Mystery Photo No. 55 was forwarded by Kim Dunstan, who sourced it from the Queensland Air Museum. The photo was courtesy of Bob Howe and Ron Cuskelly, QAM Historian, kindly gave us permission to use this material.
The image shows two aeronautical shapes outside a hangar at HMAS Albatross. The model of the car in the background is a clue to help fix a timeframe.
We wanted to know what the devices were for and when they were used at Nowra?
The image shows two Towed Target Gliders, which were produced by a British company called International Model Aircraft (IMA) which was founded in 1931 by its parent company Triang. (British readers of mature age will remember Triang Toys, no doubt, which was well known for its brightly coloured toy cars and trains). IMA, on the other hand, were better known as the manufacturers of FROG (Flies Right Off the Ground) model aircraft. What appears to be a Holden FE in the background of the photo would date it as early as 1956.
The Towed Target Glider was designed to fulfil a joint RAF/RN requirement for a realistic full size target for air-to-air and ground-to-air gunnery training. The glider was 26 feet long with a 32 feet wingspan and a fixed tricycle undercarriage with much of the structure being made from light gauge steel sheet. The glider was rigged so that the target operator in the towing aircraft could impart a nose-up attitude for take-off and a nose-down attitude for landing. Another mechanism would release the tow cable and turn the nosewheel so that the glider would vacate the runway after landing.
Production began circa 1942 and continued until after the war. In February 1944 the company claimed to be producing an average of 39 sets of wings per week. In all 3,500 were built. Gliders built during the war featured wings of partial wooden construction whereas the post-war version, known as the Mark 2, had metal wings of the same 32 foot span.
A subsequent version with reduced wingspan was generally known as the “25 ft Target Glider”. The glider is known to have been towed by Miles Martinet, Beaufighter Mk 10 and Meteor Mk 7 target tugs. It is believed that these gliders remained in general service until approximately 1955.
This photograph of an IMA Towed Glider Mk2 is from the Australian War Memorial collection. It is dated January-February 1953 and captioned as follows.
“Pilots and ground staff of 78 Fighter Wing RAAF inspect a glider target that Wing pilots failed to shoot down during a gunnery exercise. The target, which received 136 holes and lost half of one wing, was the only target that did not disintegrate under the RAAF’s fire. On the body of the glider are scrawled the words ‘The Bradman special’. A detachment from the Wing, based at the time in Malta for garrison duty, was attending an intensive armament practice camp at the RAF base in Cyprus. Identified left to right: Pilot Officer (PO) Reg Jones of North Sydney, NSW; Corporal Tony Gillies of Punchbowl, NSW; PO Keith Meggs DFM of Preston, Vic; an unidentified Czech pilot; Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Don Chinnery of Newcastle, NSW; LAC Neville Johnson of Kogarah, NSW.”
The gliders used in Australia were operated by the Royal Navy, but the two in the photograph were left behind when 723 Squadron (which was an RN Unit then) departed from HMS Nabbington (Albatross) early in 1946.
We know that at least one attempt to tow such a glider was made by Charles Birch RN, who wrote to QAM in 2004 with an account of his unhappy experiences with the Towed Target Glider:
“I believe that the monstrosity hanging from the ceiling of QAM is a piece of equipment I had the misfortune to come up against while serving the 723 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm (a Fleet Requirement Unit) based in Nowra, NSW. On 9th July 1945, I was detailed to do a target tow for HMS Argonaut – anti-aircraft fire with Bofors/Oerlikon. This was my first experience with the glider and after taxying a short distance down the runway, the glider was positioned about 50 yards behind us and we were hitched up. To the best of my knowledge this was the first time it had been tried. Take-off proved to be quite a challenge because of the extra drag which was considerable. I was yet to get airborne with the end of the runway approaching rapidly so I cut the throttle and abandoned the run – much to the relief of the air-gunner, P.O. Clark, in the back. We taxied back and tried again. This time we clawed our way into the air with the air-speed hovering close to the stall. The glider finally became un-stuck but then began to swing violently according to my startled gunner, so I told him to cut it free. (The incident is recorded in Charles’ log book as ’32ft wingspan glider broke away’). The whole trip lasted a mere 15 minutes from take-off to landing and I have not the slightest recollection of where the glider hit the ground – hopefully within the airfield boundary but could have been in the surrounding bush. Right then I vowed I would never tow the thing again. We went on to complete our tow for Argonaut using the conventional sleeve drogue – a flight lasting 1 hr 15 mins. I honestly don’t know if any other pilot on the squadron tried it but I don’t think so and the “thing” disappeared!!”
Charles’ log confirmed that the target tug in this instance was Miles Martinet RG956.
