My First and Last

Taken from an article written by Peter Thomas in the 1998 edition of the club magazine

Squadron Leader Peter Thomas, RAF (retired) has become an important and respected member of the Vulcan 558 Club. Here he gives us an chance to share his association with ‘558 and the other Vulcans he flew.

Curiously it was through my association with the R.A.F. Cottesmore Fly Fishing Club that I had met the Stations Civilian Relations Officer who subsequently had become aware of my R.A.F. and Vulcan flying experience. So he thoughtfully invited me to the Station to witness the fly-past of the last surviving flying Vulcan on its “farewell tribute” flight to airfields and places directly involved with the Vulcan during its service. The date was the 23rd March 1993.

The local press made a bit of a thing about it and I was somewhat flattered to be at the centre of their interest and reporting. A bit of earlier log book research proved that the aircraft was in fact the first and indeed the very last Vulcan MkII that I ever flew in during a seven year tour on both the MkI and MkII Vulcan’s.

I will admit it was a nostalgic moment to see it flying by and displaying the ‘FAREWELL’ painted on the bomb doors and then departing with a final steep flourish into the clouds. The press were amused when I said: “it’s had a nose job since I flew it last in 1965″. A reference of course to the flight refuelling probe. Knowing XH558 had landed finally at Bruntingthorpe, and in a fit of curiosity and reminiscence brought on in my ongoing dotage, I decided one Sunday afternoon last year to pay a visit to Bruntingthorpe and have a look at what I have since dubbed affectionately as my “My First and Last”.

It had been 32 years since I had got close to XH558 and there she was barely showing her age despite the long exposure to the elements for most of her life. It seemed much bigger and more impressive than I had remembered. “Did I really fly this machine as a matter of routine?”, I was asking myself! I was made very welcome by the attendant volunteers working on the aircraft and given a friendly and informative guided tour of all the other aircraft on the site. It was then that I learned of the British Aviation Heritage organisation and the associated Vulcan 558 Club together with their aims, principles and objectives. Very much impressed by the motivation and spirit I had witnessed I immediately became a member.

Since then, and for my sins I am now a committee member of the club and very much in support of the Club’s ideals which I see as – keeping 558’s condition on hold so that one day perhaps it might yet fly again. Additionally, for it to be available and seen by the public as an example one of the three ‘V’ bombers which helped to keep the peace during the threatening years of the so called ‘Cold War’ period and thereby part of our military aviation history.

I will not dwell on the contemptible lack of foresight and sense of history portrayed in the destruction of representative WW2 aircraft. I have now been spurred on to write something of my Vulcan experience. My original attempts failed because I dwelt far too long dealing with the process and technicalities of becoming a Vulcan Captain. This will therefore be a broader picture of the proud seven years I spent in the ‘V’ force I had just completed a wonderful, adventurous and exciting tour with No. IX Squadron Canberra’s based at Binbrook under the inspiring command and leadership of Squadron Leader L. (George) Bastard, and was given the opportunity to nominate which of the three ‘V’ bombers I would prefer to be flying on my next tour. Having seen and witnessed the Vulcan performance of Roly Falk at the Farnborough show I had no hesitation on requesting the Vulcan.

May I add that one of our sister squadrons at Binbrook was 617. There was, and still is I understand, a great rivalry and contention between IX and 617 mostly based on the sinking of the Tirpitz. It was a principle on IX to outdo anything, and I do mean anything, that 617 did. This was to have a particular irony in the future for both Squadron Leader Bastard and myself. Fate would have it that we would both ultimately serve on 617. Squadron Leader Bastard (now Wing Commander) as the C.O. and me as Captain!

Whatever, I was posted to No. 5 Vulcan Course, 230 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Based at Waddington in October 1957 with the intention of ultimately being selected as one of the first crews to be posted to the re-forming 617 Squadron to be based at their traditional base Scampton. I was predestined to be “crewed up” with Wing Commander Douggie Bower a Specialist Navigator (Spec.’N’) of Aries polar navigation fame and a man of great personal esteem and regard. He had the notable distinction of being the first navigator to be appointed Commanding Officer of an operational R.A.F. Squadron.

It was somewhat intimidating to have Wing Commander Bower foregoing some of the ground school navigation classes to sit in on the pilot lectures and later acting as co-pilot on some of my simulator exercises.

The MkI Vulcan simulator, which I believe was one of the first full simulator of its kind, was a great operating and systems trainer but ruined my confidence as a pilot with its super- market trolley handling characteristics. With Canberra T4 Zero Reader training, crew drills, dinghy drills and exams over we were all ready for the real thing.

