Flying Machines 1 – Air Cadet Years

I have flown over a hundred different types of aeroplane and glider. I can’t hope to remember them all, but here are some jottings about the ones I remember best. A lot of the early ones are not aircraft I have actually flown, but flown in. That they left an impression on me is the reason for their inclusion.

de Havilland Dragon Rapide

de Havilland Dragon Rapide

The first aeroplane I ever flew in (in those days flying away on holiday was not for the likes of us) was a De Havilland Dragon Rapide on a ten minute pleasure flight while we were on holiday at Bournemouth. I must have been 9 or 10.

We flew, not from what is now Bournemouth Hurn airport, but a grass airfield not far from the centre of the town on one of the few days it didn’t rain on that holiday. I remember little except the smooth motion of the aeroplane once we were in the air, the very flimsy construction of the door and pleading with my father (to no avail) to let me have a flight in a Tiger Moth from the same place.

The Dragon Rapide flight with Mum and Dad cost five shillings each; the Tiger Moth flight would have cost twelve and sixpence, but that was just too much, so I had to wait another 24 years to make my acquaintance with the Tiger.

de Havilland Chipmunk

de Havilland Chipmunk

I had to wait until I was 15 before I next got my feet off the ground. In the meantime I had read a very interesting book entitled ‘How an Aeroplane Flies’, built a lot of Airfix kits and joined the Air Training Corps (Air Cadets). Air Experience flying for cadets in those days was in the de Havilland Chipmunk, a delightful little aeroplane and very much ‘son of Tiger Moth’. We flew from White Waltham which was still an RAF airfield in those days. The Chipmunk was designed to be flown with a seat type parachute, so we were trussed up in World War II parachutes with straps everywhere and almost impossible to walk to the aircraft.

The Chipmunk’s Gypsy Major engine was started with a Koffman starter which fired a blank 12 bore cartridge into a little turbine which formed the starter motor. There would be a sudden explosion followed by the engine miraculously running. As there was a cost to operating this device and the RAF loves to save pence, once the engine was going it wasn’t shut down until the aircraft needed refuelling or it was lunchtime (usually the same time).

Me Waiting to Fly

Me Waiting to Fly

This meant you got in and out of the aircraft with the engine running which was no mean feat as the parachute hampered everything and, as it was a taildragger, everything was at an angle of fifteen degrees and you had to only stand on a very narrow black strip on the wing.

However, with yet another set of straps to hold you in the aeroplane, and now a flying helmet on your head you were greeted by the pilot over the very poor quality intercom; The pilot was a voice in your ears and the back of a head in front of you, I never saw his face.

The flight was for twenty minutes and was soon over. We did aerobatics, a loop and a barrel roll, but mostly it was a bit of a blur. I flew the Chipmunk a number of times fifteen years later and learned to love the aeroplane, but never the engine. The Chippy really needed 200 hp or more and the rather lazy ones in the Gypsy Major never really did the job.

The Vickers Valetta

The Vickers Valetta

In those day (the mid sixties) an ATC cadet could go to any RAF airfield and ask if there was any chance of a flight. Most RAF airfields are fairly remote, so the number of cadets turning up on spec was necessarily limited, but RAF Northolt as surrounded by the outer suburbs of North West London with a very adequate supply of keen cadets.

My friend Barry and I decided to try our hand and on arrival at Northolt we were greeted with the sort of sigh that indicated we were not the first. We were shown into a room with a number of other cadets from local squadrons and settled down for a few hours wait; others joined us.

By mid afternoon the RAF had realised that the crowd of cadets was not only going to continue to grow, but would all come back the next day if they didn’t get a flight. A Vickers Valetta was pulled from the hangar and we were all installed in it and taken on a flight to Princes Risborough and back. There seemed to be no other purpose for this flight other than to be able to send us home and tell any who turned up later they were too late.

The Valetta was the RAF version of the civil Vickers Viking airliner which itself was heavily based on the Wellington bomber. It had two big radial engines, that must have been Bristol Hercules, that made a fearful row on take-off and a retractable main undercarriage that made a sort of groaning noise as it came up. Another short flight.

Slingsby T21 Sedbergh

Slingsby T21 Sedbergh

My first flight in a glider was later that year at RAF Halton, the home of 613 Gliding School. My ATC Squadron went there on a Sunday for Air Experience Gliding (AEG). We flew in the Slingsby Sedbergh (known in the civil World as the T21). This was an aircraft type I was to fly a lot.

