Interview with Jo Lancaster. Two


Interview with Jo Lancaster. Two


Jo Lancaster grew up in Cumbria and joined the Air Force as soon as he was able. After training as a pilot he flew a tour of operations with 40 Squadron from RAF Alconbury. He then became an instructor before his second tour flying Lancasters with 12 Squadron from RAF Wickenby. He then became a test pilot at RAF Boscombe Down. He continued to be a test pilot after the war and was the first person to eject from an aircraft in danger using a Martin-Baker ejector seat. In all he flew a total of more than 144 aircraft types.




Temporal Coverage




02:00:18 audio recording

Conforms To


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 8th of March 2017 and I’m in Hassocks with John Lancaster. Jo Lancaster. To talk about his long career in the RAF and as a test pilot afterwards. So, Jo, what are the earliest recollections of life that you have in the family?
JL: I was born in Penrith in Cumberland. In the Lake District. I was very lucky really. I didn’t realise it much at the time. And my first ideas of aeroplanes were drawn entirely from, from books. They were very rarely seen over Cumberland. If they were they were just a spot in the sky making a humming noise but I became very interested in aeroplanes and made models out of the rough materials I could find to hand. I eventually had a flying model with an elastic band which gave me great, great fun but I never actually saw an aeroplane close to until I was about aged sixteen when a Gypsy Moth made a landing due to bad weather in the, in the area. I left school in 1935 aged sixteen and it was during that summer that Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus visited Penrith and I had my first flight in an Avro 504. I remember that well. There was a bench seat going forward and aft of the rear cockpit on which you sat astride and a young lady who I didn’t know was my co-passenger and she just put her head down in the cockpit and screamed throughout the whole flight. [laughs] But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I could see the engine with the tapits, with the bells going up and down. The exposed bells. And it was on that flight that the pilot had a piece of piano wire on the wing tip and picked up bits of cloth from the ground with it. I was completely bitten by flying then but there was little chance of it in the, in the near future. I left school at sixteen and I didn’t want to go to university. In point of fact I couldn’t really because my father’s business had a bad time during the recession and there wasn’t any money left in the kitty but I didn’t mind that. I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to go out and get amongst mechanical things and an aircraft apprenticeship seemed to be the answer. We considered the RAF apprenticeship scheme, I forget where now. Henlow. Not Henlow.
CB: Halton.
JL: Halton. Considered the RAF apprenticeship scheme at Halton but I wanted to be in the start of the aeroplane flight and not, not the sort of maintenance of it and so I, somehow or other, got a list of aircraft manufacturers in Britain who were offering apprenticeships. Some of them wanted premiums so that put them out but Armstrong Whitworth sounded the best and in due course my father accompanied me down to Coventry for an interview. And I was accepted and joined Armstrong Whitworth in October 1935 starting a five year apprenticeship. The apprenticeship was very good. We had pay and we had one morning and one afternoon off paid time for, to attend the local technical college. [Cough] Can we have a pause?
CB: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: So you’re at Coventry.
JL: The apprenticeship.
CB: And you’re just on the apprenticeship.
JL: Yes. When I — I went down to Coventry to take up my apprenticeship having negotiated some digs through the local paper. I didn’t like the digs we had, I had but [pause - interference] but when I first started there [I feel sure?] it was at the airfield at Wheatley, an old World War One airfield with still the original hangars. I first of all went to, as a stop-gap to the final assembly unit where they were building Hawker Hart trainers. I found everybody very very friendly and one of the almost time expired apprentices, expired apprentices asked me about my digs and I said I didn’t like them and he said there was a vacancy at his digs so I was very glad to go there and I, I was there for over three years. Nearly four years in fact. In, in the original interview it was, it was stressed that there would be no flying involved in the apprenticeship but I had ideas that I would join the, what was then the RAF Class F Reserve which operated very similarly to the Territorial Army. Consisted mostly of a two week summer camp. But on reaching the age of eighteen that coincided with the start of the RAF Volunteer Reserve and I joined straight away and followed that up with the full time ab initio training course at Sywell in July of 1937. Having done that I went back to, to my apprenticeship of course and attended the local RAF, [pause] oh dear. Elementary Reserve Training School at Ansty. That was local to Coventry. During the day, during the weekdays the instructors there were instructing a course of short service, short service commission pilots and at evenings or other times when convenient as at weekends they were training the volunteer reservists. There instead of Tiger Moths as at Sywell we had Avro Cadets with Armstrong Siddeley Genet engines and I converted on to Cadets and then converted on to Hawker Harts. When I was still eighteen I was flying solo on Hawker Harts which was a beautiful aeroplane.
JL: I don’t know how to continue.
CB: We’ll stop just for a mo.
[Recording paused]
CB: You mentioned digs. People don’t seem to have digs now so what were they and how did it work?
JL: Well my first digs, which were arranged through the local, by post through the local paper, when I got there I didn’t know the people. I didn’t care for them very much. I was there for really just over a week I think and I was happy to leave when my new acquaintance apprentice, Tony Carpenter suggested I join him in his digs. There I was with a family, or we were with a family. Mrs Hinder who was a widow, widow of a parson and her two children Ruby and Percy. So there were five of us in the house and Mrs Hinder provided us with breakfast, a packed lunch, an evening meal five days a week and breakfast and all the other meals during the weekend at the princely sum of twenty five shillings a week.
CB: Brilliant. Yes. And what about your washing?
JL: I can’t remember. I didn’t do it. They must. It probably went to, I don’t know. I don’t suppose she did it. I don’t remember.
CB: What sort of hours did you work in those days?
JL: We had to be there at 8 o’clock in the morning. We had a half hour’s break for lunch and left at 5 o’clock four days of the week and half past five on Thursdays. And Saturday morning it was 8 o’clock till twelve [cough] I shall have to go and get another drink.
CB: Ok.
[Recording paused]
CB: That’s really useful so when we have the time to talk about the apprenticeship how did the apprenticeship work?
JL: Well as I said I actually started in final assembly but I was only there a couple of weeks. That was a stop-gap and then I was moved to what they called a detailed fitting shop where all the various parts of the aircraft were made using hand tools. And I was there for probably nine months and then I moved to the milling machine shop. Learned how to work a milling machine and then moved on from that to working a, working on a lathe. Learned all about lathe work. Then I went to sub-assembly where units of the aircraft were assembled. The aircraft going through at this time was the Whitley. And then eventually I went on to, moved up to Baginton. The new airfield and the new factory on final assembly and I was there until the — when the war started. I was, I was held back until I joined the — the RAF decided to have me back in January 1940. But I wasn’t actually called up until June of 1940. Incidentally there was a rather amusing episode in May of 1939. Shortly before the war. Everybody knew the war was coming. They had to re-introduce conscription and I was a bullseye for the first age group and I had to go and have an interview with a little [petrie?] army major so I lost no time in telling him I didn’t want to join his army and I was a trained engineer and a trained pilot and he said, ‘Well you’ll be, you’ll be a dead cert for the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.’ And why he said that and not the Royal Engineers I don’t know. But anyway the war started and in no time at all I received a letter containing a traveling warrant to Budbrooke Barracks and a postal order for the four shillings in advance of pay to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
CB: Oh.
JL: So I dashed down to, and by this time they had a combined recruiting centre in Coventry. They’d taken over a skating rink, a roller skating rink. And the air force recruiting officer was no help at all but the naval recruiting officer was a Chief Petty Officer Brown and I went and told him my problem and he said, ‘Well we’ll get you out of that,’ and he took me on for the navy on, on deferred service. So I then got a letter saying please return the travelling warrant and postal order. You need not now apply, attend Budbrooke Barracks. So whilst, whilst I was on deferred service for the navy the RAF changed their mind and decided to have me back and, but I didn’t actually re-join until about June of 1940 starting with a six weeks course at ITW Initial Training Wing at Paignton in Devon. And then we were all disbursed to [pause] God. [pause] Sorry, this is my brain. [pause]
CB: From ITW you went to Initial Training Wing.
