Part Three: Hunter heaven & Javelin jottings by Dave Eade

Any look at the Hunter era at Wattisham has to be prefaced with the situation Fighter Command found itself in the early fifties. Having only just recovered from the fiasco of the Supermarine Swift, the RAF was experiencing problems with its second fighter choice, the Hunter. The early model suffered from flameouts when the guns were fired (not to be recommended), engine surge in the unreliable early Avon turbojet and that in-built characteristic of all British fighters, fuel shortage. The Mark One version was released to 43 Squadron at Leuchars, who within months had lost two aircraft in non-fatal crashes, resulting in the laughable situation of a front line fighter that was not allowed to fire its guns, in case the engine stopped!

Hawker and the Central Fighter Establishment at RAF West Raynham continued to work towards a solution while further squadrons were equipped, but a stop-gap measure was to re-engine the Hunter with the Sapphire, which was cleared for gun-firing and suffered none of the surge problems of its rival. 257 Squadron at Wattisham became the first Mk 2 equipped unit, followed within months by 263 – also at Wattisham. It followed that the Squadrons would later re-equip with the F5 – a Sapphire engined F4, and the smart-arsed spotters always claimed they could tell a Wattisham Hunter from the others by the sound.

By the mid-fifties, the final fighter version, and by far the best, i.e. the Mk 6, was entering squadron service. It was, however, a re-equipment of a shrinking Fighter Command. The squadrons with shorter heritage were the first to go, and so the two-hundred series faced the axe. The Hunters moved first to Stradishall, as at the time that Wattisham’s runway was due for extension and repair, so the early months of 1958 were quiet. In the months that followed, the base that we know today was created. Prior to this close, the road to the left of Crash Gate 2 turned right to join the Crash Gate 1 lane and proceed down towards Ringshall church. The moving of this road allowed another few hundred yards of runway to be added at the expense of a farmhouse, and a superb concrete sentry post that doubled as a spotting platform.

June 1958, 15:00, Stowmarket Grammar School. Even to the avid spotters this day was a bit special. Suddenly over to the west, a pure white smoke trailed loop was being traced in the sky, led by nine black Hunters. The impossible was taking place in front of my eyes. Treble One was here!

So began a period of about fifteen years association between the communities around Wattisham and that most famous of all fighter squadrons – 111 Squadron. Led by Squadron Leader Roger Topp, the team was to be seen in the skies daily perfecting what was to become the yardstick by which all future aerobatics teams were to be judged. From an occasional newsreel from Farnborough, this sight became an everyday one – but never lost its appeal. Detention after detention was handed down to yours truly and colleagues for watching the spectacle from the school windows.

September 1957 saw the team reach a pinnacle of its history. It was mid-afternoon; games lessons were in progress and the third year rugby fifteen were at practice, including myself. We knew 'they' were airborne but cloud was fairly widespread and we were supposed to be concentrating on OUR team. Suddenly there was a roar from overhead – the players looked up AND FROZE. There over the school, heading down from the sky towards us were twenty-two Hunters in one huge formation. You cannot imagine the effect that this sight had. As I talk of it now I can still recall the absolute thrill of this spectacle. I was to see it many more times before it was flown at Farnborough but that first time – WOW!

By the time that 'Treble One' flew the famous 22-loop, they had been joined at Wattisham by the second day-fighter squadron, 56 Squadron. Always to take the back-stage in the eyes of locals and spotters, they did at least have the honour of helping to make up the 22-loop, with loaned Hunters and pilots. They perhaps, though, can be credited with carrying on the bread-and-butter works of air defence while the guys in black carried out the task of representing the RAF at shows at home and abroad.

The 22-loop was to be Roger Topp’s farewell to Treble One. Would anybody be able to 'topp' this? You have to read this in the context that this was a time when the public knew the names of test pilots and aircrew, as they know footballers today. Everybody had heard of Roger Topp. His replacement came in the form of Squadron Leader Peter Latham, and if it was possible – he can be said to have taken the team to even greater heights. Again read in the context of a busy fighter squadron, Latham’s ideas were to set standards that apply even today. The idea that a large formation takes time to turn about led to the splitting of the team into two sections. Initially the team split five and four but in 1959 they progressed to nine and seven from a formation of sixteen and finally ended up, by Farnborough 1960, with a team of eighteen Hunters – which split into two sub-teams of nine each, one lead by Latham and the other by Brian Mercer (later to lead Treble One’s successor – The Blue Diamonds of 92 Squadron).

