My first acquaintance with aircraft was as a very young child. Born 5 months before the outbreak of World War II and our house being less than 15 miles east of the centre of London, we lived under the flight path of German bombers attacking the capital. I was too young to remember all the windows of our house being blown out by an aerial mine but I do recall lying next to my mother in our lounge under the Government supplied Morrison air-raid shelter, a steel table, listening to the unmistakable noise of the bombers droning overhead. Perhaps my very first recollection of being alive was the day my mother took me to the small shed in the park at the rear of our house. This shed was the distribution point for gas masks. The man there, aided by my mother, tried to get me to put on a child’s mask, known as a Mickey Mouse mask, like the one shown below. This object, and the even worse adult mask, absolutely terrified me and I began screaming. I still recall me screaming and such was my protest that they gave up and I never wore the awful thing!
My father had survived the horrors of World War I in the trenches and had become a sergeant in the 1st London Rifles in charge of a Lewis machine gun team. During WW2 he worked in a factory but at night he was a member of the Home Guard. I entered our front room one day to find a Lewis machine gun there – an enormous gun to my child’s eyes! One day, in the later stages of the War, my friend and I were in the park to the rear of our house when we saw a V1 flying bomb – a doodlebug as it was colloquially known – flying overhead – making its unique sound – due to its pulse jet engine. We watched it disappear into the distance. The V1 was the first of Hitler’s terror weapons – V for Vengeance! Later we had the V2 – an intercontinental missile from which there was no defence since its flight time from the mainland coast of Europe was only 4 minutes. Fortunately, the third Vengeance weapon, the V3, was destroyed in its infancy by Allied bombers! Ardleigh Green school, a mile and a half from ours, was flattened, either by a V1 or a V2, and the children had a short holiday. Our school, the Harold Wood County Primary, survived with only the tiniest of damage to the headmaster’s study and we did not get a holiday. Such is the unfairness of war! So my very early years were regularly punctuated with the awful wail of air raid sirens but we were never subject to the serious bombing experienced by the population a few miles further west.
My first love was steam railways, prevalent at the time of my childhood, a convenient interest since our house, 67 Recreation Avenue in Harold Wood in Essex, was less than a mile from the railway station on the four-track mainline to Liverpool Street. At the age of about three years I set off on my tiny tricycle and, successfully crossing what was then a main road, reached the station. Passing unseen below the gaze of the man in the ticket office I dragged my tricycle down the stairs and onto the platform. There I savoured the experience of express trains passing at 60 miles an hour until my distraught mother arrived on the scene and my adventure was over! The epilogue to this love of steam trains came in July 2019 when my children gave me a special present for my 80th birthday – a steam driver’s experience on the North Norfolk Railway!
Living in Harold Wood we were not far from the RAF airfields of North Weald and Hornchurch. In the years following the end of the Second World War it became very common to see flights or even whole squadrons of Vampire and Meteor aircraft flying overhead our home. I had not the faintest inkling then that one day I would be an officer in the Royal Air Force and piloting a Vampire.
Interest in becoming a pilot began in the CCF (Combined Cadet Force) at the Royal Liberty Grammar School at Gidea Park in Essex. I rose to the rank of Flight Sergeant. The award of a Flying Scholarship provided 30 hours flying training on Tiger Moths at the Herts & Essex Aero Club at Stapleford Tawney ending with the qualification of a PPL (Private Pilots Licence). After 6th form studies I enrolled for a B.Sc.Engineering (Aeronautical) at the University of London. I confess that this step was taken with the primary interest of flying with the University of London Air Squadron at weekends and during the summer holidays.
The university air squadrons were part of the RAFVR. We had the rank of Cadet Pilots and the RAF actually paid us for our attendance at the headquarters building in South Kensington and when flying. When I joined, the squadron was based at RAF Biggin Hill with Chipmunk aircraft. I still remember my first night. After checking in at the Officer’s Mess, I waited for an orderly to light the fire in my room. After he left I soaked in the occasion. There was I, a nobody from nowhere, occupying a room in which some of the greatest heroes of the Second World War had spent time. Some of these brave men would have left the room during the day and later a fellow officer would have entered to collect personal effects! I felt very humble but also exhilarated at my good fortune.
My instructor was a certain Flight Lieutenant Roy Pearce. He had a keen sense of humour and referred to me as “the dreaded bloody Ashpole”! Flying with Roy was always a good experience and I learnt a great deal from him. After a few months the squadron was relocated to White Waltham to the west of London. During the Summer holidays we were relocated to RAF St Eval one year and RAF St Mawgan the next. These were fun times both flying and social. On another occasion we were paraded outside the Royal Albert Hall as a guard of honour to the Queen Mother.