JL: Well it was Flying Training School.
CB: Yes but at Sywell again.
JL: The first one was Sywell.
CB: Yes.
JL: But this time, after the war started it was Desford near Leicester
CB: Oh yes.
WT: Yes. Desford. Yes.
JO: Yes. Yes. We were, we were all divided up. I went, I went to Desford with some others. During the, during this ab initio course the Battle of Britain was in full swing and of course we all wanted to be fighter pilots and I was in fact selected to be a fighter pilot and sent to number five elementary flying, 5 Flying Training School at Sealand which had Miles Masters and there I was going to be a fighter pilot. I trained on Miles Masters. Later — later in the — we were down, we moved from Sealand down to Ternhill in Shropshire and continued training there but the, during the winter ‘40/41 it was very bad. The training — some of us got well behind and I was on a course of about forty eight divided into four flights of twelve and our flight was the only one, was the only one who succeeded in doing the night flying part of the syllabus on Masters and at the end of the course the whole flight was posted to bomber OTUs whilst the rest went to fighters. And I went to Lossiemouth, 20 OTU as I remember and was converted on to Wellingtons. I was very cross about this at the time but in the event I think it was the right thing to do. When I got to Lossiemouth we were next door to [pause] oh dear [pause] sorry. A Whitley OTU.
WT: Wycombe?
JL: Hmmn?
WT: Wycombe
JL: No. A Whitley OTU up in Scotland. Oh God. I’m sorry.
CB: Was it on, was it a coastal OTU or was it a Bomber Command OTU?
JL: It was a bombing.
CB: Whitleys. Yes.
JL: I was at Lossiemouth converting on to Wellingtons.
CB: Yes.
JL: At 20 OTU.
CB: Yes.
JL: And there was another OTU only about ten miles away with Whitleys. It was well known. It’s still open.
CB: Yes. Kinloss.
JL: Kinloss. Yes.
CB: Yes. Yeah.
JL: Sorry. Thank you.
CB: It’s ok.
JL: I got an interview with the group captain of Lossiemouth called Group Captain Smyth-Piggott and told him that I had been building Whitleys and knew all about them and that I’d like to convert. To transfer to Whitleys. And he wouldn’t have it so I was stuck with Wellingtons. And so we were paired off as pilots with first and second pilot. I was the first pilot and my second pilot was Derek Townsend and having done our conversion training we then had to be crewed up and we were all ushered into a hangar with the right proportions of pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners. And Derek and I wandered around looking at people we’d never seen before and we eventually finished up with a Canadian navigator Glen Leach, a very Welsh wireless operator called Jack Crowther, another Canadian front gunner and a New Zealand rear gunner. Now, at that time I’d never met a Canadian before and I was just, I was surprised they spoke like people we saw in the cinema. But I hardly knew where New Zealand was. Anyway, we went down to that, to the pub in Lossiemouth that night and we were blood brothers from then for the rest of our lives.
CB: Right. Stop there for a mo.
[Recording paused]
JL: What had happened.
CB: At Desford. Yeah.
JL: At Desford. We did a — went off and did a flight. When we landed he said, ‘You haven’t forgotten how to fly.’
CB: But you still had to go through.
JL: I still had to do the whole thing through.
CB: The whole thing.
JL: Yes.
CB: Because that’s the way the process ran. Can we just go back to your VR time because you might have continued with that but how long were you in the VR, flying and what caused you to cease?
JL: Well I as I say I was being converted on to — [pause] Oh God.
CB: On to the Hart. Yeah.
JL: Cadets.
CB: Oh the Cadet. Yes.
JL: And Harts. I was flying Harts at a very tender age and I was the ace. I thought I was the ace of the base. And one Sunday after a very bad period of weather where there was no flying we had a very fine Sunday morning in April 1938 and I dashed out to Ansty. There were no Harts available but I was given a, alloted a Cadet to go and do aerobatics and off I went. There was something wrong with the engine actually. It tended to choke and had to be re-started. I wasn’t even bothered with that. I went off and I did some aerobatics. I got doing a slow roll. There was a fire extinguisher under the dashboard and the instrument panel and on the final turn with full top rudder the fire extinguisher fell out and got behind the rudder bar so when I got right way up I got a whole lot of left rudder on. I managed to sort of kick it halfway through the fabric so that I could get steering rudder and instead of going back to Ansty as I should have done I became insane and landed at Wheatley. Well it was a Sunday so there was only a sort of a maintenance man there. When he walked up I gave him the fire extinguisher and took off again. And then, then I, my fellow digs chap, Tony Carpenter, he couldn’t join the VR because of his eyesight but he bought all sort of what we would call a microlight called a dart splitter mouse and he had it at a field near Kenilworth and I then went over to him and did a few aerobatics there. Then I did what was actually a perfectly legal exercise. A simulated forced landing where you from two thousand feet or whatever you throttle the engine back and did an approach on to a suitable field, opened it up and go around again at the end. I did what the, I opened up and the engines stopped and I went through a hedge so that’s rather spoiled things and I was thrown out. You’ll find it in there.
WT: Gosh.
JL: I wasn’t thrown out for going through the hedge. I was thrown out for doing low level aerobatics.
CB: Ah
JL: That was because very very close by was Kenilworth Golf Club and playing golf that morning was a chap called Tom Chapman who was a director of Armstrong Siddeley’s who was hand in glove with Armstrong Whitworth’s and he, he reported it. [laughs] Tom Chapman. Bless his heart.
CB: You never became friends.
JL: I never met him.
CB: Right. So we’ve got to the stage that you’re at Lossiemouth and you’ve crewed up. This crewing up — could you just explain how it actually happened? The process.
JL: Well Derek and I just wandered around looking at people’s brevets and we got together a navigator. We found this Canadian with a, he had the O brevet.
CB: Yeah.
JL: He was very proud of that. The Observer. Asked him and he came along and we continued the process till we got the full crew. And we all, we all agreed to meet in the pub that night and we were thick as thieves from that time on.
CB: So how long were you together for?
JL: Well from Lossiemouth, when we were crewed up we did a number of cross country exercises [cough] oh dear. To finish the course. Air firing and practice bombing and then we were posted as a crew to 40 Squadron at Wyton. So we all went off on leave and we all arrived at Wyton on the appointed day only to be told that we weren’t supposed to be at Wyton. We were supposed to be at Alconbury. The satellite. And so we got a service bus from Wyton to Alconbury and signed in there and we were promptly all put on a charge for arriving late. And we were, what are the — ? [pause] I forget the expression was. The lowest. The lowest telling off. So that wasn’t a very good start because we didn’t like the WingCo much anyway. He wasn’t a very popular chap. A [jock?]. Wing Commander Davey. Anyway, we were, then Derek, Derek left us to join another crew and we were given a captain in the form of a Jim Taylor who — he’d already done a lot of ops and he took us on our first eight ops and then he left us. He was, he was screened and I took over as captain and we were given a series of second pilots from then on. And we succeeded in surviving thirty operations including a daylight on Brest. And then we, then we all split up.
CB: So this is in a Wellington.
JL: Yes. And I was posted to a Wellington OTU as a, as an instructor [coughs] oh dear. I’m sorry about this.
CB: Ok. Would you like to stop for a mo?
[Recording paused]
CB: So can we just talk about the tour? The aircraft was a Wellington. Which model?
JL: Yes. Throughout this period all my flying was on Wellington 1Cs which was powered by Bristol Pegasus Mark xviii and with these it was very very underpowered. It was supposed to be able to fly on one engine but in fact it couldn’t because it had non-feathering propellers.
CB: Oh.
JL: Fortunately the engines were fairly reliable. The most common problem would be that one of the rocker boxes would break loose from the cylinder head which introduced, which put that cylinder out of use and caused it to be, to vibrate rather a lot. That happened from time to time. But at least you had the use of most of the engine.
CB: So you couldn’t really feather. You couldn’t feather the prop.
JL: No. No.
CB: So you kept it running did you or you stopped it? The drag was huge.
