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  • Shropshire Airfields Through Time by Alec Brew

    Wander nowadays down many Shropshire country lanes near small villages like Atcham, Condover, Montford Bridge or Rednal, and you will come across silent, sightless sentinels, looking out across empty fields of corn or cows, derelict control towers watching over long forgotten airfields. High above, only soaring skylarks can be heard, where once aircraft engines filled the heavens with noise, as young men from across the World learned the necessary skills to fight the aerial battles of the Second World War.

    The Spitfires moved south in August and were replaced by the Lockheed Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group, who flew their aircraft from California. An RAF officer greets one of the pilots. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When war clouds loomed in the late Thirties, the adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire were seen as the ideal place to site the training airfields which would be needed for an expanding air force, thought to be far enough away from Europe to be out of range of the Luftwaffe. Shropshire alone had nearly twenty airfields across its Northern plain, two of them, at Shawbury and Tern Hill, reviving First World War airfields, which had served the same function. Suddenly the skies over Shropshire were filled with aircraft, the circuits at many airfields almost touching.

    There was basic training from RAF Tern Hill, advanced training from RAF Shawbury, Bomber Operational Training Units (OTUs) at Tilstock, Sleap and Peplow, a fighter OTU at Rednal and Montford Bridge, the Fleet Air Arm used an airfield at Hinstock which they called HMS Godwit, about as far from the sea as a godwit could fly. Even the Americans came, operating a Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Atcham, and when their P.47 Thunderbolts chanced upon the Spitfires from Rednal, could they resist a mock dogfight?

    Other combats were far from mock. Night fighters operated from High Ercall and Tern Hill, stalking the Germans who came to bomb the North-West or the Black Country. Bomber OTUs joined raids on Europe, new crews testing their skills.

    Even in training accidents were many, young men let loose on powerful machines, always a recipe for disaster, and especially with the Shropshire and Welsh hills close at hand. The Americans at Atcham had a favourite sport, chock to chock races in their powerful Thunderbolts, all around the Wrekin, which loomed large just to the south. Such was its peril that they placed a warning beacon on the top, with the on/off switch in Atcham control tower, turning it off when Germans were about. After the War, when Atcham closed, the switch was moved to High Ercall, and now resides in the tower at RAF Shawbury.

    This photograph has always been attributed to Tern Hill, but shows 1456 Flight Turbinlite aircraft. In the foreground is a Handley Page Harrow transport ‘Boadicea’, sometimes called a ‘Sparrow’ without the front turret. Behind is an Airspeed Oxford of No. 286 Army Co-operation Squadron, a Havoc and two black Hurricanes of 1456 Flight. The Pontoon and Dock Company, currently make Marina equipment in this Type K hangar on No. 2 Sub Site. High Ercall has a total of three Type K hangars. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When the invasion of Europe loomed, assault gliders were assembled at RAF Cosford, and glider pilots trained at Tilstock, Peplow and Sleap, and then they went away to carry the fight to Normandy fields.

    At the end of the War the cut back was swift, airfields soon closed, those at High Ercall and Tern Hill lasting longer than most. RAF Shawbury remains today training the helicopter pilots for all three services, including, in its time, two young princes. Its runway remains a safe haven for aircraft in difficulty, in an area of the country where few remain. RAF Cosford remains the sole training base for ground based trades, and the home of the RAF’s only surviving annual Air Show. Tern Hill was turned over to the Army but the helicopters from Shawbury visit often. Sleap became Shropshire’s main general aviation airfield, and up on the Long Mynd, the one airfield closed during the War, has thrived since, as the home of the Midland Gliding Club. One other airfield is a surprising survivor, little RAF Chetwynd, a neat grass field lost down the lanes north of Newport, continues to serve as an extra landing field as it has for over 75 years, currently for the helicopters from Shawbury.

    Hopefully my book makes sense of what once was there, and what little still remains, those silent sentinels, the old control towers, those small industrial estates in surprisingly rural places, built on the old technical sites like Condover, Hinstock, Atcham or Rednal, those derelict Romney or Maycrete huts in farmyards or woods. Unsung memorials to a generation of young men now disappearing as they are reclaimed by Nature and the march of time.

    Alec Brew's book Shropshire Airfields Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Die-cast Aircraft by Paul Brent Adams

    German aircraft of the First World War often carried very elaborate personal markings, such as those on this Model Power Fokker D.VII fighter. The artwork is different on each side of the fuselage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    My interest in aviation began in the early 1970s with the 'Biggles' books by Captain W.E. Johns, himself a pilot in the First World War. I soon began building kits of the various aircraft mentioned in the stories. Then came my first efforts at writing, mostly about model aircraft. Once I began collecting diecasts in the 1990s, a few diecast aeroplanes also joined my miniature air fleet.

