The Shapes of Things Coming, and Going

I’ve been reading a couple of articles recently about the future of the Royal Air Force, having noted the recent appearance of the Envoy IV / Dassault Falcon 900LX in RAF service. It seems that a couple of once familiar shapes will be leaving the RAF, and perhaps earlier than I’d imagined. What their replacements will be, I consider below.


Goodbye Hercules, Hello Atlas

“22 Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft are being procured to replace the Lockheed Hercules C4/C5 (C-130J) which will be withdrawn from service by 2023”

Goodbye then. Really? C-130J Hercules ZH883 arrives at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. The fin marking commemorates the 50th anniversary of the RAF’s first Hercules. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

WHAT? No more Hercules in RAF service? Really? That was quite a surprise. The C-130 has been around forever (almost) and rather like the DC-3/C-47 before it, many people and several air forces thought that the only C-130 replacement was another C-130. The first example I saw was a USAF machine, gleaming in a Natural Metal Finish (or so my memory says) at RAF Mildenhall in 1967. Looking at the commemorative markings on ZH883 above, the first RAF examples must have entered service the year before. Even the replacement C-130J (or Hercules C.4/C.5) is probably best described as “venerable” since it started flying with the RAF in in 1998. Elsewhere in the world the Hercules isn’t going away. The purchase of 22 C-130J models by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has just been approved by Congress in the United States.

So, what’s going on in the United Kingdom? The 14 C-130Js service with the RAF will be made available for sale through the Defence Equipment Sales Authority (DESA) from 2023. I’m sure a few questions are being asked in various quarters, best summed up by a 2021 headline on the Eurasian Times website: “Why Is RAF Hell-Bent On Retiring Its C-130 Hercules Despite Phenomenal Afghan Ops?” A Wikipedia article on the future of the Royal Air Force implied that some top brass in the British Army were “unhappy with the retirement of the Hercules aircraft, due to uncertainty regarding the A400M’s and C-17’s effectiveness in some tactical roles.” A British tabloid said in 2015: “The SAS fight to keep their Hercules planes”. However, despite the alleged feelings of the Army, it seems that RAF high command have fallen in love with the A400M, and so 22 examples, the eight C-17s, (whose production stopped in 2014) and the fourteen Airbus A330 Voyagers (Including ZH336 “Boris Force One”) will be the RAF’s fixed wing haulers in the foreseeable future.

Hello new shape. Airbus A400M Atlas (EC-400) of Airbus Military arrives at the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


So Long Big Dish, Hello Wedgetail

The Boeing E-3 Sentry first flew in 1977, entered RAF service in 1991, and still seems like a recent aircraft to my increasingly aged eyes. That radar dome spinning at 6 revolutions per minute looked incredibly futuristic. I have lived for years under the impression that the E-3 was a derivative of the military C-135, but I am reliably informed (now) that it’s based on the C-137, the military designation for the Boeing 707-320. Boeing turned out 68 examples between 1977 and 1992. Of these, the United States Air Force received 34 – not all of them are active, the RAF had 5, the Royal Saudi Air Force have 5, and the French Armée de l’air et de l’espace have 4. NATO has 18 in its own right based in Luxembourg. However the E-3’s days in British service are well and truly numbered.

RAF E-3D Sentry AEW.1 ZH107 departing Fairford after RIAT 2007 – Image by Rob Schleiffert from Holland, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been several upgrades and modifications to the E-3s in service. As the USAF was starting a new upgrade to the “Block 40/45” standard, the RAF were considering a similar upgrade program. However, the considerable cost involved caused the British government to have second thoughts. Consequently the upgrade program was defunded, and the money allocated to a new system instead. In 2019 the Ministry of Defence announced that British Sentries would be replaced by the E-7 Wedgetail by 2023. The last operational flight by an RAF Sentry was supposed to be in July 2021, but the two remaining RAF E-3s were flying patrols in Poland and central Europe in early 2022 monitoring the recent military action by Russia in Ukraine. The other three RAF E-3s were sold to Chile, the first aircraft arriving in late July 2022. One aircraft will be used as a source for spares and two will fly. The two flyers will replace Chile’s EL/M-2075 Phalcon (also known as the EB-707 Condor) which is itself a different-shaped adaptation of a Boeing 707 by Israel Aircraft Industries.

EB-707 Condor of the Chilean Air Force at Pudahuel AFB, Santiago de Chile, September 2010. Photo by Hippocamelus, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what’s this Wedgetail? The E-7 Wedgetail AKA the Boeing 737 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) is, as you may surmise, based on the Next Generation Boeing 737. It was designed for the RAAF under “Project Wedgetail” and this I assume is how the moniker stuck.

A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail approaches an airborne (USAF) KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, to receive fuel during a mission supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, July 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Wedgetail deliveries began to Australia in 2009. Its first operational use was coordinating patrol aircraft in the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777 Flight MH370 in early 2014.

It was assumed that the British would put the matter of replacing the E-3 out to some kind of open bid, but this was not to be. In March 2019 Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Defence at the time) announced that the UK had signed a deal with Boeing to buy five Wedgetails. Part of the justification was that the Next Gen 737 airframe would share some compatibility with the 737-based P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. – Both types may share the same base. Cue a certain amount of grumbling from Airbus and Saab who had an alternative product they wanted to sell.

In 2022 it was announced that the British procurement program has slipped to the extent that the Wedgetail will not enter service with the RAF until 2024. Maybe the two remaining Sentries will get to fly a little more.

