No. 31 Gliding School - (31 GS, later 641 GS)

RAF Usworth

(A short history, by Flt Lt C.J Sanderson - a former staff cadet)

The Gliding School started off at a small site on the Lambton estate, just up the hill from Chester-Le-Street, sometime towards the end of World War Two. It subsequently moved to RAF Usworth where, for a time, the Gliding School had sole possession of the airfield. The Durham University Air Squadron (UAS) then moved to Usworth and their Tiger Moth aircraft operated side by side with gliding activity. Subsequently other flying units also operated at Usworth, Ansons of one of the Basic Air Navigation Squadrons (BANS), Austers of an Army Air Corps Artillery Air Observation Flight, Ansons - looked after by Airwork Lid - used for training Auxiliary Air Force (Aux. AF) personnel on ground-controlled interception (GCI) procedures, and a flight of Tiger Moths used by Aux. AF pilots and navigators. Much later. the Newcastle Gliding Club was also to fly from Usworth when their former site became unavailable.

The original 31 Gliding School was commanded, it is thought, by John Maw, who was connected with the greengrocery trade in Sunderland. Flt. Lt. Jimmy Robson was the next commanding officer, an ex-photo reconnaissance Spitfire pilot, whose wartime job was to fly daylight sorties over Deutschland and occupied Europe to assess bomb damage. These Spitfires werte unarmed and flew at high speed and high altitude to avoid interception. Jimmy Robson was assisted by Monty Olswang, the adjutantof the Gliding School, who, although not a flying instructor, was a dedicated glider-launching winch driver. There were two civilian gliding instructors, Stewart Morrison and Mick Henney.

Under the control of RAF Home Command, 64 Northern Group, the objectives of the Gliding School were: -

At that time, the standards of flying instruction were also supervised by Sqn. Ldr. Donald Harkness, the District Gliding Officer, 64 Northern Group. This gentleman extolled the virtues of the Rolls-Royce motor car, stating that it was the cheapest motor on the road since you only needed to buy one in a lifetime. Moreover, he used to remark that if a cable drum was fastened in place of a rear wheel, it could be used to winch a glider to a good 500-ft of height! He also commented upon the usefulness of horses if used with a rubber elastic 'bungey' launch system - providing the elastic did not snap, leading to a rapid departure of horse never to be seen again !

By 1950, 31 GS had received its first two-seat glider, a Slingsby Sedbergh, serial no: WB968. The somewhat-hazardous use of single-seat Slingsby Kadet Mk.1 gliders, for solo training, was continued however, the two-seaters being used to give experience of stalls and spin recovery action. This clearly helped to reduce the high rate of damage to the single-seat&rs, but the system of solo training using ground slides, low hops and then high hops was eventually to be superseded. Although this was just as well for all concerned, the old system was great fun. Winch drivers needed to be highly skilled for solo training - they could prevent accidents by the judicious use of throttle, playing the glider just like a kite, using a burst of engine power to yaw the aircraft, thus arresting a drop of wing. Electrical insulating tape was used to bind the automatic cable release in the 'closed' position so that the Winch driver did not lose his pupil! The same tape was also used to bind the loose ends of the many reef knots in the cable where breaks had occurred.

Anyone glancing into the hangar and seeing the jumbled matchwood, which had at one time been glider aircraft, would have never believed that air cadet student pilots seldom received more than a few minor cuts and bruises. Gliders were retrieved to the launch point by 15cwt Bedford trucks (these had replaced previous 'Beaverette' armoured cars which were initial issue) and instructions to the winch driver, a thousand yards away, were given by semaphore bats. The winches used Ford V8 engines and the gearbox had four gears - and a reverse! Cadets eom the Air Training Corps (ATC) finished their flying training when they achieved a solo glide of about 45 seconds to obtain their 'A' certificate, issued by the British Gliding Association under delegation from the Royal Aero Club. Improved methods of two-seater training soon reduced the accident rate and made it train cadets to 'B' standard, involving three solo circuits of the airfield, taking about three minutes each.

