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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Guest Post: An Airman's Tale

By Tim:

This post derives from a short tale I e-mailed to Russ a while back, about an experience from my days in the Royal Air Force of the 1970’s. He suggested that if it was expanded a little, it would make a good Universal Truth. Two things here, first of all Russ didn’t say what UT he had in mind, and I’m not sure I know either, at least not until we reach the end of the tale, so please bear with me! Secondly, by ‘expand’, I think Russ meant put in some pictures of young men in uniform. If you read my November Guest Post on Gay Imagery, you will realise I don’t wholly agree with the use of salacious photos, but Russ assures me it will draw the punters in. Sex still sells apparently, so stick with the tale and you will be well rewarded!

Just to get us into the mood then, here is a nice young man partially wearing an RAF No. 1 uniform of the period. He fits it rather better than I did mine at his age. When I joined up I was as thin as a beanpole, barely making 115 lbs of skin and bone.

During my aircrew training we used to have uniform regular inspections. The course would line up first thing in the morning and our Flight Commander, accompanied by our Sergeant Drill Instructor, would check our uniforms for fit and general smartness. One day we were wearing our new No. 2 uniforms. The Flight Commander stopped in front of me, frowning. He pulled at my collar, then at my waistband. He turned to our Drill Instructor, a wonderful Eastender from London who sprinkled his speech with extra ‘H’s’ whilst leaving others out all together. “Sergeant, this man’s uniform doesn’t fit at all well, get the tailor to look at it, will you?” The Sergeant replied, “Hit’s not the huniform wot’s wrong, sah, hit’s the man inside it, ee’s pigeon chested!” Well, at least it started that morning with a laugh.

Anyway, back to my original tale: When I take my Labrador, Lulu, for her evening walk here in Spain, we usually end up sitting on a little hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea I watch the ships passing by, and Lulu waits for biscuits. This evening, as we sat side by side, I heard the unmistakable growl of the local Guardia Civil patrol boat as it passed by at the end of its daytime patrol, heading back to its home port at Puerto Banus. It looks just like this one:

These vessels are essentially large speedboats, designed to chase the drug and cigarette smugglers crossing the straits of Gibraltar. The crews have very smart uniforms, though they do seem a tight fit! However, I like the way this young Guardia Officer stands to attention:

Continued after the jump . . .

Even though it was more than a mile away, I could feel the deep throb of the patrol boat’s engines passing through me, and it got me to thinking about the wonderful RAF Rescue Launches, based at RAF Mountbatten, in Plymouth, where, almost 40 years ago, I completed my sea-survival training. The craft of the RAF Marine Branch were very sleek and exceptionally fast, over 40 mph, a speed unlikely to be bettered even by the souped-up Guardia Civil boat. They were often powered by marine versions of the great aero engines of WWII, the Merlin and the Griffin from Rolls-Royce and the Sabre from Napiers. Sadly, like so much of 'my' air force, they have now passed into history, but they were magnificent vessels. Most were built of ply and mahogany, like the Mosquito aircraft, and the sound from their huge engines at full throttle was glorious to hear. I had an uncle who worked on them as an engine mechanic, and this picture shows one of the launches somewhere in the Middle East, probably RAF Muharraq, in Bahrain, where he was stationed.

Notice the studly crew. On close inspection they seem to have abandoned their baggy service issue khaki shorts for more relaxed dress! ‘Getting your knees brown’ as we used to say. Uncle Roy was a rabid socialist, and worked for the Labour Party all the while he was in the RAF, even though this was illegal under military law. He was constantly denied promotion because of his politics and eventually was invited to take early retirement! If the RAF had allowed trade unions, he would have been the chief shop steward! He also had a passion for American blues, and kept a huge collection of 78 rpm records in his own bedroom, which he was not allowed to keep in the marital bedroom, or play downstairs, as they made the place 'look untidy', according to my aunt!

