The Vampire



Vampire Bail-Out (A true Story)

 By Gerry Gilroy  Edited by Michael Minich


 It started out as a standard RCAF Auxiliary air-to-ground gunnery exercise back on a February morning in 1955. The shooting was routine. What happened next definitely wasn’t.

 Back in the deHavilland Vampire jet-fighter days in the RCAF Auxiliary in Toronto, one of our periodic requirements was to fly east to the gunnery range just south of RCAF Trenton on the shore of Lake Ontario to practice air-to-ground gunnery with the Vamp’s nose-mounted quartet of 20mm cannons.

One such exercise was announced for Saturday 12 February 1955. On the preceding Thursday evening, at our normal parade at 1107 Avenue Road in downtown Toronto – the squadron offices were there, not up at the airbase at Downsview, where our aircraft resided – I had some flight commander duties to attend to, so I phoned F/L Frank Gilland at Downsview and asked him to throw my gear on the truck that was going to Trenton.

 

When I got to Trenton Saturday morning, I found to my dismay that only my flight suit and helmet were there: no parachute, no boots. I sought out F/L Barry Howard – who, as squadron engineering officer, wasn’t on flying duty at the time – and asked if I could borrow his parachute. He agreed, on the condition that I not adjust the harness (Barry was larger than I was). As far as footgear, I decided my service oxfords (actually, they were a design called “eighth Wellingtons”) would do. After all, the gunnery range was only a five-minute flight south of Trenton….what could possibly go wrong?

Now, although it was a delight to fly, the Vampire was definitely a “first-generation” jet fighter, and since parts of the forward fuselage were literally made of a hardwood/balsa-wood composite “sandwich” surrounding the metal-braced gun compartment – and the 3100-lb-thrust “Goblin” engine was situated behind the cockpit -- a wheels-up crash landing in case of engine failure was fairly risky, since the pilot could get crushed between the nose section and the engine. Further, due to that engine location, the aircraft had a split-boom tail to accommodate the engine exhaust. A horizontal tailplane containing the elevator joined the two booms…and therein lay another serious concern.

You see, these early-model aircraft didn’t have ejection seats, and if the pilot needed to bail out of a “Vamp”, he was quite likely to be struck and killed by that horizontal stabilizer just after he’d jettisoned the canopy, unstrapped, and went out the side.  The summer before the flight in question, I’d read an article in the RAF’s Air Clues magazine that described the recommended method of abandoning a Vampire in the air: once you had jettisoned the canopy and unhooked and unbuckled everything connecting you to the aircraft, trim the elevator fully nose-down while holding the control stick back (to stay level), then half-roll the aircraft inverted and let go of the control column.

In theory, the “bunt-up” that the aircraft would perform due to the elevator trim setting would help throw you clear enough to avoid getting sliced by the tailplane as you tumbled through the air in the first few seconds. Once clear, you’d pull your parachute ripcord in the normal manner and survive to join the “Caterpillar Club”.

After I read that I tried the aircraft handling part of it with the harness tight, canopy in place. When approaching the inverted position, it is necessary to pull back a little harder on the control column to stay in the seat. When I released the control column the aircraft jumped up very quickly, giving the feeling of being thrown into the harness.

A couple of pilots have expressed concern about being hit by the descending tail plane. For those pilots; remember your Principals of Flight- the change of lift is proportional to the change in angle of attack and to the square of the speed. Thus, if you keep your speed up, the aircraft will jump up quickly as soon as the angle of attack starts to change.

In theory.

The weather that Saturday morning was overcast, cold and gusty…not great, but acceptable for a young fighter pilot. We were to fly to the range in formations of two. I had no more than started-up the Vamp’s engine when a ground crewman signaled for me to shut down: a valve was stuck open underneath the aircraft, and fuel was pouring out. After he resolved that, I fired-up again, the crewman pulled the wheel chocks, and I taxied out and took off.

(From here on, I’m going to relate this adventure in the present tense…because that’s certainly how I remember it!) 

After take-off, I need to change radio frequencies to the range freq. Silence. I change back to tower frequency…same result. Looks like I have a radio failure. I decide to carry on and lead my wingman to the nearby range…visibility is acceptable, and, after all, this is just a simple, short exercise. 