    People who collect real aircraft have a problem (other than the cost of real aeroplanes) which model enthusiasts do not have to worry about: even a small fighter plane is not going to fit into a normal-sized house. Model aircraft, being much smaller, are far more practical.

    This RAF Hawker Tempest of the Second World War is a partwork model. The code letters on the fuselage side identify the squadron flying the aircraft. The model has a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Model aircraft generally come in two forms: build-it-yourself kits; or complete models, in a variety of materials, including die-cast metal. Die-casts have been made for over a hundred years. Initially, they were mainly all-metal, but since the 1950s plastic has often been used for the smaller details. Plastic is in no way an inferior material to metal: it has allowed models to be given clear canopies and windows, previously these had often been depicted with silver paint.

    Most of the companies making die-cast models have concentrated on road vehicles, but several have also had extensive model aircraft ranges. Early models were all made as toys for children, but in recent years more highly detailed, and therefore expensive, models aimed at adult collectors have been produced by several specialist firms. There have also been several ranges of partwork models, which offer high quality models at very reasonable prices, along with a magazine giving background information on the real aircraft. Models aimed at collectors tend to be made to a limited number of well established scales; while toys are often made to fit inside a standard-sized box, so the scales can vary considerably.

    Corgi Showcase model of a Hawk jet trainer belonging to the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team. The canopy is black, and there is no interior detail. All Showcase models come with a display stand, but no undercarriage. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    There are two ways to look at these models. Aviation enthusiasts are likely to collect examples that show the history and development of the aircraft the models are based on. Others might be more interested in the design of the toys themselves, and the ingenuity of the toy makers. Each company tended to have its own style of model making, which developed over the years.

    Among the British companies, Dinky issued their first aircraft models in 1934, with their last new releases appearing in 1975. In the years just after the Second World War, there were a number of small companies producing die-casts, including aircraft, but most would eventually disappear, unable to compete with the quality of Dinky. Corgi produced a model of the supersonic Concorde in 1969, and a few helicopters in the 1970s, but did not get serious about aircraft models until 1998 when the Aviation Archive series was launched. Matchbox began producing the Skybusters line in 1973, and these are still being produced today. More recently Oxford Diecast have made a growing range of aircraft models. Most European countries have had at least one or two makers of die-casts, and many of these have also produced model aircraft; as have various American firms. There are now a number of companies in the Far East making aircraft. This means that there is a vast range of both new and vintage models to be collected.

    The Douglas DC-3 airliner of the 1930s, from the Corgi Showcase range. All the windows are printed. Larger versions of the DC-3 and its military counterparts are included in the Aviation Archive series. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the easiest ranges to find today are the Matchbox Skybusters, and the Corgi Showcase line. Neither series is expensive, and is a good starting point for a collection. As the models are fairly small, they do not take up a lot of space. These two lines also show the difference between toys, made to be played with; and models, which are intended more for display. Current releases can be found in toy and model shops, while older models can be picked up at collectors' fairs. Unlike the internet, fairs give you a chance to actually examine the models before buying.

    Dating from the 1970s, the Skybusters range comprised a mix of military and civil aircraft, from the Second World War onwards. There were also a few fantasy designs, and these now dominate the range, but a number of more realistic models are still available. The Skybusters are intended as toys, and scales vary. All have a fixed undercarriage, usually with rather over-sized wheels. Propeller driven aircraft and helicopters have revolving propellers or rotors, but there are usually no other working features. The models can be a little chunky, as they need to be sturdy, but every aircraft is recognizable. The colour schemes range from reasonably accurate, to completely fictitious.

    The Matchbox Skybusters series includes both civil and military aircraft. The twin-engined Cessna 402 is on a 1970s style card, while the General Dynamics F-16A fighter is on a 1980s card. (Author's collection, Die-Cast Aircraft, Amberley Publishing)

    The Corgi Showcase series includes both vehicles and aircraft, made to a variety of scales. All the aircraft have a display stand, but no undercarriage (unless the real aircraft had a fixed undercarriage). There are no working features, other than the usual revolving propellers and rotors. Canopies and windows are often painted blue, black, or silver, just like in the old days before clear plastic. Colours and markings are highly accurate, and detailed. These are much finer models than the Matchbox Skybusters, but are more delicate. They are display models rather than toys to be played with. Showcase models are smaller than their Aviation Archive counterparts - some aircraft types are available in both ranges so collectors have a choice.

