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Library Reference Number: 181

Better Than Working - A Lifetime of Service

Wing Commander J.B.Thornton, OBE, Chairman, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

Over the long history of the Royal Air Force, perhaps one of the greatest challenges to man and machine has been the transition from piston to jet engine. Coupled with this major change in aeronautical design, there concurrently arose the constant demands of the Cold War.

Who better then to describe this period in RAF history than a pilot who flew each of the new jet types as they appeared, and who was also actively engaged in test procedures, and training others during a very difficult time. No sooner did Britain emerge from the Cold War than it became embroiled in a succession of further conflicts in which the RAF played a leading role.

In the following account, the first of several, Wing Commander Brian Thornton describes how his service life began. In further episodes, we look forward to reading experiences relating to an RAF career extending to 37 years.


I was called up for National Service in April 1952 and, having been told that the RAF did not need any more aircrew, I duly reported to the Royal Air Force Recruit Induction Centre at RAF Padgate near Warrington on 24th April 1952 and where formalities were completed and uniforms and associated kit were issued.

This took some 5 days before I was moved to RAF Wilmslow near Altringham to undergo recruit training (square bashing) for 8 weeks. While there, I was told, probably due to my previous apprenticeship in banking, that I would be posted to RAF Hednesford near Wolverhampton to train as an accounts clerk. I did not fancy that very much so I applied for, and was accepted, for training as an officer in the RAF Regiment. Soon afterwards the RAF began a period of rapid expansion because of the Korean War and the opportunity arose to seek selection for aircrew training. I underwent the selection process at RAF Hornchurch in Essex and was accepted for transfer to aircrew training as a cadet navigator which I began at No 1 Initial Training School at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire in July 1952.

Because aircrew aptitude testing in the RAF at that time was not infallible, all cadets were given 12 hours flying in Tiger Moths in order to assess their aptitude for pilot training. I made the grade and was transferred to pilot training which I began at No. 5 Basic Flying Training School at RAF Desford, Leicester in November 1952. My basic training went off without any significant events and after 3 months and 64 hours of Chipmunk flying, I was off to join No: 36 Course at No 8 Advanced Flying Training School at RAF Dalcross, now Inverness Airport, for the next stage.

The unit was equipped with the very elderly Airspeed Oxford Mk 2 (Chief Designer: Neville Shute, the novelist) and powered y two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah radial engines driving fixed pitch propellers. The aircraft made a very good trainer as it was quite demanding to fly, however, it also had a tendency to yaw which could lead to an embarrassing ground loop on landing. One hundred and thirty three flying hours later on 7th October 1953, I was presented with my “wings” and Queen’s Commission by Air Marshal L F Pendred CB MBE DFC, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Flying Training Command. Thirty Six course was the last course at RAF Dalcross and, in due course, the station was closed.

The next stage of my training took place at No: 207 Advanced Flying School, RAF Full Sutton, South-east of York where I was introduced to jet power and flying the Gloster Meteor single seat Mk 4 and the 2-seat Mk 7 aircraft. The aircraft performance was a dramatic improvement over the Oxford being able to climb to 40000 feet in around 8 minutes and to attain speeds of over 500 knots. It could, however, be a bit of a handful when flying on one engine and especially if it was the port engine which had no hydraulic pump and where the flaps, air brakes and undercarriage had to powered by a hand pump in the cockpit. Failure to keep the speed above “critical levels” when flying with a dead engine was the cause of many accidents, many of them fatal. It also introduced the pilots to the problems of transonic aerodynamics where, at around Mach .8 as the airflow over the top of the wings reached the speed of sound, a shock wave formed on the wing causing the flying controls to become immovable until speed was reduced.

Although the Mk 7 did not have a pressurised cockpit, it was regularly climbed to, and operated at, around 35000 feet, and where the lack of air density caused all speech on the intercom and radio to sound like “Donald Duck”.

All Marks did have one very dangerous characteristic particularly when flown without the ventral external fuel tank. A short note in the Pilot’s Notes stated; “If the aircraft is yawed at speeds below 170 knots with the air brakes out, the nose may drop suddenly and the elevators become ineffective until the yaw is removed“. What this meant was that, if you were downwind for landing with the air brakes out, to reduce speed to the maximum speed for lowering the undercarriage of 175 knots, you had to get the air brakes in before speed fell to 170 knots or risk making a large hole in the ground! This interesting characteristic became known as the “Phantom Dive”.

Overall the Meteor acquired a dismal safety record in RAF service with some 890 Meteors crashed killing 434 pilots and 10 navigators. Nevertheless, provided it was flown within the limitations, the aircraft was easy and pleasant to fly, and although it was quickly outclassed by the Mig-15 and the F-86 Sabre, it was an effective fighter during its early days.

Four months and 71 flying hours later saw me off to No: 226 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at RAF Stradishall in Suffolk to learn the day fighter trade on Meteor Mk 8s and, because the Meteor 7 did not have a weapons system, Vampire T11s were used for the dual weapons training sorties. Both aircraft were fitted with Martin Baker ejection seats and each student was familiarised with the seats by being strapped into a real seat mounted on an inclined ramp and fitted with half the normal explosive charge and which, when fired, shot the whole thing up the ramp to a height of around 20 feet and where a ratchet mechanism prevented an equally rapid return to earth! Whether the experience did us any good is a moot point as it was later done away with due to the incidence of back injuries it caused!

