John Farley recalls his early
days in the Royal Air Force...When Duncan Sandys announced that all
manned fighters in the RAF were to be replaced by missiles in his
Defence White Paper of 4 April 1957, I was a student on Vampires at 8
FTS Swinderby and working towards getting my wings three months later.
The White Paper caused more concern among the instructors than the
students because we had more pressing things to worry about, like
passing the course. Naturally there would be manned fighters and we
were determined to fly them. So we pressed on.
It was after our pass-out parade that we got our first clue that
post-Sandys the RAF was not sure what to do with us. Although expecting
to go to a fighter or bomber conversion we were actually sent home on
extended leave. A month later we got posting notices to 7 FTS Valley
which became a holding unit for new pilots. Like Swinderby, Valley had
Vampire 5s, 9s and T11s, but with fewer students joining they had spare
aircraft available to keep the newly winged wonders in practice.
Unlike Swinderby, none of us was killed at Valley although I don't know
why. At this stage, with only about 100 hours solo to our names, flying
together in two-seat Vampire T11s the temptations were countless. On
one sortie I was accompanied by Barrie Tonkinson who later tested
Harriers for HSA at Dunsfold. At 40,000 ft he spotted a Valley
instructor leading a pair of students - not real pilots like us, you
understand - as they popped up through the cloud tops at 15,000 ft. To
a pair of fighter-pilots-in-waiting they were just asking to be bounced.
dive plus the flash past underneath and pull up in front of them,
doubtless achieved the aim of startling the formation, but it also
overstressed our aircraft, broke an engine bearing and left the poor
old DH Goblin with no alternative but to shake and quit. Being above
total cloud cover, over the Welsh mountains, and with limited standby
instruments and no means of navigation, in a gliding jet might have
bothered an experienced crew. But we just got some steers towards base,
established ourselves in the overhead, spiralled down, broke cloud on
the downwind leg, kept our speed up on the runway, cleared neatly on to
the taxiway and got out to await a lift. Clearly there was a Being of
greater ability that Duncan Sandys looking after the future of RAF
pilots. Not surprising when you think about it.
After a short
while the Wing Commander Flying drove up in his Landrover. He asked
what the trouble was and we replied "The engine, sir." He did not say a
word, got a broom out of the back of the Landrover and pushed the
handle into the air intake. When he found the engine would not turn he
remarked "Well done chaps" and without further words gave us a lift
back to the squadron offices. Later the "well done chaps" was retracted
when the instructor we had bounced returned in quite an unpleasant
frame of mind.
However, some of us did eventually make the
Hunter conversion course at Chivenor. We went straight on to Mk4
Hunters as there were no two-seaters in those days. After the Vampire
it seemed like a space ship to us. With hindsight it was akin to
passing your driving test and then being given a Formula 1 racing car
to drive. Three months later six of us were told we had passed the
course. Then things really went wrong.
Nine months after the
White Paper the RAF had decided that only permanent commission (PC)
pilots would be posted to the 'dying' fighter squadrons. There were two
PC chaps among our six so off they went to Hunters, while the remaining
four of us were posted to ground jobs. I cannot begin to describe just
what a blow that ground posting was to us. For two years we had
struggled. against seemingly impossible odds, to satisfy our
instructors only to be grounded by a politician. We had studied, we had
marched, and we had flown; we had done everything asked of us. That
even included walking through a village knocking on doors and getting
permission to enter people's gardens to pick up pieces of wrecked
Vampire after one of us was killed on a solo sortie. We did not deserve
this ground tour. We had been good enough and determined enough for
anything the RAF had asked of us; we deserved to fly.
posting was to the Royal Radar Establishment (RRE) at Malvern. In those
days Fighter Command, to whom we now belonged, was struggling with the
problem of how to defend the UK from supersonic dash bombers using
subsonic Hunters. One idea was to fly a Hunter towards an incoming
bomber on a parallel track, offset to the side of the threat, then,
when the bomber was still some miles away, turn the fighter in towards
its track and hope to get a shot at it as it momentarily crossed in
front. For such a manoeuvre to succeed the fighter had to be displaced
to the side by just the right amount and turn in at just the right
moment along a very precise curved path. Only then would the target
pass across the fighter's nose within range of its guns; say between
100 and 500 yards. Furthermore, the interception pattern depended on
the bomber's speed and altitude.
To see if this would work a
trials unit was set up at Malvern using an experimental ground
controlled interception station called Z Block. In one room was the
fighter controller with his radar display and lots of transparent
sheets (called overlays) on which were drawn various combinations of
bomber and fighter tracks for different speed and height cases. In
another room was a technician able to 'fly' a simulated bomber across
the controller's screen.
