Chatting with the old man about flying
Four years ago Dad moved into an apartment in Richmond Village, Northampton. One benefit of having him living near to me for the first time in 40-odd years, was that I managed to spend time talking to him about his flying career. He was pretty frail by the time he moved to Northampton, so it felt like “now or never”. I asked him all of the questions that had bubbled up over the years every time I saw a picture of him in flying gear. He was very reticent most of the time, but as he got very old, he finally enjoyed chatting and reliving events. It was always overlaid and obscured with dismissals and brushing things aside when talking about himself though. He would laughingly describe his flying career with an introduction of either “When I was holding back the Red hordes” or “More ancient tales of derring-do”.
Rather than a dry list of types flown and hours etc, I wanted to give a flavour of how these chats used to go, because they were much more enlightening and gave me a feel for his life as a pilot. I’ve stitched together some of the topics we covered over these years and made it into an imaginary visit on a Sunday morning (Which was when I would visit him each week). All of these responses are as close to verbatim as I can remember. I would ask him the same question over multiple visits, and he was always consistent in his replies. His memory became foggy elsewhere, but he was as sharp as a tack (his phrase) when he was in this, his comfort zone……
(I’ve put a few notes in italics where necessary. Also any technical mistakes are most decidedly mine and not his!)
Gareth: (Placing a cup of tea on his small table) Here you go, Dad. Careful, it’s hot.
Taff: Lovely. Dark brown, as nature intended!
Gareth: So listen, I’ve been wondering about the Canberra, I know the Vulcan was very manoeuvrable, was the Canberra too?
Taff: Oh yes it was a very good aircraft, but it could bite you. It had a problem with its gravity feed fuel pumps, which could starve the engines. I remember Jack (Tallis – Dad’s Navigator throughout his time on the Canberra) and I were acting as targets for fighters to practice attack runs. Sometimes we were allowed to take evasive action. One time we were over the North Sea to the north of the Thames estuary, we watched a fighter closing in behind us and then I really pulled as hard a turn as I could. The pumps couldn’t manage the 'g' force and both engines flamed out! (Basically, they died).
Gareth: Oh Dear! What did you do?
Taff: Well, it all went very quiet, which was extremely disconcerting! We were quite high about 25 to 30,000 feet, and the Canberra had huge wings so it could glide well. I still had control of the surfaces (Flaps etc.) so we started to glide back towards Upwood (their home station in Cambridgeshire).
Gareth: Couldn’t you just restart the engines?
Picture taken by Jack Tallis of Dad “at work” in a Canberra
Taff: Yes, but I didn’t want to too early because the generators might only give you one chance and I wanted to be low enough to ensure there was plenty of oxygen for the start. So, I waited as the plane lost plenty of height.
Gareth: How low did you let it go?
Taff: I don’t remember. It would have been under 10 thousand…. Jack had identified a couple of alternate airfields for us to attempt to reach, but when I hit the start buttons the engines sparked up no problem……
Gareth: That must have been a big moment!
Taff: Yes, but Jack would have got me into somewhere even if they hadn’t.
Jack and Dad had a great friendship. They both trusted each other implicitly. Jack is my Godfather.
Taff (with 'tache!) and crew just before Suez. Jack is to Dad's right. His bomb aimer "Petey" Rowlands to his left. Lastly, his flight commander Sqn Ldr Clayton is far right
Gareth: Do you remember much about Suez? It was the only time you ever actually got shot at I guess.
Taff: Oh yes, but that was mainly because the powers that be decided we should fly straight and level at 25,000 feet for the bomb run, which made us a nice target. I could see the anti-aircraft fire explosions around us, none got too close though.
Gareth: So how many sorties did you do?
Taff: Three I think, have a look in my logbook.
His logbooks were always close at hand. Here is the page for Suez:
Gareth: Oh, this certificate here says your classification was “Combat Star”
Taff: Yes “Combat” meant you could be trusted with some real bombs. “Star” meant that there was a faint chance you might hit something with them! But look at the rest of it - it means that the whole crew had that rating not just me.
Gareth: Anyway, you moved to Vulcans not long after that didn’t you. What did you think about carrying Yellow Sun? (This was a high yield nuclear weapon. It had a flat front. Black RAF humour called it “The bucket of sunshine”)
Taff: In what way?
Gareth: Well - could you actually have dropped it?
Taff: I could, yes. I had thought about it quite a lot when I got transferred to the Vulcan. I decided that I would drop it if we had been attacked. I might not have if we had attacked first. The thing is that even if we had managed to get the planes off the ground, we would have had nothing left to come back to anyway. So, that made up my mind.
Gareth: I know you talked to Mum about this and told her to drive to Uncle Graham’s in West Wales if things got serious, didn’t you.
Taff: Yes, I told her in advance, because I wouldn’t have been able to talk to her once things got difficult. I’d have been shut down on the station.
Gareth: Were you worried during the Cuban missile crisis?
Taff: No not really, I'm not sure why…..but I was much more worried when Kennedy was assassinated. There was a period of time when we thought the Russians may have done it. I seem to recall spending some extra time on QRA then.
(QRA or Quick Reaction Alert was the plan to get as many aircraft as possible into the air before any surprise Russian attack hit the UK. This meant within the 4-minute window before launched missiles landed on British soil. It involved pilots sitting in caravans next to their planes, or in them in times of great tension. After the fall of the USSR, documents released showed that 2 nuclear missiles were aimed at Waddington alone at this time).
