Thunder & Lightnings

Vickers Valiant

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The following is kindly contributed by Ian Hunter, ex-RAF ground crew. He might be a little controversial for some tastes! Take it away Ian...

Once upon a time when bays were men and rigger sergeants were bull and balls a certain RAF Squadron of Valiant B(K).1s sent a flight of four kites on a dispersal exercise. The high level strategy was not to have one big bomb kill multiple Squadrons. Maybe it was really to protect the US of A by absorbing more bombs in the UK. It could even have been a way of hitting the civil population for junking National Service. Who knows?

These dispersal exercises were always combined with a readiness exercise. Monday morning 3am the air raid sirens and intercom would break our rest from the weekend's exertions by announcing Exercise Mickey Finn. This always spoiled the week. Thank Goodness we never had any Saturday night as we would be far away AWOL or otherwise caught off camp when on duty. The normal routine on arrival at the dispersal airfield was to get the heaps turned round and serviceable kites ready for combat. Then things settled down into a waiting game with the ground service flight split into two 12-hour shifts with a morning overlap for routine after and pre-flight checks. We were continuously at 15 minutes readiness with periodic transitions to 5 minutes readiness. Five minutes involved standing next to your kite with the aircrew strapped in and ready to go. Four engine starts on the first couple of kites added to their status and that of the crews. A transition from 5 minutes readiness could only go to one of four states. Stand-down to 15 minutes, Red Flare for start engines, Orange Flare for taxi down the runway all of which required an after and pre-flight to get back to 15 minutes. Then there was what we always hoped for - a Green Flare. Scramble and it's all over, pack up and go home.

Well on this occasion at the very respectable hour of 10am Tuesday despite having all four kites attached to the new tele-scramble system our boss, a somewhat expressive and spontaneous Wing Commander, jumped in front of our Number 1 kite and waved his arms. The Squadron Leader in Number 1 was a real keen type and needed no urging to get his engines running and into the air. He was closely followed by a Flight Lieutenant in Number 2. At this point the voice of the LAC came over the VHF radio "I say you chaps I can see a Red Flare?" The Air Marshal's son in Number 3 was very ham fisted and jammed his nose wheel. He was a bit young to be a skipper but Dad pushed for him. His ham fist caused us a number of situations. These usually involved a wet start. That is, the jet pipe (exhaust) is flooded with fuel and catches fire. On another occasion after we had converted from AvTag to a denser jet fuel the rams on the engines needed to be adjusted. In place of making the adjustment the aircrew were directed to close the throttles SLOWLY. He blew the compressor off number 2 engine. Bits of engine got into the next engine and it blew. We then had a highly skilled two-engine landing. After that his crew were a little apprehensive. His crew chief (a former engine fitter) gave me the job of standing next to the cabin exit to stop his crew jumping out in the event of a wet start. I was very embarrassed as they were all looking at me. I think that there is always a battle of wills between a skipper and his chief as to who is in control. During the visit of the Imperial College of Defense we had a four engine wet start on the lead kite in an air show scramble. This blocked the take off of the kites from the other Squadrons. The amusing feature of this situation was due to the position of the aircraft and the breeze there was a large amount of re-circulating smut from the fires and 12 engines that finally settled on the senior officers. The WO complained that the senior officers failed to compliment his men on controlling the fires. Oh well, ground crews did not count for much in the RAF. Back to playing soldiers and dispersal exercises. Number 4 could not get past Number 3 and got full marks for doing what he was supposed to do. Number 2 did an abort and pulled in behind Number 4. Number 1 stayed low (I think he hoped to avoid Bomber Command seeing him on radar), dumped fuel and did a heavy landing on a short runway and pulled in behind Number 2.

With hindsight a statement of work from the ground service flight if one had ever been produced would have read: -

Number 3 after-flight and pre-flight checks. Jack up all four main wheels to relieve the tension on the tires. Jack up and repair the nose wheel.
Number 4 after-flight and pre-flight checks.
Number 2 after-flight and pre-flight checks. Replace four sets of brakes, replace four wheels.
Number 1 after-flight, pre-flight checks and refuel. Heavy landing checks. Replace four sets of brakes and replace four wheels.