A Boeing 737 AEW&C of the Turkish Air Force, although note the temporary US Civil registration by the tail, indicating this may be a delivery (or pre-delivery) flight. Location unknown. Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt (GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html or GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html), via Wikimedia Commons

There are 14 Wedgetails currently in service with the RAAF, Republic of Korea and Turkish Air Forces. The UAE, Italian Air Force, and Qatar are also lining up to be customers. In April 2022 the USAF announced that its E-3s would be replaced by the Wedgetail / E-7. The American procurement process (and perhaps the line of customers ahead of them) means that the E-7 won’t fly with the USAF until 2027. Who knows what else will be shaping up to enter service by then?

A Falcon for an Envoy

There was a lot of shuttling up and down the United Kingdom in the Summer of 2022 as the country adjusted to the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III. As TV images showed the Royal Family and sundry officials at various airfields, I noticed a strange anonymous-looking white corporate jet just out of shot most of the time. I confess, I’m not much good in spotting small corporate jets so I had no idea what it was. However it seemed to be something official, and the plain white wrapper, lack of national insignia and what was probably a UK civil aviation registration made me wonder.

Fast forward to today (please excuse the long absence from blogging, I’m temporarily teaching a lot more than usual – it’ll all be over by Christmas 2022) and my non-specific wonder achieved a focus.

Looking a lot more colorful than the plain white British examples, here is HB-JTA, a Dassault Falcon 900LX of Air Sarina AG – Photo by flybyeigenheer, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a Dassault Falcon 900 LX, the RAF has bought two of them and they’re going to be called the Envoy IV (or even Envoy IV CC.Mk.1) in British military circles. Their role is described as Command Support Air Transport (CSAT) – or basically flying the Royal Family, and the upper echelons of the UK government and military around the world as needed. The Envoy IV aircraft will replace (or have replaced) two Bae 146 which were taken out of service in March 2022.

The new aircraft will be based at RAF Northolt and operated by 32 (The Royal) Squadron RAF. In keeping with the times, there is some kind of public / private partnership going on under which the aircraft are jointly operated with a civilian contractor Centreline AV Ltd. who are based in Bristol (I love the term “mixed crew” for all the wrong reasons) although the RAF will assume full operational control in 2024.

Why Envoy IV? The powers that be are apparently paying homage to the Airspeed AS.6 Envoy (which morphed into the AS.10 Oxford) Marks I-III of beloved memory. The Airspeed products served the RAF faithfully for many years and Envoy III G-AEXX was used by the King’s Flight. The King’s Flight Envoy replaced a de Havilland Dragon Rapide, and was itself replaced by a Lockheed Hudson when an armed aircraft became more desirable at the start of the Second World War.

The Airspeed ‘ Envoy’ of the King’s Flight. Having totally failed to find a photographic image of the aircraft itself I settled for a contemporary cigarette card. George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Airspeed ‘ Envoy’ of the King’s Flight.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 11, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-941d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Jubilee Flypast

I watched the Deutsche Welle archived live stream of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee yesterday. None of the British news outlets had any such thing, and the service inside St.Paul’s Cathedral was limited to UK viewers only. Nevertheless it was quite a moving and nostalgic moment, since I haven’t watched Trooping the Colour for many a year.

As you may imagine, I was in full spotter mode at the very end when a huge assortment of aircraft (72 in total – I did count them from the list provided by the RAF on their website) operated by the British armed forces flew over Buckingham Palace.

BluelightTV​
Queen’s Platinum Jubilee tri-service flypast seen from Waterloo Bridge in London

What astounded me was how out of touch with current British military aviation types I have become. I spent some of the time thinking “I didn’t know we had any of them” and then found out that in most cases the aircraft concerned have been in service for at least five years, perhaps more.

The constituent parts of the Jubilee flypast are (or were):

1 x Wildcat HMA2 (Royal Navy), 2 x Merlin (Royal Navy)
1 x Wildcat AH1 (British Army), 3 x Apache AH1 (British Army)
1 x Wildcat HMA2  (Royal Marines, Royal Navy), 3 x Merlin (Royal Navy)
3 x Puma
3 x Chinook HCA6
1 x Lancaster, 2 x Spitfire, 2 x Hurricane (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight)
1 x Phenom, 4 x Texan
3 x C-130J Hercules
1 x A400M Atlas
1 x C-17 Globemaster
1 x P-8A Poseidon MRA1
1 x RC-135W Rivet Joint
1 x Voyager, 2 x F-35B Lightning, 2 x Typhoon
1 x Voyager, 4 x F-35B Lightning
4 x Hawk T2
15 x Typhoon
9 x Hawk T1 (Red Arrows)

So let’s examine the names which made me say “huh?”

Wildcat – no, not the tubby little Grumman shipboard fighter. I had this down as a Lynx when I saw the flypast and I wasn’t far wrong. This is the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat, which was known as the “Future Lynx” and “Lynx Wildcat”. It’s been in service with the British Army since 2014 and the Royal Navy since 2015 although trials were being undertaken from at least 2011.

