Today my Dad describes the pilots of 805 Squadron.
A typical working day meant a short parade and inspection by the duty officer namely one of the pilots and then we were transferred by lorry round the airfield about 2 miles to our dispersal site. Here were three Nissan huts. One housed the Engineering workshops under HO Air Engineering Officer Sub Lieutenant Asplin. The second was part stores hut and part use of ratings. The third was divided into two, the front half being a ready/rest room for the pilots and the rear a small store.Facilities were primitive but at lunch time we were transferred back to the main camp in relays for a quick lunch and return.
Flying continued all day sometimes with two or sometimes four aircraft up in relays. Occasionally the whole squadron would be airborne and would practise formation flying which was quite spectacular.
The other Safety Equipment man in the squadron was Derek Turner universally known as Sam. We became firm friends and in addition to working together we socialised together. Sam was from Lynton in North Devon and was a laid back individual with a quiet sense of humour.
Our job was to see that each pilot’s parachute, dinghy, mae west jacket and all safety and survival equipment was fully maintained and was in place in his aircraft when he was due to fly.
In the main, pilots had their own individual aircraft but it did not always work that way and therefore Sam and I had to keep track of what times each pilot was flying and which aircraft and it was sometimes necessary to transfer his chute and dinghy from one to another.
In a Seafire the pilot sits on his packed parachute underneath of which his attached one man dinghy forms the cushion of the bucket seat. The strappings of the chute and dinghy are tensioned to suit the build and required comfort of the pilot and so could not readily be interchanged amongst the pilots.
In any case there was the superstitious element of the pilot that his last lifesaver was the parachute and he needed to be sure that the one he was sitting on was his.
It was an unwritten law in the relationship between the pilot and his parachute packer that if ever the pilot had to bale out and came down safely he would reward his parachute packer. The recognised reward was ten shillings (three days pay for the packer in those days). If the parachute didn’t work not only did you not get the 10 s, you were prime suspect in a fatal accident enquiry with dire consequences!
During my time with the squadron only one pilot had to bale out of a Seafire and that was Lieutenant Phil Atherton. He was a redhead and by virtue of it, of a headstrong nature. He did a bale out three times and each time I got ten bob which took Sam and me out for a couple of good nights out each time.
I think after the loss of his third Seafire Phil Atherton must have got an almighty b******ing or maybe whoever serviced is aircraft did. In any case, three must have been the limit for the powers that be.
Most of the pilots were characters in one way or another.
Lt David Crofts was supposedly responsible for safety equipment and theoretically Sam and I were answerable to him but he hadn’t a clue about parachute and dinghy packing so he never troubled us. He landed his Seafire one day on the airstrip with only one undercarriage leg down. The aircraft veered off the runway onto the grass and went clean through the goalposts of the airfield football pitch. We all cheered. Any incident like that was a cause of hilarity to the ground crew providing it did not cause serious injury to the pilot.
Most of the pilots as were the ground crew were boozers but one of them was a boozer par excellence. Lieutenant Dickie Turnbull was a Scot and he seemed to like his native brew. I recall more than once when he was duty officer he would pass along our line as we stood to after breakfast inspection with his cap askew smelling of gin/whisky and obviously suffering from the previous night’s imbibing. Within the half hour he would be taking off in his Seafire flying as if was stone cold sober. He was, indeed, one of our finest pilots.
Some of the other pilots were a bit madcap. One day I was asked to remove the dinghy and parachute from one of the Seafires. Shortly after it took off with one of the pilots sat in the empty bucket seat and one of the others sat on his lap flying the plane which did a circuit of the airfield and landed perfectly.
As far as possible, the pilots flew in set flights and sub flights so that the most senior pilot led in each case. Thus the squadron formation was as follows
Lt. Commander Hutton, Lt J Ellis and Lt P Atherton and Lt N Hodgson
Lt P Madden (senior pilot) Lt W Gunner and Lt P Hiles and Lt R Fowler
Lt R Turnbull Lt D Hook and Lt D Crofts and Lt N Pennington-Bird
The Squadron Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander P J Hutton was a good CO and a good pilot. He was a bit aloof as his status reflected and any orders he gave came down through one or other of the other officers.
The Senior Pilot i.e. the second in command was Lieutenant Peter Madden, a Yorkshire man only about 5 feet 6 tall but an excellent pilot.
Another Yorkshire man was Jackie Ellis who was the CO’s wingman in the air.
The other pilots varied; two or three were public school types but friendly nevertheless. On the other hand were Bill Gunner who looked and walked like a bluff farmer and Lt Fowler who did not say much but was the best shot with his aircraft machine guns than any of the others.