The Day will never arise when the Corps will require NCO pilots’!
Thus spoke the OCRM of HMS Birmingham one sunny morning aboard the ship as she lay secured to the South Wall of the naval base at Gibraltar some time in 1958.
My interest in flying had been aroused the evening before during a ‘run ashore’ when, sitting in a bar just off Casemate Square with three or four ‘oppos’, I suddenly spotted a pongoe Sgt who I immediately recognised as an old school chum. During our conversation he mentioned that the army were introducing a new scheme whereby each battalion or its equivalent would be equipped with three light helicopters and they were asking for volunteers (Officers and NCOs) to learn to fly these and as I listened I reasoned there was a good chance that the Corps would sooner or later follow suit.
At that time I was a Cpl, first class gunnery rate, Captain of the Right gun in ‘Y’ turret and halfway through my second 18 month commission at sea on the ‘Brum’ with the Med Fleet, my first being with the Far East aboard HMS Newfoundland and, having recently been informed that naval gunnery was now obsolete as missiles would be taking over (funnily enough, guns are still fitted to ships of the RN half a century later?) and therefore I had wasted at least a year’s training and would have to re-qualify in another specialist branch, I ‘put my chit in’ to the detachment Sgt Major the following morning.
I was marched into the RM office, halted and saluted the OCRM, The Sgt Major read out my request that I wanted to apply for pilot training under the relevant Army Council Instruction (ACI). The OCRM looked me straight in the eye and made the above firm judgement.
Nine years later, during which time I had been promoted to Sgt, re-qualified as an HWI, done a year in Aden with 45 Cdo, two periods with 41 and was a candidate for an SD commission, I began flying training at Wallop together with Derek Blevins, one course behind Pete Lawrence who was the first RM NCO to be selected. I note that Blevins claims in his bio that he was the second - cheeky sod!
Very early in the basic FW stage I had a problem with the recovery from the stall as my instructor (unlike the others) firmly believed this should be taught without a power recovery and allowed the aircraft to fully stall until it dropped suddenly and we fell several hundred feet until the weight of the engine got the nose down (together with my own) and we were heading straight for the ground until we built up enough airspeed to heave back on the stick and recover control of the aircraft. Unfortunately, after several such manouvres during which I was being fairly violently thrown about and throwing up through the two holes in the top of my oxygen mask, although the term recovery could be applied to the aircraft, it certainly did not apply to me. I was becoming totally disorientated, disinterested and rather keen to get back on terra firma asap – and the firmer it was, the less terror!
I also found it difficult to do a 3-point landing and rolled along on the main wheels until the tail assembly also lost interest and effectiveness and the tail wheel finally fell onto the ground. At this point it was decided that maybe a change of instructor would be helpful and my aerobatically obsessed instructor was replaced by a much gentler kind of soul after which I made good progress. That is, until the stall turn stage when the patience of my new instructor was sorely tried as time and again we climbed up and up, my gaze riveted on the starboard wing end as it approached the vertical against the horizon and I booted in hard rudder to complete the manoeuvre – bollocks! missed it again! Either too soon in which case the aircraft rather gently wobbled over into its nose down attitude (not too bad) or too late when we fell backwards and downwards running out of airspeed, any semblance of control and ideas all at the same time (bloody awful). I never did master this manouvre, nor throughout my entire flying career have I ever experienced a need to employ it.
Then I discovered my forte – side-slipping! I found this surprisingly easy during practising power-off landings after engine failure when, approaching the chosen landing site I quickly mastered the art of putting in hard full boot, stick hard over and side-slipping to lose height rapidly – so much so that I almost gave no less a personage than the CFI a cardiac arrest during my FHT. He was kind enough to compliment me on this during the debrief (once he had recovered his composure), which I thought was particularly generous of him as, moments into the flight when he chopped the throttle on me to simulate an engine failure after T/O, although I handled the recovery rather well, I made a complete prat of myself by transmitting ‘Fishcake, Fishcake, Fishcake’ instead of the correct ‘Pancake’ call? Fortunately, I progressed through the rest of the flying course without further embarrassment to myself or my instructors. In the final week of the flying course, I received notice of my SD commission on the Tues and my ‘wings’ (as a Sgt) on the Friday – some week!
Blevins immediately flew out to 45 Cdo whilst I attended the first SD Officers Course at ITCRM (2 weeks – absolute joke) before flying out (as a 32 year old 2nd Lt (SD)) to join Derek and Mike Bennett to form 45’s new Air Troop.
