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Fleet Air Arm Boys

Vol 1: Air Defence Fighter Aircraft since 1945

 

Steve Bond                          Grub Street, 30 September 2020

Unusually for a Boys title, this one spans a very long time period, and it is quite amazing that Steve Bond has obtained so many recollections from the early Fifties.  This makes it slightly strange that he has not interviewed Bertie Vigrass, still going strong at 99, who flew the Swordfish operationally in WW2, and went on to command the Bramcote Wing (which is referred to several times in the text) in the Fifties, (and was heavily involved in the FAA Officers’ Association, so must have been well known to many contributors here).

 

Covering such a long period, it is interesting to note the varying degrees of affection (and hate) with which FAA types are held by their aircrew. The Sea Hawk was evidently well loved, the Supermarine Attacker rather less so (evidence of the dictum – if it looks right, it flies right – the Attacker looks like a dog!). It killed 19 RN pilots between 1951 and 1956. The Sea Venom also sounds an unpleasant steed. And Colin Morris drily notes “Roughly 20% of Sea Vixen crews were killed” – and this in peacetime! Later the type’s history is given as 55 written off in accidents (of which 30 fatal), of 145 aircraft procured. Such attrition would not be tolerated in the 21st Century.

 

There are two intertwined threads running through this book – the appalling accident rate in naval aviation, at least in the first 3 decades covered by this volume, and secondly, the terrors of ‘cats & traps’ – carrier landings, particularly at night. I know from my own pilot friends that this was indeed a sphincter-tightening activity.

 

There are several observations in the course of the book about whether, in retrospect, we would have vanquished our adversaries. What is even more fascinating is that some of these are carried forward to the present – i.e. the QE class carriers. Civilian readers will see plenty of proof of the inventiveness of naval aviators (and their engineers). In the middle of the Southern Ocean, you have what you have.

 

The niggly, and occasionally visceral, relationship between fishheads (naval aviators) and crabs (RAF pilots), is never far below the surface. Two examples: Operation Black Buck – the Vulcan bombing of Port Stanley in the Falklands War - is airily dismissed as a waste of resources;  the fault for the disbandment of Joint Force Harrier, and the premature exit from service of the type in all UK military aviation, is (somewhat controversially in my view) laid at the feet of the light blue hierarchy.

 

The book could have done with stronger editing: some aspects of naval aviation are repeated several times; does the reader need an explanation of what is a pink gin?; some of the ground crew contributions are less than enthralling, whilst the aircrew contributions vary a lot in style (one Andy Copeland has a great wry style). The last few pages cover the introduction into service of the F35 and the QE class carriers, yet are just regurgitated RN PR pieces, and consequently of little added value.

 

But in the meat of the book are many good aircrew stories. Ones that I particularly liked include: Sea Furies diverting into Athens in 1952; a Sea Hawk squadron staging from their carrier in the Eastern Med to Gibraltar, and being comprehensively sabotaged (with wine) by their French hosts at lunch in Algeria; a trapper demanding to be taken on  a trip by a kipping sailor, who turned out, mid-sortie to be a nav/radar operator rather than a pilot; an observer’s premature ejection from a Sea Vixen (and another contribution from the same author, David Allan; the aftermath of attending the opening night of Annabel’s  - and flying the following morning(!); a double engine failure in the Phantom;  a night-time diversion, again in Phantoms, to an unlit Naples airport; and so on.

 

It is interesting to note that the FAA pilots reckoned their version of the Phantom (Rolls Royce Speys and British avionics) was inferior to the US original; also enlightening that the Inertial Nav System in the Harriers had a wobbly after crossing the Equator enroute to the Falklands, as it had not been designed for Southern Hemisphere operations!