Posted By Clare Stead,
28 December 2018
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Weather and Sailing Conference
Part One: Greenwich
Taking place at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich the delegates were pleased that they were in an area of the museum which had been, some years ago, covered with a glass roof and were behind a glass wall onto which the rain lashed all day.
The proceedings were opened by Prof. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of RMetS, who welcomed those attending and dealt with the usual housekeeping arrangements before introducing the line-up of speakers.
First to speak was Jim Galvin, Senior Operations Meteorologist from the Met. Office, giving us the history of the Shipping Forecast. Forecasting goes back to Admiral Fitzroy, the Board of Trade and the invention in 1854 of telegraph which allowed long distance communications and the use of Storm Cones. Moving on to more modern times, Long Wave broadcasting allowed shipping at sea to receive the forecast from 1924. Customers of the forecast were initially the maritime community – now the MCA who own the forecast. It is still broadcast by agreement with the BBC and is now used by many more communities, including rescue organizations like the RNLI.
Forecasts are directly funded from taxation and come as Inshore, Shipping, and High Seas versions. Winds are forecast to come from eight compass points, with a variability of ± 45˚. The speed of the wind is expected to be ± 1 Beaufort strength of that forecast, and wave heights should be ± 1 on the Douglas Sea State scale. The Shipping Forecast is limited by the BBC to 350 (± 20) words, with an increase to 380 words at 2300 to allow the inclusion of sea area Trafalgar, although the Inshore Waters Forecast has no word limitations on it. Because of the limit on the Shipping Forecast some areas will sometimes be grouped together to speed up reading out the information. On occasions some of the larger sea areas are split into two where the forecast is different across the area although this is not encouraged for smaller areas.
The models of the weather used are becoming increasingly good, but it is still the forecaster who adds value by interpreting the numerical forecast. He or she has knowledge of local irregularities and anomalies, and is able to predict thunderstorms and sea fog. The winds only are subject to a process of verification; they must be within ± 1 Beaufort strength and the timing should be within 95% of the forecast time. The numbers of forecasters at the Met. Office is dropping, so what of the future? Will Artificial Intelligence write the forecasts and will there still be broadcasts of the Shipping Forecast in ten years’ time?
Tom Cunliffe entertained us with the title of, “From Long Wave to GRIB and Apps”. With the example of the 350-word limit, Tom told us that, as a journalist he has tried to condense his sailing life into a similar number. Pointing out the changes in both boats and navigation techniques he went on to compare what was available when he started sailing, the Long Wave Shipping Forecast when within reception range with modern methods, including the information on the US weather channels and, more recently, in the Baltic. Much of his sailing is now done in the flat waters of the Baltic, Tom feeling that he has done all the rough weather sailing he needs. Here, the forecast is downloaded to his PC hour by hour for very local areas.
Moving onto training, candidates for Yachtmaster qualifications were expected to plot a synoptic chart from the reports for Coastal Stations, locate any fronts and make a stab at producing their own forecast. Once at sea, well offshore and out of Long Wave range the only weather information came from looking at the sky and from the barometer. Now you can get the PassageWeather forecast almost everywhere. The forecasts, Tom said, were accurate for today, good for tomorrow but were dubious five days out – although better than nothing. Hence his advice before commencing a passage to carefully monitor the forecasts for several days before starting. There is a lot of weather information out there, but how do we access it? Some parts of Scotland have very poor reception, while Scandinavia, which Tom obviously likes, has some 39 transmitting masts and you are usually in range of at least four of them.
Christian Dumard then described the Squid software supplied by Great Circle to several long distance ocean races as well as cruising yachts. The company is a marine weather supplier working with 100 professional sailing yachts, and 1,000 cruising yachts, providing a service both before and during the race. Ensemble forecasts are used with different models produced by altering slightly the observations entered into the equations.
At the end of the morning the three speakers combined to answer questions. Questions from the floor covered things like the accuracy of forecasts, other sources of information, climate change, the jet stream, visual signs and thermals (winds, not underwear).
The afternoon session was opened by Sam Matson talking about the weather and sailing strategy in the Volvo racing fleet. Sam started by showing the route for the 2017 / 18 race. He was one of the Race Officers based at the headquarters in Alicante, where there were four experienced racers on duty 24/7. All the information from the racing fleet arrived here – data sensors on board, angle of heel, keel angle etc. Fifty variables were arriving each second from every boat, with environmental data every ten seconds. All this information was placed into spreadsheets and then graphed to make them understandable.
