Un-Gluing the Mosquito
Recollections by David van Vlymen - Ex. RAF
The time is 1940, the Battle of Britain is in full swing and many major towns are being "blitzed". WW2 was only a few months old and I am sworn into the RAF at Uxbridge, a suburb of Greater London. At night I and other recruits spend hours in wet, drafty and dark air-raid shelters where we could hear the "crump" of bombs landing, many quite close. It was not a happy time, but as an 18 year old volunteer I am full of anticipation at what was ahead, being patriotic and "doing my bit" to help my country like other young men.
After a lousy 6 week disciplinary training followed by 25 weeks of technical training I "passed" as a "Fitter 2 A" (the "A" meaning "airframe" as distinct from "E" meaning "Engine"), and was posted to 13 MU (Maintenance Unit) Henlow, Bedfordshire about 50 miles North of London. At No. 2 Repair Section I was issued with overalls and a tool kit and was put to work repairing Beaufighters and Hamdens. My 6 years in the RAF had begun.
My colleagues came from all walks of life, book-keepers, barbers, bakers, bankers, motor mechanics, salesmen, and so on. We'd had minimal training for this type of work, but we learned quickly from the more experienced airmen. For 9 or 10 hours a day our job was to repair aircraft that were desperately needed by the operating squadrons.
The War dragged on and after the Battle of Britain fighter aircraft were in short supply. In 1942 the Canadians came to our rescue shipping us huge packing cases each containing the famous Hurricane fighter, hundreds of them which were dumped anywhere there was space on camp, the parade-ground filled up in double-quick time. No. 2 Repair Section unpacked the cases and set up assembly lines, fuselages, wings and tailplanes came together and engines serviced. I had been assigned to "test flight" where the newly assembled Hurricanes were pushed out of the hanger and given to us to prepare for their first flight. It all went very smoothly and about 4 a day were completed and sent to squadrons where they were desperately needed, this did a lot to help our spirits and we certainly needed something to boost them.
The War was not going well, the outlook was very bleak and there was no end in sight. We had been at war for three years and it looked as if it could last forever. The enemy had captured France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, indeed the whole continent as well as North Africa, and the Japanese had attacked America. We knew the Germans were poised to try an invasion of England, how much worse could it get? We were separated from family, we were living in Spartan conditions, 40 men to a room of double-decked bunks, no privacy, the air reeking with tobacco smoke and we were unable to open a window because of black-out restrictions. We lined up to go to the latrines or to wash and shave, and often there was no hot water. How we kept our spirits up I shall never know, but we did, and Churchill certainly had something to do with it. There existed a comradeship between us, "esprit de corp" was what the RAF called it, we were all in the same boat, we had to make the best of it, and, it had to end someday.
1943 came along and so did the new all wooden "Mosquito". It was being produced by the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Watford, about 35 miles south of Henlow, and they were piling up waiting for their test flight which de Havilland was unable to perform quickly enough. So large numbers were sent to Henlow for us to pass as serviceable. No. 2 Repair Section got the job and being in the "test flight" section I was lucky, I got to fly!
The Mosquito was designed, tested and built within the years of WW2. The de Havilland headquaters factory at Hatfield produced 3,054 Mosquitos and their "shadow factory" at nearby Leavesden produced 1,390. Other factories including "Standard Motors" also switched to producing the Mosquito. It was made of wood, Equador balsa, Alaska Spruce, Canadian birch and fir, and English ash, and furniture makers were called in to help build it. In the heat of India and Burmathe glue came unstuck! It carried out nearly every conceivable air-combat job. It carried two-ton bombs to Berlin. Shot down enemy planes night or day. It strafed shipping, destroyed german V-1 bombs (the doodlebugs), and it broke down the walls of Amiens prison so that French resistance leaders could escape. It demolished Gestapo headquaters in the middle of Copenhagen. It operated as a pathfinder marking targets at night for the heavy bombers, and with a six-pound anti-tank gun in the nose, it attacked German U-Boats. Generally speaking, its role was murder by night, but it didn't blink at daytime killing.
The Mosquito went through 42 versions as a fighter, fighter bomber or bomber. It normally cruised at around 240 mph with a range of more than 1,700 miles, or seven hours. A total of 7,781 Mosquitos were built durin the war. In the fighter version, the version in which I was involved, it carried a crew of two, the pilot and the navigator who sat side by side.
