Photographs & Stories - Milton Cottee
I was assigned to A&AEE Boscombe Down as a test pilot during 1956/57 during which time I flew a wide variety of aircraft including about 100 hours on Beverleys. The V bombers were at the peak of flight testing in those days and I became chief of flight test on the Vulcan B Mk1.
Here are some extracts from my memoirs which feature experiences with the Beverley. The Beverleys flown were 259,262,263 and 266.
I had started flying with B Sqn and had been assigned my first real flight test project. I guess no one else wanted it, including all of those in A Sqn. It was an overflow from A Sqn. I was to do spinning trials on an army Auster Mk 9. January’s flights were a mix of flights in the Auster, a Firefly, Vampire, Hunter and Canberra. The spinning Auster did its best to make me airsick. In February I graduated slowly to better things, flying additionally an Anson, Canberra B8 and a Blackburn Beverley. The Beverley flight in No 259 on 24th February 1956 with Flt Lt Geoff Fletcher was my first experience of a precisely recorded ‘measured’ take off.
Most aircraft in the Squadron were there for handling trials, equipment performance and integration and as vehicles for armament carriage and release trials. Straight aircraft performance was mostly measured elsewhere. There was usually a clear distinction between trials of aircraft handling and those involving the purposeful application of aircraft for their designed purposes. Often trials only involved airborne equipment or weapons and the aircraft were only incidental in their carriage.
B squadron was equipped with two Mk 1 Vulcans, three Valiants, a Beverley, three Canberra variants, a Mk1 Shackleton and an Anson for communications. A Mk1 Victor was to be assigned soon after my arrival. Other aircraft were made available from aircraft factories or other units as required for particular trials not justifying long term support at BD. Sometimes we would go to another base for a few days to conduct a short trial.
There was no formal conversion to aircraft types. The respective flight commanders expected their pilots to be competent and used their judgement before detailing us new-comers to aircraft in which we had minimal experience. We each gravitated towards those tasks which were of most individual interest. For new aircraft types, the manufacturer was required to provide draft pilots’ notes and technical manuals. Handling Squadron gleaned aircraft handling information from our reports and factory sources to produce Pilots’ Notes for general RAF use. It was some years later that Pilots' Notes were renamed Flight Manuals in recognition of their growth in size and content.
One day in March 1956 Flt Lt Ray Bray and I decided that we should try to fly an aircraft of which we were totally unfamiliar. We had noticed that D Sqn had a couple of Bristol Freighters. We called someone in D Sqn and inquired whether one of their freighters was available for a local familiarisation flight. We were invited to come on over to sign up for flight authorisation and to borrow a copy of the pilots’ notes. Having done this we walked out to find the particular aircraft. I was totally unfamiliar with this rather ungainly looking two engined transport having two large clam-shell doors in the nose. We looked over the aircraft and wondered how to get to the cockpit which all too obviously was above the freight deck. There was an entrance door on the left side of the rear fuselage and on entering, we found ourselves in the cavernous, darkened freight area. But we could see no obvious way on to the flight deck. We went back outside thinking that maybe there was an entry from the outside. Rather sheepishly, we asked one of the attending airmen how one managed to get to the flight deck. An incredulous airman showed us a closed trapdoor in the roof of the freight compartment and helpfully explained how one should climb up the inside of the fuselage using the stringers as a ladder, to reach the trap-door which could then be pushed open. Soon, we had solved that problem and I occupied the left pilot’s seat.
We opened the sliding side windows and waved victoriously to the airmen outside, all of whom showed a distinct disinclination to come with us. We went through a standard left to right cockpit exploration. Ray found the engine start check list in the pilots’ notes and we started through these checks. All went well until we came to an item stating “Fuel booster pumps ON”. It took us five minutes to determine that there weren’t any switches for the booster pumps - just two circuit breakers which acted as switches. Soon we had an indication of fuel pressure and we proceeded with the checks concluding with engine starting. The rest was easy.
Finding one’s way into the cockpit is rarely the greatest challenge in flying another aircraft type, but many involved quite a bit of climbing. The Beverley was one of these. By the time you had managed to get seated in the pilot’s seat of a Beverley one had the distinct impression that you were just about to fly the machine, which resembled a block of flats, from a third floor window. You could climb out along the inside of a Beverley wing and attend to minor problems at the rear of the engines. I never had any inclination to try that. I’m sure it would have been a terrifying experience in flight. Getting back into the tail boom where you hid all of your passengers was enough of a challenge. This involved descending into the huge cargo hold, making one's way to the rear and climbing stairs into the tail boom.
It was the 5th of April before I flew one of the three types of V bombers. This was the Valiant, designed to a specification several years earlier than its two successors, the Vulcan and Victor. The Valiant was really an insurance against the other two being unsuccessful with their swept wings and other radical design innovations. I paired up with Peter Bardon for my first flight in the Valiant. He had two prior flights so was way ahead.
