AFEE had its origin in the early days at Ringway, developing alongside the Parachute Training School (PTS); the one training paratroops, the other testing aircraft and equipment of the new airborne force.As PTS expanded AFEE moved out, first to Sherburn-in-Elmet near York and later at Christmas 1944 to Beaulieu, as soon as a southern airfield with more amenable weather became available.
The unit was commanded by an RAF Group Captain, but the work was controlled by a civilian Chief Technical Officer or Superintendent acting for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The personnel at Beaulieu were a mixture of RAF, various branches of the Army, some Navy personnel and civilians, many leading experts in their own field.
'A' Flight had, from 1941, dealt with the work connected with gliders, glider tugs and later target towing aircraft. 'B' Flight, which at Ringway and Sherburn tried to develop the use of the rota-chute and the rota-buggy (jeep) as an alternative to parachutes, was now working on the development of early American and later British helicopters for all three services.
For this article it is 'C' Flight on which I will concentrate. 'C' Flight and its associated Paratroop Section dealt with all tests of new parachutes, aircraft and equipment dropped with, or for use by, airborne soldiers, including heavy equipment such as guns and jeeps.
The equipment tested came from various sources, new aircraft and parachutes developed by industry as an answer to the needs of the day, ideas developed by AFEE to meet problems found in training or action and others were ideas tried out in action situations by Airborne Forces and then back to AFEE to be evaluated and further developed.
All tests were extensively photographed from many angles including air to air so that abnormalities could be examined before tests continued and hundreds of reports were written on all aspects of each new item tested. For example, a new aircraft such as the Hastings would first be tested to find the most suitable length of strop needed to clear the tail. These would then be used to drop dozens of block shaped rubber dummies with 'X' type parachutes before the first live descents were carried out by the test team of just eight RAF PJls.
When a certain number of live drops had been completed it was then that the very valuable contribution of the volunteers of the Airborne Forces Detachments was sought. A mixed detachment of experienced Paras. Gunners, Engineers, Signals, etc of 20 to 25, under a Captain, would move to Beaulieu for about six weeks to enable an increase in the total number of test drops up to the several hundred needed before the new type of aircraft could be accepted for general parachuting work. In the case of the Hastings, the Para detachment jumping in mixed sticks with PJls, enabled a full drop of 30 men and 20 supply containers to be done.
At a time when British paratroops still jumped with only one parachute, the paratroops engaged on test work at Beaulieu used a dual-X harness with a reserve parachute, but unlike modem reserves this was the standard observer parachute with a rigid back frame which, unless the harness was tight, could come up and hit one in the face.
Unlike the Parachute Training School which operated with many aircraft of the same type, the Experimental Establishment only had one of the type, often the prototype, also needed by 'A' Flight for glider towing tests. The eager paratroops often had to wait whole days for the aircraft to be modified or made serviceable. This could prove rather frustrating when the weather was very suitable for jumping.
Paratroop detachments were moved to Beaulieu to help with the earliest tests of such aircraft as the Avro York, Hastings and Valetta and for a number of other tests such as the Blank Gore Parachute of 1946. This parachute was highly manoeuvrable, but was not at the time accepted for general use. It was later to become the fore-runner of modern sport parachutes.
The experienced paratroops were also able to help with jumps from Stirlings, Halifaxes and a Dakota using a variety of kitbags and other loads. After a stay of up to six weeks the detachment would return to the holding unit, having made a valuable contribution to producing new equipment.
Beaulieu, for all its rather remote situation and sites of scattered Nissen huts, did have one advantage for parachute testing. Just across the Lymington road from the airfield was the long abandoned site of 1st World War Beaulieu Airfield which provided a very convenient DZ.
On 4 April 1950 this allowed a record six separate flights and drops by PJIs from the same aircraft between 7 am and 11 am in a bid to finish some tests so that the aircraft could move on. The advantage of the very close DZ was off-set by it being part covered by 'rather painful spiked gorse bushes'.
It must be remembered that aircraft tested in the 1940s did not have the design advantage of the rear cargo ramp, so useful with the present Hercules and all heavy equipment had to be dropped from a bomb bay under the aircraft. The really heavy load was a 25 pdr gun from a Halifax Mk 7. Supply container dropping was done from all the paratroop aircraft, but also from Fleet Air Arm and RAF fighters including the Typhoon. Supply panniers were mainly pushed out by hand, but the Hastings was tested with a roller mat which when triggered whilst the aircraft was in a nose up flight could launch 28 panniers of 300 pounds each through the enormous side freight door in just 4.5 seconds.
Not so well known are the many tests at the three homes of AFEE of items which were not adopted for later use, such as parachuting troops from both a Horsa glider and the Halifax tug, pannier dropping from a Horsa and, strangest of all, four men parachuting from boxes under the wings of a Fairey Barracuda.
With the move to Boscombe Down in 1950 the work continued with a new breed of aircraft, whilst the 'plywood airforce' tested by 'A' Flight was phased out as helicopters took over.
By Sgt Alan Brown PJIRead More