The next picture shows a vessel very similar to the ones we used in our survival training, a Vosper launch:

The individual history of these boats can be hard to track down, but No. 2757 built in 1956 by Vosper Thornycroft at Southampton, does currently exist on public display at the RAF Museum, Hendon. She was delivered new in January 1958 to the RAF at Alness as a high speed motor launch and rescue vessel. Propulsion was from two Rolls Royce Sea Griffon engines, giving a top speed of 39kts - that’s nearly 45 mph, some speedboat! From 1974-5, the vessel was commanded by Flt Lt. Colin Chandler, completing some 50 exercises and sorties, mainly involving RAF aircraft, but also with the Royal Navy and Army. She was kept serviceable at Mountbatten, pending donation to Hendon, and is the last remaining high-speed RAF launch in the UK. On 26 November 1977, she made her last voyage from Mountbatten up the English Channel to London's Royal Victoria Docks, for onward movement by road to Hendon where she became a museum exhibit in December 1977. Length overall 68 feet, beam 19 feet and displacement of 34 tons.

The culmination of our sea-survival training was to be taken as a fledgling Nimrod crew (all 12 of us) out into the English Channel off Plymouth, and at maximum speed, literally thrown of the back of the launch, where we then had to swim to our multi-seat life rafts a few hundred yards away, inflate them, right them, as they often inflated upside down, get aboard and then follow our search and rescue procedures. All this whilst being hosed with powerful jets of water from another launch, to simulate storm conditions. We used to practice this righting technique in the local swimming baths, along with extended swimming instruction.

The whole procedure is shown rather nicely in this little video clip, including the righting technique.

Link: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/air-sea-rescue-3

I remember this being practised in the baths on one occasion in particular. Some poor sod (not me for a change!) was chosen at random and put underneath the upturned life raft, and then the pool lights were turned off. We watched in the dark with growing amusement, seeing his head moving erratically under the upturned floor, never quite reaching the edge of the raft, where in theory you would come to the surface and right the beast. Only when the head started moving more slowly, before eventually stopping, did we realise he was totally disoriented and running out of air! Of course we did rescue him, but not before we all had another good laugh.

Our sea-survival course took place in February, and I remember we could not see the land only 5 miles away because of the snow and sleet! At that time Nimrod crews wore thin flying suits. Not for us the fancy bone-domes and g-suits of the fighter pilots like this chap:

Our flying suits were more modest coveralls, worn, of course, with that ‘must have’ accessory, a pair of Ray-Bans, just like this:

The one concession made on the day was that we wore so-called ‘dry-suits’ made of rubber, no point in giving the precious and expensively trained aircrew pneumonia on their first outing! However, I say so-called, because they leaked, around the neck, cuffs and feet, anywhere in fact where there was an orifice (yes, there as well). Being the lightest and physically weakest of the crew, I had found the survival training very tough and demanding, and despite all that instruction I was never a strong swimmer, but I literally walked on water that day to get to that life raft! I knew that if I got bogged down in the swell, with a dry-suit full of water, I would not make it. And then a funny and amazing thing happened.

One of our navigators had got himself caught up in some long lanyards hanging from the sides of the life raft. In the rough sea he was tiring quickly and was obviously in distress. Everyone was busy surviving and no one else had noticed him. I remember thinking, in a detached sort of way, how very inconvenient it would be for all of us to lose him, so I jumped back into the sea, swam out to him and dragged him back to the life raft, pushed him up and over the side and into the raft. I don't know where my strength came from day, but it was reassuring to know it was there somewhere if needed!

And so I wonder if any of us knows truly what we are capable of until the chips are down. What set of circumstances may release an unknown strength or mental energy from deep within? On reflection, perhaps it is best we don't get to know this alter-ego until it's needed, but it is comforting sometimes to realise that we do have an inner strength, a reserve for when life is getting a tad difficult. So I guess that’s the UT here, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, am I right, Russ?

Right you are, Tim. And when he comes, there's no stopping him!  That's a universal truth, for sure.

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