A Wildcat helicopter HMA Mk2 of 700(W) Naval Air Squadron conducting flying trials near HMS Monmouth off the South coast of the UK in November 2013 – This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Merlin. Formerly the EH101 and now the AW101. I didn’t know that the RAF’s Merlins had been transferred to the Royal Navy. But seemingly they have.
Puma. – really? wow! I built an Airfix Puma in the 1970s and yes, this is still the A3330 Puma, having been radically upgraded and now called the Puma HC2
Chinook. – Now in its HCA6 iteration, and I wonder just how much noise three of them made as they flew over in formation.
Lancaster, Spitfire, Hurricane. – The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were pretty familiar although the Deutsche Welle video gave them about five seconds of screen time. Hey Ho.
Phenom – I had no idea what this was. It’s the Embraer EMB-500 Phenom 100. “Operated as part of the UK Military Flying Training System. On 2 February 2016 the Ministry of Defence signed a contract with KBR-Elbit Systems for the procurement and support of five Embraer Phenom 100 jets to train Royal Air Force and Royal Navy air crew until 2033.” Thank you, Wikipedia.

Pictured are two of the RAF’s new Embraer Phenom 100’s which are taking over the multi-engine aircrew training duties of the King Air B200 and B200GT. Operated by 45(R) Squadron, under the command of No. 3 FTS. They run the Multi Engine Advanced Flying Training (MEAFT) course for pilots, whilst simultaneously training Non-Commissioned Aircrew (NCA) rear-crew for Fixed Wing, Rotary and ISTAR roles throughout the RAF. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Texan. – so the RAF is now operating the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II following the withdrawal of the Tucano. The contract was signed in 2016. I couldn’t lay my hands on a picture of an RAF Texan, but this one gives you an idea of what it looks like. That’s a Texan in front, too, although my dad would have called it a Harvard. Fittingly the Canadian Armed Forces call the new Beechcraft the CT-156 Harvard II.

An original T-6 Texan aircraft, right, flies with the new U.S. Air Force T-6 aircraft during the 2007 Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) Air Show at Randolph AFB, Texas, Nov. 4, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steve White/Released) (Public Domain)

Hercules. – fine. This is the C-130J so they looked a big bigger. I remember there was some argy-bargy about the C-130J at the time the A400M was looking like it wasn’t going to get anywhere.
Atlas A400M (Atlas C.Mk.1). – I didn’t know the RAF had bought some A400s, but clearly they have. I find its shape weirdly pleasing. Operational in the RAF since 2014/15.
Globemaster. – I do recall seeing one of the RAF C-17s at RIAT before I left the UK so that wasn’t much of a surprise. I was intrigued at the way the C-17 pilot was maintaining very close station with the A400, or so it looked.
Poseidon MRA1. – The RAF’s new maritime reconnaissance aircraft, known elsewhere as the P-8A and developed from the Boeing 737-800. The UK announced its intention to order nine P-8As in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. The last aircraft (of seven, so a couple got cut on the way) was delivered in January 2022.

The very first RAF P-8A Poseidon (ZP801) on the pan at NAS Jacksonville after being officially ‘delivered’ to the RAF in 2019. The flattened profile of the CFM-56 (q.v.) nacelle is very clear here. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0)

RC-135W Rivet Joint. – this was the one that really made me sit up. I saw it looked like a KC-135, but I had no idea the RAF had any. Of course it wasn’t a KC-135, although at some point in its life the airframe (and its mates) had been tankers. Previously, the RAF had gathered signals intelligence with three Nimrod R1 aircraft but with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 the United Kingdom bought three KC-135R aircraft (all of which first flew in 1964) for conversion to RC-135W Rivet Joint standard[ under the Airseeker project. They came into service in October 2014 and are expected to remain in service until 2045. (Mashed from Wikipedia). Talk about life expectancy. By my calculation those airframes when they retire will be 81 years old.

RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint / Airseeker at Waddington, 2014, bearing the red goose of 51 Squadron on its fin, The RAF purchased three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, converted from KC-135R Stratotanker airframes to RC-135W standard at the L3 Communications (formerly Raytheon) facility in Greenville, Texas. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Voyager. – I did wonder why there were two A330s in the flypast, but one of them was the repainted ZZ336 known colloquially as “Boris Force One” since the eponymous Prime Minister allegedly ordered a special paint job when it was next in for a service. There are one or two disturbing facts about the British variant of the A330MRTT tanker, not the least of which is the British continuation of “probe and drogue” refuelling practices. This rendered the UK’s sole big tanker unable to refuel a number of “modern” aircraft which use the American “flying boom” system. Maybe this is why the publicity pictures all show a Voyager refuelling a couple of Tornado GR.4s seven years ago. A bog standard Voyager initially couldn’t have refuelled a 1964 era Rivet Joint, much less a C-17 or a Poseidon – and what about the F-35? No, I’m being too picky. Hmmm. “In April 2016, the RAF stated its interest in the idea of fitting a boom to some of the Voyager fleet, bringing its aircraft into line with other A330 MRTT operators” (Wikipedia) Jolly Good idea. The RAF website says the Voyager KC. Mk.3 has a large centreline hose “for use by large aircraft.”
Amen.

A Royal Air Force Voyager KC2 refuels two RAF Tornado GR4, March 4, 2015, over Iraq. The RAF aircraft provide combat air support for the coalition against Da’esh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston)(Public Domain)

Lightning, Typhoon. – The formation discipline of the 15 Typhoons making up the number “70” in the sky was a joy to behold.
Hawk. I saw a news piece about the end of 100 Squadron at Leeming a few weeks ago and that some of their black Hawks would be repainted and passed to the Red Arrows – and here’s why. “In July 2021, it was announced that all UK military units operating the Hawk T1 aircraft, apart from the Red Arrows, would see their airframes retired by 31 March 2022“. The longevity of the Hawk in RAF service is almost becoming the stuff of legend. Maybe I need to blog that separately.


