A personal look at time spent with the last Cold War V-bomber to enter RAF Service
I had been a Royal Air Force Canberra pilot for a good many years when, in the late 1950s, I learned that I was about to become a captain on the first squadron to have the new Handley Page Victor, then soon to enter service. The Victor was the last of the three bomber types, Valiant, Vulcan and now Victor, set to complete the ‘V-Force’ and thus to form the full strike arm of our nuclear deterrent.
In 1958 I went to RAF Gaydon, in Warwickshire, to start my Victor conversion. We were now to be 5 in the cockpit, and I picked my crew from the among the other aspirants. I had manoeuvred to retain my Canberra navigator who had already flown with me for some 6 years and, coupled with his good judgement, I found our co-pilot, our radar navigator and our air electronics officer (AEO). My co-pilot was himself an experienced flying instructor, our radar navigator was highly regarded and our AEO was a well-qualified ex-NCO radar fitter. In the years we flew together each one proved himself to be the very best! We were very much in on the ground floor since we were one of the three crews on the very first course to be trained on the Victor. Once qualified we went to the newly reformed No. 10 Squadron, at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland.
The early Victor B Mk. 1 was a massive advance in technology – what a difference now in the bomber’s capability. Radar dictated the bomb run in any weather and made navigation easier. Complex electronics made for safety and stealth, and the aircraft had a huge capacity to carry a variety of weapons to distant targets.
To begin with the early Victor did have a few minor shortcomings. A very large (54 foot diameter) brake parachute was used on landing to slow the aircraft down and if, as it sometimes did, this failed to deploy then one could expect the wheelbrake discs to overheat and ultimately, to catch fire. The immediate remedy was simple, one stopped the aircraft and dropped the AEO from the door armed with a fire extinguisher. This always caused consternation on the airfield but usually no great harm was done and, at least, it gave our firefighting crews some practise. The problem was solved on the later marks of Victor by fitting ceramic brake discs that better absorbed the heat.
Another problem was that, amazingly, no provision in this long-range strategic aircraft had been made for an autopilot. Whatever the mission, all flying had to be done manually by either of the two pilots.
Furthermore, one initial disadvantage of our early aircraft was that we could start only one engine at a time – an unacceptable delay when an alert sounded. To overcome this a ground device (called ‘Simstart’) which could be plugged in to start all 4 engines simultaneously, was in the pipeline but had still to come. Early on, my crew was tasked to see if we could shorten the aircraft response time to an alert. We found that we could safely do this; by changing the checklist procedure we were able to ready the aircraft for take off while starting two of the engines in turn, and then to start the other two engines while taxying out from dispersal. This became standard alert procedure until ‘Simstart’ was introduced.
XA 928 was one of the first aircraft to be delivered to the Squadron and it was allocated, together with its superlative crew chief, to me and my crew. A word about our V-Force crew chiefs – they were always experienced chief ground technicians and each was dedicated to look after one specific aircraft (in which they had the greatest pride).
This was an excellent system for, regardless of what work was done to their ‘bird’ or by whom, they oversaw and co-ordinated every technical task. They were an adjunct to the aircrew for they flew with them, whatever the mission, whenever their aircraft was due to land elsewhere.
Demonstrations apart, as the first squadron to operate the Victor, our early months at Cottesmore were largely spent in developing techniques and in evaluating equipment new, both to us and to the aircraft. Once we had gained experience we found that we could more than hold our own with the Vulcans and Valiants and indeed, with our contemporaries in the
USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) – as the annual bombing competition proved. This competition involved selected crews from every V-Force squadron together with the top SAC B-52 bomber crews who came over from the States with their aircraft. Some 50 or so crews in total vied in the tests which covered precise navigation, timing and radar bombing accuracy, and the battle for the winning trophy was hard fought.
I was justifiably proud of my crew’s ability and we took part in the ‘Annual BombComp’ every year we were together on the squadron. As part of our ‘crew’, our crew chief took the greatest interest in our competition results and made for us a cunning device to improve our radar bombing.