A gleaming all white XA896 loaded with a 60% fuel load was waiting and ready for us to complete Exercise 1a of the flying syllabus. One does not enter the Vulcan’s cockpit (sorry Flight Deck) one negotiates it. Access is made a little easier by the fuel panel, which normally lies between the pilot’s seats being retracted beneath and under the throttle pedestal. Also, uniquely for such a large aircraft, there is a control column (stick) instead of the more conventional yoke (wheel).

Once in the seat the external outlook is – lets say to be kind – adequate. All essential controls and switches of immediate need are readily to hand. Some of the side panel switches require a degree of dexterity to operate. Exercise la required a climb to 40,000 feet; some general handling; high speed runs up to limiting Mach with and without the Auto-mach trimmer; 26 turns; a maximum rate descent; a standard let down and approach back to Waddington which actually starts up near Carlisle; a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) followed by a few Instrument Landing System approaches (ILS) using the new fangled Zero Reader. Just keep the vertical and horizontal cross wires on the doughnut and you will arrive in a position to land. To complete the sortie some visual circuits and roller landings with a final landing using the brake parachute.

One great compliment to the aircraft and to my instructor was that he never touched the controls once. The Vulcan is a comparatively and straightforward aircraft to fly and is great credit to the designers of a such large delta winged aircraft and the confidence of my instructor.

Not having rear or leading edge flaps to think and worry about, greatly simplified the operation of the aircraft without prejudice to either the take off or landing performance. During the final approach and landing the induced drag created by the high angle of attack of the delta configuration plus the added drag of the air-brakes made for a very smooth power on approach and short landing. With accuracy and finesse, the brake parachute becomes a surplus item – certainly on a 9,000ft. runway.

It was after 52 flying hours and 13 training flights that we were declared competent as a crew to operate the aircraft. We were still along way from being ‘operational’. Therefore, it was in January 1958 that we were posted with three other crews to R.A.F. Scampton to form the basis of the new 617 Squadron. The runways and facilities at Scampton had been extended and refurbished to ‘V’ bomber standards. We were to be accommodated in the same hangar as the original Dam Busters and where Guy Gibson’s dog was buried.

The dead straight Ermine Street Roman road (A15) to the east of the airfield had to be bent to accommodate the extension of the main runway to 9,000 ft. Tales had it that crews would see the ghosts of Centurions and their Legions still marching along the buried road and across the main runway. It was some time before somebody noticed the runway direction markings had been painted on the wrong ends of the runways!

We could now make a start on the serious business of learning and planning for our operational role. Significantly, this was about the weapons we would be carrying and potential targets. A crew scheme had been developed whereby a crew, having achieved various operational standards and experience, would be awarded a_ progressively higher classification of competence and ability. One qualification to hold and maintain that classification was the successful completion of a ten mile walk in the last three months. Wing Commander Bower was always setting the pace.

I was to be the Squadron Training Officer – what again I thought. Serves me right I guess, for as a lowly Pilot 3 Lancaster captain with 49 Squadron (no NCO aircrew in those post war years days although I still had to do orderly corporal duties!) I had covertly borrowed the available station Tiger Moth and flew down to Little Rissington the home of the Central Flying School (CFS). Although flying the Lancaster was fine, I was really a frustrated and would be DH Hornet pilot (the Hornet being the Mosquito’s younger sibling) who was now seeking a change by becoming an instructor and perhaps flying something a little more agile than a Lanc. The CFS Commandant patted me sympathetically on the head and told me to go away.

My CO, the much decorated Squadron Leader L.D.Wilson, was not too pleased with this escapade but later on put me up for commissioning – if perhaps only to get rid of me. Sometime later, I did become an instructor and subsequently a staff instructor at the CFS. From there on I was never able subsequently to throw off the ‘trainer handle’.

Not yet having our aircraft allocated to 617 we had to borrow aircraft from 101 Squadron to keep our hand in and flying out of their base at Finningley. It was to be the 2nd May 1958 before we collected our first aircraft from the A.V.Roe’s factory at Woodford. Because of the war time association and the special relationship of 617 with Avro’s, a special luncheon party had been laid on prior to the official ‘hand over’ of Vulcan MkI XH482 to the Squadron.

The crew was to be myself, ostensibly as Captain; the C.O. of 617 Wing Commander Bower as Navigator; the Station Commander Scampton, Group Captain Coulson as Co- pilot: Pilot Officer Gardner as Air Electronics Officer and Air Commodore Whitworth representing No. 1 Group Headquarters.