Dakota Noses in London

I was watching a DVD of “The Lavender Hill Mob” again recently, and noticed something I had previously forgotten. There is a scene in which Stanley Holloway (playing “Al” Pendlebury) returns from France by air. “Dutch” Holland (played by Alec Guinness) meets his flight, presumably at Croydon. Visible briefly is a Dakota with the British Civilian registration G-AGYX.

Frame grab from my DVD. Alec Guinness in “The Lavender Hill Mob” – G-AGYX in the background.

Naturally enough I thought I’d look it up. I assumed it would be an ex-Transport Command aircraft and wondered about its history. Naturally, again, I discovered the path had been well beaten before me. My interest was piqued when I read that the nose of G-AGYX still exists. I thought I’d seen it on a visit to London, but it transpired that what I’d examined was a different Dakota, at a different museum.

Bomber Command Museum, Hendon

The “Lavender Hill Mob” Dakota was Douglas C-47A-10-DK c/n 12472, built at the Douglas Plant at Oklahoma City, OK and given the US military serial 42-92648. It passed directly to Britain where it became Dakota Mk.III KG437 with 233 Squadron at RAF Blakehill Farm in Wiltshire. KG437 saw action in September 1944 as part of operation MARKET III – the resupply of British Airborne forces at Arnhem. I had a quick Google for 233 Squadron and found the photograph below.

Douglas Dakotas of No. 233 Squadron RAF (and who knows if KG437 is one of them) lined up on the perimeter track at Blakehill Farm, Wiltshire, for an exercise with the 6th Airborne Division, 20 April 1944.
Bridge (F/O), Royal Air Force official photographer – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9244/large.jpg This is photograph CH 12833 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I also happened to find a photograph of a 233 Squadron Dakota.

Douglas Dakota C.III (FZ692, ‘5T-UK’ “Kwicherbichen”) of No. 233 Squadron RAF based at Blakehill Farm, Wiltshire (UK), in flight, returning to the United Kingdom with wounded from the Normandy battlefront. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Post war as we know KG437 became G-AGYX when it was sold to BOAC in 1946. Its British career also included a stint with BEA (in whose markings it was filmed), then charter airline Autair (an ancestor of Court Line) and then to United Libyan Airlines when Autair disposed of its piston-engined aircraft in the mid 1960s. Its final flying engagement was as 5N-ATA somewhere in Sudan. It was noted as being derelict in Malta sometime later. I’m not clear how, but seemingly someone intended to refurbish the derelict Dakota as a restaurant, club, or bar. This clearly didn’t happen and eventually KG437 was passed to the RAF Museum, who sent the nose section to be restored by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society in my hometown of Rochester. The nose was returned to the Bomber Command Museum at Hendon in 2006. I assume the rest of it (depending on what actually existed by then) was scrapped.

After restoration by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society in my hometown of Rochester. The nose of KG437/G-AGYX was returned to the Bomber Command Museum at Hendon in 2006.

Science Museum, London

When I heard that the nose of KG 437 had been preserved, I thought “oh, that’s the one I walked through several years ago.” I was of course wrong. Firstly, the nose of KG437 wasn’t installed in Hendon until 2006, and I was long departed from Britain by then. Secondly, I remembered that the Dakota nose I had looked at was located in a completely different Museum. The colourful and slightly larger remnant below is located in the Science Museum, South Kensington, London.

There is a lot more nose here, and the paint scheme shouts “Royal Canadian Air Force” to those who recognize it from countless other post-war C-47s and Lancasters – so whose nose are we looking at here?

The Science Museum Dakota is C-47B-30-DK Dakota, originally allocated AAF serial 44-76586. This aircraft was also a product of the Douglas plant in Oklahoma City, OK.

Joe Baugher says “(MSN 16170/32918) to RAF as Dakota IV KN448 Mar 1945. Transferred to RCAF Apr 8, 1946.” Baugher doesn’t note it, but apparently 448 was scrapped at Trenton, Ontario, sometime after 1968. The front fuselage was acquired by the Science Museum, where it went on display in 1970. All records suggest that it was owned and operated by the the RCAF until its demise, so the truncated word suggestive of “AIRLINES” is a bit of a mystery although the font is a pretty good match for the “ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE” legend frequently seen on RCAF C-47s. Go figure. People in museums wield paint brushes in strange ways. I don’t have any information relating to 448’s RAF or RCAF service, but I’ll keep looking.

Postscript and Digressions

RAF Blakehill Farm, where KG437 was based, is located just to the South-West of Cricklade in Wiltshire. To the North-East of Cricklade, over the border, lies RAF Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. The village of Down Ampney, besides giving its name to a well known British hymn tune (written by Ralph Vaughan Williams and familiarly set to “Come Down O Love Divine”), was also the location of a Transport Command base, housing 48 and 271 Squadrons and a number of other service units.