He moulded a strong magnifying glass onto a mounting which would fit over my compass display in the cockpit – and this helped me steer a more accurate heading. Without an autopilot to help, the compass heading one flew manually dictated the line accuracy of the bomb release point, and even minor wanderings off-heading would increase our bombing error. Our device was a closely guarded crew secret and we never let on – particularly since it might have been regarded as an unauthorised modification!
All new aircraft types have a publicity value, the Victor was no exception. Some of our early time was spent in ‘showing off’ the aircraft and its capabilities. I recall the Royal flypast we were involved in and the ‘photo below (taken by the ‘chase’ aircraft) shows three of us in wide formation, low level over East Anglia practicing for that occasion.
One unforgettable memory was of the first public display of the new Victor force for the media. The Prime Minister and NATO dignitaries were to come and a very well-known BBC commentator was due to present the 30 minute live TV programme covering the event. There was much new equipment on show and, because of the security aspects, a draft script for him had first to be prepared and approved.
For some reason I was tasked to prepare this script. The TV crew arrived the day before the broadcast, along with the celebrity presenter – who glanced casually through my script for a few minutes. He heaped praise and glory on my efforts, and promptly went off without me to lunch with all the dignitaries and those in the know.
The day of the broadcast saw me sitting alongside the presenter in the commentary caravan, each connected by an earpiece to the producer. Within seconds of the live broadcast start, our worthy presenter tossed my script aside and ad-libbed his way magnificently through each event. He was far too experienced to overstep the mark, and had obviously worked out just what he would say from his discussions at lunch the previous day. I sat there having kittens, but unable to interrupt him on a live TV show.
There was however one moment of relief to my agony. In that era the presumption was of a ‘4-minute warning’ of any missile attack on the UK. To simulate a response for the show, the Prime Minister that day was due to press a button at the start of the runway to initiate the scramble of the four Victors lined up alongside. The PM did his bit, the camera panned onto the crews running hell-for-leather to their aircraft, and the shot settled on one athletic pilot ahead of the field.
My celebrity colleague meant to say “There goes the copilot, running like a stag at bay with his finger extended to hit the starter button”. What actually came out was “There goes the copilot running like a stag at bay with his tit extended to press the finger.” A moment of stunned silence, then the voice of the producer in our headsets “Oh really ******, did you have to?” With complete aplomb, the presenter carried on and finished a very polished performance, but I did hear later that the said gentleman was known affectionately in some TV and motor racing circles for a while as ‘Tit’ ******! Who said there was no such thing as justice?
Another moment of angst happened when we were sent to the United States on a routine visit to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) base at Offut, in Nebraska. Over the US East coast my Victor suffered an engine problem that reduced us to flying on 3 engines, which meant we couldn’t maintain the height assigned to us by Air Traffic Control. I daren’t declare an emergency for fear that I would be ordered to land at the nearest airfield which, because of the equipment on board, I was not authorized to do.
We struggled across US airspace proclaiming our height and making sure that we were under good radar surveillance; but we changed radio frequency to another regional controller any time that our height was challenged. By the time we reached our destination we had some 17 airspace violations filed against us. To top it all we had brake parachute failure and a resulting brake fire on landing, and couldn’t taxi clear of the runway. Offutt was a SAC alert base and the commander gave me on the radio one hour to get my aircraft clear of his runway, or he would bulldoze the aircraft off. We made it in time.
I still had a lot of explaining to do, but the same USAF commander understood the reason for my dilemma, and backed me with their civil air traffic people. All in all not a happy trip particularly since, under guidance from our excellent crew chief, we had to change the faulty engine parts ourselves so as to return home.
My copilot and I witnessed a most unusual phenomenon from the cockpit one evening. We were heading West at high altitude over Blackpool when I spotted a bright light in the area of the setting sun. It seemed to be coming towards us at about our height so I queried the presence of another aircraft with air traffic radar control. They assured me that there was nothing else in the vicinity but, as we watched, this light streaked past on one side at tremendous speed. How close we couldn’t judge but the speed was much greater than anything else I’d ever seen in the air. We reported the incident formally after landing but nothing more was ever said. I’d never before believed in the UFO theory but I’ve always wondered since.
