“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice – the Armstrong-Whitworth F.8 Meteor (Prone)
Tags: aircraft, Armstrong Whitworth, Armstrong-Whitworth F.8 (Prone) Meteor, Aviation, Bristol Type 185, Cosford, Discovery Centre, England, Fred Sigrist, fuselage, Gloster Meteor, Leicestershire Museum Service, museum, prone pilot, R.S. 4 Bobsleigh, RAF, RAF Museum, Reid & Sigrist, Royal Air Force, Snibston, warbird
“Long and long ago…” as my favourite author said, back when both the world and I were green, I was appointed as Assistant Keeper, Aviation to Leicestershire Museum Service. I was exceedingly fortunate to join a very varied and knowledgeable staff, who had already solved most of the potential problems associated with the new position. We had a superb Auster/Taylorcraft collection (the local aircraft manufacturer) including the pre-production Auster J-1 Autocrat, G-AGOH, which we flew as a staff transport and photographic platform, the premier collection of Whittle engine and other materials (Air Commodore Whittle had conducted much of his early work at Lutterworth, in Leicestershire) and the Reid & Sigrist archive. Fred Sigrist had been a director of Hawker Aircraft Ltd, and when a chance arose to supply sub-contracted parts to that concern, he had formed a new company to do just that. As well as aircraft parts, they had made aircraft instruments (and later cameras). Given the Hawker connection, it is hardly surprising that they should try to break into the training aircraft market, and immediately before the war had produced a sporty looking twin called the Reid & Sigrist R.S.1 Snargasher (yes, that’s its REAL name!). Unfortunately, this didn’t catch on, but R & S used it as a company hack during WW2. Which brings us to their next product, another light twin with tandem seating, call the R.S.3 Desford. The company was asked to modify this to accomodate a second pilot in the prone position in the nose of the aircraft; the redesigned machine then became the Reid & Sigrist R.S.4 Bobsleigh! All this was done because the Air Ministry was looking into the possibility of building aircraft – particularly fighters – with the pilot in the prone position. This whole investigation was because aircrew, with the new generation of jets on the horizon, were going to encounter some distinct physiological problems.
The R.S.4 Bobsleigh was eventually allocated an RAF serial ‘VS748’ and assigned to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Experiments involving various phases of prone flight were carried out, as the position held some promise. The cross-sectional area of an aircraft’s fuselage could be much reduced, and, since jet engines were going to be the propulsive power of the future, the pilot could be sited in the extreme nose of the aircraft, giving him excellent visibility. However, the main consideration was that of resistance to ‘g’ forces on the human body. Already, WW2 fighter pilots were being subjected to such forces, and when pulling out from a steep dive they could easily ‘black out’. This was caused by the blood being drawn from the head and chest towards the lower extremities, thereby starving the brain of oxygenated blood, and causing a loss (or partial loss) of conciousness. This is exactly what you do NOT want to happen during combat!
German aeronautical engineering was probably the most inventive and advanced of all the fighting powers during WW2, spoilt only (thank goodness) by appalling politics, terrible shortages of advanced materials and bad direction from the top. They had test flown an advanced interceptor GLIDER, the Blohm & Voss Bv-40, which had a prone pilot, minimal frontal area and two 30mm cannons. This was to be towed to altitude and dive through 8th Air Force bomber formations! There was also a prone single-seat jet dive-bomber cum interceptor, the Henschel 132, almost ready for flight, but the factory was over-run by Russian forces before this could happen.
Post-war, the Americans also sought to exploit the advantages of prone piloting, modifying a standard Lockheed P-80 with an extra prone pilot in the nose as the EP-80. The Northrop XP-79, a flying wing jet interceptor with prone pilot was promising, but crashed on the 12th September, 1945 on its maiden flight.
The Royal Aeronautical Establishment’s Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough wanted to research the prone pilot position and the lessening of the effect of ‘g’ forces in flight, but the R.S. 4 Bobsleigh was too slow, and since it had all the controls (rudder, ailerons and elevator) linked on one stick, it was very difficult to fly. Consequently, the last Gloster Meteor F.8 fighter, ‘WK935’ – built under sub-contract by Armstrong-Whitworth at Baggington – was modified by adding eight feet to the nose and installing a padded pilot’s couch (inclined at 30 degrees), powered controls, padded armrests and a chin rest! To restore the center of gravity the long tail section from a Meteor night-fighter (an NF.12) was fitted, with the bigger rudder to counter the increased side area. This made the F.8 (Prone), as it was known, the longest Meteor ever at 52 feet 6 inches.
The program was supported by the Bristol Aircraft Company, who were designing a rocket-powered prone interceptor, the Type 185, and some of their company pilots would be involved in the flying program. WK935 made its first flight from Baggington airfield, but only as far as the company test field at Bitteswell. The first ‘prone flight’ – always with a ‘safety’ pilot in the rear cockpit – was flown by Armstrong-Whitworth’s Chief Test Pilot, Eric Franklin, and took place on the 10th February, 1954. A short flying program – 16 hours total – had been carried out, when suddenly, the Bristol Type 185 was cancelled, and the need for WK935 was gone. It was found that 6g could be easily withstood by the prone pilot during a loop, but in turbulence the whole body was bounced up and down, especially the chin on its rest, making for very tiring flying. The last public outing for the aircraft was in a flying display to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Aircraft Establishment on the 7/8th July, 1956.
This aircraft has survived purely by chance. It was flown to No 12 Maintenance Unit, RAF Kirkbride, in Cumbria where hundreds of other Meteors were waiting to be scrapped. Somehow it was transferred to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire in May, 1959, and after a lot of other moves and transfers was sent to RAF Cosford, where it finally found a home with the RAF Museum.
Prone piloting was killed not by insurmountable technical difficulties, not even by the inability of the prone pilot to see to the rear in flight, or maneuver the aircraft on the ground, but by advances in flying clothing. The ‘anti-g’ suit, which inflated tubes under the fabric running from side to side of the pilot’s abdomen and stopped blood flowing away from the brain, prevented many ‘blackouts’. That and finally following the German practice of designing fighter aircraft with elevated rudder pedals – and thereby making it possible to resist even more ‘g’.
The Armstrong-Whitworth F.8 (Prone) Meteor was an oddity, a cul-de-sac in 1950s fighter design, but I am glad to have found it, tucked away in a corner at Cosford.
Oh, and I almost forgot (I feel like Columbo, here). The R.S. 4 Bobsleigh was de-converted after to the war back to R.S. 3 Desford standard. However, it kept the prone position and glazed nose, and was found to be an excellent machine for air-to-air film work. Eventually, it was retired and found its way to my old employer, Leicestershire Museum Service, and it is in store – for intended eventual restoration – at the Discovery Centre, Snibston, where I used to work!