The story might have ended there, but by a curious twist of fate some wreckage was spotted by a 723 helicopter some 45 years later. The Commander Air of the time was CMDR Cris George, who later wrote to QAM as follows:
“Some years ago we located the wreck of what appeared to be a towed aircraft of some sort. It was an unfamiliar type but we eventually identified it. I believe it probably was the one that was unsuccessfully towed by Charles Birch in his account (see above). The wreck had been spotted from the air by a HC 723 aircraft in the course of a confined area sortie during about 1990/91. The Observer had spotted the wreck while looking straight down from the aircraft. (It had been a dry year so there was not as much concealing foliage as usual perhaps). Shortly after its discovery, the wreck was located approximately 200 metres to the north of the western end of Nowra’s Runway 08/26 outside the airfield boundary and in the bush. I recall the skin of what was left of the fuselage and wings of the wreck looked like thin sheet steel (because of the rust) although the empennage appeared to be skinned with alloy. The main spar looked as if was tubular steel as did the wing ribs. The target had suffered severe impact consistent with Charles Birch’s account. I unsuccessfully tried locating it again in 1999 and rightly or wrongly assumed that it had been buried with the work associated with the Aviation Park. I subsequently established that Charles Birch passed away on 6th November 2011, apparently unaware of the discovery of the wreckage.
We also received advice from Shane Johnson, who told us that he had visited the crash site and confirmed Cris George’s account of the damage to the structure. Our thanks both to him, and to Cris. Our sincere thanks also to QAM for the use of their text and photographs.
We had supposed that the RAN didn’t ever tow these targets (they used sleeve targets instead) but that was disproved by two other responses to our Mystery Photo. Jerry O’Day confirmed they were towed by the Fairey Firefly TT5 and were usually written off after each sortie as they were very hard to recover in one piece. He went on to say that the wheels however, were greatly prized by the technical staff and used in a variety of ‘rabbits’.
He tells the story of how they decided on 22 March 1962 to attempt a controlled landing on RW 08 with an LSO (Alex Ignatieff) “batting” the target and the pilot responding to his signals and the Observer cutting the wire on the LSO “cut” signal when the target was still just a few feet in the air. It was a success as the target touched down gently and eventually slowly ran off the runway edge without any damage. The sortie had lasted nearly two hours and the target hadn’t been hit, so it was brought back safely.
That flight was, to his knowledge, the last time one of these targets was flown and certainly the final time the recovery method was used as Alex Ignatieff was the last of the LSOs having qualified in 1956 during the only ab-initio straight deck DLT programme in HMAS Sydney.
Norman Lee also remembers towing the targets in a Firefly, taking off from runway 26 with it in short tow. The operator in the back had control of the tow wire which was then let out for a very long tow. Amusingly, as the tow aircraft reversed through 180° its crew could see the target still flying on the old course as it passed going in the opposite direction. He also recalls attempting to land targets back on 26, telling the operator when to cut the wire – although it wasn’t a reliable recovery method. He also reminisces that he never got to say “I’m towing it not pushing it” when a ship got too close with its anti-aircraft fire.
Mike Thorne also remembers the targets as follows:
“Interesting article, maybe I can add a little to the story. In 1956 I was a pilot on 723 at Nowra and apart from Divisional duties was also the Target Towing Officer. I had some six or so of these beasts on my slop list, yes they were listed as permanent stores! Anyway we had two serviceable and a crate full of bits. Returned the crate of bits to Naval Stores Sydney as the remains of four. To my horror I received a signal that stores had attempted to assemble the twisted remains and could only account for three! What to do, I now had a missing winged target on my slop chit.
Conferring with a certain Observer we jointly remembered that on a certain date and on a particular “Acorn” flight (Acorn was the callsign of the target towing Firefly) a target had been shot down so a letter was duly written signed and delivered unto the Captain’s Office. Job done and slop list cleared…or so I thought!
A couple of weeks later a signal from stores advised they had reassessed the crate of bits and now agreed it contained four. I had now written off one more than had existed. My first thought was to make one of the remaining targets disappear but on reflection they were too big and obvious for one to suddenly go missing so Plan B was activated. A visit to the Captain’s Office on Divisional duties allowed me to access the pertinent file and quietly remove the offending letter.
I flew several of these target towing flights and whilst take-off had it’s problems, bringing them back to land was something else. What the stories don’t tell you is how the Observer cut the tow. The target was attached to the towing cable with a length of cord, some three or four turns around the two shackles and about 350 to 450mm apart. In the rear cockpit the Observer had a pole with a knife blade fixed to one end which he poked down the flare chute and through the turns of cord. Thus poised, he awaited the cut command from the pilot and then furiously sawed away at the cord. Surprisingly enough we didn’t always make a complete hash of it and some flew more than once following the odd repair. At that time no one had thought of using the LSO to assist in landing an uncontrolled and, to the pilot, unseen flying object. In January 1957 my time was up and I returned to the RN with many fond memories of my time on 851 and 723 Squadrons.”
You can see our complete collection of other Mystery Photos, and their answers, here.