As well as all this data, photographs from on board cameras were transmitted. These enabled the Control Room team, should they see something untoward in the data, to check if everything was all right on the yacht or if there was a crisis. This all enabled the team to present a comprehensive and understandable story to the Press and the public. One story concerned the strategy for coping with the St. Helena high pressure. This high pressure area, with light winds, lay on the direct course of the fleet so boats needed to decide how to sail around it. Another was the problem of the Southern Ocean lows and the need to keep up speed to try to stay ahead of the fronts. Here, the more experienced crews tended to stay further to the North while the less experienced strayed further to the South. This was complicated by the Antarctic Ice Zone which the yachts were obliged by the rules to avoid. During the event Ice Reports for the area required an extension of this zone to the North, in fact farther North than the positions of some of the competitors.
The next speaker was the RYA’s Director of Training, Richard Falk. Richard gave us a glimpse into the weather and navigation challenges presented by the Sydney - Hobart race. He described this, with his tongue in his cheek I suspect, as 630 relaxing miles starting on Boxing Day. The boats and crews range from downright professional to dedicated amateur. Because of the distances involved there is inadequate Marine Band VHF coverage, so each competitor is obliged to carry SSB H/F radio for the mandatory reporting and for listening to weather forecasts. When he came to the UK Richard was amazed to find that the Fastnet Race, almost as long, was sailed in waters where there was complete VHF coverage. One challenge for the navigator is the East Australian Current, which is part of the South Pacific Gyre. This current wanders and isn’t found in the same position all the time; sometimes it moves offshore, sometimes inshore and occasionally produces back eddies. With a speed of between one and three and a half knots it is important to know where to find it.
Another problem is South Australia’s location, in the march of the Southern Ocean’s lows, which come across every 72 hours or so. The boats are likely to be hit by a Southerly Buster somewhere on the way. In 1998 winds of up to 100 knots met the South Australia Current running at 31/2 knots producing waves greater than100 feet. From this, and some sad deaths, the following came out – the need to carry EPIRBs, the wearing of lifejackets and the requirement for First Aid and Life raft training for all competitors.
Summing up Richard told the audience there are several stages to the race:
Getting out of harbour. There may be an onshore thermal wind necessitating a beat out amongst all the spectator boats. Survive.
Heading South. Remaining inshore shortens the distance, heading offshore often gets a better current.
All down the coast there are regular local reports given of wind speed and direction, almost in real time.
From the SE corner of Australia to the NE corner of Tasmania is 200 miles across the Bass Straight in 50 to 70 metre depths. This is where the Southerly Buster may strike.
At Tasmania the choice is to remain offshore if the current warrants it, or to close the coast and seek blanketing from the wind by the high coast.
Weather resources available:
VHF radio: Yes in coastal waters, No further offshore. Similar to UK
Mobile data: Yes in coastal waters, No further offshore. Shipping Forecast
Weather routing: Yes
Pre-race weather briefing: Yes, x 2
Robert McCabe, Director of Operations and Navigation Services from Commissioners for Irish Lights then gave a run-down of the past services before moving on the future potential of CIL’s assets. We were reminded of the historic importance of Irish information when, in 1944, the weather report from Black Sod gave the first indication of a let up in the winds that would allow D Day to go ahead, albeit one day late. But what of the future? Five years ago all the solar energy on an AtoN was needed to power the light to give it the needed range. With increasingly sophisticated solar panels and LED lights there is now power to spare. The Fastnet light used to have 1 000 watt lamp but has now been re-engineered with a 30 watt LED, still having the required range.
All this means that modern buoys have spare power available which can be used to run weather measuring sensors and to transmit the data. There are currently twelve stations doing this, two lighthouses and ten buoys. The data measured and transmitted includes average wind speed and direction, with additionally gusts and gust direction, and wave heights, barometric pressure, humidity, air and sea temperature and pollution information. Much of this is relayed to Met. Éireann for use in their forecasts.
One can expect to see an increase in these remote sensing techniques, but there are still some challenges. These include the validation and correlation of the data transmitted, and the compromise between payload and power. The platform design may need to be modified and there is the question of how the data is presented to the user, and how it fits in with other sources.
The final speaker was Mervyn King who told us how he came to lose his yacht Tamarind in the 2017 OSTAR. Tamarind was an American design, built in Taiwan, and was both heavy and slow. Trackers were fitted to each participating boat and the Race’s web site showed each yacht’s position, with a coronet above the leading boat in each class.