I know that the range safety officer, F/L Al Milne, should have an Aldis lamp in addition to his radio, so I can still get a signal from him if I’m OK to do gunnery runs (green light: clear to fire; red light or no signal seen: assume I’m not cleared to fire). 

At the entry point for the range, my wingman drops back and I fly a left-hand circuit. I see no Aldis light until I’m on final, but then, there it is: a green light. I focus on the target, fire a burst from my 20mm cannons, then pull up for another circuit. It’s unfortunate that my wingman and I can’t coordinate our positions by radio as we normally would, but I keep an extra-sharp lookout for him, and our individual gunnery passes work out OK. 

After a few runs,  my wingman depart back for the airbase. I check my fuel gauges (the Vamp had five of them, believe it or not). While my two outboard tanks in the wings indicate empty, the other three show the needles at 12 o’clock (i.e., about half full), so I figure I’m safe to do several more gunnery runs. 

Just after I pull up from the final run and head back to Trenton…my engine stops. Flame-out due to fuel exhaustion. Suddenly today’s exercise becomes anything but routine. 

My altitude is too low to spend much time looking for a smooth area to crash-land….and soon I’ll be too low even for a successful bail-out. Back when I would idly speculate about what I’d do if I ever lost my engine in a Vamp, my inclination had always been to try to use my parachute. Now that theory was going to be put to the test. 

There is an airport on the island, but I do not take time to look for it since I’m only 500 feet above ground. I disconnect my oxygen mask and headset, release the safety harness, duck my head and jettison the canopy. Then I wind the trim fully forward as I hold the nose up with the control column and bring my feet back onto the shaft at the bottom of the control column. 

I start to roll the aircraft to the right, but my right knee prevents the control column from going far enough over to roll fast enough. I straighten my right leg, continue the roll. At about 135 degrees I started to lift off the seat. (Try to convince yourself to pull the nose down towards the ground when you are upside-down and at 500 feet!) I bring my foot back onto the bar and jump as I release the control column. There is nothing for my feet to push on. The airplane is gone! 

Since Barry’s parachute harness is too loose, the shoulder straps start falling off my shoulders and I am up-side-down. I pull my shoulder straps up onto my shoulders and pull the rip cord. The parachute opens. Even though my shoes and helmet are gone and my heart is racing, it’s an exhilarating feeling. Yet so quiet, so peaceful . . .  and I still have all my body parts!

I turn the parachute canopy so I can see the aircraft impact. Out of the corner of my eye I see a fence coming up.  That ends my moment of reverie. I try the side-slipping procedure so I will land on this side of the fence. Compared to the wind speed, the procedure does little, so I reverse the side slip to go over. I am 15 feet above the fence when I cross it so I would have gone over it regardless of what I did. Wasted adrenalin! 

The landing is painless, and I pull the bottom risers; the canopy collapses; I collect the chute. The landing did not hurt my feet, but trying to run on a frozen ploughed field in my stocking feet sure does. So I walk . . .  very carefully. There is not enough snow to bury the chute, so I pile it by the fence. There is a good stiff wind, but the parachute does not move. 

I head for the closest farmhouse, a half mile away. Fearing frostbite if I spend too much time with my stocking feet on the frozen ground, I gingerly try jogging again. I argue with myself all the way to the farm house. 

At the farm house, I go to the back door and knock. No answer, so I go to the front door and knock. No one comes to that door, either, so back to the back door and knock again -- if necessary, I figure I’ll break in before I get frostbite. The inside door opens and a farmer, dressed in traditional bib overalls and heavy work shirt, sleepily looks at me through the small window in the storm door. He says nothing, and gives no sign that he is going to open the door. 

“May I come in? I don’t have any shoes,” I say as I point at my feet. He seems a little bewildered. After all, anyone coming to his door in the middle of winter in his stocking feet must be a little strange. After a pause, he opens the door and I go in, closing the door behind me.

“I bailed out of an airplane. Did you hear a noise, like a bang?”

“Yep.” (Well at least he can talk.)

“May I use your phone?”

“Yep”

I look around but do not see it.

“Where is it?”

“Over there.”

I still do not see it, so I walk in the direction that he had indicated and finally see the phone. I phone the station and ask for Squadron Leader Ettles, the commanding officer of 400 Squadron. 

