Zone UK

 

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The article below is written by FLAG member and local journalist Philip Sedgwick

Squadron Leader Peter Odling - A Leeming officer's memories in flying

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Peter - Present, at home in North Yorkshire and past, in the cockpit of a Gloster Meteor 

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The mighty Vulcan in which Peter spent much of his long Service career


 
IN an era when many teenagers have never experienced the joys of employment, at just 18 years of age Peter Odling flew solo in a jet fighter plane. Then spent much of his career as captain of a nuclear-armed Vulcan bomber at the height of the Cold War. 

His first taste of military aviation was not a happy experience. Growing up near the famous wartime fighter base RAF Hornchurch, he was machine gunned by low-flying German aircraft on his way to school.  

Joining the Air Training Corps at 14, his headmaster permitted him to miss Wednesday afternoon games and spend the time at RAF Hornchurch cadging lifts from benevolent Reservist pilots. By the time he left school Peter had over 200 hours as a passenger and a good idea how pilot an aircraft.
Awarded a flying scholarship by the Air Ministry at 17, he joined the RAF in 1952 and was classified as A1: G1: Z1- fit to be a pilot. He proved the point by going solo after just three hours tuition.
Receiving his “wings” he was posted to the Advanced Flying School at RAF Middleton St George, now Teesside Airport. The aircraft he now progressed to was the Gloster Meteor, the RAF‘s first jet engined fighter. When he took his first flight in this powerful jet he had yet to reach his 19th birthday.
Ironically, although he could shoot up to 35,000 feet and fly at 600mph, he couldn’t vote and didn’t even have a driving licence.  Camaraderie amongst the young pilots was something he well remembers. He said: “It was a different air force then; we lived in huts and ate in the mess.”

Peter did eventually buy an Austin 7 from a local scrapyard for £7; although he is rather coy about how they spent the rest of their spare time.
Selected for bombers he flew the Lincoln a descendent of the wartime Lancaster shuttling the four-engine aeroplane across, Europe and the Middle East, still at a relatively young age. He recalls it was very cold, very noisy and little different to its wartime predecessor.
Posted to a Canberra Squadron in West Germany and then back to the UK, he became an instructor at Cambridge University Air Squadron. One of his pupils who he persuaded to join the Air Force subsequently rose to be operational head of the RAF: Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Stear. “I was very proud of that”, he recalls.
Out of the blue he was posted to the V Bomber Force as a Captain of the RAF’s cutting-edge aircraft: the mighty Vulcan.
With the Cold War in deep freeze, after ground school and flight simulation he was soon up to scratch. One of his early trips was halfway across the Atlantic; returning they were forced to divert to Prestwick where the aircraft was put under armed guard whilst the aircrew were put up for the night in a local hotel -a rare treat.  

Their home squadron was 617 (Dambusters) and they were very proud of that. They had the same offices and hangers as the wartime Lancaster crews. 

Armed with the Blue Steel, a forerunner of a modern-day Cruise Missile their given task was to destroy a designated target in the Soviet Union in retaliation for a nuclear strike on the west.  

The shooting-down of the American U2 spy plane in May 1960 was a game-changer, forcing a switch from high-level to low-level strikes. The Vulcans went from white paint to camouflage. Now they flew below treetop height and their missile launch reduced from 200 miles to 20 from target. 

Crews were regularly on a state of readiness: Quick Reaction Alert, waiting to respond to the nuclear threat. QRA still operates at both RAF Coningsby and Lossiemouth today.  

Often their skyward practice sorties involved the whole V Force of over 80 aircraft, terrifying the civilian air traffic controllers and playing havoc with television broadcasts over Scotland.
In truth aircrews had an idea that the simulated attacks were exercises as there hadn’t been the increased political tension.  Although Peter did recall an occasion he was on QRA cockpit readiness and it was quite some time before they were stood down and believed it was the real thing.

For the five-man crew of: pilot, co-pilot, air electronics officer, navigator plotter and navigator radar flying the Vulcan did have its dangers. Only the pilot and co-pilot had ejection seats, the remaining ‘back seat’ crewmembers had to bail out through the entrance door: a process not always successful when an aircraft had to be abandoned.

Luckily during his long career Peter only had one mishap when an engine failed on take-off but he successfully returned to base.
A further move to RAF Finningley as a Chief Flying Instructor then a ‘hush hush’ job in Malta and finally to RAF Leeming as Chief Ground Instructor. He left the RAF after 22 years with the rank of Squadron Leader.  

After working for Portakabin, he ran his own TV/Electrical business in Thirsk. On retiring he resumed flying at Bagby Airfield using a friend’s aircraft. He became a sought-after speaker and Chairman of the Flying Club and is also highly-skilled at repairing model locomotive engines.

 “I gave up flying completely at the age of 75.  I thought that was just the age to start becoming dangerous, after all it is not like a car that you can park at the side of the road if anything goes wrong.” 

During his distinguished career Peter amassed over 4500 flying hours, the equivalent to spending six months constantly in the air. He has flown 14 different types of aircraft, 56 out of the 82 Vulcans built including those on display at the Sunderland and Newark air museums and even broke the sound barrier in a Hawker Hunter. 

Looking back, Squadron Leader Odling believes they were justified being resolute in their daunting task.
“We didn’t agonise even though we knew that if we had to go for real, we wouldn’t be coming back as there would be nothing there.  

“That was our mind-set over the years and we took it all in our stride.

“You were in the Royal Air Force and it was the Cold War.”

 

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Brig. Gen. Urschler in 

 his P-51 Mustang

"The Gunfighter"

and as a young Lt. flying with SAC


Below is a RB-47H

Stratojet airplane of the type in which he flew elint missions during the cold war years

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Web contributions from "The Gunfighter"