A call to the boat by a Master Mariner friend warned Mervyn of a low, 964 mb. Because the chart table was occupied by a laptop computer being used for navigation Mervyn decided not to get out from under it a paper chart and pencil to mark the position of the low. The weather deteriorated (we were shown a barograph plot) and eventually Tamarind was knocked down to 160˚. This resulted in a window being stove in and the boat filling with water; the EPIRB was washed aft and set off; the steering cable parted and the wheel nut and the wheel both came off. After several hours of bailing the boat was more or less empty and floating high. Remember, though, the EPIRB had been triggered! Shortly an RAF aircraft arrived, followed by a ship. The weather, by now had started to ease down. What to do? Try to manage the boat in its current state or be rescued? Then another ship turned up – the QE 11 cruise liner – and took over from the first ship.
By now, Mervyn decided that it would be ungracious, and probably unwise, to refuse to be rescued, especially by such a famous vessel. This still left the problem of how to get on board. No difficulty, the QE 11 launched her rescue RIB and picked him up. Before leaving Tamarind Mervyn had cut through a relatively small pipe and opened the sea cock so the boat was slowly scuttled. The rest of the described Mervyn’s subsequent treatment as an honoured guest and the talks he was asked to give during the remainder of the passage to Halifax.
Following a final question and answer session, during which the question of virtual AtoNs was raised, Paul Bryans, Chairman of the Small Craft Group of RIN, thanked all the speakers, the Royal Met. Soc. and the National Maritime Museum for their assistance in putting on this one-day conference. By now the rain had lightened sufficiently to make it possible to get to the pub.
Weather and Sailing Conference
Part Two: W&S Ireland
Delegates were warmly welcomed to the Royal Irish Yacht Club (RIYC) with introductions from Darryl Hughes, Vice Commodore Pat Shannon (RIYC) and Captain Michael McKenna (Dublin Port). Capt. McKenna noted that this event was ideal for Ireland, as it was for all intents and purposes a conversation about the weather.
The first speaker of the day was Jessica Sweeney (Team Ineos UK) who was Skyped in from Melbourne. Much to the conference organisers’ relief, this bold move worked well and we were all captivated by Jessica’s talk on ‘Weather and the America’s Cup’. I can’t speak for all of the audience but I was surprised to learn the accuracy with which these racing teams need to be able to forecast the weather; they’re trying to forecast to within 1 knot, 8 hours ahead, to sail through a box of one-mile by half-a-mile wide.
The weather challenge is to figure out at exactly 1407 that afternoon will it be 13-16 knots or 14-18 knots? They need to make their decisions at 6am, with measurements locked in at 9am. Jessica talked through the timeline of weather-based decisions, ranging from those made years ahead of a race right up to those last minute decisions such as choosing the right crew on the basis of weight.
Evelyn Cusack from Met Éireann was next up to grace the stage with her talk that answered the questions ‘Just how do we forecast the weather?’. Evelyn began with the basics of what drives weather systems – essentially due to the energy imbalance between the solar radiation that reaches the equator vs the poles, and went on to describe the first weather report in 1859 which was inspired by the Royal Charter Storm. The birth of scientific weather forecasting in October 1859 was enabled by progress in communications technology (like the transatlantic cable).
The importance of how we name storms was made clear during Evelyn’s talk. Reach and engagement goes up hugely with named storms, giving an influential and authoritative voice with which to provide warnings to the public. She noted how useful this is in today’s ‘hashtag culture’.
Capt. Colm Newport from the Dublin Port Company gave the final presentation before the Q&A session moderated by Prof. Ray Bates. Colm engaged the audience with a lively talk titled ‘Local Conditions: Weather and the Dublin Port Pilot’. He noted that ships are getting bigger but ports aren’t (can’t!) get any bigger – just busier, making the job of the pilot that bit trickier. Colm talked the audience through a pilotage example in Dublin Port with an inbound vessel from the audience, keeping everyone engaged.
‘Anyone can get the weather to fit from somewhere… but that’s how you fall into trouble’ noted Colm. He encouraged everyone to consider where they source their weather data from and to make sure the source was chosen for quality rather than simply to fit the desired plan. This was echoed in the second session of the day as Christian Dumard noted that when it comes to selecting models for forecasting most people select the model at the top of the list, which isn’t always the best or most appropriate for the job in hand.
