The following is a compilation of presentations given at some time by both Dave Hencken and Kevin Byron
What Did They Call Her?
"10,000 loose rivets flying in close formation". "The contra-rotating nissen hut" - just a couple of the less than complimentary nicknames for the Avro Shackleton, the aircraft that is a legend in her lifetime. This splendid old aeroplane is the Katherine Hepburn of the aviation world - no-one could ever recall her looking young, but her fine bone structure and aristocratic features have enabled her to carry her age gracefully. She appeals both to old and young. Like Katherine Hepburn she is noted for her versatility - any role accepted - all performed with equal panache - the true hallmark of star quality.
How Did She Come To Be?
As an island nation we learned the hard way during World Ward 2 that the submarine could bring us to our knees by cutting off our Atlantic lifeline. The Royal Navy performed magnificently in the Battle of the Atlantic, but ships suffer two great handicaps in the ASW game - they are relatively slow and can thus cover a limited area and, since they share the submarines' field of battle, they are targets as well as hunters. Accordingly the much-expanded Coastal Command, equipped with Catalinas, Sunderlands and Lend-lease Liberators, shouldered a large part of the ASW burden and by the war's end had destroyed some 196 enemy submarines - a large proportion of the total. After the war the Liberators were returned to the USA and Coastal Command was left with only Lancaster 3s and, potentially, the new Lincolns as its land-based aircraft. Neither aircraft was at all ideal so the Air Ministry issued specification R5\46 calling for a completely new purpose built patrol aircraft.
Apart from the obvious need for long range and endurance and the ability to carry the necessary sensors and weapons, the specification called for greater crew comfort and much reduced noise levels inside. There might be a cynic or two who would dispute that the specification was ever fully met! Avro's great designer, Roy Chadwick, sensibly opted for a low-risk solution to the specification using the same winning formula that stretched back through the Lincoln and the Lancaster to the ill-starred twin-engine Manchester of the late-thirties, which, first flew on 25 July 1939. This formula was very simple and, like many simple ideas, very effective. It comprised a large, lightly-loaded wing attached to a strong, load-bearing centre section: a capacious fuselage and bomb bay to contain the necessary large crew, sensors and weapons and four big, beefy engines to motivate the ensemble.
We should pay tribute here to that other great engineer, without whom the Shack would not be the lady we love - Sir Henry Royce. It was his brilliant Merlin engine (so vital to the RAF during the War) that formed the basis of the more powerful Griffon. That, married to a contra-rotating prop, using Sir Jimmy Martin's ingenious translation unit, has powered the Shack throughout its life and given the world the characteristic "Griffon Growl". This engine has also been responsible for more domestic arguments over Hi-Fi settings than you can shake a stick at. Shackleton high-tone deafness is a well known occupational hazard. Chadwick's design, initially designated Avro Type 696, very soon was christened the Shackleton. The name Shackleton was chosen by Chadwick himself in honour of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of Britain's greatest voyagers and explorers. Chadwick's wife, Mary, was a descendant of Shackleton, which made the choice of name doubly apt.
The first of the breed, VW126, first flown by Jimmy Orrell betrayed her bomber ancestry with her mid-upper turret. She also had twin cannon in nose barbettes and one of the recently-developed in-flight refuelling points in the tail. After the second prototype, VW131, the nose guns were abandoned as being inefficient and the in-flight refuelling option was also dropped, much the delight of future Shack crews.
The MK 1A Shackleton, with uprated Griffon 57A engines, was issued to 11 Coastal Command Squadrons beginning with 120 Sqn in April 1951. She was possessed of all the qualities of her illustrious forebears - easy to fly and with no real vices (as long as you didn't take liberties) - in fact a thorough lady. She was an instant hit with her crews, but from the beginning there were some shortcomings apparent in the MkI design. The chin mounted radome was prone to birdstrike damage and its position prevented the desired 360 radar scan: the single tail wheel was too weak to cope with the weight of the aircraft in anything more than a reasonable lading and the braking system was rather inefficient and made ground handling difficult. Accordingly, issue two of the R5/46 resulted in the MkII Shackleton with the radar moved back to a ventral position. Abaft the wing and in a retractable radome - a decision Bill Houldsworth probably had reason to regret when, in the course of a night bombing detail he and his copilot both became disoriented and flew rather lower than briefed and left the scanner on the Ballykelly radar buoy.
