Personal Memories

John Hassell            THE REFORMATION OF 543 SQUADRON - APRIL 1955

I am an ex RAF Apprentice and at Gaydon in 1955 myself and another Corporal Air Radio Fitter, Brian Mayall, both under the guidance of a Flt Lt Cawthorne (Sqdn Eng. Off.) found ourselves as the founder members of the reforming 543 Sqdn. We two corporals spent many weeks in a hut on the airfield 'Demanding' everything that was needed for the task, no mean feat as this was everything from aircraft tractors to toilet rolls. Eventually the first Valiant WP217 arrived followed in due course by WP 219, WP221 and WP223. When this 'A' Flight was up and running we were all posted to Wyton were 'B' flight was formed. Wing Commander (Tich) Havercroft was the Sqdn CO at that time and never have I seen a man so respected by the groundcrew. I think that Sqdn Leader Berry was Flt Commander at that time and the name of Critchley seems to ring a bell. Incidentaly I do know of Tich Havercrofts previous service but I do not know what happened after 1959.
Aircraft delivered to Gaydon by the Vickers pilots always arrived with quite incredible beat ups and as you perhaps already are aware that WP217 was the aircraft that suffered the first spar failure that signalled the end of the Valiant.
It may be worth mentioning that we three founding members mentioned above were doing this exercise for the second time, the first being to form 138 Sqdn which was posted to Wittering but leaving us three behind to set up 543 Sqdn.
Such marvellous memories, and I am now approaching the age of 76 yrs (September 2010).



Competitors and Crews



On the first of January 1969, the day after the RAF handed over the responsibility for the UK's nuclear deterrent to the RN, a bunch of us came down the A1 from the disbanded 100/139 Blue Steel Squadrons at Wittering to join the depleted 543 Squadron at Wyton. At the beginning there was a little bit of `them & us' between the ex 100/139 crews and the established 543 crews, which did not please the boss - Wg Cdr John Worrall, too much. But I was fortunate to avoid this by joining an already established crew who's AEO had been posted late in the previous year. Captain was Flt Lt Terry Bradley, co-pilot - FO Mike O'Donovan, and the nav team were Flt Lts Colin (Taff) Evans - plotter, & Dave Magee - radar. I had no sooner settled in to flying with this experienced crew than word came to the Squadron that we were to participate in the Daily Mail Trans-Atlantic Air Race (DMTAAR). The event, to take place in May 1969, was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first non-stop Atlantic crossing by Alcock & Brown and was open to both service and civilian entrants. The race for the competitors was between the top of the GPO Tower in London to the top of the Empire State building in New York, and vice versa. RAF Wyton was to enter four competitors, two from 543 - FOs Stu Stevenson and Bill Fuller, and one each from 51 & 58 Squadrons - Flt Lts Eric Hemson and Derek Aldous, also based at Wyton (to show a degree of fairness); two competitors going east/west - Fuller & Hemson, and the other two going west east - Aldous & Stevenson. 543 was to provide the four crews to fly the competitors, with likewise two going east/west and the other two vice versa. The Boss's and Nobby Clarke's crews would make the east/west crossing and John Marman's and our crew would make the west/east crossing. To reduce drag and maximise on speed, we were to fly the Victor SR2 aircraft clean, that is with no drop tanks. The competitors would ride on the sixth seat, normally occupied by the crew-chief, which is in the middle of the rear cockpit behind the two pilots up front and the three rear crew in the back

