Fighter training perils of RAF’s pioneer pilots

Early fighter pilot training proved to be something of an erratic mission. In the first of a two-part feature, Dave Unwin evaluates the men and machines involved in the hazardous and frequently fatal journey towards today’s turboprops.

The RFC and then the RAF flew Avro 504s for many years.

The military has been training pilots for well over a century. While early flight training left a great deal to be desired, by 1920 it had become a much more structured process than during World War One. During that conflict, it is probable that more pilots died during training than were ever killed in combat, but it wasn’t just inadequate training that caused the deaths of so many young men. The machines they flew were usually unstable and often unreliable, while the inherent difficulties produced by the torque and gyroscopic precession of a large rotary engine had to be experienced to be believed. In the right hands, aircraft such as the legendary Sopwith Camel were lethal to the enemy, but were just as dangerous for their pilots if mishandled.

At the start of the conflict, the process of learning to fly had been remarkably unsatisfactory and disorganised, a state not helped by mostly inferior training aircraft such as the Maurice Farman ‘Longhorn’ limited numbers of ground school and poor communication between the instructors and students. Pupils regularly soloed with barely three hours of flight time, with predictably catastrophic results. One of the Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC) original aviators, Major Robert Smith-Barry, resolved to improve matters and in 1916 at the RFC’s School of Special Flying at Gosport, Hampshire, he introduced a syllabus based on a structured arrangement of ground school training in a classroom, combined with dual flight instruction in a suitable aircraft. For this, the RFC eventually settled on the Avro 504, equipped with a soft rubber tube like a ship’s voice pipe and known as the ‘Gosport tube’ which enabled in-flight communication between instructor and student. Probably the greatest innovation of Smith-Barry’s system was that instead of avoiding potentially dangerous manoeuvres such as stalls, students were purposely exposed to them by their instructor and then shown how to recover. This may seem obvious, but earlier flight instruction relied on avoiding hazards. Consequently, if a student inadvertently stalled, they had no idea how to retrieve the situation.

At the start of World War One, the RFC used mostly inferior training aircraft, such as the Maurice Farman ‘Longhorn’
All images Key Collec

More modern machines

Smith-Barry’s method was such a success that the Gosport system of training was eventually adopted at training schools throughout the world and remained the principal method of flight instruction for decades.

Between the wars, the RAF was often considered to be the world’s best flying club rather than a professional fighting force and for many years there was very little progress in both the types it flew and how they were operated. In fact, the 504 trainer remained in service until 1933, while the development of fighter aircraft was so slow that the pilot of a 1917 SE5A would not have found a 1937 Hawker Fury a particularly intimidating prospect. Both fighters were open-cockpit biplanes powered by liquid-cooled engines and armed with.303 calibre machine guns”

However, towards the end of the 1930s much more modern machines began to appear. Almost invariably of monoplane configuration and fitted with engines producing more than 1,000hp, they featured several advanced features such as enclosed cockpits, retractable undercarriages, flaps and variable pitch propellers. Furthermore, the introduction of gyroscopic flight instruments, electronic navigation aids and increased use of the famous Link Trainer led to fighters becoming much more than only Day/VFR capable. The rise of 1930s Nazi Germany led to a massive rearmament programme, and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was created. This called for up to 50,000 pilots a year to be trained and, as the weather in the UK is often inclement, flight training schools were set up in – among others – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the former

The pilot of a 1917 SE5A would not have found a 1937 Hawker Fury a particularly intimidating prospect.

Rhodesia and South Africa. New aircraft, such as the North American T6 advanced trainer, equipped many flight training schools. The T-6 or Harvard, as it was known in the RAF, became invaluable as its retractable undercarriage, variable pitch propeller and flaps made it an excellent ‘stepping stone’ from biplane basic trainers such as the Tiger Moth to the fighters of the period. This was just as well as none of the allied air forces had dedicated two-seat trainers for any of their frontline fighters such as the Hurricane, Spitfire, P-47 or P-51. This thinking initially continued into the jet age although it soon became apparent that as jets were so dif erent a dedicated trainer was a good idea, which led to the introduction of two-seat versions of single seaters such as the Meteor, Vampire and Shooting Star. However, at first even the supersonic Lightning did not have a two-seat version available for type conversions, which must have given pilots converting to it quite a thrill.

Unfortunately, the accident rates in training remained rather high. In 1952 alone, the RAF crashed 150 Meteors, the majority during training. It also wrote of about 80 Vampires and hundreds of other aircraft (505 in total – or almost the size of the RAF in 2020) at the same time. Astonishingly, the air force simply seemed to accept accidents as inevitable but, of course, many of the instructors were World War Two veterans who had seen real carnage, such as losing an entire squadron on one mission. So, why was the Meteor accident rate so high? There are several reasons, including the aircraft’s short endurance, minimal navaids, unpressurised cockpit and poor instrumentation. However, a huge number of accidents occurred while practising asymmetric flight at low level, for even though the Meteor’s poor asymmetric handling characteristics were well known the RAF insisted on a disproportionate amount of single-engine training.

The first jet trainers were two-seat versions of single seaters such as the Vampire.

The RAF’s first purpose-built jet trainer the Jet Provost (JP) entered service in 1959, and for a while the RAF experimented with an all-jet syllabus, consisting of 160 hours flying in the JP before moving on to the Folland Gnat for a further 150 hours. This system made students conscious of the importance of fuel and oxygen from the start of flight training and exposed them to a jet’s much greater speeds. Eventually though, it was realised that ab initio flight training was much more cost-ef ective in a piston-powered aircraft, such as the Chipmunk, Bulldog or Tutor, before students moved on to the JP and Gnat, and later the Hawk. Recently the RAF and many other air forces have retired their piston-powered aircraft and, although still using propeller driven aeroplanes for ab initio, basic and advanced training, these machines are now fitted with turbine engines. I’ve been fortunate to evaluate two of these modern turboprops: Grob’s 120TP and the Pilatus PC-21. I will examine both aircraft in more detail while looking to the future of flight training in next month’s AIR International.