The nose was lengthened and given a bomb aimer's position and a nose gunner's position equipped with twin 20 mm Hispano cannon. She was also given a lengthened tail section with a tail look out position - primarily for assessing bombing accuracy, but also excellent during SAR Ops. With this, the definitive Shackleton shape had arrived. There are many who consider the MkII to be the best of the breed and she equipped every squadron except 201, as well as ASWDU, JASS Flight and the famous MOTU Maritime Operational Training Unit.
Fine beast though the MkII was, the aircrew had obviously become a somewhat effete bunch, and they were still dissatisfied. They complained about the difficulty of landing the old tail-dragger, about the somewhat eccentric total loss pneumatic braking system and about the consequent problems with taxiing. They even complained about the noise and lack of comfort. An over-indulgent Air Ministry issued a new requirement and the tricycle undercarriage, hydraulically braked MkIII was produced.
It was slightly bigger, had a modified wing with tip tanks, carried extra fuel, had full sound insulation, a proper galley and rest area and a tasteful creamy-brown interior like something from Vogue. For heaven's sake, it even had effective ailerons. Such decadence! The MkIII was also the only model exported - 8 going to 35 Sqn SAAF who flew them until 1984.
In fine Royal Air Force tradition this bigger fuselage was duly stuffed with as much kit as could be fitted, with the result that, in the case of the MkIII Phase3, the all-up weight rose to 108,000 lbs. compared with the 82,000 lbs. of the MkIA. Even the mighty Griffon could not be relied upon to haul that lot off the 6000 ft. runways that were common at the time, so a pair of Avgas-burning Viper jets were installed in the outboard engine nacelles to assist with the task.
Over the years several crews were to be grateful for these little screamers but none more so than the late Mike Bondesio (who died of a heart attack at the controls of a SAAF Shack in 1983). He managed to limp his crippled MkIII of 203 Squadron into Lisbon on 2 Griffons and one Viper - having to do some fast footwork to avoid the brand new Salazar Bridge. For his extreme professionalism he was awarded the AFC.
There was, for a time, a proposal to re-engine the Shacks with the revolutionary Napier Nomad compound diesel-turbine engine which positively sipped fuel in comparison with the Griffon. This engine would have enabled the Shack to stay airborne even longer. To crews already carrying out 18 hour sorties this didn't exactly seem like manna from heaven. It is quite possible that, had they fitted the Nomad and kept the inflight refuelling system, you could have sent a crew of first-tourists off on task and they would have recovered to base as haggard, if experienced, aircrew.
One would have expected the younger MkIIIs to have outlived the MkIIs, but the stresses involved in Shackleton operations when using the MkIII Phase 3 exacted a high price in fatigue, with the result that the last of the line were the beloved MkIIs of 8 Sqn. The Shackleton in various marks and phases has served in just about every corner of the world and in just about every role that aircraft undertake except that of pure fighter. Although on 8 Sqn, as part of 11 (Fighter) GP, she proudly wore her fighter flashes alongside her roundels. It is interesting to note that, although no fighter, she has on several occasions been the first to intercept and identify Soviet Badgers and Mays while on duty in the Mediterranean. I don't know who were more surprised, the Soviet aviators or the fighter controllers at Olympus Radar in Cyprus. The Squadrons that she equipped read like a roll of honour: 37, 38, 42, 120, 201, 203, 204, 205, 206, 210, 220, 224, 228, 240, 269, 35 Sqn South African Air Force, and of course 8 Sqn. Squadron. Squadrons that, in the main, have disappeared as our defence commitments have shrunk in line with our limited means. But all these squadrons were at the time home to hundreds of men to whom the name Shackleton still means something special. She served at stations from the much-loved Ballykelly to the rather more exotic Changi in Singapore. From her home bases she sallied forth on detachments all over the world. She flew largely unsupported, apart from what she could carry herself, continuing a tradition of self-sufficiency set by the old Flying Boat squadrons. From Andoya in Norway to Ysterplaat in South Africa and from Majunga to Hawaii, there must be, to this day, oil-stained patches of concrete bearing mute and somewhat puzzled witness to the passing of a Shackleton detachment.
She could never have been accused of being fast - even at the best of times - but the transit times involved in some of these detachments have passed into Air Force mythology. No doubt some of the tales are Apocryphal and all have been embroidered somewhat, but I do know of one crew that took 72 days to Changi from the UK via Mauritius - a mean speed of advance of 1. 75 knots - surely a record - unless you know differently!
