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A most active Shackleton

Howard Heeley/Down To Earth Promotions looks at the history of Newark Air Museum's Shackleton on the fiftieth anniversary of its first flight and the thirtieth anniversary of its move to Newark. Pictures by the author and from the Newark Air Museum Archive

Some aircraft types invoke camaraderie amongst their air and ground crew, which lifts the type to an iconic status; the Avro Shackleton is one of those aircraft types. For anyone unfamiliar with the Shackleton, it came from the drawing board of the famous A V Roe Ltd. designer Roy Chadwick in the late 1940s. It was designed to undertake long-range maritime reconnaissance duties as a replacement for Liberators and Lancaster GR3s in Royal Air Force Coastal Command.

The first production Shackleton MR1s, with their innovative contra-rotating propellers, entered into RAF service at Kinloss, Morayshire with 120 Squadron in April 1951. Undertaking various operational duties the Shackleton went on to record forty years of continuous service with the RAF until it was finally retired from the Airborne Early Warning role in 1991.

Following the 'tail dragger' configuration of the MR1, further variants produced included the MR1a, the MR2 and T4. The main differences on the MR2 were the incorporation of a ventral ASV (Airborne Surface Vessel) radome and a modified nose. A more radical design change came about with the introduction of the MR3 version of the Shackleton. This version incorporated an altered wing shape, wing tip fuel tanks and a tricycle undercarriage, complete with a steerable nose wheel. Various phase modifications resulted with the Shackleton MR3 Phase 3 version entering RAF squadron service in February 1965.

8 Squadron was the last RAF unit to operate the Shackleton, commencing operations at RAF Kinloss in 1972. These MR2 Shackletons had been converted to the AEW2 standard for Airborne Early Warning duties. Originally planned as an interim solution, the Shackleton AEW2 finally handed over the role to the AWACS E-3D Sentry AEW1 in 1991.

The Shackleton was a familiar sight at airfields around the world and many books have been written about the type and the people that operated them. I was privileged to collaborate in the production of two such publications; 'Shackleton WR977 - Duty Carried Out' and 'Shackleton WR977 - Dedication To Duty'. These two books provided a detailed insight into one very special Shackleton MR3 aircraft that I first became involved with during the Spring of 1977.

At that time preparations were underway for the Queen's Silver Jubilee Review of the Royal Air Force, which was to take place at RAF Finningley in South Yorkshire. This planning involved the dispersal of various historic aircraft that were stored at Finningley - smaller aircraft were moved to other RAF bases, whilst several large aircraft including a Vickers Varsity, Blackburn Beverley and Avro Shackleton were destined for the scrapyard.

WR977 was one of these aircraft, but it was saved from the scrapman's torch when Stuart Stephenson purchased the aircraft and placed it on loan with Newark Air Museum. A six-week race against time started on 11 March 1977 to dismantle and move the aircraft. I was one of the many museum volunteers who became involved in the successful project, which was completed with just hours to spare on 1 May. This move, rebuilding and eventual restoration of WR977 is covered in detail in the two books, as are details of many sorties undertaken by WR977. One fact uncovered during the research for the books is that WR977 is the aircraft believed to be the RAF's longest serving Shackleton MR3.

Like so many aspects of squadron life in the RAF, much of WR977's recorded flying hours were spent in a training role - this enabled the crews to be ready for their operational duties of submarine hunting, search and rescue patrols and in the case WR977 'Active Duty', flying Beira Patrols during the Rhodesia Crisis. A few selected sorties provide a snapshot of its service history. The first known flight of WR977 was on 16 August 1957 and from an early stage the limelight beckoned, as the aircraft featured in the Avro static display at the 1957 Farnborough Airshow. A few weeks later on 22 September WR977 was delivered to 220 Squadron at RAF St Eval, Cornwall and became the second Shackleton MR3 to enter RAF service.

