The THum Flight 1953-1958, Woodvale & Speke-images restored Nov 15, 2013 23:39:02 GMT 1 tony1965 likes this
Post by viscount on Nov 15, 2013 23:39:02 GMT 1
THE 'TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY' FLIGHT, RAF WOODVALE
alternatively Thum Flight or THum Flight
alternatively Thum Flight or THum Flight
An interesting aspect of operations at Liverpool Airport in the period 1953 to 1958 were the daily visits to Speke by Temperature and Humidity (Thum) flight aircraft. An interesting story that deserves not to be forgotten. This article first appeared on FoLA’s “09/27” quarterly newsletter (see http://www.fola.org.uk) No.125 Summer 2013, and it is with their permission that I repeat it for nwan readers. The illustrations have all appeared on nwan before on Speke Airport photo-threads, but deserve to be used again and placed in context on this new thread.
Although perhaps ‘Temperature and Humidity’ is more correctly abbreviated to ‘THum’, I’ve throughout used the version ‘Thum’ as used in earlier sources.
The task of collecting regular, detailed meteorological information to support weather forecasting had been performed daily by RAF aircraft since 1924, initially carried out by fighter aircraft flying from RAF Duxford, and then RAF Mildenhall. Later, a second flight was started, flying from RAF Aldergrove. During the war years the number of units devoted to this task multiplied, until in 1945, about 30 flights were made every day in the European theatre alone, involving a mix of short and long-range flights.
For the usual short-range ‘Thum’ flights, obsolete fighter aircraft were usually used – the Meteorological Flights were the last to fly the Gloster Gauntlet bi-plane fighter. Even in ’45 the Hurricanes and Spitfires had by no means ousted the last of the Gladiators, indeed the Shuttleworth’s flying Gladiator, L8032 (now marked K7985), was assembled from several ‘Met. Flight’ aircraft which were under overhaul at Gloster’s factory at the end of the war. Post war, the Thum task dwindled once more to a single daily flight which was flown by Mosquitos from the night-fighter squadrons based at RAF West Malling. The last West Malling Thum flight being flown by a Mosquito NF.36 on 30th April 1951.
THUM TASKING MOVES TO THE NORTH WEST
The task was then contracted to Short Bros & Harland; creating a dedicated Meteorological Temperature and Humidity Flight (usually abbreviated to Thum), formed at RAF Hooton Park in April 1951 and after trial flights, commenced operation on 1st May 1951. Its role being to relieve operational squadrons the task of making daily flights to obtain detailed meteorological information to assist the job of the Met. Office forecasters. The Thum Flight was not at Hooton Park long, moving on 13th July 1951 to RAF Woodvale along with other Short’s operated units (University of Liverpool Air Squadron and No.19 Reserve Flying School). The type of aircraft used was the Spitfire PR.19, which was selected for several reasons; first of all it had the required range and rate of climb, secondly a pressurised cockpit for high-altitude flying and thirdly, being optimised for photo-reconnaissance, it was extremely stable and could therefore ‘fly itself’ while the pilot was concentrating on this thermometers and barometers.
The procedure, flown six days a week (not Sundays) whatever the weather, consisted of flying to a point 3 miles north of Worcester, and then, within a ten-mile radius of that point, measuring the air temperature on wet and dry bulb thermometers at different heights, starting at 540, 1040 and 1540 feet above mean sea level, then at an air pressure of 900 millibars and climbing in steps of 50 mb up to the 300 millibar level (about 30,000 feet). The whole climb taking around 45 minutes, with the top of the climb to be reached at 0900 GMT. In addition reports were made on inversions, isothermals, haze, visibility, types and amount of cloud, ice formations, contrails, turbulence and the prevailing weather. On return to base the readings were sent to Speke, where the information was checked and details were sent over the teleprinter network to the Central Forecasting Office at Dunstable. During 1953 the Thum aircraft began to include a stop at Speke in their daily routine, handing the results over directly to the Speke Met. Office, so saving a needless delay in delivering the reports.
The Spitfires were fitted with a balanced bridge psychrometer and an aneroid barometer, along with initially an eight channel VHF radio. It was soon apparent that meteorological duties which were carried out under all weather conditions, called for the utmost skill and determination and an intense cockpit workload for the pilot during the 45 minute of climb.
In all, over two thousand Spitfire meteorological climbs were carried out from Woodvale. One of the small pool of pilots and Flight Commander, John Formby logged 840 sorties, 1,438 hours on Thum Spitfire flights, quite likely setting records in the process. Unfortunately two of the Flight’s pilots were lost while flying Spitfires. Gordon Hargreaves died on 4th May 1952 when he returned early from a routine flight in PM549 with radio trouble and stalled on the approach. ‘Tommy’ Heyes was lost on 4th March 1954 in PM628 during a forced landing close to the village of Church Pulverbach, south of Shrewsbury. Other pilots who served with the flight included, Mr Allum, Mr Wood, Peter Brooke, Ginger Irving and Eric Richards. The Flight was initially led briefly by T. Carter, then Mr Ackers before being taken over just after the move to RAF Woodvale by Gordon Hargreaves until his death in May 1952 and then by ‘Tommy’ Heyes until his death in March 1954, followed by John Formby until disbandment 1st May 1959. In the 1958 New Year’s Honours List John Formby was awarded the M.B.E. for his services to meteorology while commanding the Thum Flight.
