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4 FTS History

Stationed since 1960 at RAF Valley, Anglesey, this Unit is today the only advanced RAF Flying Training School for fast-jet pilots and is thus the sole source of newly-trained pilots for the Jet OCUs. The School is proud of its heritage, having already been recorded in the pages of RAF history for its defeat of an organised army: in 1941, using obsolete aircraft flown by inexperienced pilots, the Unit defeated a revolutionary army in Iraq: surely a unique achievement for a training school.

Between 1935 and 1936, as part of the RAF expansion scheme, the School underwent major changes in its organisation and equipment. Under the new 2-stage system of RAF training, civil schools were utilised to provide the ab initio stage of flying training, and the FTSs were reorganised so as to concentrate purely on the more advanced Service flying training. At

No 4 FTS the course-length was reduced to 6 months, with an intake of pupils every 3 months, and the School was re-equipped with the newly-available Service aircraft. From April 1935 the Avro 504s of ‘B’ Flight were replaced with Avro Tutors and 3 months later, on 11 July, ‘E’ Flight was formed, also with Tutors. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Flights of the Advanced Training Squadron were rearmed with Hawker Audax and Hart (T) aircraft to replace the AW Atlas in the Army cooperation role; and in April 1936 the School’s last 13 Avro 504s were returned to the Aircraft Depot in exchange for Tutors.

Pupils arrived from the RAF Depot at Uxbridge at an average rate of 80 per year and, during their 9 month course, received instruction in a wide range of subjects which included Theory of Flight, Rigging, Engines, Elementary Wireless, Meteorology and Navigation. From February 1927 the training of Observers also became the School’s responsibility.

For instructional purposes, the School was divided into the Initial and the Advanced Training Squadrons. These Squadrons were again split into flights to offer the pupil specialised training:

‘A’ Flight, which provided Army cooperation training with Bristol Fighters, DH9As and Avro 540s; and ‘B’ Flight, which equipped solely with Avro 504s, catered for the ab initio student. Early in 1922, ‘C’ Flight was formed with DH9As; then in May of the same year ‘D’ Flight formed with Avro 504s as a Pool Flight but was disbanded in September 1927. In February 1933, ‘F’ Flight was formed out of ‘A’ Flight with Vickers Vimy bombers which had been especially converted as dual-controlled training aircraft.

Flying instruction has always involved an element of risk and the School’s first death as a result of a flying accident was on 29 April when Flt Lt O’Gorman crashed at Heliolopis in a Bristol Fighter. Although parachutes were issued to the unit, the majority of the early accidents were still fatal and it was not until 21 January 1930, when Flt Lt Somerset-Thomas and his passenger were forced to bale out of their stricken DH9A, that they subsequently became the first live parachute jump of RAF personnel outside the UK. This incident occurred en route to Cairo when the engine came away from its mounting causing the aircraft to go out of control and, although both crew members landed safely, because of a strong 30mph wind Somerset-Thomas’ passenger was dragged along the ground for a quarter of a mile.

Although the courses were shortened, the training syllabus was expanded to include instruction in night flying, formation and instrument flying and, for the potential Army cooperation pilots, reconnaissance and photography training. A Navigation Flight was formed in October 1938 with the delivery of 9 Avro Ansons from the UK.

Strategical considerations and possible politically-inspired disturbances led to the move of the School from Egypt to Habbaniya in Iraq on 1 September 1939 (2 days before the outbreak of WW II). A temporary halt was brought to all flying training until the move was completed 11 days later, and No 1 War Course of some 16 weeks’ duration was able to get under way.

Habbaniya was a large and well-appointed aerodrome. Within its 7 mile circumference it housed not only the huge Aircraft Depot and repair workshops, but also the little luxuries to make life more bearable: a fine swimming pool, tennis courts, a golf course and polo ground, as well as an open-air cinema. Situated some 50 miles from Baghdad, it also suffered all the hazards of desert weather conditions, ranging from blinding sandstorms to July temperatures reaching 122 degrees Farenheit.