Obviously we were hurt and hurt bad. We might scramble any time and here we were away from home base with two major repairs. We had limited special tools and limited spares. With careful management we should have got away with it. The good news was that we do not normally fly-off till Friday. Our boss was, I'm sure, quite capable of cooking the books.

To extract us from this mess we had as a flights-sergeant a very capable WO. We also had a crew chief to each of our heaps. Unfortunately we also had a bunch of rigger sergeants who had spent ages in the 2nd TAF doing a flight sergeants job. They were still sergeants so that says something. To complicate matters these sergeants had lots of command ability but had never taken an Air-Frame-Fitters course.

A Valiant crew chief was a very capable and experienced person (we left the black toothed variety at home base). His management technique was to grab as much and any manpower that came within yelling distance (including the warrant's runner) and start working NOW. He would never ever communicate with the WO being fearful that another kite would win over his for priority. Of course if he kept the runner he did not need or get any support. This technique worked well at home base and it would have worked well in this situation with only one major repair.

Worse still the aircrew pitched in and rendered the WO less effective than he usually was at controlling these jerks. Why people who are not able to fix a leaking tap think they can supervise a concurrent repair operation I'll never know. What was required was a concurrent repair, not a sequential repair.

Repairs started immediately and spontaneously by moving all support equipment from where the kites had been to where the heaps were dumped. Somehow or other we determined that in addition to our standard spares stock we needed a tanker load of fuel and a set of brakes for one of the kites. Once the transportation left home base we realized we only had one jack capable of lifting one wheel at a time. End of concurrency. About 10pm or so when the smokes had run out and the lack of booze was showing, the job was done. The warrant was looking over the last of the Form 700s making the comment "the rigger after-flight has not been signed for!" At this point a young aircraftman stepped forward, a man with no fear, a man who had faced the damaging radiation of Christmas Island, a man who had breathed in the radioactive dust and its blue aurora of ionized air, a self acknowledged human guinea pig, a man missing his pint who said with great glee "I isn't signing for dem dire wheels I isn't". The aircrew left us in peace. The Wing Commander looked most glum. He was a capable people manager and motivator; just a little over-exuberant and expressive. Now he would have to face Cross Awkward George. By about 3am all kites had a new port forward wheel and port aft was the best of the tatty bunch. Starboard front and rear were fully serviceable and our famous rigger sergeants were to sign the after-flights. This had taken 5 hours and the crew chiefs were in quite a state as their beloved and fully serviceable kites that had been fully signed for by all trades had been going up and down like yo-yos on a string for the previous 5 hours. The worn down WO called Bomber Command and obtained a stand-down.

Wednesday morning we all got free coffee thanks to a team of Engineering Officers from 3 Group who only wanted to chat about last night. They had great difficulties in understanding the reason for all the entries in the C of S and R logs.

We got a new Squadron Commander, a rather discipline-orientated type - good for conscripts I suppose - always running round and not achieving any results. Our AOC Cross Awkward George did not last too long after the famous Yorkshire by-election. Our C in C Sir Harry was replaced after his shameful crash of a Vulcan 2 at Heathrow. I left the RAF before the Australia thing. I always feel very sad looking back at the way the RAF was and wonder what was actually wrong and how to fix it. I've read a number of management books and to be honest I'd not know where to start. I even sent a Group Captain Recruiter to look the place over and find out what the real blue collar working man's RAF was all about. He just got mad and caused a major incident.

It's interesting to note that the RAF in the early 60s an after-flight should not be signed for till all entries in the C of S and R had been cleared. I preferred to update the C of S and R log, leave the entries open, sign for the after-flight and manage the situation from there. That way the C of S and R is up-to-date and there are no surprises from the after-flight inspection. The state of my trade was accurately declared and documented despite breaking the rule. I also maintained contact with the WO or duty sergeant so as to know which of the many kites (or odd jobs) should receive my attention. I guess that they had to keep it simple for those rigger sergeants and all of the poor innocent National Service Types who slaved and suffered under them.

Ian Chapman