    Over the years both Skybusters and Showcase models have been issued in boxes, usually with a clear plastic window so you can see the contents; or in clear plastic blisters glued to a backing card. Some of the models have also been released in sets.

    Paul Brent Adams' new book Die-cast Aircraft is available for purchase now.

  • Jet Flying Boats by David Oliver

    The magic of water-borne flight

    Technicians checking the complex Bristol Proteus turboprop engines in preparation for the first flight of the Princess give scale to its immense size. (Richard Riding Collection, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was fifty years ago that I landed on the calm blue waters of Catalina Island’s Avalon Bay, lying 50 miles off the coast of southern California, in a 30-year-old Grumman amphibian, the Goose. As the veteran flying boat settle in a flurry of green water that covered the windows for a few seconds, it seemed that I had experienced the last of a dying breed of aviation. I had flown from London to Los Angeles a few days earlier on one of Pan Am’s first ‘Jumbo Jets’ and the elderly six-seater Goose, which still flew hourly shuttles for tourists between Long Beach Harbor and Catalina, seemed to have little or no relevance to international air travel in the modern world.

    However, this flight would inspire a life-long interest in water-borne aircraft during which I have been fortunate enough to experience many aerial voyages that stay in the memory. These include flying a Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol from Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia in another Grumman Goose, and scheduled flights from Miami’s Watson Island terminal to the Bahamas on Grumman Mallards and Turbo Mallard amphibians belonging to Chalks International, then the world’s oldest airline.

    An R3Y-1, the long-range troop transport variant of the Convair Tradewind, taxies into San Diego Bay during the early trials. (Convair, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a long way from a flooded gravel pit in Rye, Sussex, to the Nass and Kinsault Rivers in northern British Columbia, and Lake Coeur d’Alene, Spokane in Washington State, but they were all places where I flew from in floatplanes. From the Rye gravel pit I flew in the only UK-registered Tiger Moth on floats and a Super Cub floatplane, piloted by a former Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat, the ‘Jumbo Jet’ of the 1940s, Roger Sherron, while it was Cessna C180s in Canada and a DH Beaver in the United States.

    Having obtained a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), I tried my hand at learning to pilot a flying boat in the 1980s. The American Lake LA-200 Buccaneer is a small single-engine amphibious flying boat which I flew from Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent to the River Medway where I attempted to master the challenging skill of landing and taking-off an aircraft from water. My instructor was one of the most experienced post-war flying boat pilots, Keith Sissons.

    In 2016, Be-12PS Yellow 20 was returned to Russian Navy service following a comprehensive rebuild at Beriev's Taganrog facility on the Sea of Azov. (Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    My all too short time spent at the controls of the Buccaneer gave me a lasting respect for the likes of Keith Sissons and Roger Sherron who had to combine the dexterity of sailing a ship and flying an aeroplane.

    Although the flying boat fell out of fashion after the Second World War as a commercial transport aircraft, after being the symbol of luxurious and sophisticated international travel in the 1930s, new and more practical roles would virtually save the large amphibious flying boat from extinction, one of which was aerial fire-fighting. I was lucky enough to make several flights in a French Canadair CL-215 which included scooping and dropping six-ton water bombs. The exhilaration of skimming across a lake in what is then essentially a 4,000hp speedboat at 82 miles per hour, as is scooped 1,200 gallons of water, can be imagined. When the water was dropped, the Canadair bucked in the air relieved of its load.

    With twenty-two in service, Italy's Protezione Civile operates the largest fleet of CL-415 water bombers outside of Canada. (Martin Visser, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    The only company that has continued to design and built flying boats since 1945 is Russia’s Beriev. I was one of the first Western journalists to visit the previous closed Beriev factory at Taganrog on the Sea of Azov after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and get to fly in a Be-12 amphibian. Beriev had built more than 200 turboprop-powered anti-submarine warfare Be-12s for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and developed its advanced jet-powered replacement, the A-40 Albatross, under wraps.

    Built like a tank with ladders between the two decks, the Be-12 had numerous astrodomes, portholes and an extensively glazed nose which provided an excellent camera platform from which to photograph the A-40 that was flying in formation.

    A Beriev Be-200 gives a patriotic demonstration of the amphibian's sequential drop capability using different coloured liquids. (Beriev, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    During the same visit I saw the prototype of the Be-200, the world’s only jet-powered fire-fighting amphibian, and have kept in touch with Beriev and followed growing success in a niche market to this day.

