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Story of the plane that had a real soul
4:10pm Monday 30th April 2012 in Ledbury
EVERY minute of the day, every day of the week, somewhere in the world a passenger plane is landing. Seat belt signs will suddenly glow, trays will be stashed away and seats returned to their upright position.
Those next to the windows, after hours above the cotton wool clouds, will look out to see the ground below getting closer.
Descending over fields, rooftops and motorways, the plane crosses the airfield perimeter and, with a sudden rush, the tarmac is rising up. There’s a gentle bump as the wheels touch down and from that moment on, even the most experienced traveller feels a little easier.
And it’s all due to the work of a group of electronic and aviation boffins – plus one very special plane – who came together in Worcestershire during the Second World War.
The automatic landing system was just one of the advances to come out of the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern from 1942 to 1947 and tested on a Boeing plane which flew out of Defford airfield, near Pershore.
Now the story of that plane and the part it played in the wartime development of radar and other technical gadgetry has been told by author Dr Bob Shaw, of Broadway, in Top Secret Boeing.
Dr Shaw, honorary secretary of the Defford Airfield Heritage Group, lifts the veil on what went on at this airfield he describes as “one of the most secret places in Britain during the war”.
His book tells the story of one of the most unusual but most valuable aircraft at Defford – the Boeing 247-D serial number DZ203, the only one of its kind in Europe. So secret was its equipment, it was kept under armed guard when on the ground.
The development of Malvern as an electronics research centre began in 1942 when the Telecommunications Research Establishment was moved there, its laboratories and workshops taking over buildings on the campus of Malvern College. TRE was the main British research and development organisation for radio navigation, radar, infra-red detection for heatseeking missiles and related work.
Over subsequent decades, the facility became known by a series of other initials, including RRE, RSRE, DERA and DRA. Today, it is part of QinetiQ.
But back to 1942. When TRE moved to Malvern, it brought with it the Telecommunications Flying Unit, which operated the aircraft to test the boffins’ inventions. TFU took over Defford which had been, until then, mainly a training airfield.
Dr Shaw said: “From May 1942, an enormous variety of aircraft came and went at Defford.
“They took part in radar experiments, while other aircraft were fitted with radar systems produced in small quantities for operational use. Almost all these aircraft were military types, mainly from the RAF, but also from the Fleet Air Arm and US Army Air Forces, modified to take radar installations.
“An exception to this plethora of military types was an elderly American airliner, a Boeing 247-D which was given the serial number DZ203 when it arrived in Britain in 1941, and which then moved to Defford in May 1942.”
The foreword to the book has been written by Captain Lloyd Cromwell Griffiths, whose late father Group Captain Frank Griffiths piloted the Boeing from Defford on numerous occasions in the 1940s to test both radar and automatic landing systems.
He said: “He flew many hours at the control of Boeing DZ203 testing and developing the radar that would play such a key role in protecting Britain.
“Over those long hours, he developed a harmony with the old Boeing that gave him the confidence and the courage to take his hands and feet off the controls and to watch this ‘singular aeroplane’ gracefully descend to land herself on the runway at Defford.
“No wonder he felt that this aircraft, had a real soul.
“Radar and Auto Land have made today’s flying so safe and routine, the passengers are more concerned about retrieving their bags on arrival than they are about the ability of the aircraft to return them safely to the ground in zero visibility.”
And it all began here. Think on that the next time you are touching down in Timbuktu.
Top Secret Boeing is on sale in the shop at Croome Park, Sedgeberrow Books in Pershore and Blandford Books, Broadway.