Experiences of a Cold War Bomber Squadron Ground Flight Engineer

12/12/2013 15:09


My introduction to a Cold War operational squadron, 12 Bomber Squadron, perhaps mirrored the experiences of many newly commissioned engineering officers at that time. In my case after 9 months at the RAF Technical College, Henlow, commissioning, and three years obtaining a degree at Birmingham University, I presented myself as a very green Flying Officer in the awesome presence of the Station Wing Commander Engineering; he was really the most powerful officer on the station responsible for all matters affecting the performance and safety of all aircraft and associated technical facilities, including some thousand personnel. His word was law.

I was curtly informed that my role was not directly under him but on 12 Squadron which was in the process of being reformed from previously flying Canberras to Vulcans carrying the nuclear missile Skybolt, fortunately, cancelled. The squadron was being equipped with eight brand new Vulcan Mark II bombers and some 150 ground crew. I was curtly informed that my immediate role was to take over a brand new hangar, capable of accommodating three of the beasts and arranging for the supporting logistics and accommodation of the personnel. None of these items I had any experience in handling.

I fled and found my way, somewhat disconsolate, to the enormous hangar where I was met by a Vulcan Crew Chief, Chief Technician Jones and one LAC. From this small beginning I thought I was expected to organise and equip the Squadron with the required engineering facilities for 150 men and eight Vulcans and I felt hairless. I had never set my eyes on a modern bomber aircraft let alone a Vulcan, never seen an operating squadron nor had I the faintest idea what logistic support was required. My initial reaction was to cut and run wondering what on earth I had got myself into after those hectic yet balmy days at University.

My first task, I was informed by Chiefy, would be to take over from Works and Bricks this massive hangar for the RAF, atask I had never in my life done before. I was told it had under-floor heating, and at least I knew something about that from my father's installation of such heating facilities in the war, but as for the infrastructure of the hangar, my limited civil engineering theory was of little help. I remember walking around this massive edifice with the works team, trying to behave knowledgeably by asking questions from time to time, and when we had circumnavigated the huge area we halted and I was duly told: "Sign here and here!" When I had done what I was told, I received the response: "She is all yours!" So I was now the doubtful owner on behalf of the RAF of one of largest hangars in the RAF at that time, and I didn't have the faintest idea what to do with it. During the bitterly cold freezing winter months the huge doors froze in position, and when they could not be bulldozed open by an aircraft tug they had to be left open and in the summer they buckled in the heat causing a similar problem. Fortunately, ignorance all round about what should have been provided prevailed and eased the burden of ownership.

Chief Technician Jones was a father figure to me, keeping me as best he could on the straight and narrow. I then attended a two-week course with all our squadron Vulcan Crew Chiefs to familiarise us in the key aspects of the aircraft. Crew Chiefs were very experienced system diagnosticians and I had a lot of deep respect for their abilities and cheerfulness in carrying such a burden. I admit I took very little in during the course, being mesmerised by the complexity of it all.

When I returned to the Squadron, I found it a hive of activity with everything appearing and being slotted into the appropriate place under the control of the Squadron Engineer, Squadron Leader Roy Salmon. He was a brilliant organiser and maintenance manager. He also had his pilot wings and from time to time flew his own Tiger Moth which he kept parked as a minute dot in a corner of the hangar, where in wet days we held station parades, it was that big.

Roy's maintenance approach integrated well with the squeaky clean reputation of "Shiny Foxy" 12 Squadron, earned from the shiny engine cowlings on its WW I aircraft. His approach was simple: clean environment ensured clean work. For instance, our aircrew debriefing room was varnished and polished throughout. Five aircrew, the system experts and Roy or myself as chairman sat around a highly polished table within a very formal atmosphere. The chairman ruled over any rank present including the Group Captain Station Commander as the sole aim was to distil out all faults, missing none, and identifying trends and repetitions. The whole process was recorded in a handwritten manual which was signed by the chairman and pilot captain as a true record. This proved invaluable in helping me learn about the aircraft, in keeping track of the faults, their diagnosis and repair. We also had, even in those early days, computer support from Bomber Command's computer system based on punch card input and were sent regular printouts of all the faults, diagnoses and spares used on Vulcans throughout the Command; useful but it rarely was that helpful because faults had a habit of not repeating themselves that often.

Roy introduced many innovations to ensure efficient and safe aircraft maintenance. For example, he had built huge moveable-tool shadowboards, some say the first in the RAF, and also mobile ones to take on dispersal. Woe betide the departing shift who left a gap in the shadow board: Roy had no hesitation in calling them in from their homes and barracks and remaining in the hangar until the missing tool was found. Roy taught me to always put the lives of the aircrew in the front of my mind in my decision-making and any risks to them had to be removed and not just minimised.

I had to learn on the run, probably at super-sonic speed, with much anxiety because in those days mistakes were unacceptable and not getting an aircraft airborne when a full alert was called was unforgivable. To accommodate this need, the maintenance of the aircraft was partitioned into time slots designed to ensure the regeneration of the aircraft within the prescribed time limit. This requirement stretched us to our limits. A defective part requiring a spare, which could not be obtained by robbing another aircraft because of time-to-regenerate strictures, if not found in station stores or another station squadron, resulted in a Vulcan on the Ground (VOG) alert which meant the whole country including manufacturers had to be scoured for the part and the logistics people had to drive through the night if necessary to get it to us. I became infamous for raising a VOG for a "P" bulb used on the instrument panel and forced a country-wide search for one. Needless to say we were never out of stock of "P" bulbs again.

