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SILVERSTONE: Military aerodrome later to become a famous car racing circuit with some flying activity, mainly but not solely restricted to helicopter use. It has also been used for balloon launches.

Military user: WW2:   RAF Bomber Command        92 Group

17 OTU (Vickers Wellingtons)

Silverstone in 1992
Silverstone in 1992

Picture by the author:
Note:  On our way from Wycombe Air Park to Coventry on the 24th November 1992, we flew over Silverstone. It was one of our waypoints.

Operated by: 1980s to present day: Silverstone Circuits Ltd

Location: 1nm S of A43, NE of Brackley, 4nm S of Towcester


Period of operation:      Military: 1943 to 1946
Civil from ? to today (listed as active on racedays in 1975)

Silverstone in 1993
Silverstone in 1993
Silverstone in 2000
Silverstone in 2000
Note: These maps are reproduced with the kind permission of Pooleys Flight Equipment Ltd. Copyright Robert Pooley 2014.

It seems odd that at least twice the parking for helicopters was provided in 993 compared to 2000.


Runways: WW2: 02/20   1829x46  hard       06/24   1280x46  hard   
                         14/32   1189x46   hard

1990: 06/24   882x23  hard    (A helicopter landing area N of 06/24 was also listed)

2000: 06/24 882x23 hard At this time a 400x50 unmarked grass runway parallel to and just south of 06/24 was available. To the north of 06/24 and situated at the NE end there was/is (?) a grass helicopter runway 450x30 (These runways are only available for use on about nine or ten days each year).

Since the 1970s, (at least?) this airfield site has of course become world famous as a motor racing circuit hosting several F1 Grand Prix events and truck racing too which has also become very popular attracting huge crowds. In August 2009 the 25th World Aerobatic Championships took place here over a ten day period from the 21st August. On the second day an American woman competitor died in a most tragic accident in the Edge 540 N540BW. The details are in AAIB report EW/C2009/08/01

I have banged on elsewhere about the quite appalling accident record Training Command had in the RAF, right from the earliest days, and, if anything, the situation deteriorated during WW2. This is amply illustrated by Joe Patient DFC in his book PILOT, which I think is well worth quoting at some length – and I trust you will agree? He had very nearly completed two tours on ops, being pulled off after 59 sorties, his last tour being on Met Flights from WYTON with the Pathfinders. He was then posted as a test pilot to UPWOOD flying, “…broken-down, shot-up, patched-up Mosquitos.” This lasted for about a month before being posted here.

“Silverstone (No.17 OTU) placed great emphasis on tradition and bull. The friendly, relaxed attitude normally prevalent on operational stations was foreign to Training Command and those coming from ops were quickly reminded of the fact. For me, there was another marked difference. After the speed, power and manoeuvrability of the Mosquito, the Wellington was a wallowing old duck."

"I soon discovered this when I was given 45 minutes dual with Flight Lieutenant Hawkins DFM on 6 August, followed by solo circuits and landings. I had never operated with a large crew, always with a trained Observer. What could I teach them? Actions which I would take in a Mosquito under fire couldn’t possibly be used in a heavy. It seemed to me that my function was more that of a safety pilot watching for signs of inefficiency than an instructor.”

“On one occasion when I thought I could teach them something I got one hell of a dressing down from the CO. I was OIC (Officer in Charge) of flying for that night. When the Met forecast came in I found it OK and sent crews off on a cross-country, myself with Warrant Officer Bolter and crew. The flight was completed with just a little cloud, moderate turbulence and slight icing (or so it seemed to me)."

"On my return I was astonished to find that, even with instructors on board, some of the flights had aborted. In the morning I was sent for by the OC Flying, acting Wing Commander G. D. Lyster DSO, DFC. ‘Patient, how dare you send of crews in such appalling weather? Such irresponsibility is vey reprehensible,’ and so on. I reported that I had flown myself and that conditions certainly were not bad. If crews were not given experience of weather at that stage, there would be many aborted sorties and bomb loads jettisoned when they got to squadrons.”

Oddly enough I found a similar attitude prevailing when I was learning to fly some forty plus years later. Quite often a training detail was cancelled but I would request to go and look at the weather conditions. Usually the response was, from wannabe ATPL young instructors, “Why? You won’t learn anything. It’s a waste of your money”

Quite often, when I was learning to fly, I could find a very experienced instructor to take me up and he of course, (it was nearly always a ‘he’ in those days), knew I would quickly learn a hell of a lot, and to some extent at least, learn how to cope. These experiences came to be very valuable indeed later on and enabled me to have no hesitation to divert and land, or conversely to carry on, knowing how to deal with it. But, this is not normal practice at most flying schools.

To continue with Joe Patient’s account: “He was obviously taken aback at being spoken to in this way by a subordinate and suggested that my specialist experience in weather had clouded my judgement as to the requirements of inexperienced crews. I was to be more careful in future. He continued, ‘I noticed the other day that you did not take any steps to enforce discipline when a sergeant passed you without saluting. I am therefore going to delay your flight lieutenancy for three months.’ What appalling self-righteousness.”

What follows seems to begger imagination: “I was sent to 92 Group Instructors’ Flight on a course which lasted eighteen days. I flew twenty-seven times, rarely doing anything other than circuits and bumps, overshoots and single-engine flying. This was great stuff which would have been a real help had they sent me there first. I had, by that time, after only 45 minutes dual on a Wellington, already flown as an instructor on eleven occasions. How we managed to win the war with such obvious mismanagement is a mystery. It would be difficult to imagine such a thing happening in the Luftwaffe. I returned to Silverstone with not much more to show for it than another 31 hours and 15 minutes added to my total flying hours.”

It pains me to point it out, but there is so much evidence of Training Command being occupied with inept management at virtually every level. Small wonder then that their own safety record was so abysmal, and, of much greater significance, crews were arriving at operational squadrons very ill-equipped to perform their roles. On a similar note, and hardly surprising, so many bomber crews failed to survive their first couple of missions. Here again, and I do realise I’m a very cynical sod, there does appear to be a very deliberate stance taken amongst those in charge to allow such a disgraceful regime to continue. Surely, they must have been well aware of their failings?




George Coles

This comment was written on: 2018-02-22 17:51:38
First RAC International Grand Prix was run on the 2nd October 1948

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