Just over a year later on 1 October 1958 the squadron was renumbered 201 Squadron and moved down the road to RAF St Mawgan, Cornwall. The following year on 14 May 1959 WR977 returned to the Avro factory at Woodford, Manchester to undergo Phase 1 modifications. These modifications were mainly connected to the avionics fit, with the aim of enhancing the type's operational capabilities. A new ASV Mk21 radar replaced the ASV 13 fit. Other new equipment included navigation and radio units and the 'GEORGE' autopilot system. Externally the only noticeable difference was the addition of a small Instrument Landing System aerial below the bomb aimer's window.

Following the completion of modifications, WR977 was allocated to 206 Squadron at RAF St Mawgan, where she resumed flying on 11 November 1959, becoming the third Phase 1 aircraft with the unit. The squadron motto 'Nought Escapes Us' is illustrated by a couple of sorties; on 7 May 1960 WR977 was the SAR (Search and Rescue) standby aircraft and was scrambled to provide cover for a USAF C-121 approaching the UK on three engines. Later in September 1960 the aircraft flew in the FALLEX 60 exercise, part of an annual civil defence type exercise that tested the interaction between the civilian administration and the armed forces in a 'hypothetical post-nuclear attack scenario'. FALLEX 60 commenced just off Norway and worked its way down into the Bay of Biscay - this was a large-scale exercise, with many aircraft operating from various different bases. During the exercise WR977 was among many Shackletons that performed most of their operational roles, i.e. Anti-Submarine and Shipping Warfare and Shipping Protection duties.

Moving on a year to the autumn of 1961, the international nature of Shackleton operations is illustrated when 206 Squadron was the Coastal Command Unit selected to fly joint operations with Shackletons from 35 Squadron of the South African Air Force. WR977 was one of three squadron aircraft flown the length of Africa to D F Malan Airport, Capetown. In those days this was no easy trip, because the only radio aid the Shackletons had was a radio compass and African radio beacons were few and far between. Much of the navigation was completed using packs of topographical maps. Politically this was a sensitive time in South Africa but the detachment passed off successfully.

Shortly after returning to UK, WR977 was on night SAR Standby Duty at RAF St Mawgan on 19 January 1962. The duty crew were called to readiness and briefed for a mission to drop medicine to a sick crewman on the M V Portland, which was two hundred miles off the French coast near Brest. The medicine was in delicate glass vials so an ingenious scheme was devised to deliver the medicine to the ship. Shackletons were equipped to drop Lindholme gear, which comprised a self-inflating dinghy and a self-activated light. The duty crew believed that this would be easy for the ship's crew to locate and recover in the dark, so the medicine vials were packed in a Lindholme gear container, with the intention of dropping the Lindholme gear and its special cargo to the Portland. In terrible weather conditions WR977 took off from RAF St Mawgan and eventually rendezvoused with the Portland - to successfully deliver the Lindholme gear WR977 had to complete the drop at 130 knots at a height of 130 feet. Making things more difficult it was dark and the radio altimeter was not very reliable. So the delivery run was made with a crew-member positioned in the nose to check that WR977 was not getting close to the sea. The delivery of the medicine was successfully completed and one crew-member is reported to have said "If that was not a good advert for the RAF I do not know what is!" WR977 landed safely back at RAF St Mawgan and shortly after further flying was cancelled due to the bad weather. The seaman survived.

Another twelve months on, and WR977 was back at the Avro factory at Langar, Notts, for Phase 2 modifications, which took just under a year. Once again much of the work involved updating the radio and avionics fit, including the Radio Compass and TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation) fit and updating to Mk 1C Sonic Sets. The incorporation of the Orange Harvest ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) also changed the external appearance of the MR3s through the addition of roof-mounted plinths and the 'Spark-plug' shaped aerials to all Phase 2 aircraft.

