Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown
Well, just to start off with, I’d just like to talk about how you got into aviation in the first place. I mean, I know your father was an RAF sea pilot.
Well, I think the obvious thing that attracted me was seeing the picture in our lounge of my father in an RAF sea uniform, and that always intrigued me, of course. And when he was home – he was in the RAF for quite a long time – he spoke a lot about it, but my mother discouraged that, I may say. In fact he once took me flying when I was about – I would think about 8 years old, sitting on his lap in the cockpit of a Gloster Gauntlet. And that brought the wroth of the Gods and my mother upon him, I may say, because he – she felt he had gone over the limit there. But he had pressed the right button, and I was determined that I was going to do something about it. But then a certain inertia came in, because I was so involved in the academic side of life at that stage, getting – preparing to go to university. And then, in 1936, the big event happened in my life that persuaded me to take up flying; we went to Germany, my father and I, to… Well, for two reasons; primarily to go the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin, and, secondly, the Germans had a combatants association, and they invited people who had fought against them in World War 1 to meet the pilots from there, Luftwaffe, at that time. And the prime mover in all that was Ernst Udet, who was world-renowned, of course, as an aerobatic pilot. Now by this stage, Udet – who really had no real interest in politics – had been persuaded to come into the Nazi Party by his former World War 1 Squadron Commander, Herman Goering. And he responded – because he was offered high rank if he came in – but he was not a happy bunny to do this. However – leaving that aside – he ran this meeting in Berlin wonderfully, and it was a very jolly and friendly occasion. Now, my father had asked him, presumably by post, if he could bring me, because I was then 17 years of age, not a child, really. And Udet, who was a total extrovert, welcomed the idea. And when we wet and had occasion to meet him, he welcomed me, really, I would have thought, unusually-so, because he liked – I found out – he liked talking to young people. He was young at heart, really, Udet.
There weren’t many other sons of pilots?
No other sons whatsoever. And maybe that made it – I hadn’t thought of it that way. Of course, maybe that made him feel that he had to pay a bit of attention to me. But he then in the course of – maybe after a couple of days, or 3 days, he asked me if he’d like, if I’d like to go flying with him, and I responded immediately that I would without asking my father, and he said, “Right! We’ll go down to an airfield called Halle.” And we did that, and there he had a Bucker Jungmann, which is a little 2-seat trainer. A lovely little aeroplane, very, very agile and aerobatic.
It’s a bi-plane, isn’t? A little open cockpit bi-plane?
A bi-plane, yes. A bi-plane with two in the cockpits. And he got me into the cockpit, and I noticed that he was very particular that I was firmly strapped in, and I thought, ‘That’s not very…’
And had you, were you planning to go to the Olympics..? What came first? The invitation by Udet or the planning to go to the Olympics?
Oh, Udet’s plan was the thing that determined us. Oh, yes.
So you suddenly got a letter (at your home in Edinburgh) saying, ‘Would you like to come?’ Stamped from Germany…
And then my dad thought, ‘Right. We’ll do the Olympics at the same time’.
Amazing. Have you been watching the Olympics this time round?
Oh, totally, yes!
It’s brilliant, isn’t it?
Oh, wonderful, yes! I can’t wait to see Usain Bolt tonight on the 200 metres.
He’s an incredible individual, isn’t he? He’s very laid back.
Oh, totally. Totally.
We were laughing at the interview he did after he got the 100 metres. He said, he said, “It was extremely good and I’m very happy.” You know, no breaking down in tears for him!
I was surprised, because it was an incredibly strong field, wasn’t it?
And he just destroyed them.
But his friend, Blake, I mean they interviewed him as well, just spoke so quickly, I couldn’t understand a word he said. It was so funny.
Yes! And this, of course, is both their favourite events, the 200. So…
I think he’ll win, won’t he? Just absolutely storm it.
Oh, I think Bolt will win it.
[Female voice] No one can touch him, can they?
No, but he’s just brilliant.
It’s just the length of his stride which is so incredible.
He’s amazing – an incredibly good cricketer.
Yeah, he could have been bowling for the West Indies. Just imagine having a fast bowler called ‘Bolt’.
Really? Yes, that would frighten you if you were (worrying about…)
Yeah, I always enjoy the rowing and cycling as well. That’s been…
Yes. Yes, of course, Chris Hoy is incredible, isn’t he?
Yeah, I know, because most people have no idea of just what it takes to kind of get what they do.
[Inaudible] What this guy does is just…
It’s just that level of dedication is… But Bradley Wiggins has got seven medals, hasn’t he? I mean, as well as his Tour De France. It’s going to be the toughest BBC Sports Personality Of The Year ever, I think. I mean, who’s it going to be?!
I think Hoy’s already had it, hasn’t he?
He has, but, you know, Jessica Ennis has got to be up there…
And Bradley Wiggins, I mean, the first English person who ever won the Tour De France.
Oh, yes. It’s going to be a very difficult one, yeah.
[Female voice] Steve Redgrave’s era has ended, hasn’t it?
Yeah. Just incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s given everyone a fillip, hasn’t it? I mean, everyone’s cheered up by it. And, also, it’s sort of… I think it’s also been a very good showcase for Britain.
I mean, I think we’ve come out of it very well, haven’t we? You know, London looks a lot smarter…
Yes. There have been hiccups about the empty seats and things like that, but they’re…
Minor quibbles aren’t they, really?
I was amazed the way they got over the security hiccup, getting all the Army in.
There hasn’t been any security talk at all, has there?
No, the Army have really done magnificently. You got a big problem?
[Third person] Yeah. For some reason we weren’t getting James through on this, so we’re just going to go straight in. I mean, it’s ok, what we’ve got so far. (I like that) we’ve got James’s questions so… If we just…
Well, that’s not a problem, is it?
[Third person] Not really, no. But it just… You never know; you might want to use it as a…
[Female voice] We’ve got a plan B, so that’s good. Always good to have that. Backup plan.
I interviewed an extraordinary chap the other day – who was a Polish guy now living in New York – and he had been I think 17 or so when the War had broken out, and – no, he was older than that, he was older than that. 1921, so, yeah, he would have been 18 or so – and at 5am – he lived in a, you know, reasonable townhouse in Warsaw – he watched the first planes coming over and bombing and he watched the first German plane being shot down on the 1st of September 1939. And on the last day of the War he was in, you know, Germany flying Spitfires for the RAF.
(Right, yes. Quite a story.)
And in between he’d been sort of you know… He’d also been a Polish soldier for a bit in North Africa before joining the Air Force.
[Third person] Can I just ask for one more level from both of you and I think we’re ready to go again.
Testing, testing, testing. Can you hear me alright?
[Third person] Loud and clear. James, if you wouldn’t mind, please?
Yep, we’re all good to go.
[Third person] That sounds good. Okay, so here we go again.
[Female voice] Thank you everybody.
Can we start off with where I was being strapped in?
Yeah, so you were being strapped in by…
Oh, you got that, did you? Yeah.
So you were being strapped in by Ernst Udet very tightly.
Right. Once I was strapped in we took off and, of course, at this stage in his career, Udet was probably the foremost aerobatic pilot in the world. He was renowned for his skill in this art, and he really put us through a hoop when we got up there. In fact I was holding onto my stomach and hoping that I wouldn’t disgrace myself. But he really put on lots of G, and pulled us this way and that way. And then, finally, we came into land, and then, as we came into land and as we started the approach, he suddenly pulled the aircraft upside down, and we continued to approach inverted. And in fact we were coming so low I really thought, ‘The sill old fool’s had a heart attack!’ And I really thought it was my demise. And just where there was probably a little plus space to roll the wings round, he did so, and we plonked onto the runway. And, of course, he burst out roaring with laughter. And when he got me out of the cockpit he slapped me on the back and he gave me the fighter pilots’ – the German fighter pilots’ greeting ‘Hals-und Beinbruch’, and he said, “You’ll make a good fighter pilot.” He said, “But you’ve got to do two things; you’ve got to learn to fly and you’ve got to learn to speak German.” ‘Cause I didn’t speak German at that stage, or not – schoolboy German, put it that way.
But he spoke English?
Poorly. It was the blind leading the blind. We were both a bit halting in the others language at that stage. And so when I got back to Britain I did two things: Firstly, I was (just entering into) university, and I went to do an Honours Degree in Modern Languages, and then I joined the University Air Squadron. So I was going to achieve the – hopefully the two things he had suggested I might do.
And the UAS was RAF-run, wasn’t it?
Yes. Yes, it was. In fact it wasn’t a full University Air Squadron at that stage, it was an experimental – I call it that, but it’s not really the right name for it – it was a unit to see if it would catch on at Edinburgh, and it certainly… It was slow to begin with, I mean I was – there were only three of us, I think, but it gradually filled up. And so having done that, time moved on and he’d always said to me, “If you do these two things, write me and let me know.” And I had the impertinence as a young man to do this. And he invited to come to Berlin and visit him, which I did. And he was just the same attitude adopted as he had done previously at the meeting at the Olympics.
And by this time it was 1939, isn’t it?
Yeah, ’38. And he welcomed me, went to his flat, and I wasn’t living with him, I was living in a gasthaus nearby. But he invited me most evenings to come and have a glass of wine and meet people, and I met a tremendous number of Lutwaffe people like (Yeshamek), Molders, people like this. And, of course, Halle Reichs, who was a regular visitor. In fact he said to me, “Now, I’m going to take you to a special event. We have a motor show in the Deustschlandhalle, and Hannah’s going to demonstrate the Focke-Wulf 61 Helicopter, and I’d like you to be there.” So we went along, and he said, “We’ll go to the rehearsal first, and then we’ll watch it in the evening.” And at the rehearsal Hannah did her stuff, and she just lifted it up to about I suppose 20 feet, gyrated around, and backwards and forwards, and just showed the versatility of the helicopter. So on the night we were all sitting prepared for the thing, and Hannah’s turn came to do her stuff, and roared up the – revved up the rotors, and it wouldn’t lift up more than a few inches off the ground. And everybody looked utterly astonished, and Udet was a bit perturbed at the whole thing. When a young guy – I think he was a helicopter engineer – came forward, and he said – you know, I could read a bit of German by this stage, I was fluent enough – he said, “This is a normally aspirated engine and it requires a lot of air, and this place has thousands of people in it, it’s starved of air.” He said, “We’ve got to open the hangar…” Well, it was a sort of a hangar door we opened. And these were pushed wide open, and as soon as we opened these hangar doors open, Hannah shot up to about 20 feet. And it was not a popular act, actually, because although she did a wonderful display, the women in the audience were not amused because all their hairdo’s and their hats went for a loop, and I think Udet hadn’t thought of this aspect.
How funny! But amongst all the pilots you met, you know, Yeshamek and Molders, and all these people, was there lots of talk about aviation? I mean, was that the main topic of conversation?
When they were aware I was there and they didn’t talk about anything other than, if you like, ordinary day-to-day things. Certainly nothing that you would call in the least confidential.
I suppose I meant more whether there was a sort of excitement, passion for aviation, which is what very often there is.
Oh, yes! Oh, yeah, the place was jumping! The whole of Germany was jumping about aviation. And the Hitler Youth were given incredible facilities for gliding, free of charge, of course. And later on when I went back to Germany in 1939, but this was because at that stage I was in the 3rd year of my Honours Degree at Edinburgh University, and the Foreign Office visited and spoke to young students who were doing well on the course, and in my case I was asked if I’d be interested in possibly joining the Diplomatic Corps. And I said yes, I would, because good prospects. And they said, “Right, what it will involve is in your penultimate year, that is your 3rd year of your course, you will have to spend that year in Europe. 6 months in Germany, 6 months in France. So I was to be sent to the boarding school at Salem on Lake Constance in Germany and the Lycee at Metz in France. So my time came and off I went to Salem, which was the school where Prince Philip had previously been, and the great educationalist, Kurt Hahn, had been. He founded Gordonstoun later when he came back to England. But he had had to leave because he was a Jew, and obviously he was in danger under the present – under the then regime. Anyway, I did my time in Munich and Salem, and I went one weekend – I hadn’t been there more than a few months – I went up to Munich just for the (run up for) the weekend. And I was put up in a little gasthaus there, and on the morning of Sunday the 3rd of February there was a thundering knock at the door. I was still fast asleep, and when I opened the door it was three SS people – two young Lieutenants and a lady interpreter. She insisted on speaking English although she knew I could speak German, and she said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us because our countries are at war.” Now, technically this wasn’t true until 11 o’clock, but I wasn’t in a strong position to argue, really! So I was taken away and I was a guest of the SS in Munich for three days. They took everything with them; my books, money, and my car. I had a little MG Magnette. They took that as well. But I wasn’t ill-treated in any way in the little gaol they had in Munich.
But did you think you were going to be stuck there forever?
I thought I was there for the duration of the War. I had no reason to believe otherwise. But I then found out – but not, still, for a while – but after three days a young SS lieutenant said, “Now, we’re taking you to the Swiss frontier and you’re going to be handed over. They’re expecting you, so we’ll drive you down there.” So they still hadn’t explained why. So we drove down and on the way – I was in a big Mercedes with this young Officer, and I could see out of the little window at the rear that my MG Magnette was following with an SS sergeant, whose entire head was above the windscreen as we drove down. And when we got to where we were going, I got out and I said to him, “Now, you’ve taken my books, my money, my clothes. Why are you giving me my car?” And he gave me the typical Teutonic reply, which in German translated into, “Because we have no spares.” And so the entrance to the Swiss frontier was across a bridge over a ravine. And I drove across there, and he said, “They’ll be expecting you.” And he was standing with a machine – a hand machine gun – pointing at my back, and the Swiss were standing with one pointing at my front, and I wasn’t feeling too confident at this stage. And when I got over, this Swiss guard had no knowledge of my coming whatsoever, and he locked me up in what I can only describe as a slightly oversized telephone booth. And he kept me there until he had communicated with Bern. And finally they came and collected me from the Embassy in Bern. And when I got there, of course, the Ambassador, I had an interview with him, and he gave me petrol coupons to drive to Calais, and said, “You’ve got to go back because I’ve got your call-up papers here.” So that was that. And I got to Calais and the RAC was still loading – not cars but military vehicles on – and I said, “Any chance of getting my car over?” And the chap said, “None whatsoever! Military traffic only.” He said, “But if you leave it here I’ll keep an eye on it and hope, maybe in 2 or 3 months, we’ll be able to get it over.” True to their word he got it back after 2 months.
