RAF 100 – My Small Part, by Nick Byatt
RAF 100 – MY SMALL PART, Nick Byatt
Nick Byatt is Chairman of the Lincolnshire Independents. We hosted an annual Spring Conference at the Lincoln Cathedral Centre. Afterwards, we held a tour of the displays in The Collection and Nick Byatt gave a short presentation to commemorate the RAF’s centenary. Nick opened by discussing the formation of the RAF from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service that followed the realisation that the emerging air power roles were best served under one organisation.
“Early WW1 flying started with reconnaissance and surveillance, the ability to get high above the battlefield to observe enemy dispositions and supply lines and to target them effectively. The roles quickly developed into counter air operations and bombing. On 1 April 1918 the RAF formed with over 300,000 personnel. After peaking at over 1.1 million during WW2, manpower levels have fallen steadily to around 90,000 in 1978 when Nick joined and now to around 37,000. Manning was enhanced for many years by National Service which finally ended in 1963. After this time joining was very much a matter of choice despite some restrictive ‘old school’ rules. For example up until 1970 those under 26 had to seek their commanding officer’s permission to marry and anyone that joined under that age but already married was not permitted a married quarter.
Rather than review already well known individuals like Bader, Gibson and Cheshire and operations like the Battle of Britain, Dambuster raid and the Berlin Air Lift I will cover my own early years in a career that spanned more than 32 years. I joined as a navigator and was first posted to 8 Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to operate the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Shackleton, which was a derivative of the Manchester and better known Lancaster. At the time the Shackleton was a 30-year-old aircraft ‘updated’ with a 40 year old radar. It had been re-rolled in 1971 from a submarine hunting aircraft as a 5-year ‘interim’ solution before the introduction of a purpose built AEW aircraft (which ultimately was the Boeing E-3D Sentry now flown from RAF Waddington). In the end, the AEW Shackleton finally bowed out in July 1991 – a fine example of the RAF, and UK’s, frugalness in making things last. The Shackleton operated throughout the Cold War. In the AEW role the primary task was to patrol the UK Air Defence Region to detect and track Soviet aircraft in our airspace; once detected we would direct our fighter aircraft onto them to identify them and assess their tactics in targeting UK cities and facilities. Our onboard screens were just 6 inches across and, because of the age of the radar and frequent faults, we had to work hard to make it work. Despite all the difficulties, the job satisfaction when we controlled an intercept on Soviet aircraft was immense. The Squadron took on the nickname of the Bear Hunters as that was the most common type of Soviet aircraft intercepted and, of course, that the bear is a Russian symbol.
Operating an old aircraft brought with it various challenges which some hated. Equally others adored the uniqueness of the beast which was semi-pressurised, in that there were more holes in the front of the airframe than were at the rear! We frequently had a list of people wanting a flight, including our American cousins when operating out of Keflavik, Iceland. On one occasion a young American flew with us on a lengthy sortie where he was well fed and watered. Naturally nature took its course and he needed to relieve himself. He was directed to the Elsan chemical toilet at the rear and was gone for an inordinate amount of time. He eventually reappeared rather red-faced and pointed out that the pee-tube wasn’t working properly. He was met with stoney silence by the flight engineer before being scornfully told that we didn’t have such a thing. He had in fact relieved himself into the aircraft’s oxygen system!
Some squadron personnel loved the aircraft so much that they wanted it to be their final conveyance. An old friend who had succumbed to cancer was having his ashes poured into a cardboard tube in the Boss’ office when there was a slight distraction which resulted in some ash spilling into the carpet. There was some consternation at the problem but everyone concluded that as the officer in question had spent much of his career stood to attention, with his hat on, on the very spot it was perhaps something he would have relished. Equally when being dispatched down the flare chute the cardboard tube suffered a small fracture with some ash blowing around the beam area. The padre was then busy blessing various dusty parts but, again, he became a permanent part of the aircraft and the Squadron he loved.
The Shackleton also attracted a great deal of attention at the many air shows we participated in. Sadly many of the public couldn’t believe that it was still an airworthy craft, thinking that we had arrived on the back of a lorry and had the wings reinserted for the show! Flying into German air bases also caused quite a stir with many on the ground no doubt thinking the droning was from the Lancaster Merlin engines rather than our ‘much more modern’ Griffin’s and then looking up to see a four engined facsimile. At one German base when being taken to the aircraft we were asked what our aircraft was. When it was pointed out the driver drolly said that the last time he’d seen a Lancaster was in 1943 over Berlin, and he shot it down! Oh how we laughed at the German’s sense of humour…..
Given its previous maritime role and the length of time we flew over the sea, it was natural to retain safety equipment in the bomb bay that could be dropped to people in need, especially other aircrew in single man dinghies. On one occasion the BBC broadcaster, and interestingly a wartime Spitfire pilot, was sitting in a single man dinghy doing a piece to the nation while awaiting the arrival of a Shackleton to drop an additional 9–man dinghy and supplies of food, water and flares to him. Unfortunately when the Lindholme gear, as it was called, was dropped the chap in the tail lookout position thought the crew had killed him as it was dropped far too close to Mr Baxter. Sitting in his dinghy Mr Baxter would have seen the aircraft fly over him at just 140 feet and watch the kit fall into the water just inches from him. Being a flyer himself he would no doubt have been somewhat concerned that he was heavily splashed when the life saving dinghy landed just inches away from him. However, he marvelled at how professional the crew were in dropping it to him such that he could literally reach out to grasp the new dinghy.
My flying career continued with a tour with the Royal Navy, flying the AEW Sea King both from RNAS Culdrose and aboard HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal. They kindly took me to Australia via many ports and also brought me back which means my inter-service banter didn’t upset them too much.
In 1989 I began my relationship with Lincolnshire and RAF Waddington in particular by becoming the first boss of the new simulator for the Sentry aircraft. Fortunately, while I had been with the RN, Margaret Thatcher had made the brave but wise decision to cancel the AEW Nimrod project and procure the Boeing E-3D. From my, and many others, perspective this was just like the Spitfire, exactly the right aircraft arriving at the right time. I joined 8 Squadron again in 1993 to fly the Sentry but I felt that its automatic capability was so good that it barely needed me on board and didn’t give me the same job satisfaction that mastering the ancient Shackleton equipment had. However, the impact we had on NATO operations more than made up for it – we were the first platform of choice across the NATO AEW Force, especially at the commencement of offensive operations.
On completing my tour with 8 Squadron I flew many other desks in a wide variety of roles from doctrine and concepts development, live operations management to training management and design. There were many highs from the sense of achieving in adversity but sadly many lows too. The lows mainly focussed around the all too many dear friends and colleagues lost over the years who didn’t live long enough to reach retirement; not that we as a Service dwell on such things.
Throughout the 100 years of the RAF it is the unknown majority that have quietly added their thumbprint that has created the immense success of the World’s first Air Force. Seemingly, as we move relentlessly towards Cold War 2 it is today’s Service personnel whose skill, determination and selflessness will front up to the coming major challenges that face our country. I ask you therefore to toast the RAF past, present and future.”