Now, what do I say? The missing flying boots were annoying. The missing parachute was irritating. Normally a false start would not bother me. The lack of radio communication while doing air-to-ground gunnery certainly caused a preoccupation. Frustrations, irritations, upset, preoccupied; none of these can justify running out of fuel.  Best no excuses: just apologize.

“Squadron Leader Ettles here.”

“Gerry Gilroy here, I’m sorry, sir but I wrote off one of your aircraft.”

“What happened?”

“ The engine quit and I bailed out.”

“Are you all right?”

“ Yes, I’m fine” 

I ask the farmer to give the CO instructions on how you get from the range to his farmhouse, and within 10 minutes Al Milne is at the door. Back at the station I borrow some shoes and am taken to the hospital. I keep insisting I’m all right, not even a bruise or a scrape. However, the press later decides that I have a sprained ankle.

A few months later, I’m paraded in front of Group Captain Z.L. Leigh, who says some nice things about my conduct during and after the bail out. Then he adds “However, you did cause the loss of one of Her Majesty’s aircraft, so you will have a ‘severe reprimand’ put on your record.” 

I resist the temptation of suggesting that, since the RCAF has decided to retire the Vampires, I’ve just saved the Government a portion of their disposal problem.

The only thing S/L Ettles says to me is, “I am going to put an alarm clock in your aircraft!”

Notes on the Vampire Aircraft:

Some 4366 Vampires were produced and were used by numerous Air Forces. The Vampire is a very simple aircraft with delightful handling characteristics and was the perfect aircraft to introduce pilots to the flying characteristics of a Jet Fighter. .Experimental models were used to break the sound barrier and set altitude records. One was equipped with swept wings to evaluate the Comet wing design. It was the first jet to cross the Atlantic. Although the RAF and RCAF retired their Vampires around 1955, the Swiss used theirs until 1991. (Forsyth (the author) claimed to fly an RAF Vampire in Germany in 1957)

 David Campbell had this to say:

“I was a USAF exchange pilot at Oakington with 206AFS and 5FTS and commanded the Vampire Standardization Sq. I have flown all the American fighter aircraft from the P-40 to F-4. The Vampire was the most enjoyable airplane I ever flew. It was pure pleasure every time I got in it.” (Ref aviastar.org) Hear, Hear!!





















A 400 Squadron Vampire on the line at Downsview circa 1955





On extreme right is Vic Prendergast and to his left (in red shirt) is Chuck Fisher, both Vampire Pilots with 400 Squadron.

This group photo taken with the Vampire owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario during a 'Rendezvous' in July, 2011

Gerry Gilroy's April 2013 Speech

The following article is reproduced from "Flypast V. 47 No. 7 May 2013", the newsletter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.
 


To view the complete article click HERE




















Pilot Released from Hospital After Small Jet Crash

By: R News Staff

The pilot involved in Saturday's plane crash at the Greater Rochester International Airport is out of the hospital. 

Peter Treichler, 40, of East Aurora, had taken off in a vintage 1947 Vampire jet when airport officials say the plane had engine trouble five minutes into the flight.
It was heading back to Batavia when something went wrong.
Treichler tried to turn back and came up 100 feet short of the runway, hitting the ground twice before coming to a stop. 
The plane was in town for an air show when the crash happened.
"It had engine failure five minutes into the flight. It tried to turn back, came about 100 feet short of the runway, touched down first. The force of hitting the ground forced it to lose total control of the plane and it did end up crashing about 250 yards farther adjacent to our main runway,” said David Damelio, airport director.
Treichler was taken to Strong Hospital with minor injuries and was released Sunday evening.
The jet was restored and previously owned by actor John Travolta and still bears Travolta's name, but has changed hands over the years. It is currently owned by the Wings of Flight aircraft club in Batavia.  Treichler is a member of that club, but is also a flight instructor with the Classic Jet Aircraft Association based in Maryland.

The Problems With Vampires: Air Force, Part 38 April 24, 2010 

By Hugh A. Halliday
This article is reprinted with permission from the Legion Magazine from their feature on CANADIAN MILITARY HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE


The Canada Aviation Museum’s collection includes a De Havilland D.H. 100 Vampire III.