On the afternoon of 19 September 1944, at the same time that KG437 was flying from Blakehill Farm, Flight Lieutenant David Lord, DFC, of 271 Squadron flew from Down Ampney in Dakota KG374 “YS-DM” as part of operation MARKET III. The squadron had been ordered to fly at 900 feet to ensure proper delivery of supplies to the embattled troops below. Very shortly before the drop, KG374 was hit by Anti-Aircraft fire which started a fire in the starboard engine and wing. Lord apparently decided to proceed with the drop, and had completed one pass with his despatchers dropping supplies from the burning Dakota. Lord was making a second pass to get rid of a couple of containers which had hung up when the aircraft broke up and crashed. Lord’s navigator was thrown clear but the rest of the crew perished. David Lord was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

No photographs exist of Lord’s aircraft, although the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Dakota ZA947 was painted to represent Lord’s aircraft some years ago. Coincidentally it’s now painted to represent “Kwitcherbitchen” of 233 Squadron (see above!)

Researching MARKET III I happened to come across this photograph, complete with crop marks, from the IWM collection:

Operation MARKET III: air re-supply of British airborne forces in the Arnhem area, 19 September 1944. Burnt-out Douglas Dakota Mark III, KG401, of No. 48 Squadron RAF based at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, which crash-landed in a field near Kessel, Holland, after parachuting supplies over Arnhem. The aircraft had just dropped its supplies from 700 feet when it was met with intense anti-aircraft fire. The tail unit, rudder, port aileron and engine, the starboard auxiliary fuel tank and all the gyro instruments were either damaged or put out of action, and one of the Army despatchers was mortally wounded. The captain, Flying Officer L R Pattee RCAF and his co-pilot, Flying Officer A C Kent RAF, flew the crippled aircraft back to the British lines, through three more areas of enemy flak, where they sustained further serious damage, including a five foot hole in the starboard wing which caught fire, and complete electrical and communications failure. Once over the British lines, Pattee gave the crew and despatchers the opportunity to bale out, but they refused and the pilots then made a successful belly-landing in the field. No sooner had they all quit the Dakota, than it was engulfed by flames. The unfortunate despatcher died soon after the landing, while the others were taken to Brussels and the crew returned to Down Ampney. Sixteen aircraft of 48 Squadron participated in MARKET III, flying through intense flak with no fighter escort. Many aircraft were hit and two, (KG401 and KG428), failed to return. Over the following four days the Squadron lost another six Dakotas on re-supply missions to Arnhem. This is photograph CE 165 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t

Last year I looked at a few aircraft which were at or around Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack in 1941. I ran across another one on the Web as I carried out one of my stored searches.

It’s not this one, but one (or two) of its siblings which may have been in the air at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 . Waco UIC NC13702 seen in July 2012. Photo by FlugKerl2, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Our story concerns a Waco UIC biplane with the registration NC13408. In 1941 it was owned and operated by a company called K-T Flying Service in Honolulu. The substantial version of the story says that Robert ‘Bob” Tyce, (part owner of K-T, being the “T” part) was flying in NC13408 when he and another individual in another Waco were bounced by Japanese aircraft on the morning of December 7th. The second Waco was hit and the pilot bailed out. Tyce, so the story goes, managed to evade the attackers and landed, although he was killed on the ground following the landing, becoming one of the first, if not the first civilian casualty of the Japanese attack. It gets a little complicated because some sources say it wasn’t Tyce flying the aircraft, and yet another source disputes the claim that NC13408 was in the air at all on December 7th.

Whatever the truth is about NC13408, Ancestry.com records that Robert Horatio Tyce, born 11 May 1903 at Częstochowa, Śląskie, Poland, died on 7 Dec 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu County, Hawaii, United States of America.

Geek Heaven in Dorset

My wife Susan is a highly engaged Twitter user and finds all kinds of interesting articles being tweeted, some of which she forwards to me in email.  I am not a highly engaged Twitter user, so email is always a good way to find me.  We spent a couple of very pleasant vacations in Dorset before I moved to the USA. We did the Hardy sites and tours, visited the Dorchester Museum and Maiden Castle, all those things.  When Susan found a picture of a Hurricane being exhibited at the Borough Gardens in Dorchester in 1943 I took a quick glance and more or less filed it away, thinking “Second line Hurricane, 1943, armament removed, I wonder what the serial number is, I’ll have a look sometime.”

Yes, It’s a Hurricane. But which one? From Dorset Museum’s Twitter Feed: @DorsetMuseum Dorchester’s Borough Gardens is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year! From our archive is this image of a Hawker Hurricane Fighter in the gardens taken by a Mr. Collins during the “Wings For Victory Week” which was a national fund raising event in 1943

That time came fairly quickly.  I discovered the photo is a little more puzzling than at first sight.  I can’t make out the rest of the serial number from the scanned photo the museum tweeted, so looked for features to give some clue as to what production mark it was.  And that’s where the fun started.  

Keen eyed readers and viewers may assume like me, that given the C and C1 style roundels that this is a Hurricane IIc with the wing cannons removed and faired over.  That’s what I thought.  But there is precious little evidence of that removal.  It’s a bit too neat.  Then I looked at the nose.  What struck me was that there is no oil-deflector ring on the cowling behind the propeller spinner.  I have just read a huge article on the Web about the various propellers and spinners fitted to Hurricanes. Thus bewildered I can say I have no idea which kind of propeller and spinner is fitted (although my personal guess is Rotol), but there is no oil deflector ring.

This detail alone suggests that this may be an older Hurricane which has been out to grass for a longer time than previously imagined.  The real kicker for me is the wireless antenna post behind the cockpit canopy.  It’s not one of the angular blade type antennae you see on most of the later Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s stocky and squared off. That rang a bell somewhere in the subconscious, so I went and looked at Francis K. Mason’s authoritative book on the Hurricane and lo, he said in a comment on another picture, that the stubby squared-off wireless antenna post was a common feature of the first production “L” serialled Mark I Hurricanes.  Really?  Could it be this is a very early Hurricane taking part in a Wings for Victory exhibition in 1943?   This was exciting, so I set to work on trying to match the visible digits of the serial number with the list in his book and one of my highly arcane and beloved reference works, Bruce Robertson’s British Military Aircraft Serials 1911-1971.  And that’s where my research came unstuck.

