book review by Fred Lane
Manning, C. (Ed.) Fly Navy: The view from the cockpit 1945-2000. Leo Cooper: Barnsley. 2000. 224 pp incl. index and photos. US$61.42.
The 2800 members of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Officers Association were invited to contribute recollections and photographs of their notable flying experiences between the years 1945 and 2000. A total of 113 responses are published in this book.
Professionally edited, the reports make a very colourful collation of carrier- and shore-based flying, in war and peace.
It is sobering to note that the year 2000 Fleet Air Arm Roll of Honour carried the names of 915 men who lost their lives in RN flying operations since 1946 (p. xiii). The book does not wail about the dead. It is about the survivors.
Each chapter describes operations relating to a specific decade and each carries a list of aircrew numbers killed during that period. Clearly, a proper analysis requires comparison with data such as the total number of hours flown that year by the RN, whether nasties were shooting back, and other operational factors, but the raw scores suggest the 1950s were the most lethal, with an average of 33.5 pilots plus 10.8 aircrew and others killed each year.
The 1950s saw the entire nature of naval flying change, with the introduction of jet fighters, air-to-air missiles, turboprop aircraft and helicopters. It also saw the introduction of the angled deck, steam catapult and mirror deck-landing sight. Fighter weights more than quadrupled, from an 8500 lb (3850 kg) Seafire in 1950 to a 40,000 lb (18,144 kg) Scimitar in 1958. The Seafire trundled in at 90 knots. The Scimitar hit the wires at 135 knots.
It required a number of years to install the angled deck on all RN carriers, but meanwhile, until the mirror replaced the LSO, the entire landing signals system changed from “British” to “American” around 1950. This meant that, for instance, the old British “Go Lower” signal, answered reflexively by experienced pilots, now meant the opposite: “You are Low”. Late finals is no time for cognitive deliberations. Not all the extensive retraining was successful. Then, unlike the USN, the RN discarded the LSO entirely when they introduced the mirror. The RAN followed the RN and made do without LSOs, until Skyhawks and Trackers arrived in 1969.
The heart of the book, however, lies in its very personal reports. For instance, what do you do if the “spectacular, unsafe and unpopular” RATOG doesn’t fire when you press the tit in a Sea Fury? If you are quick enough, you throttle back and apply the brakes. In most instances the aircraft slowed to graceful walking pace before it swan-dived off the bow (p 38).
Then there are a number of hair-raising stories about accidents that led to overcoming novel problems, like engine failure in Wyverns due to fuel starvation off the catapult, to pitch-up and stall problems in Buccaneers due to slow acceleration after catapulting (p 59).
Ejecting could ruin your whole day. Worse, one pilot pointed his sick Seahawk seawards off Scotland and deliberately ejected over land, only to find that his aircraft doubled back to crash ashore while a strong offshore wind blew him out to sea (p 68).