Gareth: One of my earliest memories of Waddington was the Alert Land Rover with the siren coming round the married quarters in the middle of the night to collect the pilots. Then hearing you running past my bedroom to get into it
Taff: Always for an exercise though.
Gareth: So anyway, what’s this thing I’ve read about eye patches for the pilots?
Taff: Yes, my co-pilot and I had an eye patch each. We’d fly on instruments most of the way there, with anti-flash curtains pulled down on all of the windows. As we neared the point of bomb release one of us would pull up their curtain to be able see out ahead. It was thought though that there would be nuclear explosions all around us and any of the flashes from those would permanently blind us, so we wore an eye patch. When we were blind in one eye, we’d swap the patch over to the blind eye. When we had seen two explosions we’d pass command to the other pilot, who’d do the same. It meant we had four chances to deliver the bomb.
Gareth: Bloody Hell!…. It’s astonishing really isn’t it.
Taff: Well yes. You see, we weren’t mucking about….
Gareth: Yes, that much is obvious!.... So, tell me something else. I looked up the Vulcan range recently and it was about 2,500 miles. Moscow …
Taff: My target was always Moscow. I was never targeted anywhere else.
Gareth: …. right, but Moscow is 1,500 miles from Waddington.
Gareth: So, doing the sums, you could get there, but you couldn’t get back!
Taff: True, but don’t forget that we would have had nothing left to come back to.
Gareth: So, what were your instructions after you’d dropped the bomb?
Taff: We didn’t have any really, we could make it up. My plan was to head south putting on as much height as I could. If we were lucky, we might reach the Med.
Gareth: Crikey. (Pause) Don't forget your tea, it’s getting cold.
Gareth: So why did you get sent to Borneo in ’64?
The UK was involved in a “Police Action” against rebels in Northern Borneo. It involved extensive operations by Ghurkhas and SAS, supported by RAF helicopters and transports.
Taff: They needed a pilot on the ground to run the air support operations and I was just finishing my second Vulcan tour.
Gareth: So, they spent millions training you to fly bombers and then stuck you in the jungle directing Whirlwinds!
Taff: Yes. Never make the mistake of thinking the RAF was entirely logical!
Gareth: Oh well, you got some nice cine film footage, even if you did get a cancerous ulcer on your face at the same time.
Taff: Yes, Mum wasn’t impressed at all. I was "medevacced" out. I was supposed to be there for a year, but only ended up doing 5 months, then back to Comets at Lyneham and then ‘10s at Brize (Vickers VC10)
Gareth: Must have been odd flying a civilian airliner after those bombers?
Taff: Yes, but the ‘10 in RAF spec was a lovely aircraft. It had a standard body but the uprated engines from the larger Super VC10. We used to do climbs out of foreign airfields that were not far off the Vulcan’s. But only when there was no one down the back!
Gareth: Yes, that might have been a bit of a surprising take off for passengers. Do you remember when you flew through a thunderstorm in a VC10 that knocked the front of the nose off?
Taff: Yes, I do. it was a shame but we just couldn’t get out of the way. Big bang and the Radome on the front stoved in. We lost a lot of the instruments and we had to get a fighter up to escort us back to Brize calling out airspeed and so forth.
(A report on this incident is below. It’s terrible quality, but shows the damage to the front of the VC10)
Gareth: I’m always interested about your only accident, if that’s the right thing to call it….right at the end of your career when you were flying exec jets for Shell out of Heathrow. Your HS125 even made the papers!
Taff: Yes, that was a bit of fun really. We’d taken off from Heathrow for Amsterdam but when we got there the port landing wheel wouldn’t descend. We did all of the usual tricks to try and shake it down. I even bounced the plane off its good wheel on the runway to shake it loose. Finally, I decided that if I had to do something potentially hairy I’d rather do it back at Heathrow, so I set off back. It also burned off some more fuel. When we had stooged around for a bit, and were almost empty, Heathrow decided we’d use a taxiway to land, rather than the runway, to avoid disrupting the airport. I didn’t mind. So, I landed the plane very gently and kept the wing off the ground for as long as possible. Eventually it hit, but didn’t do much damage.
Gareth: The plane looks a bit sorry for itself in the pictures. Did they give you a gong (a medal in RAF slang) or anything?
Taff: No. I got a nice letter from the Chairman of Shell instead, but that was OK. It was what I was there for. The plane was OK, it was scraped, but nothing too bad. …….
Taff: (Pause) Anyway, how are Susie and the kids? ……
Finally, here are some of the assessments and awards that he amassed in his 10,000 hours plus of flying time. The first is a letter of congratulations for winning the Laurence Minot Bombing trophy. This was an award for accuracy and was highly regarded throughout the RAF.
The RAF operates stringent measurement standards for pilot abilities, with regular reports and grading. The next image is a standard one that peppers his log books. Finally, in his last RAF role he headed up the RAF’s VC10 pilot examining unit. So, he ended up finally as the most senior pilot with no-one above to grade him. When he was leaving the RAF his commanding officer assessed him and left some some comments in his log book…
By the way, he would not have been happy with me showing these to a wider audience. His reluctance to blow his own trumpet used to drive my Mum mad, so I’m posting these mainly for her!
He really was a very good pilot.