Apparently insect life at London Heathrow airport has vigorously regenerated during the pandemic lockdowns. This has forced the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) to embrace a new science: entomology.
Over about 6 weeks in June and July 2021 two jet crews at Heathrow had to reject take-offs because of unreliable airspeed readings, and several more had to taxi back to their stand because their aircraft’s air data inertial reference unit (ADIRU) had detected anomalies in data from pitot/static sensors. Aircraft involved included Airbus A320 and A330 series, and Boeing 777 and 787 series.
The main reason, of course, is insects (mainly wasps, it seems) nesting in pitot tubes. This is not a new phenomenon, but the summer 2021 burst of particularly intense insect activity raises numerous questions beyond the obvious flight safety ones. As the AAIB puts it: “Proactive habitat management and aircraft monitoring will be required to mitigate the risk. With the move towards ‘greener’ aviation, this may become even more important in the future. ”
In the old days they’d just have sprayed the place with DDT.
The question is, what prompted this “infestation”? The AAIB explains that it appears to be the result of “reduced traffic levels and human activity resulting in a surge of insect breeding during the pandemic lockdowns.
“With less aircraft activity, including less noise and jet efflux to deter the insects, the parked aircraft made an attractive opportunity, with the pitot probes providing an ideal construction site for nests.”
The agency points out that the Heathrow area is an air pollution hot spot not only because of air traffic, but heavy local motorway and urban road traffic also. All of these pollution contributory factors, however, were considerably reduced during the lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021.
Perhaps in 2022, as the pandemic threat recedes and air movements increase, aviation itself will chase the insects away? The AAIB’s recently gained entomological expertise has led it to believe this will not be so – or certainly not this year: “The high level of insect activity in 2021 could lead to a larger number of insects emerging in the spring of 2022. Therefore, even though traffic levels and aircraft utilisation are expected to increase in 2022, the seasonal risk of insects blocking pitot probes could be significant.”
An additional factor encouraging insects to make their nests in aircraft has been simple opportunity: the larger numbers of aircraft parked for longer periods. Pilots and operators of light aircraft operating out of sleepy country airfields have long known that their pre-flight walk-rounds must include inspection of any crevices or hideaways. Even birds have been discovered nesting in engine bays, having found their way in via the cooling air intakes.
Despite the fact that most pilots have suffered a pandemic-induced loss of flying practice, none of this rash of insect-caused unreliable airspeed incidents at Heathrow has led to an accident. To ensure this remains true, the AAIB has recommended an “enhanced use of pitot covers or additional pre-flight inspections.” The airlines and their crews were already doing that!
This issue remains current as far as the AAIB is concerned. It is working with the Natural History Museum to identify the precise wasp species involved in aircraft infestations, their over-winter domiciles, spring nesting, mating and larvae-hatching patterns.
When they have learned all this, they then have to decide what to do about the phenomenon.
Presumably without resorting to blanket pesticide use.
Well, not quite. But something promising has emerged on the pilot training market just as the world’s airlines are beginning to slip the surly bonds of earth once more.
The newly created Airline Pilot Club (APC) offers free registration, and a whole range of advice, guidance, professional aptitude assessment, airline pilot standard e-learning course and tech webinars, for all of which there is no charge.
To access this, all that aspiring pilots have to do is join the club.
APC is a kind of marketplace which brings together selected Approved Training Organisations (ATO), airlines and other operators, and aspiring pilots. As at all marketplaces, they are there to eye each-other up.
The downside? There isn’t an obvious one.
But free flying training? Now you’re getting greedy!
No, it doesn’t offer that, but by the time aspiring APC pilots reach the airborne stage of their preparation they will know their own potential, and be as well prepared as they can be to enter an approved training course from which they will almost certainly graduate.
APC doesn’t provide the flying training, but it vets its short-listed ATOs according to a set of strict criteria.
As for financing, next year the Club expects to launch its pilot training funding system. This is designed to enable students who pass their professional aptitude assessment to get financing without having to rely on the bank of mum and dad, which will democratize access to flight training, thus benefiting the entire industry.
