The Shackleton Association

The Shackleton Story by Bill Billings (continued)

Part Two

Around the time of the early 50s, investigations started regarding the exhaust tail pipe problems that were emerging; most of Mk1 and 2 veterans can remember ‘losing an exhaust stub’ when one of the short exhaust ‘stub’ pipes either became detached or burned through. As a result the engine had to be shut down and sorties aborted. When the offending exhaust was outboard of the nacelle, there was some quite interesting and potentially dangerous burning of the cowling. It looked quite spectacular in some cases at night. Although some time in delivery and fitment, the new exhaust tail pipes not only got round this problem, but also, to some extent, reduced the blackening of upper wing surfaces, and, it was rumoured, slightly reduced noise levels.

A note here about noise levels: The pre-production Shackletons included fairly copious noise deadening inside the fuselage. Naturally, as this was Coastal, it was not present in models delivered to squadrons, causing dismay, if not astonishment to those who had been aware of the promised land. Who knows, the famous Shackleton Ear syndrome may not have developed had it remained, but as a lucky recipient of a gratuity in compensation for my loss in hearing acuity in the 4 – 8 kHz range, of between 1 and 5%, I was quite pleased; I needed to retain a Civil ATCO Licence! It is believed that some persons, not bound by similar strictures, ‘heard very little indeed’ during the acoustic tests, and received a Tax free, Index linked ‘war pension’ of about £3.5K p.a. (1980 level). However, my Certificate of being a ‘War Pensioner’ does get me, even now, into museums in France and the USA free, and even half price green fees at some golf courses in those countries. If you have a similar – or more grandiose certificate, give it a try, especially if accompanied with silver topknot! The mention of noise levels brings to mind an incident of an overspeeding prop just as we lifted off in WB825, a Mark1. The revs went up to over 3200, the noise was deafening, with the prop tips possibly making the supersonic crackle of half a dozen Harvards, but over it we heard Don Wimble and Noman Skivington (pilots) sort it out. ‘Nose up – reduce to 125 kts’ will forever be engraved on my mind. It was the correct drill and revs on the now windmilling prop were brought down to about 1700 – the prop would not feather, and we made an overweight landing. A pity that that this particular overspeed drill was apparently not taught and later used on other similar incidents, which resulted in serious accidents and loss of life. Mind you, with the noise, and resulting difficulty in maintaining full control, the pilots certainly did not have time to refer to Notes.

Some shortcomings of the Mk 1 variants were emerging. Also, we did not have enough of them, and 36 Sqn at Topcliffe and 217 at Kinloss were equipped with Neptune P2V5s as a stop gap, pending delivery of more Shackletons. However, the situation was exacerbated in later years, when the Americans, in a fit of pique about the Suez adventure in 1956, demanded their Neptunes back, earlier than had been originally planned and agreed. (It was not their war, so they were not going to play). Anyway, an amended Requirement had been issued in high hopes of solving all the Shackleton Mk 1 problems in 1950, and the first true prototype Mk 2 flew in June 1952. This was after several ‘modded’ Mk 1 experiments had helped the evolutionary process. The first ‘real’ Mk 2 and the only real prototype, was WB833, getting airborne from Woodford on 17 June 1952. This aircraft had the 20mm nose turret guns and the mid-upper, so beloved of former air gunners turned signallers. As I write these words, I can see on my study wall, a Water Colour of just such an example, painted by Tony Dowling and wearing the markings of ‘D’, WL 727, of 42 Squadron, dated 1983. That must have been the date of the painting, not the operation of the aircraft.

An order for twenty (more) Mk 1 aircraft was amended half-way through delivery to Mk 2s, after about 20 Mk 1s had been built. ( Note: I was not married at that time, but had I been, I would have been convinced that my mother-in-law was, and had been for some time, Head of Procurements at the then Air Ministry)... A later, new Order, was then made for lots more (40 is rumoured) Mk 2s. The first of the new batch, WL737 flew on 17 November 1952. At that time, NONE of the ten already built had yet been allocated to Squadrons! It was a bit like those television cooking programmes - ‘now here is one that we built earlier’ – but nobody getting to taste the new job. Eventually, bodies like Manby , Boscombe Down, Farnborough etc, gave up some. Only two, WG 557 and 558, went direct to squadrons; after which we had to wait for the WL series of Mk 2s. This took some years of trials and faffing about by my Ma-in Law.

Eventually Mk 2s were delivered to 38, 42,120, 204, 206 and 210 Sqns. It is interesting to note that the thirteenth aircraft of the latest batch of that time, WL749, which was issued to 120 Sqn at Aldergrove on 20th April 1953, was probably the shortest-lived squadron aircraft. On 14 May of that same year, it was landed short of the runway at Aldergrove; its port undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft finished its operational life in the runway controller’s caravan (no injuries apart from the customary bruises from being pushed out (of the way) by large, frightened crew members). The aircraft was struck off charge immediately and became an airframe for component spares, although without the more insidious Christmas Tree syndrome. 205 Sqn, who had re-equipped from Sunderlands to Mk 1 Shacks, also got Mk 2s, but I don’t know when. Similarly, 37, moving from Malta to Aden, went through the change (ma-in-law again) before leaving Malta, some time in the late 50s, but the dates escape me. Until I joined 38 in late 1962, I had been instructed by old hairies not to have any truck with squadrons with only two digits to their number; something to do with ‘that lot wot got the railway engine plaque for a time’, I think. Anyway, the result was a bit of a hotchpotch of Mk1s and 2s, so by 1954, ‘it was decided’ to rationalise to ‘one squadron, one type’ philosophy. This certainly did not work out everywhere. 220, in 1956/8 and 204 in 1960/2 had mixtures of 1s and 2s. See later for exciting news about when 220/201 started getting Mk 3s.