In truth, 543 and the Wyton competitors were the secondary RAF entrants. The emphasis was on the newly introduced Harrier, which was to be flown east/west by Sqn Ldr Williamson and west/east by Sqn Ldr Lecky-Thompson. This called for in-flight refuelling, so it also involved most of the Victor Mk1 tanker force at Marham. And as the Harrier was a single seat aircraft the pilots were also the competitors. The RN was not to be outdone, and they entered their Phantoms, one to fly east/west and the other west/east, and as a two man aircraft the navigator in each was the competitor. In the UK, the nearest airfield that could be used for the race, closest to London, was the Hawker-Siddley airfield at Wisley between Woking and Leatherhead. A particular attraction of Wisley was its long, near east/west, runway. In the US, the airfield chosen was the US Naval Air Station Floyd Bennett in the Bronx and close to New York City. However, a principal objective of the RAF (and industry) in entering the Harrier in the Air race was to demonstrate its VTOL capability, and it is here that a bit of uncustomary initiative was shown by the RAF planners. In London at St Pancras, a lease on a disused coal yard was obtained, which was large enough for the Harriers to take off and land on. Motor cycle riders from the RAF Police were employed to take the competitors as pillion riders from the base of the GPO Tower to the St Pancras coal yard, while members of the RAF Regiment were employed to guide and escort the competitors down the GPO Tower. In New York, this RAF initiative excelled even further when a landing site (see Note 1) was found on the East River that could take the Harriers, with the RAF Police motor cycle riders and the RAF Regiment similarly employed as in London. In the event, the RAF Regiment members were outstanding in the execution of their task in both the GPO Tower and the Empire State Building. Not only did they become very familiar with the layout, lift movements, and most expedient routing in both the London and New York buildings, but they learnt to function as a team so that they could control the lift movements at every level to ensure that their competitor got down their particular tower in the quickest possible time, and (unofficially), in some areas close to the two towers, controlled the movement of traffic to ensure a speedy departure by the motor cycle riders and their competitor passengers. However, for the Victor and Phantom competitors a further journey was required to get them from the Harrier landing site in St Pancras to Wisley, and similarly from the East River site to Floyd Bennett in the US. This task was spread between RN helicopters in the UK, and RAF Wessex helicopters New York. (In many ways, these helicopter crews, the RAF Police motor cycle riders and the RAF Regiment were the unsung heroes of this whole exercise, because their performance was critical to the times achieved by the competitors, but at the end they received precious little credit for their achievements.)

Note 1. It may be an apocryphal story, but the word at the time was that an RAF Wg Cdr air trafficker found the landing site on the East River. It was an old ware house building that had been acquired by an order of nuns and the deal was that the RAF would pay to have the building demolished and the site flattened and levelled provided it could subsequently be used for the Air Race period after which it would be returned to the nuns, saving them the cost of the demolition before their new building was erected. This RAF Wg Cdr was even more shrewd; he realised that much time could be lost by the routing directions given in the New York air space, particularly as the descent into and out of Floyd Bennett and the East river landing site cut right across the climb out/descent lanes into New York's civilian airports. So, on the pretext of familiarising the principle New York air traffic personnel with the RAF and their procedures, a group of them were flown into the UK before the Race got underway. In the time that they were in the UK, this group of American air traffic people were taken to all of the RAF bases involved, including Wyton. A full Station Dining In Night was held with the Americans as principal guests; they were liberally and well entertained, with all of the customary traditions of RAF Dining In nights (and I believe that they were treated similarly at the other bases in the UK). This certainly proved to be a very worthwhile exercise as, in the event, we received direct climb out/descent routings at the expense of the civilian aircraft, so much so that a number of prominent civilian competitors - Stirling Moss and Clement Freud come to mind, were driven to complain to the race organisers.

Ready and Off to New York

Bradley CrewBut back to 543 and the Bradley crew at Wyton. In April 1969, preparations and training for the Air Race started in earnest under Exercise Blue Nylon. We started to practise flying the aircraft clean with no drop tanks which culminated in a flight to Goose Bay, appropriately dog legged at the Goose Bay end to replicate the distance to Floyd Bennett. This also enabled the selection of the best aircraft for the Race in the way that they flew clean, fuel consumption, nav gear and serviceability - XL161 and XM717 were finally chosen to be the Race aircraft. Preparations also included a descent into Wisley to familiarise the pilots with the airfield features and layout. The RAF Public Relations Office also came into action as all Wyton participating crew members and competitors were variously officially photographed, with copies and appropriate write-ups being forwarded to the local news papers of those involved. Finally, on 2nd May 1969, the Marman and Bradley crews in non-race aircraft departed Wyton for NAS Floyd Bennett to position for the Air Race for real.