Life on a V-Force squadron was varied. We planned long missions, flew operational exercises and training sorties and sometimes competed professionally with our peers. Above all else, we maintained a constant alert and readiness posture with a nucleus of crews and aircraft primed and ready at all times. This dictated virtually living as a crew for days on end, with cockpit alert duty at intervals and the ever-present chance of the alert siren day or night.
If one is honest, it did get wearing at times. One diversion was our operational deployment to a dispersal base, where we lived in alert caravans next to our aircraft. In the beginning, some bases were exercised before all the facilities had been completed.
On our first such deployment the lights around the aeroplanes were still absent and when the alert hooter blared, we stumbled around in the dark with torches. As the story went, one stalwart climbed up the ladder to his aircraft, someone trod on his fingers and a voice from the blackness above said “S*d off, we’ve got five in here already – go and find your own bird!”
Alert cockpit readiness duty for hours at a time was an uncomfortable chore. Once we had readied the aircraft for instant take-off, all we pilots could do was to sit strapped in tight to our ejection seats, to remain alert and to listen out in case a scramble message came through. It was during this era that most Victor pilots became adept at cards, chess and liar dice etc. – all played as dealt on our behalf by a rear crew member on a board set on the fuel control tray between the front seats. Strangely enough whatever distraction one tried to relieve the aches and the cramps, half one’s mind was always on the qui vive at the prospect of having to leap into the ether on an operational mission.
A word or two about our ejection seats may be appropriate here. Both pilots had to be tightly ‘welded’ to them so that, on an ejection, one minimised the danger of spine or other damage. On long flights, one’s buttocks would first ‘go to sleep’ under the pressure from the straps, then at a later stage, would ‘wake’ to give one cramp in one’s rear end – uncomfortable and sometimes a touch painful! Even though the crew members in the rear (no pun intended) didn’t have the facility of ejection, they could at least move around in the cockpit. Also, wearing a tight ‘bonedome’ for long was hard on the ears so, as the ‘photo above shows, it was decreed that the pilot who was actually flying the aircraft could remove his hard-hat in routine flight. I suppose my crew had a little more variety in our flying than some others.
We became the Victor display team responsible for demonstrating the aircraft at airshows and other places. Hard work it was, involving regular practise and often several displays on the same day, especially during the summer season. Sometimes the flying display also involved meeting dignitaries on the ground at the show. On the first such occasion, my other four crew members were standing to attention in front of our Victor for me to introduce them to an Air Marshal. When I got to my radar navigator, my well known ability to forget names reared its head. In desperation I improvised with “…..And Sir, this is Flight Lieutenant er. …Smith.” ‘Er. …Smith’ himself didn’t bat an eyelid, but for weeks afterwards the chaps made me pay for that moment.
Two particular flying displays stick in my memory. We were required to do a demonstration over the River Tagus at Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, in conjunction with the Red Arrows. They of course got to stay there for a day or two: we, on the other hand, were expected to fly down, do the show and to fly straight home without landing. To mark the occasion for the press, we were to attempt a record time from Lisbon back to Farnborough. We made it back in 1 hour 43 minutes and I often wonder whether that record still stands.
On another occasion, we were to do a show at the Naval Air Station Culdrose in the West country. I flew down in our workhorse Anson the day before to check out the arrangements and the Navy, true to form, set me up. After the briefing we sat to have coffee in the Commander (Air)’s office in the control tower while local rehearsals for the show went on outside. A Wren cycled past slowly outside the window and returned shortly after from the opposite direction. I thought nothing of it at first then it suddenly dawned on me that our office was on the first floor. To roars of laughter I shot to the window to see the lady and her bicycle suspended below a RN helicopter. One up to the Fleet Air Arm.