The guy who came up with the APC idea is well-known in European pilot training and recruitment circles: Captain Andy O’Shea. He was head of training at Ryanair for 18 years and chairman of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Aircrew Training Policy Group (ATPG). You can learn more about him and the training innovations he pioneered at the ATPG here.
It was O’Shea who shocked the airline and training establishment by revealing a few years ago that more than 50% of fully licensed pilots applying for Ryanair jobs consistently failed flying tests in a simulator session for which they had been given plenty of time to prepare. Other airlines then admitted their experience had been similar.
Not many people know this, but there are about 7,000 fully licensed pilots in Europe who have never been able to get a job. Not because they were casualties of the recent pandemic – this phenomenon pre-dates that. They were simply trained to license minima, and passed. It was like someone passing their driving test and looking for a job in Formula One.
So when O’Shea, having introduced several highly innovative recurrent training systems at Ryanair, finally left the carrier, he wanted to set up a system that introduced aptitude-tested, motivated, technically prepared wannabe pilots to ATOs that would then put them through a training programme that prepares them to do more than scrape through their license.
This is the course that would see them pass the acceptance check-ride at his old airline.
There’s more, but you’ll find it at the link I provided earlier, and at APC.
Air travellers are dreaming nostalgically of the golden age of flying.
No, not the Pan Am Stratocruisers of the 1950s for which the boarding pass was elegant millinery for the ladies and trilbies for the chaps. The golden era ended two years ago, at the end of 2019. And we’re talking about the whole air travel range from Wizz Air A320s to Emirates A380s.
Guests at hip dinner parties now compete to see who can claim to have gone the longest since they last got airborne. This is not, dear reader, a “who is the greenest” competition. Their agonising anecdotes drip with nostalgia. Even Ryanair customer-service horror stories qualify for full-on “those were the days” treatment. It seems memories of a 17-inch seat-pitch with no seat-back pouch to hold your stuff are recalled fondly.
Anything for a sniff of aviation fuel.
To listen to them, you’d think these intrepid voyagers would kill to get aboard any aircraft given permission to get airborne since the Covid pandemic’s grip slackened last summer. So why don’t they? Why are the winning dinner party anecdotes those that claim the longest grounding?
The long-suffering airlines are doing their best to win passengers back, but the principal barrier preventing them returning to anything like normal service is uncertainty, particularly on international routes. Domestic routes in big markets like the USA are almost normal, since they don’t face differing national rules on how to manage borders in a pandemic.
In the Good Old Days of 2019, business leaders could get on with running their businesses. Now nationalism is in – and treaties/alliances are suddenly uncool – they have to negotiate continually with governments both at home and abroad, to agree ways of meeting the ever-changing rules that limit what they are permitted to do today.
Unfortunately, uncertainty is with us to stay, even when the pandemic is brought under control, because nationalism has been on the rise since the Trump presidency in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and the influence of increasingly belligerent governments in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Beijing.
However hard they try, cabin crew and pilots cannot entirely disguise the stresses they face in this new working environment. And when stressed cabin crew meet stressed passengers who have been juggling for days with Covid tests and providing proof of them on arrival at the airport, the golden age seems far away.
There has been a severe shortage of happy stories about air travel, but a few glints from the golden age may yet be in the offing.
Airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Qantas are wheeling A380s out again, their press offices fondly reminding passengers that this huge machine provides perhaps the best air travel experience available – even in the economy cabin.
Marketing air travel is not easy right now, but one thing is for sure: selling air travel nostalgia is one of the few tactics likely to work.
Pilots set their desired heading using a magnetic compass, don’t they?
Well, mostly, no.
In a few years, practically none will do that. That’s the subject of this page today, because change is in the pipeline.
Aviation has inherited a legacy from navigators’ historic reliance on Planet Earth’s magnetic field for direction: by international agreement, aviators still use the position of the geomagnetic north pole as their heading reference, just so that all pilots fly by the same rule book. Very few, however, still use a magnetic compass to determine which direction to point their aircraft.