With the commencement of hostilities, the School was immediately placed on active service and formed ‘Y’ Operational Squadron for defence against air attack or any similar emergency. To this end, 8 serviceable Audax aircraft were kept in readiness, with their pilots operating a 24 hour stand-by rota scheme. The size of the School was strictly limited and it was hoped to find a new location which would enable it to expand and be brought into line with other RAF schools. Although other sites were considered, Kenya was given preference, until the inauguration of the Joint Air Training Scheme in South Africa in June 1940 cancelled plans to move it to that area.

The supply of Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS)-trained pupils presented the most difficult problem. Very few pupils were sent out from the UK after war was declared and pupils had to be recruited from different parts of the Middle and Far East. All pupils had to have completed either an elementary flying training course in accordance with the RAF syllabus or have had at least 25 hours civil flying to their credit. In addition to pupils from Egypt and Kenya, EFTS-trained pupils were sent from Rhodesia, India, Malta and Adenas, as were Greek and French pupils from the Middle East. After completing the course, pupils were posted to Abu Suier for further training or direct to squadrons in the Middle East. Some Oxfords had been added to the Advanced Training Squadron at the beginning of 1940 to enable training on twin-engaged aircraft to be undertaken, and later in the July, 6 Gladiators were transferred from the Aircraft Storage Unit to further boost the unit strength.

No 4 FTS changed its designation in February 1940 to No 4 Service Flying Training School, the word ‘Service’ being inserted to distinguish it from an Elementary Flying Training School.

To meet the requirements of the Middle East Command, half of the School’s facilities were turned over to the training of observers and air gunners. This meant a great deal of re-organisation: pilot intakes were reduced and it was arranged to train 14 observers on a 9 week course and 14 air gunners on a 4 week course. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights were reserved for flying training, using Hawker Harts, ‘C’ Flight trained the air gunners with Fairey Gordons and ‘B’ Flight employed Oxfords for the observers. These courses were discontinued early in 1941, by which time 38 observers and 52 air gunners had been trained at Habbaniya.

By the Spring of 1941, the training schemes in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa were beginning to produce sufficient pilots to meet the needs of the Middle East and it was decided that No 4 SFTS was no longer required. Plans were made to close the School in the following September, after the graduation of No 7 War Course. However, before that could be affected the political situation in the Middle East took a turn for the worse and, on 1 May, the School was transformed into an improvised operational unit.

A month earlier, on 3 April, Rashid Ali, a rebel in the pay of the Germans, together with 4 Generals of the revolutionary Iraqi Army, had seized power in Baghdad. The Regent, Abdulla Illah, fled to Habbaniya for protection, from whence he was taken to safety and, to protect its oil interests in Persia and Iraq, Britain promptly reacted by sending troops to Basra, near the Persian Gulf.

Infuriated over this move, Rashid Ali decided that a show of force was necessary. At 0400 hours on 30 April, the General Alarm was sounded when an aerial reconnaissance revealed some 9000 troops and 28 artillery guns taking up position on the plateau to the south of the airfield.

The School’s Commanding Officer, Group Captain Saville, hurried to a conference at Air HQ, Iraq, where it was decided to form 4 bombing ‘Squadrons’ and a Gladiator flight from within the resources of No 4 SFTS, under the official title of ‘The Habbaniya Air Striking Force’. A Squadron was allocated 10 Audaxes; ‘B’ 1 Blenheim, 26 Oxfords, 8 Gordons and 4 Gladiators and ‘C’ and ‘D’ Squadrons were equipped with 10 Audaxes each. All serviceable aircraft were bombed up and equipped with machine guns; the Gordons and Audaxes with 2 x 250 lb bombs and the Oxfords with 8 x 20 lb bombs. Qualified pilots, including instructors, numbered only 35 so it was decided to promote the more promising pupils to swell the ranks, and to ask for volunteers amongst the rest to act as observers and gunners.

The number of rebels on the plateau increased every day and it was clear that the position at Habbaniya, now crammed with non-combatants who had fled from Baghdad, must be restored as quickly as possible. Group Captain Saville informed his staff that, if the revolutionaries would not withdraw, then action against them would commence at 0500 hours on 2 May.