JL: Well if you lost the engine it just, just windmilled.
CB: Yeah. Right.
JL: Caused a lot of drag.
CB: So of the ops, one of them was to Brest. What was that like?
JL: There was one occasion when we went off. Actually it was fortunately in daylight and when we got up to about seventeen hundred feet and the oil, the oil pressure on one engine dropped to zero. I looked out and there was oil all over the engine but fortunately we were just within a mile or so of Wyton and I was able to drop straight down and land in Wyton complete with a full load of petrol and bombs. But had, had it been dark the situation would have been very different. It was too late to bale out and we had a full load of bombs and it was dark.
CB: In circumstances where you’re still, you’ve still got your full load of bombs what was the proper procedure?
JL: Sorry?
CB: In the circumstances where there was difficulty with the aircraft and you had a full load of bombs what was the proper procedure as far as the bomb load was concerned? Were you supposed to jettison or keep them?
JL: Well normally only jettison over the sea.
CB: Right.
JL: But of course you had to be in full control of the aircraft. If you lost an engine and you weren’t able to, to maintain flight you’d probably leave them where they were.
CB: So thinking of the rest of the tour how did the ops go on that? You had a bit of variety. They were all at night were they?
JL: All except one. The 24th of July 1941 there was a major daylight operation on Brest in which we were involved. The squadron sent six aircraft in two lots of three. The other three lost, lost one aircraft in a direct hit but our three all survived. Knocked about but still working.
CB: So the other one was lost to flak.
JL: Yes.
CB: What operating height were you using then?
JL: Twelve and a half thousand feet.
CB: And what bomb load were you carrying?
JL: Probably five. I can’t tell you. I didn’t record these. Probably five hundred pound armour piercing but it was all a waste of time as I discovered later. Much later. I visited Lorient after the war and went and saw the U-boat pens there and none of our bombs would ever do anything to them. They had a huge roof about two metres thick and then a false roof on top of that. You could see where bombs had hit it. There was just a little pock mark. That’s all. We were all wasting our time. I don’t know what our intelligence people were doing. Thinking about.
CB: So for the other ops then. These were at night. Where? Where were they going? Where were the targets?
JL: Mostly in Germany but we did one to [pause] oh Christ, I’m sorry.
CB: Was it a port?
JL: On the Baltic.
CB: Right. Kiel or Wilhelmshaven. Bremen.
JL: Further east.
CB: Ah.
JL: Poland.
CB: Oh. Danzig.
JL: Oh God. I’m sorry. My brain’s going on strike.
CB: Stettin.
JL: Stettin. Thank you.
CB: Right. So that was a port. And what were you after there? The shipping. Were you?
JL: The port. Yes. That was a long one. That’s well over nine hours. We had overload tanks.
CB: The overload tanks were jettisonable or were they inside the aircraft?
JL: Oh no. They were, they were in the bomb bay.
CB: Oh right.
JL: So we had a reduced bomb load.
CB: And this is the early part of the war so how were you getting on in terms of navigation and pinpointing the target?
JL: There was very little to help us with navigation. We had a choice of dead reckoning and any pinpointing we could get. At night, providing there was no cloud, water could usually be seen. The River Rhine. We used to get quite a bit of haze over the Ruhr but you could usually pick out the Rhine. All the coastlines and harbours. We did have Hamburg two or three times. Bremen. Wilhelmshaven. Berlin. Most of them were to the Ruhr though. I think we did [pause], oh God my brain.
CB: So there was flak all the time but to what extent were there —?
JL: Nearly all the time. Yes.
CB: What about night fighters? Were they?
JL: We were attacked. Yes. On the way back from Berlin actually. We were. Berlin was clear but there was, on the way back we encountered cloud and we were being shot at through the cloud pretty well continuously. And we couldn’t understand this because we shouldn’t have been but what had happened was that the forecast wind which was all we had had changed and they’d taken us north and we were actually going down via Hamburg, Bremen, Emden but eventually there was a break in the clouds and as I looked down I could see the causeway across the mouth of the Zuiderzee and as I reported this and obviously everybody, including the rear gunner, was looking down and it was just at that moment that a burst of fire went right over the top of us followed by an ME110. And we didn’t see it. We were lucky. But anyway, anyway we went down a very steep spiral and this 110 tried to follow us and Keith Coleman, our New Zealand rear gunner got a good shot at it and we both went into cloud and we never knew what happened to it but after the war some people checked up on it and there were no night fighters shot down that night but one inexplicably crashed on landing and it’s just possible it might have been the one.
CB: Because you’d damaged it. Yeah. Now, in those days had the corkscrew evasion system operated or did you make up your own technique for avoiding a fighter?
JL: Well, only, only did corkscrewing if you were, if you were attacked. In my second tour actually it was different. It was my own idea. I kept changing course and height. Five hundred feet up. Five hundred feet up. Turned left, then right. Pretty well all the time because the eighty eight millimetre guns were radar controlled and they were bloody good. So by doing that we were never actually seriously shot at. Not enroute.
CB: You mentioned that you had various co-pilots. Why was that? Were they being prepared for captaincy themselves or what?
JL: Yes. They were doing their training before taking over their own crew. I’m very sorry.
[Recording paused]
JL: That was the daylight raid on, on Brest I think.
CB: Oh. We talked about the 110 just now but what, on what other occasion were you attacked by a fighter?
JL: On the daylight raid on Brest in July there were several 110s about. Sorry. Correction. 109s about.
CB: Yes.
JL: But there were a lot of Wellingtons about and they were all, they were all firing at these 109s and one went, certainly went down because the pilot baled out but all the others tend to claim it. [laughs]
CB: Right. Is that your —
JL: In retrospect it’s impossible to say who hit it.
CB: Yeah. Ok.
JL: We had, we had beam guns but both my gunners, front and rear were blasting away and we had two beam gunners with Vickers, Vickers VJOs fitted up and the second, our second pilot and the wireless op were blasting away with theirs as well and of course all the Wellingtons were probably doing the same thing so the sky was absolutely full of CO3.
CB: Right. So in your flying training at Ternhill what sort of people were there?
JL: We had two American air force officers. Sam Morinello and the other one was called Galbraith. But of course they left us to join their Eagle Squadrons. We also had Neville Duke.
CB: Oh right.
JL: And we had David. Oh God, here we go again [pause] oh I’m sorry. My brain’s —
CB: It’s alright. That’s interesting Neville Duke because he took the world speed record in the Hunter.
JL: Yes.
CB: Didn’t he? In the fifties.
JL: He was also on the same course at ITW.
CB: Was he? Yeah. What about these Americans then. What were they like? Because they weren’t in the war and they’d volunteered to join?
JL: Yes. Well most Americans joined the Royal Canadian Air Force but these two didn’t. Sam Morinello had done a lot of parachute jumps. Just what he’d, they’d been doing. I think they both had pilot training. Why they didn’t join the Canadian Air Force I don’t know but I suppose this was the — they wanted to be certain to get to the American squadrons.
CB: So they were posted to the Eagle Squadrons.
JL: Yes.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Yes. They were. I think they distinguished themselves fairly well later on.
CB: And how did they fit into the general way of things because they were a different culture?
JL: Oh well. Very well. I’m trying to think of the name of this. His father was chief. Well his father was a pre-war, a World War One pilot. He became a chief designer at Bristol and he had four sons. He was killed in 1938 flying one of his own design and the [pause] and the three sons, I think it was three sons. Might have been more. So, anyway, two of them were killed early in the war and this David. He was just one of the boys. Happy. We knew nothing at all about his background at all.
CB: Oh dear.
JL: But he, unfortunately he was killed as well. Oh God. The name, name, name. [I must have written it?] I bet it’s in there.
CB: Ok. Right. We’ll stop just for a mo.
[Recording paused]
CB: So going back to the time when you finished at 40 Squadron. Where were posted and why?
