115 Squadron Air Training Corps
I was a cadet of 115 Squadron Air Training Corps at Westwood, Peterborough, from 1954, aged 13, to 1959, when I left Peterborough to go to university. I think things have changed a lot in the ATC since those days, so maybe you will be interested to hear about some of the things we did. Of course, it was long before ladies were admitted to the ATC, so there was always an underlying macho feeling (although we did not have that expression then!).
We were based in the wooden HQ at RAF Westwood. I read that it was burned down on a Friday the 13th, but I am not sure what year that was. A Vampire T11 (XE887) was on display outside. It was finally broken up in 1973, I understand. We had some engines inside, and lots of obsolete radio equipment. Westwood airfield still existed as such then, with its big hangars, and a couple of small hangars for light aircraft (a Messenger, a Tiger Moth and some Austers), which flew regularly.
I cannot remember exactly how many cadets were on the strength, but about 40, I would say. We used to get about 20 or 30 on Monday and Wednesday evening parades. We had two big coke stoves that we had to light in the winter to keep even slightly warm. Maybe that was what caused the fires! We had a tuck-shop in the mid-evening break. Once a week we had a cinema club too, run by cadet-corporal Lionel Hart, and I also used to help run the projector.
A typical evening would be on parade for about 15 minutes, then off to 2 sessions of lectures, finishing with another parade. We were quite good at drill. Our uniforms were the old-fashioned ones with the choker-type neck. Very rough and very uncomfortable. Perhaps my worst memory of the cadets!
The CO was Flt Lt Peter Nobbs, who was a partner in his father’s tailoring business in town, and various junior officers. I remember David Pittham, an ex-National Service Meteor pilot, who was a car salesman with Marshall’s, and Geoff Heighton, a photographer with a local newspaper (so we always got good publicity in the press), and some others I do not recall so clearly. There was a very fierce Warrant Officer, named Jones, a real stickler for drill, shouting and shiny boots. I was terrified of him. We had a cadet WO, Wally Mountain, too and a few sergeants and corporals. I got to the dizzy heights of cadet-sergeant.
In the summer we had drill outside, and marched up and down, with pretty strict discipline. In summer, too, we used to go on exercises on the airfield, which mainly consisted of going out in groups with .303 rifles (!) and hiding in the long grass. We got the chance to fire the 303s at summer camp, and .22s at the Lincoln Road Drill Hall. Summer was marked, too, by Summer Camps at remote RAF stations, such as Kinloss, Shawbury, Thornaby and so on.
Summer Camp in the mud at RAF Shawbury, September 1956. It was horrible.
Corporal Kenneth Barker trying to keep his shoes shiny at the same camp. He did his Flying Scholarship at the same time as I did (see below).
Lectures interested some of us, but not others. They were airmanship, navigation, met, and other such flying-related things (which I loved), and others that I did not like as much, such as radios, engines and taking Browning guns to pieces, that I could never do.
What made it all worthwhile for me was the flying. We were very lucky to have a few devoted officers from Upwood come regularly to give us airmanship lectures, and they were always happy to let us come to Upwood for official and unofficial flying. The greatest of these people was Flt Lt JB Stephens, a Lincoln pilot with 7 Sqd. I shall mention him again when he flew Lincolns in Oman in 1956 in my article on the Jebel Akhdar War. I tried for years to find him again but to my dismay only managed to contact his family just weeks after he died.
Flt Lt JB Stephens and his Lincoln stuck in Singapore with an engine fault. Stevie is leaning against a propeller in the background. Note the ladder to the crew hatch under the nose. See the story about how I fell off it! Photo courtesy of Tom Ainsby
My flying actually started at summer camp at Thornaby in August 1954 with a 30 minute trip in an Anson. Bliss. Before that, my only flight had been a few minutes in a Messenger from Westwood (we lived nearby), with my mother as the other passenger! Flying has been a way of life for me ever since.