Yep. Now, what I’d discovered, of course, when I went to Bern was that there were 60 British students doing what I was doing in Germany, and there were 60 Germans doing what we were doing in Britain. So then we were all exchanged. But I had not had an inkling of this at all, so it came as a complete surprise when we were exchanged.
It must have been rather a grim few days I would imagine.
Well, a bit worrying because I thought, ‘well, I’m going to be here a very long time’.
But you didn’t then – subsequently getting back to England, or Britain, rather – you didn’t join the RAF? You joined the…
Um, yes, I was called up to the RAF at Drem on the Firth of Forth, and I was there during what they called the ‘phoney war’ for quite a while. Uh, well, not very long, actually, because it was still September and on the notice board at Drem a notice went up… I’m trying to remember the carrier… I think it was Courageous, HMS Courageous, was sunk in the Irish – in the southern Irish Sea, and that, they lost a huge number of pilots, and the Fleet Air Arm were short and were asking if anyone would like to volunteer for the Fleet Air Arm. There was a notice up and you put your name up, and I put my name up. There wasn’t any other names that I can remember being put up there.
But why did you do that? Because you thought you’d get to fly quicker?
Because I felt that there was no action happening where I was, and I was keen to get back at the Germans. I was a bit piqued about being locked up for a few days. And there was nothing happening, so I was called up, and in fact I didn’t move over to the Fleet Air Arm until December of ’39. But joined in… And I thought they’d put me straight on their carriers or something, but not on your nelly. They said no, I was to go through their training routine and be trained the Navy way. So I had to go through a year’s training…
Had you already soloed at that point?
With the UAS?
Yes. I had about… It was getting on for 100 hours, actually.
Oh, really? So you already knew you had a sort of aptitude for flying?
Oh, yes. Yes, knew I had. And they took it into consideration during my training. They gave me, for example, some training in advanced aerobatics when I should have been doing something more simple. But they were very good to me, really.
So roughly how many hours did you have by the time you finished your training with the Fleet Air Arm?
Well, the Fleet Air Arm I would say about 220.
In total, including your..?
So that’s a good 70-odd more than most RAF pilots by the time they got out of OTU?
Oh, yes. Yep.
And what were you flying on when you were training?
A Miles Magister. That is both in the University Squadron and with the Navy. My training in the Navy took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but using the same aircraft.
And it wasn’t long after you’d finished training that the escort carriers, the first escort carrier was created out of the old merchant ship…
…And you were put onto that.
Right. It was a captured German banana boat, actually.
Yeah. It was captured in the Caribbean and brought back, and then Churchill had this brainwave to have the top sliced off and a landing surface put on it. But it had no hangar. It didn’t even have a bridge for the Captain.
But there must have been some form of bridge? I mean where did they have the bridge?
It was a little matchbox thing stuck on the starboard side, and he and the navigator were in there.
Not ideal by any by any (matter or means). And it was quite open, too. And there was only 340 feet of deck, and there were 6 aircraft – actually, 8 aircraft. And…
And these were all Wildcats?
All Wildcats. And, of course, it was a bit of a caper because take off was – you just had less than 340, obviously, because they took off ahead of the parked aircraft. And when you came back to land, all these aircraft had to be pushed up forward, of course, to clear the deck for you to land.
And they would just…
[Third voice] Sorry, Jamie. We just need to change the battery in your microphone. It’s gone…
[Female voice] Do you still get up in the air much at all? I mean, do you go and… In air shows or anything?
No. I’m offered loads of flights and my and my answer’s always the same; “How many hours have you got? If you haven’t got more than me, I’m not interested!”
[Female voice] There can’t be many people who have!
Because they are very difficult, insurance difficulties in coverage for flights. It’s even difficult to get coverage to go abroad, frankly.
[Female voice] Do you miss flying?
Oh, yeah. Well I don’t now so much, but at the time it was like drug withdrawal, I suppose. I was (fidgety-funny) for about 12 months, I think.
[Female voice] I can imagine. It must be a huge change of life not to be…
Oh, it was. Yes, indeed. But…
[Female voice] Still, you’d had enough… You did… You can’t say you didn’t do enough in your time.
Oh, well, it was a hectic time.
487 aircraft is a…
(The War accelerates everything…)
[Female voice] There you go.
Oh, thank you.
I pity the poor transcriber!
So we were on HMS Audacity. Had it become HMS Audacity by that point, or was it still Empire Audacity?
By September of…
So, yes, HMS Audacity. We’re on HMS Audacity.
It became the HMS Audacity in September 1941. Previous to that it had been the Empire Audacity, which was the name given to converted merchant vessels at that time. And it really was unique because it was the first true escort carrier in the World. Tiny. And, for example, we only had 3 arrestor wires. A normal carrier had 6 to 10. And so 3 arrestor wires and a crash barrier. It’s called a safety barrier but all the pilots call it a crash barrier. And…
And, sorry, what is a crash barrier made of?
It’s steel mesh stretched across the front so it will catch the propeller of the aircraft if it misses the wires. So there were 2 wires – these were on normal reeving – but the 3rd brought you up with a very, very strong retardation, and we called that wire the ‘For Christ’s Sake’ wire, because that was the one you – your last hope before you went into the barrier. Generally speaking, the major problem about not having a hangar was the unfortunate ground crew had to do all the maintenance at night in the open at the back of the ship, right after the stern, very close to falling off the ship, and they only were allowed to have little torches covered with blue paper. How these chaps did this I know not, because there was no time during the day to do the maintenance ‘cause we were at alert all the time. So the effort of the ground crew was beyond praise, really.
And at the time you were very conscious of that, were you?
Oh, very. We had wonderful relations with the ground crew. We did everything we could to help them, of course.
But to put this into perspective, 340 foot: What would you normally expect to land on on the ground in a Wildcat?
Oh, you would need about – a minimum of about 6-to-800 yards.
Right, so 340 is, you know, 110 yards.
Yeah, that’s not a lot. I mean, did you find that quite a daunting proposition when you discovered what was going to happen?
I didn’t, but some of them did for the simple reason they had been on the bigger carriers before. I’d never been on an aircraft carrier before, so it was a new experience and therefore it didn’t have the same daunting aspect for me.
So you took it in your stride?
Yes. Strangely enough that’s the only way of putting it, I think, yes.
And what’s the sort of key skill, do you think, for landing on a carrier, particularly a 340 foot long one?
Well, the main thing you have to have, of course, is view. If you don’t have view from the aircraft you’re in trouble right away. And the second thing is you must have the ability to fly very close to the stall, at slow speed. And this requires a lot of training and skill, because if you go, if you fly beyond about 1 point 1 times the stalling speed, you’re going to float over all the wires and go straight into the crash barrier. So…
And if you go slower than that then you’re going to hit the stall and you’re going to stall.
Yes. You have very small margins to operate with.
But how do you get that? Is that just experience, or is it a sort of sixth sense?
No, that’s your training. That’s why the Fleet Air Arm insists on training its own pilots, in a different way from the RAF. It’s to imbue in them this special skill of flying close to the stall.
Right. Because when you’re being trained as a Fleet Air Arm Pilot, the ultimate intention is that at some point – if not immediately – you’re going to be on an aircraft carrier.
You’re not just going to be doing land-based operations from Fleet Air Arm bases on the south coast, or whatever. Got it. There was a… You flew in front of Winston Churchill, didn’t you, at one point?
Yes. That’s while we were forming up to go on the Audacity.
Oh, okay. And what happened there?
Well, we were asked… Our Commanding Officer of the Squadron – who was a very good pilot himself – had trained me to do a roll on take-off, and I practised this quite a while so this was to be my party piece in front of Winston. But unfortunately, just as I got onto my back, the engine seized. And Donibristle, which was the airfield in question, is very close – literally on the edge of the Firth of Forth, near the Forth Bridge. And so I had no time to roll back like Udet had at… With this plane. I was taken aback, frankly, and I knew I was going to go into the water upside-down, so I just pushed the stick hard forward and hoped that I’d go in with the minimum of speed. And it wasn’t too bad. I damaged my arm and broke my nose on the gun sight, but the aircraft floated, because it had magnificent flotation bags which popped out of the wings as soon as they’re operated by a hydrostatic valve. So we floated there upside-down, but my head clear of the water because of the flotation bags.
So hold on; so the plane was upside-down?
But how did you..? So you had to climb..?
I just – I released my strap and I dropped into the water.
And just swim out?
God. Incredible. That’s amazing. But when you were on the Audacity, I mean you saw quite a lot of action, didn’t you, in that period?
We did as a Squadron, yes.
Intercepting U-boats and..?
Boats, U-boats, and mainly the Focke-Wulf 200’s. It was an adaptation of the airliner, ‘Condor’, which became, in its military version, it was called the ‘Kurier’.
That was six-engined, wasn’t it? Or was it four?
Four. And it had some of the heaviest armour ever assembled in one aeroplane. It was very heavily armed indeed. And we had, I think, in the total on the two convoys – or the one and a half we did, really – we shot down five of these. And it shot down one, it shot down our Commanding Officer.
Yes. Yeah, and he didn’t get away, did he?
So, the Wildcats, the Martlets, they were armed with – were they armed with .50 caliber?
Yes, they were.
Which is what you need if you’re going…
Four .50’s, yeah.
Which are significantly better than a .303.
Yes, and the one thing about it was one of the most frustrating things if you’re in combat, if you have a gun jam, just when you’ve got your sights on and you jam, but in the Martlet we had cocking handles in the cockpit, and we could pull these back and re-cock the gun.
I wonder why they didn’t do that on anything else?
It’s a good question. Good question.
Did you ever wonder why they didn’t put .50 calibers in the land-based fighters?
Well, yes I did, because, of course, eight .303’s are a lot, but if they’re concentrated well and come in at one point, but they don’t have by any means the destructive power of four point-fives.
No, they’re pea-shooters, really, and the problem is, of course, getting them to that conical point. I mean, you’ve got to be pretty precise to…
Oh, absolutely, yes. Oh, yes, you’ve got to. And have your range firing, just open fire at precisely the right range for .303’s. You had a bit of latitude with point-fives.
Did you ever fly the Kurier?
Yes, I did.
How did that compare with, say, a Lancaster or a Halifax?
Well, I was fascinated to fly it, because the first version I flew was Himmler’s personal aircraft. And I was quite impressed with it, but realised that the problems were it was not maneuverable, it was a big aeroplane. And because it wasn’t manoeuverable it more-or-less just had to sit still and depend on their own defences, which were formidable, of course. But you couldn’t just go into tight manoeuvres with it, really.
And it couldn’t have ever really been used as a heavy bomber, could it?
Not really, no. Not really, no. It didn’t have the capacity, the carrying capacity, for that. It did have bombs and they were used against our convoys, but not a massive amount of bombs.
And certainly nothing to compare with the Lancaster.
No, not really. It was, of course, a generation after the Lancaster, almost.
To go back to Audacity though; the ship was torpedoed, wasn’t it?
And I mean, you know, when you sort of sign on to become a Fleet Air Arm pilot I suppose it’s in the back of your mind that that might happen, but presumably you’re not thinking that you’re going to have your ship sunk from beneath you when you become a pilot?
No, of course not! You go on with an optimistic attitude.
But I mean I’d have thought ending up in the sea with the ship kind of sinking in front of your eyes is a deeply disturbing experience, isn’t it? I mean, again, you seem to have taken it on the chin.
It was a bit traumatic in this sense; that we actually viewed the whole thing in slow motion, almost, because we had been hit by a torpedo which damaged the rudder, and therefore the ship was not steerable. And the Captain decided that, at night – or it was dusk at this stage – there was danger of running into the convoy ships without steering, so he hove to. And the submarine surfaced on our port side, and it was an eerie sight as it popped out of the sea, it was covered in phosphorescence. It was almost as if it was Christmas tree lights on it, all over. And the Captain was clearly – that’s the German Captain – was clearly visible on the conning tower. We could see… We could even see the gold braid on his hat. And I would guess he was about 200 yards away, maybe, but he sat there for a while sizing up the situation, and while he did so our Captain ordered everybody onto the Flight Deck, realising that if we were torpedoed this was their best chance of getting away. And so we stood there, just looking at each other. And one of the sailors, his nerve broke and he jumped at one of the 20mm cannon we had for our defence and fired at this U-boat. No hope, really, of hitting it at all, but, of course, annoyed the Captain of the U-boat so much he then fired four torpedoes at us and they all hit. And, literally, the bows fell off the ship, and the tragedy then was, because the bows had crumbled away, the ship tilted stern-up at quite a high angle, and as it did all lashings holding down the six aircraft at the back of ship broke and these aircraft thundered down the deck into the massed group of sailors and caused carnage, of course. That was the sad thing about it.
Whatever happened to the man who lost his nerve and fired the 20mm?
I’ve no idea. He may have… My guess is he was probably lost in the subsequent… I’ve no idea who he was. It just happened.
But how did you manage to get away?
