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Library Reference Number: 186

A Staff Pilot

Vic Campden, MBE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

After completing my tour with No. 8 Squadron flying the Bristol ‘Brigand’ B1 in Aden at the end of 1951 I should have been demobbed having completed my 4 years service as a regular airman. However, due to the then on-going Korean conflict and as an experienced light bomber pilot, I was ‘conscripted’ to serve an extra year of regular service ‘just in case’ there might be a need for additional RAF aircrew to take part in that conflict. Why, therefore, back in the UK, I was posted to No. 1 Air Signallers School (ASS), RAF Swanton Morley in Norfolk as a staff pilot is anyone’s guess. Flying single engined Percival ‘Proctors’ was a far cry from the ‘Brigand’ and would certainly not help to keep me proficient to fly operational aeroplanes of that genre.

As its name implies, No. 1 ASS trained air signallers, and for this purpose, was equipped with Avro ‘Ansons’ and ‘Proctors’. Pupil signallers carried out their initial practical training in the ‘Ansons’ in which an instructor could accompany two or more pupils. They then progressed to ‘Proctors’ in which a single pupil would be alone with the pilot and tasked to carry out assigned signalling duties whilst being flown along pre-determined routes. I’m not sure how or why we were designated ‘Staff’ pilots but it was probably because we were members of the Schools permanent staff. For obvious reasons No. 1 ASS had as its mascot a donkey which used to partake in any ceremonial occasion such as a ‘Passing Out’ parade and I recall that it would inevitably leave its calling card on the parade ground in the form of a heap of steaming dung!

I flew my ‘first solo on type’ in a ‘Proctor’ on the 16th January 1952 and my companion was another staff pilot, Flight Sergeant ‘Ossie’ Ossendorf who was Czechoslovakian with a remarkable history. He had learned to fly as a member of the Czech Air Force in the years immediately before the Germans attacked and occupied his country prior to WW2. He evaded the Nazi occupation by ‘borrowing’ and flying an aeroplane to Poland where he offered his services to the Polish Air Force. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the Germans did the same thing to Poland (and thus the start of WW2 in 1939). Once again Ossie evaded the invaders by taking and flying an aeroplane to France. This time he offered his services to the French Air Force with whom he flew until the Germans caught up with him again, when they occupied France. Together with other French airmen he escaped from France by flying to the French colony of Algeria, in North Africa. The remnants of the French Air Force in Algeria then came under the control of the Vichy French Government which was pro Nazi and this wasn’t at all to Ossie’s liking so he once again escaped, this time to Gibraltar and thence to Britain where he joined the Royal Air Force, becoming a member of a Free Czech fighter squadron, with whom he flew for the duration of the war.

After the war, Ossie returned to Czechoslovakia where he was reunited with his wife and tried to lead a new civilian life. However, his country was now under communist control and he was at total variance with this regime. To make matters worse, his wife had become a staunch communist and she made it clear that she didn’t like his democratic beliefs and began to make life difficult for him with the authorities. Matters came to a head when he learned that he was likely to be arrested, so he fled his country by swimming a river to cross the border and made his way back to Britain where he rejoined the RAF. If my life had been so full of escapades then this story would have been far more readable. After leaving the Air Force I later learned that he had been posted to Malaya where he had fallen off a roof in a drunken state and broke his neck. I don’t know the truth of this, but if it is true, then it was a very sad end for such a remarkable character.

Flying in the skies of Britain was very different to the flying I’d been used to in the Middle East. There was nothing like the freedom I’d enjoyed out there. Our days started with a briefing, with special reference to the weather, which we pilots took it in turn to give. Information about the areas and air routes we had to avoid was totally foreign to me – not to be free to fly wherever I wished, except over the Yemen! For a week or so I was treated like a pupil pilot and checked out by no less than six different staff members before I was cleared to fly pupil signallers. It was as though I was being reminded that I was now back in the real world and in an Air Force that was still bound by petty rules and regulations. I was to forget that I had flown operational, fighting machines and reconcile myself to the fact that I was now a mere staff pilot flying docile passenger aircraft. During this time I renewed my Instrument Rating which I did accept as being necessary, because flying in an English winter was a far cry from flying in the cloudless skies of Southern Arabia and North Africa.

When I did start to fly pupil signallers on pre-determined set routes over and around Norfolk and Suffolk, it was in earnest. The sorties were all of two hours duration and on many days I’d fly a couple of times. The pupils were required to provide, as part of their exercises, bearings that I could use to help with my pilot navigation and these could be useful, flying as we usually were above cloud for most of the time. Mostly these bearings were very good but I had to be wary because, occasionally, I would receive one that, had I used it, would have had me heading over the North Sea rather than back to Swanton Morley. I got to know the routes like the back of my hand after constantly flying them. I found that I could look down through a hole in the cloud and see some familiar landmark that would confirm my position. It was remarkable how often the first thing that I would recognise when looking down through such a hole, would be a cemetery! I suppose that the rows of white or light coloured gravestones stood out clearly against the green grass around them.

