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Harry Boyle's Tango over Takoradi

A photo recreation of Harry Boyle dropping into a 20,000 ft cumulus cloud top while fellow Defence of Takoradi Flight pilot Bill McRae looks on to confirm the feat.

Harry Boyle was one of seven Canadians, including myself, making up the majority of pilots in the Defense of Takoradi Flight during 1942. Harry’s insatiable curiosity frequently got him into trouble but his most sensational escapade, and most expensive, was the incident described in this true story.

Gathered under the shade of our open-sided, thatched dispersal hut we were watching the rapid build-up of towering cumulus just off the coast which most likely would dump torrential showers on us later in the day. Harry suddenly announced that he had never spun an aircraft in cloud and “that one” looked like a good one in which to try it. He was no stranger to cumulus cloud. A few weeks earlier he had returned to the field with all three blades of his propeller bent at the tips, claiming he had been caught in a line squall which had driven him down to hit the water. Possibly, but knowing Harry most of us believed he had probably been trying to see how close he could come to the water before hitting it – and found out the hard way. Having now announced his intentions, Harry proceeded to climb into his Hurricane. We were not about to accept Harry’s un-witnessed claim, so I got into my machine to accompany him and keep him honest.

In searching for photographs of Flying Officer Harry Vern Boyle (J17745) on the internet, only one came immediately to light. This image, from the 403 Squadron RCAF's blog shows Boyle (second from left) with (left to right) Mac Gordon, Jim Preston, Bill Whittaker (peeking from behind) and Cecil Brown sitting on 403 Squadron readiness – all with Mae Wests on. Like Bill McRae, Harry Boyle went on to Europe to fly Spitfires with a front line RCAF squadron, in this case 403 “Wolf” Squadron. Harry Boyle joined the RCAF at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1941. He did his Service Flying Training on Harvards at No. 1 SFTS, Camp Borden and went overseas to fly Hurricanes, finding his way to Takoradi, Ghana with Bill McRae. After Takoradi, Boyle was returned to Canada to become a Hurricane instructor at the Operational Training Unit at Bagotville. In September of 1943, he was promoted to Flying Officer and went overseas again the following March to join 403 Squadron flying Spitfires. Sadly, Harry Boyle did not survive the war, having been shot down and killed in August 1944 while strafing a convoy near Trun, France, about 20 km from Falaise. He is buried in the military cemetery near Castillon, France. Photo was provided to the 403 site by Cecil Brown.

As we climbed, I could see the cloud Harry had in mind, like a giant pillar which we could spiral around completely in the clear. When we reached the top at about 20,000 feet it was still growing rapidly. Harry flew over the centre, pulled the nose up into a stall and kicked his Hurricane into a spin, disappearing into the cloud. I began to spiral down again, well clear of the cloud, waiting to see him emerge, but descended all the way to the bottom, about 2,000 feet over the sea, without a sign of him. I began to look at the sea surface for indications that he had gone in, then spotted an unusual looking aircraft flying over the beach some distance away. On investigation this turned out to be Harry’s machine but there was something strange about it. When I pulled up to him I explained that something was far wrong with the underside of his aircraft, and asked that he fly straight and level while I went under him to examine the damage. Harry was skeptical, because we were forever pulling practical jokes on each other, but he did comply.

Viewing the damage thirty feet over my head I found it incredible that Harry doubted there was anything wrong; creating this amount of damage must have made a lot of noise. The Hurricane’s undercarriage retracts inwardly into the centre section of the wing. Both legs, which should have been locked up, were now splayed outward, pointing toward the wingtip at an angle of about 45° from the underside of the wing. Although Harry would later claim that he got two greens on selecting wheels down, this is hard to believe since both retraction struts’ linkages had sheared and it was obvious to me that these legs were going nowhere. Coming out from under I told Harry he would be making a belly landing, and that I was going back to land first before he cluttered up the runway, in fact I suggested he land on the grass merge. We had only one runway and the only other place to land in the country, that I knew of, was the American staging base at Accra, a hundred miles away. Still disbelieving, Harry said, “Ya, Ya, tell me another one” as I left him. Back on the field I alerted the crash wagon, then got the rest of the guys out to watch the fun as Harry came into the circuit. He made a normal approach, ignoring the red Very flares being fired from the tower. Holding off at a normal height for a Hurricane with wheels down, he dropped about six feet onto the dangling legs and then the belly, skidding along the runway with a horrible scraping noise. Now he believed me; he was out of the machine and running, parachute and all, as fast as he could go.

