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 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.

 

So, you want to fly Phantoms do you?

Phantom Pilot Royal Air Froce 1973 documentary

A fascinating look at the journey one pilot took from civilian street to being on the squadron flying an RAF Phantom in the early 1970s. Narrated by the distinctive Patrick Allen who is perhaps best known for narrating the notorious Protect and Survive films, the documentary contains some stunning glimpses at the RAF’s training aircraft of the time including;

  • De Havilland Chipmunks and Jet Provosts introducing the new pilot to flying.
  • Folland Gnats flying low through the Welsh valleys.
  • Hawker Hunters carrying out some impressively accurate shooting with SNEB rockets.
  • Finally, of course we get a look not just at the Phantom FG.1 but of life on the squadron for a newly qualified pilot.

Enjoy.

“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.

 

 

Crashed in Iran: Final flight of Vulcan XJ781

In 1955, the UK entered in to an alliance that with the benefit of hindsight seemed doomed to failure. It was known under a few names, it initially being referred to as the Baghdad Pact or the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) but was most commonly referred to as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). The origins of the alliance can be traced back to a year prior when Turkey and Pakistan signed a treaty of mutual cooperation on defence matters. Encouraged by the United States in 1955, a new agreement was penned that added Iraq, Iran and perhaps most significantly the United Kingdom however the US itself was held back from formal involvement until 1958.

In a nutshell, CENTO’s role was modelled along the lines of NATO in Western Europe with the goal being to establish a series of militarily powerful countries on the Soviet Union’s southern flank and to counter any communist revolutionary forces emerging in the Middle East. It was headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq until 1958 when Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim of the Iraqi Army overthrew and killed the last King of Iraq, King Faisal II. Iraq then withdrew from CENTO and the headquarters was moved to Ankara in Turkey.

The 1960s were a tough time for the organisation. It’s existence was heavily criticised for its lack of action to help curb the first Indo-Pakistan War, the Six Day War, tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and it’s seeming lack of ability to prevent Communist revolutionary forces rising up across the Middle East. Even the UK and US, who should have been its biggest supporters, often bypassed it when dealing with specific issues and countries in the region. The US had to especially tread carefully when dealing with CENTO because of the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington which viewed the alliance with suspicion.

For the UK, its military bases on Cyprus were of high importance for the alliance with the RAF’s Near East Air Force providing a nuclear strike capability with Avro Vulcan B.2s from early 1969. The aircraft were operated by Nos.9 and 35 Squadrons out of RAF Akrotiri which was by then the only RAF station left on the island after RAF Nicosia was forced to close in 1966 to become Cyprus International Airport.

One of the advantages of being a member of CENTO was that British military units could undertake deployments to member states which for RAF crews allowed them to gain invaluable experience operating over the Middle East. It was not uncommon for the long range Vulcans to fly to Iran or Turkey on goodwill flights or to train with their respective air forces and one place they would regularly visit was Shiraz Air Base in south-west Iran.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 B.2On May 23rd 1973, one such visitor to Shiraz was Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ781 operating with No.9 Squadron which, having completed a routine training mission turned towards the Iranian base for landing. In this instance, the usual crew of five were joined by a sixth man, an officer from the Imperial Iranian Air Force who was aboard acting as an observer. This was not uncommon but often proved problematic for the British crews as the observers almost never spoke any English leading to safety briefings being conducted with pointing at things hoping he understood. The observers also liked to smoke during the flight.

All had gone well until it came time to lower the undercarriage ready for landing. While the nose and starboard undercarriage legs lowered successfully, the port leg refused to budge despite the efforts of the crew. Low on fuel, the crew had no choice but to attempt an emergency landing at Shiraz. The ground personnel at Shiraz immediately went in to action and began spraying down foam across one of the two runways at the base in an attempt to cushion the port wing when it inevitably made contact with the ground and reduce the chance of fire. With the runway sufficiently doused down, the aircraft made its landing attempt.