The talks in the second session of the day were given by Christian Dumard and Richard Falk, both of whom gave presentations at the Weather and Sailing Conference in Greenwich covered by John Hasslegren above, so I won’t go over old ground. Suffice to say the audience were enthralled.
Speakers after lunch included Libby Greenhalgh, Capt. Robert McCabe, Dag Pike, and Conor Fogarty. Libby, a professional sailor, shared with us her insights into ‘Weather and the 2017/2018 Volvo Race’. Libby spoke about the data limitations and difficulty in knowing how to balance all of the information from forecast data vs satellite imagery etc. to know what decision to make. She noted that you often end up thinking about where you are in terms of the weather rather than the actual destination.
Dag Pike, a Fellow of the RIN, AFRMetSoc and Maritime Consultant, kept the audience entertained with his stories of ‘Weather Forecasting for Breaking Records’. Dag’s first ocean sailing race was in 1948. He recounted tales of record breaking in powerboats. When you’re attempting to break records in powerboats it’s the waves you care about, not the wind. He noted the challenge of translating wind conditions to waves. Dag had many tips for those attempting to break records and for sailing in general, one of which being to go down the lee side of icebergs, as the big iceberg travels ahead of the smaller ‘bogey’ bits.
The final speaker of the day was Conor Fogarty with his presentation on his experience with The Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race 2017. He described the trials and tribulations of the lonely race, and the difficult conditions that the competitors found themselves in, including the loss of the Tamarind which was described above. Conor pointed out the high value of local knowledge, noting that it’s important to rely on more than just models and routers.
Closing remarks were given by Declan Murphy (President of the Irish Meteorological Society) and Paul Bryans. The range of personalities and charisma were noted in the closing remarks. The presentations had gone a step above being merely informative – the speakers brought the audience on a journey with them, entertaining as they educated. The atmosphere was friendly throughout the day, and I’d like to thank all of the organisers for hosting such an enjoyable event.
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Posted By Elena Psyllou,
20 December 2018
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by Elena Psyllou
Every day we make thousands decisions; some are unconscious and others need extra effort. For instance, on my way to work, every morning I get on the Bakerloo line, change at Embankment and get off at South Kensington. But when the service suffers from severe delays, that is when I need to change my route and find the shortest and most comfortable journey to my destination.
Decision theory has gathered interest across disciplines from economics to engineering and social science. In aviation, there have been studies into the decision making of pilots. Models were then developed in an attempt to improve the design of the systems that are routinely used whilst promoting awareness across individuals of the complexity of human cognitive activity. Models like FOR-DEC and SAFE (read more here) have been used in pilot’s training and they outline the main steps of the decision making which are seek information, assess the options, make a decision, take the action.
Moving beyond such simplified versions, extensive research has been conducted in order to better understand the rationale behind the decisions and elicit the contribution of key factors such the expertise, the conditions decisions are made and the quality of information.
Research in naturalistic decision making has shown that expertise plays a key role in responding to critical situations where time is limited or information is uncertain and unavailable. Aviation and evacuation of buildings are great examples of such challenging environments in which critical decisions need to be made in a speedy manner and be of an appropriate nature.
In the 90s Gary Klein developed such a naturalistic decision making model, known as the Recognition Primed Decision (RPD) model that describes how experienced individuals make decisions in time-pressured situations where they are not able to generate and assess a range of options. The model was developed based on fire-fighters and pilots. Individuals use their expertise to find a satisfactory decision/action rather than that which is the best. They start this dynamic decision making by assessing the situation based on patterns of cues. This situational awareness activates mental models and action scripts that the individual has available from prior experience. Under such conditions, a successful decision relies on a correct assessment of the current situation, an adequate utilisation of cues, effective evaluation measures and of course, the experience of the individual.
The RPD model shows that the analytical approach of evaluating every possible course of action in order to reach the best course of action is time consuming and in safety critical industries like aviation, delays can be catastrophic. There are various ways that expertise is transformed to be easily retrieved. Research in pilot decision making (such as O'Hare et al. 2009, and Hunter et al. 2009), pilots code their previous experience into rules and cases and they retrieve those during their decision making. Rules are conditions that need to be met, for example, select a route that is straight, direct and above the minimum safe altitude. Cases are representations of events that they have previously experienced, for instance, the weather changes fast along a certain route and a diversion is needed.