The last operational R.A.F. unit flying the Spitfire was the THum Flight (Temperature and Humidity Flight), based at Woodvale but making daily visits to Speke. Many of their Spitfire XIX's are now with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. One such Spitfire PR.19 is PS915, here seen in rather snowy conditions outside the east wing of the Speke terminal. Pity there is no date to this rare photo, although certainly between June 1954 and 10th June 1957, the last THum Flt Spitfire sortie. Interestingly this is the only one of the THum Flt Spitfire PR.19s that did not wear 'PR Blue' colours - the silver was applied during service in the Far East.
A further photo of a THum Flight Spitfire PR.19 on the apron at Speke at the end of a data gathering flight. This time the subject is PM631 in standard 'PR' blue overall. Today PM631 is a much cherished member of the BBMF, Coningsby.
REPLACING THE SPITFIRES
As the months and years rolled by, the old Spitfires became more and more difficult to keep airborne. On occasion, spare parts had to be sourced from places as far distant as Malaya, so the search for replacement aircraft started. In early 1956 a Spitfire F.24 was tried (at this time large quantities of Mk.24s and spares for them were stored at RAF High Ercall), but this mark lacked the necessary natural stability. In May ’56 a Mosquito TT.35 arrived for trials, and although it wasn’t entirely suitable for the job, as it couldn’t climb as fast as the Spitfire, it was eventually accepted. The last Spitfire PR.19 sortie was operated by PS853 on 10th June 1957, the last operational flight by an RAF Spitfire anywhere in the world, some 21 years after the prototype had flown.
The three remaining Spitfires proved reluctant to depart. A major SSAFA Air Display was held at Woodvale on 12th June 1957 to mark their departure and introduce the new Mosquitos. PS915 refused to start, PM631 did one circuit then landed with R/T trouble, while PS853 took off, suffered engine trouble and smashed its propeller during the forced landing on the airfield, hitting a rabbit hole at slow speed - otherwise suffering only superficial damage. All three successfully left the following day for what became the Battle of Britain Flight at RAF Biggin Hill, subsequently moving to RAF Duxford, RAF Coltishall and now at RAF Coningsby. Two of the Spitfires still perform regularly with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, while the third is airworthy with Rolls Royce (although currently under repair following a miss-hap in 2012). This some 56 years after leaving the Thum Flight!
From early June 1957 the Mosquito TT.35 carried on the daily routine, still calling at Speke to drop-off the recordings. An early loss was Mosquito TK604 when Eric Richards suffered an engine failure and could not lower the undercarriage on 29th October 1957. The aircraft made a belly landing at Woodvale, slewing off the runway, fortunately not injuring the pilot. The search for an alternative type continued as their age too was beginning to affect serviceability. Before 1957 was out a Meteor F.8 was delivered. It did several dummy runs and remained on the unit strength until the end, but even with ferry tanks it didn’t have the necessary range. Early in 1959 Meteor F.8’s were allocated to replace the ‘Mossies’, while enquiries were made to find out if the flights could be shortened to make them more suited to the ‘Meatbox’s’ abilities. These enquiries revealed that the job could now be done by radar-tracked balloons, so the contract was not renewed.
The very last ‘Thum’ flight was flown by Mosquito TT.35 TJ138 on 1st May 1959, thus completing the last of some 2,800 sorties flown by the Flight in just over 8 years, of which likely some 2,000 called at Speke. The readings taken by the Flight greatly helped advance the ‘science’ of understanding weather systems and enabling more accurate short-term forecasting; this long before the satellites and computers which are such an essential part of weather forecasting today! The Mosquitos were initially passed to No. 5 CAACU co-located at Woodvale for a month, before moving to No.27 MU at RAF Shawbury for scrapping. No.5 CAACU was another Short Bros & Harland-operated unit, originally at Llanbedr, but moved to Woodvale 1.1.58. At Woodvale No.5 CAACU was primarily Gloster Meteor equipped with F.8, T.7 and TT.20 aircraft, until disbandment June 1971.
Thum Flt Mosquito TT.35 VR806/J which was operated 5.58 to 5.59. Note that on this aircraft, the target towing gear is still installed under the aircraft and the guards to prevent the tow wire tangling the horizontal tail surfaces, elevators and tail wheel.
Mosquito TT.35 RS719, operated by the Thum Flt 5.57 to 6.58
Mosquito TT.35 TA722, operated by the Thum Flt 6.57 to 5.59. The yellow and black diagonal 'target tug' colours underside are visible on the lower engine cowling and undercarriage doors of this shot. The DH Heron in the background is actually just airbourne off runway 26.