Every year each Victor squadron went to Akrotiri in Cyprus to practice dropping bombs on the live ranges there. To maintain the alert posture crews and aircraft were rotated in turn and all of us, both air and ground crews, looked forward immensely to this break in the sun. It was also an excuse for a series of squadron parties, designed both for our hardworking ground crew and to thank our hosts.
When my turn was due one year, we got a cryptic message from Cyprus that an urgent barrel of beer would be appreciated. The crew discussed the possibility of taking this on board the Victor and came to the conclusion that it would be all right in the pressurized cockpit if it were a metal barrel. I sought local permission for the venture. When the item was delivered our crew chief, a careful soul, eased the bung slightly in case the pressure differential was too much for the barrel.
You’ve guessed what happened; on the climb the bung blew out and beer under pressure emerged. We hastily replaced the bung, abandoned the sortie and returned with questionable electrics and a cockpit reeking of ale. What made it worse was that we had to orbit for a couple of hours to burn off fuel until we were down to safe landing weight. After we’d explained our return and suffered the slings and arrows of outraged authority, we sanitised the aircraft and retired hurt. With just retribution we missed our slot that year to Cyprus and received scant sympathy from all concerned. The aeroplane itself checked out without fault; so at least someone was on our side.
Speaking of Akrotiri, I remember that it was on an earlier visit there that I first tried my hand (head-feet-backside and belly flop) at water skiing. I should have known better than to try it in front of my crew, who sat on the beach and laughed themselves silly at my antics to stay upright! I also remember that on the same visit, one of the RAF aerobatic teams was working up in the ideal weather there with their Hunter aircraft, for their European display season. One of the highlights for me was to fly several times in their two-seat Hunter with various members of their team.
On one of these sorties, I recall, I had my first taste of supersonic flight. For their team practice, I occasionally flew in the photographic chase aircraft and, even as a passenger, flying in very close company with nine other Hunters doing formation aerobatics was an experience not to be missed.
Once, on coming back to Cottesmore tired after a long sortie one night, we had just started our instrument approach when my radar nav remarked “It’s a bit misty in the cockpit back here, could it be smoke?” That got our attention and my AEO (himself an ex-radar technician) crawled back behind the electronics racks with a torch. He couldn’t see the source but the smoke, for that’s what it was, became more and more dense. I declared an emergency, we vented the cockpit as best we could and slid down the glidepath – hoping like hell that we could put the machine on the ground before anything actually burst into flame. We landed fine, stopped on the runway and vacated the Victor. The crash crews could find nothing wrong nor later could the engineering staff. Once it had been checked and cleared we flew that aircraft again on the next sortie and all was well.
That is until the radar array packed up. On a subsequent bench test when a critical black box was dismantled, they found a tiny relay burnt out and a mess of melted plastic. All assumed that this must have caused our trouble, and we felt justified for we’d begun to have doubts about the whole incident.
In my last year on the squadron I became the training officer, and it was my task to see that every crew fulfilled its training requirements and did its utmost to qualify for the Bomber Command Classification Scheme – the yardstick by which our abilities and experience were measured.
A new crew would need to qualify to the minimum standards to achieve ‘Combat’ status. With more experience they could hope to qualify as a ‘Select’ crew and finally, to achieve ‘Select Star’ status. I think I got the job only because we were the first crew from the several Victor squadrons now, to become ‘Select Star’. As the new training officer, one of my first tasks was with my crew, to do the trials on the newly developed autopilot. At last, the Victor would have ‘George’ (as the autopilot has always been called) to take the load off on the long flights. Every V-force crew had to take part in a full-scale escape and evasion (‘E & E’) exercise once in their tour. Prior to ours, I researched just what I might need for real if we were ever to end up in enemy territory.
I resolved to do my own survival practice beforehand, so I tried a solo night out in the winter, in woods close to the station. My loyal wife came out early next morning to collect me, which meant her tramping the last bit to where I was. There were we both when my boss walked by with his dog – two muddy people, one in flying kit, disheveled and covered in camouflage cream; the other desperately trying to hide the fact that she was there at all. “Good morning both of you!” he called and he strode on without another word. To his great credit he never ever mentioned the incident to either of us, nor I believe, to anyone else.
