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August 2004, Archive Story



To introduce myself, I joined the RAF as a 'Halton apprentice' in Sept 1952, training as an 'Engine Fitter' and I spent the last years of my service, from April '63 to Feb '66, serving on 111 Sqn at Wattisham. Initially we had Mk.1A's, including the Airfix Lightning XM192 and a T.4, converting to Mk.3's and T5 during early 1965. My diary for Jan 1 1965 indicates that 'A' XM184, 'N' XM214, R and J 'flew away', and for Jan 4 1965 'working on Mk.3 XP741'.

The CO when I arrived was Sqn Ldr Wirdnam and at that time the a/c were in aluminium finish with the Squadron badge on either side of the fin and the 'Lightning flash' either side of the nose. 'Z', the T.4, had yellow bands on the mainplanes. Later, the CO was Sqn Ldr Black, and about that time both 56 and Treble One started fancy paint schemes on the aircraft. A competition was held on 111 Sqn to decide what form of decoration would be adopted and it was won by a corporal radar fitter. In my mind I see his face, but am unable to put a name to it.

In addition to the paint job, each aircraft carried a pilot's name beneath the cockpit. I can remember only two - 'A' was initially Sqn Ldr K Wirdnam, subsequently changed to Sqn Ldr Black, and 'N' XM214 Fg Off A Garside. Alan Garside was the solo aerobatic pilot in 1963 and was unfortunately killed on 15 July, either Wyton or Wittering I believe. I remember him and XM214 very well, because after the funeral his parents and fiancée came in to our hangar as I was frantically trying to spare them further sadness by removing his name from 'N'. This was our only 'fatal' during my time with the Squadron, but of course there were several incidents involving a/c being written off.

The most spectacular was on 29 Sept '65 when a brand new Mk.3, 'H', suffered a double flame-out on the approach and crashed at Church Farm, Battisford. Fortunately the pilot, Flt Lt Molland, made a successful ejection and was unhurt. I got involved on the enquiry for this, involving a Mr Novak from Farnborough. The weather was fine and it was very pleasant out in the fields. Mr Novak's car, a bit of a 'banger', was reluctant to start in the mornings and my first daily job was to collect him from the Officers Mess and transport him to the site. I seem to remember the reason for the flame-out was the malfunction of some shuttle valves in the cross feed system, allowing fuel from the 'fuel-draulic' pumps to circulate round and round instead of going to the engines.

Some weeks later I was hauled into the Engineer Officer's (Sqn Ldr Coveney) office, - filthy overalls and reeking of kerosene - and there was the Group Captain. Suspecting trouble of some kind, I was very apprehensive, but everyone was smiling and it turned out that the report from Farnborough contained references to me which reflected well for the Sqn. I have always considered the good report was for work to Novak's car!

A further incident I recall was the time that a certain pilot, at night, lined up on the ORP instead of the runway. When the sun came up it revealed three extended furrows across the airfield and a very sad Lightning in the distance. I think the pilot was promoted and given a Squadron command (Number 74?) next day!

The most humorous 'happening' occurred to a very popular pilot, Chris Carr-White. It was common for nozzles on the refuelling probes to shear off from time to time, depending on the type of contact made with the tanker. I can still see the grin on Carr-Whites face and the rush of aircrew and groundcrew alike as he taxied in with a complete 'basket' from the tanker stuck on the end of the probe. Happy days!

Then there was the day we suddenly had a 'convertible' Lightning? Four aircraft were to scramble from a position angle parked on the side of the runway. Number 3 was moving away, throttles open, before Number 4 had closed his canopy. The canopy was torn off and the a/c flown minus the hood.

In 1965 we went to the Paris Air show, having assumed the aerobatic team status from 56 Sqn. We always understood that it was this display which helped sell the a/c to Saudi Arabia. This show also saw the first appearance of the 'Red Sparrows' and there were many jokes on the Squadron about 'picking Gnats out of the air intakes'.

In 1994, the day after XM192 left Wattisham, I returned there with a party of ex-Brats as guests of the Army Air Corps. Most of the party took advantage of the helicopter rides offered, many of them with 'Corporal' pilots, but I preferred to go just once more to our old No 1 hangar. The last time I had seen it there were more than a dozen a/c there and now it was completely empty - no lockers, no ground equipment, nothing. But the ghosts were there! I could almost see Johnny Poulter, the rigger, dancing on a mainplane and singing a rude parody on Freddy and the Dreamers latest song 'You give me a feeling in my heart, like an arrow, passing through it' only he always substituted another part of the body for 'heart'. They were happy days, probably because we were young, and the memories are deeply etched on the mind. Who will ever forget the acrid smell of burnt Avpin from the starter exhaust and how you always kept your beret handy for swotting the residual flames from the starter exhaust?