I completed the OCU course satisfactorily with the grand total of 335 hours and was posted to No: 66 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse near York operating in the interceptor day fighter role. Unfortunately, the posting staff seemed to be unaware that the Squadron was one of two in Fighter Command operating F-86 Sabres and not Meteors; consequently I was rapidly despatched to No: 229 OCU at RAF Chivenor to learn to fly the Sabre!

The course included some 12 hours flying the Vampire T11 and Mk 5 to familiarise students with single engine jet flying before flying around 25 hours in the Sabre. I completed the course in late November 1954, just a few days before my 21st birthday.

The RAF version of the Sabre was the F-86E (US designation) or Mk 4 (Canadian /UK designation) built under licence by Canadair in Montreal, Canada under the US Mutual Defence Aid Programme and remained under American ownership throughout their service with the RAF. Some 430 aircraft were built for the RAF and were ferried across the Atlantic to the UK under Operation “Beechers Brook” between December 1952 and May 1953. The flights were undertaken by RAF pilots of No: 1 Overseas Ferry Unit usually in groups of 30 aircraft and covered the 3100 mile to the first UK landfall at RAF Kinloss staging through Goose Bay, Labrador, Greenland and Iceland. The aircraft were then flown to No: 5 Maintenance Unit (MU) at RAF Kemble where they were camouflaged before being delivered to units: 370 of them went to RAF Germany and 60 to RAF Fighter Command.

In most respects the Sabre was a great improvement on the Vampire and Meteor having fully powered controls, and the ability to attain supersonic speed in a steep dive with no control problems. It was, however, seriously underpowered with its 5000lb thrust engine taking more than twice as long to reach 40000 feet as did the Meteor: a problem aggravated by the design of the engine oil system in which had no positive return and required the aircraft to be levelled every 10000 feet in the climb to allow gravity to return the oil from sumps under each main bearing to the tank! This was a limitation which made it extremely difficult to intercept Bomber Command Canberras flying well above 40000 feet and which were the main targets on Fighter Command exercises.

The Fighter Command Sabres were fitted initially with wing leading edge slats which had no mechanical lock and which were closed and held in by air pressure as speed was increased. Unfortunately, when “g” was applied at quite moderate speeds, it was not unusual for one slat to come out while the other remained closed resulting in some interesting uncommanded rotational manoeuvres!

At the beginning of 1955, the Squadron aircraft were modified by the replacement of the wing slats by an extended “hard” leading edge which had a chord which was 6 inches wider at the root reducing to 3 inches wider at the tip. This modification gave significantly improved handling but had the disadvantage of adding 35 knots to the take off and landing speeds!

In early 1956, the Sabres had to be handed over to the USAF and the Squadron began re-equipping with 8 Hunter Mk 4 and 4 Meteor 8 aircraft because there were insufficient number of the former available. The Sabres were ferried by Squadron pilots to various UK airfields where they were refurbished before being handed over to the USAF and who passed them on to the Italian Air force and others for further service.

Although the Hunter Mk 4 as a delight to fly and had a better overall performance than the Sabre, it was in some ways a big step backwards because it was not fit for operational service. It suffered from quite a few major shortcomings such as guns that could only accept low velocity ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 1900 feet/second. They were not cleared for use because their exhaust gases could cause the engine to flame-out or where engines could surge in high level turns and it was necessary to dive down some thousands of feet to sort out the airflow through the engine before normal progress could be resumed. There was no effective windscreen demisting system and a 15 minute fuel reserve had to be kept at the end of each high level sortie to clear misting sufficiently to land. Finally, there were numerous problems with the undercarriage failing to lock up properly and which caused many abortive sorties. How the aircraft was ever released for service in such a state remains a mystery.

Later that year, I was detached to the Fighter Weapons School at RAF Leconfield to do the Pilot Attack Instructor (PAI) Course and 66 Squadron was re-equipped with the Hunter Mk 6 which had a third more power than the Mk 4. It was a much improved aircraft and it was cleared to fire its guns! On the PAI Course, I flew in the Venom FB1 on the ground attack sorties of the Course. The Venom was very similar to the Vampire but with a much more powerful engine, better all-round performance and was a delight to fly. In due course I graduated as a PAI and returned to the Squadron and which, in February 1957, moved to RAF Acklington in Northumberland. One month later, the Squadron was deployed to RAF Nicosia in Cyprus for 4 months to provide air defence of the island in the event of an attack from Egypt following the Suez debacle. Soon after the return of the Squadron to Acklington, I was posted to No: 229 OCU at RAF Chivenor as a tactical and weapons instructor on Hunter Mk 4s.

Webmaster Note: Thanks to Wing Commander J.B. Thornton for reminding me of something I had forgotten and clarifying other stuff. In my small contribution about reciprocal radar bearings (library reference 126), I made reference to aircraft headed for Germany given incorrect guidance instructions. This article reminded me of my father's reference to Sabre aircraft flying from Keflavik, Iceland and accompanied by another larger aircraft carrying the pilots clothes and other belongings. Until reading this article, I hadn't quite made the total connection and how this incident fitted in. Thank You for that. I'm assured more information from this author will follow soon and appropriate cross-links will added as soon as these additional pages become available.

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