The only visible portion of the serial number are two digits, and their position within the serial number is open to question.  If this is an early Hurricane, its 5-character Air Ministry serial number will be formatted “A0000” rather than the later format “AA000”  

As in all the best puzzles, someone is standing in front of the tail of the aircraft concealing another digit, perhaps two.  All we therefore see are the digits “25” and what may be the front edge of a 7 or a 3.   The first production batch of 600 Hurricanes were in the serial range L1547-2146,  so even allowing that the missing digit is a 7 there is no possibility that the combination “257” appears anywhere in that production batch. The Dorchester example can’t be one of those.  

Not to lose heart, the next production batch of 300 Hurricanes were in the serial range N2318-2729 so it’s possible that the serial is N257x.

The next production batch of 500 Mark 1 Hurricanes were built by Gloster Aircraft used serials in the range P2535-3264.  Robertson notes that aircraft up to P2681 had a wooden, fixed pitch, two-bladed Watts propeller – after 2681 they were fitted with Rotol propellers.    If the Dorchester Hurricane was P257x it may have been originally endowed with a Watts propeller and converted later in life.

There are no contenders in the rest of the P, R,  T (Canadian), V and W serial combinations so the remaining possibility for the single letter / four digit combination is Z2308-4018 – a massive order for 1000 Hurricanes Mark IIA . IIB and IIC from Hawker.  Z257x is therefore a feasible identity, occurring as it does in the range Z2560-2594. I need to cross check what marks these 30 aircraft were, simply because the oil deflector ring was seen as early as the summer of 1940 on operational Hurricanes and clearly this aircraft doesn’t have one.  It’s quite possible that this could be a later Hurricane with a serial in the BN, BP or later ranges, but by this time I’m certain none of them would have omitted the oil deflector ring and certainly none would have had that short stumpy wireless antenna post.

Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc PZ865 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight seen in July 2005 in the markings of the Czechoslovak night fighter ace Karel Kuttelwascher. Note that where the (red) propeller spinner meets the nose there is a flared ring of metal to defect any leaking oil from the propeller hub away from the windscreen of the aircraft. Notice the size and shape of the radio antenna mast behind the cockpiy, which is slightly longer and pointed in comparison to the Dorchester Hurricane. Photo by Kogo GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

This little exercise in delving around reference books and pictures on the Web always amuses me.  I am quite aware I could be barking up the wrong tree completely.   I think what I must do is email someone at the Dorset Museum and ask them nicely if they can have a look at the original print and see if any more of the serial number is visible. Especially whatever lies aft of the Sky band on the tail.  

Merlin Anniversary

Packard built V-1650 “Merlin” Engine at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

It always happens – you read a couple of sentences and three hours later you knew a lot more than you ever wanted to. In today’s example it was the following:

“The first two Packard-built Merlins to be completed were demonstrated on test stands at a special ceremony at the Packard plant in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1941”

https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196239/packard-v-1650-merlin/

Oooh. August 2, 1941? Eighty years ago today. A tad before Pearl Harbor. A couple of weeks before FDR and Winston Churchill met in Newfoundland and on board HMS Prince of Wales and declared the Atlantic Charter. A month before the USS Greer incident and the fireside chat which I refer to in my history class as the “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic” broadcast. Of course the Lend Lease Act was introduced in March 1941

Naturally the whole story is more complex. Because of its significance the UK wanted to have Merlins produced outside the UK. Henry Ford had rescinded his offer to produce the Merlin and so Rolls-Royce and the Packard Motor Car Company came to an agreement in September 1940 to manufacture the Merlin under license. The contract was worth $130 million dollars in 1940, which according to Wikipedia is worth about 2.4 (American) billion dollars today. The NMUSAF article says that over 55,000 Packard Merlins were built.

Naturally I wondered what proportion of total Merlin production that might represent. Back to Wikipedia for a convenient answer. 149,659 total including Packard versions.

One hundred and fifty thousand engines is a pretty mind boggling total. In addition to the Packard plant in Detroit, engines were built by Rolls-Royce at their Derby and Crewe factories in England, at a massive specially built factory in Glasgow, and ironically by Ford of Britain at another specially built factory in Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester.

I won’t go on too much about the specifics of the Merlin engine since the Wikipedia article makes a pretty thorough job. I will add a personal note that it was one of those sounds that would guarantee my father’s rapt attention, no mater what else he was doing when he heard one. I remember an episode of the original BBC TV series Survivors in which one of the characters said: “How can anyone get excited about an engine?” This is a thought which tickles me still, since one of the stranger pleasures is playing any YouTube clip of a Merlin in an unoccupied classroom at the History ‘end’ of my building and seeing who comes to investigate, much as my late father would have done.

But today, August 2, 2021, we raise our metaphorical glasses in the direction of Detroit and salute the Packard Merlin. Long may it roar.

Another 90th Anniversary – Knute Rockne and the Crash of NC999E, March 31st 1931

In 2015, and again in 2020, I wrote about an air crash which influenced the investigation of civilian air crashes in the United Kingdom. July 21, 2020 was the 90th anniversary of the Meopham Air Crash / Meopham Air Disaster.

