My indelible memories of CVTHS are of the most magnificent workshop complex of any school, probably in the world. The plating shop, the foundry, and the thermodynamics shop where I learned so much about engine performance. Of F Bird, the gentle man who tried and failed to teach me French. Of SAS Cowell who taught me maths with an iron fist, and whom I disliked and feared until I saw an insight into his sense of humour and who had, not so many years previously, escaped from the beaches of Dunkerque and, thereby, had a reason to be a bit angry. Of Leo Walmsley and his Art Room, with that cast iron printing press in one corner. Of Reg Mayo and John Kingsland, of course, who taught me a lot about teaching. Of R Burgess the flute playing science teacher, and CC Crabe who tried to teach me to play the piano. And, I remember the staff of the craft department… John Parsons, John Gale, “Ted” Ray and particularly of Reg Wincott, who nurtured my love of woodwork, and whom I have met again recently at his home near Hastings.
I also remember so well the day Colin Cadle and I slid off to Biggin Hill, on school Sports Day, climbed into a red Tiger Moth, and flew over the school doing steep turns and photographing the events below. Colin has told his story of his Air Force career, so I am persuaded to ‘step up’ and tell mine.
My fascination with aeroplanes and flying led me to ‘hang out’ at Biggin Hill in my spare time and to join the Air Training Corps. It was through the ATC that I was awarded a flying scholarship. It was also at Biggin Hill, at the Vendair Flying Club, that I was first introduced to the 15-year-old girl who was to become my wife. But back to flying! I consider myself extra lucky to be assigned to Marshals at Cambridge where, instead of receiving my pilot training on the new Pipers and Cessnas which were becoming popular, there was a fleet of five silver De Havilland Tiger Moths. It took about three weeks to complete the required thirty flying hours and, low and behold, on 13th September 1963, thirty-four days after my seventeenth birthday, I was a qualified pilot. I suppose my application to join the RAF was the logical next step, but my acceptance to attend the RAF College at Cranwell was beyond my wildest dreams. I know that Colin Cadle followed on, but I don’t remember seeing him there, and this mystery was only solved when he revealed that he withdrew himself from Cranwell and went, instead, through a different entry procedure.
Even now, fifty years later, I judge the two-and-a-half years spent as a flight cadet as probably the most significant life-changing period of my life. Suffice to say that on 18th August 1967, I marched off of the college parade ground with the Queen’s commission and a pair of brand new wings on my chest. From Cranwell, I went on to Anglesey to fly the Folland Gnat. Little did I know that circumstances were to change for me and eighteen months later I was to swap my pilot’s wings for a navigator’s brevet.
I married Jackie in 1970, and rekindled the use of my family name, introduced by my paternal grandmother, so whilst at school I was known as PRM Smith, henceforth I was PR Martin-Smith. My operational flying career also commenced in 1970, with my posting to No 214 Sqn, at RAF Marham in Norfolk, flying the Victor K Mk1. The Victor was the last of the V-bombers, built by Handley Page as a bomber but converted to a tanker in the mid-sixties. The Mk 1 could carry about 13,500 gallons of fuel, all of which we could use ourselves, or give away through three trailing hoses. Logically, our ability to pass fuel in-flight enabled us to extend either the range or the endurance of other aircraft. Thus, our roles involved either deploying military aircraft around the world to discharge the UK’s responsibilities under various defence agreements or, less glamorously, accompanying air defence fighters in the far northern ‘Iceland – Faroes gap’, intercepting and accompanying intrusions into the UK’s airspace by ‘visitors’ from the air and naval forces of the Soviet Union.
After nine years at Marham I returned to Cranwell for a year’s postgraduate training which prepared me to enter the world of research, development, evaluation and testing of avionics systems as part of the equipment procurement process. Thus prepared, I was posted to the MoD in 1981, and bought the house in Orpington I grew up in, from my father who was retiring from the city. My job in London was to orchestrate the updating of avionics and navigation equipment in the RAF’s entire fleet of in-service aircraft. For new aircraft, yet to enter service, small armies of staff were employed in this aspect of the procurement process. But for older aircraft, the job of keeping their cockpits up-to-date fell to me. And guess what… there was no money! That was true until 2nd April 1982 when Argentine forces invaded the British Sovereign Territory of the Falkland Islands.