In April 1945 there was a new kid on the block. The De Havilland Vampire jet, which had been test-flown as a prototype on Sept. 20, 1943, was in mass production, and soon the Royal Canadian Air Force would acquire one for winter trials at the Winter Experimental Establishment, Edmonton.

As with the Meteor trials, the first Vampire flight trials were made by Squadron Leader Everett Baudoux and flight lieutenants Bill McKenzie and Jack Ritch. A typical test day was Jan. 23, 1947, when McKenzie made four brief flights involving a 50-minute VHF radio test, two fuel consumption tests at 20,000 feet, lasting 45 and 40 minutes, and a fuel consumption test at 5,000 feet, lasting 35 minutes.

The trials did not go smoothly and by Feb.12 the Vampire was declared unserviceable because of problems brought on by intense cold which affected the landing gear and maintenance of proper oil temperatures. By May, however, a report concluded that the Vampire was “generally satisfactory for operations down to minus 30 C.” Below that, engine starts required prior application of heat to free the lubricating oils.

Two months into the trials, while flying at 25,000 feet, the canopy of test Vampire YG372 exploded without warning. The pilot landed safely, and several theories emerged as to why the canopy failed. A major factor was that the aircraft had been exposed to bitter cold, sometimes as low as minus 43 C. The near tragedy heralded what was to be a persistent problem with the jet.

The RCAF’s adoption of the Vampire as its first postwar jet fighter was bound up in politics, finance and operational considerations. Jet aircraft acquisition was tied to credits Canada had secured in Britain in complex financial adjustments at war’s end. Although the RCAF hoped to obtain Vampires and Meteors, the number of aircraft was eventually forced to fit the Procrustean bed of credits. And so the RCAF had to choose between the two fighters.

Several officers preferred the Meteor because it was faster, could reach a higher ceiling and was easier to maintain. The Vampire, meanwhile, had better cockpit visibility and longer range. Its only other advantage was its cheaper price; the available credits allowed acquisition of 85 Vampires as opposed to 66 Meteors. And so, the Vampire it would be.

Deliveries began in January 1948 and the aircraft remained in RCAF service until June 1956. Eventually, 10 RCAF squadrons flew it, commencing in March 1948 with two auxiliary units, namely 400 and 401 squadrons based respectively in Toronto and Montreal. This was followed in April 1948 by 402, 438 and 442 squadrons at Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver. The first all-jet regular force fighter unit, 410 Sqdn., was re-formed on Vampires in December 1948, and by the following spring it had formed an aerobatic team, the Blue Devils.

Before moving on to fly swept-wing Sabres, many pilots in the early 1950s flew Vampires with No.1 (Fighter) Operational Training Unit at Chatham, N.B.

The primary Vampire users were the RCAF’s auxiliary squadrons. Defence minister Brooke Claxton had worried about issuing jets to “weekend warrior” units, but his fears were alleviated when British and Swedish experience was cited. The auxiliary, at least until 1950, was probably more fun than the permanent force mostly because almost everybody was a friend from the last war and the training was exciting. The Korean War changed that; the permanent force regained the glamour roles, including air defence, while the auxiliary had to accept more routine and bureaucracy.

Transitioning to Vampire aircraft followed a pattern. In Toronto, 400 Sqdn. had been flying Harvards since being re-formed. Conversion to the Vampire began in January 1948 with lectures directed to ground crews and dealing with maintenance. On April 1, officers attended a lecture at the De Havilland plant in nearby Downsview, and the first two pilots were checked out on the Vampire April 18, but the process was not without incident.

Acquiring parts for Vampires was problematic during the late 1940s.
On April 25, Flight Lieutenant Duncan Bell-Irving, a regular force officer attached to the squadron, carried out a successful forced landing on the airfield after his engine failed at 1,000 feet, just after takeoff. On Sept. 11, another pilot emerged unhurt after damaging a Vampire following his first solo flight with the aircraft.

That same year the squadron attended training at Camp Borden and put on several flying exhibitions, still using its Harvards while more pilots mastered the Vampire. On Oct. 9, the unit staged its first public jet display with three aircraft flying in formation over Brampton, Ont.

