Hinkler. On May 31st 1920 he made a non-stop flight from Croydon to Turin, a distance of 655 miles, in 9 hours 30 minutes. Another Avro Baby made the first ever flight between London and Moscow in 1922 while another example was expected to support Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition but vital components for the aircraft failed to arrive in time before he set off.

Avro 555 Bison carrier aircraftUnfortunately, these technological successes failed to truly translate in to financial success and Avro was forced to sell off much of its land holdings it acquired during the war in order to keep the company going. In 1921, Avro secured one of the few highly coveted government contracts when it’s Avro 555 was selected to meet a requirement for a carrier-capable reconnaissance and gunnery spotting aircraft. A total of 53 Avro 555 Bisons were eventually built in two main variants and helped keep Avro’s foot in the government’s door.

In 1920, the Air Ministry began finalising the specifications for a new interim bomber to replace a number of the RAF’s wartime types still in service. The new specification was quietly centred around a possible war breaking out with France now that Germany and Austro-Hungary ceased to be any real influence on the continent. France was increasingly feeling threatened by the influence the British Empire’s economy had on the world stage much to her own detriment while Britain was suspicious of France’s resistance to disarmament efforts. As a result the specification envisioned a bomber powered by the Rolls Royce Condor engine that was capable of carrying a 1,800lb bomb in excess of 500 miles so that it could attack targets in and around Paris from bases in south-east England.

Whereas during the war, the time between drawing board to prototype to production order could be measured in just a few months there was now less urgency which allowed engineers more time to perfect their designs before construction began. It also allowed the Air Ministry to be a little more fussy about selecting designs to be funded at prototype level. Avro was one of a small number of companies who responded to the requirement which had garnered some controversy amongst RAF and aviation industry leaders over its use of only one, albeit powerful, engine when at least two was the norm for an aircraft of this type.

The thinking behind the Air Ministry’s decision was that the single-engine shape should allow for higher levels of performance while aircraft with two or more engines were often more costly, more problematic, more unreliable or in some cases their performance was simply lacking compared to single-engined types. Opponents argued however that two or more engines increased reliability and survivability in the air and that the technology was advancing to overcome these shortcomings albeit at greater expense.

Avro and De Havilland were both shortlisted and given contracts to produce prototypes for testing. Avro’s design was for a three bay biplane with wooden wings and a steel-framed fuselage covered in plywood and fabric. It had a wingspan of 68ft, a length of 39ft and was nearly 15.5ft tall sitting on four large main wheels when on the ground. The crew comprised of a pilot, navigator/bomb-aimer and up to two defensive gunners armed with .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine guns; one in the rear fuselage and one in the ventral position although the latter position would seldom be used. As dictated by the Air Ministry, the new aircraft was fitted with the Rolls Royce Condor V-12 engine. This was a more powerful development of the earlier Rolls Royce Eagle which powered the Vickers Vimy bomber but could churn out around 650hp.

The new Avro aircraft was given the in-house number of 549 before adopting the name “Aldershot” and the prototype, J6952 made its first flight during October 1921 from Hamble Aerodrome in Southampton. There was little time to celebrate however for De Havilland’s aircraft, which was now known as the DH.27 Derby, achieved its first flight within days of the Aldershot. Testing of both aircraft began which for Avro revealed poor directional control from the tail resulting in the aircraft being taken back to the factory to have a 6ft extension added to the rear fuselage to alleviate the problem. The landing gear was also later revised which saw the two inner wheels removed.

Avro Aldershot III J6952

These improvements were made to the second prototype whilst it was under construction. At this time, the Air Ministry began revising its specification regarding the offensive armament the aircraft was expected to carry. Originally it was expected to carry a single 1,800lb bomb but this was changed to either four 500lbs or eight 250lbs. Fortunately, this didn’t require major modifications and the Aldershot could carry the four 500 pounders externally while a bomb bay allowed it to carry the smaller weapons internally which decreased drag significantly.

The De Havilland Derby on the other hand had to carry all its weapons externally which hampered the aircraft’s performance that was already at a disadvantage to the Aldershot being 420lbs heavier while powered by the same engine. Comparing the two aircraft through 1921 it was obvious the Aldershot was the superior type and on January 26th 1922, Avro was awarded a contract for 15 production aircraft built to Aldershot III specification that was essentially the same as the second prototype.

With the conclusion of the test programme, it was decided to adapt the first prototype to undertake trials with the Napier Cub engine. This had the potential to be an awesomely powerful aeroengine for the time being the first in the world to churn out 1,000hp and like the Aldershot was developed in response to the Air Ministry’s interest in large, powerful single-engined bomber types. It achieved this figure with 16 cylinders arranged in an “X” pattern with the bottom rows angled more narrowly than the ones on top to Avro Aldershot II Napier Cubease the pressure on the crankshaft.

In order to accept the 35% more powerful engine, the Aldershot’s airframe had to be considerably strengthened and the nose section had an extra set of exhaust pipes to expel the gases from the lower bank of cylinders (Right). The original two-blade propeller was replaced with a large four-bladed prop each blade of which was 18in at its widest point.

