Record-Breaking Formation Flight from London to Valletta in 1949

by Capt. W.R MacWhirter, RN (P) DSC

It was July 1949 Lee-on-Solent. The Naval Air/Sea Warfare Development Unit/Carrier Trials Unit was asked to ferry four Sea Furies to Hal Far, Malta. This was a bit beneath our dignity! Who did they think we were? A ferry pool? Not blooming likely! We were far too busy wire pulling with HMS Illustrious and with other more (dubious) trials. But wait one. The late Pat Chilton, the S.P, and Dave Morgan, both recently graduated from the E.T.P.S, Boscombe Down, conspired a face-saving plan for moving these four Furies to Malta. Let’s set out to establish an authenticated National and International record over the distance- and in formation!! Well, more or less. Press-on became the watchword, Illustrious could wait. Neither F.O Air nor Admiralty could think of a reason for withholding approval. We were in.

What we needed to know was how to handle the magnificent Bristol Centaurus to obtain maximum speed and fuel economy over 1,300 miles. Dave Morgan set to. The coupled throttle and pitch control, although offering some advantages in engine handling, did not allow one to obtain optimum settings when flying to achieve the all-important condition of full throttle (throttle butterfly that is) for the power settings decided upon, and because it was not a normal way of setting up the engine it was not contained in Pilots’ Notes.

Looking at the speed/height/range curves and aiming for 50 gallons left on arrival, we decided to go at 220 knots IAS at 22,000 feet. The power setting required was to climb above the desired height, throttle back, come out of Auto and set the desired rpm (in this case 2,150). Ease the throttle forward but not far enough to take the revs up then descend untile the boost stopped increasing; and you have full throttle.

How much more simple it would have been with independent control of boost and rpm but the policy was to make life simple for the pilot even at the expense of optimum range performance! The Royal Aero Club (RAC) of Great Britain was approached to endorse the official attempt, explain the rules and provide the Time-keepers at both ends. Each pilot had to be provided with a licence to participate. The record had to be between capitals of the countries concerned- London to Valletta- with a factor applied for London Airport (Heathrow) and Hal Far.

London Airport (LAP) had to be persuaded to permit this operation. Four Furies to be received, refuelled and dispatched. This meant closing the field for a shor time to normal traffic, which was a bit out of routine. The Commandant, Sir John D’Albiac, a retired Air Marshal, gave dubious approval provided that it was done elegantly, and no charge would be made.

Weather was important, there had to be a tail wind. Met Office at Lee was asked to advise as soon as this could be foreseen. On 19 July 1949 the wind at the selected height of 22,000 ft was bid fair. Four of us including David Book piled into a chough (Grumman Avenger to you) and were flown by “Batts” Battison to Hawkers at Langley airfield where the four Furies awaited us. Thence to LAP where we landed in formation (most elegantly) on the wide Main runway. Tanks including wing tanks were topped up.

It was necessary, for record purposes, that both departure and arrival must be at, or below, 300 ft and close to the control tower. So LAP was closed whilst we took of in formation, made a gentle right turn or 270° at roof-top height, and took departure on 151 M over the tower where the RAC timekeeper pressed his stopwatch. The rest was a bit of a doddle – up to 22,000 ft through thin cloud, but after some 20 minutes the C.O was a bit slow – as usual – so that the other three were becoming dots. A laconic voice advised “try cold air”. Difference was immediate! Spectacularly three or four peaks of the Alps thrust through the cloud which looked a bit close even at 22,000 ft. No cloud after Genoa and we hung in a blue sky with the Mediterranean spread out blue before us.

West coast of Italy straggling off to the left and Corsica and Sardinia laid out clear like a map. Great panorama, unforgettable. We pushed over at the Western tip of Sicily to arrive over the runway at Hal Far at under 300 ft and going like the clappers. Straight wing clappers, that is. The RAC man checked us in over the 1309.95 statute miles in 3 hours, 22 minutes, 38 seconds. Speed 387.88 mph. We had about 70 gallons remaining. The boy had got it right!

We had a ride back to Heath Row in a Skymaster which took 7 hours, 45 minutes. Within a few months the DH Comet took little more than 2 hours to do the same trip, but our official record still stands- and it was in formation!! Hawkers picked up us and gave us a champagne lunch. We were flown home by “Batts” in the faithful chough, returning to a great reception at our Lee dispersal. Fifth Sea Lord Creasy sent his hand-written congratulations. Royal Aero Club and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale issued two certificates each for a National and International Point-to-Point record.

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