Held in the Derbyshire hills, an E & E exercise lasted some four days. Each crew would be dropped, one at a time, some 40 miles away from the start. Across country and on foot, each had to make a series of checkpoints within a specified time. We were strictly forbidden contact with the civilian population. Forces were mobilised to hunt us down and when caught, individuals would be taken to the interrogation centre. If still free after a day or two; one was cold, hungry and very, very tired. If caught, one was subjected to very unpleasant interrogation by professional teams. Before interrogation would start, one was deliberately stressed further almost to the point of collapse.
I won’t dwell on the interrogation aspect, suffice to say that no crew was allowed to fly for seven days after returning from the exercise. Perhaps all this was necessary to teach us our limitations, but one ended up with an abiding hatred for his interrogators and a firm resolve never again to do another E & E.
My co-pilot now left us to take on a crew of his own, and I took on a new young Pilot Officer, on his first tour after training. He was a good lad and we were settling down as a team again when tragedy happened. ‘Bill’ as he was named, was killed on his motorbike coming back to Cottesmore early one Monday morning after a weekend at home. We went to his funeral at his family’s request and I came to realise the full extent of their grief; his elder brother had also lost his life on a motorcycle a few years back. Does lightning never strike twice? Authority decided not to re-constitute my crew and, with their valuable experience at a premium, sent my remaining crew members off to train others. I took over temporarily another crew whose captain had gone ‘long-term sick’.
Some of the instances I’ve described illustrate the lighter side of our life, and I should hate to leave the impression that we were an irresponsible lot. What we did in the V-Force and the way we did it were far too serious for that – we were all, in fact, highly dedicated to our job and mindful of the trust that being part of the nuclear deterrent imposed on each one of us. After three years the word was about that I would soon be leaving and sure enough, I found myself posted to the Central Flying School in order to become a flying instructor. “What now, I thought?” Part way through the course it all became clear. I was promoted and told that, if and when I graduated, I would assume command of the Victor Training Squadron at RAF Gaydon. So….. back to the ‘beast I knew well!’
Once again at Gaydon, but this time with eight Victors, a posse of flying instructors and over 250 technical staff to look after – a package worth many millions of pounds and with some very valuable people. At age 28 this was daunting to me but as I was to learn, if one keeps one’s head and a sense of proportion, one grows quickly into a position of command.
Leadership problems apart, my main concern was that I was a brand new flying instructor stuffed only with theory, and all my peers were vastly experienced in teaching Victor pilots and crews. I needn’t have worried: being the sages they were they took the ‘new boy’ under their respective wings and brought him along quite nicely. In retrospect they clearly gave liberally of their expertise while I was able to offer them some of my operational background. It proved to be a good leavening of the bread, and once again I admired the acumen of those who decide about command and control.
With my new job I was entitled to a married quarter so my family came with me from the start. We moved in on a Saturday in high summer. On the Sunday afternoon my then four year old daughter took herself for a walk while we were still unpacking. She found this nice big house, where a large number of people were taking their tea on the lawn. She invited herself in, partook of tea and cakes, chatted to all and sundry and came home well satisfied – except that she didn’t mention it to us. At my first station commander’s morning briefing next day, I squirmed as he described the young lady who had come to visit him at home yesterday while he was entertaining VIP guests. More than that, our dog bit his dog soon after. Still, how long can a red face last?
I found that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching. Part of my flying task as squadron commander was to test each student captain and crew as they advanced through the Victor conversion. Each crew had to be able to cope with emergencies in the air. An instructor would simulate one or two problems on each sortie so that when my check ride became due for them, I was able to test most of the major emergencies they would hopefully never have to meet for real.
A simulated problem lacks the adrenalin of the real crisis and when I wrote up my final assessments, I often wondered how that crew would actually react if things went badly wrong. All, that is, except for one particular crew who during their course, had such a succession of real technical failures that I was certain that they would cope with anything. When they graduated no judgment was needed and I wrote their report hand on heart.