There was not a lot of excitement flying ‘Proctors’ but there was one occasion when I was practicing instrument flying with Ossie Ossendorf as my safety pilot. He was an inveterate smoker and soon after we had got airborne and contrary to all the rules, he took out a cigarette and lit up. This did not please me at all as the prospect of a fire in such a small aeroplane, or any aeroplane for that matter, didn’t bear thinking about. I asked him to put it out and, in all fairness to him, he tried to comply but, somehow, he managed to drop it and the burning ‘fag’ slipped through a hole in the cabin floor and lay where we could see it, still alight but irretrievable. For some time we watched the potential incendiary device with considerable concern. My first reaction had been to immediately return to base and land but had I done so my early return would have been questioned and Ossie’s misdemeanour disclosed. Accordingly we sat and ‘sweated it out’ until the cigarette finally burnt itself out and all danger of fire was past. Only then could I resume my instrument flying practice.

It was whilst flying a ‘Proctor’ above a layer of unbroken cloud that I perceived a most impressive phenomenon. The profile shape of my aeroplane was projected onto the cloud surface as a silhouette that was encircled by a perfectly formed rainbow coloured ring. This apparition persisted for quite a few minutes, keeping pace with my aircraft, and I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the sheer beauty of watching it. How I wish that I could have captured the sight on film. Flying has always been a joy to me and that occasion emphasised how lucky I considered myself to be to be one of the relatively few privileged people to have witnessed such a sight, and one that could never be seen by the earth bound majority.

Arriving at our crew room one morning, an unusual notice pinned to the notice board caught our attention. It was under the heading of “Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine” or some such title. The gist of it was that volunteers were requested to undergo tests whereby probes would be implanted into various parts of the body to record its reaction to a variety of experiments to which the body would be subjected in a simulated space environment. It all sounded very uncomfortable, if not painful, but the financial remuneration was quite impressive. Nevertheless, it wasn’t sufficient to tempt me to allow my body to be subjected to what appeared to be dubious and controversial experiments. However, some of the guys did apply to the address given but they heard nothing more. Then the truth came out. It had all been a hoax perpetrated by one of our pilots who was known to be a practical joker. I omitted to mention the date on which the notice appeared. It was the 1st April 1952!

My demobilisation date was now fast approaching and, with it, my departure from Swanton Morley. Perhaps it was because of this that I was delighted to find, one July morning, that I’d been tasked to carry out an hour’s solo low flying instead of a normal cross country, routine flight with a pupil signaller. This was a real departure from the norm and something I’d never known to be scheduled at Swanton Morley. I certainly wasn’t going to question it and I couldn’t get into the air quickly enough before there was a change of mind. There was an area allocated for low flying that was relatively free from of habitation, apart from scattered farms. Once over it, I descended in my ‘Proctor’ to low level and commenced to do some hedge hopping and weaving around trees and such like. No way was I going to observe the minimum 50 feet (15 metres) above ground height limit on this occasion which might well be the last chance I would have to enjoy myself in such a manner. I came across a hayfield that had recently been mown and in which a group of farm workers, mostly girls, was working. The girls were probably remnants of the wartime Women’s Land Army. Anyhow, it seemed a good idea to ‘buzz’ them which I commenced to do, flying with my wheels almost touching the ground (yes, the ‘Proctor’ had a fixed undercarriage). The girls obviously enjoyed it and, having downed tools, were waving at me as I flew around their heads. One guy, however, who appeared to be their ‘boss’, wasn’t at all amused and was shaking his fist at me. On one low pass he threw his pitchfork at me and I swear that it passed over my wing – well, I got the impression that it had! I realised that it was time to cease my fun and games and I opened up the throttle to climb away from the hayfield. The result was a loud bang from the engine and a large puff of black smoke burst out of the exhaust. I immediately reduced throttle and propeller revolutions and the engine reluctantly continued to run, albeit with all manner of strange noises emanating from it. Something was definitely very wrong within its ‘innards’ and I envisaged having to carry out a forced landing. The thought of doing so in the hayfield and of then being accosted by the irate farmer didn’t appeal to me so I attempted to gain a bit of height and put as much distance between him and me before I was forced to attempt a crash landing. I found that I could regulate the throttle setting to keep the engine running, but only just, and still with a great deal of alarming noise coming from it. Slowly I gained some height and headed back towards base, nursing and coaxing the engine to keep it running. I called Swanton Morley to request an emergency direct approach and landing, which I was able to carry out without further trouble and as soon as I’d completed my landing run, I switched off the ailing engine. It transpired that a cylinder head had blown and that I’d been very fortunate to manage to keep the engine running for long enough to get back to the airfield.

The last entry recorded in my flying log book as a regular airman was a few days later on the 22nd July 1952 when I flew a Cadet Higgins on one of his practical exercises. He was just one of the many I had flown with and it must have been another one of the flights following a set route as well as being as uneventful as were all the others. So ended my time as a staff pilot.

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