For the RAF, a cell was formed at HQ Strike Command to control the RAF participation, and in particular to observe the weather patterns and winds over the North Atlantic in order to decide the best day for the crews and competitors to fly their particular route. In New York, this suited us fine as the decision on whether we were to fly that day would be taken by mid-day UK time, which was just after breakfast for us. If it was to be a no fly day, then we would all take off to see the sights and attractions of New York. This would be by bus to an area in the Bronx called `Flatbush' (which we were told was quite a dodgy area and that we were to stay in the principal thoroughfares - although we never saw any trouble), and thence by subway into New York. We became quite familiar with the journey, and Greenwich Village became a principal destination at night, and in particular a bar called `Your Father's Moustache'. This large bar, where the beer was usually served in jugs and had rows of bench tables and seats, employed a banjo band to play popular songs throughout the evening to which the audience and beer drinkers sang, with increasing gusto as the evening and beer consumption went on. A particular attraction was the random seating arrangement, whereby a number of appropriately attired waiters had the job of seating the customers. People on sparsely seated tables would be told to shove up, and we would be seated. We got to meet quite a number of New Yorkers this way. (For the singlies it was an excellent opportunity to meet the members of the opposite sex, and I even heard one unnamed singly ask one the rather hackneyed old - `…..have you ever seen the New York sky line from the Staten Island Ferry?' - and it worked!) Despite the warnings of the dangers in the area, the only hazard returning to our Naval Air Station billet late at night, was to ensure in the subway train that we had our feet out of the way as the New York cop walked down the isle, otherwise you could receive a sharp tap on the ankles if you were dozing and failed to see his approach. (At that time the New York cops were renowned for their brusqueness - when seeking directions from one of these gentlemen he growled `what do you think I am - a g……d travel guide!') On arrival at the Floyd Bennett gate on foot we were always waved straight through as the USN gate guards declared that `…you Brits are the only ones that walk around here!'

As it turned out, the winds in early May favoured the east/west crossings first. I was fortunate to get to fly in the RAF Wessex helicopter that was flying SAR safety as the Harrier made its approach and vertical landing on to the East River landing pad. This really blew the minds of the New Yorkers when pictures featured on TV and the front pages of the newspapers the following day - a fast-jet combat aircraft landing `down town New York! And the exercise certainly paid dividends for UK industry as later events foretold when the US Marines became the largest user of the UK Harrier concept as their mainstay close support aircraft in the guise of the AV8A and later AV8B.

On the 4th May, the Boss made the first Victor crossing, east/west, in XL161 making a flight time of 6hrs dead, with Bill Fuller achieving a race time of 6hrs 28m 19s. Two days later, on 6th May, Nobby Clarke came over in XM717 making a flight time of 5hr 49m, and their competitor - 51 Sqn's Eric Hemson - achieving a Race time of 6hr 16m 55s; 11 minutes quicker on the flight time and about the same time to get from and to the top of both towers.

The RN guys were the first to make the west/east crossing. They had, very largely, been doing their own thing and were not under the control of the Race cell at HQ STC. On the day they decided to go, they certainly played it up to the edge. As their navigator competitor made his way from the top of the Empire State to Floyd Bennett, the Phantom pilot positioned his aircraft on the end of the runway and he sat there waiting with engines running - and the refuelling bowser plugged in. As the helicopter dropped the navigator as close to the Phantom as possible, and he climbed aboard, the bowser was rapidly disconnected and the Phantom shot off down the runway as the navigator closed his canopy. I have some doubt that he was fully strapped in as they took off. At the Wisley end, in the desire to stop as quickly as possible, the pilot burnt out both brakes and burst both main wheel tyres.