This leads me to say that the Victor suffered in its training role at Gaydon. It was a complex electrical and electronic aircraft designed to fly long sorties at height and to do a single approach and landing thereafter. It was never designed for the constant grind of teaching pilots and crews to qualify on the type. My aircraft had begun to show their age, and finding enough aeroplanes serviceable each day to fulfill our tasks became my daily nightmare. Three solutions became necessary; firstly that I would receive two more aircraft. Secondly, that my technical staff would be divided into three shifts so that we could do our maintenance for 18 hours out of each 24, 7 days a week; and lastly, that I would attend each student crew technical debrief to ensure that correct fault diagnosis saved us time. By the time I left the squadron, these measures were taking effect, but the need to be on hand for some eighteen hours every day took its toll of me.
Around the time President Kennedy died, we had a major tragedy at Gaydon. One of my instructors took off one very dark night with three student crew members on board, to teach the new copilot. Just after take-off they had major engine, electrical and other fault indications which were most difficult to source. The captain immediately shut down the affected engine but because the aircraft was full of fuel and therefore still too heavy to land safely, he was happy to orbit locally while we put all our heads together on the ground to pin down the problem. Shortly after this another aircraft landed and saw in its lights pieces of debris alongside the runway. We identified these as pieces of our Victor which obviously had been shed from the aircraft – and the priority was clearly then to get him back on the ground as soon as possible! Before he could land it was vital to check visually from the ground that his undercarriage was still intact. He did a low pass and all seemed OK but as he climbed away to start his landing circuit, the remaining engines’ fuel pumps failed and all power was lost. The crash and the resulting fireball killed all but the copilot who had ejected safely at low level.
That night I shall never forget, nor the anguish of the wives and families when my wife and I went together to break the tragic news. The investigation showed that, following massive engine damage, an obscure electrical failure occurred which had never been envisaged in the system design, and which had certainly never been simulated nor tested. The tragic irony was that although the aircraft was still heavy with fuel, the engines had failed through fuel starvation when the fuel pumps lost their power supply. Thinking back I know that I could have done no better than the Captain who met his death that night: ironic perhaps, but that trip should have been mine to do until he asked me if he could take it instead.
It is difficult to convey to those not in the Service the actual gloom that descends on a station in peacetime when a tragic and fatal accident occurs. Whilst on a sombre note, I’m reminded of another sad saga whilst at Gaydon. One of my technical shift leaders, a Warrant Officer, fell sick and was eventually diagnosed with cancer. He was hospitalised near London and for the two years he was there before he died, my squadron rallied round him and his family.
Every week without fail one of us, officer, NCO or airman would drive his family down to see him some 100 miles away in his own MG car of which he was so proud. The lads maintained his car in perfect condition and every driver insisted that he himself pay for the journey. I was very proud of my chaps. When he died I did something of which I’m sure my superiors would not have approved. He so loved his aircraft that at the behest of his wife, in the wee small hours I quietly scattered his ashes by a Victor dispersal when no one was about.
In lighter vein, one function of a unit commander is to respond when one of his people needs help. I had a corporal armourer, a first class man with a dry sense of humour but one who had a problem when it came to holding on to his money. His wife was no better and between them, his creditors mounted until it came to my notice. I had him in, sat him down and tried to get to the root of his dilemma. It became clear that he would need aid, and he agreed to let me appoint an officer to help manage his money matters for a while. Of course, the problem of his present debts still had to be overcome and in desperation I asked him “Don’t you have anything you can dispose of now to raise cash?” He looked at me, let the slow smile spread across his face and said “I don’t suppose Sir, that you’d like to buy a camera?” Odd, the things that stick in one’s memory.
Talking of memory sparks me to an incident I know happened while we were at Gaydon. A much older officer there had been ill for a while, he died and was cremated. His ashes were duly delivered to his married quarter since his wife intended to inter these back where he had been born and raised. Meanwhile they were in the house, and the lady had discreetly stored them in their urn under her bed.
