Captain William Wavell Wakefield (1898-1983)

Wavell Wakefield (later Lord Wakefield of Kendal) was the nephew of Captain Edward Wakefield who commissioned Waterbird. Below is his Report of making the first and only landing on the after deck of H.M.S. Vindictive, in the fleet’s last operational Sopwith Pup on 1st November 1918 at Scapa Flow.

In April 1918 H.M.S. Vindictive was sunk in the attack on the mole at Zeebrugge. During the Summer of 1918 a new aircraft carrier was nearing completion at Harland and Wolff in Belfast. It was decided to name this aircraft carrier H.M.S. Vindictive.

An R.A.F. Unit composed of officers and ratings, formerly in the R.N.A.S. (the R.A.F. had been formed on 1st April 1918 by the amalgamation of the R.N.A.S. and the R.F.C.) was being formed with Lt. Colonel Tomkinson as C.O. for service in this ship.

I was transferred to Turnhouse during the latter part of August for a few days for flying practice prior to serving in H.M.S. Pegasus. On the 26th August I did my first deck take off in a Sopwith Pup with folding wings, from H.M.S. Pegasus. On the 28th and 30th I did two more deck take offs, each time in a Sopwith Pup.

I was then posted to the Isle of Grain, where the H.M.S. Vindictive R.A.F. Unit was being assembled. I took this opportunity to do as such flying as possible in Sopwith Pups, Curtiss aircraft with the wheel instead of stick control, and a Grain Griffin. This was a two seater aircraft rather like, but larger than a Sopwith 1½ Strutter. I believe that only six were built. It was intended that this aircraft would carry one large bomb. We were told that the idea was to steam into the Kattegat when we would fly off, drop the bomb on Berlin and then return to land in the sea near a ship, and if possible outside territorial waters.

In anticipation of a sea landing I did a practice landing in the Medway, close to the shore at the Isle of Grain, in a Curtiss aircraft with air bags which leaked. In the remarks column of my log book I said that: ‘…. Landing was O.K. and I did not get wet although the machine half sunk.’ In the middle of September the R.A.F. Unit joined H.M.S. Vindictive in Belfast.

We carried out steam trials in the Clyde and then steamed up the West Coast of Scotland in October for Scapa Flow. On October 26th I took off from Smoogroo Aerodrome in a Sopwith Pup and flew around H.M.S. Vindictive at anchor. On October 29th I did the same in a Sopwith Pup with the ship under way and accompanied by the C.O. in another Pup. My log book says that “I did experiments with Lt. Col. Tomkinson all around the ship to find out the bumps with a view to landing on the deck.”

After this flight it became very clear to me that with the hot air from the funnels, and the turbulence caused by the superstructure amidships between the take off deck forward, and the landing on deck aft, the air conditions were so disturbed that to make a successful landing on the after deck was an impossibility. It seemed to me that if the ship were to steam 15˚ out of wind so that the turbulent air was carried over the starboard quarter, then I could side slip in to land from the port quarter in calm air.

I therefore arranged with Captain Grace (a son of the great cricketer Dr. W. G. Grace) that the ship would steam 15˚ out of wind, with a landing speed for me of not less than 20 knots nor more than 25 knots.

On the 1st November, flying a Sopwith Pup with wind direction S.E. and force 1 to 2 I took off from Smoogroo Aerodrome. After testing the air conditions astern of the ship, and finding adequate calm air on the port quarter, I side slipped in and on to the deck. The extract from my log book was as follows :- ‘Very calm, landed on deck 104ft. run. Swung a bit otherwise O.K. Tail skid caught edge of a plate and broke.’

During the Summer about a dozen unsuccessful attempts were made to land on the after deck of H.M.S. Furious where catching gear had been erected for the Sopwith Pups especially provided with skids.

I had heard about these unsuccessful attempts, but did not know the reason for this lack of success. However, immediately I had made the necessary air tests astern, the reason became obvious as I have already stated.

Although I had demonstrated that it was possible to make a successful landing on the after deck of an aircraft carrier by use of the 15˚ angle into wind and the correct head wind strength, it was very obvious that to carry out a successful landing in ideal conditions in Scapa Flow was very different from doing the same thing at sea on operations, perhaps in bad weather and with submarines around and with pilots tired out after an operational sortie.

Moreover, throughout the Spring and Summer I had been at Cranwell giving advanced flying instruction, with particular attention to forced landing techniques so that I did have special knowledge, and had acquired skills to make such a deck landing, which the average pilot aboard a ship would not normally possess.

In the event no further attempts were made to land an aeroplane on the after deck of either H.M.S. Furious or H.M.S. Vindictive. The future construction was a flat deck ship without funnels and superstructure amidships, to be followed by the “Island” amidships and the 15˚ angle deck which allowed for errors in overshooting on landing, and avoided air turbulence astern, as well as other advantages.

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

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