The next flight was again in an Anson, this time from Upwood, in October 1954. We used to go there on official days out from time to time and use the Station Flight Anson for joy-rides. But thanks to “Stevie” and his friends in 7, and also 49, Sqd the real flying was available for those of us who wanted it. For me it started later that same October day, with 20 minutes in a Lincoln. The next was with Stevie in a Lincoln flying to Farnborough in January 1955. I remember I was in the front turret, where the snow was actually coming in through the rivet holes and forming little drifts on the floor. Was it cold! Then 3 days later I was back begging at Upwood, and found a newish pilot who did not mind me coming with him for “CT” (continuation training) in the circuit for 2 ½ hours. Wonderful! I discovered what a powerful machine the Lincoln was, with 4 giant Merlins lumbering us off the runway circuit after circuit. I remember from a later flight how basic this plane was, compared to today’s sophistication. We had to stop once after a landing while the tail wheel was examined (by stopping on the runway and getting out to look at it!) because when we landed it shook violently. It was the “shimmy damper” that had gone (amazing how names like that stick in your mind!).
Three weeks later I tried the station Oxford for the first time. More fun than the Anson, and very rudimentary. Then their Chipmunk and so on. But it was the Lincolns that I liked. Stevie was fantastic. He knew my dream was to be a pilot, so he spoiled me (and several others of us also). In May 1955 we went on a 2-hour formation flight of several Lincolns. Hard work for the pilots. Then a trip up to Kinloss and back. I used to enjoy riding in the rear turret when I could not get up front. Some of the Lincolns had dual control, so I even got the chance to fly one. One long trip in June 1955 was to the Helgoland bombing range in Germany, dropping some 1000 pounders there, then back to Upwood. 4 ¾ hours of noise and vibration, culminating in a leap upwards as the bombs went, then back to the green of Upwood after a long time over the North Sea.
For the rest of 1955 I was at 7 Squadron dispersal as often as I could be. I got in 13 Lincoln flights that year. Getting into a Lincoln was a gamble. There was a half-sized door at the back, that was easy to scramble through, but the pilot’s, engineer’s and navigator’s hatch was in the floor of the nose, high up. There was always a ladder to it, but it still meant a bit of acrobatics to climb vertically up over the edge of the hatch. I remember once just getting to the vertical hoist bit, when the ladder was removed, and I fell straight back down into the arms of the next crew member. These wretched cadets! (See Photograph 3, above)
We were allowed to use the Link Trainer too (housed in a room of which the floor was so polished that we had to wear overshoes before entering), so I was able to begin to see what a bad pilot I was, and vowed to try harder.
The Lincolns were on their way out. They were, after all, simply bigger, more powerful Lancasters, and we were getting into the jet age. I was whisked off to RAF Ely Hospital for a decompression test (put in a tank with a couple of others, then the air taken out to see if we would die if we ever got the chance to ride in a jet to high altitude). I did not die, and in January 1956 I go my first jet flight, in a Canberra that was replacing the Lincolns. 1956 got me more Anson, Oxford and Chipmunk flights, and I began to learn to fly, albeit unofficially, and I got my introduction to aerobatics. One memorable flight was actually rather tame, but in a very old Anson, the Mk XII, at summer camp at Shawbury. In 1957 I managed a few more Canberra flights, but space was limited of course. There were only 3 ejector seats, all in use for all flights, so the “passenger” had to sit on a jump seat folded down next to the pilot. This contrasted with the Lincoln’s spacious fuselage with room for anyone who wanted to go! But there were wonderful views and sensations in the Canberra, and it was silent (relatively), smooth, and air conditioned. We flew at over 40,000 feet, where the sky is quite dark. At the time, these early Canberras were having trouble in that some had been lost due to a run-away elevator trim control that was prone to putting you in a vertical climb in few seconds. As the Canberra was always on the edge between a high-speed stall and a low-speed stall when at very high altitude, you often thought about that happening. As you can guess, it did not happen to me.
In May 1958 I was getting very senior. I was awarded an Overseas Flight (sounds a bit funny after all the flying I had done already, but this was an official honour!). I went to Lyneham and boarded a Hastings for the 6 hour grind to Gibraltar. Not really much fun. Noisy and cold, but nothing like the Lincoln, always my favourite. I spent a lovely week in Gibraltar in the sun, with hospitality from the RAF there, and trips in a Landrover to see the apes (one of which stole our windscreen wiper), and also a trip in the Straight in an air-sea rescue launch. A bit sick making, in spite of my never having any problems in the planes!