When the controller saw an incoming
'raid' he had to select and alert a UK fighter base so that a fighter,
'flown' from that location by another technician in another room, could
be scrambled. When the fighter blip appeared on his radar the
controller had to choose the best overlay, slap it on his screen and
talk the blip along the path given on the overlay.
interception was a success that was fine, but when it failed the RRE
boffins needed to know why. Had the controller used the wrong overlay,
scrambled the fighter too soon or too late, or issued the wrong
instructions to the fighter? Perhaps the fighter pilot had not 'flown'
accurately enough or the bomber pilot had not kept to his brief. These
matters were left for an observer to judge. After watching a few
interceptions it was easy to spot what had gone wrong and any junior
NCO could have done the task. The trouble was Fighter Command had none
of those to spare, but it did have plenty of new Pilot Officers without
a job. Like Ken Cooper, Maurice Harvey, Mac McLaughlan and me.
lived in a local hotel; the Hornyold Arms. Because the trial had a high
priority we worked shifts involving weekends, evenings and nights,
which meant we often had time off during the day and in the middle of
the week. None of this luxury lifestyle was the slightest compensation
for not flying; not the slightest.
One day Mac had to go to
Barnstaple Magistrates Court to sort out a little matter involving his
Austin Healey 2000 car when we were in Chivenor. After his court
business was done he paid a visit to our old instructors and found the
station had 84 Hunters and very few students, so clearly all the flying
one could wish for awaited anybody posted to Chivenor. When Mac got
back we talked long into the night about how such a posting might be
arranged. I can't remember who first mooted the idea that our salvation
lay in the offices of Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory,
but the more we considered this the more certain we became. It was time
We needed to nose around Headquarters but having no
invitation what would be the best time? On RAF stations Wednesday
afternoons were traditionally taken up with sport - a perversion as far
as real aviators were concerned - and so the number of people minding
the shop was greatly reduced. Wednesday afternoon had to maximise our
The next Wednesday Mac and I set off for Bentley Priory
in his Austin Healey. As we drove I don't think either of us had a
clear idea of what we were looking for, but what we found was an office
that contained two Flight Lieutenants, one responsible for day-fighter
postings, the other for night-fighters. From there on it was all down
hill. While the day fighter guy was busy getting an early lunch before
playing sport (ha!) we listened sympathetically to the night-fighter
man explaining about his awful ground job and how he had to spend his
hours filling in terrible posting forms - like these - when he really
should have been flying. When he left for lunch we bade him farewell in
the car park. As his car disappeared round the corner it took only a
moment to pop back to the now empty office, put four names on the
appropriate day-fighter paperwork, and leave a deserted building.
following week our boss at Malvern came to see us. He was very cross.
He would never understand the RAF; we had been posted. Just as he had
got us trained and doing a useful job. Posted. It was ridiculous. We
pulled long faces and muttered "Oh no, not really sir!" and added how
much we loved working for him on such an important job, to say nothing
of living in the Hornyold Arms. The 1957 batch of RADA students could
have done no better. Ten days later we were airborne at Chivenor.
weeks after that the Wing Commander flying stood up at the end of Met
Briefing, read out our four names and said "Together in the Station
Commander's Office at nine o'clock, and don't take your caps off." What
followed was just like a scene from a 'B' movie. We stood in line, at
attention, while the Station Commander continued to work, head down,
with papers on his desk. He gave no indication that he even knew we
were in the room. Eventually, after what seemed an age, he looked us up
and down and reading from a piece of paper slowly spoke our names.
stood in silence - going sixpence, half a crown and dustbin lid - while
he stared at us. "Well, is that YOU?" We each just managed a "Yes sir."
He intoned that he had reason to believe that we had interfered with
Her Majesty's posting process and finished by barking "Have you got
anything to say for yourselves?!" "No sir" came out four times,
followed by more silence and more staring. Finally he spoke again.
"Well I have......It's the best thing I've heard of since the war.
Would you like to go to Hunter squadrons?
We all owe that man.
It happened for us because the Group Captain behind the desk was a WW
II commander, a man who understood that what matters above all to a
fighting service is the motivation of its troops; and we were
The rest, as they say, is history. Mac eventually
finished up training British Airways 747 Captains; Maurice went on to
become the one-star in charge of the whole RAF air traffic control
system; Ken did his time on Hunters and was last seen in Hollyhead with
a collection of old MGs and young Welsh dolly birds; while I got a day
job testing for Hawkers.