PEACETIME PILOTS

Gordon Tripp - Pilot
213 & 72 Squadrons

Accepted for aircrew training in mid-1943, I was sent on Deferred Service for a year, finally getting the call in July ’44. We then achieved sporadic training which ceased with the end of hostilities.

To continue, and qualify for ‘Wings’ we were now required to sign on – five years active and four years reserve. We finally graduated in April 1948, after almost four years. There followed three months on detachment doing compass swings and air tests, and we were then recalled to base at Tern Hill. I was delighted to find that I was one of those selected to fly Spitfires, my dream since I realised what it was all about in 1940.

We reported to 203 Advanced Flying School at Chivenor on 7th September 1948. They had three squadrons of Spitfire 16s, No. 1 did Familiarisation, 2 Armaments and 3 Operational Practice. We spent the first week in ground school learning what the plane was all about and then took over No.1 Squadron, while the others all moved up a slot, and 3 were posted to Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).

On our third day in ground school a pilot on 2 Squadron was killed while dive bombing. He followed the practice bomb into the water. I had seen him in the Mess but didn’t really know him.

Exactly a week later, three days after we commenced flying, ‘Chopper’ had a bad crash. I was airborne and heard him call to say his engine had quit, he couldn’t make the runway and was landing in a field. Many of the hedges in that part are grown on earth banks, and he hit one. The engine went through and the rest of the plane broke off and turned over. The fuel tanks are situated between the engine and the cockpit. He was pulled from the fire by two farm labourers, but died next day.

After about a week I started to feel that I was flying the plane instead of the other way about. One of the exercises was a height climb: ‘As high as you can!’ I wore a sweater under my uniform, scarf, flying boots and the kapok filled ‘Inner Suit’ – the only time I ever used it. The flying helmet, oxygen mask and three pairs of gloves did not prevent me from almost freezing. There was a gap about a quarter of an inch between the hood and the fuselage where the door closed.

I tried to get to 35,000 feet, but about 31,000 I started to get the bends in my left elbow. By 34,500 it was all the way from shoulder to wrist and I was banging my arm up and down to ease the pain. I quit and came back to earth. As I descended it eased and finally went away.

We moved up to No 2 Squadron and started armament training – dive bombing, air to air firing on drogues and air to ground with the two .5 machine guns. The 20 mm cannon were not used. A new group joined No 1 Squadron.


Gordon Tripp & Spitfire: source Gordon Tripp

One morning, doing ground attack, I fired at the target and then decided to try a second burst. It was almost disastrous. I suddenly realised that I was awfully low and pulled out fast and hard. The Spitfire, being the lady she was, juddered in the high speed stall that ensued and gave me another chance. A Tempest, as I learned later, would have flicked straight on its back.

I never ever tried a second burst again.

The courses averaged twelve, but we didn’t stick to our original groups, so there were only three of us from the dozen selected for fighters from Tern Hill. Most of the other nine arrived with the new intake a month behind us.

A couple of weeks later there was an incredibly unlucky fatality in the new bunch. ‘Penny’, who had occupied the bed next to mine for six months at Tern Hill was hit by another aircraft during a tail chase. The other got back with a damaged prop, but Penny’s tail was carved up and he baled out. I saw his parachute later. There was a new groove in the front of the quick release box where some sharp metal had scored it in just the right place to move it through the required quarter turn – and then a deep imprint where it had pushed in at the end of the travel.

He had caught it on something as he left the aircraft and the harness came undone. He fell 2,000 feet – without his chute.

At the end of the month another mid air collision occurred, this time between two pilots from No 3 Squadron. When the news came over the radio that we monitored in the crew room our CO ran out, jumped into the Harvard and took off across the airfield without bothering to go to either runway. He also went downwind – against the landing traffic.

It was to no avail. ‘Mac’ apparently drifted down in his parachute without waving or showing any sign to the aircraft circling him, and when he fell into the sea made no attempt to get into his dinghy. It was assume he was injured and unconscious. Efforts to divert a passing fishing boat were fruitless. He was never found. The other pilot made it to shore where he crash landed and was badly injured.