Well, as soon as it tilted I heard the lashings on the aircraft snap, realised what was going to happen, and just leapt off the deck. So a big jump, but your worry, of course, is two-fold; whether you’ll make it into the sea without falling on top of somebody, and the second one, of course, is whether you’ll be able to swim away before the suction of the ship going down sucks you down with it. But I was not a bad swimmer in those days.
I mean how far away do you need to be, do you think?
I would say about 50 yards.
So you were in the water and you’d just seen the ship just going under?
Oh, yes. And as it went under there were tremendous banging noise as the… Well, as the units in the ship collapsed with the pressure of the water. I mean, the rooms and cabins and everything just collapsed with the pressure of water, and there was a tremendous banging noise as this happened. And then, of course, when it disappears there was a huge suction of water. Even if you were as far away as 50 yards you can feel the undertow as it goes under. You just hope you’re not dragged with it.
And you’re keeping – I mean, you’re a good swimmer, but you’re also, I mean you’ve got a Mae West on, presumably.
Yes. Yes, and this was our great advantage for the pilots to survive as opposed to the seamen. Because we had all Mae Wests, and if you were in the water and you fall asleep – which often happens because of hypothermia etcetera – your head will be held up by the Mae West, the type, the design of the Mae West, whereas a sailor only had what were really just inner tubes of tyres round their middle and held by having two tapes over their shoulders. And if they fall asleep, of course, they just topple forward and drown.
But you were part of a convoy, were you, at that point?
So there’s other ships around, so…
No. They… The convoy proceeded on. What happened was two escorts came back to try and pick up survivors. A Destroyer – or, rather, a Frigate – and a small Corvette. Now, they were picking up people as fast as they could but suddenly, as I was getting close to them, they vanished, they took off. And they left us. We were in the water – it’d be about twenty-odd of us – and we were in the water for about anywhere between – time just was meaningless – between 2 and 4 hours, I think.
And the reason they had gone was not abandoning us for any reason other than they were getting (active) pings on their sonar to tell them that the submarine was still there. And, of course, they didn’t want to be torpedoed with all these survivors on board. So they took the right course of action.
And when you’re all bobbing around in the water are you all talking to each other and sort of geeing each other up?
There were roughly 26 of us, I think, and the sailors all drowned one-by-one, they just fell forward, and I was with my Flight Commander. There were just two of us with Mae Wests, and we were all – we had tied ourselves together, the whole 26 of us, for sort of mutual support. And we had a knife, and we just, unfortunately, when these chaps fell asleep and drowned, we couldn’t waken them up, then we just had to cut them off and be ruthless and let them drift away in case they dragged us under.
Oh, god. These are hard decisions to make, aren’t they?
They were, I’m afraid, yes. Yeah, very hard.
But I mean, are you sort of… I mean, it must be a very shocking experience. You know, one minute you’re all on this incredible – I mean, okay, it’s a small escort carrier but it’s still a big beast, isn’t it, comparatively? Lots of people, and suddenly it’s all gone. I mean, hard to take in, I suppose.
Yes. The extent of the disaster, the numbers we lost we were not aware of, of course, until we got ashore, because we didn’t know how many survivors were on the different boats we were on. And it sank in, we realised how many people we had lost, which was very heavy. And… But I didn’t find it dwelt in my mind too much. Again, you see, because I was young and fit, and I hadn’t had any feeling that I was near death at any stage. I always felt I would survive it because I could swim well and I had full confidence we’d be picked up.
Was this daytime or night time?
Yeah, of course, because of the phosphorescence of the U-boat.
I don’t know, I suppose it’s just the sort of bobbing around in a dark sea at night and…
Yeah. The water, of course, was cold, 21st of December, out in the Bay of Biscay. Not the best place to be.
But eventually you get picked up.
Yes. And the Captain at the same time. He was still floating around with the Navigator, they had managed to survive. And the sad thing is when it came alongside, the Corvette, they threw him a lifeline and he tied himself to it and they hauled him in, and the lifeline snapped when he was halfway up the side of the vessel, and he fell back into the sea and was never seen again.
Oh, that’s cruel luck, isn’t it.
Yes, it was.
But you got picked up, went back to England…
…And then you were put on another carrier?
No. I was… We re-trained on Hurricanes after the Wildcats, and we were training to go on HMS Avenger. Another escort carrier, but considerably bigger than the one we’d been on. And during that time, within weeks of embarking, I was suddenly told I had to undertake a series of trials on various carriers. And this was – I was being directed into the test-flying world. And the reason, I found out later, was that the Captain, they send in confidential reports, and the last one that reached the Admiralty before we were sunk, and it had said on it that I had a facility for deck landing and this should be used. ‘Utilised’, I think was the word. And this is what really caused me to move into the test game.
So sort of by chance, in a way?
Oh, very much so.
No sort of grand plan or anything?
Oh, no. At that time in life there was no Empire Test Pilots’ School or anything like that, no.
And any qualms about going into test piloting or..?
On the contrary. I was utterly delighted.
No more being sunk at sea, presumably.
Oh, no, that wasn’t the thing. Test flying; I’d read a lot about it and it just utterly fascinated me. I wanted to learn more about aeroplanes and maybe be involved in finding out directly.
But you obviously were a bright young chap and, you know, you studied modern languages at university, but when you were doing your training, when you were growing up, when you were first involved in the University Air Squadron, were you always keen, interested on the technical side of flying? I mean, understanding flying?
No, not really. At that stage, when I went in the University Air Squadron, my view was I’ll enjoy a bit of free flying, and I was keen to move into the academic world. I would have gone or applied to join the Diplomatic Corps, as I’d been told I had a chance for it. So my life was totally changed firstly by the War and then secondly by this Captain’s confidential report.
But was there – I mean there must have been a point where you start to understand the technical aspect of flying, the kind of scientific aspect of flying, and take an interest in that? Because obviously if you’re going to be a test pilot these are all things that you need to know about.
Yes. I had started reading that up in the long periods we were on standby in the Audacity, and the boys used to pull my leg about it, that was studying all these aerodynamic books etcetera. But at that stage it wasn’t that I wanted to be a test pilot, I was studying them to try and learn more about the enemy aircraft we would be opposing. And I was… I mean, none of the lads seemed to be too fussed about learning where the guns were located or whether they could be depressed at certain angles or whatnot, they were just interested in knowing it had a gun. But I liked to know what angles it could fire, how much it could depress, and so on, so forth, and they rather pulled my leg about that. But it paid off in the end, you see.
Absolutely. I mean, one of your mottos is ‘be prepared’.
Always read the test notes.
Yes! Read the small print!
Read the small print, exactly!
That’s amazing, that story of the sinking. Wow. Incredible.
[Technical discussion. Unrelated conversation]
I think you’ll want to fast-forward from there.
We might fast-forward a little bit, but, you know, we’ll…
It all really now moves on to about 1944.
Yes. Well, we’ve got a…
When I went to Farnborough.
Farnborough, yeah. Yeah.
So you move into testing, and particularly testing planes to be carrier-born. How do you get to Farnborough?
Well, after Audacity I mainly spent a couple of years – or slightly more – in what is called the Service Trials Unit, which is devoted to – a specialist Navy unit, or Fleet Air Arm unit, dealing with carrier trials. And because it’s such a specialist form of flying it’s not given to normal test pilot agencies. And after that I then gravitated to Boscombe Down, where the service acceptance trials were done. In other words they check that an aeroplane is fit to go into normal service. I should have been going there for about three years, but I’d only been there a little over a month when I got a call from the Admiralty saying did I think I could land a Mosquito on an aircraft carrier. “Well,” I said, “I’ve only seen a Mosquito flying, I haven’t seen one on the ground, but I think it’s a possibility.” And they said, “Right.” And that was all their question was. And then, a few days later, I was told I was to go to Farnborough because the pilot, the Navy test pilot at Farnborough, had been killed landing a Seafire on a carrier. So this was in January 1944. So I went there, I did the job on the carrier, landing the Mosquito on the carrier in March 1944. And this really changed my life, because the Director of the REE had said to me, he said to me later, he said, “Frankly I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. I didn’t think you would make it with this test.” Then I was upgraded and promoted and became the Chief Naval Test Pilot at Farnborough.
So just before we move on to jets…
Yeah, just before we move on to jets; the Mosquito. What is it about the Mosquito that makes it such a tricky proposition in terms of landing on a carrier?
Well, as I told you earlier that in naval aviation, in carrier landings you have to approach at a speed of about 1.1 times the stalling speed. When I was told that the gear, the arrestor gear on the carrier that I was going to try the trial on, would only accept a top landing speed of 78 miles an hour. Now, the stalling speed of the Mosquito in the landing condition in 110 miles an hour. So this made everybody dub it ‘mission impossible’. And how it was done, basically, was using so much engine power instead of barely having the engine ticking over in a normal landing, using so much engine power that the aircraft was hanging on the propellers. And you brought it in at a slow speed, literally hanging on the props. So, I mean, if an engine failed at that stage that was it, because you were in a highly dangerous position. But that was for that experiment, and we learned a huge amount, invaluable information that allowed us to design the next twin very much as a practical Naval aircraft, namely the De Havilland Hornet.
So it’s the risk of an engine failure. If there’s an engine failure on a Mosquito as you’re coming in to land on a carrier, that’s it, it’s all over.
So that’s what makes this job particularly dangerous, because you’re so close to a stalling speed at any one moment.
It’s the price you have to pay for progress. You may say why did we bother when you’re knowing all these dangers existed? Because there were things we had to find out about operating a twin on a carrier. For example, the size and weight of the aircraft was beyond anything we’d ever attempted before, and the speed was beyond anything we’d ever attempted before. You can theorise about these things as much as you like, but you’re never going to get the answers, the real answers, until you do it practically. And one of the things we found out, for example, we had a hook failure during a landing and where the hook actually broke, and this projected us over the port side of the carrier. Well, when I say projected, I let it go over the port side because the swing of the – the natural swing when you open up to full power – is to take you to port, and one has a big islet structure on the right, so I deliberately let it go to port. But it was a close thing. We… Our wheels almost touched the sea as we pulled away. So with these, as I say, without taking these risks and finding out the practical answers, we’re not going to progress.
But also there’s a way of keeping those risks to a minimum, and that is by very, very careful preparation and I know a lot of people were a bit more cavalier about things than you were.
Well, yes. You’re a fool if you don’t try and reduce these risks without destroying the object of the exercise, absolutely. And believe you me, I did a lot of homework and practical work with the aid of the boffins at Farnborough in learning a lot about the aircraft before we took it aboard.
And also I know that one of your big mantras is very careful cockpit drill.
If you don’t know your machine you’re probably going to be caught out if anything untoward happens. If everything’s going normally it’s usually alright, but when – and there’s always that chance, such as the scoop breaking in this case – you’re faced up with something, you suddenly have to make a decision. When that hook broke the decision I had to make was has the hook broken? Or has the wire broken? What has gone? And if the wire had broken I should have left it alone, because all that would happen is you would pick up the next wire. But I knew, because of the vast experience I have in deck landing, that it was the hook that had gone. [Telephone rings] I’ll take that if I may.
That, I think, was the situation with that type of thing.
But I know we talked about it next door just earlier on, but for the purposes of being on camera now could you just explain about what you did that was different, which was always having the notes on your thigh.
Yes. When I was working at Farnborough with, of course, a lot of other test pilots, and one has to realise that in those days we did not have an Empire Test Pilots’ School, in the early part of my time, and therefore we weren’t trained how to deal with test flying. So one had to rather make up one’s own rules, if you like. I always realised that we were in a high-risk job therefore try and reduce the risk by meeting it half way. And my idea of meeting it half way was to prepare myself very carefully for what I was going to do and implement that and also add to it by having on my kneepad the emergency drills very briefly noted so that if something very untoward happened I could immediately refer to my notes. Even in short you get the answers very quickly. And that I’d use quite a number of times, and it saved my bacon or saved the aeroplane. And I think there was a lot of – or rather a lax attitude taken by a lot of pilots at that time. Their view was ‘this is just test flying, it’s not Bomber Command or Fighter Command or anything’, and, strangely, had a feeling that it was something safer than they’d been used to. On the contrary. The fatality rate in aero flight at Farnborough was far higher than that in Fighter or Bomber Command.
So you’d just have this pad strapped to your leg, would you?
And did any of the other pilots do this?
Not to my knowledge.
So how did you first get wind of jets and get involved in jets?
Well, after the Mosquito trials the Navy had upgraded me to the Chief Test Pilot and the then-Director of (the RE), Mr (Farran), said I had to be – the Navy had to be given entry into the top secret jet flight at Farnborough. And I was allowed in there, or asked to take part then in about April 1944. And it really was top secret. It was on a remote part of the airfield, guard dogs everywhere And one even flew at strange times of the day, either very late in the evening or very early in the morning so the public wouldn’t be looking all the time at aeroplanes and wondering ‘what kind of aeroplane is that?’, that sort of thing. And even in the control tower the formal air traffic controllers were replaced by specially-trained boffins just to make sure these flights were only monitored by people in the know. So this was a very closed atmosphere at that time. Now, while I was doing my ordinary test flying, I was doing a lot of catapulting at Farnborough and one day I noticed – I think at that time he was a Group Captain – standing watching these quite often, and often only on that day. And anyway, when I’d finished he came over and spoke to me and it was Frank Whittle, because he had been a test pilot on catapulting at Felixstowe. And we chatted and he learned, of course, that I was in the jet flight, too. And he said, “Oh, we’ll be seeing quite a bit of each other.” And then we parted company that day and, of course, from then on I had a really close association with him.