Roy was a good friend albeit a tough and exacting task-master which was to be expected from one who lived through WWII and experienced years in a prisoner of war camp. I greatly appreciated and admired him, especially as he suffered from severe depression caused by his prisoner of war days, and this meant he had to be relieved of all duties for a time until he recovered and I was left trembling in charge. I therefore had to redouble my efforts to acquire the sustaining knowledge I needed. Fortunately we had very good highly trained technicians who were a joy to work with, and I admired them all greatly for their cheerfulness in sometimes very stressful periods. I can recall a dent in the wing of one aircraft disappearing as a Chief Technician air fitter with his small hammers patiently over an hour or so teased out the dent; he made it look so simple.

The Vulcan in those days was painted all white to protect the aircrew from nuclear flash and radiation, and this had to be kept clean by us. We had no safety harness but the airmen ran over the wings like squirrels. The two other most unpopular jobs were de-icing the wings and replacing fuel tanks. We had to demonstrate that in an emergency the duty flight could, using long tug of war ropes, tow all three aircraft from the Hangar at the double and we did just that. Other activities included the Wg Cdr Eng's team using jet engines strapped to a frame to blast off the ice from the runway in the winters of 1962 to 1964, rapid scrambles for the Press at RAF Waddington, endless Quick Reaction Alerts, and often endless nights and weekends getting those analogue electronics serviceable.

Although I could only be at the side of the working technicians in all weathers giving support when I could or was asked to, I was not capable of much technical input. We had to break out the Rum Ration twice as it was that cold. I did have my periods of glory when a fault defeated them, the whole of the Command and the manufacturers, by going back to theory and finding the cause of that problem and also when consulted on other occasions; this helped me to be accepted as more than an imposed interference.

Six months into my first operational tour saw us tumbling into the Cuban Crisis with new aircraft and a largely untried team. It was hairy but we generated all our aircraft ready for the off in good time and I shall never forget how close the Cold War came to a Hot War. On Saturday 27th October 1962 I was advise to go home, as there was nothing more to be done and return on the Monday if we were all still here, and tell nobody about it. I did not go home but spent the time in the RC Chaplaincy at Birmingham University: the best place if we were nuked.

It is necessary to appreciate the views of us at the time. All of us had survived a terrible World War, and I had been living in South East London throughout the Blitz, been fire bombed out of hospital, blown to the back of our house by a V1, seen devastation all round during my early years from ages 1 to 5. On my days going to school, houses along the road one day there and the next a heap of rubble. I had seen at first hand the horrific devastation of Plymouth. It was so terrible that we believed that the only way to prevent another devastation like this was to convince the Russians we really meant business if they attacked us. It was essential that we believed in what were doing and had no hesitation in going nuclear. To say we carried this situation lightly is partially true, but we often thought about it in terms of making sure we always could do what was asked of us.

Many of us should not have survived WW II, so we lived alert after alert, year in year out without stress or perhaps a mere shrug of the shoulder: we lived for the present and were thankful for it. I can still see, at any time during 24/7, a Vulcan scrambling down our runway and then suddenly relative silence as the engines were cut. Another day of relative peace for if it had taken off, we would have been playing it for real. "Playing it for real" was a view I applied to all my decisions throughout my service life, although I became aware that as the Cuban Crisis faded away many did not share my attitude any more. This tough initiation taught me that the impossible is always perhaps possible if you never give up. Those aircraft were ever ready because of the wonderfully dedicated ground crew who never said we can't do it, or are too tired or cold to go on!

I have to mention our Squadron Commander Wing Commander Lagesen, a wonderful South African leader, having a larger-than-life personality. Many would have gone to hell and back for him. He arrived to take over the Squadron in his own typical way, in his Vulcan sweeping down onto our hangar then climbing up, giving us all the full thrust of his four engines down onto our heads: the boss had arrived! He was a real charmer, tough but loyal to all of us individually and to a fault. He always wore dark glasses, and so we painted dark glasses on the fox on his aircraft.  He never mentioned his WW II experiences, and it is fitting that I complete this personal record with his World War II South African Air Force citation:

"Lieutenant Philip Jacobus LAGESEN (203584 V), S.A.A.F., 31 (S.A.A.F.) Sqn.

This officer was the second pilot in an aircraft detailed to attack the Parona rail/road bridge at Verona. Soon after leaving the target area the aircraft was attacked by a fighter. Evading action was taken but the aircraft was hit by a burst of machine gun fire. Much damage was sustained. A fire commenced in the rear of the aircraft. Being unable to communicate with other members of the crew, owing-to the unserviceability of the inter-communication system, Lieutenant Lagesen went aft to investigate. He found the rear gun turret on fire. The rear gunner lay wounded just outside the turret. Ammunition was exploding intermittently. Despite this, Lieutenant Lagesen fought strenuously to overcome the flames and finally subdued them by means.of extinguishers. He then turned his attention to aiding his wounded comrade. Just then, another fighter closed in. Lieutenant Lagesen promptly manned the beam gun and assisted the mid-upper gunner to drive off the attacker. Fire again broke out in the rear of the aircraft. All the effective extinguishers had been used. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Lagesen tore down and threw out some burning material and then beat out the remainder of the fire with his hands. This officer set a splendid example of courage and coolness in the face of great danger."

Air Marshal Sir Philip Lagesen returned to South Africa where he died in 1995, as he perhaps would have wished, helping the poorest of the poor in the hill country of his beloved country: a great man in keeping with a great nation and a great honour to have served under him.


Bob Latin