In a spin, the turn indicator is hard over against the stop in the direction of the spin. To recover on instruments it is essential that full opposite rudder be applied then centered immediately the needle begins to move off the stop. By the time the needle is centered the aircraft is probably already on the verge of spinning in the opposite direction. Harry apparently forgot this lesson, or did not execute it properly, because he believed he had spun first one way then the other all the way down. On exiting the cloud he recovered immediately, but with the water now probably only a thousand feet away he pulled out violently, the high G forcing the legs out of their up-locks (assuming they were properly locked up in the first place) to be violently projected downwards, shearing the retraction struts which restrict travel in the down position, then tearing out to end up where I had seen them. That was the theory at the time, and the way I have told the story countless times. How could Harry have exited the cloud with the aircraft still in a stalled condition and an airspeed of 75-80 miles per hour, have recovered and then, with less than a thousand feet of air beneath him gained sufficient speed to do such damage on the pullout? The probable answer is that, somewhere in his wild four-mile ride down the centre of the cloud, Harry probably recovered from the spin only to enter a spiral dive. In this scenario the airspeed, which until now had remained relatively constant at or near the stalling speed, would begin to build rapidly. Any attempt to reduce the speed with the elevators would have only tightened the spiral. Harry may have exited the cloud at an extremely high speed and nose down attitude. With little distance remaining to the water it is understandable that he would pull out violently, probably blacking out in the process. Whatever the real story, Harry was fortunate. When they examined the aircraft later, it was found that at least one of the wing attachment bolts had been sheared!

Our little group returned to Britain together in April 1943, some going to Typhoon squadrons, others including Harry and myself going to Spitfires. Harry Boyle was killed in action on 17 August 1944 over Normandy, after successfully bailing out of his flak-stricken Spitfire, probably shot by the same troops he had just finished strafing. Harry was 21 years old.

By Bill McRae

While at Takoradi, men like McRae and Boyle were officially attached to the Defence of Takoradi Flight, flying Hurricanes and watching out for submarines and the enemy in general. His actual duties included everything from aircraft test flights, meteorological flights, long distance recce and even aerial mosquito spraying. Here, a fresh from the factory Hawker Hurricane is craned from a transport at Takoradi's dock.

A view of Takoradi's busy harbour during the Second World War

A map showing the West African Reinforcement Route which was followed by RAF pilots ferrying combat aircraft from Takoradi to Cairo. Bill McRae flew this route on just such a mission.

Crated centre sections of Allied combat aircraft are craned from the deck of merchant ships to lorry beds. The general size and configuration of these crates leads us to think they could be Bristol Blenheim twin engine fighter/bombers. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CM 5402)

Oblique aerial view of the airfield at Takoradi, Ghana from the north, after the cessation of the West African Reinforcement Route, the vital aircraft ferry route which operated for three years from Takoradi to Egypt. Between the arrival of the first consignment of crated aircraft at Takoradi harbour in September 1940, and the cessation of aircraft assembly at the airfield in October 1943, 5,200 aircraft were assembled and flown along the Route to the North African and Mediterranean theatres, with a further 1,000 assembled and retained for service in West Africa. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CM 5401)

Hawker Hurricanes being assembled for despatch to the North African and Mediterranean theatres, at Takoradi, Gold Coast. In the foreground Hawker Hurricane fuselages are pulled by civilian labourers from their packing crates for assembly, after being shipped from the United Kingdom. Behind them are parked aircraft in various stages of assembly. In the background, a line of completed Hurricanes, with white recognition panels painted on the tops of their fuselages, wait by the main runway before being ferried to Egypt, headed by two similarly painted Bristol Blenheim Mark IV “mother” aircraft which will guide them along the West African Air Reinforcement Route. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CM 3022)

The fuselage of a Hawker Hurricane is pulled from its packing crate for assembly at Takoradi, Gold Coast, after being shipped from the United Kingdom. The wings, tailplanes and propeller can be seen stowed in the side sections of the crate. Once assembled, the aircraft were then ferried to Egypt on the West African Reinforcement Route. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CM 3021)

RAF mechanics, assisted by local civilian labourers, check over a line of newly-assembled Hawker Hurricane Mark IICs at Takoradi, Ghana, Gold Coast, before beginning their ferry flight to Egypt on the West African Reinforcement Route. BE715, the aircraft shown in the middle, served with No. 250 Squadron RAF in the Western Desert, the same unit that Flight Sergeant Frank Waywell served later in the war. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CM 3019)

The page from the Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa which shows Boyle's name and rank.

This story was previously published in the Observair Newsletter of the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, of which the author Bill McRae was a proud member and strong contributor. If you wish to become a member of this most worthy enterprise and help keep our heritage alive like Bill did, contact Rachel Heide at CAHS.

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