    When Amberley asked me to write a book on Jet-Powered Flying Boats, I rediscovered the many failures due mainly to the fact that they were too far advanced for the technologies, especially engine development, of the time, and the cost of their development which was considerably higher than those of contemporary landplanes.

    However, it is reassuring to know that Russia and Japan is still producing technically advanced amphibious flying boasts albeit in small number, and that they are soon to be joined by Germany and China which are developing state-of-the-art water-borne aircraft for the future.

    David Oliver's new book Jet Flying Boats is available for purchase now.

  • RAF Transport Command by Keith Wilson

    Ferio Ferendo – ‘I strike by carrying’

    RAF Transport Command 1 Aircraft assembled at RAF Tarrant Rushton on the afternoon of 6 June 1944 while being prepared for the reinforcement of the British airborne assault during Operation Mallard. On the runway are General Aircraft Hamilcar heavy-lift gliders, preceded by two Airspeed Horsa troop-carrying gliders. Parked on each side of them are Handley Page Halifax glider tugs of 298 and 644 Squadrons. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch CL-26 - RAF Transport Command, Amberley Publishing)

    From a young age I was fascinated by aviation! Initially it was general aviation that caught my eye but eventually, after visiting a number of Royal Air Force and United States Air Force (USAF) open days, I was hooked on military aviation. Strangely, it wasn’t always the fast and loud fighter aircraft that caught my eye (and ear!) as I had an instant fascination for the older, lumbering but occasionally graceful, transport aircraft.

    Operating in service with the USAF were massive fleets of C-130s and KC-135s; some based in the UK, mainly at RAF Mildenhall. However, these were often supplemented by the piston-powered ‘Stars’ – the C-97 and KC-97 Stratocruisers; the C-124 Globemasters; the occasional C-54 and C-118; and by far my personal favourites – the C-121 Constellation and Super Constellation. What’s not to love about a Super Connie’!

    Around the same time and operating within the RAF were the Beverley, Hastings, Britannia, Belfast, Argosy and Comet; all along with the majestically graceful, fast and oh-so-noisy Vickers/BAC VC-10. Most of these aircraft were employed within RAF Transport Command and effectively they provided the backbone to a service that was often underfunded and overstretched; while occasionally – during periods of conflict – it was overstretched to its very limits!

    RAF Transport Command 2 No. 267 Squadron made remarkable contributions to the air war in both the Mediterranean and the Burma campaign. Here, Douglas Dakota III aircraft of No. 267 Squadron were photographed while unloading supplies for the Allied forces at Araxos, Greece, in October 1944. The activity drew considerable attention from the local population. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch CM-5915 - RAF Transport Command, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast forward far too many years than I care to admit and I still find myself with an unhealthy fascination for old, lumbering, transport aircraft. So, when Kevin Paul at Amberley Publishing suggested I should research and write a book on RAF Transport Command, I could not resist the challenge!

    I find the research aspect of the book the most fascinating – especially the picture research. The vast majority of images for this book come from the archives at the Air Historical Branch at RAF Northolt where I am indebted to Lee Barton, the Branch’s Photographic Archivist. His knowledge of exactly which images are available and more importantly, just how to find them, is invaluable; as is his enthusiasm and attention to detail. Lee was also able to assist with additional research which enabled some ‘new’ information to be unearthed and included in this volume.

    RAF Transport Command was called into existence by Parliamentary proclamation on 25 March 1943. At the time, all of its component parts had already been on active service for three-and-a-half years. It was not a new role created for the RAF, as its main activities of transport and ferrying aircraft had already grown significantly under the demands of World War II; especially the reinforcement routes that crossed the Atlantic and Africa. UK-based transport squadrons had played a vital and active supporting role in the battles of France and Britain; had carried supplies to the beleaguered Malta; while the Middle East Air Force transport wing had operated in close co-operation with the Eighth Army – probably, the first use of integrated air power. Then there were the carriage of the airborne forces for both the Italian and European campaigns of 1943-45.