After two years at university I had had enough of aeronautical engineering and, with 160 hours flying time on the Chipmunk, signed up for a five year short service commission in the Royal Air Force. No. 138 University Air Squadron course was composed entirely of entrants from the various universities around the country. Our first posting was to RAF South Cerney in Gloucestershire. Normally, potential pilot candidates would arrive as cadets then spend three months during which they would drill, exercise, be taught some basics about what was expected of an officer in the RAF, and so on. 138 UAS course was different. All arrived as pilot officers or acting pilot officers. We were all relatively known quantities so only one month instead of three was allotted for basic training.
In my opinion, one of the most important facets that are taught in all basic training camps is the realisation of one’s place in the scheme of things. By this I mean that anyone who thinks he is above the “system” will be taught the error of his ways. Our lesson in this came from two sources. The first was one evening a few days after our arrival. We were all assembled in the lounge of the officer’s mess and addressed by a squadron leader. He told us in an uncompromising speech that we had given the impression that we thought ourselves as rather “special”. He mentioned, in particular, the state of cleanliness of our rooms. His displeasure was evident. He concluded by stating that unless we demonstrated considerable improvement to the satisfaction of our superiors, we would not be permitted to touch another RAF aircraft. This address had a remarkable effect and that evening the sounds of vigorous scrubbing and dusting could be heard all around the mess! The next day there was an inspection of our rooms – the white glove along the tops of doors and under beds type of inspection. We passed.
The second lesson came from a certain Corporal Kelly, our drill corporal. This individual was the quintessential drill NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) who, although outranked by all of us, nevertheless was held in great respect, even awe. His conduct on the parade ground would have done credit to Buckingham Palace yet his unenviable task was to have us, “a shambles” of former university students, learn the art of marching and drilling to a level which would not bring disgrace upon the RAF. Amazingly he succeeded! His voice booming across the parade ground could strike fear into anyone not conforming. He was bound to call each of us “Sir” but he had a way of pronouncing the word which gave it a different meaning to the normal understanding. I recall the day when I was the practice parade commander. Whilst standing at attention in front of the whole course and holding my sword to the vertical, my memory failed me. “Sorry, Corporal Kelly – I have forgotten the word of command”. “Did you ever know? – SUUUR!” Oh, the ignominy!
Back Row Plt.Off. S. Mc. Tavlor. A.PIt.Off. W. S. Ashpole, Plt.Off. N. J. Gill, Plt.Off. A. C. Baker, Plt.Off. D. W. M. Jones, Plt.Off. N. J. Harvey. Plt.Off. J. M. McCracken, Plt.Off. T. N. Laing, A Plt.Off. P. A. Edney.
2nd Row Plt.Off. E. H. N. Turner, A.PIt.Off. B. C. Spikins, Plt.Off. V. Faulkner, Plt.Off. T. H. Stonor, A.PIt.Off. D. Holme, Plt.Off. P. J. Creigh, A.PIt.Off. A. Briggs, Plt.Off. K. P. Clarke, Plt.Off. E. D. Stein, A.PIt.Off. M. E. J. Archard.
Front Row A.PIt.Off. A. J. Davies. Plt.Off. R. k. Lewis, Flt.Lt. A. k. Amos, Flt.Lt. C. J. Barrey, d.f.c., a.f.c., d.f.m., Wg.Cdr. J. F. Manning, A.F.C., Gp.Cpt A. R. D. MacDonell, D.F.C., Sqn.Ldr. B. D. Davies, A.F.C., Flt.Lt. A. S. Tallet. Plt.Off. T. Maddern, A.PIt.Off. J. D. Aberdein, A.PIt.Off.. R. T. V. Kyrke.
We not only survived our basic training but we graduated. After all the cross country running, I had achieved the pinnacle of my physical fitness which was never emulated in all my succeeding years! Our next posting was RAF Ternhill in Shropshire for 110 hours in the Provost T1, then the RAF’s basic trainer. Here we were re-skilled in the arts of aircraft handling, navigation, night flying, aerobatics, formation, etc. in an aircraft somewhat more powerful than the Chipmunk of our university days. The course was divided into sections and at the end of each our progress was assessed. Anyone not making the grade was put on review and given an hour or two of extra flying to step up or fail the course! It was that simple! We also attended classes on leadership and officer qualities. As we neared the end of the 110 hours a few of us were bussed to an RAF medical establishment to be carefully measured. Some were tall men. I was not tall but I was long from head to butt! The reason for the visit was to ensure that we would fit into the Vampire T11. Too tall and the cockpit canopy would not close without hitting the top of the occupant’s bone dome and forcing the pilot to lower his head. Too long in the legs and the kneecaps would be removed during ejection. I was judged to be within limits for the Vampire but there were a couple who had to be trained to fly the Meteor, a twin-engined jet aircraft with more space for the pilots.