Traditionally, pilots use paper charts to select the route and do the calculations for weather adjustments and fuel. Today, apps on our smartphones and tablets tell them the fastest and most direct route and with limited mental effort needed by the pilot. Similarly, route planner apps for urban travel such as CityMapper and Google maps suggest routes based on a series of computations by their algorithms. The apps not only show the flight path but they also present the trip duration and other relevant information. Nevertheless, the user who can be a pilot, a pedestrian, a motorist, remains the person that makes the decision which route to take and at what time.
Research conducted with recreational pilots and the use of route planning apps for air travel in the UK, Norway and Finland at Imperial College revealed four types of uses of these apps:
1. “YES MAN” The pilot accepts the suggested straight direct route and will make modifications in-flight, if needed, i.e. tactic decision making. A previous plan saved on the app might be used.
2. “HOLD ON A MINUTE” The pilot inspects the route and make any adjustments that will make the flight more pleasant, more cost effective and safer using rules and cases pre-flight
3. “ASSIST” The pilot uses the app to seek information, make a few calculations, e.g. regarding the weather, or see previous flight routes that are saved on the app
4. “TRUST ME” The pilot does not use the app and relies on his/her ability to remember and seek support from other sources.
It was further revealed that the pilots use the app differently based on the features of the route. In particular, for routes that are frequently used, pilots do not necessarily study every parameter (YES MAN or ASSIST) whilst routes that are flown for the first time, more time will be spent to review the airspace and weather (HOLD ON A MINUTE). Individual factors also affect the decision making and the use of the apps. In particular, pilots who want to encounter the latest weather update will do further modifications in-flight instead of pre-flight. Such en-route decision can also lead to issues such as loss of situation awareness in that pilots fail to holistically comprehend the situation in such dynamic conditions aviation operations and can lead to loss of situation awareness.
Similarities on how the route is selected using the apps are expected between pilots and any type of commuter. Sometimes we rely on the app especially if we are strangers in the area and other times we select routes we drove before. Next time you use the route planner app, as a pedestrian, a driver or pilot, think of how they contribute to your decision on what direction to follow and identify yourself which of the four types of users you are.
Flight Route Selection
Posted By Kim Fisher,
11 December 2018
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Note of meeting of the International Maritime Organization Maritime Safety Committee IMO MSC100 – 3 to 7 December 2018
by Kim Fisher
This was a 5 day meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee under the chairmanship of Mr Bradley Groves (Australia) because the previous meeting this year had been an 8 day meeting in June. Since this was the 100th meeting, and also coinciding with the 70th anniversary of IMO, the opportunity was taken to hold some special events. A seminar was held on the first afternoon and Her Royal Highness Princes Anne was invited to address the meeting on the Wednesday,
The seminar dealt with the technology progression of maritime autonomous ships, the human element and smart marine ecosystems. Some impressive film was shown of a ferry making a totally autonomous voyage, berth to berth. These special events together with a long report from Ukraine on the issue of the capture by Russian forces of Ukrainian naval vessels somewhat restricted the time available for the meeting which consequently became rather rushed.
The substantive issue at the meeting concerned a regulatory scoping exercise for the use of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The previous meeting had set up a correspondence group to move the work forward and a report was available which showed just how complex the issue was. A Working Group at the meeting produced a simplified report and the work will now continue as a web based exercise for the next meeting. Since there is only one MSC meeting next year, a special 5 day intersessional meeting has been arranged for later in the year.
Another Working Group discussed the issue of safety measures for non-SOLAS ships operating in polar waters as an extension to the Polar Code but was not able to make much progress.
Much of the rest of the meeting concerned ship construction standards. New work items were agreed for the use of emergency personal radio devices in multiple casualty situations and for a revision of ECDIS guidelines for good practice.
At the end of the meeting the retirement was announced of Jo Angelo of the USA.
The next meeting of MSC is scheduled to take place from 5 to 14 June 2019. The intersessional meeting on MASS is scheduled to take place from 2 to 6 September 2019. A meeting of the subcommittee on navigation, communication, search and rescue (NCSR) is scheduled for 14 to 25 January 2019.
International Maritime Organization
Posted By David Broughton,
28 August 2018
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Fly/Sail is always the most-fun weekend of the year, and this year it was going to be at Solent Airport and the Hornet Services Sailing Club, Gosport. A handful of fliers and sailors gather at Saturday lunchtime, with the sailors being flown around the local area in the afternoon and then, after a very sociable evening, the sailors accommodating the fliers overnight and taking them for a sail the next morning. All head homewards with huge grins after Sunday lunch.