[Unrelated conversation. Mic problems. Section repeated]
…Thereafter he was a frequent visitor to the jet flight. And it was rather amusing, because every time he was coming we were alerted by the Aviation Ministry that he was coming and that we were to make sure that no jet aircraft was serviceable because he would ask to fly it, and they could not afford to lose him. So this charade went on day-in and day-out. Course, he knew all along what was going on, but he took it very well. Eventually he was allowed to fly the Meteor, but this was a while, after a while. But a delightful man.
You found him easy to get on with, did you?
Related very well to pilots. Outside that he was a bit contentious and didn’t suffer fools gladly at all. Mind you, I don’t blame him one little bit, because the amount of frustration that man underwent was incredible with the… I suppose you’d call it with ‘the establishment’.
Yes, because he put his first patent down, I think it was 1930 or something like that.
That’s right. And if he had been in Germany, for example, when you compare him with Von Ohain, who had all the monetary backing he could have. If Frank had had this sort of backing we’d have had a jet well before the beginning of the War.
Just an incredible thought, isn’t it?
Yeah, a jet aircraft. I mean…
Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. But what was the first jet you flew then? Was it the 28/39 or was it the Meteor?
No, I actually flew the Meteor before that, because we had a Meteor and an E.28 in the jet flight in 1944, and we later had a Vampire and an aero Comet – the American one – and… We had a fifth one, I think.
But the E.28/39 was only ever just the experimental plane, wasn’t it.
It, really, was an engine test bed. A simple aeroplane to fly. Very simple. For example they had no trimmers, no hydraulics, and, oh, it was so easy from that point of view. Which is just as well, because quite often the engine failed, not, I may say, for mechanical reasons, mainly because of fuel… Oh, what is it (I’ve been saying)… Trying to get the fuel to flow properly at very high altitudes. Here we were suddenly, instead of operating down at about 15, fuel monitoring, fuel flowing had to be monitored up at 40,000, 30,000 feet. And…
Was this because jet engines are more efficient and work more effectively at a higher altitude?
Well, no, it was just a different method of propulsion and we were using a different fuel, namely paraffin, where its behaviour, its viscosity, etc, etc, are very different from gasoline. So occasionally the engine would stop under these circumstances. It could relight, but sometimes it didn’t. But it didn’t matter too much, because we were in the vicinity of Farnborough and, frankly, airfields were like fleas on a dog’s back around there and we could dead-stick land at any. We never lost one because we couldn’t make an emergency landing.
But were you always excited about the prospect of what jets could achieve?
I mean, did you always feel there was huge, untapped potential right from the word go?
Yes. Yes, for the simple reason I had been doing transonic flight testing for a long time – mainly at Farnborough, of course – and we realised we were at the end of the road, that a piston engined propeller aircraft could never go supersonic. So there had to be a new way ahead. Suddenly that way opened up with the jet engine.
Could you explain that? That issue of compressibility and why a piston engine cannot go supersonic?
Well, it is because of the tip speed of the propellers gets supersonic and the drag incurred in the whole airscrew arrangement is such that the total drag of the propeller is so high that it cannot possibly get through the transonic region, beyond about point 9-2 or 9-3 or so.
Squadron Leader Martindale.
But you did about what? Point 8-4, something like that?
The highest I ever went before I went on to jets was point 8-7, I think it was. No, 8-6.
And what is it about..? I mean, why is it that Martindale could get to point 9-2 and others couldn’t get to point 8-6, even?
Martindale was my Squadron Commander at that time in the (aeroflight). Now, he was a big man – 6 feet 1, certainly, if not 2, weighing about 15 stone. Now, I’m fairly small and my – compact – and my maximum pull-force of the level of about 100 pounds. Now, in transonic testing what happens is once you’ve got to what’s called the ‘critical Mach number’, this is caused by a change in flow over the wing. It’s such that you get a huge nose-down change of trim.
This is compressibility?
That’s right. And this builds up, and eventually the aircraft will keep nosing over until it will – you’ll lose it, it’ll go out of control unless you can be able to pull it out. Now, you have to find that by trial and error. I found my limit was about 8-6, when I could pull them up. This was in a Spitfire, pulling about 100 pounds.
But what does pulling 100 pounds mean?
You’re pulling back on the stick against the force of the aircraft wanting to bunt. In other words ‘nose under’ all the time.
And that’s because the air has stopped moving smoothly over the wings. It’s now buffeting up and…
It’s losing lift. The flow has distorted so much it’s losing lift and it’s literally stalling. But not the low-speed stalling, high-speed stalling. In effect, the same thing. Both go nose down, but in a very different aspect.
So 100 pounds is your having to effectively pull what would be equivalent to a 100 pound weight to pull the stick up.
Oh, yeah. At that time I would lock the throttle and use both hands on the stick. Martindale could pull more than me and could pull more than anybody I’ve ever met that did supersonic, transonic testing. I say more than anyone one I’ve ever met in the test flying world. And he achieved this remarkable Mach number of point 9-2.
But at some cost, because his…
Oh, yes. The engine… The propeller came off, over-sped and came off, and part of the engine, the forward part of the engine broke off, and (obviously it was being recorded in order to observe her) and the aircraft – as, of course, these things broke off the centre of gravity moved very sharply aft and subjected him to a pull out of 11 G, which is beyond the structural limit of the aircraft, actually. But it says so much for the Spitfire. It didn’t break up. Although when he landed it successfully at Farnborough after he had recovered, wheels down –
Wheels down, yes – the wings were slightly swept back, because where they meet the fuselage there was a 3 inch gap on each side of the fuselage. But he was lucky to get away with it.
Yeah, I should say so.
But a remarkable effort, and very courageous, too.
Mind you, pretty good effort to do point 8-6 I’d have thought.
Oh, yeah. We had to (plod on) like that, yes. And, you see, we’d gone far beyond anything the Germans or the Americans had gone to.
Yes, because different aircraft have different Mach capabilities.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. For example, take Lockheed Lightning, the twin; it had an incredibly low Mach number of point 6-8.
Yeah. What about the Mustang?
The Mustang was point 7-8.
And the 190 and 109’s?
Uhh, they were point… About point 7-8, same as the Mustang, you know.
So you’re aware that with jets this obstacle had potentially been removed?
Yes. It hadn’t vanished, but we now… The limiting factor – apart from getting rid of the propeller – also we had not enough power in the old days. Now we were getting enough power, because you have to have the power. Two factors; power and thin wings. Power to push you through, and the thin wings, of course, to allow you to go through the sound barrier.
But the Meteor has its engines on the wings, doesn’t it?
Okay, but that’s not a problem, the drag of having the two engines on the wing?
Only if you get into asymmetric flight. That is to say, one engine fails and you’re flying on the other engine. You have very pronounced yaw movement towards one side and that can be dangerous at low speeds.
Yeah, because a lot of… I mean, you know, you can land a Lancaster, I believe, on just one engine if you’re skilled enough.
But, I mean, was there enough training, do you think, of pilots making the transition to jets? You know, if you’re going from, you know, propeller-led aircraft it’s a very different kettle of fish flying a jet. I mean, do you think people were trained enough on that?
Oh, there was enough training but we… At first I think Training Command had gone the wrong direction, because they were training pilots to deal with asymmetric flight, in other words to deal with an engine failure. Now, engine failures didn’t occur very often, but because they were training them to do this people were put into hazardous situations that they couldn’t cope with. And as a result, the Meteor, it is almost unbelievable to think it had something of the order of 900 accidents, caused – mainly caused – by asymmetric training.
Yeah. But what is the correct procedure if you, you know, if you’re landing with only one engine? I mean, presumably it is possible to land on one engine, is it?
Yes. Keep the speed up and do a fast landing. That is the first, primary thing. You have to make sure you don’t get lower speed when you can hold the aircraft straight, and the rudder-effect will deteriorate as you get slower and slower. So the two alternatives are to either make a fast landing or close down both engines and do a belly landing.
Right. So what did you make of the Meteor yourself when you were first flying jets?
Well, by this time I hadn’t flown the Me262, but shortly afterwards I did and I realised that it was not in the same category as the 262.
In what regard?
Speed. Speed. It was a pedestrian aircraft, really, the Meteor. It never went into… It never fought operationally. It fought, if you like to call it that, against the V1, the flying doodlebug, and quite successfully. But it really was too slow to deal with the German jets when they came into being. They were a grade above at first. The Me262 is quite frightening. It gave us a shock to find out, because when I flew it the fastest fighter we had – piston fighter, of course – in the Allied camp was the Seafire Mk14 with a top speed of 446mph. The Me262 was 125mph faster than that aircraft. So this was a rude shock to our system, I tell you, when we found that out.
When did you first fly it? In May ’45?
Uhh, that’s right, yes.
After the end of the War?
Yes. May ’45.
But what about its handing and manoeuvrability?
Oh, it handled beautifully. The main problem with the 262 was the sensitivity of the engines. Whereas Whittle went the centrifugal flow for jet propulsion, the Americans had gone on the axial flow principle. Fundamentally what that means is a centrifugal flow engine has a single compressor, combustion chambers, and a single turbine. Axial flow has multiple compressors, much smaller diameter combustion chambers, multiple turbines. So it’s more streamlined but more complex, but it gives you far better fuel comsumption.
And what about the jet engines in the Me262?
They were all axial flow. The Germans – apart from Von Ohain, who went the same way as Whittle, because, I suspect, he had Whittle’s notes. Well, I don’t suspect, I’m pretty certain of it.
But tell me how you know that? Because Von Ohain always claimed that, you know, he had no knowledge of Whittle, what Whittle was doing, that they had drawn the same conclusions (just by accident).
I’m well aware of that, because I interrogated Von Ohain and his sidekick. The Americans were very clever. They kept the two apart so they weren’t able to collude before they were interrogated. Now, I asked Von Ohain the straight question of whether he had – knew anything about Whittle’s patent, and he was… He never said yes, he never said no. He was ambivalent and he wouldn’t answer it directly. So I went and saw his sidekick, who was a very good engineer, he said, “Oh, yes, we knew, because the German Embassy had purchased,” he said, “dozens of copies of Whittle’s patent from His Majesty’s Stationery Office and distributed around the technical libraries in Germany.”
Because Whittle couldn’t, or didn’t feel it was worth it, or couldn’t afford to…
Renew the patent.
It cost £5 to renew the patent. This was, at this stage in life, was too much for him, and because he didn’t renew it, it went public.
And it’s no coincidence that Von Ohain comes out with his jet engine in 1935.
I don’t believe for a moment that Von Ohain would have got where he did without knowing about… Whittle’s patent.
Very interesting. Very interesting. No, I mean, that dispels a very entrenched myth, doesn’t it?
Yeah. Whittle himself thought this, but Von Ohain became – because he was American, suddenly had become – from Germany – had become an American citizen, the Americans backed him up. And since Whittle wanted to reside in America eventually, he took – he decided he’d bury the hatchet and just make peace with Von Ohain.
So they met post-War?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And… But you’ll never convince me, nor many other people, that Von Ohain didn’t get his initial impetus all from Whittle’s patent papers.
And do you feel even today that there is a sense that Whittle is somehow underappreciated?
Oh, yes. Very much so. The man was a genius. But the problem was… There were two problems; the first one was he was so young when he came to fruition, if you like to put it that way –
He was still in his twenties, wasn’t he?
Oh, yes. 19, in fact, when he wrote his thesis, I think – that he was pooh-poohed as, you know, ‘a kid couldn’t dream up something like this and it be really effective’. That was the first problem. The second problem was he was forging ahead of scientists who were working on jet engines and weren’t making the progress he was, and professional jealousy crept in. And…
Because he was almost self – he was pretty much self-taught. I mean, I know later he went to Cambridge, he was sort of funded to go to Cambridge by the RAF, but he’d already thought of his jet engine by that stage.
Yes. He was… He was just a genius.
And you liked him?
I found, as a pilot, I could… We had a long association together. We lectured together at one stage for a short time, and altogether I found him a delightful man. I was so sad for him, because his health was suffering under this tremendous pressure of not being allowed to progress at the rate he was capable of.
Yes, it must have been deeply frustrating.
But it’s interesting how, you know, in the build-up to the War and even during the War, I mean, certain things, I mean certain remarkable things, were developed and others not, and there doesn’t seem to be any consistency about it.
Yes. One has to admit that the Germans really went forging ahead on axial flow engines, but they were limited by the fact that they didn’t have the strategic metals available to them that could withstand the heat stresses at higher thrusts. And they just didn’t have them in the country, they weren’t available to them, so this was the reason that the Me262’s engines only had a total scrap life of 25 hours. And I had a serious engine failure in the Arado 234, which has the same engines as the Me262…
They’re Jumos, aren’t they?
Jumo 004’s. Junkers Jumos. I was taking off in an Arado 234 at Grove in Denmark, and I’d only gone about – I’d run up the engines to full thrust, released the brakes, and I’d only moved about 50 to 100 yards when the starboard engine exploded, blew clean out of the airframe. And that is the sort of thing that an engine, you see, with a scrap life of 25 hours. We had no service record of how much this engine had done, because the Germans had destroyed all the records. So that was a little bit of a risk we were undergoing, but having had that one experience I really didn’t have any real, big troubles after that with the German jets.
But your arrival in Germany in May, early May, 1945, I mean it must have been an extraordinary period.
Well, actually I went there in April.
April. Well, the War was still on, because we had an intelligence report that told us that two of the jets we were looking for had landed at Fassberg, which is just south of Hanover. And I went over to see what they were, and they were, in fact, two Me262’s. The pilots, we believe, were fleeing the Russians and had just flown these two in and fled. And they were totally intact. And as far as we could see would be flyable. We couldn’t do it at that time because, of course, the War was still on and we knew nothing about them, other than just seeing them.