Demonstration of Anoxia
As an aside, one day we were all taken to an RAF medical establishment to experience the effects of anoxia (deprivation of oxygen). In groups of around 8, we were seated in a metal cabin and told to don oxygen masks. It was then explained that the air in the cabin would be evacuated and each of us would be given a simple task. Mine was to write my signature on a sheet of paper starting from the top and continue repeating writing down the page. The air was evacuated and then the oxygen supply to our masks was switched off. A few minutes later it was switched on again. The result of this exercise was absolutely stupefying and a copy of my efforts is shown below. The amazing thing is that one has absolutely no recollection of losing consciousness or an awareness that one has just recovered from the unconscious state. It explains a number of tragic aviation incidents including the loss of a whole airliner full of passengers over Greece and an executive jet which flew across North America until it crashed. The crews and passengers would have had no knowledge of what was happening, the onset of anoxia being so insidious.
Having survived basic flying training at Ternhill, we were posted to RAF Oakington near Cambridge for advanced flying training.
The original version of the Vampire flew at the end of the Second World War. The T11 was a development of that original single-pilot Vampire but with two seats, side-by-side, one for the student pilot and one for the instructor.
One gained access to the cockpit by climbing a ladder. I recall peering down into the small dark hole in which I would spend 110 hours. I had serious doubts as to how I could possibly fit into such a confined space. Then the truth dawned that not only I but also my instructor would have to fit into this hole. One squeezed down between the dashboard, throttle and ejection seat. It was very snug with everything to hand. It became very apparent why we had had the visit to the medical establishment to have our bodies carefully measured.
One of the first impressions with the Vampire was how quiet it was. Instead of a large radial petrol engine and a propeller a few feet in front of one’s nose, there was a quiet whine to the rear of the aircraft reminiscent of a vacuum cleaner. Climbing away from the ground reminded me of becoming airborne in a glider.
The Vampire had a couple of vices. The first was that its engine was very slow to accelerate from low speed. This was due to the fact that it had a large and thus heavy centrifugal compressor at the front of its Goblin engine, an engine which was not far removed from the one Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, had built prior to WWII. On most aircraft, during the approach to landing, one would normally have the engine throttled back. Should one find oneself undershooting the threshold of the runway it would become necessary to open the throttle to arrest the descent. Opening the throttle too rapidly on a Vampire with the engine at a low rpm would produce a loud protesting rumble from behind the pilot’s seat and a possibility that the engine could stall resulting in a total loss of power and the inevitable crash. The trick was to lower plenty of flap on the final approach to create more drag thus necessitating higher engine rpm to maintain speed. This took the engine out of the stall region and into one where a more rapid acceleration was possible.
The other vice was spinning. Although the Vampire had twin tail fins, the total aerodynamic vertical fin area was still rather small. Good rudder force is essential to stop an aircraft spinning. Vampires had been known to enter spins and despite the valiant efforts of the pilots had continued spinning into the ground. One normally commenced a spin exercise between 20,000 and 30,000 feet. If recovery from the spin had not been achieved by 10,000 feet then ejection was mandatory. Soon after we arrived at Oakington an aircraft crashed following a spin. Tragically, the pilots perished. All spinning was stopped. A few weeks later all pilots assembled in the officer’s mess for a briefing on spinning. The message was that the Central Flying School, where instructors are trained, had solved the spinning “bogey”. Instruction was then received on the “foolproof” method of recovery from a spin. Spinning recommenced. Within a month, one of our course members, Vic Faulkner, flying dual, entered a spin and although using the new foolproof technique, he and his instructor were unable to stop the rotation. They ejected safely. Vic landed in a field and a passing motorist stopped to pick him up. As they drove away the driver turned to his son in the back and said “you always wanted to see a man come down by parachute-say thank you to the man”!
Escape and Evasion
We were all subjected to an experience whilst at Oakington that was something else – an Escape and Evasion exercise. We were given a one-piece fatigues type uniform and were taken in lorries to somewhere, I know not where, but possibly Lincolnshire. Divided into teams of three, we were given a compass, a map and a torch per team and everyone received a survival pack of food items. By food I mean a bar of chocolate, an Oxo, a few biscuits, and so on. and a bottle of water. Doug Aberdein was one of my three and, if memory serves me right, Brendan Spikins was the other.
