I read an article the other day that opened my eyes to the very different roles that aircraft have that are very rarely told or are kept out of the public domain for security reasons. The aircraft I would like to tell you about is the Battle of Britain Memorial flight Chipmunk (WG 486). She was designed by De Havilland Canada and built in 1952 at the plant near Chester, England, as a basic trainer.
The aircraft began its operational life in Cyprus as an airborne air observer platform for the Army Air Corps. Once it finished in Cyprus, it began its designated job as a basic trainer going through various training squadrons until reaching the University Air Squadron at Bristol University.
1987 saw the aircraft move to RAF Gatow, West Germany. This is where the role changed drastically. To understand why we should look at the history of Germany post WWII. Following the German surrender in 1945, the country was divided into 2 parts, east and west. The Soviets were given the east sector, the three other allies, the west.
Berlin being the capital was also divided into control zones. This was formalized at the Potsdam Conference in 1946. Part of this agreement allowed unhindered entrance into each other’s sectors by command staff to keep an eye on each other’s equipment etc. This was the beginning of the Cold War and tensions between east and west were to grow, including distrust in each other. Churchill famously saying, “an iron curtain had fallen across the continent.
Up until 1948, post the Berlin airlift, the RAF used the Tempest to overfly the Soviet areas to gain intelligence and pictures of Soviet bases and equipment. Once the airlift was finished only training aircraft were allowed to fly into opposing zones. Even the Jet Prevost was banned as this aircraft could be armed.
By the mid 1950’s, the Cold War was at its height and any and all intelligence was critical. Exploiting access to the sky above east Berlin was an opportunity not to missed. With little choice of aircraft available, the decision was made to utilize the tiny Chipmunk. So, December 1956 saw the very first Chipmunk arrive at RAF Gatow. The official reason given was that the aircraft would be used to keep up flying hours of the senior staff.
The chipmunk was to be used as a photographic platform. These covert photographic sorties were planned as 3 hour flts, all under visual flight rules, below 1500ft. All flight in and around came under control of the ‘Berlin Air Safety Centre’, and the Chipmunk flights were duly noted at the centre. Even so, “safety of flight’ was not guaranteed by the Soviets! All of the sorties had to be approved by the very top, the British cabinet itself. They would meet every 2-3 weeks giving a list of airfields and installations they wanted pictures of.
When not on a covert sortie the Chipmunks would be used for training and air experience flights giving cover to the covert flights. Because they were an operational aircraft, they didn’t carry the usual yellow training bands. In fact, at first they were an all over silver; this eventually was covered by an overall grey.
Tensions continued to increase, when in 1961, the world watched in horror as the Berlin wall went up. The ability to travel east-west or vice-versa came to an abrupt end. This made the Chipmunk photo sorties even more important. Flying in Berlin was a very difficult and stress filled adventure for the aircrews. Any mistake in navigation would result in at least a reprimand from the Air Safety Centre, at worst, the shooting down of the aircraft. At least one Chipmunk returned home with a bullet hole in the wing. One large factor that helped with navigation was that all flights were done in good weather which also produced good photos.
Because of the secrecy of these flights, even getting in and out of the aircraft was done inside a closed hangar. If the aircraft happened to be outside, the aircrew would have the helmet and oxygen mask on whenever they were outside. The pilot flew from the rear seat with the photographer in the front seat.
Through the years, the Chipmunks would be rotated out with newer aircraft replacing them. From the early 80s on, the Cold War began to thaw. Nonetheless, the Chipmunk flights continued until October 1990 when the British mission to Soviet forces in Germany was stood down. The last Chipmunk departed RAF Gatow in June 1994. So it was that after almost 50 years, an aircraft designed as a basic trainer completed one of the most important tactical jobs there was during the Cold War. It is a true testament of courage, teamwork and out of the box thinking.
If I hadn’t learned the true story, I may have thought it was a script for a Cold War spy movie. I spent several hours as a very young man in the rear seat of the Chipmunk as part of the Air Corps. It was where I learned to love flying. I never imagined flying over Soviet Berlin taking pictures though. It would be an interesting project to search through the different jobs of different aircraft. I am sure there would be several surprises in what they did as opposed to what they were designed for.