On the 'turn round' or 'after flight' servicing, another favourite trick was to sit in the cockpit and wait for whoever was fitting the brake chute to vault up on to the tailplane in order to fit the toggle for the cable. Most of us achieved great timing and coordination and, using the residual pressure in the power controls, jerking the control column at the right moment would catapult the unwary brake chute fitter much higher than he had planned to go!

I enclose some photos from that era - sorry I don't have the negatives but feel free to copy them if you want to. Unfortunately the emulsion on the few colour slides I have has started to deteriorate. The security at that time was also very tight as far as cameras were concerned and this has served to limit the pictures that we were able to 'steal'. I am in touch with several other 111 people from this time and will see from them if any more pictures are available.

List of aircrew as remembered '63 - '66
Sqn Ldr K Wirdnam - CO
Sqn Ldr G Black - CO
Fg Off Carlton - eventually became C/O of 41 Sqn
Flt Lt Carr-White - famous for the 'basket' on the end of the probe
Flt Lt Chisholm - Canadian exchange pilot
Fg Off Craig
Flt Lt Dick ('Moby', what else?)
Fg Off Alan Garside, - solo aerobatics pilot, 1963, killed 15 July 1963
Flt Lt Jago (?)
Flt Lt Maish - became C/O of 74 Sqn
Flt Lt Molland - ejected from 'H' after double flame out on approach Church Farm, Battisford, 29 Sept 1965
Fg Off O'Dowd (Jack)
Fg Off Perreux (Kiwi) - New Zealander (?), killed in mid air collision serving with the Red Arrows at Kemble.
Flt Lt Summer - always reverted to a broad Brummie accent when excited - did he ever realise we would 'wind him up' deliberately!?

I have other friends in this area who were involved with the Lightning in the early days. My brother Jim ran the Flight Simulator at Coltishall before going aircrew himself and I have an ex-armourer friend who was involved in the gun firing trials on AFDS at Coltishall at the same time. If you could send me the necessary paperwork I'm sure we could boost your Association membership by at least 4.

In the early 60's there was a local man who made quite a name for himself singing and recording his own songs under the name of the 'Singing Postman'. I don't expect you've heard of him! His real name is Alan Smethurst and I think he now lives in a Salvation Army home in Grimsby. Anyway I enclose a tape with a song he wrote and recorded in about 1964 about the 'Wattisham Lightnings' in case your members have never heard of it. If you understand Norfolk dialect it may help! Sorry I've taken so long to write but what with Xmas and chemotherapy etc it has been difficult.

John Lawn

John, on behalf of the Association, I would like to thank you for your letter - absolutely brilliant! I've tried to transpose the tape accurately, but I'm sorry I can't transpose the dialect into the words! Anyway here it is. (Ed.)

The Wattisham Lightning Song

Some way from old Stowmarket
And miles from everywhere,
There is a private studio
And I make records there.
It's always nice and peaceful
Except for just one thing,
No sooner do I start my song
(Sound of a Lightning blasting overhead in reheat, approx 250 ft!)
I have to start again.

Now that was no self-binder
Nor yet no motor-car,
That be Wattisham aerodrome
Not far from where we are.
Now they've got lots of Lightnings
And they don't half make din,
And every time I start to play
(Sound of Lightning coming in to land, approx 50 ft!)
I have to start again.

Now every day they practise
And every night as well,
They fly all over England
Like bats fly out of Hell.
It really is a problem
I simply just can't win,
Cause every time I start to play
(Sound of Lightning going past pulling into tight turn, very close)
I have to start again.

They are so big and powerful
They fly so quickly too,
And oh, that awful noise they make
I don't know what to do.
I'll do that Wing Commander
If ever I see him,
Cause every time I start to play
(Sound of Lightning going past pulling into full reheat climb)
I have to start again.

We all know they'll be obsolete
If there's another war,
We all know they'll be obsolete
Like the Wellesleys was before.
I think I'll buy a Bren gun
And when they next come in,
I'll (Sound of Bren firing and jet descending straight into the ground, then birds twittering in the silence)
And now I'll start again.

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