Yes, because presumably you can’t just sort of stand by an Me262, jump in the cockpit, and take off.
Exactly not. Absolutely not. No, no, they’re a very different cup of tea and a very – quite a complex aeroplane.
And are they quite simple to fly once you’re flying them?
Once you’re going, yes. Apart, as I say, from the sensitivity of the engines. You can’t afford to move the throttle rapidly, either decelerating or accelerating. There’s a slight risk of flaming out the engine.
But you’d, you know, spent a considerable amount of time in Germany before the War. I mean, it must have been such a different place when you got there. I mean, everything you saw.
Well, of course, when I was there in 1939 I saw all the panoply of power in Germany and all the panoply of the Nazi Party with their big rallies, etc, but all that as a young boy, it appealed to me, frankly. It all shows how naïve you are when you’re young. I didn’t see the political implications of what was happening at that time. But, of course, the signs to anybody who really knew about politics, well, they’re load and clear, what was going to happen. And it was an exciting place to be, because the Hitler Youth all had free gliding. I used to go up to their gliding airfields and hang around them. They didn’t mind me being there. They would let me sit in the crew room, read their magazines, but they would never let me have a flight, even as a passenger. Strictly not. But otherwise they were quite friendly.
[Unrelated conversation. Sound]
But, I mean, one of the places you witnessed was Belsen.
I mean, how did you come to be there?
Well, when I was at Fassberg – Fassberg, the reason we were there, because the 2nd Army had just captured the airfield – and Fassberg is reasonably close to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp. And the unit that was there was mainly plucked from the 2nd Army unit. They were a medical unit commanded by a Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Welshman, and he came, he was interested in these jets, just to look at them. And he came down and he was walking around, and he said, “I’ve heard you talking to the German ground crew we’ve captured.” And he said, “You speak better German than my interpreter.” He said, “Would you care to come on a two day operation with us?” And I said, “I’m afraid I can’t spare you two days, but I could give you one day.” He said, “It’s just for translating.” And so the next day – he didn’t say at the time what it was – but the next day I went to where I was told to go. We got into jeeps and he said to me, “We’re going to liberate the concentration camp at Belsen.” And I thought, ‘in jeeps?’, because we’ll be opposed, we should be in armoured cars. But when we got there I found the Germans were waiting for us, expecting us. There were Germans and a large number of Hungarians, too. And they had realised quite a while before that Belsen had 20,000 cases of typhus, and that if the inmates or the guards ran out of Belsen into the rest of Germany, they could start a plague that could have worse implications even than the War. So they got in touch with the 2nd Army under a white flag of truce, they agreed that the German Army would contain the inmates and the guards until the 2nd Army could arrive and take over, and the 2nd Army would also not only take over but would try and eradicate the typhus disease. And when we arrived, as I say, the gates were open for us and the Germans went off to fight against us elsewhere. And Glyn Hughes and his team went about their work, trying to sort out this dreadful situation.
Yeah, it must have been absolutely horrific.
So I was only there to interrogate the Camp Commandant and the female Camp Commandant. But I had, of course, time to look around at Belsen and I thought… Well, it’s indescribable. The piles of bodies of bodies were piled high. Two thirds of them, incidentally, were women. And they had been… They hadn’t been laid out respectfully as dead bodies, they had been bulldozed into these pits by an actual bulldozer, so they were in grotesque positions in the pits. Oh, it was quite ghastly. Piled high, much higher than this roof. And the worst was when we went into the huts. This part of the camp we were in, there were three huts, and they were about 30 feet long, I would say, by about 10 wide, maybe, and they’d been built, I was told, for 60 people. There were 3-tiered bunks along the side of the room, of the hut, and with open slats. They’d been meant to house a total of 60. In fact there were 250 in there, all lying, dying, on beds with open slats, messing on the ones below them, too weak for anybody to do anything about it. The ones were messing on the ones below them. Oh, God, the stench was indescribable. Absolutely indescribable. They were all dying and nothing we could do, really, for them I think. The thing was to contain the typhus, which… Because outside there were still people walking around, inmates, but they were like zombies. I stopped one or two and talked to them, but – in German – but they wouldn’t even look at me. They would just stand, looking down at the ground, make no reply. But then, when you finished, they would just step aside and proceed on in this zombie state they were in. Whether it was the typhus or the rest of the problems that caused this I know not, but, oh, it was ghastly. Quite ghastly.
And you interrogated the Commandant?
Yep. He admitted everything. He was Kramer. The lady Commandant wouldn’t admit anything. She wouldn’t speak to us. And she had been the chief guard at Auschwitz and had fled Auschwitz when the Russians came, and was in Belsen. Irma Grese. And we kept asking her if she had her time over again would she do the same thing. She wouldn’t reply. And after repeatedly asking her this she suddenly leapt to her feet and gave the heil Hitler salute, called out, “Heil Hitler!”, and went and sat down. But they were all executed, of course, later on. But the 2nd Army brought out the – later in the War, when the War had been won and things had settled – they brought out the official hangman, Pierrepoint, and he dispatched a very large number of the top guards and the guards just period, because how can you have a defence? They were given a courts martial to give them a chance to defend themselves as I understand it, I wasn’t there at this stage, but how can you defend yourself when outside the window there’s a pile of bodies, as I say, as high as this roof? So they all met the inevitable fate, I think.
But that trip in Germany also involved, you know, sourcing all sorts of German jets and experimental units and wind tunnels.
Oh, yes. We found… Germany had… We were given our priorities by Churchill. We had three priorities; the first was find, and bring back if you can, supersonic wind tunnels. The second one was find, and bring back if you can – because there was a risk of them all being vandalised – their top jet and rocket aircraft. Thirdly, interrogate and bring back if possible their top designers and test pilots. These were the three priorities. So we achieved all these.
And the wind tunnels, I mean there was just nothing like that in the UK.
Nothing like it. And, as I say, they had a jet stream, these tunnels – an air stream, I should say – of about Mach 1.1 to 1.2. But down in Bavaria the Americans find – and I went and saw it – a wind tunnel with an air stream of Mach… I think it was 4.2. It may have been 4.4, but immaterial. Unbelievable that they’d have it, actually. But this was von Braun’s tunnel. He’d originally built it in 1939 in Peenemunde, but after Peenemunde was bombed he brought it back and reassembled it in Bavaria. And the Americans, that was in their occupation zone and they captured it, and it now is installed in Maryland in the United States.
Still being used?
So I understand.
Could you just explain the significance of a wind tunnel? I mean what is a wind tunnel and what does it allow you to do?
Well, without a wind tunnel you are not going to know how an aerofoil – a wing section, if you like – is going to behave in flight, unless you test it by actually flying it. But then you do that at a higher risk. So if you are going to go for advanced aerodynamic shapes, you are going to have to test them in a supersonic wind tunnel, because you really cannot afford to test these in free flight without knowing something about their characteristics. It’s really… If you like, it’s almost a death sentence to the pilot if you take that sort of risk.
And what is it that’s producing the wind?
Producing it? Oh, they’re high compressors. Very high speed compressors.
And they were just leagues ahead of everyone else?
And so you find jets with all sorts of different wing shapes.
They had three types of jet aircraft. The 262 had an advanced, swept-back wing. Now, we hadn’t any swept-back aircraft in this country at that time. The Arado 234 had a a straight wing but, of course, we didn’t know, we didn’t have any axial flow engines other than experimental ones in this country at that time.
So you’d need an axial flow engine if you were going to have straight wings?
Uh, no, not necessarily. But if you’re going to have the speeds you’re seeking, you need the thrust, the high thrust of the axial flow engine, and the streamlined shape.
Otherwise, you put on an axial flow, you’ll have a draggy shape and less thrust for a given size of engine.
And you managed to collect all manner of aircraft over there and experimental… I mean, I know they had the Arado, the Comet, and the Me262, but they also had a number of experimental aircraft too, didn’t they?
This was, I think up to a point, a shortcoming of the Germans. They had too many experimental aircraft. I flew fifty five types of different German aircraft, of which three were jets, one was rocket, and the others were piston. But they shocked us. They were so far ahead, frankly. Their jet engines were, as I said, the actual engines were not reliable but the end result was an incredibly fast aeroplane. Even their straight wing aeroplane, the Arado 234, which was a reconnaissance bomber, was faster than our fastest fighter. Even with straight wings, with the thrust of these huge jets it had.
But although it had shocked you it must have also given… You know, it must have been quite exciting, because suddenly you can see all the potential that you believed was possible was there right in front of you.
Oh, yes. It was like opening Aladdin’s cave. It really was. And they were there in their hundreds. I mean, we found a note from (Speyer), who was running the German production – the Nazi production machine, and he was worrying about the fact that he was finding it more and more difficult as the War advanced to keep up production. But he still forecast that the Heinkel 162 – which was the last little single-engined jet aircraft – that they would be building in the underground factories 500 a month by May 1945, which is when the War ended. We read this and we thought ‘ridiculous forecast’. When we found the two sites dug into the hillside – one on the northern edge of Lake Constance and the other in Magdeburg, I think, in what was then East Germany – they were on target for 500 a month. This all in a place… Germany was a pile of ruins. It looked like the Moon in some places.
I mean, these sort of facilities in the side of the hills, they must have been extraordinary, weren’t they?
Oh, yeah. Dug right in.
I mean, did they sort of feel like futuristic..?
Oh, very much so. And the other interesting thing was most of the work force was slave labour, of course, and controlled by Himmler’s SS, and they were acting as sort of quality control people. Hitler’s SS was there because there was always the danger with slave labour that they would try to vandalise or do something like that on the aircraft. So that was the necessity for that. But the Germans, they’re such a disciplined nation and such a workaholic nation, they really are, and if they couldn’t do it they drove the slave labour to do it and drove them to death, if necessary, to do it.
Yeah, and yet there are so many sort of inconsistencies and irrational decisions being made all the time. I mean, over-engineering on almost everything. I mean, it’s incredible.
The mismanagement of the upper hierarchy of the Nazi Party is unbelievable. We found at the end there was something like over 100 scientists, all spread out individually, working on guided weapons. Individually. Nobody coordinating them at all.
No pooling of resources and knowledge. And yet the Me262 is, you know, it’s a Junkers engine invented… I mean, who designed the Jumo?
The Jumo was designed by Jumo, a fellow called Wagner.
So I suppose with that there was, you know, different companies involved in the construction of one aircraft, it was unusual for…
Yes. Yeah. Now, Wagner had – he will tell you he knew about it, about Whittle’s patent but, of course, he took a different direction.
So he saw Whittle’s patent, saw the potential, and then thought, ‘Hang on a minute. I can change this and make it more efficient’.
How far back he saw it I never found out, but he found out about the principles of jet propulsion from the patent and he decided to go a different way. Once he knew what a jet engine comprised – these three components we talked about; compressor, combustion chambers, turbine – he played on these and changed the layout of them and the numbers of them. So he played with, if you like, his recipe.
Right. And you interrogated him as well, did you?
No, I never got hold of him. No.
But you did get hold of Goering.
Yes, and a remarkable man in many ways. I had a picture of Goering, I think like everybody else in Britain, of seeing a big, fat slob, bemedalled and going around in jackboots, not doing much very effectively. When I was allowed to interrogate him he had been weaned off drugs by the Americans. He had been in their captivity for a while. I think it was June the 16th I interrogated him in Luxembourg. Not in Luxembourg, at a place called (Badmundorf), about 12 miles south of Luxembourg in the Palace Hotel where they kept him. And they had interrogated him out of his wits, and when I went – the reason I got interrogation rights is a long story, but there was a deal done – but the Americans said they had to have an invigilating officer to listen to what I was (arguing), and I was told, “Strictly, you must not ask him any political questions, purely aviation questions, because he will be going on trial at Nuremburg very shortly and we don’t want any political evidence to conflict with what he’s going to say later.” So I asked him about ten or twelve aviation questions, and he was straightforward. In fact, when he came into the interrogation room he was very po-faced because I think he was absolutely fed up to the teeth with interrogation. But the invigilating officer said, “For the first time you’re going to be interrogated by a pilot.” And he changed completely. He even managed a faint smile. And frankly I found him very intelligent and almost charismatic. Didn’t hesitate to answer any questions, seemed to be very straightforward, and at the end of it all – much to the invigilating officer’s disgust, I think – he held out his hand. But I did not respond. I didn’t take it. But all I said to him, I gave him the old fighter pilots’ greeting, I said ‘Hals und Beinbruch’. And he smiled and then just went on. And of course, as you know, went on to Nuremburg, and you know what happened there, of course.
Incredible story. I wonder if we could just pause for a minute there.
…(in the War), that we won’t use them. The designers, that is to say. We didn’t… We could have had (Kulhan), we could have had Heinkel, but we got all (uppity) about it. “We’re not going to do it, have any Nazis here.”
And yet we had a guy who led an Einsatzgruppen in Poland working for MI… Which is home and away?
[Third person] Home’s MI5, away is MI6.
Okay, MI6, working for MI6 in the 50’s and 60’s. You know, that sort of moral high ground was, again, was very inconsistent.
Oh, yes. The Americans put it totally to one side.
Well, we did to a degree, but not in others.
We had 26 scientists at Farnborough for… Up ‘til mid 1947.
Then we offered two…
Do you mind if I ask you about this again in a minute when we’re on camera?
No. We offered two, who were outstanding, jobs for life, with civil servant ranks and everything, if they’d stay on. They both accepted. One of them was the catalyst for Concorde.
A German scientist.
I was at the meeting… [multiple voices/conversations – inaudible] (four meetings of five), two of which were Germans, held at (Areen) in the summer of ’47.
Gosh. That must have been some meeting.