Now it would seem reasonable in such circumstances for each member of the team to have one of the three navigational tools. And so it was in our group. But soon after dusk on the first night we ran into the enemy, soldiers, or rather the enemy ambushed us! We scattered in the dark. Now a compass is a very useful item of kit but not in pitch black with no torch or map. A map is a vital item for navigation but useless without a torch. A torch is really useful but of little use without a map and compass. And so the three of us blundered on our separate ways in the hope that we were heading in the right direction. As daylight broke we met up again and even joined another team. Travelling by day was not a good idea as we could be seen more readily by the enemy. We found a barn full of hay bales and decided to rest. Now hay bales are very inviting so we bedded down. Sleeping was a challenge compounded by the fact that the hay was damp. Our clothes became damp and that, added to the cold, left us very uncomfortable indeed! It gave us a very healthy respect for those downed aircrews in active service.
When one is cold it is surprising how hunger takes hold. It was not long before the entire contents of the survival pack had been consumed. Eating a raw Oxo is an experience! Even though the whole of our exercise took place in two days, our very limited deprivation from food and warmth began to cause loss of energy and a lowering of enthusiasm.
We arrived at the rendezvous and a dead rabbit was tossed at our team. For Brendan Spikins and me this meal was as useful as a rubber screwdriver. Fortunately, Doug Aberdeen had a degree in agriculture and had worked on a farm. He deftly skinned the animal and cooked it, after a fashion, on an open fire. That rabbit was one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten-it was delicious!
We completed the wings course at RAF Oakington with 110 hours on the Vampire T11 in March 1961. This was a very proud moment for all of us on the course. We felt, with some justification, that we had achieved something very worthwhile and extremely demanding.
Some weeks prior to the end of the course we were invited to fill in a form stating our preference for the type of aircraft that we wished to fly. I put helicopters as my first choice. As I recall it was because helicopters offered the best potential for “freedom” in flying compared with the very controlled regimes of the other types. Other members of the course were posted to fighters, maritime and light bombers. Four were posted to the V-Force, an unenviable assignment which involved sitting in dispersal for hours on end, very little flying, little chance of actually handling the flying controls on one’s first tour and, if so called upon, to take off within the 4 minutes warning time with the intention of wiping out millions of Russians with the sure knowledge that the country and loved ones back home would no longer exist!
In April I reported to South Cerney for the helicopter course on the Sycamore.
The Sycamore, a 5 seat aircraft, was a far from ideal machine on which to learn the mysterious art of piloting a helicopter. Compared with the Hiller 360, as used by the Army at Middle Wallop for their basic helicopter training, the Sycamore was a very complex machine.
It had been designed as a communications aircraft and in order to make it fly level, the main rotor shaft was offset longitudinally and laterally. On take-off the pilot had to hold the stick an imaginary four divisions rearward and one division to the right and then centralise as the wheels left the ground. These imaginary four and one divisions had to be modified for wind and sloping ground.
The Sycamore was very prone to ground resonance, the condition on take-off or landing when half the weight is on the rotor and half on the wheels. Any slight mishandling at this point could induce ground resonance, a condition leading to a rapid build-up of vibration in the helicopter which, if left unchecked could develop to the “natural frequency”* of the machine and would result in its destruction. (*remember the Tacoma bridge in the USA which self-destructed when subjected to wind of a certain speed and direction).
Another vice of this machine was the centre of gravity compensator. This consisted of a liquid-filled tank at the front and another at the rear of the helicopter with an electric pump with which the pilot could transfer the fluid to move the centre of gravity of the machine. Failure to be fastidious in take-off or landing checks could result in the aircraft being totally beyond its trim limit with disastrous results.
The Sycamore had wooden blades and large changes of ambient temperature could twist the blades requiring them to be re-tracked (a process requiring an engineer to make adjustments to the main rotor such that the rotor tips are made to pass through the same point in space).
In spite of all these pitfalls, it was said by those who truly mastered the beast that this was a pilot’s aircraft. I was not one of those! In fact, during my training, and immediately following a gross mishandling incident requiring him to grab the controls, my instructor, Roy Garwood, said “Bill, are you sure you want to be a helicopter pilot? Would you not prefer fighters?”
My final handling check was conducted by Squadron Leader (Bushy) Clarke – a helicopter pilot of formidable reputation and quite a character with a huge Battle of Britain moustache. My final flight at South Cerney was on 21 June 1961 at which point the now “Flying Officer” Ashpole was considered by the RAF fit to be let loose on a squadron, in my case no. 225 Squadron based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire.
However, before that posting I had another event of even greater importance – my marriage – to my fiancée, Margaret. I borrowed the ceremonial swords from the RAF for my best man, Doug Aberdein, and myself for a wedding in uniform; the wedding was also attended by Brendan Spikins, another great friend and colleague.