JL: I was posted to Wellesbourne Mountford for instructional duties. Wellesbourne Mountford being Number 22 OTU. Operational Training Unit. Still with Wellington 1Cs. I was attached to the conversion flight. I was converting them to fly the Wellington after which they did their navigational exercises. I didn’t like the job at all. I’m not born, I wasn’t born to be an instructor and I was very unhappy about it. Not only that but it involved night flying details and in the winter the night flying practice was divided up into four sessions being 6 till 9, 9 till 12, 12 till 3 and 3 till 6 and if you were on a late show you know you had to be out at 3 o’clock on a cold, miserable morning and go and do three hours circuits and landings and that was not very funny. I discovered that there was, at Central Flying School, they ran a course for OTU instructors so I asked to go on that which I did but it didn’t help. It didn’t help me much. When I went back to Wellesbourne I was still doing conversion training. Then in July another OTU opened at what is now East Midlands Airport.
CB: Castle Donington.
JL: Castle Donington. That had just opened and I was posted there. When I got there there were four or five other people there and no aeroplanes. So we had a nice time for a while. Then we collected some aeroplanes and started training. Right. Now we start. Originally I was on conversion training but then I went on to the navigation side and I was sent on a cross country with a, a five hour cross country, with a pupil crew and when I got — this was in October ‘42 and when I got back I found I was rostered to go on what they called a bullseye that night which is an exercise cooperating with the Observer Corps and the ground defences. I went to the mess and there was no food and there was no option but to go back down to the flight and took over yet another pupil crew I’d never met before. We went off on this bullseye. We got, we got over the Solway Firth, we were actually going to North Wales but via the Solway Firth and we hit icy conditions. Ice was [cough] ice was banging away on the side. I discovered that the wireless operator had declared his apparatus unserviceable. I’d no idea what the navigator was like. I was frozen stiff so I decided to go home. We were over ten tenths cloud as they called it and so I flew east for a long long long way before letting down safely and then found my way back to, to the airfield. The next day I was on the carpet for abandoning the bullseye. I explained everything but it didn’t cut any ice. This wing commander who hadn’t done a thing I think for himself demanded to see my logbook and in my logbook I’d cut out a little comic thing from a flight magazine where the caption was, “All the way from Hamburg on one engine,” and of course it was a chap sitting astride just an engine and this wing commander took exception to this and told me to take it off. By this time I told him I didn’t want to take it out. And we departed. We departed the worst of friends and very shortly after that a posting came through for me to 150 Squadron at Snaith which I quite welcomed because I was absolutely sick of OTUs. When I got to Snaith the wing commander said, ‘Who are you and what have you come for?’ So I said, ‘I don’t know why I’ve come, sir. [laughs] I’ve just been posted.’ And he said, ‘Well what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to go on a Lancaster squadron.’ And so I did about three flights in their aircraft. 150 Squadron’s. They had Wellingtons 3s by then with a Hercules. And then I was posted to, [cough] oh dear. I’m sorry. 12 Squadron at Wickenby. Just outside Lincoln. When I got to Wickenby they still had Wellingtons but they were scheduled to train on to Lancs. I did three operations with Wellingtons. Then we were stood down for six weeks to transfer. Convert on to Lancasters.
CB: We’ll stop there just for a mo.
[Recording paused]
JL: And I think a couple of squadrons in 5 Group. That’s all there were at that time.
CB: So how did the conversion process operate? Bearing in mind there were no HCUs.
JL: Conversion on to Lancasters? Well we had a couple of pilots seconded to us. [coughs] I’m so sorry. Let me take a cough pill.
CB: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
JL: Between the Frisian Islands and the mainland.
CB: We’re just talking about your ops on the Wellington before you moved to Lancaster. So one was Hamburg.
JL: Not many on 40 Squadron.
CB: No.
JL: Nor at the OTU.
CB: No.
JL: But when I went back to 12 Squadron as I say we still had Wellingtons and I took over the flight commander’s crew as a going concern. We did one mining operation between Terschelling Island and the mainland and one on the approach to St Nazaire. In the estuary. That was a timed run for an island. I think in between was Hamburg. Bombing.
CB: And with mines you couldn’t drop from too great a height because it would shatter the mine so what height did you go?
JL: I think it was five hundred feet and a hundred and sixty miles an hour.
CB: And you operated in miles an hour rather than knots did you?
JL: Yes. Incidentally on that run when I went to St Nazaire I decided to go across Brittany. Low down. It was dark but it was clear enough to fly at two or three hundred feet and I saw quite clearly somebody on the ground with a lantern and they swung it around in a circle as we went past.
CB: Exhilarating at low level at night was it?
JL: Well I think I probably thought it was safer than going higher because the guns couldn’t get at you.
CB: So that was a lone sortie. You weren’t going out as a squadron at the same time.
JL: Oh no. They were all lone sorties.
CB: Right.
JL: Except the, except the daylight on Brest.
CB: Right. So after those three then you do the conversion on to the Lancasters. So what was the process there?
JL: We spent quite a little time learning about the Lancaster on the ground and then we had two pilots from 460 Squadron attached to us and they quite quickly converted us. It didn’t take very long. A Lancaster was quite easy to fly and then we took over our crews and spent some time.
CB: So when you moved to Lancasters the four engines all had an engineer. How did that selection work? Did you have all the crew with you?
JL: Well we had, oh a suitable number of mid-upper gunners and engineers arrived and we didn’t choose them. They were just allocated.
CB: So —
JL: And with a full crew then we started doing navigation exercises, a lot of which, much to our concern, were low level formation.
CB: Daylight or night?
JL: Daylight. We didn’t like the idea very much. In the end we didn’t do any daylights.
CB: So what time are we talking about now? 1942.
JL: 1942. Yes.
CB: Yeah.
JL: My first operation on Lancs was a mining operation. To Norway. Haugesundfjord fjord
CB: What was the, that was just in the fjord. Just in the entrance was it? Or close to the shipping?
JL: It was more or less parallel to the coast as I remember.
CB: Right.
JL: It wasn’t, it wasn’t very well defended at all. Searchlights came up and a bit of light flak and my gunners responded quickly and, and they put the lights out again.
CB: What sort of height were you doing your mining?
JL: Five hundred feet.
CB: That was also five hundred was it? Right. Ok. And then the rest of the ops. On that tour how many did you do? With 12 squadron?
JL: I think I did twenty two [pause] on Lancasters. Did thirty on Wellingtons. I did the two thousand bomber raids. And then another twenty two [coughs], another twenty two on Lancs which made fifty four I think.
CB: So that normal tour would be thirty. So why did you stop at twenty two?
JL: Oh well I’d done, I did the fifty fourth operation which was to La Spezia in Italy. And the next morning I was called in by the wing commander. And wondering what I’d done wrong, and he said that a new edict had come through that a second tour was now twenty operations. Not twenty. And as I’d done twenty I was finished as of then.
CB: Right. Not thirty. Yeah.
JL: So I finished very suddenly at fifty four.
CB: So what was the next move from there?
JL: Well I wanted to be a test pilot and I thought the best way of starting was getting a posting to a maintenance unit. The wing commander. Wing commander. [pause] Oh dear. Wood. Wing Commander Wood was very very helpful because my first posting after having finished the second tour was back to Wellington 1Cs at Harwell.
CB: Oh right.
JL: And I complained very very loudly about that so WinCo Wood took me off that and made me sort of supernumerary on the squadron. I was talking to new crews and doing odd jobs and then I couldn’t go on forever so they gave me a posting to the Group Gunnery Flight at Binbrook. 1481 flight. I was, they had a Wellington flight and a Martinet flight — the target towers. I was in charge of the Wellington flight and I had a right royal time there. I was my own boss and we did as we liked. But then a posting came through for me to Boscombe Down. A&AEE which I was rather frightened about that. I wasn’t sure if I was up to it. In the end it was fine. Incidentally, the posting to Harwell, another second tour pilot finished shortly after me [pause] Once again his name’s gone. But he took it because his wife lived near Harwell and within about six weeks he was dead. The engine caught fire and the thing folded. What was his name? All these names are in there.
CB: Yeah.