An uneventful 30-minute flight was made to Scampton. The whole station personnel and families had turned out to welcome and see the aircraft arrive. Until this arrival, all the routine station life and activity had been ticking over quite nicely. Here at last there was tangible evidence of the real purpose and function of the station. The Technical Wing, having been starved of any real hardware, wasted no time in getting our newly acquired Vulcan into the hangar to put into practice and exercise their newly gained knowledge of the systems and servicing a Vulcan. Everything on the aircraft was to be thoroughly checked and where practical would be tested and functioned.

It would be nearly three weeks before it was back on the dispersal ready for us to fly again and start our real operational training. Most of the training consisted of various types of navigation exercises using the then ‘state of art’ on-board navigation equipment, and simulated bombing using the Radar Bombing System. Ground radars would assess the accuracy of these bombing runs, the scores of which would also go towards the crews ‘classification’ mentioned earlier. I note that one of our early exercises was a simulated bombing of Marrakesh in North Africa. With other evasive routing that was a round trip of 6hrs.40mins. The longest flight I ever did in a Vulcan.

One testing bit of flying I never looked forward to was a two minute ‘astro shot’, especially with two Spec ‘N’s’ sitting in the back. The fitted auto-pilot was a ‘happy wanderer’ (shades of the simulator) . So one had to hand fly the aircraft as accurately and as stable as possible. Was speed more critical on north/south headings and direction on east/west headings? Somebody will no doubt remind me.

One memorable interlude and diversion during all this intensive training was a invitation to visit Christ’s Hospital on their Speech Day. That came about through an arrangement where we were encouraged to personally ‘adopt’ an orphan boy at the school. This simply meant keeping in touch with the boy particularly on birthdays and Christmas time. The central key figure behind this worthwhile endeavour was the redoubtable Dr. Barnes Wallis. Christ’s Hospital was his old school and to which he maintained a lifetime personal interest. Amongst other things I understand, he donated monies given to him for his war- time contribution to the war effort to his old school. He had of course a very close war time relationship with 617 Squadron as a result of the “Dam Buster” raids and other subsequent operations. It was therefore a great privilege to meet him personally with all his self- effacing modesty.

In our first year as a crew, we first gained ‘Combat’ and then ‘Select’ classification and were working towards becoming ‘Select Star’. It was then that the squadron had its first visit by the group ‘Standardisation’ inspection team. More generally called ‘Trappers’. Their job was to see that we were operating and conforming to the laid down procedures both in the air and on the ground. Their critical report and assessment of our operational status and efficiency would go to Bomber and Group headquarters.

One of the team knowing of my aircrew training experience, asked if I would like to join 230 Operational Conversion Unit. (O.C.U.) as a Vulcan flying instructor. That would mean abandoning our crew, the Squadron and our comfortable married quarter. Instructing, rewarding as it is, is not without its sacrifices and I felt I had done my share. My answer was an was an emphatic “no thank you not at the moment”.

Whatever, a few weeks later and with only just over a year on the squadron I was posted to 230 O.C.U. Waddington and starting once again with Exercise 1a – but this time in right hand seat! Occasionally I would be in the left hand seat instructing the co-pilot member of a crew. I never ceased to be astonished as how quickly the co-pilot students, who had only just completed their pilot training on the diminutive Gnat, would adapt to flying the Vulcan.

It was also my great pleasure to meet once again and fly with, the previously mentioned, and now Wing Commander Bastard, on his conversion to MkI’s and his way through the O.C.U. to Command 617 Squadron! The routine training task was mercifully broken up with, things like; formation practices for the 1959 Farnborough show: a photographic session with a Valiant and a Victor called the Battle of Britain Formation; a good-will visit to what used to be Salisbury Rhodesia and trans Atlantic Western Ranger’s to the States and Canada.

By late 1960 the process of upgrading the Squadrons from the Vulcan MkI to MkII began. 230 O.C.U. was the first unit to receive an initial compliment of four aircraft.

The MkII was a big leap forward compared with the MkI with much improved handling thanks to now having eight ‘elevens’. It was the combined movement of the eight surfaces, four on each wing which collectively, gave pitch and roll control. This considerably improved and balanced the overall handling of the aircraft.

