Tuesday 11th April 2017 – ‘The early days of the Buccaneer’
Commander Geoff Meekums OBE MA Royal Navy Retired.
Geoff commenced his talk with a brief resume of his career in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) – from artificer apprentice in 1951 to electrical engineer with an operational squadron of carrier born Buccaneers. He moved to BAe Dynamics in 1988.
The Buccaneer was built in response to the MoD NA39 requirement for a high speed, low level attack aircraft that could carry a nuclear bomb capable of disabling the then new threat posed by Russian Sverdlov cruisers. The order was placed with Blackburn in 1955 and the aircraft made its first land based flight in 1958, leading to its first deck landing in 1960. Initially 6 were ordered for Navy operations, with a further 14 being ordered for test and development purposes.
The aircraft was well liked by pilots, being very smooth in operation. Britain’s famous FAA pilot, Eric (Winkle) Brown compared it to the Spitfire. Reasons for this are thought to be the design attention to the ‘area rule’ (i.e. the aircraft displaces a steadily rising, then falling volume of air as it flies forward) and extensive use of boundary layer control (some 12% of the engine air flow being bled off the 13th compressor stage to promote laminar flow over the wings and tail plane during takeoff and landing phases).
It is also interesting to note the internal structure of the aircraft. It has 3 transverse ‘pierced beams’, each in the shape of a pair of spectacles. These are joined to a strong internal yoke which provides the anchor points for the launch and arrester hooks respectively. Additional benefits of the ‘spectacles’ meant that the initial DH Gyron engines could subsequently be relatively easily replaced by more powerful RR Spey engines. And the arrester hook ‘chassis’ strength meant that the aircraft could be towed (backwards, wings folded etc) on the road, at speeds up to 30 mph, by coupling the towing vehicle directly to this point!
We were privileged to hear Geoff’s many service anecdotes. These should be taken in context; during Geoff’s time serving on carriers, he only witnessed one serious accident (crew survived) at sea, together with several land based ones. There are too many stories to be all recorded here, but here are eight of them:
1) One day an urgent call came from the control tower asking for an engineer to proceed ASAP to the tower. There was a pilot in the air who was having difficulty with the elevator trim (a secondary control which adjusts the force on the stick to be neutral when one is flying at a given speed.) Geoff was on the other side of the airfield, so one of his chief artificers, c/w with Buccaneer manual volume 1, answered the call. Apparently the trim switch had effectively stuck in full ‘nose up’ and the only way the pilot could stop ascending ‘ad astra’ was to regularly alternate between inverted and non-inverted flight. The artificer instructed the observer to pull out fuse F7, which hence-forward disabled the trim, thus enabling the aircraft to descend! A subsequent investigation revealed that drips of rain were entering the rear canopy seal exactly above the rear stick position. From then on Buccaneers, were temporarily fitted with a condom over the stick! But this was subsequently replaced by a piece of string attached to fuse F7, or a longer piece from the front cockpit, if being flown solo.
2) During one carrier landing, after “hooking on”, the starboard main undercarriage collapsed. Although designed for an up-to-14g deck landing force, during a “bolter” (going round again without hooking on) this was subsequently found (by a team from RAE) to be the result of the subsequent violent downwards movement. As the wheel subsequently pops over the front edge of the flight deck, the sudden undercarriage movement proved too severe for the collar retaining pin. These all had to be modified.
3) The pressures brought about by an inspection by the ‘Admiral’ could sometimes prove disruptive. On one occasion, as part of an effort to get the maximum number of aircraft flying for his visit, a semi u/s Buccaneer was pressed into service, albeit with a briefing to the pilot on how to work round the faulty fuel pump. Regrettably this did not suffice, and both engines cut out. The crew ejected and were picked up out of the Moray Firth unscathed.
4) During a test run to RAF Binbrook, in order to assess whether an RAF Lightning could detect a low level Buccaneer over the sea, it was discovered that the latter could indeed avoid radar detection. However the Lightning crew had no difficulty in visually spotting the incoming aircraft, as it was painted white all over. Anti-flash white was used to help combat the effects of a potential nuclear weapon explosion, but after this trial, the upper surface of the aircraft was then painted in normal camouflage grey.
5) One day an artificer reported a ‘fizzing’ noise to Geoff. On closer inspection, it was found that the cockpit canopy slide had been made of magnesium. Magnesium is normally avoided on FAA machines, as the combination of salt atmosphere and proximity to other metals higher up the electrochemical scale, can lead to severe electrolytic action. On this occasion the magnesium had, quite properly, been encased in plastic, which would have been OK were it not for the fact that holes had been drilled in it! All the slides had to be changed.
6) And talking of corrosion, someone asked about the special problems presented to Buccaneers working, as they do, in a hostile salt atmosphere. Geoff replied that the airframes and engine intakes were regularly sprayed with fresh water, followed by a spray of WD40!
7) The salt atmosphere meant that the valve in the air line supplying boundary layer air to a given wing, where it bridged the folding wing hinge, often used to stick closed. This showed up during takeoff checks by the pilot. To combat this, Geoff used to carry a large screwdriver and a hammer, which, with the wing folded upwards, was used to persuade said valve to open. But he had to be careful, as the resulting opening released a blast of air at 600°C.
8) Another questioner recalled an earlier RCEA lecture on RAF Lightnings, where we were informed that a typical Lightning would leak well over 20 gallons of fuel whilst in the hangar over a bank holiday weekend. Apparently the Buccaneer exhibited no such problems, though its predecessor, the Scimitar used to p*** fuel everywhere!
Finally, for the record, a perusal of Wikipedia shows that although the FAA strike role of the Buccaneer was taken over by the Sea Harrier in 1978, the aircraft was then adopted (somewhat reluctantly, considering they had been expecting the TSR2) by the RAF, with the final operational flight being made in 1994. 211 aircraft were built.