Flt Lt Ralph Chambers

Ralph is a Canadian pilot who joined the RAF in 1961 at a time when the RAF was short of pilots and the RCAF had a surplus. In July 1964, he was posted to RAF Khormaksar where he flew Hunter FR.Mk.10s with 1417 Flight. On 28 August 1965, he was promoted to OC 1417 Flight, taking over from Flt Lt Roger Pyrah.

Learning the ropes


“The final phase of my instructors course at Little Rissington in 1961 was to gain experience of flying a front line fighter and so it was that on 15 August I was driven over to the CFS Type Flight at Kemble by RAF minibus. A familiarisation trip in T.7, WV318 with Mast Plt Trigg was followed by two solo flights in an F.4, XF944, and this provided much amusement for those watching as I had never used handbrakes in an aeroplane and only got to the take-off point with great difficulty. As I recall the flying went well and I was pretty impressed - this was 1961 after all and this was a ‘hot ship’ with swept wings. We were expected to go supersonic over the Bristol Channel and this I did on the first flight; aerobatics comprised the bulk of my second flight.

My CIRE and a testing test!

Having hardly had time to settle in at Khormaksar, I returned to the UK in August for my IRE course at Chivenor. On my return, I clearly remember that my first task as CIRE (Command Instrument Rating Examiner) was to renew the instrument rating of Gp Capt Blythe, who was Station Commander of Khormaksar, and that I failed him. This happened on 13 October 1964 in T.7, XL612. We flew again on the 14th, 15th, 16th and finally on the 20th when the good Gp Capt was able to pass his check ride. Incidentally he too was a Canadian but in his case a left-over from WW2, and that’s all I remember about him. He was replaced by Gp Capt Michael Beetham who eventually became CAS I think and who also used to fly the RAF Lancaster at air shows.


Family matters


These were truly very trying times with demanding military roles in the protectorate and a constantly deteriorating internal security situation. I had my wife and two kids there and the kids learned to distinguish between the sound of an ordinary hand grenade from that of a Bazooka!!!!!


Taking the shots


On the FR.10, there was no aiming device for the cameras. By endless training, the pilot simply had to learn to ‘see’ through the camera lenses. Incidentally, the real recce exposures were almost always made using the left facing oblique camera. Pilots just seem to like looking left and the metal work of the cockpit was cut down on that side. The Mark 10 actually had 5 cameras; three 70mm Vintens in the nose, a 16mm camera buried in the top of the nose which operated whenever the guns were fired and a 16mm camera that could be clipped on top of the gunsight for assessment of training. This camera was known as the GGSR, gyro gunsight recording camera.

Interpreting the negs!

One of the tasks undertaken by the FR pilots was to analyse the photographs they had taken in the quickest possible time. We always viewed the film as NEGATIVE STEREO pairs. With a bit of practice the stereo viewers gave a real impression of the third dimension, and after a prolonged period of NEGATIVE viewing the brain accepted this as normal and usually the prints only confirmed what had already been assessed on the basis of the negative viewing.


Further on NEGATIVES, the reason a lot of the Hunters were later given white wing tips was that the cine film (16mm) used in the GGSR’s was always viewed in the negative and often kind of FUZZY, but the white wing tips stood out well as BLACK on the negative.


On gunsights, the Mark 9, and all the earlier models I presume, had an arrangement whereby the gunsight could be driven electrically several inches towards the pilot as required. The Mark 10 had no such motor and if the gunsight was required the pilot simply had to lean forward and make the best of it. Actually it did not seem to make much difference. The Mark 10 of course had no radar rangeing for the gunsight, this was controlled manually by a twist grip on the throttle.

Early in 1966, I was given the added responsibility for the Wing Photo Section, with a staff of one SNCO, three Corporals and nine Airmen and it was subsequently discovered that not all the processing carried out on the unit was of film taken from the Vinten cameras. Some of these guys were making photos of subjects not to be shown in polite company, much to the displeasure of the Station Commander who had some harsh words for the culprits. And for me!