Endurance was a key design factor for the Shackleton and this capability is illustrated by a series of WR977 sorties flown out of RAF Kinloss whilst with 201 Squadron. As part of Operation 'Adjutant' in September 1964 Shackletons were flying eighteen-hour sorties out of RAF Kinloss, to Bear Island in the Artic Circle. Each sortie involved a seven-hour transit to task, four hours on task in the Sub-Air role and a seven-hour transit back to Kinloss. These sorties were part of a monitoring programme of a major Russian Naval Exercise in the region - the Shackleton's role was to investigate and relay contact information from a British submarine that was monitoring the exercise. Participating Shackleton crews recount memories of radio traffic from this exercise; whilst half way through their task, not only could they hear their relief aircraft crew taking off from RAF Kinloss, but also the aircraft crew that they had relieved in the final stages of returning to RAF Kinloss. The logistics of such sustained maritime patrol operations during the Cold War is quite something, especially when you consider the restricted conditions endured by the crews.

WR977 left 201 Squadron in July 1965 and returned to the Avro factory at Langar where it underwent modification to the Phase 3 standard, which involved a re-build of major airframe sections. Radio and avionics upgrades were again an important aspect of the work however significant structural changes to the airframe also took place. This was to accommodate a further Tactical Sonics station and this involved moving the wardroom bulkhead backwards and reducing the size of this and the galley area.

The offensive capability of the MR3 was also increased with the introduction of the Mk 10 'Lulu' Nuclear Depth Bomb into its arsenal. The extra equipment fit had increased the Shackleton MR3's all-up weight beyond safe levels, so the upgrade to the Phase 3 standard involved installing two Bristol-Siddeley Viper 203 turbojets to assist during take-off. The additional weight also necessitated strengthening the main spars. In May 1966 on the completion of its Phase 3 programme WR977 was allocated to 42 Squadron at RAF St Mawgan.

On 27 August 1966 WR977 was involved in photographing Francis Chichester at the start of his round the world voyage in Gypsy Moth IV. The following May WR977 was also involved in searches for Sir Francis Chichester at the end of the voyage, eventually locating him in conjunction with a T4 Shackleton on 25 May 1967. Sandwiched in between was a three-month spell of active duty between 30 January and 26 April flying Beira Patrols as part of 'MIZAR Operations' out of Majunga Airport, Madagascar.

After Ian Smith's Rhodesian government had declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) the British Government tried to cut off their oil supplies by blockading the Mozambique port of Beira. The MIZAR detachment of Shackletons located and identified tankers thought to be breaking the blockade and passed on the data to the Royal Navy allowing them to intercept the vessels. Typically 'MIZAR and Ship Co-Op' sorties were of up to twelve hours duration. On some occasions sorties were completed after the Rhodesian Air Traffic Controllers at Salisbury Airport had relayed Shackleton positional and metrological reports back to Majunga Tower! As noted by one MIZAR sortie veteran "It's a strange world!"

The search and rescue role was briefly touched on earlier with the medicine delivery, but another SAR sortie took place with WR977 flying out of Luqa, Malta. This was a SAR sortie south of Malta for a ship that due to shifting cargo was virtually sinking. Royal Navy helicopters were operating south of Malta practically at the edge of their fuel range. The WR977 crew first helped to vector the helicopters on to the contact and then helped them to find a Fleet Auxiliary, which had been heading south at full speed to provide them with a deck to land on. Without the Shackleton's input the helicopter would have been very marginal on fuel to get back to Malta.

WR977 continued in RAF service with 42, 206 and 203 Squadrons until 9 November 1971 when the aircraft was retired to a small collection of aircraft that were based at RAF Finningley.

After WR977 was successfully dismantled and moved from Finningley the aircraft eventually underwent a sustained period of refitting and restoration. During this period an interesting Chinagraph pencil message was found that had been written on the Engineer's panel in the aircraft, which reads 'Shacks are wonderful, in their own way'.

This weekend Newark Air Museum is hosting a special anniversary reunion weekend at its site in Nottinghamshire. The two-day event will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the aircraft coming into service. Much of the museum's Shackleton archive material will be on display during the event along with other Shackleton related displays such as videos; models and photograph collections. The event is open to all former Shackleton air and ground crew of all ranks, from all trades and from all squadron eras.


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