The Vulcan touched down on its starboard undercarriage with pilot Flight Lieutenant John Derrick fighting to keep the wings level before the nosewheels made contact with the ground. The aircraft ran on just the starboard and nose wheels for a short while before the port wing was lowered as carefully as possible on to the ground. With the wing scraping along the foam-soaked runway it began pulling the aircraft to the left, sending it veering off the runway and across an adjacent gully that was not marked on any maps of the airfield. The nosewheel fell in to the gully and was sheered off followed quickly by the starboard undercarriage leaving the Vulcan to slam down on to its belly before finally sliding to a halt. As the aircraft slid across the ground, the bomb aimer’s window in the blister under the nose shattered sending clouds of dust in to the lower deck of the cockpit while the navigator’s table collapsed temporarily trapping the two navigator’s by their knees. Aside from the bruised knees, the five crew and the Iranian observer were all unhurt and with the crew hatch stuck against the ground they left the aircraft through the canopy which had been ejected after the undercarriage collapsed.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 Iran Shiraz crash

Flight Lieutenant John Derrick in front of the crashed XJ781 at Shiraz (Courtesy James Rich)

A maintenance team from Akrotiri was flown out aboard a Hercules cargo plane and immediately declared the crash as a Category 5(C) meaning it was beyond repair or salvage. The Iranians agreed to accept the airframe as scrap but insisted that British engineers familiar with the aircraft remove key military components. Thus, after twelve years of service XJ781 ended its days being broken up on a dusty Iranian airfield.

In many ways the crash of such a symbol of British military power as a V-Bomber symbolised the ailing position Britain found itself in when dealing with CENTO. A year after the crash, Turkey invaded Cyprus in defence of Turkish Cypriots following a military coup organised by the Greek Junta. This forced Britain to withdraw all military support for Turkey and consequently CENTO itself which from then on existed only on paper. In 1979, whatever remained of CENTO was dissolved in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.


Thanks to James Rich, Flight Lieutenant John Derrick’s nephew.

 

End of an era as Tornado OCU disbands

Panavia Tornado OCU RAF Lossiemouth disbandment ceremony

The Royal Air Force Tornado Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), XV(R) Squadron, formally disbanded yesterday in a moving ceremony at RAF Lossiemouth. Led by the Band of the Royal Air Force College, the ceremony was held inside inside a hangar in front of 750 invited guests including families and associates of the squadron.

During the ceremony, Chief of Defence Intelligence Air Marshal Phil Osborn, who himself had served as a Tornado navigator said to the attendees;

I’m honoured and privileged to be here for the disbandment of XV(R) Squadron after its 102 years of loyal service. But today, whilst our feelings obviously include sadness we know that this magnificent event is also a celebration; a celebration of history and tradition, and of service and professionalism in the service of the nation.

XV (or No.15) Squadron has a long and proud history that can be traced back to the First World War. It was formed as a training unit at Farnborough on March 1st 1915 but crossed to France in December 1915 equipped with the BE2c for corps-reconnaissance duties over the Western Front. One unusual task the unit undertook was the dropping of ammunition by parachute to troops on the front line during 1918.

During the Second World War the squadron flew a series of bomber types such as the Fairey Battle, Vickers Wellington and Avro Lancaster. After the war, the squadron became one of the handful of RAF units to fly the Boeing Washington (RAF B-29 Superfortress). On April 1st 1992, the XV (Reserve) identity was transferred to the Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit at RAF Honington before the unit moved to RAF Lossiemouth in 1993.


Below is a TV documentary recorded in the late 2000s outlining the squadron’s work in training RAF Tornado GR.4 crews.

Image: RAF via Facebook

RAF Typhoon pilots training with French and US colleagues at Langley AFB

RAF Typhoon Rafale F-22 RaptorThe United States Air Force is hosting a multi-national exercise at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia dubbed Atlantic Trident 17. The exercise will begin on April 12th and will continue until the 28th. It will be hosted by the resident 1st Fighter Wing of the USAF equipped with the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter.

British and French combat aircraft will participate in the exercise in the form of Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4s and Dassault Rafales respectively. The RAF have committed 175 personnel to the exercise with the first contingent having already arrived. Among the US aircraft deployed will be a number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs which the RAF has on order in its Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) F-35B Lightning II guise along with the Royal Navy.

The exercise will be focused around combat experience the three air arms have gained over Syria and Iraq in recent years but will add an airborne threat element which the pilots will have to defeat in order to complete their strike missions.

USAF Colonel Peter Fesler, 1st Fighter Wing commander said in a press conference;

This exercise was designed to encourage the sharing and development of air combat TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) with our French and UK partners, against a range of potential threats leveraging US Air Force fifth-generation capabilities. This is not only an opportunity to share the capabilities of the aircraft, pilots and maintainers between our nations, but to build friendship, trust and confidence that will improve our interoperability as we go forward.