Flying the De Havilland Vampire

by Norman Lee

The then Commander Lee about to step into a Vampire for the final flypast at Nowra on 2 October 1970. His callsign was “Sayonara”. The Vampire was accompanied by four Douglas A4s.  You can see a video of the event here.

My first association with the Vampire was at Laverton in 1948.  My father was then an engineer officer with No. 1 Aircraft Depot and had overseen the assembly of A78-1, an ex-RAF Mk.1 aircraft.  I was on course at Point Cook and so quickly organised myself to be able to see my first jet. I have strong memories of sitting in the cockpit and wondering whether I would ever get to fly such an advanced machine.

The next time I sat in a Vampire cockpit was in 1954 at the start of my conversion to the aircraft. I had been nominated to go to the United Kingdom as a member of the advance party for one of the RAN’s new aircraft, the Gannet, and gas turbine experience was a pre-requisite.

The RAN T.34s were not at first fitted with ejection seats and I was subsequently to lose a very good friend who tried to bale out after his controls jammed shortly after takeoff. At this early stage, the aircraft were also not fitted with a sequenced starting system and it was easy to overfuel them on start up.  The resulting noise was of very great intensity and could be heard half way across the airfield leaving no doubt that you had got it wrong.

I think most of us found that the short, rounded nose of the Vampire made it difficult to establish an attitude visually after Sea Furies and Fireflys. We soon learnt that we had to use our instruments even in visual flight to fly the aircraft accurately; seat of the pants was on the way out. Also because we were now flying at 30,000 feet plus, generally above cloud, instrument flying assumed much greater importance than it had in the past. We didn’t have a radio compass in our aircraft and relied on the YG beacon, a homing aid we had inherited from the Royal Navy. This transmitted an alphabetical letter in each fifteen degree segment of the compass. It was fine in the days of Swordfish but of limited value for faster aircraft.

I duly qualified on jets and departed for the United Kingdom and that remarkable aircraft, the Gannet. My next encounter with the Vampire was some three years later when I did a brief refresher at NAS Nowra before starting my flying instructor’s course at East Sale.

It was during the Vampire phase of the instructor’s course that an incident occurred which was amusing in retrospect, but not at the time. A RAF instructor on exchange, who was taking me for the forced-landing exercise, suggested that we shut the engine down so that we could go through the re-light procedures.  I said that since he had signed for the aircraft it was OK by me. Needless to say the engine would not re-light despite trying all the tricks in the book, and as we approached he committed forced landing point he somewhat sheepishly said that it would be best if he did the landing. It was a copy-book affair and we had just enough inertia to roll off the runway onto a taxiway opposite CFS. There we were met by a welcoming party of the Station CO, the CO of CFS and the CFI.  I was not privy to the subsequent questions and answers, but he must have done some fast talking because the following day we were authorised to do re-light tests after it was discovered that one of the igniters in the aircraft had been U/S.  During the flight we must have shut the engine down and re-lit it at least six times, with not the slightest sign of it being reluctant to fire-up!

Whist at Sale, I managed to scrounge a ride in the single seat Vampire, which turned out to be a nice little aircraft. From memory, its performance was about the same as the trainer but of course the cockpit was much smaller and the downward sloping canopy rails created an optical illusion which made establishing an attitude in the climb difficult at first.

Immediately on completion of the course I returned to Nowra to take on the task of converting the remaining Sea Fury trained pilots to jets. Here my task was made difficult by the variations in the cockpit layout of the five aircraft held on strength. These were a mixture of ex Royal Navy T.22s and our original T.34s, the latter now fitted with ejection seats. We had twin instrument panel aircraft, single panel aircraft and, to add spice to the mix, there was an added variation of single and two handed tachos and ASIs!

It soon became obvious that once a student had started on one particular model, he had to be kept on that model until he had soloed. Once he had a few hours under his belt he could be converted to the other aircraft.

The Vampire was fitted with a de Havilland Goblin which was a fairly forgiving engine even though it was not fitted with an automatic fuel control unit. Once you had mastered the technique of opening the throttle at a rate to match the acceleration of the engine you could really wind it up. I used to teach my students when doing touch and goes to open the throttle about an inch, dwell a pause, and then as the engine accelerated, smoothly open to full throttle.  I only broke this golden rule once and that was with a student who was constantly letting the nose wheel pitch onto the runway on touch and goes. This was a good way to induce shimmy which could be quite violent. On the occasion in question I had had enough and told him that if he let it drop one more time I would do something drastic. He must have had enough of my nagging because as soon as the main wheels touched, he hauled back on the stick and we smartly became airborne. In an instant we were hung up at about thirty feet with the throttle at idle, and rapidly decaying airspeed. I grabbed it off him and went to full throttle, praying that the engine would take it; the alternative would have been the main oleos through the wings. We were lucky, as with much noisy protest the engine responded and we arrived back on the runway in only a slightly heavy landing. I can’t recall what I said to the lad when we got back to the crewroom!