Magnetic compasses don’t point to True North, just somewhere near it. In fact they point to “Magnetic North”, whose present position is on the north-eastern coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far northern territories, about 500nm from True North. The difference exists because the Earth’s subterranean magnetic dipole is inclined about 9.5deg to its rotational axis.
To add to the confusion, the North and South Magnetic Poles’ surface positions are not static, but very slowly – and unpredictably – drifting.
The ultimate geographic heading reference – for charts and for air navigation – is True North, 90N Latitude, because Earth’s rotational axis is a constant and latitude/longitude is arranged around that. So any aviator using a magnetic compass, or other systems for detecting the horizontal component of earth’s magnetic field, has periodically to update the aircraft’s heading reference systems for magnetic polar drift.
Also – during long flights – the local angular difference between where the aircraft’s magnetic compass points and where True North actually is varies, especially during a very long flight. Of course, in aircraft with sophisticated flight management systems (FMS), many of these variables are automatically compensated, but unless the data in the FMS is regularly updated, some of the compensations applied will be wrong.
This has to change, because there are better ways of navigating now. For professional pilots flying modern aircraft, the use of Mag North as a heading reference ought really to be history, but the process of agreeing – globally – when and how to conduct the transition to a True North heading reference has been slow. Getting all the world’s nations to agree to synchronise such an exercise is much more an effort of political and administrative will than a technical challenge.
If you have already been confused by the above description of the inconsistencies in using the Earth’s wandering magnetic field as a heading reference, you are likely to find that when you consider instead the modern alternatives, they sound comparatively simple – even if the enabling technology is sophisticated.
The modern alternatives to navigation by Magnetic North are use of the now-familiar GPS-type satellite navigation systems, combined with modern inertial navigation systems, also known as inertial reference systems (IRS).
When you turn on your car GPS, it knows the position of your car, but doesn’t know which way it’s pointing until you start moving; then it immediately detects the direction and speed of travel.
Today’s IRS are, effectively, incredibly sensitive 3D accelerometer systems, and the data they produce is fed to computers for analysis. The combined platforms can be an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS, which also has magnetic input) or a pure IRS. When an IRS is switched on, it doesn’t know its position, but it senses the earth’s rotation, and from that works out the orientation of Earth’s axis, and therefore the direction of True North. The combination of the GPS aircraft position data and the IRS directional reference provide all the data required for highly accurate navigation.
What of backup, just in case things go wrong?
First of all, the system – in advanced aircraft – is duplicated or triplicated. If GPS fails or is locally jammed, the IRS/AHRS – which is completely autonomous – remains highly accurate as a dead-reckoning navigation system until GPS is regained and position can be updated.
Canada, in whose far northern territory the geomagnetic North Pole is located, has for decades required that all navigation in its northernmost airspace is conducted using the True North heading reference. Given its practical experience in this science, Canada has taken the lead in a relatively new but expert multinational body called the Aviation Heading Reference Transition Action Group (AHRTAG), which coordinates with ICAO.
AHRTAG reckons the changeover from Magnetic to True – now given the shorthand title Mag2True – should be in operation by March 2030.
If this subject has piqued your interest and you are curious to explore the Mag2True journey in greater detail, a description of the transition plans will first appear in Flight International’s November issue, out at the end of this month, and on FlightGlobal.com.
American Flight 965, a Boeing 757 descending at night toward its destination at Cali, Colombia, collided with an Andean mountain ridge, killing 159 crew and passengers. Miraculously, four passengers did not die.
The accident report that emerged from the investigation laid all blame at the feet of the pilots, softening the blow by citing some flight management system navigational anomalies as contributory factors.
Recently an independent re-examination of the data by a team of aviation and accident investigation experts has concluded that simply writing off the crash as “pilot error” was a bad decision. The pilots were among American’s best, yet the crew exchanges on the cockpit voice recorder, according to their peers, demonstrated a degree of confusion that was out of character.