Not too sure of either the date, or the serial of this THum Flt Mosquito TT.35 on the apron at Speke. As it appears to have no code worn, that limits the choice of aircraft it could be, but is no real help. Great picture of a Mosquito at Speke though.
THE AIRCRAFT USED
PM549/A Spitfire PR.19 Del 4.51 written off, stalled on approach to Woodvale 4.5.52
PM577/B Spitfire PR.19 Del 4.51 to No.29 MU High Ercall in 5.56 for storage, but scrapped there 9.56
PM628 Spitfire PR.19 Del 7.52 written off near Shrewsbury 4.3.54
PM631/D Spitfire PR.19 Del 7.51 to Battle of Britain Flight 6.57 Biggin Hill
PM651 Spitfire PR.19 Del 3.54 damaged forced landing 14.4.54 Halfpenny Green. Repaired for gate guardian duties
PM652/C Spitfire PR.19 Del 4.51 u/c collapsed due to heavy landing early ’52 en route to No.19 MU, St.Athan for radio modifications. Returned 1.55, ex No.49 MU. Colerne, but suffered a forced landing High Ercall 11.1.55 while on delivery! Remains to RAF Tern Hill & dumped
PS853/C Spitfire PR.19 Del 4.52 to Battle of Britain Flight 6.57 Biggin Hill
PS915/A Spitfire PR.19 Del 6.54 to Battle of Britain Flight 6.57, later to RAF West Malling .59
VN315 Spitfire F.24 Del 1.56 from No. 29 MU High Ercall; returned there 6.56 and scrapped 9.56
RS719 Mosquito TT.35 Del 4.57 ex No.49 MU Colerne; to 3 CAACU, Exeter 6.58 for spares?
TA641 Mosquito TT.35 Del 6.56 ex No.38 MU Llandow; to No.27 MU, Shawbury 6.59
TA722 Mosquito TT.35 Del 6.57 ex ’57’ of 3 CAACU, Exeter; to No.27 MU, Shawbury 6.59
TJ138/Z Mosquito TT.35 Del 5.58 ex 5 CAACU, Woodvale; to No.27 MU, Shawbury 6.59
TK604/Q Mosquito TT.35 Del 10.57 ex 5 CAACU, Llanbedr. Written-off, belly landed Woodvale 29.10.57
VR806/J Mosquito TT.35 Del 5.58 ex 5 CAACU, Woodvale; to No.27 MU, Shawbury 6.59
VZ508 Meteor F.8 Del 10.57 ex 151 Sqdn; passed onto 5 CAACU, Woodvale 5.59
VZ540 Meteor F.8 Del 4.59 ex No.20 MU Aston Down; passed onto 5 CAACU, Woodvale 5.59
Also Avro T.21s VV324 and VV982 operated as communications aircraft. VV324 perished when burnt on the RAF Woodvale dump 1.58 along with remains of Mosquito TK604.
MU = Maintenance Unit
Del. = Delivered
PR = Photographic reconnaissance
TT = Target Tug
CAACU = Civilian Anti-Aircraft Co-Operation Unit.
The majority of the Spitfire PR.19 flew in high gloss PRU mid blue overall, with code (if applied) and sometimes spinner in yellow. One exception was PS915 which operated in a silver scheme, with a blue spinner for most of its service with the Flight. PM577 had a yellow spinner with older style roundels and fin flash. The Mosquito TT.35s were silver top and sides, a broad yellow band around rear fuselage forward of the tailplane on the silver, with broad diagonal black and yellow bands underside fuselage, wings and nacelles – standard target tug markings for the time. Spinners silver or black, any individual aircraft codes in black.
Of the Spitfire PR.19s, PM631 and PS915 today fly with the BBMF at RAF Coningsby, while PS853 (G-RRGN) has recently returned to the air in autumn 2012, with Rolls Royce following major overhaul, subsequently repaired Spring 2013 following a landing accident 2012. Non-airworthy Spitfire PR.19 PM651 has lately 2011/12 been at the RAF Museum, Cosford, but moved to Kuwait early 2013 on loan. Of the Mosquito TT.35s only TJ138 survives, it is on public display at the RAF Museum, Hendon. NB RS719 with Thum and TA719 a survivor are easily confused!
Compiled by Brian Jones from several sources. The oldest dates from August 1959, penned by Phil Butler for the Merseyside Group of Aviation Enthusiasts (MGAE) newsletter ‘Northern Aeronews’, the original title being ‘Automation Strikes Again’, into which have been woven details from Aldon Ferguson’s ‘A History of RAF Woodvale’, 1980, published by the MAS and ‘RAF Woodvale – First 50 Years', also Aldon Ferguson, Airfield Publications, 1991. Finally, a joint Phil Butler & Aldon Ferguson article in ‘Swift’ magazine no.3, 2000.