JL: In ten minutes time I can tell you.
CB: Ok. We can pick it up. So now you’re on the way to Boscombe Down.
JL: Yes. I went to Boscombe Down. I was posted to, there was an armament flight and a performance testing flight. I went to the armament flight and the flight commander gave me a ride in a B, oh dear, B25.
CB: Mitchell.
JL: Mitchell. Mitchell. And that was it. I didn’t have any dual. You just got in to an aeroplane and flew it.
CB: Right.
JL: And that’s just, just what happened. And I amassed a total of, I think eventually a hundred and forty four types.
CB: Really. So what formal process did they have for introducing you to test flying?
JL: None at all then. I was just posted in, as I said given a ride in a Mitchell because I’d never been in an American aircraft before. And that was it. I flew them all. Liberators, Fortresses. What was the, was it a B26?
CB: Marauder.
JL: Marauder. That was a bit of a handful.
CB: Was it?
JL: Very high wing loading.
CB: And when you were doing the flying did you have people with you on instruments? Who were monitoring instruments? What was actually happening at Boscombe Down?
JL: Most of my flying was done for armament purposes and we had armament technical officers. Sort of bombing and gunning and we were supervising the tests. We were just drivers really.
CB: Yeah.
JL: My first job, my very first job when I got down there was to drop a four thousand pounder from fifteen hundred feet. Well in the, in Bomber Command the quoted safety height for dropping a four thousand pounder is six thousand feet. Really it was nothing. You felt, well you heard and felt just a little bump. And all this was, they were doing a lot of tests in preparation for what they called second TAF. Second Technical Airforce for the invasion.
CB: So this is army support effectively. So the four thousand pounder’s the cookie which is just a barrel.
JL: Oh yes.
CB: And did you feel there was some danger in doing that? Or did you prove there wasn’t?
JL: Well as I say we’d been told the safety height was six thousand feet and we were sent off to do it at fifteen hundred but I had no problem.
CB: Which was what they wanted to know.
JL: They were measuring it.
CB: Where would you, where was the range where you dropped those?
JL: Lyme Bay. Just off Lyme Regis.
CB: Yeah. What other things were you dropping? Or was there a lot of gunnery involved as well with the fifty seven millimetre.
JL: A bit of both. I had another job with a Mosquito. Oh incidentally. Mosquito. This was typical Boscombe at the time. There was quite a lot of social drinking went on in the evenings and one of the chaps who was, I was very fond of as an armament officer called Shepherd. He was a school master in civil life but he was involved with the rocket. RPs rocket projectiles which was flown by the [pause] oh God.
CB: The Mosquitos and the Beaufighters.
JL: Yes.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Anyway, one night he said, ’Would you like to fly a Mosquito?’ So I said, ‘Yes please.’ And the next day we just walked out to this Mosquito. Let’s say 8RPs. Four under each wing. And I got in. He got in behind me and we went off. That was literally true.
CB: And you’d never flown a two engine.
JL: I’d never flown a Mosquito before.
CB: No.
JL: And I’d certainly never fired rockets but there was quite an art in that because he was telling me what to do all the time. And then another job I had with the Mosquito was — I think they were probably four thousand pound casings filled with [pause] oh dear my brain. Flammable stuff.
CB: Oh yes. Napalm.
JL: What?
CB: Napalm.
JL: Napalm. Yes and this was, this was done we had a range at Crichel Down which, which was, I guess, sometime after the war and low level and so I went off and dropped one of these things at low level. Went back and landed and they phoned up and said, ‘You’re too high.’ So I had another one. I think we did this four times. Eventually I was flying just as low as I possibly dare.
CB: Was this in a Mosquito again?
JL: Yes. And then I saw some cine film of it afterwards but to see this Mosquito scuttling along just above the treetops and a great flame drops the, a great flame went up like a clutching hand way up above the Mosquito. Came down just missing its tail. It was quite frightening to watch and I did that four times.
CB: Blimey. This is using the four thousand pounder casing.
JL: That’s what it looked like. Yes.
CB: When you were doing your four thousand pounder at fifteen hundred feet what plane were you using to drop?
JL: The Lanc.
CB: That was the Lanc. Right. Ok. What other exciting planes? Did you fly single seaters at Boscombe Down?
JL: Oh yes. You could fly anything you wanted. Just go along and say, ‘Please can I have a go at this.’ And you did. There were, well I’d already flown Spitfires. I don’t know where they got that from but I pinched a Spitfire.
CB: Oh did you?
JL: At Binbrook.
CB: You felt it needed exercising.
JL: Yes. You haven’t, you haven’t got on to this one.
CB: No. Go on.
JL: Well —
CB: Right.
JL: 1 Group. They had a, I think he was a New Zealander with a Spitfire. He used to go around all the squadrons doing fighter affiliation. He came. He used to come to Binbrook about once a week I should think. Every time he came I used to say, ‘Give us a go in your Spitfire.’ And eventually he said, ‘Well I’m going to lunch. I know nothing about it.’ So I took that as a have a go.
CB: Have a go.
JL: Yeah. So I went off and did fifteen minutes in this Spitfire and the station commander was Hughie Edwards.
CB: Oh right. [laughs]
JL: Well actually I got on well with him and just a couple of days later, I can’t remember what he said but it was just a very few words just to let me know that he knew about it and having done that I thought well I’ll have another go. So the next time this chap came in I had another go. And then at Kirton Lindsey, not very far away there was a Spitfire OTU. So I went off in — Hughie Edwards used to have a Tiger Moth. He used to let me fly that and I just introduced an Aussie, Aussie wireless op of 460 Squadron. So we went over to Kirton Lindsey and said we wanted to fly Spitfires and they said, ‘Well you’ll have to use Hibaldstow. Our satellite.’ So I went over to Hibaldstow. Now. I can’t for the life of me think how this ever happened but I walked in there and said, ‘Please sir, I have flown a Spitfire before. Can I have another go?’ And then he gave me a Spitfire and I went off for forty five minutes. They’d never seen me before. I’d never seen them before. But this is true. It’s true.
CB: Was this the OTU for the Eagle Squadron?
JL: No. I don’t think so.
CB: No.
JL: I don’t know what it was. It was just a Spitfire OTU.
CB: Yeah. Right. Amazing.
JL: I mean authorising. Who the hell would authorise a flight in a Spitfire from somebody they’d never seen before?
CB: What rank were you at that time?
JL: Flight lieutenant. [pause] Yeah. Lots of things like that happened to me. It’s hard to believe them now.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I guarantee it. I don’t know how you would ever prove it now but [poor old Max Kiddie?] the Aussies. He died. Well most Aussies seem to die young. Most of the ones I knew did.
CB: Yeah. Back at —
JL: Hughie Edwards only made sixty eight.
CB: Yes. Back at Boscombe Down you’ve got all these variety of planes and you’re in the armament flight. So on the single engine planes what are you testing?
JL: Mostly guns. Things like the Avenger I remember, which was quite a nice aeroplane. We didn’t have many single engines. Only for our own test purposes but I used to go around and fly other people’s.
CB: So the Grumman Avenger was — you were doing that for the navy were you?
JL: Yes.
CB: Right.
JL: Yes I remember the Avenger. The Avenger, I think, yes. I can’t remember what. We did anything. And we were all much the same. We were entitled to one day off a week but nobody ever took it. All that happened when there was a non-flying day we all went into Salisbury. Otherwise every day was the same.
CB: Yeah. What other twin-engined aircraft did you fly at Boscombe Down?
JL: I don’t know.
CB: Did you have a Whirlwind for instance?
JL: No. No. Unfortunately not. I liked the look of a Whirlwind. They had the, they had the Wyvern there but it never went into production. It was a sort of larger, uglier looking one.
CB: Wellington.
JL: I’ve made a list somewhere of what I’ve flown.
CB: Ok. So after Boscombe Down. Then what? We’re now getting to what? What time of the war?