Initially the Colombian/American investigation team believed alcohol in the pilots’ blood might have been a factor, but later forensic testing confirmed the alcohol was a product of tissue degeneration. Having ruled out alcohol as a cause of the pilots’ uncharacteristic confusion, the investigators failed to ask whether there might have been an alternative explanation for it, confining the event to history as simple pilot error.
Germany’s aviation agency DLR is using a non-stop flight from Hamburg to the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic ocean to study the earth’s magnetic field, a navigational resource for aviation and migrating birds alike.
The same flight, operated by Lufthansa using one of its Airbus A350-900s (D-AIXQ), is enabling a crew rotation for scientists working in Antarctic waters in the German research vessel Polarstern.
On 30 March Lufthansa’s A350 departs for this, its second non-stop flight on this route, chartered by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven. The first such trip, which took place in February, was the longest non-stop flight a Lufthansa aircraft had ever made – more than 13,000km, with a duration of more than 15h.
This time, the A350 will also be carrying scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutschen Zentrums für Luft und Raumfahrt) who will be collecting measurement data to provide further insights on the influence of the Earth’s magnetic field as it affects aviation.
The surface location of the North Magnetic Pole, located at present among the far north-eastern Canadian islands near northern Greenland, is continuing to migrate in the direction of Russian Arctic waters at a faster rate than a few decades ago.
At this rate the magnetic North Pole is expected to pass the geographic North Pole moving in the direction of northern Russia in the next few years. The full significance of this increased rate of changing polarity is not understood, but the earth is – according to scientists – overdue for a polar reversal of its magnetic field. The last polar reversal is believed to have occurred about 750,000 years ago, and although the potential consequences for earth-dwellers are not fully understood, they are believed to be significant – and not only for air navigation.
In fact navigation would be the least of the problems mankind is likely to face. Marine navigation has been based on True North since the early 1970s. Aviation has had the capability to change, but is still plodding on with navigation referenced to the magnetic poles because the industry is reluctant to incur some modest, one-off costs in making the changeover.
“With the second flight to the Falkland Islands, we are not only pleased to be able to support the AWI’s polar research expedition, but also to make an important contribution to further research into the Earth’s magnetic field,” says Thomas Jahn, Fleet Captain and Falklands Project Manager. “We have already been supporting climate research projects for more than 25 years now.”
The main reason for this second flight to the Falklands is to rotate the Polarstern crew and to pick up the research expedition team. Since the beginning of February, a team of about 50 researchers have been collecting important data on ocean currents, sea ice and the carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean, which, among other things, enable reliable climate predictions.
On 2 April, using flight number LH2575, Lufthansa’s A350 will be bringing AWI’s international research team and the DLR scientists back to Germany. The landing is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on 3 April at Munich Airport.
The Covid-19 pandemic’s dramatic effect on air travel has accelerated aircraft retirements, particularly older long-haul types. This, of course, includes the undisputed Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, the withdrawal of which has been the cause of many misty-eyed moments among aviation romantics.
The “other jumbo”, the Airbus A380 was already suffering a crisis of its own before Covid’s arrival, and the pandemic motivated the manufacturer to put the trickling production line out of its misery.
The A380 – technically an excellent, if over-engineered aircraft – was the victim of a miscalculation by Airbus way back in the late 1980s-early 1990s about the shape of future global air transport. The A380 was to replace the 747, but the belief that a replacement would be needed at all was based on an assumption that the industry would continue to develop much as it had in the previous three decades.
That didn’t look like a bad decision at the time, but Boeing’s predictions turned out to be far more accurate. The US manufacturer foresaw the diminution of the importance of hub-and-spoke networks feeding the world’s major airports where they sit astride the globe’s air travel arteries – the traditional trunk routes. The A380 was ideal for serving these.
But the American manufacturer’s crystal ball showed smaller widebody twins taking over from thirsty quads, and carrying passengers who wanted it straight past the massive hubs directly to the secondary cities. The 767 was already showing the way in the 1990s, with American carriers on transatlantic routes, but the 777 and 787 extended the possibilities. Darwin had smiled on Boeing.