Here it is timely to take a moment to talk about Test Pilots. There were two kinds, civilian pilots or RAF pilots. At Henlow, of course, we had RAF pilots who stayed with us only a short while. None of them had ever tested aircraft in their lives! Without exception they were sent to us for a rest, after having completed a tour or two of operational flying. Given the briefest of instruction they were required to fly the Mosquito and determine if any further work should be done to make it airworthy and operational. Most of these pilots had never even flown a Mosquito before and were more than delighted if one of us mechanics would fly with them, not only because they thought we knew our way about, but also so that we could make some adjustments while in the air, usually hydraulics and the undercarriage performance. That is how I fell into test flying with Mosquitos!
Flying in those days of war, 55 years ago, was very different from today. At Henlow there were no concrete runways, just grass with a wire mesh over it to provide some kind of firm surface for landing and take-off. There was no "Tower" or flight control. There was a mobile trailer usually placed at the end of the runway. I never really knew what it was there for, but I seem to remember that if you tried to take-off when something was landing and you had not seen it, someone from the "trailer-office" hopped out and fired a red flare into the air to signify danger. And that was it. It was up to you to keep your eyes open, be aware of what was around, and take off or land at your own discretion. And there was no radio or direction finding devices. All you had was a compass and a map, the latter being quite useless when you were flying above the cloud which you did most of the time. You had no warning if enemy aircraft were around, you had to watch out for them, not that you could have done anything because your guns (if any) were not loaded. If we sighted the enemy we would disappear into the clouds! This was truly flying by the seat of your pants, flying unserviceable aircraft off the production line with rookie test pilots, and worst of all, quite a few aircraft did not survive the test.
What did the test consist of? Well it was very basic. Make sure the undercarriage locked up and down, the flaps were working, the engine did its job, the variable pitch propellers worked and could be "feathered". All the gauges and dials worked, the rudder and control stick were OK and everything held together in the "dive" which was the really big test. If the aircraft was "trimmed" OK it should pull out of the dive on its own with minimal help from the pilot, in other words it should not be necessary to pull back on the joy-stick. This is a most important test because the aircraft was under great stress, and if anything was going to happen it was likely to be now. The Pilots handled it in differently ways.
Some would go up to 25,000 ft. look for a hole in the clouds, then head vertically down through the hole and let go all controls to see if it pulls out OK. And this gave you time and a few thousand feet if things didn't go right. Others would only go to about 12,000 ft. then do a 10,000ft vertical dive and pull hard on the joystick to just skim the tree tops coming out of the dive. This latter method not only did not determine if the aircraft would pull out on its own, it put more stress on the plane and subjected the occupants to several "G" which, although very thrilling, was not very comfortable. And if anything went wrong in that dive you had no time to get out, you were virtually a goner! After the dive it was not unusual to find oneself over the sea with the coast in sight, but which coast was it, England or France? One would approach land very carefully trying to recognize a familiar landmark and then breath a sigh of relief if it was England.
Of course I was fully aware that at some time while flying I may have to bail out and the possibility of a parachute jump was something I should have liked to experience. It was getting out of the Mosquito that was the problem. We were testing the fighter version. The pilot could jettison the panel above his head and then somehow get out, probably breaking his back in doing so, there was no such thing as an ejector-seat in those days. For me in the Navigators seat I had to jettison the side door and dive out head first, right into the propeller, so it was first necessary to feather the prop, an action that took several seconds that seemed like an age! I used to just sit in a Mosquito on the ground and practicing how to get out in a hurry, but fortunately I never had to do so.
After only a short while flying with Mosquitos at Henlow I was sent to the de Havilland Aircraft Factory's Test Flight section at Leavesden. We were only about 6 RAF airmen amongst hundreds, or probably thousands of civilians, we shared their canteen and enjoyed chats at lunch times, and as I lived in N.W.London I was able to catch a train home every night, it was the best of both worlds.