In common with the other twenty-six Air Cadet Gliding Schools in Britain, the staff -consisted of unpaid volunteers, mainly civilian instructors and staff cadets, often recruited ftom those who had shown the most ability on training courses. Apart from an outer layer of old flying clothing and helmets no longer required by the RAF, the personnel of the School wore whatever they pleased and often presented a motley appearance. Coming from all walks of life, their one common bond was an overwhelming enthusiasm for flying. In 1950, the Gliding School was billeted in the old sick 'quarters, formerly across the road from the guardroom, adjacent to the 'Three Horse Shoes' public house. The cadets and gliding equipment were organised by 'Jock' Ewart, later a Marine Engineer and initially three staff cadets; Colin Campbell, Hedley Morton and Clifford Sanderson.

Towards the end of 1951, Jimmy Robson handed over the school to Mark Scott, an electrical engineer at Reynolles and an ex-National Service REME Captain. During the fifties the strength and experience of 31 GS mushroomed and the following characters helped, in differing degrees, to build the School to a leading position in the United Kingdom: -

Flt. Lt. M. Scott (Commanding Officer)
Plt. Off. E.G. Ehnhardt (Adjutant)
Plt. Off. N. Tweedy (Chief Flying Instructor)
S. 'Jock' Ewart (L/C equipt, etc)
W. Adwns
C. Campbell
T. Ferguson
M. Gibson
J. Giles
D. Hudspeth
A. Kelly
P.G. Kelly
S.E. Marples
H. Norton
G. Piches
J. Ponton
D. Rainsden
T. Ruffell
D. Runnill
C.J. Sanderson
H.S. Sanderson
E. Shearer
J.L. Taylor
J.G.S. Temple
D. Waggot
B. Waugh
J.N. Young
R. Young

Initially the cadets and staff brought their own meals with them each weekend but, as numbers grew, organised catering became necessary. Starting with the help of Lillian Mills. her sister Bessie and friend Joan Wake, all from Washington, the messing requirements for up to 20 staff and 1 0 cadet students began to become more complex. Returns had to be made to the Ministry of Food for rations, as there were no RAF messing facilities at Usworth. Interestingly, rationing in Britain did not end until 1954 - in Germany it ended in 1948!

The Gliding School flew every weekend that the weather permitted, every Bank Holiday .and even Christmas Day, as well as a fortnight's continuous training each summer. The living quarters were eventually moved to hutted accommodation adjacent to the aircraft dispersals (near the threshold of Runway 09, to the west of the airfield), and a canvas 'Bessineau' hangar was erected nearby for the gliders. The cadet output had now reached nearly 100 solo pupils per year!

In 1955, the Air Observation Flight, the Basic Air Navigation Sqn and the Auxiliary Air Sqn (AAS) moved from Usworth, and 31 GS of 64 (N) Group was renamed 641 Gliding School. In 1958, as Usworth was to close, the Gliding School, the Durham UAS, the AAS and the GCI aircraft were moved to RAF Ouston. Ouston to close in 1974 and 641 OS moved again to RAF Dishforth, where it operated on the same airfield as a unit of the RAF Gliding & Soaring Association.

Over the years, the 3 1 1 641 GS operated Dagling gliders, Slingsby Gull 2, Kadets 1,2, & 3 and Sedburgh T.21 B gliders. and trained well over 2,000 air cadets to increasing standards of proficiency, culminating in later years to the 'C' certificate level. The School gave many young people a chance to fly who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so. The air cadets trained were mainly from Durham, Northumberland, Cumberiand and Westmoreland (as the counties then were).

It was then estimated that both the taxpayers and the RAF benefited greatly from the activities of the twenty-seven ATC gliding schools and two gliding centres, which cost about 2 million per year, but saved the need for two extra elementary flight training schools at 13 million per year! This quite-substantial saving of time and money was estimated to result from the reduced time taken for glider-trained cadets to qualify as RAF pilots. In 1976, 641 GS finally closed for good, the distance from its former Tyne catchment area to Dishforth being a major obstacle to efficient operation.

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