Flight Lieutenant Ron Aston
Ron Aston Pilot (a survivor)
November 25th 1944 was a wet wintry day in Wigsley, Nottinghamshire. Cloud was low and it was dull grey with showers. I was there to convert from twin engined Wellingtons to Stirling four engined aircraft, prior to going on to Lancaster's and thence to joining a squadron.
Today my crew and I were to undertake our first cross-country exercise. Well prepared, with four hours solo, briefed, in possession of the met forecast, we took off after lunch into the murky day. The weather didn't present any problems, we were well trained on instruments both in cloud and at night, and we knew we would have to make a night landing on our return. I had a good Navigator and was confident that this would be just another exercise... How wrong could I be?
We were climbing on course and levelled out at about 6000' in and out of cloud. I was busy sighting the two port engines to synchronise the propellers, after which I would do the same with the starboard ones. This is done by simply adjusting each pair of throttles so that the pair each side are running at exactly the same speed - this cuts out the droning associated with multi-engined piston aircraft.
Whilst adjusting the throttles, the port outer throttle lever gave me a severe rap across the knuckles which, despite the gloves, hurt. I immediately asked the Fight Engineer to check the instruments for that engine. I knew that there must have been a backfire through the fuel induction system which could be caused by a broken valve or faulty ignition. Either way is wasn't good news, especially when the Engineer reported that the engine was running hot and losing oil pressure rapidly. There was no choice but to tell him to feather the prop and shut down number one engine.
Now I knew that the Stirling was underpowered, indeed, it was a very heavy and ponderous aircraft to fly. But I had no idea how it would perform on three engines... Shortly I would find out!
With the remaining three engines now at full power, I now had a course to steer for a return to base, but there I was with both feet on the same rudder pedal, both hands straining the ailerons to keep the port wing up, and losing height.
Returning for an emergency landing, at about 3000' feet I was holding height. We were now in cloud and it was getting dark. I called the Wigsley tower for an emergency landing and was told to stand by. This I accepted as I knew they would want to get the emergency vehicles at the ready. Meantime the Engineer and I were recalling items
from the Pilot's Notes for the Stirling. One point kept coming back - on three engines with wheels and flaps down you cannot overshoot. This meant that once these were down we were committed to land. Then another thought occurred to me; I had never been demonstrated a three engine landing or practised one with an instructor! So I assumed it was the same as a single engine landing on a twin, so it didn't worry me too much.
Continuing to call base for permission to break cloud and land, each time they came back with the same message to stand by. After half an hour of flying the crippled aircraft around in thick cloud I was beginning to sweat blood. Calling base again I told them I was breaking cloud and preparing to land at the first aerodrome I saw.
Immediately they came back with the instruction to divert to Waddington. My Navigator gave me a course to steer and an ETA of eight minutes. At 1000' we broke cloud into a clear black night. In a short while I saw the runway lights and the Drem system of an airfield dead ahead and told the Navigator that I could see Waddington. Calling on the emergency frequency I requested permission to join the circuit for an emergency landing. This given, I reported in the circuit and again on downwind.
As I turned onto base I lowered the undercarriage and still with plenty of height, lined up with the runway as I turned onto final. As we reduced speed it became more difficult to keep straight. At 300' I called for full flap as I was then certain of making the runway. Just as the flaps came down I was given a red from the runway caravan and a red Very light, just in time to see another four engined aircraft taxi out onto the runway for take off... The very same runway we were now committed to!
I had no time to be horrified, I knew that an overshoot was impossible, and the instinct for self preservation took over. There was no time to think; I knew I had to land and I didn't fancy landing on top of the other aircraft. So I did the only thing possible - turned 10° to port and proceeded to land on the grass, looking out of the starboard window to judge my height from the flare path, seeing also the other aircraft take off. Fortunately there were no obstructions and we made a fair landing. Making back for the runway I turned off left, parked and shut down, with an incredible feeling of relief! Most of the crew had no idea what was going on - just that I had landed on the grass - but those up front soon put them wise. A van arrived shortly and we all piled in. I asked to be taken to the tower and arriving there marched up the steps feeling very much put out and more than a little peeved. I opened the door with a bang and asked who the hell let the aircraft take off whilst I was coming down on an emergency landing. They all looked puzzled and said they had no knowledge that I was making an emergency landing. I was quick to remind them that I had been talking to them only minutes before on joining the circuit... this they denied all knowledge of... and then it struck me... I asked "this is Waddington isn't it?" "Oh no!" they said, "this is Swinderby!"
I had landed at the wrong airfield!
Ron Joined 61 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe.
24th February 1945 was my first daylight raid, the target being the Dortmund–Ems Canal, Germany. I paid particular attention to the briefing to be ‘on the ball’ and to make sure of my designated position in the ‘goggle’. Unlike the US Army Air Corps, the Lancaster wasn’t designed to fly in formation; we kept position in loose groups of aircraft.
We took off with a full bomb load from our Lincolnshire base early afternoon, expecting a return night landing. As we went out to the dispersals I kept an eye on the other aircraft that I was to fly alongside, so I could take off as close to them as possible. There was little wind and we used the whole runway to take off. Alas, once airborne it was impossible to catch up with those in front. We were climbing at nearly full power so I did what everyone else did and slipped into the gaggle at the nearest point and held station, which wasn’t easy as the Lancs in front & on either side began to wander. daylight raids demanded more attention than keeping course at night. All went well for a couple of hours, but then the Wireless Operator announced that the op had been abandoned due to heavy cloud over the target, and that we were to return to base. I thought that we should go for an alternative target, but no, we were to return to Skellingthorpe. As we turned I could see some of the other Lancs dropping their bombs into the North Sea. As we flew back thr Flight Engineer and myself had a discussion about the weight of the aircraft for landing. The bomb load comprised fourteen 1000 lb bombs with half-hour delay acid fuses. We had consumed fuel on the engine run-ups prior to take off, climbing to height and cruising for two hours since then.
The flight engineer gave his computed figure which showed that we were well over the maximum permitted weight for landing. Should I jettison some or all of our bombs? Hell, to come all this way and drop those precious bombs into the ocean seemed such a waste; overweight or not, I would take those bombs back. I was confident that I could handle it, as the Lancaster was the most forgiving aircraft that I had flown, so we continued back in the dark. I could see other aircraft landing as we approached Skellingthorpe, and I could already imagine the taste of the hot cup of cocoa as we entered the crew room. I called up on the radio and we joined the circuit. Suddenly the whole world lit up. A huge explosion had taken place on the airfield, and even at 1000 ft we felt the shock wave. Immediately I turned off the navigation lights as I thought German night fighters had come back with us in the bomber stream, as sometimes happened. After a few minutes I was diverted to Waddington, just a short hop away from our own base, and was soon on the approach to landing there. In the meantime, with all the excitement, I had other things on my mind and had forgotten about our weight. However, all this came rushing back to me as we were about to land, but thankfully all went well. However, I was surprised when the ground crew directed us to the far side of the airfield, where we began a long wait in the dark.
Eventually, after we had tucked the aircraft down for the night, a van from Skellingthorpe picked us up. The driver told us that another Lanc with bombs on board had exploded, killing its crew as well as seven ground crew, and destroyed other planes and hangars.
It was a very sad journey home, and we got to bed in the early hours of the morning. Early that same morning I was woken with the news that I was to return to Waddington to collect our aircraft, as it was required for a sortie that same night.