In those days most families had a batwoman to help in the house, including the lady in question. Being thorough, the batwoman had manoeuvred the Hoover nozzle unseen under the bed, had toppled the urn – and the ashes were sucked up into the cleaner and subsequently emptied into the bin! After the dust had settled (no pun intended) the poor wife took the empty urn home and surreptitiously upended it into position so that the grieving relatives couldn’t see the lack of ashes. I’m well aware that this subject has been a music-hall joke for many years – but this actually did happen!
One of the Victor flight emergencies taught at Gaydon was that of a rapid cabin depressurisation at high altitude – or explosive decompression as it was called. Each instructor demonstrated one of these early on with a student crew but, since most of my flying was doing the check rides, I did one of these on almost every trip. On the last one I did, the regular abuse to my system coupled with a virus I had picked up, caused my ears to rupture and damaged some of my head passages. I was whipped into hospital and, over many months, underwent operations on both ears many times. All was well in the end and I was able to regain my medical category to fly again – but it was a long hard fight which I almost lost.
At my lowest point, the consultant RAF surgeon wanted to open my cranium to find the seat of the infection. I protested since that would end my flying career, and asked for a second opinion. They sent me to a London teaching hospital to see the resident and eminent professor, who really was a marvellous old boy. He examined me carefully, then asked me to hold my nose and blow so that he could see the effect on my tortured eardrums. By that stage I was more than conversant with my ear problems and I asked which ear he wanted me to select first.
“No, no, no” he said “The tubes at the back of the nose are common to both ears and the effect of your blowing must also be common to both!” This nettled me since for some months I had been able by manipulating my jaw while blowing, to save myself pain in both ears, when the effect on only one eardrum was needed. I told him this and, in disbelief, he called over a student and bade him look in one ear while he himself took the other. Now blow” he said, and it became a pantomime. It degenerated into “Mine went, did yours do the same?” …..”No Professor, nothing happened here” …… “Are you quite certain?” ….… “Well, I didn’t see anything my side” ……”Let’s do it again”- and so forth. In the end he was convinced of my claim and after a long chat, suggested that we leave further surgery for a few months to give the ears time to settle by themselves. I shall always be grateful to the old boy and his parting remark to me was “You know, its the first time in years that I’ve seen anything new in this business.” He was a grand chap.
When I was in hospital yet another of those odd coincidences happened to me. I had left my squadron in the charge of my deputy – my senior instructor and a thoroughly sensible and reliable character. In my hospital bed recovering from an operation, I had a visit from the doctor in charge of the Neuropsychiatric Centre there, who told me that someone I knew had just been admitted – and he asked me to go and have a chat with him when I was able. The ‘someone’ was my deputy. He had apparently gone to visit friends whose house had a steep slope down to their garage. My colleague had parked his car on the slope and had gone round the front towards the door when his handbrake slipped and his own car pinned him by the legs to the garage.
One leg was broken but the real problem was that a sliver of bone matter from the wound had gone round his internal system and had lodged in his brain. The doctor wanted me to give an impartial ‘before and after’ assessment of his mental outlook, since I obviously knew him well. When I did get to see him, tragically I found him a totally changed man. I was much distressed that the positive, logical, humorous person I had once known was now anything but. His leg healed but his other treatment went on for some years. I lost touch with him eventually but I heard that he’d been invalided from the Service and was likely to remain a ‘vegetable’ for the rest of his life. A tragedy which shocked us all and a total waste!
Although I returned to Gaydon between rounds with the hospital, I was denied the chance to regain continuity with my squadron. I did however get to fly a couple of times more in the back of a Victor before I left my post, each time with our station medical officer peering at me to see what effect the height was having on my ears. It was his report to the medical hierarchy, bless him, that I believe swung their decision in my favour and eventually gave me back my flying category. It was obvious that my hearing system needed a break from flying, and I was not sorry to take up the place allotted to me at the RAF Staff College.
A great pity really, that I couldn’t end my time with the Victor on a higher note.
The right of Patrick Peters to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Read another article by Squadron Leader Pete Peters here