We were discussing wing (things), and I sat throughout the whole thing, barely said a word ‘til right at the end. They said I was in charge of the supersonic tunnel at Volkenroda, and he said, “We have done a lot of work on a wing which I would recommend that you use.” He said, “The slim delta wing.” We’d never heard of the delta wing. And he said, “I’ve done all the high speed testing on it, but I cannot speak for the low speed characteristics.” He said, “That, I warn you, I don’t know the answers there.” So the Chairman, who was Morien Morgan who later became Chairman of the Concorde Committee, said to him, “Right, I hear what you say.” And within a month he had ordered the building of the Handley Page 115, which was the slow speed delta wing, with which over a thousand flights were made with no problems at all.
Well, the Vulcan first flew in… Was it ’48 or ’52?
Yep. And this guy – (Cookerman), too – also was the first to pioneer fly-by-wire, so we got a big return from him. He stayed here ‘til he died.
God, that must have been an amazing time to be in the aviation industry. Post-War, about sort of 10, 15 years.
[Female voice] I think it would be interesting, just before we move onto the M52, to just clarify, you know, we’re talking a lot about how superior the German technology was and these extraordinary productions they had going, just to be specific about why they hadn’t managed to be successful in the air with their planes. I believe you mentioned a shortage of fuel and pilots and I think it’s just worth us mentioning.
(It’s all the misuse) of what they had. I mean, the Germans consistently mismanaged their technology. I mean, you know, they over-engineered things that didn’t need to be over-engineered…
Yes, there were… Where they gained a big advantage was they prepared themselves for war without letting the rest of the World know. And the major thing they did was they built over thirty technical colleges, high-grade technical colleges, throughout Germany which brought up all these young scientists. We in this country had three, I think – or maybe it was five, but I think it was three – and once you’ve got ahead you can’t catch up, particularly in wartime. And the (REE), for example, got a lot of very bright young men from universities in Cambridge, Oxford, etc. They could have done with three times that amount. But they just weren’t there, because we hadn’t prepared enough, early enough.
[Female voice] So in terms of a race, you know, in terms of a race of technical supremacy they were far ahead of us, but it was almost the luck of their disorganisation or lack of resources that meant they didn’t thoroughly hammer us with that technology.
If you sum up the War, I would say quantity v quality. We flooded them with… Once American industry was with us, that was the end of the War, really. They had no hope at all of dealing with American industry.
Having said that, by the end of the War the, you know, the Americans were the supreme military power bar none, I mean in terms of… I mean, even their Army, which always gets a bad reputation, I mean compared to the Germans at the end of the War, you know, by kind of sort of autumn of ’44 to the end of the War they were just… It’s the whole package. It’s ability on the ground, it’s operationally, it’s strategically, it’s the whole shooting match. That’s what they get. They’re very quick to learn, the Americans, you know, their analysis. As were the British. I mean, the British spent a lot of money and time and effort analysing the experiences on the ground, whereas actually the Germans sort of flatlined in the War. I mean, they had their tactics in 1940 and they don’t really move on from that, really, significantly, whereas us Allies do massively. Well, so did the Russians, for that matter.
Of course, there’s nothing they could do, the Germans, about running out of pilots or running out of fuel. We’d bombed their fuel refineries in Romania out of existence, virtually. And their pilots, you see, they didn’t have a system like we had of tours of operations. When you went into Ops you were there ‘til you died and there was no way out. And then they originally had done their training in Russia and when that all collapsed, you see, they had nowhere in Germany where we couldn’t get to. And we used to have Mustangs with standing patrols over their training airfields and if anybody took off they were just shot down immediately. So they obviously just ran out of pilots. There was nothing they could do about it.
You can’t really attack successfully without air superiority, but you can defend without it. But…
Obviously when you did that sort of tour of Germany trying to get those three things at the end of the War, I mean, you were obviously shocked by just how advanced it was but why do you think it was that the Germans hadn’t kind of made the most of that technological advantage?
They had for a spell, but as the Nazi Party thrived, if you like, with power they also thrived in mismanagement, and maybe they were undertaking too many things at once. For example I always felt they had far too many types of aeroplane to deal with at any given time. And one of the appalling things from our point of view, we found at the end of war there were over 100 single German scientists – or little cells of German scientists – working on new designs of guided weapons. All of them working on their own, without knowledge of what any of the others were doing. In other words there was a total lack of coordination, and this was rife in Nazi Germany. And the other thing, I think, there was a huge amount of back-biting going on at the top, distrust amongst the seniors. For example, Milch was a prime troublemaker, really, because he couldn’t get on with anybody on the top of the hierarchy, the aviation hierarchy. He was dealing with Luftwaffe people, whereas his background was Lufthansa. He’d been Managing Director, I think, at Lufthansa, and the military just didn’t take to him. But yet he was advancing through the ranks very carefully because he was playing a Machiavellian game. And this was going on all around Germany, and the fact there was this appalling distrust at the top… Mind you, I’m not saying it wasn’t going on with the British, too, because if you just look at how Montgomery and Patton loved each other you can see what went on there. But it was rife in Germany. Also, the direct interference of Hitler in prime strategic situations. He really got, I think, a feeling that he was almost invincible. He must have… You felt he must have been turned to that when Stalingrad helped, but right up to the end he was living in a dream world. When you hear the messages that he sent out from the bunker to non-existent units asking them to fight to the death, that they would rescue him from the Russians. I mean, a sense of dementia at the end of the whole thing, wasn’t there? And when I… I sensed this tremendously as a function of the ideology of Nazism, because Hanna Reitsch, when I interrogated her – which I did at Salzburg Castle. I think I’ve got the date. I think it was June or July, actually, of 1945 – she was living in a dream world, really, and had lived in a dream world. For example, she didn’t believe in the Holocaust. Nothing could convince her that the Holocaust took place. She reckoned she could do anything she wanted in Germany as long as she showed her strong Nazi leanings, and that she could go, as a last resort, to Hitler himself. Which, in fact, she did. And although he didn’t accede to everything she said, he still tolerated her. And, of course, this shows how much Nazism, I think, warped the mind. When I spoke to Himmler, when he was captured, I wasn’t asked to interrogate him, I was merely asked to identify him, or confirm, because when he was captured he called himself ‘Heinrich Hitzinger’. And then he got so fed up at the low level of interrogation he was having, he said that he was, finally, Heinrich Himmler. And his answer… The reply he got, more or less, was, you know, “And I’m Julius Caesar,” from the interrogation unit that were dealing with him. But eventually he was (bowled out). And, see, he was fighting the whole latter part of his career, he was fighting inside the Nazi Party against them, trying to go on his own way to have a peace deal through Sweden. And it was interesting that right at the end, when the chips were down, he tried to approach Admiral Doenitz, Grand Admiral Doenitz – who at that time was holed-up in Schleswig-Holstein, having been made the new Fuhrer – and Doenitz totally rejected him, and just literally said, you know, “Get out and look after yourself.” And when he was captured he was in a Nazi sergeant’s – uh, in an SS sergeant’s uniform with false papers. And one of the interesting things I found was somebody in the British establishment was alive to what might have happened after the War with iconic Neo-Nazi shrines, and when Himmler committed suicide, his burial on Luneburg Heide was made at dead of night by a small party, and lead on a zigzag path so that, to this day, nobody knows where he’s finally buried. And, in spite of that, on Sundays in Luneburg Heide the Germans are there with their buckets and spades digging for Himmler’s bones. And there was always this danger of an iconic shrine. Similarly, when Hanna Reitsch died I had a strange letter from her implying that she’d come to the end of her tether. She’d tried to be – show that she was a true patriot of the Fatherland, people had never understood this, called her a fanatical Nazi when she was a true patriot – and she was more or less giving up, or trying to, anyway. And the letter had a strange last sentence in it. If you translate it from German it said, ‘It began in the bunker and there it shall end’. For a long time I wondered about this. I finally came to the conclusion – rightly or wrongly – my interpretation was, ‘It began in the bunker. When I was there with Hitler he gave me a cyanide pill,’ – as he did also to Ritter von Greim, who was with her. We knew Hanna had the pill. She was body-searched by the Americans many times. Never found. We subsequently know she gave it to her maid early on, told her maid to keep it for her until she needed it. Anyway, she got it from her maid (in the later part), and she said, ‘It began in the bunker, that’s where Hitler gave me the pill. There it shall end. I’m going to take the pill now’. And I am quite convinced she committed suicide at the end, but you cannot get any proof. If you go to Germany, ask for the death certificate or anything like this, nothing can you find to prove the point.
There were some strange things went on in that regime and there are still strange things going on today.
And somebody… Another fanatical Nazi like her was Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who was the Ju-87 pilot who won every decoration the Germans could give him. And Hitler finally made a special gold decoration which only he ever had, and when it was stolen from him as a prisoner of war by an American soldier – or officer, who knows – Eisenhower put out a special order that it must be returned to him. I don’t think it ever was. But Hitler was so bemused by Rudel that he actually, in his will, before he changed his mind – or had his mind changed and gave the successorship to Doenitz – he was going to give it to Rudel.
Is that so? I’ve never heard that. Oh, that’s fascinating.
Rudel had no political background at all. That shows you the state of his mind, of Hitler’s mind.
When… At Doenitz’s funeral, Rudel was there and, quite a while after the War, stood there, gave the full Nazi salute over the grave.
Yeah, there are a lot of very bewitched and mad people out there, I think. I’m going to go back to England and your involvement in the Miles M.52 and how that first came about and how you first heard about it.
Right. Well, I was in the jet flight, as I told you, at Farnborough in 1944, and about August of 1944 I got a hand-written note from Mr (Fann), the Director of the RE, saying would I take a special interest in the work being undertaken by Miles and the details would be given me by the head of Aero Department – or the head of Aero Flight Department – Morien Morgan, who later became the Director of the RE, actually. And from then on Morien took me under his wing and we began to visit Woodley, up where Miles were ensconced. And I was made aware that the RE had issued a specification which seemed quite incredible at that time – this was in 1943 – for a supersonic research aircraft. The idea was that Miles were chosen for two reasons, I think, basically. One was they had shown a lot of innovation in their designs, or innovatory features in their designs. Secondly, they were about the only aircraft manufacturer that wasn’t overloaded with work for the War. So they were given this specification, which was very short but in effect said, ‘We want an aeroplane that will do 1000mph’. And the team up at Miles, it was very difficult to work with, and it must have been difficult for Miles, because they were told this must be – and it was graded in those days, we didn’t have ‘top secret’, it was just ‘most secret’. Top secret came in with the Americans. But it was graded ‘most secret’. We weren’t allowed to have minutes of our meetings in case somebody leaked them. We just had the minutes and the go-aheads given. The whole thing was to be monitored by the REE. In other words, Miles just couldn’t force on, doing what they wanted, they had to tell the REE. The REE with either approve it or disapprove it, if necessary wind tunnel test it, etc. And the pilot was to be an REE pilot. That, obviously, would be the head of Aero Flight, because there were precedence for this already. Now, at that time, when I was given the note from Fann, I wasn’t the head of Aero Flight, but I became the head of Aero Flight and he must have known that I was heading that way. And it had some incredibly innovative features. Firstly, the engine. Whittle was producing an engine of a type never evolved before, which was an engine – which I almost called it – with ‘double reheat’. But it was a complex engine. It also had biconvex wings, it also had a flying tail, and it had a pilot escape capsule. These were all completely innovatory features.
Can you just explain what a biconvex wing and a movable tail is?
Yes. A biconvex wing is – if you take a diamond, elongate it and lay it on its side, that is a biconvex wing. In other words you start with a sharp point, come up to middle depth, and go back down to a sharp point. When I say sharp I mean you could cut yourself on the wings of the Me – sorry, of the Miles M.52. That sharp. That was a biconvex wing. A flying tail is where you don’t have a normal tail plane and elevator. It’s a one-piece tail plane, but the whole thing can move. And this is particularly effective in dealing with the change of trim you get at supersonic speed. So all the things were in place there and there’s no reason – in fact, all the predictions are by people now that have examined the layout, it’s been analysed in detail by the Royal Aeronautical Society and even by the Americans, and they say, yes, it would have. And, of course, the proof of the pudding is we flew a model of the M.52 which reached a Mach number of 1.34 – or 1.37 even, it might have been. So all things were there. Now, at some point – it was August 1944, I think – the Americans were invited to come to Miles and examine all this, and the brief to us was that nothing should be withheld from them. Even if they wanted prints of the design, etc, etc, all was to be given to them. Nothing, but nothing, was to be withheld. Extraordinary, really.
But there was supposed to be a quid pro quo, wasn’t there, but which they never honoured.
That’s right. Of course, this was it. The saying was that the Americans would have us back at very short notice to show us what they had done in supersonic, or their work towards it. We never got an invitation. And the Americans have now more or less admitted that the reason we didn’t get an invitation was they had nothing to show us. At that stage Britain was streets ahead of the rest of the World, even the Germans, in transonic and supersonic – transonic testing. And the Americans went back and, as you know, the team that came over were mainly USAF but also had some boffins, mainly from Bell. Bell were the people that were going to build the X-1 supersonic aeroplane. And they have – the chief aerodynamicist at Bell has virtually admitted that the thing that interested them more than anything was the flying tail. And they eventually built it on the Bell X-2, but they had the principle built into the Bell X-1. And when they used it as a proper flying tail, because the Americans had got the X-1 up to Mach .94, but then it got out of control and they thought that was the end of the road until they began to use the tail arrangement they had in the form of a flying tail. And that got them through. Now, to this day we don’t know the reason for the cancellation. It was done without informing Bell – sorry, Miles – without informing Miles, without informing the REE. So just… The brief was ‘destroy everything’. Don’t just halt it and put it aside, maybe for another day or as a later private venture or anything; destroy it. Same routine they gave me for the TSR-2.
