LEST WE FORGET by Dave Eade
With a résumé that reads like a "whos-who?" of fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force and twenty years service with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF), it is hardly surprising that a lecture by Squadron Leader Paul Day slips off the tongue with total confidence. Day is the current Officer Commanding and Fighter Leader of the BBMF and can quietly boast 2,000 hours on Hunters, 3,000 on Phantoms, 1,000 on Tornado F3s and a mere 1,000 on Spitfires and Hurricanes. The list of squadrons includes 14, 20, 28, 54, 63, 64, 65 and 208 with a brief sojourn with the USAF with time spent on 310, 311, and 550 Tactical Fighter Training Squadrons.
At this time of the year, the cherished mounts that are his charge are at rest and various stages of maintenance, ready for the April practice sessions to start before the season proper gets under way. As with all the RAF Display Units, this gives the aircrew the opportunity to get out amongst the taxpayers and talk to them, be they aviation groups, transport clubs or Ladies circles. The great advantage of these lectures, apart from the knowledge they bestow on their listeners, is the way that they "humanize" the teams normally perceived as machinery immaculately portrayed in the air.
It was at one of these talks in Ipswich that yours truly found himself recently, as a guest of the local Historic Transport Society who had pulled off the coup of a lecture by Paul Day. With the personality so reminiscent of the "Boys-Own" fighter pilot, he talks his attentive audience through the history of the unit in which he obviously has great pride. His name has become synonymous with the BBMF, as both its longest serving member and, over the last few years, its leader. Obvious is his love for fighters and lack of understanding of bombers he claims to see the Lancaster as an enormous waste of four good Merlins! He tells of the formation of the Flight from its early days in 1957 at Biggin Hill with three Mk 19 Spitfires to its totally accepted position as an active unit of eleven aircraft of five types within the RAF of today. Without naming names he made it clear that current thinking would see the end of many other units before the BBMF was discarded.
For over an hour Day delved into the BBMFs past revealing some of the not-so-nice stories and some of the failures that had beset the flight in its history. He recalled that the loss of early aircraft had been due to the inability of their "Airships" to fly them, having been desk-bound for a few years, and illustrated how early gems had lain to waste for years in far-flung eco-unfriendly places, before being lovingly restored to fly again with the Flight. The infamous occasion when, after a flypast in London, an "out-of-fuel" Spitfire was "miraculously" put down on a cricket pitch by a very high ranking ex-pilot was truthfully told as the occasion when the naive pilot crash-landed a Spitfire ignorant of the fact that he still had ample fuel just had to turn the switch to the wing tanks! Pausing at every opportunity to hurl the odd light-hearted jibe at the bombers, he claimed that in a slide of the wreck of the Hurricane, post-fire at Wittering, the wreckage in the front of the picture was worth more than the "wreckage" in the back (a passing Tornado!).
The re-building of Hurricane LF363 was given some detail in the talk. He told of the crash at Wittering, from which Sqn Ldr "Slam" Martin ran about 150 yards to escape the fire with a broken ankle. The necessity of selling a Mk 19 Spitfire to fund the subsequent re-build which took two years longer than planned - introduced a section of the presentation on the building of aeroplanes. Obvious to the "few" who fly it is the fact that the Hurricane cockpit doesnt close. Pilots are therefore presented with an ice-cold blast from the half-inch gap between canopy and windscreen. To accompany this is obviously the blast of a Merlin. One has to place these idiosyncrasies against the engineering ability that was put into an aircraft built by non-aircraft engineers on a motorcar production line. The re-built aircraft is constructed to todays hand-built standards everything fits. The rebuilt LF363 is therefore warm, smooth and silent even at full throttle. Pilots now apparently have to watch the propeller to ensure that the engine is running!
Day is the only full-time member of the BBMF, the eighteen engineers (his word NOT ground crew!) are volunteers from other units at Coningsby and other nearby units. Full of praise for their expertise, he was woeful of the loss of the RAFs engineers to civil industry. Reluctant to quote budgets, he claimed that the cost for a year of the BBMF roughly equated to the cost of the smoke generated by nine certain other members of the display circuit.
The flight is currently at its full strength of five Spitfires, two Hurricanes, the Lancaster and Dakota. Two Chipmunks are available for continuity training during the winter. Pressed for his wish list, Day expressed no desire to increase the size of the Flight. He recalled, wistfully, that at the end of its last fateful season, the British Aerospace Mosquito was to have been presented to the BBMF by its owners. This would be his only addition, if allowed, as the problems flying, maintaining and preserving the current fleet, within a very limited budget were quite enough. In these days of restricted budgets it is unlikely that the Treasury would fund any further aircraft, in fact would probably think more of disposing of some. The loss of any would almost certainly result in, as he puts it "a one-way ticket to the USA especially for the Lancaster". Favorite, for Day, is the Mk 5b Spit "the best fun you can have with you trousers on". Strangely enough though, for someone with such a wealth of experience, he has little desire to try the other warbirds including the P51 Mustang.
The inclusion of the Dakota has given its fair share of problems for Day and his team. The top speed of this particular aircraft is around 120 knots, where the others are not too happy below the 150-180 knot level. Formation flying including the Dakota therefore has its hazards and is avoided if possible. Parachute drops are also a thing of the past from the "Dak" as it isnt just a case of opening the doors but requires nearly twenty modifications to be carried out before the first "para" can leap. Also a memory only are the flights of single engined warbirds over the capital. Day exhibited slides showing the total lack of "anywhere to go" in the event of an engine failure over the City.
Celebrations will be high on the list for 2000 it being the 60th Anniversary of the battle which the flight commemorates. Hints of a mass formation "at a large airshow", possibly in Rutland, were dropped to whet the appetite.
An open forum for questions at the end allowed a few ex-Bomber crew in the assembly to get a few points back about fighter pilots and their top buttons. Day humourously tossed them to one side with mutterings about the Lancaster crew putting on ladies dresses as soon as they boarded their charge. The taking of a collection for the BBMF, which showed not a few £5 notes in the bucket, convinced yours truly that, like me, the audience had enjoyed a first class evening. The charisma of Paul Day and the "reverence" that the flight is held in by those who served was so evident in the hall that night, you would have to be dead not to feel it.