Four 17,000Ib static thrust Olympus 201 series engines vastly improved take off, climb and ceiling performance. The completely revised electrical system of 200 volt alternators overcame the significant problems encountered with the original 112 volt DC system. The new Military Flight System would be the centre piece of the instrument panel and combined all attitude functions for heading and for normal flight, plus bombing and instrument approach procedures. In case of a high altitude electrical failure we now had a Ram Air Turbine which could be deployed and would give enough output until a lower level was reached and where the Auxiliary Power Unit could be fired up and brought on-line. We exercised and practised that emergency situation for real towards the end of a crews conversion course. Always a critical and exciting sortie. It all had to work or else!

We would be wearing air ventilated suits (AVS) made by a company called Frankenstein! That together with anti ‘G’ type leggings and pressure jerkins to provide a measure of protection to cope with any decompression problems experienced at the much higher we would be flying.

With the MkII ground and simulator course behind I was now prepared and ready for my first flight. Significantly, as current circumstances have turned out, it was in a brand new shiny XH558 and ona brief systems test flight following its acceptance servicing. As it turned out that was not to be the end of my association and relationship with that very particular aircraft. For the ‘train spotters’ the O.C.U., at the time, had three other MkII’s on strength and numbered; XH559, XH561 and XH562.

Before we could start using the aircraft for training the O.C.U. and staff instructors were tasked with flying off 2,000 hours in order to establish future servicing and spares requirements. This meant flying around the clock 24 hours a day without respite. No sooner had the aircraft landed than it was serviced, refuelled and off again. We flew various navigation different profiles just to ‘get the hours in’. Sometimes just a big, I mean big, square. I did a number of flights landing at Idris in Libya. Relations have indeed changed since those days. Idris was once called Castel Benito and was an ex Italian Air Force base.

It was great to get airborne with a 100% fuel load – set the cruise switch to cruise – open the throttles to the gate – wait until the climbing airspeed translated to cruising mach number and maintain that mach number. As the fuel load reduced so the aircraft would gradually climb. On one of these profiles I gave a courtesy call to Gibraltar ATC reporting overhead at Flight Level 500 and climbing. This was interpreted by the controller as 5,000 ft. and took a lot of convincing that we were in fact at 50,000ft. His laconic reply was; “no known traffic”. Not surprising seeing as at that time it was the only aircraft capable and flying, apart from the U2 spy plane, at that sort of altitude! Later we were told not to report specific altitudes but simply say above Flight Level 400. For the early sixties this sort of performance was unknown. Later flights to the States utterly confused their controllers when they asked us to report ona climb out – lets say for instance – passing 4,000ft only to be told we are already through 14,000ft.

The MkII’s only defensive weapon was height. However, with the shooting down of Gary Powers flying a U2 spy-plane over the Sverdlovsk U.S.S.R.by a surface to air missile in 1960, that rapidly, and significantly, altered future tactical and strategic aircraft operations. I digress. Meanwhile, back at the O.C.U. with ground and aircrew somewhat exhausted but proud that we had achieved and successfully completed the 2,000 hour task within the specified time with a bit to spare, we were told by Group Headquarter; “OK chaps lets go for another 200″. Grhhhhh!

In June 1960 the O.C.U. was moved to Finningley. To cope with the accelerating build up and conversion of Squadrons to the MkII the O.C.U. was now to be equipped with 8 MKII’s and 4 MkI’s with a corresponding increase in ground and instructional staff. I believe we were the largest peace time flying unit in the Royal Air Force at the time.

With 617 Squadron now to be re-equipped with MkII’s it was my pleasure once again to meet Wing Commander Bastard and aid his conversion. I must say my various instructional tours, particularly with C.F.S., had given me a very wide appreciation of world-wide piloting standards. I’ll spare the Wing Commander his blushes, and simply say I was merely a bystander and co-pilot during our flights together. All our O.C.U. aircraft were ‘operational’ and not really ‘trainers’. Our staff were ‘trainers’ but not really fully ‘operational’. In the event of a warming up of the cold war, our task would be to fly the aircraft out of Finningly to reinforce the operational squadrons. The exercise and practice of this readiness requirement kept us all on our toes.

We would occasionally join in with the operational squadrons on some of the regular Group and Bomber Command exercises. It was flying over Italy on one of these exercises that we received orders to divert to El Adem. El Adem is a little south of Tobruk in Libya. That was a measure of our operational flexibility. Occasionally an O.C.U. crew would take part in an over-seas exercise called “Western Ranger”. The route would be to Offut near Omaha Nebraska via Goose bay in Labrador. Of fut being the American Strategic Air Command Headquarters. It was from Of fut that an Airborne Command Post aircraft was permanently in the air. On board would be the General who would take over control, of any surviving response, following a major nuclear attack. It was on one of these Western Rangers when, in November 1963, we were staging through Goose Bay on our first leg to Offut, that we had first news of President Kennedy’s assasination. Having flown onwards the next day to Offut: we gained Bomber Commands approval, and as mark of respect and due consideration, to remain at Offut until the funeral was over. Apart from the Airborne General most U.S.A.F. aircraft were grounded that day.