The main reason for these sagas was mechanical problems - particularly engine problems. The mighty Griffon for all its brute strength is a remarkably sensitive piece of kit which goes into a deep sulk at the drop of a hat (or even a magneto). The Griffon has one particularly infuriating habit - that of jamming up its starter motor. Until very recently the approved quick fix was to whip a panel off and give the starter motor a quick belt. It's surprising how often this worked, but the look on bystanders' faces was something to behold - they always looked as though they were convinced that they were being wound up.
The close-knit nature of Shackleton crews and their fun-loving disposition made for some enjoyable detachments. A Shack crew was a travelling party waiting to happen and was always welcomed with open arms, and any rumours to the contrary are gross calumnies. Surely not even 205 Sqn could get banned from Sydney, or 204 & 269 from Malta.
But life was not all good runs ashore. The Shack force crews were the original "work hard/play hard" types and work hard they certainly did in all sorts of jobs. Almost from the beginning of the Shackleton's life, its versatility was recognised and all sorts of oddities came its way. It was used for trooping duties between the UK and Cyprus during the Suez crisis which also marked the Shack's operational debut providing ASW cover for the Anglo-French fleets. No-one could ever say that the old girl was the height of luxury as a transport, but it was better than marching and quicker (just) than a troopship and there were small compensations, for even in those days Shackleton haute cuisine was becoming legendary. One young Pongo sitting on the floor among his 33 mates was not feeling too well (his face and his uniform were rapidly assuming the same colour) when the nav fought his way back to make some coffees and offered them around. This young soldier declined the proffered refreshment only to be berated by his Sergeant-Major, saying "If sir is good enough to make you a coffee, you'll be good enough to drink it. Now drink it!!" I leave the colourful results to your imagination.
The Shack was used in disaster relief operations as far afield as Belize and Morocco taking in supplies and taking out refugees. The inhabitants were generally grateful, except perhaps for the occupants of the only house left standing in a Moroccan village after the Agadir earthquake - the only house left standing, that is, until the Shack dropped its load of supplies right on top of it!!
Colonial policing was another important role in the Far East, during the Brunei Rebellion and the Borneo confrontation, and in the Middle East during the problems in Arabia. She proved very good at preventing gun runners from bringing in guns to Borneo; one very simple expedient used was to fly very low over the gun runners' dugout canoes thus blowing them over - guns and expensive high-powered outboards lost - Shack and gun runners go home - quite neat and almost amicable. In Arabia the Shacks reverted to type and were used extensively in bombing missions against the rebels using bombs and cannon with mixed results.
There is a story of a young subaltern who had led his men out on a recce from their old hill fort without leaving a guard behind, only to find that the rebels had taken it over in their absence. A Shack that was in the area was contacted and asked if it could blow the gate down so that the soldiers could resume their tenancy (they obviously had an exaggerated view of Shack crews' bombing prowess). The Shack crew, taking a more realistic view of their capabilities, dropped a stick of 3 x 1000 pounders which straddled the ford, opening the gate back and sides, leaving, in fact, only the corners. As the dust settled, there was something of a stunned silence broken eventually by a rather aristocratic young voice over the air "Thank you very much gentlemen, but that wasn't quite what I had in mind". An interesting aside to the Aden operations was that the Shacks of 37 Sqn worked closely with the Venoms and Hunters of 8 Sqn, who surely never suspected that they would one day re-equip with these venerable machines.
One of the major duties of the Shackleton was search and rescue. She is still reckoned by many to be the best land-based fixed-wing SAR platform ever built. With her slow speed, long endurance, multiplicity of excellent lookout positions and ability to carry large amounts of SAR equipment, she was brilliant in the role. Shack's have been involved in many major SAR incidents over the years, most famous probably being that of the Liner Lakonia which went on fire off Portugal. In 1963, WL757, under the command of Flt Lt (now Air Commodore) Dave Leppard, dropped two sets of Lindholme gear and had the small satisfaction of seeing some of the very survivors of this disaster climb on board. The reaction of survivors to the Shackleton can be amusing and gratifying. Seven years ago an 8 Sqn Shack helped in the rescue of a Lightning pilot off Scarborough He was sitting in his dinghy understandably shocked and watching, with increasing frustration, a Victor tanker circling over the wreckage of his aircraft about 4 miles away when, as he said later, "This lovely old Shack came growling out of the murk and dropped a marker either side of me. I knew I was OK then". On the other hand, we once dropped a Lindholme gear to OC 111 Sqn when he had ejected from his Lightning off the Wash. He said afterwards, "I didn't mind so much having my engine blown up and having to bale out - it's an occupational hazard with Lightnings. I was quite prepared for the shock of hitting the water and getting into my dinghy. The only thing that really scared me was this Shackleton apparently trying to kill me by bombing me". For all that, the old Shack must, on many occasions, have seemed like an angel of mercy to a survivor in need.