JL: Well the Empire Test Pilot School had started and had number one course for only about eight or ten people on that. And they had number two course. That was going on during the time I was there. They were based at Boscombe. I applied for number three course which began on the 13th March 1945 and actually I’d been, I was scheduled to drop the, I can’t remember whether it was the Tallboy or the Grand Slam but the weather had been duff and the 13th of March came up and that was the date of DPDS started so I had to give up that and a chap called Steve Dawson did the dropping of it. But of course 514. Oh my brain. Come on. The Dambusters.
CB: Yeah. 617.
JL: 617. That’s better. They already had them of course.
CB: So talking about Tallboy and Grand Slam. How were you testing those and where?
JL: Dropping them on Ashley Walk in the New Forest.
CB: So did they, they were looking for penetration were they? Or accuracy of flight? What were they looking at?
JL: I can’t remember.
CB: Because they were pinpoint delivery bombs.
JL: Probably the mechanics of dropping it. Yes that would be it. No point in dropping it on Ashley Walk except to make a big hole.
CB: Were they testing the ability of the two bombs to penetrate concrete?
JL: I don’t think so. I think 617 squadron were already doing that. They did the Tirpitz and that thing in France.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Coupole or whatever they called it.
CB: Coupole. Yes. They did a good job on that.
JL: Did a good job of the Tirpitz too.
CB: Yeah. And V3. Tallboys. The guns. The guns in the hillside. So did you, after doing your dropping did they ask you to look at the result of what you’d done?
JL: I can’t remember that. No.
JL: I had a wonderful time at Boscombe. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
CB: I bet. So you talked about ETPS the Test Pilot School so what happened there. Number three course.
JL: I was on number three course. Yes. And of course the end of the war came. Chief test pilots round the industry had a habit of coming down and taking lunch with the senior officers and Cyril Feather who was the chief test pilot at Boulton Paul wanted a pilot and somebody suggested me. And I was a bit flattered and thought it would be a good idea so I accepted. And at the end of the course actually we were all being, getting the future sorted out. I had applied for a permanent commission. In the event they didn’t issue permanent commissions immediately. They did what amounted to short service. They didn’t call it short service. Four year contracts.
CB: Yeah. Just Short Service Commissions.
JL: It was a short service commission but they called it something else.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Extended Service Commission
CB: Oh right.
JL: In the event they only issued Extended Service Commissions and I took this offer of Boulton Paul’s but when I got there the chief test pilot engineer was there. He didn’t know I was coming. He was a bit put out understandably. Anyway, we got on alright but there was nothing to do there and I went to ETPS course dinner and we had a number four course I suppose which at this time it was [pause] oh dear [pause] somewhere near Milton Keynes
CB: Oh Cranfield.
JL: Cranfield. Thank you. I’m sorry about this.
CB: That’s alright.
JL: And the Groupie — I can’t think of his name now. A little chap. Said, ‘Are you happy where you are?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He said, ‘Well, Saunders Roe are looking for somebody. Well, Saunders Roe suited me very well because apart from being on the Isle of Wight my wife lived near Winchester and so I I left Baulton Paul and went to Saunders Roe and [cough] oh dear. I don’t know why my throat’s doing this.
CB: Do you want a break? We’ll just stop for a mo?
[Recording paused]
CB: Now, one thing I didn’t ask you about the Boscombe Down range was you were actually testing American aircraft as well as British.
JL: Oh yes.
CB: One of the night fighters, American night fighters was called Black Widow.
JL: Yes. Flew that.
CB: What was that like?
JL: It was not a very pleasant aircraft to fly really. I think it had remote controlled guns for even firing. It was alright but not a, not a very brilliant aircraft. Yes. The P51.
CB: Right. Thank you. So we’re now at Saunders Roe. So what was the task there?
JL: Well they didn’t have a proper pilot there but chief designers [unclear] had been at the fleet air arm. He was doing a little bit. There were, at the time they were building Sea Otters and refurbishing Walruses, the jet flying boat fighter was on the docks. The SRA1. And in the distance was the Princess.
CB: Right.
JL: And so I just joined in flying the Walruses and the Sea Otters and then they, they sent me on a Sunderland conversion course to Pembroke Dock which was very nice. So I had the full OTU course on the Sunderland. Now what had happened at Saunders Roe was that Short Brothers — where did they used to be? On the Thames.
CB: At Chatham. Rochester.
JL: Rochester. Stafford Cripps, who was a trade minister or something, nationalised Short’s and sent them to Belfast. They never did like that including the chairman Sir Arthur Gouge. So he carried these down to Saunders Roe and he was, he was followed by a whole lot of other people including a general manager, Browning and a whole lot and they just didn’t want to be at Belfast. And whilst I was away at Pembroke Dock I got a letter from the managing director [laughs] Captain Clark saying that Geoffrey Tyson would be joining the company as chief test pilot. Well he was one of the Short’s. Well he was chief test pilot at Short’s. I thought well that’s fair enough. He knows his stuff. I don’t. And so I wrote back and said, “Yes, that’s fine by me sir.” And when I got back I met Geoffrey. He was the most peculiar chap. He wasn’t the least interested in me, my background. He didn’t want to see my logbooks. Nothing. He knew nothing about me. And I found it very hard to get on with him. He hadn’t any sense of humour, he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. But we staggered along and he did the first few flights on the SRA1 and then he let me have a go. Well then, well we, we didn’t get on at all. Face it. We shared the same birthday but he was twelve years older than me.
CB: Right.
JL: And —
CB: In flying boat terms he was a cold fish.
JL: Then he, he told me one day that John Booth, who was another Short pilot was going to join as his number two so obviously that was my invitation to leave. So I rang up Eric Franklin at Armstrong Whitworth and got a job back there straight away and that was, that was the end of the things. I flew the SRA1 at Farnborough along with several other do’s.
CB: Just to put this —
JL: He was a most peculiar fellow.
CB: To put this into a context if I may. The SRA1 was the first jet powered Flying Boat.
JL: Yes.
CB: So what was the concept and what was it like?
JL: I think the idea was it would be handy in the Pacific area where they wouldn’t have to have a runway. It was quite a powerful machine with four twenty millimetre cannon.
CB: It was a fighter.
JL: It was a fighter. Yes. And although it was a bit bulky for a fighter it was quite lively but of course the Pacific war ended and there was no more call for it. Three were completed and two were crashed. One by Winkle Brown and one by a [Pete Major?] at Felixstowe. Another one is at Southampton.
CB: So you did the course on the Sunderland at Pembroke. That set you up.
JL: Pembroke Dock.
CB: Pembroke dock. That set you up in anticipation of flying the SRA1 did it? Was that the idea?
JL: Yes. That was the Flying Boats in general.
CB: And you were flying the Walruses and the Otters
JL: Yes. The Walruses and the Sea Otter you could taxi on the slipway.
CB: Yeah.
JL: The others needed mooring.
CB: So, what, how did it feel flying a jet flying boat? Because compared with flying a piston engine it was quite different.
JL: Well I had flown jets before. I flew the Vampire and the Meteor.
CB: At Boscombe Down.
JL: Yeah. [pause] I don’t know. Didn’t feel particularly different.
CB: Did you have to have particularly unusual handling techniques because of being a jet engine and getting water in it?
JL: Well they had designed in an extended snout but it was never necessary. It was never used because the spray was always well clear of the intake. I’ve got to have another.
CB: That’s alright.
[Recording pause]
JL: At that time the Isle of Wight was bristling with retired naval captains.
CB: Oh.
JL: Actually I thought he was one of those.
CB: Right.
JL: It turned out to be a captain in the Royal Flying Corps and equivalent of a flight lieutenant.
CB: But he called himself Captain Clark.
JL: Oh he was very fussy about the captain bit.
CB: Yeah. How interesting. What was he like as a personality? As the chairman.
JL: He was a bit peculiar. He had very little technical knowledge. How he came to be managing director I don’t know.
CB: Of an aviation company.
JL: Finance I suppose. But he was a bit of an oddball.
CB: Now after the Saunders Roe situation changing you went back to Armstrong Whitworth.
JL: Yes.
