…. a life on the ocean wave

First Published September 2012

The Armchair Pilot suggests …. a life on the ocean wave

Somewhere in my teenage years, the BBC ran a documentary series about HMS Ark Royal. Not the Invincible-class Ark Royal of more recent vintage that was decommissioned last year, and looked like the tiny little brother of the nuclear powered US carriers it occasionally moored alongside.

No, I’m talking about the earlier Audacious-class Ark Royal, all 54,000 tons of her when fully loaded. What kept me entranced were the FG1 Phantoms that took off & landed from the 240m deck. Actually the Gannets & Buccaneers also did all of that, but somehow they didn’t look anywhere near as mean & menacing as the Phantom.

I have a lot of respect for Navy pilots. Landing on Runway 33 at Baxby makes me apprehensive, Navy pilots do it much faster on something far shorter, and that is moving up & down before popping to a bar and singing (in tune!) to Kelly McGillis. I had the pleasure of meeting an ex-US Navy Phantom pilot, now flying Boeing 767s, at the airport in Atlanta as we walked down the concourse, but he assured me he hadn’t sung to anyone.

Not long ago I was in a meeting with some visitors to the company where I work, and one recommended On the Deck or in the Drink: Flying with the Royal Navy 1952-1964 written by “my Uncle Brian” aka Brian Allen, so it was off to Amazon to check it out & spend my birthday money.

Welcome to Navy flying in the 50’s & 60’s

Starting with the author having applied to both the RAF & the Navy, Brian Allen narrowly avoided missing out on both through a clerical error between the two services, then is mistaken for a bus conductor the first time he ventures out in his new Navy cadet uniform. It gets worse as in cadet training the author manages to run a minesweeper aground, and later gets caught unawares by the passing Royal Yacht. With all of that, they still let him move on to aviation….

We follow his initial training in a Percival Prentice and then a Harvard before the author is posted to a fighter squadron flying Vampires. In keeping with the standards set in his cadet days, it turns out that the bullets Brian Allen fires in combat training hit everything except the target, and reading the writing on the wall he decides to request a transfer to anti-submarine duties where he converts onto the new Fairey Gannets, and the older Fireflys which were still the main aircraft in service, learning to drop sonar & bombs.

Eventually he proves himself enough & we arrive at an interesting form of circuit bashing when the author starts deck landings on HMS Bulwark as it steams up & down the English Channel. Catching the wire at 85kt, the aircraft is stopped, pushed back to the start of the deck, and off again using its own power (catapult assisted take-offs come later).

Up to this point the book has been interesting and amusing but pretty mundane in terms of the military flying, but now things take a turn towards the interesting life. Brain Allen’s squadron is sent on a tour aboard HMS Albion to Hong Kong & back before disbanding (I asked an ex-RN colleague at work, and short lived squadrons in the RNAS was quite normal then apparently).

Then, out of the blue, author gets posted to HMS Warrior as it sails out to the Pacific Ocean supporting the nuclear weapons tests. However this deployment finds the author flying old US Navy Grumman Avengers on ferry duties including carrying radioactive samples from the nuclear tests over to the scientific centres. Getting to the Pacific involved a run through the Panama Canal, which in those days couldn’t accommodate the newer “through deck” carriers, which is why the older “straight deck” Warrior was sent, although the Warrior didn’t have the modern landing aids, so the author describes doing “paddle landings” in a large US aircraft onto a tiny deck.

Ferrying an officer one day, he loses airspeed and pancakes onto the deck from 50 feet damaging one of the two available Avengers aircraft available irreparably. But this is no problem for the Royal Navy, the carrier simply pops over to Pearl Harbour to buy another used example which is built up in the under deck hanger while heading to the test zone. Given the author’s background so far, it comes as little surprise when he then has to ditch another Avenger into the see after a failure on take-off.

Nuclear test duties over, Brian Allen moves to helicopters starting his conversion on the Hillier HT1, never an easy thing to fly, before moving to the Westland Whirlwind just coming into service, and Sikorsky Dragonfly which is being replaced by the Whirlwind. The Whirlwind, being a more modern design has some flying aids, but flying both the Hillier & the Dragonfly as early examples of helicopters are described by the author as like “juggling six oranges at once”. It’s the Dragonfly that the author finds himself on in exercises before his squadron is reequipped and sent off to HMS Albion once again.

As the author’s career in the Royal Navy moves ahead, he is assigned to a Trials & Development squadron testing & developing operational procedures for new helicopter types coming into service. Sadly while testing a prototype of the Westland Scout the author has another engine failure, and as a result of the injuries sustained in the crash the author is taken off flying duties. Despite this, the final chapters of the book are surprisingly uplifting so I’ll leave it for you to read, but suffice to say that author finds a way to stay attached to military aviation.

Some of the war zone books that have a narrative that takes you right there. Our esteemed editor, PG, commented in last month’s review of “Think like a Bird”, about sweating along with the author. For me it’s the same when reading about landing helicopters in a “hot” zone with the hail of bullets in “Sweating the Metal” by Alex Duncan, or “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason.

This book is more a fascinating read about how the military operated at that time, but the flying descriptions are there as well. If you want to know what flying a notoriously unsteady Dargonfly helicopter is like when there is a wet 16 stone German hanging off the winch, then this the place. On the Deck or in the Drink also takes you along with it as well, but being peacetime you’re there in the mess, pink gin in hand, laughing away at the latest mishap.

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