Macaque attack in Gibraltar
On my return from Gibraltar came the really good news. I had won a Flying Scholarship! My pal, cadet-sergeant Ken Barker, had also got one. He went to learn to fly on Tiger Moths at Sywell and I went to Cambridge to try their Tiger Moths.
On 31 July 1958, just after my 17th birthday I arrived at Marshalls airfield. To my amazement I was immediately strapped into the Tiger and given my first lesson that evening. I had no idea that 3 days later, after 5 hours flying, I would be going solo in the beast. Remember, we had no flaps, no brakes, not even a tail wheel. And of course no radio. And no cockpit cover. If the sun shone (it did most of time) you had it on you, but if it rained you got wet (remember the snow in the Lincoln?). My instructor, Edward Minshaw, was an ex-FAA man, and pretty tough. We flew intensively, even one day when the low cloud forced us to stay below 500 feet in the circuit. That counted as “bad weather circuits”. Anyway, it took 10 days in all to get my PPL. The qualifying crosscountry flight was to Luton. Just imagine a Tiger Moth landing at Luton today.
With my Tiger Moth at Marshall's, Cambridge. Photo taken by Geoff Heighton, Chief Photographer of the Peterborough Citizen and Advertiser newspaper, and an officer of 115 Squadron.
Finishing so quickly meant that I did not have to miss summer camp, in Kinloss that year. I got a 2 hour CT trip in a Shackleton, the final development of the Lancaster/Lincoln, and a chance to throw a Chipmunk around the sky.
When I got back from Kinloss, I was straight off to Hawkinge for a gliding course. I enjoyed the course on the old Cadet Mark 3s, and got my A and B gliding certificates. I used them for the winter of 1958-1959 for a bit of gliding at the Perkins Club at Polebrook, but the weather was awful and I had to wait a few more years before getting into real gliding (in the French Alps).
When I look back, I was lucky that my parents let me do all this. I was at Deacon’s School, and O and A levels were important too!
You might think I had had my fair share by now, but what else was missing? There was the Overseas Visit. Each year a few cadets in the UK went to the USA and certain other countries to represent their corps. I was chosen to go to Belgium! I was disappointed. I wanted to go to the States, but in fact I had a good time. We were kitted out in decent uniforms. This was the first time I had exchanged the 1918-style sandpaper collar and scratchy trousers for a proper, comfortable uniform, rather like the ones you have now. We went to Blackbushe in July 1959, and hopped on a Valetta to Ypenburg. There were 2 of us from England, 4 from America and a pair each from Norway and Portugal. We were wined and dined by the Belgian authorities for a memorable week. After visiting the famous Atomium, a helicopter trip over Brussels courtesy of Sabena, an army parade and a reception at the royal palace, we ended the week by the sea at Le Zoute, where I spent my time gliding, including some exciting aero-tows behind a Tiger Moth, and admiring the rows of old Belgian Air Force Spitfires and Meteors that had been retired on nearby airfields. Then the Valetta took us back to Blackbushe, via a stopover at Brussels Airport.
Valetta VW197 at Blackbushe
The exchange cadets in Belgium. We two Brits, two from Norway, two from Portugal, and four from the USA
Me being towed at Le Zoute behind Tiger Moth OO-ZAC
An American cadet inspects Goevier OO-SZC before flying
The rest of the summer was spent getting ready to go to Nottingham University, except when I was Auster flying at Cambridge. Then began my University Air Squadron training on Chipmunks, first at Nottingham and then at Oxford. But that, and the rest of my flying, is another story.
The next stage: Oxford University Air Squadron. I am in the middle row, just to the right of the Chipmunk's spinner
I am sure you will realise that I owe a lot to 115 Squadron, so I was very pleased to see your website and have this opportunity to write a few anecdotes about what it was like 50 years ago. It would be good to hear from anyone else who remembers those days.