The Sedburgh was one of the two gliders that flew the ATC from the late 1940s to the mid 1980s (the other was the Kirby Cadet Mk111). It was built of wood covered in doped fabric and flew at very low speed – flown solo the stalling speed was just a shade over 20 knots. At normal speeds (30 knots) the open cockpit was quiet and peaceful, in fact it was sometimes possible to carry out a conversation with someone on the ground. The maximum speed was 92 knots and it could be looped from just below that speed. It had the ability to soar well in thermals thanks to the low speed and therefore high rate of turn, although soaring was officially frowned upon and was considered a waste of flying.The Sedburgh is a gentle old lady of an aeroplane and I was privileged to have made my first solo in one (XN150 at Halton on 18th August 1966).

Piper PA28 Cherokee 140

Piper PA28 Cherokee 140

In 1967 I was awarded an Air Cadet Flying Scholarship of 30 hours instruction at Gregory’s Air Training at Denham airfield. The instruction was done in two Piper Cherokee 140’s, G-ATJE and G-ATJD. Both aircraft were fairly new at the time. They were both equipped with all manner of extras and had lots of knobs, levers and dials to fascinate a 17 year old.

In truth the PA 28 – 140 Cherokee was a pretty poor aeroplane for much more than allowing a mediocre pilot to fly from A to B without too much hazard. To save production costs the wing was of constant chord (width), or less eloquently “sawn off by the yard”. This results in poor control and stall characteristics unless you make it practically impossible to get to the full stall, which is what they did. There just wasn’t enough up elevator to fully stall the aeroplane, nor enough to do a good landing. Actually it didn’t have elevators at all, it had a device that Piper called a “stabilator with anti-servo tab”. It was equipped with 4 seats, but unless you took off with very little fuel there was not the weight to carry more than 3. If you filled the tanks you were limited to two.

Kirby Cadet Mk3 on a Retrieve Trolly

Kirby Cadet Mk3 on a Retrieve Trolly

When I became a gliding instructor at Halton I was introduced to the Kirby Cadet Mk3; the rear cockpit was big enough to accommodate me adequately if not in great comfort.The Mk3, as its name implies, was a development of earlier designs the first of which was a single seater, it had an appalling glide angle which made it ideal for air cadets to go solo in because it got to about 600 ft on the launch which was just enough height to do a small circuit and land without the cadet being expected to use the spoilers, in fact some of them had no spoilers fitted. It was a flying toboggan.

Its redeeming features were that it was simple, cheap and fairly predictable and it served the air cadets well for over 35 years. It was also very draughty and cold in the winter, but that was not too much of a problem as it only stayed in the air for between three and four minutes at a time. I once sent a cadet on a course solo after 16 launches (less than an hour’s flying) and we never went above 600 ft.

Since landing without spoilers inevitably meant that cadets under training ended up at the far end of the airfield they were retrieved by a specially made trolly towed behind a Land Rover at 15MPH. Since some weight was needed in the front cockpit while this was happening, the cadet under training sat there and did his checks on the way back. Sometimes instructors would sit on the forward strut and brief the cadet – ah, those wonderful days before Health & Safety!

Slingsby Prefect

Slingsby Prefect

The Air Cadet gliding organisation of the late 1960s also had a small number of single seater gliders. The exact purpose of these was never really clear, certainly the performance was not significantly better than the Sedburgh and they were obviously much less use than the two seaters as they could not be used to train cadets when not being used for whatever their intended use was. One would arrive at Halton for a few weeks and we would all get a go and then it would disappear just as quickly.

The Prefect’s performance was somewhere between the Kirby Cadet Mk3 and the Sedburgh, although it did have air brakes instead of spoilers which meant it could come down quicker. It had a sort of half canopy that left just the pilot’s head outside. All in all an uninspiring aircraft.

Slingsby Swallow

Slingsby Swallow

The Swallow had been designed by Slingsby’s as a single seater that could be used to send pupils that had been trained on a Sedburgh solo. This was quickly proved to be a very bad idea for a number of reasons. It had a perspex canopy that meant that flying it was a totally different experience to the open cockpit Sedburgh and it had air brakes that were much more powerful that the Sedburgh’s gentle spoilers. What made its unsuitability quite spectacular was the very sensitive elevator and a lack of pitch stability which usually became apparent on a pilot’s first landing which would become a series of pilot induced oscillations. It was not unusual for the ground to intervene and considerable damage to be inflicted to the lower and rear fuselage. Years later I bought just such a damaged Swallow to rebuild.

RAF VC10

RAF VC10

The last aircraft in this section is another that I have not actually flown (although I did fly its older brother). During a course at Halton that was suffering with a lot of rain, the powers that be decided that the cadets needed entertainment and this was to be a trip to RAF Brize Norton. We were shown around the enormous Short’s Belfast and then led to a VC10 that was going on a training flight. We spent all afternoon doing practice ILS approaches at RAF Wittering before returning to Brize. I remember we were amazed that there was a teleprinter in the cockpit.

I later returned from Dar-es-Salaam on a British Airways VC10, but that is another story.