Known as the Aldershot II, the Cub-powered aircraft first flew on December 15th 1922 and was at that time the most powerful single-engined aircraft in the world; something Avro was quick to publicise. Some of Avro’s own literature started referring to the aircraft as the Avro “Cub” although this was not officially adopted and they claimed a top speed in the region of 140mph. This was 30mph faster than the regular Condor-powered Aldershot III that the RAF was taking on charge but this speed came at the cost of reduced endurance.

The RAF began to receive their first operational Aldershot IIIs in July 1924 with the aircraft being taken on charge with No.99 Squadron based at RAF Bircham Newton. Delivery had been delayed by the adoption of the newer Condor III engine but the 15 aircraft ordered was enough for the squadron to form two separate flights during that summer. No.99 Squadron used the aircraft primarily for the night bombing role although unusually they flew in the silver colour scheme that was adopted by day units of the time.

Avro Aldershot III

Conceived as an interim type until more advanced aircraft were available, the Aldershot was never going to have a stellar career in the RAF but the increasing dissatisfaction with both it and the thinking behind its conception conspired to doom the aircraft to having one of the shortest frontline careers in the service’s history. Confidence in the single-engined heavy bomber concept proved short lived but even more damning was that for all its technical innovation, the Aldershot was little better (and sometimes worse) than the wartime types it was expected to replace. With the RAF deciding against any further acquisitions,  No.99 Squadron would gain the somewhat unique distinction of being the only frontline operator of the type in history. They would relinquish their last Aldershots in March 1926, just 20 months after they first arrived, replacing them with Handley Page Hyderabads.

The first prototype and the sole Aldershot II, J6952 would actually outlive the production types it spawned. It continued testing the Napier Cub engine until late 1926 by which time its development was cancelled after just six engines had been built. J6952 was then re-engined once again, this time with the Beardmore Typhoon I slow-revving engine. This engine aimed to produce higher power with lower revolutions than a standard aeroengine. J6952 was redesignated as an Aldershot IV and first flew with the Typhoon on January 10th 1927. Testing showed that the new engine gave the aircraft a much smoother ride than either the Condor or Cub engines but government support for it was already fizzling out and no production order was made.

This brought an end to the story of the Avro Aldershot itself. It formed the basis for the Avro Andover flying ambulance and transport aircraft but like its forebear, the Andover was less than spectacular and only four were built. Experience gained with the Aldershot would influence some of Avro’s later design work but the aircraft itself occupies a mere footnote in aviation history.

 

“Foxy Lady’s” Wheels-Up Landing At Yeovilton

Following the Sea Vixen’s display at the Duxford Air Show yesterday, the Cold War-era naval fighter suffered an hydraulic failure which prevented the lowering of the landing gear. Skillfully piloted by Commander Simon Hargreaves RN, the aircraft performed a wheels-up landing, scraping along the runway at Yeovilton before coming to a stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident. An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the malfunction but in the meantime the Sea Vixen has understandably been withdrawn from its immediate upcoming events.

 

 

Bofors Anti-Aircraft Gun

A collection of images of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun taken on the grounds at Caldicot Castle.

All photos were taken on May 6th 2017
Photos: Tony Wilkins


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Typhoons deployed to Romania

RAF Typhoon no.3(f) squadronEurofighter Typhoon FGR.4s from the Royal Air Force’s No.3 (Fighter) Squadron based at RAF Coningsby have now deployed to Romania as part of the expansion of NATO’s air policing mission over Eastern Europe. Four aircraft and up to 150 personnel (air and ground crew) deployed to Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in south east Romania on Monday with the deployment expected to last up to four months. After a period of acclimation, the aircraft are reported to formally start operations by May 1st.

Images taken of the pilots taking off from Coningsby show that they are using the new £250,000 Striker II helmet which according to BAE Systems’ own website;

Striker II is a fully digital solution that provides today’s combat pilot with exceptional night vision and target tracking technology within a fully integrated visor-projected HMD system.

BAE Systems’ Striker helmet-mounted display system is based on the company’s unique two-part helmet design. It provides comfort, protection, and helmet stability for fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.

The RAF has had a long history patrolling NATO’s border with Russia having led four deployments of fighter aircraft as part of the alliance’s Baltic air policing mission since 2004. In those instances the aircraft have largely been the sole air defence asset for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, Romania has its own fighter force built around the MiG-21 LanceR – an upgraded version of the legendary but increasingly ageing MiG-21 “Fishbed”. The far more modern RAF aircraft will have to integrate in to Romania’s air defence network.

The deployment is part of NATO’s expanded effort to reassure its eastern members that it remains committed to their protection. It has also been reported in the Romanian press that the deployment of NATO fighters to their country is in direct response to a dramatic increase in the number of interceptions carried out by the Romanian Air Force of Russian aircraft over the Black Sea in recent months.

Romania will also host a large scale NATO exercise in July that U.S. Ambassador Hans Klemm said in March would include up to 30,000 NATO troops.