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Defending the Barracuda spoke to Bertie Vigrass OBE about the Fairey Barracuda and its infamous reputation.


Bertie Vigrass, OBE and his impressive array of medals! Key - Gary Parsons

One aircraft type that won’t be represented in any of the ‘Fly Navy 100’ celebrations is the unloved Fairey Barracuda, despite it being built in greater numbers than any other British-designed Fleet Air Arm type with 2,572 of all marks coming off the production lines. Intended as a replacement for the elderly Swordfish, the Barracuda was the first all-metal torpedo bomber. None survive today, except for remnants held by the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton.

Universally acclaimed as ugly, the Barracuda was really unloved due its appalling accident record in its early years of service, partly due to the leap in performance from the ‘stick and string’ Swordfish. One man who came to terms with the aeroplane and its vices is Bertie Vigrass OBE, one of the youngest ever Lieutenant Commanders in the Fleet Air Arm. A guest of honour aboard the modern HMS Illustrious at Greenwich on May 7 for the ‘Fly Navy 100’ flypast over London, Bertie was more than happy to defend the Barracuda’s war record.

Barracuda Mk I P9652 at AAEE Boscombe Down April 1943. Key Archive
Bertie was with 810 Squadron aboard the fourth and previous HMS Illustrious in July 1943. “We were the first squadron to take them into action, because our Commander Air said he wouldn’t go back to sea with the elderly Swordfish, although as pilots we were perfectly happy with it. We had to take the Barracudas from 825 Squadron, which was forming up at Stretton. After three weeks or so of training we were back on Illustrious - we had no trouble with the aeroplane.”

Early Barracudas were heavy and the Rolls-Royce Merlin 32 only just provided sufficient power, but this wasn’t the reason for its poor safety record, according to Bertie. “The pilots didn’t fly them properly. The Barracuda had novel air brakes – the Fairey-Youngman trailing-edge flaps - which meant you could go into a dive and keep the feel of 250 knots all the way down. If you were doing a torpedo approach, then you’d level off at 200 feet, but then the problem started; you’d pull up the flaps, but nothing would happen for seven seconds, which is quite a long time, and then the nose would drop. Now, if someone pulled out at 200 feet raised the flaps and then relaxed, after seven seconds the nose would drop, catching them out. Quite a number of pilots killed themselves doing that, but it was their fault, because they should have held it. The other thing was the dive - you had a handle on your elevator tab, so you could wind it back and pull the tailplane out of the disturbed air behind the wings. Most of the Barracuda’s problems, I believe, were pilot made - the aircraft was not difficult to fly, but it was easy to mishandle.”

Barracuda Mk II P9667, the first production Mk II. Key Archive
Some of the fatal crashes were traced to small leaks developing in the aircraft’s hydraulic system – a common leak was around the pilot's pressure gauge, resulting in fluid spray straight at the pilot's face. The hydraulic fluid contained ether, leading to the pilot quickly becoming unconscious. “I never had any engine trouble at all. We used to have hydraulic problems with the synthetic seals, and that gave a lot of trouble with Glycol leaks – if you had a Glycol leak in the cockpit, it wasn’t very nice. The airframe was okay as long as you didn’t mishandle it. As a maritime aircraft, they were quite good - not nearly as good as a fighter, but no maritime aircraft was.”

Bertie joined the Fleet Air Arm at the age of 19. After initial training he was awarded his wings in 1941 had further training on the Albacore and Swordfish, learning dive bombing, torpedo dropping and deck landing techniques. By his 21st birthday he was with 829 Squadron on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious engaged in convoy protection missions. “We were involved in four war zones; the first one was against the French at Madagascar. I had my first torpedo hang-up in a Swordfish there! We then operated off Burma against the Japanese for a year. The rule was ‘don’t fly if the fighters are there’; for instance off Burma we had Zeros, so we became a night flying squadron. They couldn’t fly at night and even if they did they couldn’t fight. In the tropics we used to fly without shirts on! If it was cold you dressed for it, but nothing like an arctic convoy - if you went in the sea there, you’d had it.”

Barracuda Mk II BV760 on a sortie on August 18, 1943. Key Archive
After the Far East, HMS Illustrious returned home to the UK and prepared for its third theatre of operations, this time in the Mediterranean, supporting the Allied landings in Salerno. “It was when we got back to this country that we got the Barracuda. On the way to the Med we did an operation off Norway, to try to get the Germans to pull back troops from North Africa.

“We would fly dawn and dusk patrols, but we hadn’t much chance of seeing a submarine, although my squadron did see one in Madagascar. The purpose of the exercise was for the sub to see us - if it can see us, it would not be able to surface to either transmit or recharge its batteries. We used to hate the dusk patrol, because you’d have to find the ship in the dark. Three days after joining the ship we lost one of our squadron on a dusk patrol, particularly as there was radio silence, because there were submarines around. At that moment I realised that we were expendable.

A Barracuda Mk II from 767 NAS lands aboard HMS Battler on July 17 1945, showing the Fairey-Youngman flap to good effect. Fleet Air Arm Museum image
“Then we went to the Med and covered the Salerno landings; so we fought the French, the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians, although really the Italians had capitulated the night before Salerno.” By the age of 23 Bertie was a Commanding Officer of a Barracuda squadron. “I went to a seaward deck landing squadron (767 Squadron) at Easthaven in Arbroath because I was an experienced deck landing pilot.”

After the war Bertie joined the Royal Naval reserve and commanded the Royal Navy’s Midland Air Division for ten years with the rank of Commander, flying Fireflies, Avengers, Seafires, Sea Furies and Supermarine Attackers. “My transition from propeller to jet aircraft was at Culdrose, where I went to do a jet conversion course. All the twin-seat Meteors were grounded, so we only had Vampires, none with dual controls. My instructor said ‘Well, that’s the Vampire, these are the pilot’s notes; read these and then take off, go to 40,000 feet, come back, do an approach, keep your revs up to 3,000, speed 92 knots.’ ‘Wait a minute’, I said, ‘I haven’t been to 40,000 feet before, and how do I keep my speed with…’ ‘Air brakes laddie, air brakes!’ Oh yes, airbrakes! I went off, taxied out for my first take-off in a jet and turned into wind.

Hundreds of Barracudas were simply dumped at the end of the war. Maybe we should get dredging the Mediterranean...Key Archive
“I didn’t find it a difficult transition - it’s quite leisurely, with no noise and no wind. I did my first approach and went round again; on my real landing I thought ‘that’s fine, I’m coming in at 92 knots, 3,000 revs, brake on’ and I touch down. I noticed my air brake was still out, so I pulled it in sharpish, taxied back and hoped my instructor hadn’t seen me, but of course he had! He said ‘Very nice landing, but you wouldn’t have got round again…’”

By the end of his active flying career Bertie had flown 24 different types of aircraft. “We stopped flying in 1957 when Mr Sands decided there was too much flying in the reserves.” He was awarded an OBE for services to aviation in 1952.

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1 Comment

Tommy Lynch said on the 26-Dec-2013 at 01:30

Wow, a great project filling in the blanks in our aviation fossil record so to speak. It may be ugly & ungainly for some, but a successor to the Swordfish needed to be built. let it not be forgotten that it was a humble Swordfish which ultimatley did for the mighty Bismark

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