After several circuits and a little local familiarisation, I was considered to be checked-out.
A couple of flights later I was sharing my Valiant experience with Ray Bray on his first flight. We were flying a few circuits. I occupied the left seat. Taxiing back for a re-take-off I exercised the flight controls as the engines were accelerating to full power and was startled to notice a discontinuity in the rudder operation. I throttled the engines back to idle and investigated the rudder operation some more. Around central rudder, there was a definite unusual restriction. I turned the rudder power units off and on again and ended up with the rudder remaining locked at centre. We took that Valiant back to the flight line.
Engineers found that there was a malfunction of a supposed fail-safe locking mechanism, which locked the rudder when the Powered Flying Control units were inoperative. A fleet wide check before next flight revealed a few others needing attention. The rudder locking unit ended up being redesigned.
Early in May I was assigned to take a crew to Canada to pick up a Beverley, No 262, from RCAF Base Namao near Edmonton in Alberta where it had been based for cold weather trials over the previous winter.
The trip to Canada to ferry the Blackburn Beverley was quite an adventure. I now had all of 7 hours 15 mins experience in Beverleys. Ray Bray was my co-pilot and he had about two hours experience. The Navigator Flt Lt Ian Penny and two Flight Engineers, Eldridge and Eyre, had a little more time in the monsters.
Somehow we all arrived at an RCAF base in the UK, the night before launching in an RCAF North Star for Ottowa via Prestwick in Scotland and Keflavik in Iceland. The North Star was an unpressurised Skymaster (DC4) fitted with noisy Merlin engines. I managed 2½ hours flying the North Star between Keflavik and Ottawa. It was my first time over the Atlantic.
After an overnight in Ottawa, we boarded a civil Vickers Viscount to travel via Winnipeg and Calgary and then on to Edmonton. It snowed whilst we were on the ground at Calgary and brooms were used to sweep the snow from the wings before we departed.
Whilst waiting for the Beverley to become serviceable, I became interested in an F86 Sabre variant at Namao. Like all of the Canadian Sabres they had Orenda engines, but this one had three-foot-extensions on its wings to give it an enhanced high altitude capability. I was offered a flight and flew an intriguing 45 minutes.
That afternoon, the Beverley was declared ready for a test flight, so off we went in the general westerly direction of the Rocky Mountains, which looked fairly close. I decided to have a closer look at the Rockies, not appreciating that they were really about an hours flying away. They looked much closer in the clear crisp atmosphere in the area. That test flight lasted 2½ hours but we saw the Rockies up close.
A cold front went through Edmonton that night but that didn’t stop me from launching for Winnipeg the following day. I had on board 27 passengers, a couple of spare Beverley engines, boxes of spares and a torn down Auster aircraft. We had to fly through the weather front to reach Winnipeg, so did not see much of the ground. After an overnight at Winnipeg, during which the front passed us again, we were off next day for Ottowa. We had to penetrate the same front and ran in to heavy icing, losing our HF radio antenna and turned back with a fairly heavy load of ice. The electric de-icers on the props worked overtime but the airframe de-icing wasn’t nearly effective enough. Another overnight was spent at Winnipeg whilst our antenna was replaced.
Next day we caught up with the front again and this time went through it above icing levels coming out the other side about an hour out of Ottowa. I wanted to see some of Canada at low level so obtained clearance for flight at 500 ft above ground. During the descent through 2500 ft No 3 engine must have ‘felt tired’. Its propeller just auto-feathered and stopped the engine. I couldn't budge the prop out of feather so I cancelled the low level clearance and climbed on three engines to about 5000 ft for the rest of the flight into Ottowa.
The F/Engineers soon found that the electric brush housing for No 3 prop had broken, allowing a short circuit to activate the auto coarsening system. This feathered the prop, effectively stopping the engine.
Next day, we found the weather front again on the way to Goose Bay in Labrador. There we found we had a leaking rudder hydraulic booster unit and no on-board spare. We resigned ourselves to waiting at Goose Bay whilst a spare unit could be flown in from Namao.
The base at Goose Bay is on the southern shore of a large bay which was still partially frozen over. High snow drifts, formed by snow ploughs and blowers, extended down each side of the runways. These were slowly melting. Goose Bay is in the middle of nowhere and only accessible in the winter by air. A USAF squadron of Scorpion fighters based here formed part of the Dewline northern air defences of North America.