Although Airbus was also ready for many of these long-haul twin opportunities with its flexible A330 twin series (and now the A350), in the mid-1990s the four-engine A340 had initially become much more popular than Airbus had predicted. Europe, culturally less of a risk-taker than the USA, was not yet ready to fly twins over extended oceanic routes, or over endless Arctic and Siberian wildernesses. In a quad, an engine failure raises the crew’s blood pressure a bit, but they can elect to continue to destination. In a twin, it means an instant diversion.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in July 1995, Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration were ready to gamble on bringing a brand-new big twin, the 777, into service with pre-cleared permission to fly over oceanic or wilderness regions where the nearest diversion airport could be up to three hours away at single-engine flying speed. That extension from the previous 2h meant there were hardly any routes a twin couldn’t fly. Boeing and its FAA partner went for it; and what’s more they got away with it. A single early-days disaster would have put paid to that policy, but it didn’t happen, and now everyone takes 180min ETOPS (extended twin engine operations) for granted. Darwin had smiled on Boeing once more.
Today, in the pandemic, the Airbus A340 is suffering a fate similar to the 747’s, but there will be fewer tears simply because it could not have achieved the iconic status the 747 had won through its status as the world’s first jumbo jet, its sheer longevity, and its unique shape.
Among today’s widebodies, Darwin will continue to smile on the newer big twins, and the few remaining tri-jets and the older big twins will be parked or converted to freighters before their time would normally be up. Meanwhile, the marketplace that the new big twins have had to themselves for some time is to be invaded by what may turn out to be a particularly timely product: Airbus’ single-aisle venture into long-haul, the A321XLR.
Another anomaly brought by the pandemic is that air cargo has been the saviour of many airlines during the pandemic, because unlike passenger traffic, cargo has hardly been affected. For example, Taiwan’s China Airlines has just announced an operating profit for 2020 on the back of cargo, and recently took delivery of a new 777F.
Short-haul – and thus the single-aisle fleet – has not been hit as hard as long-haul simply because domestic air travel is free of the border restrictions that nation states impose on travellers when they fear the spread of infection from abroad. But as in their long-haul fleets, airlines are still disposing of the earlier versions of their 737s, A320s and regional aircraft.
Exceptionally on a global scale, the US domestic carriers are forecasting break-even levels of passenger business by June, with strong demand from the leisure travel market, although there is slightly less confidence in a business travel rebound. Domestic carriers elsewhere, in less geographically large countries – particularly those with mature high speed rail networks – will take longer to recover than the likes of American, Delta, United and Southwest, and may not have had the government injection of survival cash the US airlines have had – plus the boost from the fact that the USA has successfully accelerated its Covid vaccination programme. Is that Darwin smiling on America again, or just on big, prosperous nations? He may well be smiling on China too.
No-one can be sure of the post-Covid shape of the world’s commercial air transport industry. Truisms, abound, like the contention that the strongest carriers will survive, and that the pandemic’s result will be further consolidation and fewer airlines. One of the unknowns is whether people’s travelling priorities will have changed, especially in the light of growing concern about climate change. Will long-haul, in particular, be a victim of such a concern?
But at present, whenever there is a hint that lockdown may be eased, people are rushing to book holiday travel. Air travel will indeed survive, the question is: what will it look like?
The weather at Estrée Blanche worsened as the season dipped into a wintry December (1917), and fog made reconnaissance in the whole area extraordinarily difficult. 22 squadron was tasked with finding out what the enemy was up to around Cambrai, information which headquarters badly needed.
One crew failed to return, and the news came back that he had flown smack into a coal slag heap near Lens on his way home. So another Brisfit crew was sent out in an attempt to get the essential intelligence but, as Whitehouse reports, “We never did hear what happened to them.”
With two aircraft and crews lost because of fog, the squadron was getting low on resources, so they called it a day.
Whitehouse described the festive preparations: “We got up a programme that was a honey for wartime humour. Among the mechanics we had a wealth of talent, so we could put on a show worthy of any outfit out there!” They rigged up lights powered from a dynamo lorry and searched out decorations to put up.