Other tasks carried out by the Shack were flying the Beira Patrol from Majunga to try and stem the oil supplies to Rhodesia after its declaration of UDI, range clearance for the British nuclear weapons trials at Christmas Island and, last but not least, the delivery of mail and urgent supplies to weather ships as well as those of the RN.
There is a story told of one RN ship which had complained about the accuracy of the mail drop, being horrified to see its next consignment explode on impact, apparently scattering mail over a wide area. Needless to say, this was a cunningly contrived spoof by the Shack crew who then went on to drop the real container with impeccable accuracy - hopefully the ship concerned learnt its lesson.
All these subsidiary tasks, however, were, at most, interesting asides to the Shack's raison d'être. She was for over 20 years the UK's only long range MPA and extremely effective she was too. Her job was the detection and tracking of all potentially hostile shipping both on and under the sea. It was in the role of sub-hunter that she excelled. In addition to the already referred to excellent lookout stations, she was well equipped with sensors such as her ASV radar, which, in the right hands, could pick up the small radar target of a sub's schnorkel at quite long range (up to 36 miles once).
She carried sonobuoys, both active and passive, to ensnare the sub in a large audio net; Orange Harvest ESM to passively detect radar emissions; Autolycus to detect diesel fumes emitted by a snorting sub and, briefly, Magnetic Anomaly Detection. The latter was never successful and was dropped until the advent of the Nimrod as the Shack's replacement. I have heard it said that it didn't work on the Shack because the Shack itself is a flying magnetic anomaly! ASW was a black art which required constant practice not only to hone individual skills but also to make a crew think and act as one and an important element of training was a periodic visit to the joint anti-submarine school at H.M.S. Sea Eagle in Londonderry, where Shack crews would pit their wits against the Dark Blue, and not just during the exercises: indeed, the battles of wits during the actual exercises were small beer compared with those during the debriefs, when questions were raised not merely of peoples' integrity but even their parents' marital status.
On one memorable occasion, the Late Sqn Ldr Ian Weir's crew were returning in foul weather from a fruitless night sortie. The nav had not had a decent wind in living memory and was temporarily unsure of his position. He asked permission to drop a marker to carry out a WFA - wind finding procedure. It was not his day. Due to finger trouble he dropped an active buoy instead of a marker. Beery Weir thinking that they might as well get some practice out of the debacle instructed his sonics operator to tune the buoy in so they could home to the overhead and drop a marker on it. Much to the crew's astonishment the buoy was indicating a sub in close proximity. They went on to prosecute a successful attack and went home to the bar in high spirits.
At the debrief, however, the sub's navigator swore on his mother's grave that they had never been in that position and even if they had been they shouldn't have been and anyway they hadn't been near the surface for days - all the usual submariners' deviousness. They had just reached an impasse when the sub's Captain came to their rescue. Standing up, he announced "Gentlemen. It grieves me to say this, but my navigator is a liar" - stunned silence - "I know he is because when we surfaced I found this in my conning tower" - so saying he produced the tail finds of a SUS (signal underwater sound) - used for simulating attacks on submarines.
Sub-hunting was the microcosm of war in general - long hours of enthusiasm-sapping boredom followed by short periods of frantic activity once contact had been gained. Such contact quite frequently came at the least opportune moment. If it transpired that the contact was an interesting one, then the work of keeping track began in earnest and the game would continue - one crew relieving another to maintain constant surveillance. What the Russians thought of all this activity is a matter for some conjecture.