The Prime Minister sent a signal: "If you have to strike, strike hard." . . . . and they did! At 0445 hours, the School’s aircraft took off and throughout the day attacked the enemy’s positions, claiming direct hits on not only their transport and armoured cars but also on their artillery which had now begun to shell the airfield. Flying Officer Cleaver intercepted a Savoia SM 79 over the aerodrome but suffered the frustration of a jammed gun as he attacked it. In all, 193 sorties were carried out that first day for the loss of 5 aircraft.

The bombing of the rebel positions continued the following day, when Flying Officer Cleaver was this time more fortunate, intercepting another Savoia SM 79 into which he fired 1200 rounds . . . it was last seen diving away with smoke pouring out of its port engine! The School’s casualties amounted to an Oxford destroyed and an Audax damaged by enemy shell fire.

The marksmanship of the Iraqi small-arms fire was excellent and claimed several of the School’s aircraft as they attacked the enemy positions. In spite of the damage to aircraft caused by the shelling and bombing by enemy aircraft (only 50 of the original 70 were now serviceable), they were still able to take off in full view of the rebels from the hastily adapted polo ground at Habbaniya.

Subjected to continuous attacks by day and night and with their supply routes cut, the Iraqi morale began to deteriorate, prompting some of the rebels to retreat so that, by first light on 6 May, a reconnaissance found the plateau abandoned. The aircraft of No 4 SFTS were quick to take advantage of the situation and attacked Rashid Ali’s armoured columns along the Falluja road, scoring direct hits and leaving the vehicles in a solid sheet of flame about 250 yards long.

The siege of Habbaniya had virtually been raised and the garrison could breathe again in comfort. During the 5 days of the siege, No 4 SFTS had made 584 sorties, dropping 45 tonnes of bombs and expending 100 000 round of ammunition.

Reports of German aircraft operating in the area in aid of the rebels were confirmed when 2 He IIIs attacked Habbaniya on 16 May, while later in the day a large number of Luftwaffe machines were discovered at Mosul aerodrome to the north of Iraq. To counter this new threat, raids on the enemy airfield were increased and 4 long-range Hurricanes of No 94 Squadron were called to assist.

One of the Hurricanes was lost immediately when Flt Lt Sir R A MacRobert was killed in action over Mosul. The raid by the He IIIs at Habbaniya caused considerable damage but the Germans were too preoccupied elsewhere to take advantage of the situation, although the daily combats with the Luftwaffe continued and Habbaniya was bombed again on 20 May.

An Italian Squadron of Fiat CR 42s arrived on the scene on 28 May and the following day attacked the School’s Audaxes during a bombing raid on Iraqi army positions, shooting one down. One CR42 was damaged by the School’s Gladiator escort and the others were driven away. The Italians’ punitive efforts were quickly overcome when the remainder of their aircraft were put out of action by air attacks and the personnel rounded up while attempting to escape.

Mention must be made of the initiative displayed by Fg Off Arthur and Plt Off Irwin when ordered to destroy the enemy’s telephone wires on the Falluja to Baghdad road. The usual adopted procedure was to fly through them, but on this occasion the wires proved too numerous. However, not to be outdone, Fg Off Arthur landed his Audax and, climbing upon its top wing, cut down the wires with shears whilst his gunner Plt Off Irwin attacked the poles with a hatchet.

With the collapse of the last rebel stronghold at Falluja, Rashid Ali and his friends fled to Persia and, with the capture of Baghdad by British troops, the terms of the armistice were agreed with the Mayor on 31 May. With the rebellion over, the School was placed on standby, although the nucleus of a fighter squadron was formed with 6 Hurricanes and 12 Gladiators and detached to Amman on 7 June as cover for the relief column which had moved out to Baghdad to assist in the reinstatement of the Regent, Abdulla Illah.

During the 30 days of fighting, No 4 SFTS had flown 1605 operational sorties, the larger part by pupil pilots. By striking the first blow they had forced Ali into the open before he was ready to fight. Indeed, Habbaniya had not only freed itself but had turned the tables on the Iraqi army: the rebels had themselves become the besieged. Throughout June, the School’s aircraft were ferried away and, on 1 July 1941, No 4 SFTS was disbanded.