Auxiliary squadrons were both partners and friendly rivals. The Montreal and Toronto squadrons were particularly competitive in their Harvards or Vampires. On April 9, 1949, 400 Sqdn. boasted it had successfully intercepted four Vampires of 401 Sqdn., coming from Montreal. A typical unit, 438 Sqdn., reported that between December 1951 and May 1953, its pilots (auxiliary and attached regular force) had logged a total of 1,931 hours on Vampires and 1,181 hours on Harvards. However, the number of pilots actually trained to combat standards was low. Although roughly 75 per cent of 438’s auxiliary pilots had flown Vampires in that same period, only 50 per cent were combat trained. The report on Signpost, an exercise run by Air Defence Command from July 19-28, 1952, noted that the four participating Vampire squadrons (400, 401, 411 and 438) had only 35 combat trained pilots.

The auxiliary, however, was more than just flying squadrons. Aircraft control and warning squadrons (radar units) were also manned by reserve personnel. Training strove to knit air and ground units into teams, and co-operation extended to training with army units as well. The Historical Report of 442 Sqdn., based at Vancouver, noted that on Dec. 4, 1949, the unit had conducted a defence exercise with 8th Anti-Aircraft Reserve Unit of Victoria using two Vampires and six Harvards. Also participating was a Lancaster of l23 Search and Rescue Unit.

Compared to the Meteor, the Vampire’s cockpit layout was considered haphazard. When concentrating on a landing approach, it was easy to confuse the dive brake and flap levers with that for the undercarriage. Operational flying and British tests also confirmed that the aircraft type, although not prone to spinning, was erratic once a spin started, either accidentally or intentionally. The aircraft lost some 4,000 feet in the first two turns of a spin, and recovery had to be precise, lest the Vampire flick into another spin in the opposite direction. Widespread jet experience also introduced pilots to another phenomena—compressibility. At Mach .72, 72 per cent of the speed of sound, the controls began buffeting. Higher Mach numbers brought difficulties in controlling a dive.

The first two fatalities involved very experienced pilots. They were Flying Officer Rooney Hodgins, killed June 11, 1948, and Squadron Leader Stanley Broadbent, killed June 18, 1948. Not surprisingly, pilots soon expressed misgivings. Wing Commander R.W. McNair, writing on Aug. 31, 1948, reported: “During recent flights at 25,000 feet for periods up to one and a half hours, I experienced serious deteriorations of vision due to frosting of the inside canopy and windscreen. In fact, during one flight the restriction became so great that I was totally unable to map read or see other aircraft in the formation.”

Faith in the jet was restored largely by the Royal Air Force. On July 1, 1948, six Vampire IIIs of 54 Sqdn., left Odiham for the first jet crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Accompanied by three Mosquito aircraft, one serving as a weather scout and two providing navigational assistance, the jets were fitted with two 100-gallon drop tanks to extend their range. The aircraft went via Stornoway, Scotland, Keflavik, Iceland, Bluie West, Greenland, and Goose Bay, Labrador, which they reached on July 14.

Maintenance crews, equipment and spare parts followed in three Avro York transports. From Labrador the jets flew to Montreal to commence a goodwill tour of Canada and the U.S. where they gave several formation aerobatic displays. The jets returned to Trenton Aug. 10 and by Aug. 26 were back at Odiham.

Vampire safety came in for close scrutiny in 1949 when it was compared to RAF experiences. In that year, the RAF logged 22,000 hours on the type, the RCAF 5,228. In most categories the Canadians had better accident rate figures than the British. For example, RAF pilots wrote off 22 aircraft while RCAF pilots wrote off four. The RAF had 10 fatal accidents while the RCAF had three.

Vampires on the tarmac.
At least three canopies disintegrated that year, and a pilot with 400 Sqdn. saw his blow off on takeoff. Three tire failures suggested that tire life was limited to 50 hours. The three fatalities were attributed to different causes. One, involving Flying Officer V.J. Bastable of 402 Sqdn., on March 27, 1949, was attributed to unfamiliarity with instrument flying. The second, involving FO J.A. Borrie of 442 Sqdn., was put down to inexperience with the aircraft. He had only four hours Vampire flying when he crashed Jan. 16, 1949. At the other end of the scale was the case of Sqdn. Ldr. R.A. Kipp of 410 Sqdn. He died July 25, 1949, while practicing aerobatics. A very experienced pilot with 36 hours on Vampires, his death was attributed to overconfidence.