I must admit to enjoying a little showmanship with each new pupil, things like ‘space travel’, a sustained bunt with harness straps floating in space. Another demo was the lack of effectiveness of the controls at the point of stall – the old Vampire was so forgiving that you could really ‘stir the pot’ without any response from the aircraft.  The max rate turning exercise was pretty demanding as it required the aircraft to be put into a fairly steep descending turn in order to achieve and maintain maximum ‘g’. I once did five sorties of the latter in one day and must admit to being completely knackered at the end of it.

It is probably not known generally that the Vampire cockpit was made of a composite of wood and metal. This was the cause of a bad scare at NAS Nowra when some small holes were found in one of the aircraft and it was thought that we had a case of borers. It turned out, however, that some bright spark had thumb-tacked a job sheet to the side of the fuselage!

It was during this period that I was appointed as the Command Instrument Rating Examiner and had the task of checking the Sea Venom squadron pilots. For some reason known only to themselves, De Havillands had chosen to transpose the speed brake lever and high pressure cock in the two aircraft. I soon learned to watch like a hawk for any attempt to slow the aircraft down using the HP cock!

After about a year of instructing at Nowra I was posted to the Royal Navy Day Fighter School in Scotland for QFI duties. The Vampire had not been cleared for spinning in Australia but the T.22 which I was now flying was cleared in the UK. I was too embarrassed to let on that I had not spun the aircraft but found it to be fairly straight forward for recovery. It’s interesting how the wheel turns full circle; my first student on a check ride before being let loose in the Seahawk, did what I had done some eight years earlier in the Firefly trainer and flicked from side to side because he was too slow in getting the stick forward.  My spinning experience stood me in good stead some years later back at NAS Nowra when I had to convert an almost totally helicopter-trained pupil to fixed wing.  We had a problem in that he would demand more of the aircraft in the pitching plane during aerobatics than the aircraft was prepared to give. This was particularly apparent during the final 90 degrees of a slow roll where a large amount of top rudder is required to keep the nose up, and almost full aileron to keep the roll going. He was reluctant to use much rudder and would haul back on the stick as the nose dropped on roll-out. Fortunately I was helo converted myself by this stage and twigged that he was used to a machine that would follow his demands to the limits of sanity. He had yet to develop that feel in fixed wing aircraft which tells you that you have reached the limits and that if you pull any harder, you are going to depart in a flick.

Finally it came time to send him off on solo aerobatics and I really beat his ears about the dangers of flicking into a spin, but gave a thorough briefing on spin recovery should he do so.  I should add here that he had never yet flicked, but we had been close to it at times.

He was only airborne for a short time and returned to the briefing room somewhat ashen faced to admit that he had indeed flicked, sufficiently violently to throw the nose wheel out, and had spun.  His first attempt at recovery had resulted in a spin the other way, but he had calmed himself and remembered my briefing about getting the stick forward and had successfully recovered on his second attempt. I had briefed him to eject if he hadn’t recovered by 10,000 feet which was the SOP. Lucky for him I had had that spinning experience in the UK.

Time moved on and my next association with the Vampire was at RAAF Williamtown where I was posted as Senior Naval Officer at the Air Support Unit.  I kept my sanity by coming to an arrangement with the OTU to be allowed a jolly in a T.35 once a week.

I was fortunate to be back at NAS Nowra as Executive Officer when it came time for the Vampire to give way to the Macchi and could claim the right as the oldest, most experienced, and more to the point the most senior, to make the last flight of the aircraft in the RAN.  When filling in my log book, I discovered that I had taken delivery of that particular aircraft from De Havillands at Bankstown some thirteen years previously!

My association with Vampires was not to cease at that, however, as I subsequently had the honour to command HMAS Vampire, a Daring Class destroyer. I was invited to be onboard for her paying-off entry into Sydney Harbour on her last voyage so I can claim the distinction of having paid-off two Vampires.

Finally I must admit to having a soft spot for the Vampire. Over an intermittent fifteen year association with the aircraft, mostly spent instructing, I came to know its quirks; and how to make it do what you wanted of it. I found it to be an honest aircraft which has deservedly earned for itself an honoured place amongst Australia’s military aircraft.