Then they put on the show, with “the inevitable slightly bawdy female impersonator”, tricks, recitations and plenty of songs accompanied by piano. Marie, Annette, and their mother were guests, along with quite a few other “puzzled-looking” civilians from the village, and they were given seats at the front near the piano. It all ended with God Save the King and the Marseillaise.
Then back to business.
On 20th January 1918 Archie Whitehouse, whose ambition all along had been pilot training and a Commission, was sent back to England to achieve both, wearing the ribbons for his newly-awarded Military Medal and a chest-full of campaign gongs. He reported in his memoire: “I lived to wear pilot’s wings and fly a single-seater fighter. I lived to see the Armistice.” He clearly felt lucky. He definitely was.
The squadron commander who had bid Whitehouse farewell was now the very last of the aircrew left from January 1917, but he had his work to keep him sane. He still had to lead 22 Squadron’s mechanics, armourers, stores-wallahs, cooks and caterers whose names he knew well, and to encourage the new, barely-trained young pilots and observers to believe in their roles and in their ability to carry them out.
Through the remainder of the winter, the war of attrition continued, and reconnaissance never stopped. From March 1918, No. 22 Squadron was going to have to deal with German preparations for the massive, ostensibly successful but short-lived Spring Offensive that eventually began in April. Preparatory raids for this counter-attack forced 22 Sqn north to Treizennes, where losses were high. The Geman air force was venturing more over the Allied lines than they had been accustomed to do, seeking intelligence for planning purposes. The intention of the Spring Offensive was to drive the British to the Channel coast and cut them off from French forces before the newly-arrived Americans were able to put their full weight behind the Allies.
It was on a patrol from Treizennes, on 9 March, in his Bristol Fighter that Learmount got his blighty while attacking a German aircraft that was being far too successful at artillery spotting. Although losing blood fast, his remarkable luck still held, and he got his Biff back to base. He was stretchered away from his mount.
France awarded him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.
The RFC shipped him back to England, where he was sent to St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. At “Bart’s” he met “Peggy” Ball, a young nursing auxiliary charged with looking after him. Less than two months later he married her in a church in Muswell Hill, north London, where her parents lived.
It was early May, the war was still raging, and victory was certainly not in sight. Nevertheless, the couple took a few days off to honeymoon at a pub on the south bank of the River Thames, near Staines – very rural in those days – and they went rowing together. Wedding photographs show Learmount left the church still using a walking stick.
Until his demob in 1919, Learmount continued to serve in the newly-formed RAF on training, tactics and intelligence duties. On discharge, he returned to his trading job in the Far East. His new wife and baby son joined him there a few months later.
The marriage lasted a lifetime.
Click here to go to Episode One of “Leonard’s War” and read it all again!
No 22 Squadron’s pilots were still flying the FE2bs, but having also to learn to operate the newly delivered F.2B Bristol Fighters. These were two-seater strike fighters.
The “Brisfit”, or “Biff”, was not just faster, it was a tractor – rather than a pusher like the Fee, which made it handle very differently. Its armament gave it a formidable field of fire. There was an awful lot for the crews to learn.
The pilots – in the forward cockpit – had a machine gun with interrupter gear, enabling it to fire ahead through the propeller. The observer/gunner’s cockpit, immediately behind the pilot’s, had dual flying controls, and a Lewis gun mounted on a rotating “scarff” ring that gave it a field of fire rearward through a 180deg arc. The Brisfit was powered by a V12 Rolls-Royce Falcon engine, had an airspeed of 126mph (40mph faster than the Fee), had a better rate of climb and altitude capability, plus greater range.
Whitehouse caught the buzz that arrived with the new fighter: “From that day on we went to work on Jerry with the Bristol Fighters, and within two weeks the General Staff and royalty were visiting the squadron, and our pictures were being splashed over every paper in the Empire”.