This is an area where I disagree with official records. The credit for splitting up the team into two is always, both in RAF write-ups and Adrian Balch’s book on aerobatic teams, given to 92 Squadron under Mercer. When I heard many years later of Latham's retirement from ‘their airships’ I wrote to him asking for confirmation that I had not got it wrong. His letter in reply confirmed my memory that in Treble One initially the second team had been led by Les Boyer and the final year by Mercer, so the credit should go to Treble One!

At this point let me mention that, until Fairford 1993 and the Mig-29s, Treble One had also provided me with the only air-crash in over thirty years of spotting. Entering early morning cloud on 10 June 1960 in 'Big Nine', one Hunter emerged – tail first – to hit the ground in a massive fireball. Unlike the Migs there was no ‘chute and aerobatics was to claim the life of Flt Lt Stan Wood, a Black Arrow of many years standing – and the only member of the team to lose his life. Nevertheless, the team flew again in the afternoon!

Many of us have been at Farnborough and seen aircraft taxi from the woods ahead and slightly left of centre. To see EIGHTEEN aircraft taxi one behind the other to the Black Sheds for take off – and know that this was the home team – is something else that I will never forget. It is over forty years since Treble One laid the foundation stones – BUT NOBODY DOES IT BETTER (and I’m a Red Arrows fan)!

News that the team was to disband, when announced in the National Press during 1960, was almost devastating. Nobody had really considered the fact that one day this could happen – but after Battle of Britain day 1960 – the team and Squadron were to disband. Wattisham was to go quiet to await the thunder from English Electric.

During these heady Hunter days the standard format of fighter station was two day and one night fighter squadron. Meteor night fighters had long since left the Wattisham skies and in 1958, with the amalgamation of 141 and 151 squadrons, a new squadron – No 41 – arrived at Wattisham to take up night duties. Equipped with the Mk 4 version of the Javelin (plus one T3), 41 arrived in dramatic fashion. At few minute intervals each pair arrived over the threshold of Runway 23 in a low level beat up before settling to the tarmac. I was under the impression that, without the all-flying tailplane, everyone knew that you couldn’t loop a Javelin! The last aircraft arrived – low level and fast – into the vertical – to proceed tail first into the Suffolk countryside. 41 had lost their first aircraft on arrival day!

I have always had a soft spot for the Javelin. Built during the era when Britain’s aircraft were, to say the least, interesting in design, the Javelin was to prove that all deltas were not speeding bullets. The Javelin trundled – be it at take-off or in flight – it trundled! The great thing was that, especially with the Mk 4, you new it was about – a more distinct noise I have yet to hear – except maybe the F-104.

Even with the heavy Javelin, 41 Squadron was not to be out-done. In competition with that other Wattisham squadron, they formed a four-ship team for the Battle of Britain shows merry-go-round named the FLAT-IRONS. The classic delta shape looked perfect in formation flypasts although aerobatics did not find a place in the Javelin handbook. 41 Squadron spanned both the Hunter and Lightning era at Wattisham, although later equipped with the far superior FAW8 version, armed with four Firestreak missiles in place of the all cannon Mk 4.

41 Squadron lived in Hangar 4 (far right when viewed form the runway) and I remember as a member of the then Stowmarket section of the Royal Observer Corps being given a demonstration of the escape procedures of the Javelin and Lightning. It was thought at the time that the first person on the scene of a crash would possibly be an aircraft spotter, and that we should know how to get the canopy off without ejecting the pilot on a fatal parabola in the sky. We were told that it was quite possible that a trapped pilot would be waving frantically to us in a "Go away" mode if he had pulled the lever and the cockpit was stuck. Any attempt to free him would send him on this curve to the hereafter. There was rarely such a problem with the Javelin, however, so the procedure was to remove the guy from the cockpit as soon as possible and slide him down the wing to the ground. The next time you are at Duxford, or see a Mk 7, 8 or 9 Javelin, have a look at what protrudes from the upper wing surfaces – a row of lethal razor blades, described as vortex generators in the handbook. The thought of being slid in a panic over these has, apparently, lead to some remarkably athletic escapes from Javelins in their time.

Although built like the proverbial out-house, fatigue (and progress) caught up with the 'Jav' during the sixties and slowly most of the surviving Javelin squadrons (5, 11, 23, 29 and 65) became Lightning units, with day and night capability. 41 was to take a rest from flying for a while and in December 1963 went to West Raynham as a Bloodhound SAM unit, later to emerge in the mid-seventies at Coningsby flying the Phantom and in 1977 to its present home at Coltishall with the Jaguar GR3A.

The Javelin passed quietly into history, which is about the only thing it ever did quietly, but I just wish I had photographed it more – a more photogenic aircraft is difficult to find. Part four looks at that most charismatic of British jet fighters, the English Electric Lightning.