In 1946 it was agreed with the Southern Rhodesian government that air training should be continued in that country. To implement this decision the Rhodesian Air Training Group was disbanded as from 1 December 1946, and a new organisation known as the Air Training Wing, Southern Rhodesia formed to replace it. A Wing-Headquarters was established at Kumalo to control 2 schools; one at Thornhill near Gwelo and the other at Heany near Bulawayo.

Each school would ultimately accommodate 320 pupils. The scheme provided for the commencement of initial training on 6 January 1947, basic training on 23 June and advanced training on 2 December. Initially, all pupils would be RAF personnel, but it was proposed that at a later date a proportion of vacancies should be allocated to Southern Rhodesian personnel. The intake of pupils was fixed at 76 over 8 weeks commencing on 6 January. On 3 February 1947, under the command of Gp Capt J W B Judge, No 4 FTS duly reformed at Heany, its first course involving 22 pilots and 16 navigators. Tiger Moths were provided for initial and basic training, Harvard T2As for advanced training and Ansons for navigational training. No 394 Maintenance Unit was established at Heany to back the organisation and was responsible for the issue and the repair work for all the aircraft and motor transport for the whole of the Wing. The technical quality of its output was supervised on site by a section of the Aeronautical Inspection Services.

It was originally planned with the unusual decision to train both pilots and navigators at each school but, as training got under way, this conception soon proved to be unwieldy. Consequently, in January 1948 it was decided to concentrate all navigational training at the newly-formed No 3 Air Navigation School at Thornhill, to which the School transferred its establishment of Ansons. To compensate for this loss, the Unit’s complement of Tiger Moths and Harvards was increased to 25 and 65 respectively from the strength of the recently disbanded No 5 FTS at Thornhill.

By 1948 the expansion of training was such that the title of ‘Wing’ was no longer suitable for a unit of that size; consequently, on 7 May 1948 the Air Training Wing reverted to its previous title of Rhodesian Air Training Group.

In spite of the excellent climate of Southern Rhodesia which offered the student-pilot unlimited flying, the terrain surrounding Heany was fairly hostile and the accident rate mounted. The Tiger Moths proved rather unsatisfactory for their purpose, being seriously underpowered at the airfield height of 3500 feet above sea level, and became unmanageable in the bumpy conditions caused by rising air currents. In 1951 the Tiger Moths were phased out of service and replaced as primary trainers at No 4 FTS by de Havilland Chipmunk T10s.

Although small, when compared with other contemporary units, the School lost 21 Harvards and 18 Tiger Moths during its first 4 years in Southern Rhodesia, the majority of these losses being attributed to the pupils’ inexperience in the featureless terrain. Two interesting aircraft flown by Heany and Thornhill respectively were Anson C19s, G-AKDU and G-AKDV. Ordered by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, they were fitted with spray equipment and spares for 12 months and delivered in 1947. Flown by RAF aircrews following their C of A expiry, G-AKDV crashed near Sombula on 2 March 1950 and G-AKDU crashed near Heany on 23 July 1950. The wreckages of both were dumped at No 394 MU.

During 1949 modifications in the scheme for the selection, training and commissioning of aircrew were introduced by the Air Council. Previously, pupils completing their training up to ‘Wings’ standard and considered at that stage to be suitable material for a commissioned rank received OCTU training in the UK. It was now decided that all pupils should be given the opportunity of officer training and, in order to achieve this, OCTU training was introduced and combined with the flying training. On completion of training, those who had qualified for their ‘Wings’ and were shown to possess officer qualities were commissioned. The new scheme was introduced to No 4 FTS in October 1949 and consequently the status of aircrew pupils was changed to that of officer cadets.

Further improvements in the scheme of entry of pilots and navigators were made in November 1950 and subsequently all pilot and navigator cadets who successfully completed their Initial Training School courses were granted commissions at that stage as acting pilot officers on probation, and carried out their basic and advanced training as such. Those who successfully completed this training were then commissioned at ‘Wings’ stage. The first posting of 35 acting pilot officers arrived at Heany on 30 May 1951.