It was a profound and moving experience to witness and watch all the events leading up to and including the funeral. I note from my log, that on the return of our trans Atlantic flight from Goose Bay to Lossiemouth, Scotland, which included a drawn out night time G.C.A. approach, that our flight time was only 4hrs 05mins.

With the shooting down of the U2 over Russia there was to be a change in high level role as a tactical and evasive strategy. However, flying at low-level and underneath enemy radar would considerably reduce the range capability of the aircraft. The answer was the ‘Stand Off’ bomb. This could be released at a distance from the target and limit the exposure of the aircraft to enemy radar and concentrated defence systems, and the Blue Steel missile became operational at Scampton.

The aircraft were now appearing in their new low level camouflaged livery. I was in a fortunate position and eligible for promotion. That occurred in 1963, and contrary to normal policy, kept on the same unit and made Chief Flying Instructor (C.F.I.) The O.C.U. was by now fully staffed and equipped and very busy. Fortunately I was to able to shed the responsibility incumbant on previous C.F.L.’s for disciplinary matters concerned with our ground crew. I was now able to concentrate solely on the flying and administration of the flying programme.

Selfishly, I would take every opportunity to demonstrate the Vulcan to visiting military units and at various flying displays. The Vulcan was always an impressive looking aircraft to see in the air and I greatly enjoyed showing off its superb handling and powerful performance. I must have been a bit of a show off but the Vulcan was the star of the show.

A word on behalf of our flying instructors. These were a great bunch of guys. As Flight Lieutenants and with no pay incentive, they took on the responsibility and burden of authorising their students ‘solo’ flights. They had to exercise and use very fine judgement, in that regard, bearing the limited on-type experience of their students. At squadron level this sort of authorisation of any flight was normally done by the C.O. or one of the Flight Commanders. To the eternal credit of the pilot, navigator and A.E.O. instructor staff and the ground crews, I cannot remember the O.C.U. having suffered any serious accidents, during my six year association with the unit.

There was certainly the occasional ‘incident’ – a few heavier than usual landings – some burst rear tyres etc. “Keep your big feet off the brakes till the nose wheel is on.” He says. Much to the chagrin of the operations staff I had a set of these smelly burst tyres put in one of the newly painted briefing rooms as visual evidence of what happens if you don’t. It had the desired effect. I see I flew XH558 from Finningley to Waddington for ‘Cat 3′ repairs on one occasion. Perhaps that was because of a more than positive arrival.

One other experience perhaps worth mentioning was being inflated at the Aviation Medical School at North Luffenham – literally. I will explain. As we could be flying up to the operational ceiling of 56,000ft in the MkII, it was essential that we should be able to cope with the additional decompression problems that would occur, in the event of a cabin pressurisation failure, and brought about by either system failures or battle damage. I consequently attended a ‘pressure breathing course’ to be indoctrinated in the discipline and breath control required, when subjected to the very high pressure oxygen that would be delivered to ones mask after such an event. At the end of the course, and after a two hour nitrogen purging 100% oxygen breathing session to wash out blood nitrogen, one was wired up with body monitoring sensors, put ina decompression chamber, where the air pressure would be dramatically reduced to the equivalent altitude pressure of 52,000 feet for 15 seconds. That was long enough for me with oxygen literally being blown out of my eyeballs via various skull tubes and cavities.

In real practice the drill would be – mask toggle down – throttles closed – increase speed to limiting mach number (was it 0.93M ?) – air brakes to full high drag and get down as quickly as possible to (was it?) 40,000ft or below. The astronaut type Parker helmet, which would have given full head, and much longer protection in a decompression situation, was never brought into service.

With the ominous threat of becoming desk bound as “Flight Safety Officer” at Group HQ and having an option to retire from the R.A-F., I took the retirement option. It was to be 23 years since I first joined the R.A.F.V.R. My ‘swan song’ flight, on leaving the air force, was to be to El Adem – and wait for it in – Vulcan MkII XH558. So XH558, literally enclosed the beginning and end of a major and significant part in my military flying career. It is wonderful to have the opportunity and pleasure of meeting the members and being able to keep in touch with this fine example of such a wonderful aircraft which I flew on no less than 32 occasions.

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