Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Tony Blackman with Joe Kennedy Grub Street, 2019
Another Boys title from the assured hand of Tony Blackman, who since the major part of his career was as test pilot with Avro, has some attachment to, and experience of, the Nimrod. The Nimrod is best known as being a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) of high standing. It is therefore ironic that, following the cancellation of the MRA4 version, this title is published at a time when the UK has no MPA assets. As you read this the RAF is tweeting excitedly about the progress down the production line of the first of its (handful of) Boeing P8 Poseidons, which are destined to plug this yawning gap.
Unsurprisingly many highly trained aircrew left the RAF after the MRA4 debacle (an issue which hovers like a grey cloud over this book). The introduction notes that a staggering 56 such aircrew have applied to rejoin the service in order to fly the P8. Such experience will be needed (the RAF has retained a token core of expertise with a few crew detached to the US Poseidon fleet).
Charles Masefield’s accounts of test flying alongside Blackman are a joy. He is quite trenchant at times: “the lunacy of the premature and totally unnecessary grounding of all Nimrods flowing then awful inflight fire accident of XV230 in Afghanistan”; the scrapping of 11 completed MRA4s was “ridiculous”. I suspect few readers will argue with that.
Members of the so-called Kipper Fleet were known for their eating capacity, and there is a particularly joyous account of a fish-buying expedition (to Macrihanish) that was spectacularly unsuccessful. More seriously the aircraft was at the forefront of the Cold War in its sub hunting role. There are many tales of getting up close and personal with Russian subs, surface vessels, and indeed aircraft. The type was also involved in the Falklands War, ensuring that the Task Force was not bothered by Argentinian warships. The Nimrod was typically operating at the limits of its endurance (and in due course some were fitted with in-flight refuelling probes, requiring a new skill to be learned quickly). There are several stories of sorties that resulted in operating at or beyond normal fuel and cross-wind limits. Closer to home it was frequently involved in Search & Rescue work - some are heartening tales, some tragic.
There is a particularly harrowing account of a flight that ended somewhat hurriedly when there was a bomb bay fire. The Fincastle Trophy is a recurring theme – this annual competition pitted the best MPA crews from several nations against each other. Skill and skulduggery seem in equal supply.
There is a near-concluding contribution from Shelley Faulkner - a rare female rear-seater. Spirited perhaps describes her best! One of the best writers, Justin Morris, is also towards the end of this volume. A dry wit.
A recurring theme is the satisfaction Nimrod crews obtained from being at the top of their game, when the myriad of skills aboard the aircraft came together to achieve a good operational result. Crews that have experienced the P8 are optimistic about its talents. Appendix 2 should not be overlooked – a rare missive from a serviceman to a Prime Minister (berating Cameron for axing the MRA4).
There is precious little text about Nimrod R1 tales, presumably because its ELINT and SIGINT work is still highly sensitive. There is also one massive Nimrod story missing from the book. You will read it here:
A Nimrod was loitering over the North Atlantic at 1500’ – its normal habitat; the crew had shut down the two outer engines to conserve fuel (a standard operating practice); the captain had retired to the rear of the aircraft to answer a major call of nature (again a standard operating practice!).
The holes in the cheese aligned very suddenly. One engine failed, and in his panic the co-pilot, alone on the flight deck, made the cardinal error of shutting down the live engine. With generators offline the aircraft became not only quiet but dark. Rear seaters shone torches at each other as they pondered their imminent arrival in Neptune’s grasp. They then saw the captain rushing forward with his flying suit flapping about his knees! He relit the engines and the aircraft climbed away with ozone mixing with the cabin air…
The sad postscript is that the captain was court-martialled for this. He was blameless and saved the aircraft – rather poor management culture. Perhaps the episode remains sore, and this might explain its absence from this book.
Fast jet jocks might be sniffy about the Kipper Fleet, but this book will entertain even them.