Target marking


Target marking was done with one long burst of 30mm from an FR.10 followed immediately by a Mark 9s rockets. The procedure then involved the marking aircraft doing a post-strike recce and photo run, before rushing back to Khormaksar to have the film developed. If there was a big rush the film would be viewed in the negative format using stereo pairs viewers. After a while you learned to reverse the way your brain worked so that the stereo negatives looked perfectly natural. We only printed if we wanted a long term record.


All operational live missions were thrust upon us by top brass ‘on the hill’ at Steamer Point. This would have been either AFME of MEC, I am no longer sure. We could authorise all sorts of training exercises but anything involving the possibility of shooting was the responsibility of others and came to us by ‘signal’. However, from time to time ‘the hill’ would want information but would be unable to get approval from ‘whoever’ to send the tasking signal. Medium ranking officers would then come to drink our coffee and to casually inquire if we intended to do some training in area ‘X’ and if so could we keep the cameras running and further more how long would it take before we had wet prints. Get the picture??


Just part of the job


Flt Lt Ken Simpson came to us on 1417 with a reputation for being bold and as CO I can assure you he was. There was a running competition to see who could get the largest image of a Land Rover wheel on 70 mm film taken from a Mark 10 oblique camera. Ken always won, his wheel photos seeming to fill the frame completely.


Ken’s reputation grew when on 10 May 66 he hit a Griffon Vulture at 420 kts in XE589. All tanks were dropped and he managed to stagger back to Khormaksar with Cat 4 damage.


Then on 3 September that same year, we received a desperate request for photos of something quite close to base so Ken hopped into XE614 which was sitting with fuel state of full internals, full 2 x 230, and full 2 x 100 underwing tanks. The photos were duly taken and Ken hurried back to Khormaksar. Believe it or not since 1417 (and only 1417) was authorised to 50 ft, you had to pull up to join the circuit. Anyway in Ken’s view the urgency was such that he landed downwind and did not stream the brake chute since that would have caused further delay. XE614 hit one of the barrier stanchions, the net having not been raised because no emergency had been declared. Cat 4 was the result!!! Ken was duly hauled in front of officers of increasing rank until he finally reached AOC level. At every stage he humbly confessed his guilt and promised to be more careful. You can imagine the rest of the story - the top brass became bored with the issue and it just went away. Ken was later sent to USA for Phantom training and became one of the first RAF Phantom pilots (his boss was I think ex-8 Squadron pilot Ken Hayr).


A very special Hunter


At the beginning of 1965 I returned to the UK to collect a refurbished FR.10 from 5 MU at Kemble. On arrival at the station I was presented with a shiny new looking Hunter, its glossy camouflaged paintwork gleaming as it stood on the pan in the wintry sun. XE589 was its serial number and on the 6 January, I took it for an air test to ensure everything was ready for the long flight east. Accompanying me on the return trip was another pilot in refurbished FGA.9, XJ689, which was destined to join 43 Squadron, and we departed Kemble for Luqa via Lyneham, two days later. After a light lunch we flew on to El Adem and a good night’s rest. With no time to spare, we took off early the following morning and headed for Jeddah and reached Khormaksar later that afternoon. There was some grief in Jeddah since whoever was supposed to meet us didn’t show and it was in the middle of Ramadan.

The aircraft then went into the hangar for acceptance checks and for unit markings to be applied. The next time I saw XE589, was on 20 January when it was parked on the pan, minus underwing tanks and looking every inch a 1417 Flt aircraft with crest on the nose and my initials, ‘RC’, on the tailfin and nosewheel door, ready for me to air test her. There must have been a problem or two as my log book shows that I did two more air tests on the 22nd and 26th, and it was 18 February before I finally flew a fully serviceable aircraft. My first ‘op’ flight in ’589 was over Urqub Pass on 24 February and lasted just over an hour.


Thus began an attachment to an aircraft that has lasted over forty years and I would like to be able to locate its current whereabouts. Having sustained Cat 4R damage in 1966 it was sold to Hawker Aircraft Ltd and rebuilt as F.Mk.76, 701, for the Abu Dhabi Air Force with which it served for many years. Upon withdrawal, it was sold on for further service with the Somali Air Force as CC701 and was finally grounded in the early nineties. If anyone knows where in Somalia it might be found, it was last noted at Hageisa airfield in 1993, please contact the website author via the link on the Introduction page.