Our next stop was to be a World War 2 staging airfield called Bluey West One situated on the southern end of Greenland near the small town of Narsarsuak. This airfield could normally only be reached by flying about 35 miles up a fiord which had, at its entrance, a small island on which there was a radio beacon. There was a fork in the fiord about 10 miles in and it was mandatory that one take the right hand fork. To do otherwise and go to the left was most often disastrous as this arm of the fiord came to an abrupt narrow end where an aircraft was unable to turn back. Terrain in the area went up to about 10,000 feet forming huge forbidding cliffs.
All crews departing Goose Bay for Bluey West One had to be briefed on the hazards of the area and certified as having seen a movie of the correct fiord penetration.
The spare rudder booster unit arrived on a civil airline flight and was soon fitted. We were then ready to go. But the weather had other ideas. For several days the weather was too bad to launch. Eventually, I could see about a 60 per cent chance of making it into Bluey West so decided to give it a go. Topped up with fuel, I had about 15 hours endurance, enough to get to destination and return to Goose Bay with some reserve.
We were in or over cloud most of the way until reaching the radio beacon on the island off the southern tip of Greenland. I did a DF let down on the beacon and broke through a cloud base of about 4,000 ft. A vast variety of ice bergs and broken ice flows testified to the still cold conditions outside. I soon found the fiord entrance which was about 10 miles across, rapidly narrowing down to a gloomy looking tunnel. Vertical cliffs on each side disappeared up into the cloud. Huge ice bergs abounded and were of amazing colours at the violet end of the spectrum.
After flying up the tunnel for about 20 miles, I became wary lest we be trapped by the occasional snow showers which we encountered. Soon we encountered one of these snow showers completely blocking off the tunnel. I had no option but to turn around and hope that another snow shower had not developed behind us. But none had. I had the Navigator advise me on how much time we could spend in the area before going back to Goose Bay. This worked out to be about one hour.
I decided to climb up through the cloud and if I could top the cloud, home in on the beacon at Bluey West. We climbed into the clear at about 11,000 feet and soon had over the top indications. Very close to overhead, we flew over a hole, through which we could see the fiord and part of the airfield. The hole was about ½ mile across and opened out lower down like an inverted cone.
After transiting the hole a few times to get a feel for changing conditions, I could see that a snow storm was over most of the airfield but the approach end of the runway projected about 3,000 ft out of the snow. If I was quick, I knew I could put the Beverley on the visible portion of the runway which ran on up close to a cliff face. There was no going around again on this airfield. Nor was there to be any escape from the hole once I had penetrated into it by more than about 2,000 feet without the high risk of hitting some of the peaks buried in the cloud. It was the daddy of all sucker holes.
I knew I could do it but I had 27 passengers and crew to think about. I ventured a little into the hole, above safety height, for a better look before climbing back out again. The air traffic controllers in the tower couldn't assist as there was nil visibility from the tower through heavy snow.
It was just all too inviting and I announced my intention to land off a rapid descent. I reduced power to idle, reduced speed and dropped full flap. I selected full engine RPM, to get maximum braking from the huge props, and soon had a high rate of descent established. Runway length visible to me was now down to about 2,000 ft and slowly diminishing.
All went well until we reached about 4,000 ft. The aircraft had been cold soaked at the higher altitudes and was now penetrating very moist air. White circles of ice started to grow from the centres of the front windows where the glass must have been coldest. Judging the rate of growth of the ice patches, I could see that, by the time of intended touchdown, I may not be able to see at all. I called for windscreen de-icing. The engineer leaned past my right shoulder to reach and turn on the main switch for the alcohol spray de-icer pump. I waited expectantly for the spray to commence as I lined up on what was left of the runway. Now at about 1,500 ft I was looking through about one inch of glass near the lower frame, with my head bending low over the control column.
The engineer advised having checked the de-icer system circuit breaker and that it did not appear to be serviceable. I yelled for him to grab the fire axe and be prepared to knock out my front window on command. Someone produced a pair of goggles and tried to fit them around my forehead. I was intent on judging our one-shot only approach, peering through my slit of glass now less than ½ inch deep.
Speed and approach angle was working out well and as I rounded out over what appeared to be a couple of tennis court lengths of visible runway the glass became completely white. I could feel some ground effect as I called, “Brace yourselves.” It was an anti-climax. The touch down was a greaser, only indicated by the slight rumbling of the wheels as we rolled up into the snow covered parts of the runway. I kept straight on instruments and used maximum braking and reverse thrust until airspeed was no longer indicating. Soon after I felt the discontinuity of deceleration as we stopped. No one could see out of the aircraft, until a door was opened to reveal we were still on the runway. Heavy snow continued falling.
The controller in the tower had sounded the crash alarm, fully expecting us to have come to grief and was almost as relieved as were we to be in one piece. I left the aircraft heaters running and closed down the engines. It took about 20 minutes for airfield vehicles to find us in the snow. Soon after the snow shower had subsided enough for me to start a couple of engines and taxi clear of the runway and on to a dispersal.