Meanwhile, scanning the pages of Trevor Henshaw’s remarkable gazetteer of RFC experience, “The Sky Their Battlefield”, a change in 22 Squadron’s fortunes is visible from early June 1917 when the Bristol Fighters began replacing the FE2bs. The casualties stop, and on 29 July 22 Sqn scored its first two F2B air-to-air victories. The Bristol Fighter wasn’t invincible, but its capabilities had taken the Germans by surprise.
One new role enabled by the Bristol Fighters’ higher performance was dreaded by the crews. This was operating as an escort for British bombers – de Havilland DH.4s – tasked to fly deep into enemy territory, their bombs targeting the new German airfield at Gontrode, East Flanders. From there, German Gotha heavy bombers were known to be taking off every day, aiming for London.
Observer/gunner Archie Whitehouse scripted a particularly lyrical account of a six-ship Brisfit formation taking-off for Gontrode: “They stand throbbing, wing-tip to wing-tip, their propellers glistening in the sunshine. The leader’s hand goes up, and the pilots take the alert with hands on throttles. The leader’s hand goes down and the machines seem to stiffen for the spring as the motors open up. The rudders waggle and the colours flash. The observers in their brown leather helmets snuggle down inside the scarff-ring and flick friendly salutes to each other. Then they are away in a swirl of dust, and suddenly all climb together.”
Once airborne, the Brisfits headed for Ypres, where they rendezvoused with the DH.4s, and set course for Gontrode.
Meanwhile, evident on both sides of the Front were preparations for what became the Third Battle of Ypres, the huge slugging match between the end of July and early November 1917 also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Casualty numbers at Passchendaele, about 8km north-east of Ypres, eventually matched those at Verdun and the Somme.
Casualty numbers at 22 Sqn also went up at that time. Despite the successes in the air the Biff was bringing, the intense activity on the ground and in the air on both sides of the Line as the anticipated clash in Flanders approached meant a higher loss rate, and that continued once the battle itself was raging. More empty chairs in the mess was bad for morale among the exhausted fliers.
For the crews, after the relentlessness of flying under fire from air and ground, precious off-duty time at Estrée Blanche fostered friendships with the local people that would spawn a lifetime of memories for those few fated to survive – military men and civilians alike. Madame Beaussart’s was a village estaminet, and Marie and Annette who worked there knew the squadron aircraft, their markings and who flew them. Just like the men on the aerodrome, the girls watched the aircraft go, and they counted them back again.
On 19 August, Captain Clement’s Brisfit didn’t return. “A” Flight had lost its leader, and Clement had stepped in to take a mix of A and B Flight ships out on a mission. It was his last. This was awful for the Squadron, and C Flight in particular. Clement’s younger brother Ward Clement had recently joined the Squadron as a gunner, and he and Whitehouse had become firm friends. Clement the younger was distraught and refused to believe Carl wouldn’t return. Hours later he persuaded himself his elder brother had force-landed and would make his way back. But that wasn’t true.
Whitehouse wrote: “When we went back to Madame Beaussart’s, Marie and Annette knew that ‘N’ had not come back, but they said nothing. The coffee and rum were good. I think we drank an awful lot of it.”
After an appallingly wet August, September brought drier weather and good visibility, making the RFC’s close air support in this war-torn region of Flanders highly effective. For five days from 20 September 1917, at the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, the 22 Sqn Biffs were used effectively for ground attack, air superiority, and reconnaissance. Rapid reporting of German counter-attack manoeuvres allowed Allied artillery to be directed accurately. This clash was one of many on the periphery of the Passchendaele campaign
In November came the end of the Battle of Passchendaele and the beginning of the Battle of Cambrai, an attempt by the British to break through the Hindenburg Line in a massive attack combining artillery, tanks, infantry and air power.
Whitehouse described 22 Sqn’s role: “We had the unenviable job of blowing up the enemy balloons, strafing road transport, and making a general nuisance of ourselves. We were down low, flying through our own shell-fire to hammer Cooper bombs on the German anti-tank gun emplacements. We strafed the roads and chased horse-drawn transport all over open fields, and generally played merry hell…
“We fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition and burned out our gun barrels. We returned again and again for fuel, bombs and the reviving encouragement of Major Learmount. Thank God for the Major during those days!”