CB: So how did that come about? You just made direct contact or how did it work?
JL: Well when Geoffrey told me John Booth was joining as his number two that was obviously my cue to go so I immediately phoned Eric Franklin who — he’d been an apprentice with me at Armstrong Whitworth and he was then chief test pilot and he offered me a job straight away. So I was on my way within a very few days.
CB: So what was Armstrong Whitworth working on then? We’re talking about 1946 now are we?
JL: ‘49
CB: ‘49. Right.
JL: When I, when went back there the bread and butter was the production of Mark iv Meteors which became Mark viii Meteors. Simultaneously we had the Apollo which was a heap of rubbish.
CB: An airliner.
JL: Yes.
CB: An imitation air liner.
JL: It was supposed to be in competition with the Vickers Viscount. That was because it had to have Armstrong Siddeley engines, which were rubbish so it was never made anywhere. They were very [pause] well, a child of ten could have designed it.
CB: Oh.
JL: We had the 52. The 52 glider.
CB: So how, the AW52 was a flying wing.
JL: Yes.
CB: So could you just explain what the concept there was and the use of the glider first?
JL: Well, one of the purposes of it was to try to develop laminar flow over the wing.
CB: Right.
JL: But it wasn’t very successful because it’s impossible to keep the wind surface clear of squashed flies and things but actually it was a very experimental aircraft. I suppose they had ideas of building a massive passenger aircraft in that form but in this case it was just a two seater but they, it only had twenty six degrees of sweepback which was not nearly enough. And on controls they had several choices. What they chose was an elavon — a combined elevator and aileron. They could have split them and had separate ailerons and elevators or power controls were coming along although they hadn’t reached it yet. Well they wrongly decided on the elavons which meant that fore and aft was a very short lever balance, was very vert sensitive fore and aft, very very heavy laterally and they had a compromise and the compromise was through a spring tab. Are you familiar with a spring tab?
CB: Yeah.
JL: On a spring tab the spring had to be very very weak so that your controls are connected to a very floppy spring and my problem was exceeding the [pause] exploring the higher speed range before flutter set in. I was completely disorientated and I believe that I would have passed out very quickly so instead of that I pulled the blind down. I didn’t do anything properly in the ejection. You were supposed to put your heels on the footrest. I didn’t do that. I just didn’t do it. That’s all. And it had spectacle controls. Somehow or other my knees missed that. They were bruised but otherwise, otherwise ok. So once again I was very very very lucky.
CB: What height were you flying?
JL: About three thousand feet.
CB: And what speed?
JL: Three hundred. About three hundred and fifty. The limiting speed had just been increased and that’s what I was doing.
CB: So it’s the —
JL: Exploring that.
CB: Right. And theoretically what was the maximum speed? Fairly low was it?
JL: Oh I expect so. Yes. Yes not much performance testing was done. It was all sort of handling. Trying to get the controls right.
CB: So you’re at three thousand. Three thousand feet. What sort of speed were you actually flying at at that moment?
JL: Well the last I remember was about three fifty.
CB: It was at three fifty. Right.
JL: We were still at miles an hour.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
JL: And —
CB: The parachute automatically deployed.
JL: No. No.
CB: You had to do it.
JL: I had to do the whole thing.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I had to release the Sutton harness and pull the rip cord.
CB: Right.
JL: I made a very bad landing and hurt my shoulder a bit. Still hurts.
CB: Where? Where did this take place?
JL: A place called little Long Itchington.
CB: I know it. Yes.
JL: Do you know it? South of Coventry.
CB: Yes. Good pub there.
JL: Yes. I’ve been there.
CB: The Blue Light.
JL: The Blue Light.
CB: Yes.
JL: Used to kept by Wing Commander Sandy Powell.
CB: Oh.
JL: Who had been at Boscombe Down. In charge of C flight.
CB: And he he became a Comet test pilot and that blew his mind.
JL: Hmmn?
CB: He had been a Comet test pilot as well hadn’t he?
JL: Sandy?
CB: Yeah.
JL: Well he’d flown all sorts of things.
CB: Yeah. Right. So that’s where you came down. And the plane came down somewhere. Where?
JL: About two miles further on.
CB: Yeah. What? How did you start off with the gliders? The Glider. How did that handle? You were towed up by something and then —
JL: [laughs]. Not exactly. They had, they had a Whitley to tow it off first of all but when I got there they’d just been allocated a Lancaster. That Whitley was the last off the production line and they took it away and broke it up. There was no Whitley any more. But we had a Lancaster which was much better getting the glider up to a decent height. Used to take it up and then do tests on the way down.
CB: So how manoeuvrable was the glider?
JL: Well it was much better. It was two thirds the size of a big one and it was not metal? It was plywood construction which made it much more rigid and the controls were much better. Still a bit odd.
CB: And what sort of test envelope would you be exploring in that?
JL: Oh I don’t know. I don’t remember.
CB: Then you moved to the AW52.
JL: Yes. I only did two and a half flights in the AW52.
CB: Right.
JL: And the other one was grounded. Then they did some vibration tests with it at very slow speeds. When they sent it to Farnborough where it was regarded as a curiosity. I think they tried to resurrect the laminar flow test but it was no good and it finished up as a curiosity and was eventually broken up.
CB: What was the engine power on that? Was it twin engine?
JL: Yes. Two Nenes. Yes. One had two Nenes. One had two Derwents.
CB: Right. So this was a government contract.
JL: Yes.
CB: To examine laminar flows.
JL: A research. A government supported.
CB: So after that you get out. You’re the first person to use an ejector seat in serious operation.
JL: Yes. The Germans had got on of course during the war. They weren’t as good of course. I think they were operated by compressed air. But I think there were a quite a lot of German ejections.
CB: Were there?
JL: And I was the first of the allied side shall we say.
CB: In peacetime. So you injured your shoulder. What did you do after that?
JL: I was off flying for about a month and then I went to central, CME Central Medical Establishment in London and they gave me a going over and sent me home with a little piece of paper which said, “Fits, fits civilian MOS pilot but not to be exposed to the hazards of the Martin-Baker ejection seat.” And so shrieks of laughter at that. Still are. [laughs]
CB: An interesting point though in practical terms the seat is operated by a cartridge. What was the affect? The seat is operated by an explosive cartridge so what did the ejection itself do to your spine?
JL: Well I had already gone up to [Denham?] and got on the test rig and following that I had a little bit of pain in my tail. I mentioned this to my GP and explained what had happened. He said, ‘Well, I expect you bruised it a bit.’ But the pain didn’t go away. It wasn’t constant and so I ignored it. Then when I ejected they x-rayed me and they said that I’d suffered a compression fracture of the first and second vertebrae and what’s more this was the second time this has happened. So the same thing happened both times.
CB: Right.
JL: I think it’s quite common actually.
CB: Yes. It’s just the modern seats are rocket and they still have a sharp acceleration don’t they?
JL: Yes.
CB: So, ok. What did you do next then? Did you return to flying?
JL: Oh yes. I went to Armstrong Whitworth and started again. And well we went through a lot of productions the Sea Hawk, the Hunter 2 and 5, Hunter 7. We had [pause] God. Come on brain. Javelin.
CB: Oh yes. ‘Cause they were building all of these. Some contractors were they?
JL: Yes. I mean we took over. We took over the Sea Hawk complete. Design and everything.
CB: Oh right.
JL: But the others were just sub-contracts. The Hunter 2 and the 5 had Sapphire engines. We built all those.
CB: How long did all that go on?