March 31st 2021 sees the 90th anniversary of another famous air crash. The death of a notable personality in this crash, along with seven other souls, may have caused a shift in the culture of air crash investigation and reporting in the United States in much the same way that the Meopham Air Disaster did in the UK. The crash had a subtle but distinct influence on aircraft design and development, and represented a watershed in civil aviation. The story was so fascinating that I started to write a blog article, and then shelved it. As today is the 90th Anniversary of this crash, I can’t let the event pass without a mention.

The individual who died on March 31, 1931 was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-American Coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. The aircraft involved was a Fokker F.10A belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air, and the crash location was close to the township of Bazaar, in Chase County, Kansas, not a huge distance from where I live.

Knute Rockne (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway in March 1888. He emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was five years old. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in Pharmacy, but soon passed on a career in science when he was asked to help coach the football team. After a short career in professional football, he returned to coach Notre Dame in 1918, and the rest is history. Rockne is held up as one of the greatest coaches in college football history and brought the “Fighting Irish” to preeminence.

Rockne was a hero of the early depression, embodying the All American spirit, despite (or because of) his Norwegian roots. Always an astute publicist and an early advocate of commercial air travel, he was on his way to Los Angeles to take part on the production of a movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.

He was flying on a Fokker F.10A, registration NC999E belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which was making the line’s Flight 5 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles with intermediate stops at Wichita, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Winslow.

Fokker F.10A NC999E which crashed on March 31st 1931, seen here at Glendale, California in the earlier livery of Western Air Express, March 1930. (Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library)

NC999E departed Kansas City at approximately 0915 on the first leg to Wichita. Weather conditions were poor with snow falls, clouds, mist, drizzle and icing. At 1022, the copilot reported they were south of Emporia, Kansas and were turning back to Kansas City. However on hearing that Wichita’s weather was clearer they may have attempted to turn round again in order to complete their first leg. Their position near Bazaar, slightly west their usual course, indicates the crew were following the aviator’s friend the “iron compass” – in this case the tracks of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

It’s entirely possible that the crew needed to open the throttles and gain altitude to execute another 180 degree turn. A couple of witnesses saw NC999E emerge from cloud diving almost vertically, its engines backfiring – perhaps as the pilots throttled back and fought to lessen the impact they knew was inevitable.

Crash site of NC999E in Chase County, Kansas. The tail is the only identifiable part of the wreckage – the port wing was found half a mile away (https://www.baaa-acro.com)

Five of the eight occupants were thrown clear of the wreckage. The aircraft’s port wing was found half a mile away. Small pieces of ice were to be found around the wreck, indicating that key instruments may have iced. Subsequent investigations found clear signs of wood adhesive failure in the main spars and plywood covering following prolonged exposure to moisture. An article in the British journal Aeroplane theorized that if the pilots became disoriented in cloud, and with key instruments inoperable through icing, it is highly possible the aircraft entered a spiral dive, during which the weakened wing separated.

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Original Caption – This is a view of the wreckage of the Transcontinental Western Air Transport Liner in which Knute Rockne and seven others died, when it crashed near Bazaar, Kansas. Sections of the plane and some of the victims were scattered over an area of over a hundred yards. The plane plowed deeply into the soft soil by the force of the crash. (Getty Images)

President Herbert Hoover called the crash a ‘national disaster’. The King of Norway sent a delegation to the funeral and knighted Rockne posthumously. United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent condolences, as did several state legislatures.

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Another view of the wreckage of NC999E (Getty Images)

The public outcry and the demand for answers which followed the crash had a profound effect. The Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce followed its accustomed policy and made no public announcement about the crash. This would not satisfy the press, and so a number of implausible theories about pilot error, stress and propeller fracture were advanced, none of which stood up to investigation. Wood-framed aircraft were suspect. Every Fokker Trimotor in U.S. airline service was temporarily grounded. The expense of new more rigorous safety checks, and the bad publicity associated with Rockne’s death caused the reputations of TWA and Fokker to sink considerably. Fokker’s would never recover.

For TWA, the only way out of the morass, occurring at the outset of the worst depression in American history, was to look for new aircraft. The Ford Trimotor was an early beneficiary but it looked too much like the “Plane that killed Knute Rockne” even if its metal construction was entirely different. Boeing produced the semi-legendary Model 247 which was widely regarded as the forerunner of modern commercial aircraft, featuring de-icing, a metal construction, and supercharged engines. TWA wanted Model 247s, but Boeing were fully committed to manufacturing 60 for its United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UAT) subsidiary company United Airlines – TWA’s arch rival. Boeing couldn’t supply TWA for some time, if at all.

In the summer of 1932, a TWA Vice-President contacted Donald Douglas and four other manufacturers to bid for construction of an all-metal three-engined, 12-seat aircraft capable of landing and taking off with one engine out from any of its operating airports. TWA asked who would be interested in a manufacturing job and how long would it be before a prototype could be evaluated.

Donald Douglas was at first hesitant, but after hammering out a few details with TWA such as persuading them to drop their trimotor specification, Douglas’ corporate response was the Douglas Commercial 1 (aka DC-1), which flew a year after the initial letter of interest from TWA.

Douglas DC-1 on its handover to TWA in December 1933 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

TWA accepted the aircraft and subsequently ordered 20 examples of the production model, the DC-2.