In October 1953 the final passing out parade of Nos 19 and 34 courses was held. This marked the closing down of the Rhodesian Air Training Group of No 4 FTS, and the School officially disbanded on 26 January 1954.

In the early 50s, the purpose of the Advanced Flying Schools had been to provide an intermediate step for aircrew between the Flying Training School and the Operational Conversion Unit, thereby ensuring a smoother transition from training-aircraft to operational types. The AFSs had also performed the earlier role of the Advanced Flying Units in that pupils trained with the Empire Training Scheme in Canada and Southern Rhodesia were retrained in an European environment.

The restructuring of the RAF flying training scheme necessitated the renumbering of the AFSs so that on 1 June 1954 No 205 AFS at Middleton St George, Co Durham, operating Meteor F4s and T7s was renumbered No 4 FTS. Commanded by Gp Capt H S Darley, DSO, the Unit provided many National Service pilots, mainly undergraduates, with their first taste of jet flying. In fact, the Meteor proved to be a great trainer and matured the young pilots in a remarkably short time. In January 1955, following the introduction into RAF service of the de Havilland Vampire T 11, 2-seat advanced jet trainer, the School’s role was changed. Pupils already qualified for their flying badges, having first completed their 130 hours basic flying training in the piston-engined Provost T1, came to No 4 FTS for a further 110 hours of advanced training on jet aircraft. No 100 (Pilot) course was the first course to complete their training at the School under the Provost/Vampire scheme and graduated in September 1955.

The first Vampire T11 was delivered to the School in October 1954, as was the single-seat variant, the Vampire FB 5, of which a considerable number were employed by No 4 FTS, until their retirement in June 1958, as operational trainers in the ground attack role.

No 4 FTS moved to Worksop on 9 June 1956, taking with it Nos 108-112 courses, and where, on the 30th of that month, it absorbed the Meteor element of No 211 FTS, at the same time continuing to fly the latter unit’s Meteor T7s and F8s alongside the Vampires for a further 18 months at which time the School became an all-Vampire Unit. On 9 June 1958, No 4 FTS was again disbanded.

From 1958, No 7 FTS at Valley, equipped with Vampire T11s, took over the School’s previous role of the advanced training of student pilots; a task it efficiently performed until 15 August 1960 when the School was renumbered No 4 FTS.

As part of a new scheme of RAF training introduced in 1960, the School also began to train students for Coastal and Transport Commands, using Varsity T1s. These students had previously qualified on Jet Provosts and were destined for multi-engined aircraft such as Shackletons and Britannias. However, this new role was to be short-lived due to a general reorganisation within the Command, and in March 1962 the Varsity element was transferred to No 5 FTS at Oakington where they replaced the Vampire T11s of that unit.

The introduction of the Folland Gnat T1 into RAF service marked a significant change over previous advanced trainers in that it offered the student-pilot the high-speed performance of a fighter aircraft coupled with the low-speed characteristics necessary for training.

Although originally designed in the early 50s as a single-seat fighter, the Gnat’s potential as a trainer was later recognised and it entered service with the Central Flying School in February 1962. Deliveries to No 4 FTS commenced with XP 502 which was delivered on 7 November by a Folland test pilot, Mr Whittington. By August 1963 the Gnat had completely replaced the School’s ageing Vampire T11.

Students came to No 4 FTS after completion of their basic flying training at a Jet Provost-equipped FTS and flew a 70 hour course: 40 hours on conversion to the aircraft (33% of the time was solo and 67% dual) and the remaining 30 hours covering the advanced phases such as night flying, formation flying and navigation exercises. From No 4 FTS the student proceeded to No 229 OCU at Chivenor to learn the arts of air warfare.

With the Gnat’s operational ceiling of 40 000 feet, supersonic capabilities (albeit in a dive) and its light and responsive handling qualities, it came as no surprise when, in 1964, the School formed its own aerobatic team. The 5 yellow-painted aircraft, dubbed ‘The Yellow Jacks’, were led by Flt Lt Lee Jones who, some 4 years previously, had flown with ‘The Black Arrows’ of No 111 Squadron. During that year’s season the team performed at various RAF stations and at Farnborough.