It left them with a feeling of emptiness, against which the only antidote was the adrenaline summoned up by the next sortie. Whitehouse wrote: “We flew, slept, flew, slept and flew some more. We staggered back and forth to our machines, too tired to eat. No-one spoke, no-one laughed, no-one argued. Faces were lined with weariness, pitted with cordite, and daubed with whale-oil.”
Tomorrow: Episode 9, in which the winter weather gets very difficult, the Squadron puts on a Christmas show, Whitehouse goes back to England to train as a pilot, and Major Learmount gets his blighty.
When Observer/Gunner Archie Whitehouse finally took leave back in England, he found himself feeling restless and directionless, despite giving himself plenty to do. And when leave was over, he was strangely grateful to return to 22 Squadron at Estrée Blanche.
But then, as more of his close friends “went west”, he immersed himself in tasks on the aerodrome between sorties “to keep myself from going completely mad”. He did not understand his feelings. “It suddenly dawned on me that the only time I was really content was when I was in the air.”
He talked to – and worked with – the mechanics, the riggers, the armourers, to better understand the machines he worked in and perhaps, by better understanding them, live to tell the tale. He found what solace he could in comradeship, but he had lost so many fellow fliers it felt like a betrayal to make new friends, and he found himself being unaccountably slightly hostile to young aviators just joining the squadron, who looked with admiration at their seniors’ flying brevets and just wanted to learn from them so they, too, could live.
Meanwhile Major Learmount’s wounding seemed to wake somebody at British headquarters in Armentières. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the citation for it reveals more about the grind of the RFC’s routine work than a dozen Daily Mirror stories of individual aces’ air-to-air victories. It describes repeated low-level aerial photography sorties by 22 Sqn Fees over the highly fortified Hindenburg Line, which the Germans had been continually engineering since the Somme offensive, and to which they had made a mass tactical withdrawal in March and April 1917.
These new “oblique photography” missions were especially dangerous because they had to be flown low and very steadily, about 600ft above the ground. This made the Fees sitting ducks, putting them within range of small arms and machine gun fire from the ground, let alone archie, and attacks from German fighters. To enable them to do their work without attack from the air, the Fees were escorted by Sopwith Pup fighters of No 54 Squadron flying at a safer height from which they could dive on any attackers.
According to accounts in Peter Hart’s book “Bloody April”, chronicling the period of appalling RFC losses in that month of 1917, Captain BF Crane, a photographic officer attached to 22 Squadron reported on the results obtained on sorties that were mostly led by Major Learmount or Captain Clement: “An average of 2,000 photos daily were being turned over, all from plates exposed by 22 Squadron.”
About two days before the flight on which Learmount was injured, he was flying with a cool-headed young Canadian observer, Lieutenant PHB Ward, whose steady nerve in charge of the camera – aided by Learmount’s rock-steady flying under fire – obtained particularly sharp pictures that converted well to stereoscopic prints, according to Crane, who reported that “about 50 exposures were made and excellent results obtained, the machine returning safely to the aerodrome bearing much evidence of the heavy fire experienced.”
On the 10 May flight – also with Ward – on which Learmount was injured, the purpose was to complete a multi-mission photographic task. This was achieved. Ward was killed nine days later on another mission.
The skies were indifferent to merit and courage.
Part of Learmount’s DSO citation reads: “On nearly all the other occasions on which this officer took oblique photographs, his machine was literally shot to pieces and his escape from injury really miraculous.” It concludes: “This officer as a Squadron Commander sets a splendid example to his Squadron, leading them on patrols, bomb raids and reconnaissances [sic] and instilling in them that fearlessness with which he himself is imbued.”
Tomorrow, Episode 8: No. 22 Squadron receives its new Bristol Fighters, and takes the Germans by surprise. But the crews get new and demanding missions made possible by the Brisfits’ extra performance.