You can see where this is going. From the DC-2, Douglas produced the improved DC-3, and a legend was born. The Boeing 247 was outperformed by the DC-2 and relegated to a sideline in commercial aviation history, albeit a sideline that arguably gave birth (via the four-engined, pressurized Model 307) to the B-17.

Air crash investigation was brought into the public arena. The aviation industry in the United States took a leap forward with the development of the DC-2/3 series and made the USA the predominant force in airliner construction for four decades. Even Boeing would re-enter the lists with considerable effect.

Would things have been different had Knute Rockne landed safely in Los Angeles in 1931? I think it’s true to say, as the Aeroplane article suggests, that without the market created by the Rockne crash, airline development might have progressed at a slightly different pace. The Junkers 52 and the venerable Ford Trimotor demonstrated the safe developmental route. Without the timely impetus to develop the DC series, the DC-2 and later DC-3 / C-47, the speculation starts to go off the scale. Had the DC-3 emerged a couple of years later, what would the legions of paratroopers have jumped from in the Second World War?

And we haven’t even begun to think about college football. 🙂

Among other sources, see the following:

Maybe 16 – Maybe More, Maybe Less

I have developed an interest in other nations’ efforts in space recently, and I was pleased to read that China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, with its lander and rover payload (see previous blog entries) started its next mission phase by entering Mars orbit on February 10, 2021 – only two days ago as I write.

I’m glad I’m not a professional space pundit, as I had failed to notice (or blog) that another Mars mission was underway. The Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter belonging to the Emirates Mars Mission from the UAE entered Mars orbit on February 9th – the day before Tianwen-1. Al-Amal was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center (Japan) on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries rocket in July 2020, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice. The Emirates Mars Mission will study the Martian climate its extreme climate changes. It will also try to find out why Mars leaks hydrogen and oxygen into space. (I didn’t know that it was, so there’s something new).

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Public Domain – Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Not to be forgotten (as if we want to), is the United States’ Mars 2020 mission, which also took advantage of the launch window which opened in July 2020. Mars 2020 will land the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter/drone on the Martian surface. The idea of a small drone helicopter being flown over the surface of Mars is mind-boggling to say the least. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet, so we may see a little history made some time in the Spring.

An artist’s impression of Ingenuity standing on the surface of Mars as the Perseverance rover rolls away. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built and will manage operations of Perseverance and Ingenuity for the agency. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Ingenuity, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter. For more information about the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/perseverance. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Public Domain)

At the moment there are perhaps 16 artificial satellites in orbit around Mars. Mars 2020 will make it 17 assuming everything goes well. Eight orbiters are no longer functional and a few may see their orbits decay resulting in their destruction between 2022 and 2046. One, the unfortunate NASA Mars Climate Orbiter of 1999, never made it to the planet’s surface, either burning up in Mars’ atmosphere, or skipping off into its own orbit around the Sun following a programming error in its software.

Of the functional probes, one, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, (launched, as you may guess in 2001) has the distinction of being the longest active orbiting satellite anywhere except Earth. The status of the Soviet probes Mars 2, 3, 5 and Phobos 2, is unknown. Mars 2 and 3 were launched in the Summer of 1971 at the same time as NASA’s Mariner 9, 4 years before the two NASA Viking missions.

India’s ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) has had a satellite in orbit around Mars since 2014. The Mars Orbiter Mission is described as a technology demonstrator, and was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh in November 2013. It is a remarkable feat. India undertook the first Asian mission to Mars, and furthermore became the first nation in the world to achieve success on its maiden attempt. This feat has only recently been matched by Al-Amal from the UAE.

So the skies above Mars may be looking a little more busy in the weeks and months ahead. I look forward to seeing images of the Ingenuity taking its first hops from the surface of another planet some time in the Spring of 2021.

Another little awareness raising touch which I couldn’t resist is connected with the NASA Mars 2020 Mission. The “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign resulted in 10.9 Million people registering their names with NASA. Those names are recorded on the three silicon chips you can see on the top left of the placard. NASA also announced that the probe would be named by votes received in a student naming contest. Perseverance was announced to be the winning name in March 2020.

Considering all the bad things that came to us in March 2020, it’s heartwarming to see that something nice did happen too.

A placard commemorating NASA’s “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign was installed on the Perseverance Mars rover. Three silicon chips (upper left corner) were stenciled with 10,932,295 names and the essays from 155 finalists in NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest. (NASA – Public Domain)

Miracle on the Hudson

It seems like it was only yesterday, but it was on January 15th, 2009 that US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320-214 with the US civil registration N106US, ditched in the Hudson River, having lost power to both engines following a collision with a flock of Canada Geese.

US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, New York, USA on 15 January 2009 Photo by Greg L, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything unusual to say about the events because like everyone else I am simply in awe of the skill of the pilots – Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles – not to mention the three flight attendants on the flight who conducted a successful evacuation.

‘Cactus’ 1549 was on a scheduled flight from New York – LaGuardia (LGA) to Charlotte Douglas (CLT), North Carolina with 150 passengers. We’ve seen a variety of video clips and still images, and some people (not me, for whatever reason) will have seen the 2016 movie Sully directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks.

Apparently after being salvaged, N106US was offered for sale for two years without any takers, until in 2011 it was obtained by the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, NC where it remains on display sans engines. It’s fitting that it should be displayed at the intended (initial) destination for that flight.

N106US on display at Carolinas Aviation Museum Photo by RadioFan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons