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Meteorological Flights — 1936-1964

The Gauntlets were used for twice-daily ascents to 20,000 feet and happily they suffered no accidents before being replaced with Gloster Gladiators in December 1939. Victor Beamish had been transferred from Aldergrove in December 1937, but for his work in setting up the flight and in recognition of his individual flying contribution he was awarded the AFC in June 1938.

 

In December 1944, the Flight was moved to Ballyhalbert, but in August 1945 it returned to Aldergrove where on 18 September it was absorbed into 518 (Met) Squadron which arrived from Tiree, equipped with specially-modified Halifax bombers.

 

Modifications included the installation of a radio altimeter to permit accurate measurement of sea level pressure by day or night, and the removal of nose guns to facilitate attachment of a psychrometer to measure temperature and humidity.

 

In addition, Loran radio navigation equipment and 'Gee' radar facilitated measurement of high level wind speeds above clouds. Low level wind measurement was possible with a B3 drift meter while ASV MkII radar assisted the process of homing back to base in bad weather.

With the war over, Met Flights were progressively disbanded, with 518 at Aldergrove being the only one left in the UK by mid-1946.

In October 1946, it was redesignated 202 Squadron and continued to operate Halifaxes until December 1950. In October 1950, the Squadron had begun re-equipping with Hastings aircraft which were used until 1964.

 

Then it was decided there was no longer a role for aircraft in obtaining weather data on a daily basis and the unit was disbanded on 31 July. During that period, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, regardless of weather conditions, a Hastings of 202 Squadron had left Aldergrove at precisely 0800 hours for a Bismuth sortie lasting up to 9 hours.

 

Such sights are now just memories, the aircraft having been replaced by orbiting satellites and 'met' balloons from which data are supplied to sophisticated computers and beguiling TV presenters. Despite all the sophistication, I'm not convinced their forecasts are significantly more accurate than those of a previous generation!

The officer placed in command of the Aldergrove flight was Flight Lieutenant Victor Beamish, one of the celebrated Beamish family associated with Coleraine whose history of collective service with the RAF is without parallel. There were aspects to Beamish's task which called for resourcefulness and courageous leadership. For instance, the Met Flight was initially equipped with Bristol Bulldog fighters.

 

Designed in the 'twenties, these open-cockpit biplanes were not well fitted to cope with the wide range of weather conditions in which their pilots were obliged to fly. Bad visibility due to low cloud on 29 January 1937, for instance, caused one Bulldog pilot to make a forced landing as a result of which the aircraft was relegated to an instructional airframe, and in a blizzard on 9 March another Bulldog was written off in a force landing near Portadown.

 

Following the crash of a third Bulldog at Parkgate on 14 April, it was decided to re-equip the flight with Gloster Gauntlets and three of these more powerful biplanes were collected from Speke in July 1937.

Met Gauntlet Met Gladiator Met scan0005

Tragically, Group Captain Victor Beamish DSO & Bar, DFC, AFC, as he eventually became, was killed during the war leading his fighter wing in action.

 

During the war, Met Flights proliferated throughout the UK and overseas. In January 1941, the Aldergrove unit was officially designated 1402 Flight and in the following year its Gladiators were joined by suitably-modified Spitfires which were capable of ascents up to 38,000 feet.

 

However, both types were of little use for wide ranging weather reconnaissance and, in order to carry out what became known as 'Bismuth' sorties, a second Met Flight, 1405, was established at Aldergrove in March 1941 equipped with Blenheims.

 

The routes of the daily Bismuths, which were usually flown on a triangular course over the Atlantic, were selected beforehand by the meteorological staff.

The task of the aircrews was to climb and descend as closely as possible to a predetermined programme while recording and transmitting details of  temperature, pressure and humidity of the air mass as well as wind velocity, presence of cloud and rain at different atmospheric levels.

 

Bismuth sorties at this time normally lasted about six hours and were flown in all weathers. All the while, it was necessary to keep a sharp look-out for enemy aircraft.

 

In March 1942, by which time Flight 1405 was equipped with Hudsons, both flights were amalgamated, all four types of aircraft being retained by the new unit which was still known as 1402 Flight.

 

Subsequently, Hampdens, Hurricanes and some relatively rare Mark VI and VII high-altitude Spitfires which could operate at heights of 43,000 feet were also used.

by Ernie Cromie

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Handley Page Hastings, TG623, in service with 202 Squadron flying over countryside near Toome. This aircraft made the final  Bismuth sortie from Aldergrove in 1964.

Met Halifax& Spit

Forecasting the weather

Weather has always been an important factor in the operation of aircraft, especially in the early days of flying when it was the practice at most military airfields for the first flight of the day to be the 'weather flight'. Initially, this took the form of a pilot taking off for a quick 'look-see', but by the mid-thirties the need for a properly organised meteorological service had become apparent.

Consequently, the RAF's first Meteorological Flight was officially established at Duxford airfield, near Cambridge. Not long afterwards, it was decided that a second was required and this was formed in October 1936 at Aldergrove, which was well-placed to facilitate monitoring of the Atlantic weather systems that dominate the climate of Britain and Ireland.

Gloster Gauntlet II, K5279 saw service with the Aldergrove STN "C" Flight from July 1937 until December 1939 after which it joined No.3 Bombing and Gunnery Training School in whose markings it is seen here over the Antrim countryside.

Handley Page Halifax and Supermarine Spitfire of the Aldergrove Met Flight, pictured between Antrim and Randalstown in September 1945. Slemish is just visible between the two aircraft.

Gloster Gladiator II, N5592, which joined the Met Flight in May 1939, is seen parked at Sydenham on 14th May 1942 awaiting collection by 1402 Met Flight. It remained in service until 7th Januray 1945 when it made the types last ascent with 1402 Flight having survived two accidents and amassed no fewer tha 3400 flying hours.