But you must have an inkling.
I have given it in my book, and this is that at the end of the War we were bankrupt, the country was bankrupt, and the Americans at this stage were desperate to… Well, the main, if you like, (head of the squeeze) in all this was the head of the American Air Force, General Hap Arnold. Now, he was head of the Army Air Force, not the USAF. It was called the ‘US Army Air Force’. He wanted to make it the ‘United States Air Force’. He had chosen, roughly, the time he wanted to do this, 1947. He wanted a World-attention-getting thing to happen when this happened, to bring the attention of the World. Now, this is the man that took our Whittle jet engine to America, gave it to General Electric, so he wanted to have the first supersonic flight. The only way to achieve that was with information he’d been given by the people at Miles and other scientists, was that we were going to succeed. We were going to rain on his parade unless he did something about it. So we believe the British government was given a sum of money they could not refuse. I mean, we’re talking about a huge sum of money. The politician that would receive this money or negotiate the deal was a cabinet minister. His name and everything is in my book. We can find no trace or any mention of the deal in cabinet papers. He hasn’t left any papers. The few papers he left were destroyed by his wife at his instigation in a garden fire at the bottom of the garden. And that’s what has been reported, anyway, by those that investigated. And there, in fact, is nothing to reveal anything about it. How can you have a cabinet minister with no papers?
Speculation, of course, but everything sort of fits into this jigsaw. And no harm to the cabinet minister. He’s got to do his stuff, and if the country’s government wants something done, he has to do it. But it must have been done with government approval, of course, obviously. Anyway, that put them ahead of the game. And Maggie Thatcher, when she came to power, issued a white paper deploring the decision and saying it cost us dear in scientific progression.
Yeah, I’m sure. But even so those years after the War were an exciting and vibrant time to be a test pilot, I would imagine.
Oh, very. Yes, we flew the wing and the tail on a Miles light aircraft. It was not an easy aircraft to fly, but I felt it would do enough to do the job, and I had already been given the date when I was to do it, which was October 1946 at Boscombe Down. We were going to use the runway there. We were going to do a flight. We built two aircraft. One was for the early flights, just, if you like, proving the aircraft and its general design. The second series were to be the supersonic flights, attempts on the World speed record, etc, etc.
And was everyone talking about going supersonic at that stage? I mean breaking the sound barrier.
Oh, yes. There were… Everybody was using the word ‘compressibility’, ‘sound barrier’, etc, etc, without necessarily understanding it.
But after the War you did… How many German aviation engineers and scientist did you bring back to Farnborough?
And they stayed at Farnborough until..?
Yes, until… 1947, we had to give them back to Germany or offer them some permanent job that would tempt them to stay here, and two took it up. And one of them was… Well, they were both, actually, gifts. They were both brilliant scientists. One was Dr Doetsch from Brunswick, and the other was Dr (Cookerman) from Volkenrode.
And Cookerman was the one to introduce the delta?
Can you tell me about that?
Yes. In mid-1947, just when the prisoners of war had been sent back to Germany, and we had retained these two, he held – Morien Morgan, who was then the commanding officer, I suppose, or the head of Aero Flight Department, Aerodynamics Flight Department – held a meeting with five people. There was himself, his deputy, Phillip (Huffton), myself, Dr Doetsch, and Dr Cookerman. And he asked me to describe the flight characteristics of the five tailless aircraft I’d flown, and I said, “Could you tell me what the object of the exercise is?” He said, “I’ll tell you after you’ve told us about the characteristics.” So I described these five, and then he said, “This will rock you on your feet because we’re thinking of a supersonic civil transport.” Which seemed a pipe-dream at that stage, of course. And he said, “We’re going to discuss various wing, aerofoil shapes, etc, etc.” So we talked, I suppose, for about a couple of hours. And Cookerman had said very little during this, but he waited until it was more or less over and said, “I would like to propose to you that you use the slim, the slender,” – ‘slender’ was the word he used – “slender delta wing. We tested this in the wind tunnels, the supersonic wind tunnels at Volkenrode, and it shows the kind of characteristics that, in my opinion, would suit this aircraft.” He said, “These are the high-speed characteristics. I cannot speak for the low-speed characteristics because the War ended before I could get round to doing that amount of testing.” Morien Morgan took note of all of this, and after the meeting – maybe a year and a half after, I think – Morien Morgan, through the Air Ministry – or the Ministry of Aviation, rather – had the Handley Page 115 built, which was a slow-speed version of the delta wing which made over a thousand flights, all highly successful. So really, I think it’s fair to say, Cookerman was the catalyst for Concorde.
But you – plus at this time you were starting to do, you’d been testing for landing jets on carriers.
And the Meteor wasn’t going to do it.
I did land a Meteor on a carrier, but that wasn’t the first choice. The first one that we landed on was the Vampire.
Yes, which was originally the…
The Spider Crab.
The Spider Crab, yes. Amazing name. But became the Vampire, which then became the Sea Vixen. Is that correct?
Became the Venom.
The Venom, that’s right. And how did you find that aircraft?
The aircraft itself had no faults in that direction. The fault lay in the fact that the jet engine, at that stage in jet development, had a very poor acceleration. The Germans had already found that and the Americans had found that. The Americans stopped their trials to do jet deck landing until they found out how to conquer this problem. The Germans had had problems, bad problems, with their axial flow jet engines and acceleration. I thought it was good enough to do an experimental landing, but I said I think it had to be improved before we let it out for training. So that was the hold-up in getting the first jets into the Navy, purely the fact of slow acceleration. It only took some 6 to 9 months to cure this fault, and it was cured, of course, with the axial flow engine.
But… Sorry, I think we might have to get you to say that again, because you suddenly moved forward.
[Female voice] Just the very end bit, I think.
The very end bit about it taking… It took 9 months to sort out, but it was…
Oh, yes. When we did the experimental first jet deck landing there were no problems with the handling of the aircraft, as such, but the one snag was the acceleration of the jet engine was unacceptably slow. I mean, on take-off at this stage, from holding it on the brakes to getting the engine up to full power took 15 seconds, so that was quite unacceptable to hand to young trainees who were going to have deck landing training, because if you got into any trouble you needed quick acceleration to get you out of it. And this only took some 6 to 9 months to solve, and we eventually got acceleration that was comparable to piston engine acceleration, mainly by using the axial flow jet engine.
And, presumably, one of the great advantages of jets was you had much better forward vision and you had the tricycle landing gear, so you could… I mean, not only was the cockpit nearer the front…
You’ve absolutely put your finger on it. These were the two things, yes. View in particular. Perfect view. And the tricycle jet undercarriage was… Not only was the aircraft more stable when it got on the ground, but it showed all the fine characteristics of vertical acceleration absorption, yep.
And you were saying that, in your opinion, the German – one of the problems of the Luftwaffe was they just built too many different types, but it’s just astonishing just how many different types of jet are being produced by numerous British producers in that post-War period.
Yes, absolutely. Oh, yes, the impact on aviation – worldwide aviation – of the German discoveries was huge. For example, De Havilland went out to Germany, post-War Germany, saw the Messerschmitt 163 rocket aircraft, they virtually came back, copied the format, but put even more sweep on the DH 108 than they had on the Me163 and, of course, substituted a jet for a rocket. But it was totally based on the Me163. But they got it wrong and, of course, as you probably know, they’d had a fearful history of three fatal accidents.
Yes, including Geoffrey De Havilland, who, presumably, you must have known quite well.
Oh, yes. I did the accident investigation on his death.
And that involved doing the same..?
Yes, same as he did. Except I was given some advantages. Strengthened wings, because his wings failed on that flight. And also I was given an ejection seat.
Right. But even so, I mean, that can’t have been the most pleasant flight of your life.
No. And, in fact, I looked at one stage as if I’d have to use the ejection seat, and I tentatively moved towards it, but I couldn’t move my arms up at all because of the G.
So you wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway.
I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway, no.
But you managed to get out of the – resolve the problem that was..?
Yes, but more by patience and good luck than by skill.
I mean, one of the things I’m very conscious of also is just how demanding it is on the pilots involved; yourself and the John Derrys, the Geoffrey De Havillands of this world, and the Neville Dukes. I mean, all these people, you’re flying a heck of a lot of sorties. I mean often, you know, you were doing up to could be as many as eight a day. I mean, I think what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that when you’re flying you’re being put, in a sense, into a kind of false atmosphere and strains and stresses are being put on your body which are both physically and mentally challenging and exhausting. I mean, how do you fly seven, eight sorties a day in a high-speed jet?
You’re quite right. If you are not prepared to do what I did and be meticulous in your preparation, you are inviting trouble, big trouble. And we had it. I told you the fatality rate in Aero Flight was very, very bad indeed. But this, I think, was as much the pilots to blame as the type of work we were doing, because some of them had not done their homework to the degree that I believe they should have done.
Because it’s not just seven sorties a day. Quite often, in your case, it’s seven sorties in seven different aircraft.
And each cockpit is different, presumably.
Yes. That’s what I mean by having to do your homework. And, as I’ve demonstrated to you, I carried a knee pad all the time with the – what I call the vital functions on it, so that in an emergency in a flash I could have it there, sitting on my knee.
But I suppose the point I was trying to say is, you know, you look at a Formula 1 motor racing driver, and at the end of a Grand Prix they’re absolutely exhausted because of, you know, the stresses and strains being put on the body, the concentration, which is mentally tiring and physically tiring. You’re doing that, I mean, an hour-long, 45 minute, 50 minute flight in a high-speed jet is extremely challenging, no matter how experience you are. How do you cope with that physical strain of doing that? Is it something you get used to?
Well, this is another thing; you’ve got to be very physically fit. Now, I was a bit of a fitness maniac. And a lot of the pilots indulged in some pretty heavy drinking, because of the kind of atmosphere the World was in at that time. Had a war, if you were a Bomber Command pilot, I mean the average length of time of a rear gunner was 13 weeks or something, you know, you live for today, not for tomorrow. And… But I never quite took that attitude. I believed that self-preservation, up to a point, lay in your own hands. Up to a point. But you knew you were in the game for risks, and my attitude was, well, eliminate them as far as you can. You can’t eliminate them all, but try and take them as far as you can.
But also – you know, the Bell X-1 excepted – Britain was ahead of the game, but do you think there was huge pressure on these aircraft manufacturers, whether it’s De Havilland or Avro or Vickers or Hawker, whoever it is, to keep producing the goods, and do you think that’s why often aircraft were shown before they were ready to be shown?
Oh, yes. The SBAC Farnborough show was a showplace for their products. Up to a point, if you were a manufacturers’ test pilot, as opposed to being at the REE where you were a government test pilot, we were not allowed to participate in the SBAC show in my time. They are showing their wares and they are trying to get orders, and each pilot is looking at the other and watching what he does, and I know for a fact that some of the crashes that happened were because the pilot who was to demonstrate saw a pilot who had demonstrated before him and he would sit back and say, “Hmm. That chap’s done rather well. I’d better up my show a bit.” And he would go a little bit further than he had rehearsed. And because he hadn’t rehearsed it, disaster.
Do you think that’s the case with the infamous John Derry crash?
It’s… It could be, put it that way. It could be.
But certainly pressure to perform is a factor.
I mean, that crowd of 140,000 is waiting for the sonic boom and…
And were you aware at the time of just how much aviation and this rapidly emerging jet age was gripping the public imagination?
Oh, very. Very aware of it, yes indeed. Very. Up to a point it was a rat race with the Americans. For example, the first jet landing, we knew we were in direct competition with the US Navy, and it was a big prestige thing, and the fact that we beat them by 9 months we felt was a big feather in our cap. But that should not have been allowed to intrude into it. But I was a willing victim, of course. I wasn’t doing it under pressure or anything like that, a very willing victim, and you enter into the spirit of the race. But you’re quite right, it doesn’t generate a sound policy of doing things.
But I, you know, you sort of think, I don’t know, the biggest sporting event in this country would probably be at Wembley with 80,000 spectators. Farnborough, the Saturday of Farnborough, 140, 150,000 people. I mean, that’s an incredible number and Neville Duke, John Derry, yourself, you know, you’re household names. I mean, were you conscious of that at the time?
They were. I was not involved at all. As a government test pilot I wasn’t allowed to be involved. But they were very conscious of it, and believe-you-me, the competitive spirit was at a maximum. At a maximum.
Friends but competitors.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes, very much friends with the competitors. In some cases their jobs, to a long term, depended on them selling the aeroplane they were demonstrating.
And not paid a huge amount, either, to do what they did.
No, that’s right.
I mean, I still find it incredible that John Derry, who – Neville Duke, rather – having seen his great mate – and a competitor, of course – but a great friend, seen him crash at Farnborough, you know, 20 minutes later he’s off in his Hunter. I mean, it’s… I suppose that is a legacy of the War, isn’t it, in a way?
It is, really, yes. It is, really. And you even find it in the entertainment business, you know, the show must go on. And that’s how it is. Oh, yes, there was certainly that highly competitive spirit amongst the pilots. They still exist, you still see it at a thing. For example, the Duxford Air Show, still there.
But were you conscious in that, say, 10 years, you know, or, say, 15 years after the War, were you conscious that this was a golden moment in time of exploration and pushing the barriers?
Very. Very conscious, yes. I realised we were, because I took an interest in the academic side of the flight testing I realised we were moving ahead and where we were going, what problems we were up against. I mean, I talked about supersonic flight quite a few years before I got near, remotely near supersonic stage. But it was crew room talk, and I avidly read some of the engineering, the aviation engineering journals, see how. One of the great sources of information for me was the Royal Aeronautical Society engineering journal, and when the boffins were giving their views and information and things, and unless you understood the language it would be just, you know, it would make no sense to you at all.
