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What did a Flight Engineer do?
Whenever talk gets around to the war and I mention that I was a flight engineer on Lancasters the next question is almost always what did a flight engineer do? Well, really, when you boil it down to essentials, I think of the wartime duty as more or less a pilot’s mate, especially on a Lanc where you were his right hand man physically as well as metaphorically. On the ground the aeroplane was yours, if you were lucky enough to hold on to one all the time. All your spare time would be down at the dispersal with the ground crew. You were not the only crew there as well; both gunners would be fussing around the turrets and the ammo tracks, cleaning guns and polishing Perspex.

The most useful attribute of flight engineers was definitely fitness and mobility. Of course, we were all young men, but the F/E was in and out of the plane like a rabbit in its burrow. Getting into the cockpit of a Lanc quickly was more like the last lap of an obstacle race - that main spar could be a problem to surmount the fourth time you did it in full flying gear. Getting on board wasn’t easy either; steps were rarely available, and the system was put your back to the doorway give a backward boost to get your bottom on the sill, or you could face the door, boost up with your arms, do a flick turn whilst airborne to get your bottom on the sill. The worst task for the engineer was starting up with unskilled ground help, as in an American station or flight base. Went something like: get on board, put flight/ground electric switch to ground. Get outside, connect trolley and wave to pilot to start first engine. Climb into nacelle; prime - turning engine till it started. Repeat with other engines. Hop on board, fighting the prop wash, as you do the hop into the door act. Up over the spar to your station crew, all shouting ‘where’ve you been?’ ‘what kept you?’ and similar remarks. Start plugging yourself in and finding log etc. This would all be done in tight parachute harness by the way! Several quirks of Lancaster operation were found out by experience only, such as the flap actually selecting “down” did not always produce any action. What you had to do was select “up” again quickly then “down” again to break the hydraulic lock. On one occasion I had a pilot who was too strong for the lever and selected up rapidly, but broke the control rod in doing so. On another occasion during a night landing, the practice in those days had a caravan at the end of the runway, with an operator and an Aldis lamp. He gave you a green as you landed to indicate the runway was clear. As we were landing we got a late unexpected red light. Without waiting for me to put the power on, the pilot rammed the four throttles right up to the stops; the electric props were completely beaten and I had four overspeeding engines. I managed to get the revs down. The outboards were gone by then. We managed a circuit - a very flat one - and landed. Turned out the controller had made a mistake and should have given us a green light. The two engines were wrecked and had to be changed.

After I returned from POW camp I stayed in the RAF for about 16 months, then left to go to technical school Air Service Training Ltd at Hamble to obtain ground engineer’s licences. I then got a start with British South American Airways.

They had Lancastrians with belly pods for freight, and Yorks, and were busy reequipping with Tudors, also made by Avro. These were the outcomes of a committee set up by Lord Brabegow to determine the shape of Britain’s post-war civil aircraft. The Tudor I was designed as a fast mail and passenger airliner for the North Atlantic with the help of BOAC. It was quite small, tail down, but had an enormous flight deck and room for 12 passengers. The facing seats were arranged to convert into 12 bunks for sleeping. Don Bennett, the Chief Executive of BSAA, took one look at it and refused it, then talked Avro into a redesign of the whole fuselage, cutting the flight deck down to size, doing away with the F/E’s position and lengthening the fuselage to accommodate 30 more passengers. It had loads of problems but flew well, the aircraft was pressurised but the door seals were crude. An inner tube around the door had to be inflated with a foot pump and protected with a removable sill whilst the door was open. Incoming air was heated by a Fanitral heater fuelled by petrol and most unreliable. The general result was the passengers were either roasted or frozen. They did have very reliable Merlin 600 series engines, which later were used on the Canadian DC4 known as the Argonaut in BOAC. The airlift to Berlin started in late 1948, BSAA bought the unwanted Tudor aircraft from BOAC and joined the civilian charter business flying food into Berlin Gatow from Wunstorf, the ex-Luftwaffe base, then used by RAF, near Hanover. I joined a small servicing team at Gatow, but as the aircraft were fitted with a flight engineer station, and BSAA at that time had no flight engineers, I changed from ground to air duties obtaining my licence by having an examination and medical in London. One strange coincidence: several flight engineers were co-opted from BOAC. I was on the tarmac at Wunstorf when a Tudor arrived from London. The flight engineer on board was Jack Seagell, whom I had last seen at Linton air base where he was a fellow flight engineer on 408 squadron when I too was flying from there. He had last seen me going on a trip to Hamburg on which I was shot down, and when we met said, “I have wondered where you got to. Have you been here all the time?” Later we changed to the larger Tudor V aircraft which had a long fuselage in which were aircraft wing fuel tanks.