Scottish Aircrew Association Logo

 

Library Reference Number: 254

Culdrose Air Day 'Balbo' Formation

Squadron Leader Bill Campbell AFC RAF(Rtd)

During the first Sea King Course at RNAS Culdrose in 1978, we students were asked at morning briefing for volunteers to give up their following Saturday morning 26th July to take part in the Culdrose Air Day. The RAF Sea King Training Unit were to provide as many aircraft as were serviceable, take off as directed by Culdrose ATC from our own dispersal and proceed independently to Culdrose's Satellite Airfield at Predannack, a few miles south near Mullion on the Lizard Peninsula, where we were to shut down and gather for a briefing.

Simple enough, but lots of questions sprang to mind, what other aircraft were to be involved, what formation pattern, what was Predannack like, where on the airfield were we to land and lastly would there be any practice? Nothing forthcoming, just get to Predannack and all would be revealed. So on the Saturday morning a host of aircraft started engines on dispersals all over Culdrose; no less than 40 call-signs checked in and were allocated a number; our number was in the mid-30s, not quite 'tail-end charlies' but close to it.

I was in Sea King XZ592 with Jerry English (Lt RN at that time) as Captain and Paul Logan as Co-pilot. Off we trotted in due course with our 5 other Yellow Budgies and gaggles of dark blue choppers, marvelling at the Navy's way of doing things. Predannack was an important World War 2 RAF base, put on Care & Maintenance at the end of the War and taken over by the RN in 1958. Predannack had four runways in all, so as we later arrivals approached the airfield we expected to see neat lines of aircraft parked on some kind of hardstanding. Not so; to our puzzlement, aircraft were spread all over the airfield, on the runways, taxiways and even on the grass. We were directed to a particular marshall, ordered to shut down and report for briefing in a nearby building. We joined a milling throng and after the last arrivals had pushed their way in a young Navy Lieutenant stepped forward, introduced himself and started the brief which went something like this:

"Gentlemen, this won't take long. Synchronise watches please. The time is now xxxx hours, we take off at yyyy hours. Your aircraft are already in their formation positions. "He paused for effect and was met by gales of laughter. When all had calmed down he finished the brief. "Our Callsign is 'Balbo Formation'. The formation frequency is ---. Check in by the numbers already allocated. Once you've all checked in I will call you to the low hover. The Executive Order to move off will be - 'Follow Me!' End of brief." More laughter. So now we knew! Only the Navy could have arranged it this way. Having spent several years working alongside the RN at Pitreavie I should have known to expect the unexpected.

At the start it did work to plan, we checked in, lifted to the hover and after a moment's wait we got the 'Follow Me' and off we went towards Culdrose. However, as anyone who has danced the Conga or been ice-skating in a line and been at the tail, the further away from the front end the greater the speed of movement required to stay in position. We seemed to go along in fits and starts, with short periods of equilibrium interspersed between a steep flare and a steep dive as the drivers attempted to keep to the formation which on the ground, if I remember correctly, had looked like 10 Diamond-Fours. What it looked like from the ground at Culdrose I don't know but it probably wasn't a pretty sight and I don't know if our timing was a bit out because as we were taxying in to dispersal the Red Arrows belted in very low.

The one question that remained in my mind for years was what or who was 'Balbo'. I forgot about it until well into the internet age when Wikipedia revealed all: Air Marshal Italo Balbo (1896-1940) was an Italian soldier and airman, an early Fascist leader and the "heir apparent" to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. After serving in World War I, Balbo was one of the four principal architects of the March on Rome that brought Mussolini and the Fascists to power in 1922. In 1926 he took a leading role in popularising aviation in Italy, and promoting Italian aviation to the world. On 6 November 1926, though he had only a little experience in aviation, Balbo was appointed Secretary of State for Air. He went through a crash course of flying instruction and set out to build the Italian Royal Air Force. On 19 August 1928, he became General of the Air Force and on 12 September 1929 Minister of the Air Force.

I suppose that equates to Acting Pilot Officer to Chief of the Air Staff in less than 2 years and then Air Minister the following year! Balbo himself led two transatlantic flights, firstly the flight of twelve Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats from Italy to Brazil in 1930/31, then in 1933 he led twenty-four flying boats on a flight from Rome to Chicago, landing on Lake Michigan. (There are numerous high-quality images and footage of Balbo and his 1930's formation-flying on YouTube - type in 'Transvolata Atlantica'.)

During Balbo's stay in the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited him to lunch and presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Back home in Italy, he was promoted to the newly created rank of Marshal of the Air Force. After this, the term 'Balbo' entered common usage to describe any large formation of aircraft.

In 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, Balbo argued that Italy should side with Britain and later, when informed of Italy's formal alliance with Nazi Germany, exclaimed: "You will all wind up shining the shoes of the Germans!"

Balbo's views led to speculation that his unexpected demise at the age of 42 was not accidental.

At the time of the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940, he was the Governor-General of Libya and Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa. On 28 June 1940, while attempting to land at the Italian airfield in Tobruk a few minutes after an air attack by RAF Bristol Blenheims, Balbo and his crew in their Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 were shot down by Italian anti-aircraft gunners and killed. Balbo's plane was simply misidentified as an enemy target; poor fire discipline by the ship-borne and airfield anti-aircraft defences did the rest.

Apart from our illustrious epic at Predannack/Culdrose I have found a record of the use of the Balbo name in RAF history. In the book 'Fighter Pilot' it is recorded that Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson led a 'Balbo' of 60 Spitfires in WWII (2 Kenley squadrons and 3 Hornchurch squadrons). The result - 'it was not successful, far too cumbersome, difficult to control and hold together, difficult to reform and returned as a disorganised rabble!'

So, what of the choice of name for our Culdrose Air Day formation? I think it was perfect! Brilliant! One up to the Navy, I have to say.