At that time, accurate navigation was dependent upon various VHF or UHF radio navigation aids. These have a generally accepted maximum range of about 200 miles from their transmitters, and since transmitters were exclusively land-based, it followed that very accurate navigation more than 200 miles from land was almost impossible. Two years earlier I had flown in a test-bed Britannia aircraft from Boscombe Down to the North Pole with a GPS receiver. There were, I believe, five working satellites in orbit and we had to time our flight to coincide with the availability of optimum satellite geometry at the North Pole in order to acquire an accurate fix. The GPS receiver was made by Magnavox and was about the size of a deep-sea chest. Full operational capability of GPS did not occur until 1995.
Thus it was that I spent much of the early days of the Falklands War being responsible for finding and acquiring additional navigation equipment that would allow the RAF to fly down there. In the event British Airways had a load of Carousel Inertial Navigation Sets in store, so we acquired those. And in California, a company called Litton was making small ‘Omega’ receivers for aircraft. Omega was a Very Low-Frequency system which transmitted a signal from eight transmitters spaced around the world. VLF signals travel for about 4000 miles and, what’s more, the radio waves bend around the earth’s surface, and even penetrate water to submarine depth! So in the absence of SatNav, Omega was a pretty useful thing to have. I remember contacting Litton and acquiring their next batch of Omega receivers which were actually part of a shipment to Israel, I seem to remember. But they were diverted to the UK and were fitted in our aircraft within a week.
After MoD I went, with my family, to the RAAF School of Air Navigation Training in Victoria, Australia, to impart my knowledge of avionics systems, and navigation. It was a glorious time in which my wife and two sons travelled to most corners of that fascinating land. We were there for just 27 months, which passed all too quickly. Upon my return to the UK, I attended the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to complete the Joint Services Staff College, a precursor to further advancement in the military. A tour of duty in Personnel Management was then endured before I returned, once again, to the RAF College at Cranwell, as the Director of Aero-systems and Electronic Warfare training.
In this role, more worldwide travel involved visits to research and development organizations and companies in France, Germany, Italy, Canada and the USA, as well as in the UK. By 1991, now an ‘expert’ in electronic warfare, I was posted to command the RAF station at Spadeadam. This joint RAF/USAF base was, in fact, the largest RAF station by area, covering some 9000 acres of Cumbria and the Kielder Forest. There we were able to replicate all of the electronic threats posed by the world’s anti-aircraft guns and missiles, thereby providing training to allied air force crews before they deployed to hostile environments.
By 1994, we were on the move again and went to Germany where a NATO job in the Headquarters of Air Forces Central Europe awaited me. The HQ lodged on the USAF base at Ramstein in SW Germany. As part of the American Kaiserslautern Military District, we lived amongst a 50,000 strong population of Americans, but within HQ AirCent, as it was known, we worked alongside members of the German, Belgian, Dutch, Canadian, American, and French Air Forces. We lived in a German village, but worked in an American city… we even put away our Deutschmarks and got out our dollars as we entered the base. Amongst its many facilities, Ramstein boasted one of the best golf courses in Germany!
By 1996, at age 50, I had five more years before retirement and the options open to me needed to be carefully considered. A return to MoD or an RAF Headquarters near London seemed inevitable but unattractive. We had, a number of years previously, bought a small holiday house in the Department of the Vendee, in France. We had discovered and loved our taste of rural France and, in a moment of abandonment of all logic, and supported by our determination not to impose 6 months quarantine on our border collie, we set off to southern France to find a ‘project’. In a tiny village in the south of the Dordogne, next to the Lot border, we found a Maison de Maitre which needed a major makeover. We bought it and in March 1997 I retired early from the RAF and we moved directly to France. There began a 10-year adventure during which I put to good use all of the skills I had acquired from that amazing school on Crittalls Corner… and acquired one skill which had earlier evaded me, despite Mr Bird’s best endeavours, a proficiency in speaking French. But that’s another story!