The Leavesden Test Flight had both civilian and RAF pilots and it did not take long to see the difference. The civilian pilots were very particular, everything had to be absolutely right before they would pass a plane for active service, after an aircraft's first test flight they would list around 100 faults which had to be taken care of before the second test flight. An aeroplane may have as many as 8 or more test flights before it was passed. No wonder there was a bottle-neck. With the RAF pilots, who were used to flying and fighting in anything reliable that would "take off", test flying was quite a different matter (a rattle here or there was no big deal). After the first test perhaps only 20 faults were listed, and often it took only 3 flights to pass a plane as "fit".
A test flight would cover hundreds of miles, one I remember took us from Watford to Bristol, then over Southampton and the Isle of Wight and back to Watford, and included a low-level tight circle round the pilot's house to wave to his wife, all in about 90 minutes. And to signify another Mosquito was "passed" the pilot would often do a "shoot-up" of the airfield performing victory rolls and loops, to the delight of factory and ground personnel who would always run out of the hangers to watch. Being in the cockpit and part of all this was thrilling, and that's putting it mildly. But there was a sober note.
The first morning at Leavesden I was ready to fly (with the late Geoffrey de Havilland's 'shute!) but when the pilot found that I did not have a helmet he said he would manage without me as he was concerned about my eardrums (in the "dive" the pressure could be a problem). What happened I don't know, but he never came back.
A few days later I was given two planes to fly with. They were straight off the assembly line and it was my habit when possible to carefully inspect each plane. While in the fuselage of one plane I heard the other start up. I quickly got ready and motioned to the pilot that I wanted to get aboard, but as to do so would mean stopping the starboard engine, he waived me aside and went off alone. He never came back.
A week or two later I had one foot on the ladder about to climb into the Mosquito for the test flight when the Manager of the department called out to me from across the field. With him was a RAF Flight Engineer and the Manager asked if I would mind if this fellow took my place as he was there to get information on these aircraft which were still on the secret list. I strapped him into my parachute, saw him up the ladder, shut the door and they were off. They never came back.
How did I feel about all this? I just felt lucky, it did not deter me one little bit from continuing to test fly. At one time I landed on one wheel which caused quite a commotion on the ground, but somehow when flying you seem somewhat detached from danger and the ground staff are much more concerned!
Now the Mosquito had a maximum speed of a little over 400 mph which was moving in those days, and when it went into a vertical dive speed increased dramatically. At around 460 mph a shudder often started, and remember this was an all wooden aircraft. It was my belief that this shudder allowed the metal undercarriage doors to slightly open (they were held shut only by strong springs) and then be whipped off by the air stream and smash into the tail unit demolishing the elevators, thus making it impossible to pull out of the dive. I mentioned this to the powers that be and a positive uplock latch was designed and installed after which, I am pleased to report, our loss of aircraft was substantially reduced.
Before being detached to de Havillands some of us had volunteered for the "second front" (as the "D-Day" invasion was known), and after a few months at Leavesden I returned to Henlow and was given embarkation leave. My test flying with Mosquitos came to an end. It had been an exciting and wonderful experience and 55 years later it has given me much pleasure in recalling it.
After embarkation leave I did not go to France, I was shipped to India - but that is another story.
What has happened to the de Havilland Aircraft Company? I couldn't find it listed in any UK telephone directory, what is listed is the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at St. Albans, near Watford, so I contacted them and asked if they were connected to the de Havilland Aircraft Company.
The reply I received was very saddening. The de Havilland Aircraft Company is long dead and was taken over by the Hawker Siddeley Company which then became British Aerospace. The old factory at Watford remains an abandoned site which was used for the filming of "Saving Private Ryan".
Four years have passed since I wrote that article and I should like to thank all those from many parts of the world who have contacted me. Some have asked for technical information while others have enquiried if I knew their father who flew Mosquitos during WW2. I am always happy to receive mail and hope I have been able to help a few.
There is only one clarification I wish to make to my article and that is to mention that the 10,000ft. test dive was started from 12,000ft or 25,000ft depending on whether we had oxygen available. Only once did we encounter the enemy, that was when we broke cloud near to several aircraft clearly displaying the swastika. I think they were just as surprised as we were and had no time to reach for their guns as we were back in the cloud in double-quick time.
After reading a wonderful book “Forgotten Pilots” about the A.T.A (Air Transport Auxiliary) I was delighted to have contact in 2003 with the author Lettice Curtis, who I think flew every type of aircraft during her years as a pilot, a truly remarkable woman.
Good luck and all best wishes
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