Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
True Tales by those who flew the ‘Last All-British Bomber’
Air Cdre Graham Pitchfork
Grub Street, 29 August 2013
ISBN: 9781 909166110
If you don't ache with laughter when reading this book, you're not human. If you don't ache with pangs of jealousy, you're not a pilot.
In one way this was the easiest of books for Graham Pitchfork to write: he simply had to email his most literate chums - or possibly those whom he knew harboured the juiciest stories, and then reap the harvest. It was a rich harvest – largely because of the quality of the aircraft and the men that flew it.
The English Electric Lightning garnered much affection, indeed awe, from those privileged to fly it in a slightly earlier era. As anyone who has heard a Lightning pilot at the bar will attest – they are not called WIWOLs for nothing (‘When I Was On Lightnings’). WIWOTMBs (Those who flew The Mighty Bucc) do not need to plant their feet apart, Bader-style, for they have the smug satisfaction of knowing they have flown one of the most glorious aircraft in the RAF’s inventory over the last century. But do not depend on my pen for unbiased opinion about this machine (see box).
There is little history in this volume of the development of the NA39, which mutated into the Bucc. If you want that, I suggest reading From Spitfire to Eurofighter, the autobiography of the Bucc’s main designer, Roy Boot. Despite Roy’s evident superlative design skills, it is a very tedious read (for all except those who spend their leisure hours polishing their set square or A/W socket sets).
Not so this book. It is crammed with incident and anecdote. Each chapter is authored by a different Bucc pilot or nav, and Pitchfork has done a reasonable job in eliminating almost all duplication.
The Bucc was designed by Boot at Blackburns as a maritime attack aircraft – specifically to neutralise the Soviet cruiser threat, usually with tactical nuclear bombs. Part of the reason for its great and enduring success was that the Bucc – most unusually for the MoD – was the progeny of a MOD specification that was not later mucked around. And the Bucc played directly to the strengths of the Blackburn Aircraft Company - making immensely robust products that could live, yea flourish, on carriers – the harshest of aviation environments. Some thought it was fuelled with avtur – in truth it drank Irn Bru.
The first version, the S1, suffered from being equipped with two Gyron Junior jet engines. Whilst designed originally to push experimental aircraft at Mach 2, in the Bucc their power should have been measured by foals, rather than horses. So go-arounds, particularly asymmetric, and other low speed work, provoked dangerous moments for too many pilots. “It was time to rearrange the levers in a pleasing and eye-catching fashion”. Indeed this book carries many reminders of the death toll, even in peacetime, suffered by RAF aircrews. It is the failures and accidents that stick in the mind, for this is very much a warts and all volume. But even the S1 version showed the strengths of the airframe design. Its ‘coke bottle’ shape was a result of its being one of the earliest and most successful demonstrations of the ‘area rule’, which reduced drag. Such is the Georgian beauty of the Bucc, that one can overlook its warts. Several of the authors repeat the mantra that it was “well ahead of its time”.
Blown flaps and boundary layer control receive due obeisance, but let’s not dwell on the equipment, this book is more about the characters. An early chapter features a picture of one Michael Hornblower, with 11 pilot colleagues on his vintage Bentley, registered NA39. You could not make it up.
The different styles of the authors add variety and texture to the book. Most do a good line in self-deprecation (I told you they were different from the Lightning mob), such as David Mulinder – “”And I kept in the forefront of my mind the perceptive observation of an earlier CFS examiner, viz, ‘this instructor’s ability to impart knowledge is above average. Unfortunately the knowledge imparted isn’t.’”! Mulinder & Pitchfork later do not let an undercarriage malfunction prevent their orbiting a Kresta II (Russian) cruiser (with gear down).
When it comes to the LBB, I have to admit to some bias. Firstly, Blackburn Aircraft was my “family firm”, being founded by Robert Blackburn, a cousin of my grandmother. I was brought up on tales of his developments. Second, I worked with Roy Boot’s son (‘Wellie’) for a while, and a signed copy of Roy’s book, and a signed photo of the first 3 NA39 prototypes cleaving the cold winter air above Holme on Spalding Moor is beside me now.
I was once told by a doctor at an RAF medical that no, I could not fly a Bucc, or rather I could, but if I decided to take the Martin Baker option, it would mean leaving my kneecaps behind. Rather an indelicate way, I felt, of telling me an RAF piloting career did not beckon any further. I did however get to fly the Bucc simulator at the OCU at Honington for all of five minutes. And yes, I crashed.