JL: Well the Argosy came along 1959. And I participated in that for a while which wasn’t a very good aircraft at all. Didn’t have enough range for the RAF to start with. But Glosters closed down. Who else closed down? Avro. Avro’s closed down [pause] No they didn’t. Glosters closed down. Somebody else closed down and the Hawker Siddeley Group was sort of imploding rapidly and so I thought it time to go rather than just sit about and wait to be picked to be sacked. And so I went to the managing director and said I’d be happy to leave and that I had a suggestion that they see me through the necessary, considerable training to obtain an airline transport pilot’s licence and they happily agreed to that. They paid all my expenses. In all for about three months. I got that licence and they gave me a year’s salary and said thank you very much. And unfortunately I was, met another chap who’d got into crop spraying in Africa. Made a lot of money. And he talked me into joining him in the business but unfortunately he had a wife too many and he bought a house out of the business and things were going very wrong and I lost a lot of money and pulled out. And I needed a job and there was a job down here at Shoreham regional air maps. Doing air survey photography and map making. So I took that job to give me, keep me sane while I looked around for an airline job but the only airline job that came my way was flying a Dakota to Dusseldorf at night with the papers. I didn’t fancy that at all. I was well placed because the crewing manager at British United was a chap who’d been at Boscombe Down, Charles Moss and he was looking out for me. And nothing came along. This was in 1964. So I took this job and I got engrossed in the air survey business anyway and passed the point of no return age wise I think and I stayed there until I was sixty five.
CB: So looking back on your RAF career what was the most memorable point, would you say, of your activities?
JL: I think my first tour with that motley crew I had.
CB: In what way?
JL: Well we went everywhere together. Did everything together.
CB: Yeah.
JL: It was rather different with the second tour. We didn’t sort of mix socially so much.
CB: Didn’t you?
JL: Well I had good happy times but —
CB: When were you commissioned? In the first tour.
JL: In my first tour. Yeah. August 1941.
CB: Right.
JL: This was another little story. I was down in the dispersal one day and an airman came down and said, ‘Here. You’ve got to fill this in.’ [laughs] And it was an application form for a commission. So I thought I’d better fill it in which I did and I had to go to London for an interview and my crew, I went down by train late at night. My crew duly saw my off via the George Hotel and I was in a pretty fair state when I got on the train. Got to London in the blackouts. There was an air raid warning on. I had nowhere to go. I eventually found a dim light which was the Church Army or Salvation Army or something. A little hostel. So I went in there and they gave me a bed for the night. In the morning I never saw the proper toilet facilities. I just got, I just got dressed. I had a terrible hangover and went for my interview. I think it was actually Adastral House in Kingsway. Then went back to the squadron and carried on. And then we went on leave and I still had my car. If you had a car and you went on leave you had petrol coupons for the place you were going so obviously the best thing is to have a destination as far away as possible to get the most petrol. So I had the address of a friend in Shrewsbury and I just gave that as my address whilst on leave. Whilst I was on leave they sent a telegram to this address saying commission granted and never to return as pilot officer so I turned up not knowing a thing about this so I had to rush into Cambridge and get myself fitted for a uniform and rushed in again to put it on and went in as a sergeant and came back as a pilot officer. And my crew all came with me as usual and they marched in front demanding that everybody saluted me. [laughs]
CB: Sounds like a riot.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Didn’t work the same way with the Lancaster crew. Is that because you had two people join later?
JL: Well I had a ready-made crew. The commanding officer had gone off sick. He needed some surgery and I took over his crew which was a Wellington crew. And the navigator was a ex-Exeter prison jailer and he had, he had funny ideas. He used to take a .38 revolver with him on ops. Yeah. The wireless operator was, came from Dublin and surprisingly he was a teetotal. The original wireless op and the rear gunner both changed quite quickly having finished whatever they were on and so I had a sort of a scratch crew to start with and when we changed we changed on to Lancs we had two new members and we were all on happy good terms but we didn’t sort of go down the the pub as a gang as we did on the first tour.
CB: How many other officers in your crew? In that case. On the Lancasters.
JL: There were no officers except me in the first crew. The second crew [pause] I had two changes of navigator and they were both commissioned. The rear gunner in both cases both were commissioned. Just in the last legs I had a commissioned wireless op. A Canadian. Gordon Fisher. The rest were all sergeants.
CB: You had an unusually broad experience because you started early and did various other things. To what extent did you come across LMF?
JL: On 40 Squadron we had a chap. I can tell you his name can I?
CB: Ahum.
JL: [Hesketh?]
CB: Yeah.
JL: And all sorts of things kept going wrong with him. He did a lot of second pilot trips. I had my [unclear] [serves me right?] one time prior to going out on ops he retracted the undercarriage. Almost anything to stop him and he was eventually flying second pilot with the flight commander and that aircraft was seen circling on a point on the East Anglian coast well north off the point where we were supposed to stage through and it spun in and crashed and they were all killed including the flight commander. Creegan was it? And this chap Hesketh. You can’t help but think that Hesketh had something to do with that but why they were, they were about fifty miles north of where they should have been. The other one I only know by hearsay which was 12 Squadron. A crew ditched in the North Sea. The dinghy was upside down and they had to sit on the upturned dinghy for three days and they were rescued and of course they were hospital cases. Apparently for days afterwards when they squeezed [the flesh?] water came out. The wireless op I believe, this was all hearsay Flight Sergeant Rose and he was put back on ops far too soon. He wasn’t ready for it and he was whisked off. Presumably pronounced LMF. Which was very very very unkind. My experience of the RAF was that they were always very kind and compassionate to me.
CB: Well.
JL: Particularly Wing Commander Wood.
CB: Jo thank you very much indeed for a fascinating interview.
JL: I don’t think it was very good.
[Recording paused]
JL: One incident at 12 Squadron again. Lancs. We were right over the top of Hamburg a Junkers 88 went. We heard his engines.
CB: Did you?
JL: Straight over the top of us. Missed us by about ten feet I think.
CB: In the dark.
JL: In the dark.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Well in the dark but you could see quite a lot.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. Quite a shock.
JL: Yes [laughs] if he’s close enough to hear the engines he’s too bloody near.
CB: Yeah. And you thanked your lucky stars.
JL: I had another one. I had a very good Australian navigator on 12 Squadron. Anyway, he had to miss an op for some reason or other and we were given a Canadian. A chap called Abrahamson. I’d never sort of met him till we got in the aircraft and the target was Essen. And we went off and by the time we got to the Dutch coast he wasn’t making any sense at all but fortunately the PFF were putting down markers at a couple of turning points and the night was absolutely gin clear. You could see everything. You could see the coast and rivers and I didn’t want to take issue with this Mr Abrahamson so I just carried on and we duly, I made the markers that PFF had put down. You couldn’t miss the target because they were marking that as well. Some duly did deliver the bombs and just flew home. Didn’t need any help flying home. We could see everything and of course when we got back we had to report everything to the squadron navigation officer. Mr Abrahamson was never seen again. By the time we got up in the morning he wasn’t there.
CB: Was he —
JL: Off the station. Where he went? Don’t know.
CB: Did you put that down to stress or just as an incompetent navigator?
JL: I’ve no idea. I’ve no idea. I didn’t know the chap. I hadn’t spoken to him.
CB: Right. Thank you.
[Recording paused]
CB: Wife died.
JL: Well [unclear]
CB: Right.
JL: Very sad. That’s right. We had a legal separation and she wanted to marry again so we did the divorce and then she died 1977.
CB: Right.
JL: I remarried and this wife went a bit berserk. I think she was almost certainly she was got onto drugs. She had her own car. Used to disappear into Brighton for days but she had her father who was a mouse living there and looked after my daughter Jenny and eventually she, well I divorced her and the next thing I knew she’d developed cirrhosis of the liver.
CB: Oh.
JL: And due to her very very peculiar behaviour she hadn’t any friends left at all. She was a very very sad case and she committed suicide.
CB: Right.
JL: In 1964. I’d just retired.
CB: A big strain.
JL: I was left with a daughter sixteen. Just doing her O Levels.
CB: Oh were you really.
JL: Fortunately she’s turned out absolute trumps.
WT: Good. Good.
CB: Excellent.
JL: And the son is fine too. So I have a son of seventy and a daughter forty nine and a loving and loyal family.
CB: Is Jenny married?
JL: She should be.
CB: Oh.
JL: I said, ‘Why don’t you get married?’ ‘What’s the point?’
CB: Oh right.
JL: One of those.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Jo Lancaster. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 23, 2024,

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