Aircraft tailcodes


It was standard practice on most RAF squadrons for aircraft to have an individual tail codes usually comprising a single letter. On 1417 Flt our aircraft were coded with two initials of the pilots on the unit. It was also generally the case that no two pilots on a fighter squadron could have the same first name, the reason being that in the heat of air combat pilots might use names instead of callsigns. Consequently, quite a few young pilots found themselves with new first names for a couple of years. On 1417 Flt, for example, we had two Rogers, Pyrah and Neal. After suitable discussions that Roger Neal was not a party to, we decided to call him Fred. Then some joker, maybe me said, why not spell it in the British way Phred. Thus his aircraft received the unique tailcone ‘Ph N’.

Every drop counts


On 8 March 1965 yours truly and Flt Lt Graham Williams from 8 Squadron, sat in a fully fuelled (full internals and 4 x 100 gallon underwing tanks) T.7, XL566, as it was towed onto the east facing runway at Khormaksar. Our task was to ferry the T.7 to Masirah and ‘tribal knowledge’ had it that the flight was very marginal for fuel. We threw our service hats behind us, donned bone domes, hit the start button and launched in a hurry. It immediately became clear that this was not going to be a routine flight. Fuel really was going to be a problem and there was a constantly flickering red pressurization warning light just to add to the stress level.


On reaching the roughly half way point over Salalah we decided to continue because we knew we had the ‘right stuff’. We arrived at Masirah ‘on fumes’ and I recall that I was a bit caustic to the ground crew about the T.7s pressurization. A straight-faced Warrant Officer then made a quite a ceremony of presenting me with my service hat which had a neat round hole in the top where it had rested athwart some part of the pressurization system and reduced the airflow. I had to buy all concerned a lot of beer.

Of the seventeen ops flights carried out in Mark.10 aircraft in March, three were flown as Beihan by 43 Sqn pilots owing to a shortage of Mark.9s on their unit, most of their aircraft being on detachment at Masirah. And in addition, owing to a general shortage of Hunter pilots in Aden at the time, 1417 Flt pilot Frank Grimshaw was required to fly two Beihan patrols in a Mark.10. One of our daily commitments was to search for hostile shipping on the coastline from east of Perim Island, located in the straights where the Red Sea becomes the Gulf of Aden, to Mukha, searching Russian freighters carrying SAM missiles to the Vietnam conflict. I remember these patrols very well, some three hours of solitude banging around at 420 kts TAS gave us all sore backs from the constant turbulence.

‘Dead ants ’


It was mid ‘hot’ season 1965 or 66. The pilots on one of the Ground Attack Hunter squadrons, 8 or 43, I am not sure which, constantly played a game called ‘dead ants’. The rules were quite simple, one of the pilots, regardless of surroundings would call out ‘dead ants’ and all squadron pilots in earshot had to fling themselves on the floor with legs and arms extended vertically. This was held to be very good for morale.

So the scenario was that the great Lord Shackleton was visiting and we were all ordered to the Officers’ Mess bar in best bib and sweaty tucker to meet the Minister. As I recall there were two plots. The surface plot was that some squadron pilot was to jump the Lord as he arrived and complain about the heat and defence policy, etc., etc. The secret plot was that the squadron pilots would put on a demo of ‘dead ants’ for the great one. So of course ‘he’ was late and we were all soaked in sweat by the time ‘he’ arrived. The first nominated person cruised up to the Lord to complain about heat and defence policy, etc., etc. The great Lord, who was obviously nobodies fool, forestalled this attack by saying in a loud voice ‘I like this heat’. The nominated pilot slunk away. It was then time for the secret plot. The other chosen pilot waited for a bit of space, then called out ‘dead ants’ and flung himself to the ground, legs and arms extended vertically. No one else moved. The great Lord looked baffled as the pilot was hustled away. The Station Commander who, unusually, was an Air Commodore looked pained and names were taken and careers were terminated. The Air Commodore became CAS.


My lovely car!

My farewell party was held on Khormaksar Beach and we drove onto it in my faithful old car. Sadly, it sunk in the soft sand when driving it back up the beach at the end of our bash; a  long story  but one of the final insults as I left the Colony.”