    RAF Transport Command 3 RAF Stirling aircraft were used to relieve some of the suffering of the war. As well as returning Czechoslovaks to their own country, the Stirling aircraft also returned to Britain with hundreds of Czechoslovak children; orphans who had been in concentration camps during the German occupation and who were being brought to Britain for rehabilitation. In this image, some of the children walk towards a line of 196 Squadron Stirling IV aircraft, including LK242/ZO-A, which had arrived in Prague earlier in the day to take them to the reception centre at Crosby-on-Eden, near Carlisle, on 13 August 1945. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch CH-15899 - RAF Transport Command, Amberley Publishing)

    Transport Command went into battle on five occasions during the Second World War. Firstly, they supported the invasion of Sicily in 1943 (Operation Husky), then there was the aborted Dodecanese Islands operation later that year (Operation Accolade), they spearheaded the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 (Operation Overlord), transported the airborne forces in the ill-fated attempt to capture the bridges at Arnhem in September 1944 (Operation Market), and carrying troops across the Rhine in March 1945 for the final push into Nazi Germany (Operation Varsity).

    Some readers may not be aware that a lesser-known but nevertheless essential wartime role of Transport Command was the moving of mail, particularly to the front line. Specially-modified Hawker Hurricane IIC of 1697 (Air Despatch Delivery Service) Flight based at RAF Northolt, were equipped with underwing tanks that carried the mail bags to the troops, providing them with a welcoming boost in morale.

    Later, when the war in Europe had been won, Transport Command were involved in a massive trooping operation to reinforce the Far East against the Japanese, before being involved in a significant logistical effort to repatriate British Serviceman after the Japanese surrender on 14 August 1945.

    At the end of the Second World War, Transport Command was spread far and wide across the globe. However, the thorny question arose of exactly what to do with such a large Command once the hostilities had ceased? Thankfully, there was no question of it being disbanded. An Air Staff paper of 28 May 1945 noted: ‘Experience has shown that Air Transport has a lasting place in the RAF which cannot be filled by other forms of transport of by the Merchant Air Fleet’.

    RAF Transport Command 4 After a wave of York aircraft had landed, they were marshalled in front of the hangars, allowing the German labourers to start the unloading process. In the front is York C.1 MW287/KY-N of 242 Squadron with similar York C.1 aircraft MW286 and MW303 parked nearby in this image taken at Gatow on 16 September 1948. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch R-1818 - RAF Transport Command, Amberley Publishing)

    RAF Transport Command – a pictorial history is carefully divided into eight chapters, each representing a key period in the Command’s relatively short but impressive history – despite the various Governments’ Defence Reviews and the consequential swaging cuts they delivered. It includes the Berlin Airlift; activities in Korea, Malaya and the ‘Japan Shuttle’ (1950-54); Entering the jet age (1955-59); Air Mobility (1960-64); and the period of re-equipment with the Andover, Belfast and VC-10 (1965-67).

    As the title suggests, this is predominately a picture-led volume; each image being supported by a detailed and informative caption. In selecting the illustrations for this book I have often been obliged to choose between quality and originality and I have gone to great lengths to include as many ‘new’ images as possible.

    The change from Transport Command to Air Support Command on 11 August 1967 was not just a change of name but of operational concept. The searching review of Defence policy undertaken by the new Labour Government when they came to power in October 1964 had considered the former Imperial commitments and, in the words of the Defence Estimates1967, had aimed ‘to foster developments which will enable local peoples to live at peace without the presence of external forces’ – effectively allowing the withdrawal of British Forces from the Middle and Far East, as well as Aden.

    RAF Transport Command 5 The third Belfast C.1, XR364, photographed during a pre-delivery test flight in March 1965. Some 25 per cent larger than the Lockheed Hercules (which entered RAF service in 1967), the Belfast could carry a greater payload than the American design and was capable of accommodating three Whirlwind or two Wessex helicopters. It was the first military transport with a fully automatic landing system. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch T-5365 - RAF Transport Command, Amberley Publishing)

    This policy was not without its implications. It was considered that ‘Britain should maintain obligations to friends and allies across the world and should retain a capacity for contributing to the maintenance of peace – a Rapid Reaction Force’. The Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1967 also stated: ‘In the next decade, new aircraft will enable us to move forces across the world faster and in larger numbers than was possible even a few years ago’.

    However, the role and title of ‘Transport Command’ did not accurately represent this new role and the title of ‘Air Support Command’ was considered more appropriate to moving the new ‘Air Mobility Force’ wherever it may be required.

    The change of name appears to have had little or no effect at squadron level as roles and tasks remained much the same, it was only the Command name on the side of the aircraft that had changed.

    Transport Command always was a formidable force and particularly demonstrated that in the final years of its distinguished existence; it had become a powerful and effective arm for the nation’s mobile ever-ready defence forces.

    9781445665986

    Keith Wilson's new book RAF Transport Command: A Pictorial History is available for purchase now.

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