But, flying from Conington, Peterborough, meant that I had a good hour’s flight to Solent, having to pass by Luton and Heathrow airports amongst a handful of other restricted areas. The aircraft I was to hire was a beautiful-looking and modernised Piper PA-28, with drooping wingtips. I had previously looked carefully at its navigation fit: it had a couple of VOR receivers and an elderly GPS with no graphics.
So I bit the bullet and decided that, as an almost-octogenarian, I would treat myself to an iPad and navigation software. I needed one with GPS, so checked with the experts at the Mac store in Cambridge – yes, all new iPads have GPS they confirmed. I decided to buy it on offer from the largest department store in Cambridge, whose expert also confirmed that the iPad 6th Generation 32GB for £319 ‘has GPS’.
I had also had an offer of free SkyDemon for a month, so I took that up; it works well on the iPad but, sadly, not on my Mac desk- or lap-tops. So I put the track (Conington-Cranfield-Woodley NDB-Solent) directly into the iPad; it was incredibly easy to do and let me play with height to avoid airspace infringements. As well as a very usable chart, it produced an excellent flight-plan, complete with many useful frequencies, for viewing or printing.
By now I had been to AeroExpo and bought a smart knee-pad from Pooley’s to hold the iPad. So, to convince myself that all was working, I tried it in the car, with my wife driving of course. But as soon as I went into SkyDemon navigate mode, I received a warning that I could only undertake a 30-minute flight under the free trial. Wow, thank goodness I had given it a try – had I only read the instructions with the trial I would have known that. But the navigation in the car seemed to work well; the aircraft symbol tracked us around and aligned itself with heading. So I paid £12 for a month of trial that would allow SkyDemon to work as a useful navigator.
On the Saturday morning, with the aircraft full of fuel and overnight kit, we taxied out at Conington. My co-pilot was a lapsed PPL who, between take-off and landing, was happy to hold height and heading, allowing me to devote time to the iPad strapped to my knee. As soon as we headed south, I opened-up the iPad on my knee – to be greeted with the message ‘Current Location Not Available’. The beast obviously had no intention of navigating, so I threw it onto the back seat and scrambled for my chart and printed pilot-log. Thankfully, I had prepared a 250k chart with the track and timing marks and the flight continued as an unexpected and sweaty map-reading exercise. Thankfully, we made it to Solent with no infringements, thanks in part to a very helpful Farnborough Lower Airspace Radar Service (LARS).
It turns out that the iPad that I had bought, in spite of assurances from Mac and department store staff, has no GPS (or any other GNSS). I can only assume that it worked during my car trial by using the car’s Bluetooth and inbuilt navigation. I spoke to a handful of fliers at Solent, who confirmed what I had just discovered about my iPad; a couple showed me their small Bluetooth GNSS receivers which, at around £90, had resolved the problem for them completely by pairing with the iPad and allowing it to navigate.
So a lesson or two learnt: make sure that free software trials fully do what you need; don’t glibly believe what sales staff assure you about iPads; and, most importantly, ensure that you have a properly-prepared paper chart and hard-copy flight-plan at your fingertips... and brush-up by reading the Institute’s booklet on ‘Infringement Avoidance’.
Posted By Keith Hope-Lang,
21 August 2018
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Airborne Arctic Support
Operational area from Sullom Voe.
Both Germany and Britain needed to install Arctic weather stations to assist operations on the convoy route to Murmansk. Desolate Spitzbergen, lying almost 80N, was an ideal location for Met observations. In early 1942 the Luftwaffe established a Met station on Spitzbergen. The Allies identified some German radio traffic so they sent a raiding party of 60 Norwegians in an ice breaker and a sealer to land in a nearby fjord. The two ships were seen whilst unloading and destroyed by 4 Focke-Wulf Kondors leaving the landing party scattered across the ice. In the ensuing silence the RAF was tasked with finding out what had happened to the landing party.
RAF Catalina. Photo credit RAF Seletar.
The Consolidated Catalina was an amphibian; only 11 were delivered to the RAF and their primary role was recce and convoy protection. One task was to monitor the edge of the ice pack and for this a flight of Catalinas was based at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands and the northern most airfield in Britain.