Following their team’s brief existence, the aircraft were sent to Kemble for their winter overhaul, re-emerging the following year as ‘The Red Arrows’ of the CFS. Their subsequent professional prowess as the RAF’s premier aerobatic team has delighted crowds both at home and abroad

In 1967 the arrival of 2-seat Hunter T7s and single-seat F6s equipped No 3 Squadron, supplementing the work of the Gnats (Nos 1 and 2 Squadrons). Just as the Meteor had trained the long-legged student in the era of the Vampire, so the Hunter performed the same role at Valley for the ‘fast-jet stream’ pupils. Not only were the Hunters used for long-legged students however, but also, and more importantly, for students for foreign and Commonwealth countries. These students included members of the Air Forces of Jordan, Australia, Singapore, Ecuador and others. During their 70 hour course the students were taught low-level navigation, instrument flying, formation flying and night flying before departing to the Operational Conversion Unit at Chivenor. Between April and June 1971, the School’s Gnats and Hunters were temporarily detached to Fairford while the runways at Valley were being resurfaced.

With the delivery of the first Hawk T1 to Valley in 1976, the days of the diminutive Gnat and of the Hunter were numbered. On 7 November 1979, to mark 16 years of service with No 4 FTS, the School put up a formation of 12 Gnats, led by the Chief Instructor, Wg Cdr Doug McGregor, and during their 45 minute flight toured a succession of towns on the North Wales coastline.

The 6 students of the final Gnat course graduated on 24 November 1979, which coincided with the aircraft’s official retirement date. Since training had started in 1963, the Gnats of No 4 FTS had flown more than 157 000 hours and trained 1421 students. Described as a ‘pilot’s aeroplane’, the Gnat developed a higher standard of handling among students than had been previously possible with the heavier controls of earlier advanced trainers. Of the 89 Gnats flown by the School during their 17 year tenure, only 28 were written off in accidents.

The introduction of the Hawk T1 into service with No 4 FTS proved to be a great success. Designed with the dual capability as a trainer/ground-attack aircraft, the Hawk was the first advanced jet trainer ever to enter RAF service which had not been an adaption of a fighter aircraft. It is also interesting to note that no trials unit was formed prior to its delivery to Valley and, following the compilation of a training syllabus by the CFS, the Hawk was immediately put to work.

The Hawk was produced in the mid 1970s to meet a demanding RAF requirement calling for a new trainer to replace the several different types used at that time by the RAF to cover the training spectrum. Prior to entering service in 1976, the RAF jet training task required 3 aircraft types; the Jet Provost for basic jet training, the Gnat for advanced flying and the Hunter for weapons instruction. The Hawk’s performance after introduction into service was so successful that it allowed the RAF to withdraw the Gnat and Hunter fleets from No 4 FTS one year earlier than planned.

Easy to operate and simple to maintain, the Hawk’s performance matches, and in some area exceeds, the performance found in complex, larger fighters. More economical than the Gnat, the Hawk also has the advantage of an increased range over its predecessor. The Hawk is cleared for spinning, an exercise previously omitted from the course when the Vampire was retired but now reintroduced after 17 years.

In July 1977, the School’s first Hawk course was able to commence, following the training of the first Hawk QFIs some 3 months previously.

Whatever the future may hold for No 4 Flying Training School, one may be assured that the challenge will be just as exciting and varied as in the last 60 years. In the words of its motto, the School has truly travelled from ‘The Sand to the Stars’.

This article was made possible by the enthusiastic co-operation of the following personnel: Wg Cdr Tim Webb AFC, Chief Instructor No 4 FTS; Wg Cdr John Lunn RAF Ret’d ex Chief Instructor RAF Heany; Flt Lt Peter Thornton; Mr E H Turner AHB (MOD); Mr R W Mack, Royal Air Force Museum; my thanks also to those 2 dedicated paragons of aviation history: George Jenks, Group Leader, Air Britain Information Service and Roger Lindsay.
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