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Avro Shackleton

The longest serving RAF maritime patrol aircraft known for its ‘growl’

THE announcement that a RAF P-8 Poseidon will form part of the British arm of a Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) deployment covering an area from the Channel to the Baltic Sea into early 2024 has reiterated the importance of maritime patrol aircraft to the defence of UK waters.

Along with the Poseidon, the task force will include seven British ships – six warships and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel – working alongside their European allies to carry out deterrent patrols defending offshore assets.

The Poseidon is the latest in a long line of maritime patrol aircraft, the origins of which date back more than a century: WWI saw zeppelins or similar airships operated by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) patrolling the waters around the UK and further afield, searching out German submarines and ships.

Shackleton MR.1 of 269 Squadron with dorsal turret in 1953
(Shackleton MR.1 of 269 Squadron with dorsal turret in 1953 - 📸 RuthAs)

The longest serving of the aircraft type in RAF history was the Avro derivative of the Lincoln bomber, the Shackleton, operating from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, the Nimrod finally taking over its duties completely after the two served alongside each other for 20 years.

The idea for the Shackleton came in the mid-1940s in response to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Avro team led by the designer of the iconic Lancaster bomber, Roy Chadwick. Chadwick was killed in an air crash in August 1947 while testing a prototype of Avro’s commercial airliner, the Tudor, but the tragedy didn’t halt either aircraft project, the need for a maritime patrol aircraft clear with the growing threat of the Soviet maritime fleet.

The Shackleton evolved from the Lancaster’s successor, the Lincoln, with early prototypes featuring search radar described as ‘chin-mounted’ as well as cannons in the nose and dorsal turret, and machine guns in the tail. Power was supplied by four Rolls-Royce Griffon 57 engines with a patrol range of around 3,000 nautical miles, the aircraft name not arriving until it entered RAF service in 1951 – a nod to polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Not a particularly aesthetically pleasing creation, the design appeared more WW2 than Cold War, famously described as “40,000 rivets flying in close formation” and gaining the nickname The Growler due to the engine noise created.

It was March 9, 1949, when the GR.1, VW135, took its first test flight from the Avro manufacturing site airfield at Woodford in Cheshire, Chief Test Pilot J.H ‘Jimmy’ Orrell at the controls; the prototype was equipped with the capability for air-to-air refuelling using the looped-line method, an adaptation that was not included in production variants due to “ineffectiveness” and “performance difficulties incurred”.

Shackleton MR.2 of No. 220 Squadron RAF in September 1955

(Shackleton MR.2 of No. 220 Squadron RAF in September 1955 - 📸 RuthAs)

Developments continued ahead of entering RAF service with No. 120 Squadron in March 1951, large amounts of newly-developed electronic surveillance equipment incorporated within the fuselage, a MR.2 version first flying on June 17, 1952, with improved radar installation and a reconfiguration of its armaments. The final variant was the MR.3, produced in response to crew feedback, general improvements included adaptations in wing technology and the introduction of an internal galley along with sleeping accommodation.

By the end of 1952 seven squadrons were operating Shackletons, the aircraft deployed by RAF Coastal Command as part of the NATO requirement for patrols over the Atlantic, regular long-range missions carried out to monitor Soviet submarine movements; other missions included search and rescue, weather reconnaissance and troop transport.

The darkest day for the aircraft, and for No. 42 Squadron, arrived on January 11, 1955, two Shackletons departing St Eval in Cornwall to carry out routine 15-hour patrols south of Fastnet Rock off the coast of the Republic of Ireland. Ten hours into the operation, radio messages were received to confirm the aircraft were flying at the prescribed 85-mile distance from one another, but no further communication was received from either aircraft.

The alarm was raised and a search and rescue operation was launched over the following days, but no debris or bodies were discovered, the official line being the two planes were likely to have collided in darkness – 18 aircrew were killed in the accident. It would be 11 more years when parts from one of the planes found their way into the fishing nets of an Irish trawler, but the discovery did not shed any new light on the reasoning behind the collision theory.

The same year as the disaster, the Shackleton undertook it first operational deployment transporting troops to Cyprus, before a year later the first combat operations were undertaken during the Suez Crisis in 1956. By the 1960s a typical crew for the aircraft comprised ten personnel: two pilots, two navigators, a flight engineer, an air electronics officer and four air electronics operators.

An increasing concern over the USSR’s use of deep-diving submarines saw nuclear depth charges added to the Shackleton’s arsenal in 1966, by which time plans were already in place to upgrade to a more modern maritime patroller, May 1967 seeing the Nimrod prototype airborne.

However, there was plenty of life still left in the Shackleton fleet, continuing in operation for two decades after the Nimrod entered service in 1969, the Shackletons suddenly in demand in the early 1970s to provide AEW (airborne early warning) coverage in the North Sea following the withdrawal of the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Gannet. Operated by No.8 Squadron at Kinloss and then Lossiemouth, the 12 AEW aircraft were named after characters from the then popular children’s TV series, The Magic Roundabout and The Herbs, Parsley and Ermintrude among the interesting monikers given.

8 Sqn RAF Shackleton AEW 2 taken on 26 June 1982
(8 Sqn RAF Shackleton AEW 2 taken on 26 June 1982)

In total there were 16 Shackleton squadrons, along with No. 236 Operation Conversion Unit (OCU) which received its first MR.1 in 1951, many of those units converting to Nimrods. They were finally withdrawn from service in 1991, a year after another fatal accident on the Isle of Harris, a Shackleton from No. 8 Squadron based at Lossiemouth crashing into a hill while attempting to land at RAF Benbecula on April 30, 1990, all ten on board killed.

Many Shackletons are on display today, including at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, but for those willing to travel further, SAAF 1716 J Pelican can be found in the Sahara Desert at a site approximately a two-hour drive from Zouérat in northern Mauritania. Operated by the South African Air Force, it went down on July 13, 1994, on its way to Duxford, all 19 of the crew surviving but the aircraft itself remaining in situ to this day.

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