The Shackleton's success in this demanding role was such that even in her twilight days in the ASW game she could still surprise the notionally superior Nimrods and P3s that comprised the next generation of MPAs. As early as 1961 - 10 years after the Shack's entry to service - an article in the Telegraph stated that the MOD was to study a proposal for modified Comet 4s to replace the Shacks, which were "worn out and obsolete"! Sure enough by 1970 the Comet-based Nimrod 1 had begun to replace the old girl and it seemed that her days of labour were over. But the Nimrod was initially found to be unsuitable for SAR duties, so the last remaining MR Shack Sqn, No 204, continued on until 1972, based at Honington, providing SAR cover for the U. K. as well as the assets for the Beira patrol.
At the same time the demise of the RN's carriers left the fleet without the AEW cover that had been provided by the Gannets of 849 Sqn and the Air Staff were becoming concerned at the lack of low-level radar coverage in the North Sea and in the Norway-Shetland, Shetland-Faeroes and Faeroes-Iceland gaps. It was decided therefore that the RAF would equip with a modern long-range AEW platform to provide coverage for the UK air defence region and to the fleet. Such an aircraft would not be available until 1976 at the earliest, so a short-term "interim solution" was to marry the few remaining low fatigue MkII Shack airframes with the APS-20 radar from the now surplus Gannets of the RN.
8 Sqn, newly returned from Bahrain, re-equipped with this unlikely combination on 1 January 1972. Twelve MkIIs were converted to AEW MkII form, while three were left as MR MkIIs to act as pilot trainers. One other was dismantled and its fuselage used as the AEW procedures training - known as the Dodo.
The initial crew complement was almost entirely Kipper fleet on the flight deck with a mixture of RN observers and RAF navigators in the radar teams. It is regrettable that the RN element did not last long. Their experience and approach to the job was invaluable and the Sqn felt the benefit of their teaching ever since. The job of detecting, tracking and reporting air tracks within the UKADR plus the secondary role of controlling fighters to an intercept was curiously similar to the old ASW game - pretty much a mirror image you might say. The same hours of boredom waiting for something to appear followed by frantic activity as a raid materialised and you tried to neutralise it before it could release its weapons. Now we are all aware of the history of the AEW replacement programme and there is no point in dwelling on what might have been. Suffice it to say that 8 Sqn finally re-equipped with the AWACS in 1991. At that time, 30 years after she was described as "worn out and obsolete" and 19 years after being put up as a "temporary expedient" the faithful Shackleton went to her long overdue rest. Of the 180 built, there are now only a dozen or so left, including the only one flying example in Cyprus. The rest have been burnt or scrapped. Of the last 11 in service, two are in Cyprus (bought by Mr. Savvas Constantinides). Two are at Coventry Airport (owned by the Shackleton Preservation Trust) and will hopefully be restored to flying condition; the fifth was dismantled at St. Mawgan to provide spares to refurbish the Gate Guardian there and to fully equip the representative AEW model at Manchester Aerospace Museum in Manchester, while the last 6 SAAF Mark 3s are all safely preserved, with one flying again. It would be an irony if, in the new atmosphere of Rapprochement with South Africa, the only Shackleton to be seen gracing the air display circuit was a South African one. So why all this affection? She's only a machine isn't she? People don't gather to celebrate the birthdays of lathes or tractors. What is it about her? She's noisy. She shakes like a drunk with a severe case of the DTs. Her engines are temperamental and leak oil like an Arabian oilfield. She's uncomfortable - you freeze in the front and cook in the back. Just moving from end to end is like an army assault course. More good men have died in Shackleton crashes than in any other RAF aircraft type in peacetime. So why do we love the old beast?
I believe that the key to the mystery lies in her uniqueness. She looked like an antique when she was new and while the rest of the Air Force was equipping with modern aircraft like the Valiant Vulcan and Victor, Coastal Command was getting its Shacks. It was difficult to belief that a machine that looked like a box of frogs could do the job at all, but her crews have always taken a perverse delight in proving conclusively that they could not only do the job with the old girl - but mostly do it better than anyone else could. In the process they tended to become fiercely protective towards the Shack. I have seen this demonstrated on 8 Sqn with young men who were not born until she had almost finished her first ASW incarnation. Among consenting adults on the Squadron they were as scathing as Shack crews have always been about her manifest shortcomings, but let an outsider pass a derogatory comment and he's dead. Although it must be said that Shack crews are the first to appreciate any Shack-related witticism such as delivered by the Colonel who described the Shack as reminding him irresistibly of an elephant's bottom - grey and wrinkled outside and dark and smelly inside.
Any aircraft that can inspire such affection in so many men for so many years has got to be something special and our old grey lady is certainly that - we will never see her like again.