John Bewick: random recollections

Many years ago I closed the file marked aviation. The period of Flying Training was closed into the “happy experiences” section of my life, and occasionally brought to mind with many fond memories. Now, thankfully, that file has been opened again, and many old friendships will be renewed.

We progressed from the dangerous first solo pilots, who, lets face it, did not really know what we were doing into competent and skillful pilots. I can still recall the note of panic from my instructor, on finals in a Chipmunk as the words “Jesus Christ, Bewick, are you trying to kill me” came through the headset as I got a bit slow on the approach. But I can also remember the satisfaction of flying an instrument approach having stayed within limits all the way to the touch down, still under the hood. Or doing a sequence of aerobatics well.

We were well taught the basics of flying and for that I am grateful, and it helped to keep me alive in later years, after I joined the Royal Navy and started flying from Carriers. Mind you sometimes there is a bit of luck thrown in. I recall one sortie from HMS VICTORIOUS, when I took my CO, an Observer,(Navigator in RAF) for a flight from the ship to Inverness and the surrounds. For him it was a non working flight. In the Gannet I had an ADF, an unusual piece of equipment in the Navy and had taken a bearing on takeoff of the local NDB. During the flight the fog rolled in, as it does in that part of the world, and the ships radar had gone u/s. When the time to return for landing came, it was a simple matter of making sure that the ship was in the same place as when we had taken off, and then flying the reverse bearing. The fog was getting thicker by the minute, and a night ashore was on the cards. The CO was not very pleased but I told him not to worry as we would see the ship in a couple of minutes on the starboard side, and he should keep looking. Sure enough, after the elapse of a couple of minutes, there was the ship glimpsed through the fog, and in due course we landed on. I never told him how it was done. All other aircraft had to divert!!

Throughout our training, and I suppose all our lives, progress was made from the incompetent to the proficient. We start off something as a novice and hopefully end up as a skillful expert. In area of aviation this holds true for the ability to land an aircraft on a moving ship’s deck. When I joined my first ship, in Hong Kong, (the first time I had ever seen a Carrier let alone sailed in one), I found myself on the catapult next morning. The first time anything is done, it is etched in the memory for ever. The first solo in a Chipmunk surprised me in that I realised that the stick vibrated and moved by itself - it wasn’t the instructor nudging it! The first launch on a catapult had me airborne with no hands or feet on the controls having my head looking straight up, feet in the air and hands somewhere near the shoulders, followed by a frantic search for the controls! The first attempts at landing on - it took about five passes to actually touch the deck, and that was somewhere near the bow!

You asked, on previous email about being in charge of the mirror (Projector) landing sight, so a couple of memories of that period. I spent two years as Projector Sight Officer on HMS ARK ROYAL. The aircraft flown were Scimitars, Sea Vixens and Gannets. The role of the PSO is to set the landing sight so that the pilot flying the “meatball” will land on the target wire (#3). As each aircraft has a different hook to eye distance, the sight has the be raised or lowered to suit. The PSO talks all the time to Lt Cdr Flying, rather like the commentary on a football match - Too high - too low - on the line - too fast - too slow. If the landing looked as if it was going to be dangerous then the pilot was verbally warned, or if really bad was waved off and had to go round again. On one land-on, a Scimitar returning from high level found that the windscreen was full iced, and a full talk down was successfully carried out. As you may imaging a certain amount of trust had developed between the deck and the pilot.

Later flying Gannets I landed on USS BENNINGTON, a fully operational American Carrier, and for once a good circuit and landing was carried out. During lunch with the Admiral (!) the conversation turned to the landing and I was asked to explain it. I suggested that our decks were smaller than theirs and for that reason we had to be a bit more accurate, but he didn’t go for that one. On comparing carrier operational experience, by that time I had over 350 deck landings, he found his answer, as, in his ready to go to war, fully operational air department, the most any of his pilots had was 40. Their aircraft carried out some “touch and goes” on HMS VICTORIOUS and were sent home for being too dangerous!!

One of my roles was to fly RAF pilots, and others, to the Carrier, as passengers. The normal circuit to land on the carrier is 400’, but I always approached at 800’ on these occasions, as the deck looked smaller, and invariably my passenger would ask: “Surely you’re not going to land on that?” To which my stock reply was “Well, I did yesterday!”.

I am currently transferring all my 35mm slides to digital, and many of those were taken during our time in Canada. When I have sufficient to fill a CD I will forward it on to you. It should be interesting to see ourselves again, before gravity lowered our chests.

John Bewick

Gannet on take off from Royal Navy Carrier

Gannet landing on Royal Navy carrier

Projector and HiLo sight used to assist carrier landings

Sea Hawk and Gannet in the Fleet Air Arm museum

Page last updated 10-11-28