We moved up to 3 Squadron. One afternoon about two weeks later I completed a slow roll and found my rudder jammed. I succeeded in getting it almost central but it was grinding as it moved and sticking where I left it. I informed control and having been cleared went ahead and landed.

As the Spitfire ran down the runway it started swinging to the right, then the inner wing lifted and I thought I was going to roll over. I hit the rudder with a massive kick – and everything broke free. I was able to correct the swing and taxi in without trouble.

Investigation turned up a 15 inch file broken into three pieces in the narrow part of the fuselage near the tail. A similar incident next day resulted in all aircraft being grounded for checks.

An exhibition of the items found was arranged which all servicing personnel were instructed to attend. There were screwdrivers, spanners, files, ‘irons’, a large bunch of fibre washers wired together, even a piece of radio equipment.

In December we went on Christmas leave reporting back in January. About then I saw a newspaper report that a pilot called Pike had been killed at Chivenor. He had been on the course behind us at Tern Hill and the new bunch on Spitfires. That completed the set. One for each of the five courses at Chivenor.

OCU was at Bentwaters. Here we did some hours on the aircraft we expected to fly when we joined our squadrons. They had a varied selection, Meteors, Vampires, Tempests and a Hornet. Our course was divided up into different crew rooms according to type.

The first thing we saw as we approached the dispersal were the pieces of a Tempest that proved to be ‘Molly’s’. He had spent two months recovering from a broken shoulder and now joined five of us, and another pilot (I never knew where from) to fly Tempests. There were a number of others already there coverting to Vampires and Meteors, and Fred, who had been with us at Chivenor, was picked as the one to go on the Hornet. He was slightly older than the rest of us, maybe 28, and very experienced with 800 hours. He had been flying Dominies on a Communications Flight so was considered experienced on twins.

Unfortunately a Hornet is a different proposition. On his third flight he went up to practice single engined flying and one overshoot. I was walking back to the dispersal when he tried it. I heard the engine screaming and looked round. He was in a climbing turn above the runway, dead engine on the inside and as I looked the plane flicked and went into a flat spin. It came down on the peri track, exploded and caught fire. A crowd ran from a nearby hangar to try and effect a rescue but it was obviously pointless.

Looking back, it seems incredible that he was checked out in an Oxford before being sent to fly what was probably the fastest piston engined fighter the RAF had. A few hours on a dual Mosquito would seem to have been a prudent move – but they were Bomber Command, and never the twain shall meet

We completed our conversion to Tempests. Four of us went to Egypt, where George managed to write off two planes in the next six months, breaking a shoulder in one and walking unscathed from the second. Because of the Tempest’s construction – made like the proverbial brick built out house – you stood a reasonable chance of survival in a crash landing, as ‘Molly’ and George proved.

Jack, another of our bunch, got a posting to Germany. He was pleased to go there as he had just got engaged and home leave was available, as opposed to the Middle East. Within months of his arrival his squadron was posted to Malaya, where he distinguished himself, and in fact won a DFM.

At the end of his tour he returned to the UK, became an instructor, and was killed a few months later in a crash.

I lost touch with quite a few of the boys, but of those I continued to hear about three of the original twelve from Tern Hill are dead, and if you add in the other ten who joined us at Chivenor, and two more at Bentwaters the fatalities got to six out of twenty-four. I think 25 per cent is a conservative figure for that time, however you grouped them. In all I knew twenty who were killed.

I read an article recently by a pilot who joined the RAF in 1987. He stated that statistically ten per cent of all fighter pilots are killed, and they have ejector seats and crash helmets – luxuries that we never knew. Things must have improved in forty years, but it still seems a terrible waste of lives in peacetime.

I sometimes wonder how anyone survived when half the world was trying to kill you.

Links & Notes

Supermarine Spitfire http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermarine_Spitfire
RAF Chivenor http://devonairfields.tripod.com/chiv.html
226 OCU RAF Bentwaters http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._226_Operational_Conversion_Unit_RAF

page last updated 28 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010