By now, we had determined why the windscreen de-icer had not worked. I asked the engineer what setting he had selected on the rheostat for the pump motor. He said “What rheostat?” I said “That one” pointing to a rheostat on the side of the console behind me. It was set to Minimum/off. I had incorrectly assumed that he knew about the rheostat. Sometimes little things like that become incredibly important.
The weather clamped again and the ‘tunnel’ down the fiord closed off. A couple of amphibians were based here and their task was to recce the fiord whenever the weather was marginal. It was the next day before a recce showed conditions had improved. We were comfortable in the well equipped quarters and Officers’ Club. I walked around the base a bit but couldn't go far because of the snow. It never became darker that twilight at this latitude and time of the year. I decided to launch for Keflavik in Iceland at about 1800 hrs. We took off at about 2100 hrs local time. The flight down the fiord tunnel was absolutely fascinating in the half light.
I had to do a GCA approach at Keflavik at about 0400 hrs. There was a small gale blowing with teaming rain mixed with sleet. We all had a good breakfast while the aircraft was being refuelled. I did not see much of Iceland, except for the airfield in the dark.
Next stop was Prestwick for further refuelling, Customs and another meal. We were getting a bit weary by now but by popular choice decided to press on to the end of the trip. This was to be Blackburn’s little narrow strip at their factory near the town of Brough.
I had refrained from using propeller braking during landings after Bluey West One so at Brough on a relatively short runway I selected full-power reverse on all four engines. Taxiing, I soon found, by a rapidly rising engine oil temperature, that No 2 prop had stuck in reverse. I had to stop to close down that engine, before oil temperatures went too high. Another propeller brush housing had failed. Never a dull moment in a Beverley! We were a weary lot who disembarked from Beverley No 262. From Edmonton, Canada to Brough in England involved nearly 28 flying hours.
On June 5 I had my first flight in a Vulcan with Flt Lt Tony Blackman. We flew XA889 to Woodford near Manchester where AVRO had their aircraft factory. There, we had discussions with factory pilots and engineers on Vulcan performance. For the rest of the month I was involved with avionics trials on a Beverley.
January 1957 was a short flying month, starting with yet another Navigation Bombing System test flight in a Valiant. By now I was rapidly becoming the resident operational expert on the Mk10 autopilot and its coupling units for Nav/Bombing and automatic landing approaches. The Beverley was also receiving my attention with autopilot trials.
February was a busy month with Beverleys and Valiants, autopilot trials for the Beverley and rocket assist take-off trials for the Valiant. On 28 February I took the NBS Valiant 373 to Idris in Libya for some bombing trials on the El Adem range.
That concludes the extracts from my memoirs.
I recall that there are a few other observations I can make on handling the Beverley.
The engines were always temperamental on start up. Judging the optimum amount of priming was difficult and unpredictable.
Failures of the electric brush housing to the props was a common problem. I trust that there was redesign in this area for squadron service. I had one of these failures pre take off. I was intrigued to play with prop reversing and usually would bring the aircraft to a stop taxiing by easing 2 props into reverse. One could come to a very comfortable stop using this method. Having stopped on the runway using the outers in reverse I cancelled reverse, checked those silly dolls eyes and commenced the take off roll after applying power. Surprise, surprise, a hefty swing to the left could not be contained with nose wheel steering and some brake. Following a quick abort of the take off I soon determined that No 1 prop was stuck in reverse. And when the brush housing failed in this mode the dolls eye became useless. Whoops!
Early in my Beverley handling I adopted the practice of reversing into a tarmac parking position using a crew member on intercom having a rearward view for guidance or placing some reliance on a marshaller. I had not yet begun to use engines for stopping. It just happened that the first time I tried this the aircraft was loaded to the aft limit of cg for tests at this loading. On reaching the parking position I applied the wheel brakes. Very quickly the nose wheel left the ground and I felt the aircraft commence a backward somersault. Releasing the brakes had little effect on the rearward rotation so I slammed on power on all engines and applied brakes once more. The result was a distinctly solid landing of the nose wheels, some nodding of the fuselage and relief by the crew.
The Beverley was my first experience with an aircraft having reverse thrust props although I had previously developed a procedure whereby I could taxi a Lincoln backwards even though the Lincoln props could not provide reverse thrust.
Arising from my Beverley experience I adopted the feet on the floor technique when reversing henceforth and this was picked up by Handling Squadron to become an air force wide procedure.
Oh and that nose wheel steering ‘tiller’!!! Would love to know who designed that one.
And then there was the standard answer to those ATC fellows who insisted on checking gear down and locked. “Relax - it's down and welded!”
Trust the above will provide some insight into the early days of Beverley trials at Boscombe Down.