Cloud Flying Trials, Andover, 1932
After Cambridge and a very brief period in 58 Sqn, when I only had time to get solo at night on Vickers Virginias, I was posted to Command B Flight in 12 Sqn at Andover. We were flying Hawker Harts and had been selected to do a year of cloud flying trials and, secondarily, of pattern bombing. It was decided to screen us all from posting until the trials were completed: a real boon as frequent postings of pilots was always the bane of the Squadron and the Flight Commander. The other Flight Commanders were Selby Lowndes and D.F. MacIntyre, and we got on very well together. D.F. Stevenson commanded the Squadron. There were no directional gyros and it was on the Reid-Sigrist rate of turn indicator that we depended for flying in cloud.
Central Flying School sent a party to put us all through an Instrument Flying Course and when this was completed we made for the nearest cloud whenever we took off. We knew nothing about icing but we learned. Cuthbert Larking was flying in formation on me when Cpl. Clemo, my Air Gunner, told me that he had dropped out. I went after him below cloud and watched him glide down with a dead engine and pile up, not seriously, trying to put her down in a field that was too small. We had been collecting a good deal of ice and the air vent on his petrol tank had been blocked, and this stopped the flow to the engine. Another time in a longish spell in cloud I found it becoming easier and easier to keep straight on the turn indicator though it was bumpy and there was so much ice on wings, wires and propeller that I needed full throttle to maintain height. My compass heading was all over the place but we had been taught that the turn indicator could not lie and I stuck to it till I had collected so much ice that I fell out of the bottom of the cloud. There I found that the venturi driving the gyro had iced up and the turn indicator was no longer working.
As we learned our lessons, and the taller men learned to keep their heads down in the cockpit when the ice was breaking off the centre section struts and bracing wires, the troubles with icing up of vent-pipes, venturi tubes and the pitot heads for the air speed indicators were overcome. We soon found that formation flying in cloud, as elsewhere, depended primarily on the ability and imagination of the leader: and on the ability of the leader to concentrate everything he had on the needle of the turn indicator. I used to say to myself, over and over again, eye glued to the needle, “That is the only thing in this world that matters”. Feelings in cloud can be hopelessly misleading and you must fly by what your instruments tell you regardless of what your senses may insist is happening. Sometimes when you were formatting in cloud you were convinced that the leader was in a steady turn, sometimes it seemed quite a tight turn. If the cloud was thick and bumpy you could not take your eyes off him to glance at your instruments so there was nothing to do but to curse him for a fool and stick to him in his everlasting turn – till you came out of cloud and found you were flying straight.
We soon realised that we must have an accepted procedure for use when we lost sight of each other in cloud. It involved turning outwards at a rate of turn depending on your place in the formation, for a number of seconds, also dependent on your place in the formation, which you counted in your head, and after that going into a rate of climb depending, etc.
On an exercise one day [July 18th, 1932] we were flying easily in stratus cloud in a Vic of nine with Stevenson leading when we emerged suddenly into a crevasse of clear air and flew on as suddenly into a thick and turbulent heavy cumulus. Each of us lost sight of his immediate leader and I put my head into the cockpit to get on with my drill. I had to do a rate two turn for, I think, three seconds but had hardly started when my Hart [K2425] hit another: there was a lurch and the noise of rending metal. I never saw the other aeroplane and thought that the man I was following had turned out too fast into me but in fact Granville, who was following me, had held on in the hope of reforming formation but had not seen me until his airscrew cut into my fuselage. It was a nasty moment for Clemo when Granville’s propeller appeared out of the cloud and cut off our fuselage a yard from his toes. Our end, Clemo’s and mine, went down and under in an inverted loop and I called to him over the intercom: “Jump.”
All this happened very quickly. I do not even know if I switched to ‘transmit’ or whether he heard me but there was no question about jumping: the moment we released ourselves, being on the outside of the loop we were hurled out over the centre section. I waited for the remains of our aeroplane to leave the vicinity and then found the release grip and gave it a pull. I was travelling head downwards at about 200mph and it brought me up with an awful jerk, yet in that fraction of a second I felt the stitching on the back of my harness tearing away: it was designed to do this but I did not know it and grabbed the sides of the harness, leading up to the canopy out of sight in the cloud, and held on for my life. Then for a few minutes there was further cause for anxiety as Granville, his engine running very badly with what remained of his propeller, glided down, seemingly all around us, in the cloud. I tried to assure myself that the odds against his flying into the parachute were very long but I was glad when he faded into the distance.
I came out of cloud at 8000’ still, as I thought, depending for my life on my grip on the shrouds of the parachute. In the open again I looked down at the harness round my body and thighs: it seemed to be intact and I very cautiously slid my hands down till I was sure the harness was supporting me. It was a relief to find that I would not have to hang by my hands for the next vertical mile and a half. Having checked on my own situation I looked round for the others: it never occurred to me that the other pilot might have been able to glide away and make a successful forced landing, but he did. I hoped to see three more parachutes but there was only one, floating down about forty yards away. I called out:
“Is that you Clemo?”
and Clemo, hanging knees up in his harness, made a comic motion of bringing his heels together, raised his hand in salute, and replied:
When an aeroplane will no longer fly and is hopelessly out of control there is nothing nicer than to take to a parachute: and sitting below your canopy at five or six thousand feet on a fine day is quiet and peaceful: but when you get nearer the ground, if you are the worrying sort, you begin to think about high-tension cables and main roads. I came down through a young birch tree in a spinney beside the A303 and Clemo landed successfully in the grass alongside. My parachute stayed up in the tree and I had to release my harness to get my heels on the ground. Walking to telephone I met a man who told me that the other aircraft had crashed and that the crew were killed. He probably thought that the front end of our Hart was the other machine I was asking about, but I had no reason to doubt him. I rang up and reported what had happened, and what the man had said, and a car came out for Clemo and me. He was quite undamaged but my right knee was numb from a wrench it had when the parachute opened and the rigging had fouled my leg.
When we arrived back at Andover we heard the extraordinarily good news of Granville’s safe landing. I could hardly believe it but when at four next morning I found my knee was too stiff to use I was happy to be able to send my batman along with a chit to tell him to lead the flight on the early show. All the rest of the formation had lost each other but ours was the only failure of the breakup drill and the others had rendezvoused above or beyond the heavy cumulus. We were lucky only to have one collision.
The trials were only the official introduction to the study of the bearing of cloud flying on tactics and when they were satisfactorily completed I was posted to the Staff College, which was also located at Andover.
Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.12 U.K. Again. pp. 100-102.
Drawing by TC Traill.