And can you remember breaking the sound barrier for the first time?
Yes, I can, vividly, because it cost me a few dollars. I made a boob of it in the sense that I was in America at the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Centre and I was flying an F-86a Sabre, and the other pilots said, “You know you can go supersonic in this?” And I said, “Yes, that’s what I’m hoping to do.” And they said, “All right, we’ll all put 10 dollars on you if you aim at making a boom just beyond the Admiral’s greenhouses. You won’t break the greenhouses but the boom will waken him up in his house.” But what they didn’t tell me was, and I didn’t know, in spite of all the magazines I read, that the supersonic boom doesn’t go where the nose of the aircraft is pointing, it falls short of that, it hits the ground. And I hit the Admiral’s greenhouse, did a power of damage. He sent for me, fined me 30 dollars – but these guys all paid for it – and asked me to become his partner at skittles!
Yeah, it was good fun.
But that must have been a great personal triumph for you, wasn’t it?
Well, yes, and I would sooner have dove done it at home but it wasn’t to be.
And the Sabre? What did you think of that?
Wonderful aeroplane. Wonderful. The best – to this day the best jet for flight characteristics, pilots’ flight characteristics, I’ve ever met.
Gosh, that’s high praise.
Because they had to (have for me) the version with the flying tail.
Right. And to start off with there’s this rivalry with the USA but, obviously, lurking in the wings there’s the Soviet Union and the build-up of the Iron Curtain…
I mean, as the 50’s progressed were you conscious of this threat emerging from Soviet Russia?
Yes, I was very conscious, when we had occupation zones after the War in Germany, of the attitude of the Russians, because as soon as our occupation zones were established and things had calmed down a little they would have nothing to do with the Americans or the French. But they welcomed me, let me fly their aircraft at two of their airfields for almost a couple of months. But then…
So what year? When was this?
’45. In May ’45.
And that’s when I first went there. And the first time for the first summer when they said, “Fly anything you want.” And the second time I went they said, “Well, we’ll let you fly if you bring something we can fly.” So I took a Fairey Firefly with me and let them fly that, and they let me fly theirs. And… But their aircraft at that stage were way beyond – below the West. Absolutely below the West. Very basic instrumentation. In fact, I marvelled at how the Russians coped with their winters flying on basic instruments. There was no such thing as an artificial horizon, (turning) ball indicator, (the little) ball. And their aeroplane had this peculiar smell of resin, wood. They were all made of wood.
But were you conscious of the development work you were doing, the test flying you were doing at Farnborough wasn’t just to get one over on the Americans? This was to combat any future threat, which was inevitably going to be from the Soviet Union. You were conscious of that amount of threat?
The competition with the Americans was a friendly thing post-War. I mean, we were working hand-in-hand during the War and, as I say, I told you how I worked hand-in-hand with my opposite number immediately after the War in getting – helping them get German aircraft, etc, so was always had very friendly relations with them. But there was an edge to it. A competitive edge, yes. But as I say, only post-War. During the War was all cooperation.
But I suppose what I’m driving at was the importance of improving your aircraft and getting the best one possibly could. Were you conscious that that was being driven by the threat of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain?
Yes, one realised. Of course, there was a huge amount of publicity about the Iron Curtain and with what I’d seen of the Russians in the War I had two feelings; I felt they were brutal and totally ruthless. Some of the things that were going on with the German population were ghastly. I mean, they raped something like 2 million women in the area they overran.
But were you aware of that sort of thing going on at the time?
Oh, yes, because I had seen attempted things of visiting firemen in our zone, visiting Russian firemen. And there were some quite nasty incidents, and we often had to interfere to prevent…
But suddenly the shutters come down, don’t they, and that golden period of development and experimentation has come to an end. I mean, what are your sort of memories of that period?
Absolutely. What? When it finished, you mean?
Yes. I mean, you know, why you think it happened and, you know, what were your experiences.
Well, I think it happened for two reasons; one is everything technological, technologically, was becoming impossible financially. The cost of a unit fighter now is in millions. Quite absurd. I think the other thing that’s happened is there’s been a revulsion in the great, wide World because of Iraq and Afghanistan of the loss of human life, and I think UAV’s are now going to take over, to a large degree, what piloted aircraft had done in the past. I’m not against that at all. I think UAV’s have very, very much to offer. And, in fact, trials are going on at the moment with UAV’s landing on carriers, so we are really advancing.
I suppose I was thinking more about the 1960’s, really, and the cancellation of projects and…
We went through a phase – you’re quite right – we went through a phase where there were cancellations of aircraft carriers, of planes like the TSR-2, planes like the M.52. There was a political… You know, I always called it ‘the dithering era’. They didn’t seem to be able to make up their minds which way… You remember Duncan Sands said there’ll be no more piloted aircraft, and then that was quite quickly revised. There was quite a dithering stage which is not pleasant if you’re in the aviation business, to have these sort of doubts cast on everything. And some of the silly things that happened, for example, when the TSR-2 was cancelled they not only cancelled it, they smashed all the jigs so they couldn’t be ever revised again and restarted. Similarly with the M.52. We were told to destroy the jigs. What’s the point of that? So it leaves one with a very nasty taste in the mouth and one thinks, ‘What do these politicians..? What are they really thinking about to give orders like that?’ But there we are.
But you must be conscious that you’ve, you know, A) you’ve had had an extraordinary career but also you’ve flown for a period, you know, you started flying on bi-planes, you ended up, you know, flying supersonic jets. I mean, that’s extraordinary, isn’t it?
When you consider timescale, yes. In less than, well, 30 years or so, yeah. Yes, it is. My flying career in the Navy spanned 32 years and in that time, as you say, I went from bi-planes to supersonic flight.
So when did you finish at Farnborough?
1949. Right at the end of ’49. Until virtually almost ’50.
But you then stayed in the Navy?
Oh, yes. And then they sent me as the resident test pilot in America at Patuxent River.
Which is where you flew your Sabre.
Yep. And had a very happy time there.
Well, they’re always nice people, the Americans.
Oh, I enjoy them, yes. They’re competitive but good, you see. But very competitive. But that’s the way, why they win so many medals in the Olympics, I guess.
Yeah, but maybe we’re getting a bit more competitive too, because we’re not…
Of course, they’ve got a big, wider choice than we have in their population, but nevertheless. Oh, I enjoy the Americans.
[Female voice] Can I interrupt just to ask a couple of pickups?
Yes, of course.
[Female voice] Just two stories that would be lovely just to hear from you in a bit more detail if you can bear it. One of them is the first time you came to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. I believe there was a story about how the weather was bad and you weren’t supposed to do it.
That’s right, yep.
[Female voice] So that would be lovely to hear that story. And secondly, I just wonder whether it would be worth just hearing a little bit more about the De Havilland flight, of Geoffrey’s flight.
[Female voice] The 108 and the subsequent reconstruction that you did and sort of what happened during his flight and your flight. That would be wonderful.
Right, okay. Yep.
[Female voice] So shall we start with the aircraft? The aircraft carrier?
Oh, yes. Yep, okay. Okay, can you just tell me something about that first landing you did of a jet on an aircraft carrier?
Well, the carrier was to be operating just near the Isle of Wight and it not a particularly good day and, of course, we didn’t have a lot of fuel in the Vampire. So when I went out there, I took off from Ford, the airfield close to Chichester, yes, close to Chichester, then went out to the carrier. Now, in the meantime they had sent a signal to Ford saying the weather was unsuitable and would I stay there ‘til they called me. But I was already on my way, and the first they knew of it I arrived overhead. Now, the Captain of the carrier was Caspar John, who later became the only aviator First Sea Lord, and he had been Captain of the trials carrier, Pretoria Castle, so he knew me because I was on and off the trials carrier all the time. And although the ship was rolling and pitching slightly it wasn’t very suitable for a first go at a new aircraft and even a new engine type of thing. But I think he knew – because he knew my background at Pretoria Castle he gave me the go-ahead to come in and have a go. And it all worked out. I often think afterwards, if it hadn’t worked out he might have been in very hot water, but he was… That’s the wonderful sort of chap he was, why he became First Sea Lord. He was a man of decision, weighed the thing up, and we did it that way. And it worked out. We didn’t just do one landing, we did 12 altogether, I think it was, yep. So certainly the weather didn’t improve, so all 12 were done under these slightly adverse conditions.
Well, I suppose if it works in those conditions then…
Well, yes, exactly.
And just to go back to the DH 108, that flight. What was it exactly you had to do when you were reconstructing that flight?
Well, when it occurred, the accident with Geoffrey’s flight in which he was killed occurred, it had a tremendous worldwide impact in aviation. The Americans were very disturbed because they thought, ‘Are we going along a rocky road here?’ And they wanted to know precisely what the cause of it was, as of course we obviously did, too. And the mysteries about it was Geoffrey’s body was found with his neck broken and it was established that it had not happened on impact with the ground, because his parachute hadn’t been opened. It was established that it had occurred in-flight, so the mystery grew a bit. And although, one has to say, already there were those that predicted that oscillations did occur on swept-back-wing aircraft and tailless – or in this case semi-tailless – aircraft. So we decided we’d have to do the full accident investigation and fly the thing through the same sequence as Geoffrey did. And the idea was Geoffrey was practising – they were forcing ahead with the DH 108 and he wanted to break the World land speed records. Sorry, mustn’t move forward, yes. Break the World land speed record. And the idea was in those days you could only have an attempt at the World speed record at low altitude, below 1100 feet. That was a metric height. So he was working down to low-level. He started at 10,000 doing runs at full-throttle, and then he came down in steps of 1000. So you were 10, 9, 8, and he was down at 7000 feet and was at full-throttle. The weather was a little bumpy. Not terribly, but a little bumpy, and they think this started off this oscillation, this longitudinal unstable oscillation. And it happened… Well, I’ll describe it to you when I did it, but really it’s like going wave-riding as you go along, and they think that it became so violent that Geoffrey’s head was being snapped to-and-fro and that his head probably had hit the canopy, because he was a very tall guy. Geoffrey was 6 feet 2. So when I did the accident investigation it was decided that the wings would be strengthened, because they had failed on that flight, and I would have an ejection seat. There were other small refinements as well, but basically it was the main aircraft. So I repeated it and we did… I was told if the weather wasn’t bumpy – which it wasn’t – to give a tweak on the stick at each height just to simulate a bump, so it’s a pilot – what they call a ‘pilot-induced oscillation’. Well, it gave me no trouble as I came right down until I got down to 4000 feet. Now, I should say that Geoffrey was flying at Mach .985 I think it was – yes, 985 – when the aircraft broke up. No, it was 975. 975, I think it was, the aircraft broke up. Anyway, I had already passed that at 4000 feet, because I was at 9880 or 88, or something of that order, and suddenly, I gave this little tweak on the stick and without any warning it just went off into a wild oscillation. And I mean really wild, because every second, it did 3 oscillations per second of plus 4 G and minus 3 G. So your head was being snapped not just quietly to-and-fro but snapped back until your head hit the pad behind you and you then came straight onto your chin onto your chest. And this was, as I say, 3 cycles a second, and the medics said afterwards that it would have taken 10 seconds to induce unconsciousness. Well, after 7 seconds and I had thought of reaching for the ejection seat but I couldn’t get my hands up because of the G. And after 7 seconds, as I say, I just eased back on the stick and the throttle quietly together, and with no object in mind. There’s just hope, really. And it stopped as quickly as it began. An aircraft that was flying close by said that when he saw me at the full oscillation he couldn’t see the aircraft, all he saw was a blur.
So gives you an idea.
You were lucky.
Very lucky, yes. And poor Geoffrey…
I have to say too, the boffins had warned me, “Have your seat right down at the lowest level.” In other words, so you can – even with my height I wouldn’t have any hope of being anywhere near the canopy.
But do you thing his head did hit the canopy? Or was it just..?
It wasn’t just the force of his head going..?
No, we think it actually had – he was wearing a bone dome, you know, a hard hat, and we think it must have struck the canopy.
Right. But he wouldn’t have known much about it?
Oh, no. It would break his neck instantly.
Well, I’m glad we did that in full. That’s an incredible story. Imagine, the whole idea of an aircraft blurring.
That’s the nearest I’ve been to it.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve had any one nearer than that.
Glad to touch down again?
Yes, quite happy, actually. Quite happy, yes.
Are there times when you get out of these jets, you know, or whatever aircraft it is, and you get back down on the apron and, you know, walk back across to flights, you know, sort of wipe of the brow or..? Relief or..? It must be a curious feeling.
I must confess I was very analytical about things like that and I always sort of sat down and tried to analyse it logically as to had I done anything wrong. Was there a design fault, pilot error, or whatever. You have to go through all these things. And at one time I began to think if it was boffin error by asking Geoffrey and myself to induce an oscillation, if… Well, Geoffrey didn’t have to, the weather did it for him. But to simulate the bumpy weather, to actually ask for trouble.
If he’d – if Geoffrey had pulled back on the stick a little, on the throttle a little bit, do you think he’d have been alright?
You can never tell. It might have worked. No two oscillations are entirely identical, so you can never tell. But my guess is he didn’t have the option. It happened instantaneously.
It may have gone on oscillating but by this time he had a broken neck, I think.
Yeah, sure. Well, well, well.
[Female voice] James, are you happy?
Yeah, that was absolutely amazing. Absolutely amazing. It’s been incredible talking to you. Honestly, just fascinating.
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground.
We have covered a lot of ground. I’m just going to check how long it’s been on this. 3 hours 40 minutes.
[Interview ends. 3hrs 40mins]