45 Cdo RM – Aden.
3 brand new Sioux helicopters and 3 brand new pilots each arriving straight from Wallop with a total of 180 hours flying hours, After a 20 hr theatre famil course by Capt Terence Murphy RM we were then straight into operational flying in support of the unsuspecting 45 Cdo personnel. We were really thrown in at the deep end and learned quickly about mountain flying, landing in huge dust-storms caused by the rotor downwash, navigation without any instruments (apart from the E2 compass – which ‘real’ aircraft had as emergency standbys), always taking off from base with full fuel which meant that with 2 pax we were always at max all-up weight, and pinnacle landings. In particular, landing on the feature known as ‘Cap Badge’ was always tricky – a solitary peak rearing up some 1500’ from the wadi floor, and tiny sloping landing area with a polished rock slippery surface – the t/o technique when fully loaded was to pull pitch until the ac began to slide on the rock then toboggan off the edge and immediately stuff the nose down to gain transational lift – this was rather hair-raising for the passengers who probably thought that we were doing this to show off, not realising that it was the safest option. Fortunately, when we were on ops up-country we were very close to the forward area and a lot of sorties, particularly casevacs could be completed in about 15 mins which meant that we could fly 5 or 6 sorties a day totalling less than 1.5 hrs. SOPs for casevacs included taking in several jerricans of water on the stretcher litter which were gratefully received by the patrol/OP when we picked up the casualty. On other occasions we could be airborne for the max of 2.5 hrs when flying top cover for the Dhala convoys or acting as radio relay for the ground troops over the tops of the Jebels. All in all, it was very interesting and rewarding flying in close support of 45 and I know that we all (pilots, observers, engineers and personnel of the unit) learned a lot in that first flying tour at the end of which my grand total of flying hours was 566.
In recognition of this and obviously the MS’s opinion of the need to broaden my experience I was then drafted to DPRORM and despite protesting vigourously, spent the next 18 months as the very reluctant Imprest Holder of that establishment which by then, ironically, was housed in the buildings of what had been the RM Gunnery school at Eastney!
3 Cdo Brigade Air Squadron (3 BAS) -Singapore.
Drafted to 3 BAS in 1969 very shortly after it was formed, I took over as ‘Brunei’ Flt Cdr plus, no doubt in recognition of my newly acquired admin skills?, the additional task of Sqdn Staff Officer. Fortunately, for both myself and the Sqdn as a whole, the latter appointment was later taken over by a ‘real’ SD officer. A very enjoyable 2½ years included several amphib excercises, a Scout conversion at Kluang, an independent Brunei Flight deployment to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to assist with Operation BURLAP, (the relief op following the massive cyclone disaster – during which the policy of some Brunei Flt pilots maintaining currency on both Scout & Sioux was thoroughly justified), a jungle casevac to save the life of a badly-injured Ghoorka soldier for which, to my genuine astonishment, I was awarded an AFC, and a Sioux write-off crash in Western Australia!
Unfortunately, (and for me, unbelieveably), during the latter part of my tour I was informed in no uncertain terms that this would be my last flying tour – the actual words were “it is time you became a real SD officer”. I simply could not understand the short-sightedness of this idiotic decision to waste, not only the cost of my flying training, but the experience I had gained in desert, jungle and ampibious ops. I wanted to stay flying, using my training and experience supporting bootnecks on the ground and if I had been given the opportunity that today’s Corps pilots have, I would have stayed in the Corps to the end. Despite my protestations, as far as the Corps was concerned, my flying career was finished at a total of 1356 flying hours and I therefore, very reluctantly, retired at own request.
As I chose not to join Bristows Hels or similar companies as the thought of flying on instruments out to a rig and back day in and day out (particularly over the sea) did not appeal to me, I continued flying single pilot, single engined hels such as Bell 206 Jet Ranger, Hughes 300, Hughes 500, Alouette III, Bell 47 and even a Bell 47J2 Ranger until I was ’forcefully retired’ at the age of 60 by the CAA’s ruling that single pilot ‘public transport’ flying was not allowed. Most of this was in UK for Dollar Air Services Ltd except for a short spell when I flew Aloutte IIIs in Iran for Shreiner Airways (just before the Shah was deposed) and 4½ years in Pakistan when I set up a 3 ac op for the company in support of the UNHCR Refugee Programme during the war in Afghanistan against the Russians. This was particularly interesting as we were operating right along the Pak/Afghan border from Dalbandin (SW of Quetta - Baluchistan) in the south right up to Chitral (North West Frontier Province – NWFP) in the north, looking after some 3.2M refugees in over 280 camps. We operated Bell JetRangers which, despite my original misgivings on account of the OAT and terrain, performed very well, almost all the time at MAUW with some flights up to 11,000 ft AMSL. The Pakistani government insisted that we employed Pakistani pilots so I found myself in charge of 5 retired Lt Cols from the Pak Army Air Corps! They did take a bit of ‘diplomatic’ handling during their sudden transition, in some cases commanding regiments, to being line pilots in a British commercial heli-op and they did need to be gripped occasionally but they proved to be very competent pilots, particularly at high altitudes where they were all experienced at flying up to 14,000ft without oxygen! Proof of the pud was that we completed the equivalent of 15½ helicopter flying years without a single accident or incident – not a bad record? We had one Brit engineer per ac who all did the most superb job in keeping the ac flying in very dificult conditions.
Having enjoyed all my flying, survived two major ‘write-off’ crashes,sadly lost several good colleagues along the way and finally totalled over 14.000 hrs, I have largely occupied my time researching, compiling and self-publishing two books and a CD-Rom on UK helipads from our home in North Wales.
Final note for past & present MS’s.
Our son ‘Jack’, was commisioned from the rank of WO1 to Lt RM (SOLE) – the successor of the SD commission - seven years ago. As I write this (Jan 2008) he is in Norway training up 845 NAS pilots in readiness for the Sqdn’s deployment to Afghanistan and, having logged 5,200 flying hrs, is still flying front-line Sea King helicopters at the age of 50! My case rests!