Crew of P for Peter. Seated left to right co pilot Ronnie Martin, pilot Tim Healey and navigator Scho Schofield; standing wireless operators, flight engineers and a rigger. Photo credit Schofield. Catalina P for Peter was prepared for the flight. It was commanded by Fl Lt Tim Healey with 2nd pilot Ronald Martin, navigator Scho Schofield, 3 wireless operators, 2 flight engineers and a rigger.
The flight would be between Sullom Voe at the tip of the Shetlands and the Spitzbergen archipelago about 1000 miles north midway between Greenland and Russia. This was in an aircraft that had no heating; the crew wore sheepskin Irvin suit, several layers of woollens, fur lined boots and 3 pairs of gloves.
At 11.23hr on 25 May 1942 P for Peter slipped her mooring and flew at 600ft under 10/10 low stratus. The wind was SE so they set a course of 042deg and held the same course for the next 8 hours. In that time the wind varied between 10 and 32 knots and the magnetic variation between 13 and 6degW so the track made good altered by up to 13deg. As a further complication the RAF charts ran out at 71deg N after which the Admiralty charts were used with, of course, a different scale.
At intervals low cloud forced them down to 400ft and they met occasional fog patches to sea level. After 4hr flying a quick sun sight through thinning cloud put them 5 miles from their DR. After 10hr of flying they made their first landfall when the radar showed Bear Island at 35 miles on the starboard bow. After 2 further hours they sighted the south tip of Spitzbergen.
Flying at 700ft they had stratus at 1500ft in which they would hide if attacked. They passed up the W coast with precipitous cliffs and the peaks chopped off by stratus cloud. There was no visible German activity where they expected to find it.
Two survivors waving to Catalina. Photo credit Schofield.
They then backtracked and suddenly saw up a side fjord a long channel through the ice. There were a few huts but a man stood by one with an Aldis lamp and a second man waved his arms..
1) Survivor: ‘Ships sunk, nothing saved, survivors here, Germans in next bay, help essential’
2) Catalina: ‘Ok, will organise help. God bless’
3) Survivor: ‘Some survivors and wounded here’
By now the Catalina had been in the area for 1hr30 and burning fuel. So, at 14 hours into the flight, the Catalina set course for home via Jan Mayen Island. They flew under 10/10 stratus and the sea ice below became solid. For 30min the temperature stayed below zero and they met freezing fog; the Catalina staggered along managing 85kt at 300ft. Five hours after starting back the Catalina was again flying over clear water. At 14.27hr the Catalina landed at Sullom Voe and cut engines. The engines had worked non stop for 27 hours and 10 minutes.
On 28 May the same aircraft and crew made an over-flight and dropped medical supplies, warm clothing and some luxuries for morale.
On 31may: they flew with arms and ammunition but after 10 hours had to turn back after meeting a snowstorm. On 6 Jun the same aircraft and crew returned and landed in the fjord. They delivered 24 rifles, 3000 rounds and a 2 gallon jar rum. They collected 6 wounded Norwegians.
Who’s a hero?
My Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, New Mid Century Version 1952, says a hero is ‘A man of distinguished bravery’. You will note the date as1952; the dictionary was a school prize given me in my formative years and my idea of bravery has not changed since.
So my heroes are the freighter crews trading with Sweden: for their repeated operation of small boats in the winter N Seas when faced with standing patrols, radar stations and destroyers deployed on the Norwegian and Danish shores, minefields and hostile command of the air.
My heroes are also the Mosquito crews for repeated operations over the entire war of small unarmed aircraft in challenging weather with only speed as their defence.
Finally, of course, are the heroic Catalina crews supporting Spitzbergen operations: for their repeated flights of 24 hour duration in the extreme cold of an unheated aircraft, invariably adverse weather usually with solid stratus at 1500ft and occurrences of frozen fog.
By PK Hope-Lang
Acknowledgements for this three-part series:
Ralph Barker, 1976. ‘The Blockade Busters’. Chatto & Windus, London.
Norman Malayney, who had served in Vietnam with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, had a great interest in the BOAC Mosquitos and had interviewed all the crew that he could find.
Alan S Milward, “Could Sweden have stopped the Second World War?,” The Scandinavian Economic History Review, vol. XV, 1967, 127‐138.
Ernest Schofield and Roy Conyers Nesbitt, 1987. ‘Arctic Airmen’. History Press, Stroud.
Jeff White of The Old Tautonians Associatio