From Secondary to Primary Crew

On the morning of the 8th May, the STC Race cell decided that it was the Victor's turn to go west/east, with the Marman crew in XL161 as primary and our crew in XM717 as secondary backup. The primary aircraft was positioned on the end of the main runway and we were positioned on a side entrance to the main runway in XM717 that Nobby Clarke had done so well in. In the practice period for the Race, we had all worked out how we would handle the aircraft checks for the Race; to conserve fuel, we wanted to start the engines at the last possible moment, and of course our last check before takeoff would be to ensure that the aircraft entrance door was closed and locked, so we would have to do things in a different order than the standard drill. We all devised our own order of checks, and those used by the Bradley crew are as shown.

aircraft readiness checks

As the back-up aircraft, we had prepared exactly the same as the primary crew, with all of our kit on board - which was just as well as it turned out. We ran through the checks and, as we waited for the Marman crew's competitor - Derek Aldous, to arrive, we heard a call from the other aircraft advising that they were having compass trouble. There was a little bit of dilly- dallying, but a quick decision had to be made as Derek was fast approaching. John Marman declared his aircraft as unserviceable, so we were now on the go line. We heard the helicopter call that it was five minutes out, and started engines as the helicopter was advised by Air Traffic that we were now the primary aircraft. Derek was dropped as close to us as possible and, as he jumped from the helicopter and climbed aboard, we ran through our revised Pre-Take-Off checks, with Derek completing the final check that the door was `closed and checked'. As he rapidly strapped himself in, Terry Bradley, our pilot opened up the throttles and we shot on to the runway; with take off clearance given, Terry went to full power and off we went. However, after a few seconds of the take off role, I felt a rapid lurch to the right, almost immediately followed by a similar lurch to the left. As I rapidly scanned around my panels, I noticed both hydraulic pump failure lights flashed on and off. A cry from the back was answered by `sorry guys, tell you in a minute'. But thereafter we settled back into the take-off roll, and were soon airborne and climbing away. As we completed the After take-Off checks, Terry then explained that the lurch had been caused by his move to gain the centre line of the runway, rather than the left hand marker line that he had mistakenly initially lined up on, as we had moved onto the runway from the side entrance. (The Floyd Bennett runway was very wide, and both left and right makers lines for the main part of the runway were well inside the actual tarmaced area, which had caused the initial confusion.)

The New York air traffic guys were true to form and gave us a direct, on track, climb out clearance to our cruising altitude with no restrictions - brilliant. So the navigators went to work and we settled in for the Atlantic crossing at 40,000 ft plus. Terry was determined to get the maximum speed out of 717, and tickled the throttles up until we were just above the mach limiting number. But this came to an end just about half way over when our co-pilot Mike O'Donovan, whose job it was to monitor the fuel, announced that he did not think that at this speed and fuel consumption that we would make Ireland yet alone Wisley, so Terry pulled back a little. As we approached Ireland we made RT contact with the UK Air Traffic, and as we passed south of Ireland we were in fact on `long finals' to land at Wisley. It was `gin clear' over the UK and soon Wisley loomed into sight. Shortly afterwards, Taff Evans, our nav plotter, announced that we were approaching top of descent. We completed our Air Race Pre-Descent checks, but Terry decided to hang on a little bit longer at altitude to keep up the speed. Derek Aldous, our competitor and a Canberra navigator, was watching through the front cockpit over the top of his sixth seat. As he saw Wisley disappear under the nose of the aircraft from his viewpoint, he cast doubt that we would make it on a straight in approach. Terry was unperturbed. But shortly afterwards he chopped the throttles and we started our descent. He was not to touch the throttles again as we fell out of the sky. The flaps were lowered as we went below the flap limiting speed, likewise at the last minute the undercarriage. We completed the Air Race Vital Pre-Land checks, and shortly afterwards Terry plonked the aircraft onto the end of the runway, a most outstanding piece of flying. As we had not practised our proposed procedure with Derek to get him out of the aircraft as quickly as possible, he had been briefed on the way over on what we intended to do next. So, as he rapidly unstrapped, I operated the emergency door open mechanism. Taff also rapidly unstrapped and, as Derek positioned himself to sit on the sill of the open door, Taff moved behind him and grabbed the back of his Mae West to hold on to him. Meanwhile, as soon as we had settled on the runway after landing, Terry streamed the tail brake parachute, and both pilots hit the brakes as hard as they could. We knew that as we came to a stop at the end of the landing run, there would be sufficient nose wheel oleo depression to almost let Derek step onto the ground with no need for the usual ladder - but timing was all important. Also, as we had landed, the RN helicopter that was to take Derek to the St Pancras coal yard for his onward race to the top of the GPO tower, had formated on our wing as we came over the hedge. As we came to a stop with maximum oleo depression, Taff let Derek go who by then was just hanging by his rear on the door sill. At the same time, the helicopter touched down and Derek ran towards it. Now, despite all the Air Race arrangements in place, HM Customs and Immigration insisted that their normal checks had to be completed (probably in deference to the civilian competitors using the commercial routes). However, they made the concession that they would ride in the helicopter and complete their checks as the competitor climbed aboard. There was potential for delay in this arrangement so, to `help', one of the Squadron guys also rode in the helicopter with the official. Also, special see-through pouches had been made for the competitors, which were on their chests held around their necks; these were used to hold and display their passport and other necessary documentation needed to be seen by the official. In the event, as Derek ran up to jump aboard the helicopter, our squadron guy linked arms with the official and jumped out, passing and `clearing' Derek as he jumped aboard the helicopter and it rapidly lifted off and swung away.