Meanwhile, the canopy problem did not go away. During the winter of 1950-51, 400 Sqdn. made 14 high altitude flights using an experimental canopy installed by De Havilland (Canada). Authorities were not impressed, and in January 1951 the Institute of Aviation Medicine cautioned against flights in excess of 38,000 feet without a modified oxygen system.

The RCAF also encountered problems in acquiring parts for their Vampires, particularly in 1948-49. These problems caused many embarrassments. On Nov. 14, 1948, 400 Sqdn. reported that only one aircraft was serviceable, and an interception exercise had to be performed using Harvards. On April 10, 1949, the same unit had to cancel another interception “scheme” when all but one of its Vampires went unserviceable during engine starts. More mundane, but equally frustrating, was an incident July 2, 1949, when two Vampire airspeed indicators failed in flight, forcing them to land early and away from base. The following day, all of 400 Squadron’s Vampires were grounded for inspections which lasted until July 6. General serviceability improved as all personnel became more familiar with the type.

Although later Vampire models carried bombs and rockets, the RCAF’s Mark III aircraft were never so equipped. In two instances auxiliary Vampire squadrons were subsequently re-equipped with Mustangs, better adapted to tactical air support roles for which the reserve units came to be cast. In 1948, consideration was given at Rivers, Man., to adapting Vampires to a tactical reconnaissance role, but they did not prove amenable to camera installation.

As the Vampires aged, questions were posed about what to do with them. Should they be given to allies as Mutual Aid contributions or converted into two-seater trainers? Few buyers could be found, and the purchase of T-33 training aircraft made greater sense than reconfiguring the jets.

Of the 85 RCAF Vampires acquired in 1947-48, 25 were written off in crashes. Others were discarded after lesser accidents. Only 40 survived until withdrawn from service in 1956, although they remained on inventory until 1958. Air historian Larry Milberry, in Volume III of Canada’s Air Force at War and Peace, wrote of many “languishing in the weeds at Malton, [Ont.,] where the kids used to wander among them, inspecting the cockpits and watching the paint and plywood peel.” They were eventually sold off to private firms; 15 former RCAF Vampires, through a commercial middleman, ended up in the Mexican Air Force. At least six Vampires survive in various Canadian museums.

The story of the RCAF’s association with the Vampire would be incomplete without reference to 421 Squadron’s unique experiences. Equipped with Vampire IIIs in September 1949, the unit was selected for a rotational tour in Britain. Personnel were flown to the U.K. in January 1951 and took up residence at Station Odiham. There they were issued 16 Vampire Vs and two, two-seater Meteor VIIs from RAF stocks. They were to train with two RAF squadrons, learning current operational techniques.

The squadron’s pilots commenced their overseas flying Jan. 30, 1951. Training was delayed by shortages of parachutes, but by Feb. 22 they reported flying 52 hours 30 minutes in a day. Thereafter, they flew on numerous exercises. At dawn on March 14, 1951, they began dispatching Vampires as part of a scheme which envisaged two British warships sailing up the English Channel and being “attacked” by USAF B-29s. The squadron, in turn, was to provide fighter protection. “Many interceptions were made and much good experience was gained in attacks on heavy aircraft,” read the unit’s historical report. On March 19, 1951, the squadron commenced air-to-ground firing exercises. The Vampire V, unlike the RCAF’s Mark IIIs, was fully equipped for tactical air support.

The squadron’s historical reports included some nuggets. On July 17, 1951, the squadron detailed 12 Vampires to escort others which were playing the role of bombers. The report for that day read, in part, “Squadron intercepted twice by approximately 45 Meteors, first between Dieppe, France, and Felixstowe, England, second between Felixstowe and Luton, England. Ensuing dogfights provided excellent tactical training.”

After handing its issued aircraft back to the RAF in November 1951, the squadron prepared to return to Canada. However, many of its personnel transferred to 410 Sqdn., which had now taken up residency in Britain as a prelude to the formation of No.1 Air Division in Europe. Back in Canada, 421 Sqdn. became a Sabre outfit and moved overseas again in 1953 to join No.1 Air Division.

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