It was almost an anti climax now; the adrenaline rush was over. We had done our bit and there was little else to do. As we closed down and climbed out in dispersal, the RN helicopter returned; the pilot may have been feeling much the same way as he performed a small impromptu aero display, which was rather nice. We closed down the aircraft and left to stay the night in a local Army unit. We had a meal and a few beers in the bar and then to bed. (The Army were a little ahead of the RAF at that time in integrating the sexes in the Mess accommodation, so the only exciting moment of the night was on an excursion to the loo in the middle of the night, and bumping into a scantily clad female on the same mission!)

Results and reflections

Our flight time over was 5hr 28m, and Derek clocked a race time of 5hr 55min 31s - taking some 27m 31s combined to get from the top of the Empire State Building to us at Floyd Bennett, and from us at Wisley to the top of the GPO tower. Three days later on 11th May the Marman crew came over in XL161 with a flight time of 5hr 25m, with our original competitor, Stu Stevenson, clocking a Race time of 5hr 49m 29s - some 24m 29s for the race down and up the towers. Overall, some 6 minutes faster than us; Stu Stevenson had improved on Derek's time by some three minutes, and John Marman's crew had improved on our flight time by some three minutes. However, as a crew we were a little bit miffed as we thought that with the better winds we might have made a faster time for the crossing (and going second we would have had a bit more time in New York). Also, the compass issue; our pilots and navs reckoned that they had been briefed on this potential problem (said to be due to the metal content in the runway CHAG - Chain Arrestor Gear, a USN version of an arrestor cable but using anchor type chains, located down each side of the runway layer believed to have caused the compass deviations through the wing tip detectors). The two navs in John Marman's crew, Derek Aldred and Colin Painting, were two of the most senior and experienced on the Squadron, so why did they not know about it? We concluded (jokingly) that they simply wanted to spend more time in New York! We pulled their leg about it a bit, particularly at the subsequent Dining In night to celebrate the event, and they took it all in good part - well most of the time!

When it was all over and the times calculated, it had been decided by the Daily Mail (after further civilian protests) that the military could only take one prize in each category. So the RN took the prize for the fastest supersonic crossing, and the RAF Harrier for the fastest subsonic crossing. For all of our efforts, 543 was presented with a plaque by the Daily Mail, which hung in the crew room, and RAF Wyton was presented with an engraved Silver Rose Bowl by HQ STC.

For ourselves, the event soon faded into the past as we got into night flash training practise with our WWII vintage flare crates and flares. By the end of the month we were in Luqa, Malta for night flash training over El Adem with the attendant hang-ups - but that's another story………!


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