Jet Provost Trials Unit (Far East)

By Mick Ryan first CO of the trials Unit August to December 1965

Trials JP4 with the unit badge



The trial was mounted during the height of the Indonesian Crisis in the last six months of 1965.  There were Hunter and Canberra squadrons in Malaysia and Singapore but the UK had very little experience of using Forward Air Control in jungle terrain.  Most of our experience had been in Europe or the Middle East.  A 250 ft tree canopy presented a new challenge if air support was to be employed effectively in Central Malaysia and Borneo.

The Chief Scientist’s Department, led by Don Spiers, initiated a trial to examine the best way to bring in air support from the ground in jungle terrain.  In early July 1965 calls were advertised for volunteers to man the trials unit which intended to use three Jet Provost Mk .4s.

I had done one 2 ½ year tour on Hunter F.6s on 93 Sqn at RAF Jever in Germany and then completed a QFI course in 1961.  After 2 years instructing on JPs at Cranwell, and ignoring the advice of my betters, I took my A2 QFI test and ended up back on the staff of CFS teaching QFIs on the JPs 3 and 4.  Still not listening properly, I was one of the first “waterfront” staff to take my A1 after a two year sulk between the “waterfront” and the “Trappers”.  I was all lined up to go on exchange to the Royal Australian Air Force at Sale at the end of my tour.  I’d sold my car learnt “Oz” from my next door neighbour when, to everyone’s surprise, I was promoted to Sqn Ldr on 1Jul65.  I quickly volunteered for the trial hoping this might be a way back on to operational flying.  I had about 1,100 JP hours at the time.  MoD was surprised when the QFI for the trial turned out to be a Sqn Ldr but, after some muttering, they allowed me to Command the unit.

A frantic two months followed in the UK whilst it was arranged for three new Jet Provost Mk.4s, XS221, XS223 and XS224, to be dismantled and flown out to Singapore in three Argosys.  This was a first for the RAF as we had never taken a JP apart before but there was no way we could have flown them out.

At the same time I was joined by Roy Holmes, Hunter QFI from Chivenor OCU and Bob Innes a South African JP QFI who had some ground attack experience.  Later we were to be joined in Singapore by Sqn Ldr George Ord, an experienced Hunter ground attack operator.

There was a lot of early research into the possibilities of flying the JPs from Malaysia to Borneo – 400+ nm.  Close to the limit of the JP and also pushing the limits for aircrew for long cold soaks at high altitude.

The aircraft were dismantled, loaded into their Argosys and flown out to Changi in early August.  The engineers wrote themselves a dismantling schedule and also an Erection Schedule (sounds disgusting!) – but more of that later.  The wings, tailfin and elevators were removed and with tilting blocks the fuselage just fitted into the Argosy.  The three pilots flew out to Singapore by Comet on Sunday 15th August 1965.

We installed ourselves with 20 Sqn Hunters, at Tengah and the three JPs were moved to Seletar for assembly.  Then the troubles started. Someone in the supply chain had thought it a good idea to off-load the boxes with all our Erection Schedules and some critical bolts.

We had flown out our own volunteer ground crew and Chief Tech Baker was a brilliant lead.  Fortunately, being a nit-picking QFI, I had brought out my own Technical Volume 1 for the Mk.4; none of the other documents had arrived.  We cursed the supply chain but we had to acknowledge there was a war on in both Borneo and up country in Malaysia!  Chiefy Baker, with some help from the engineers at Seletar, used my Vol 1 and the Dismantling Schedule, which had very usefully been kept with the airframes, to write themselves an Erection Schedule – which they dutifully followed.  For the first time the RAF assembled its own JPs.


Unfortunately there was some missing vital tail bolts and someone had damaged one of the airframes with a screwdriver.  We also had no trestles upon which to assemble the airframes.  After frantic signals back to UK and scouring the airfields in Singapore, we managed to solve all the problems and the first aircraft XS224 was ready for air test on Saturday 28th August – only 14 days after arrival in theatre.


I got airborne at 14:09 and after an almost perfect air test lasting 1:40, landed at Tengah.  The engine acceleration times were slightly slow and the DME aerials had been connected up in reverse, both snags that were easily fixed.

That was the least of my problems.  We were to be operating out of a Kidde Inflatable Hangar on 20 Sqn’s dispersal at Tengah.  That Saturday afternoon was the Squadron party to celebrate 20 Sqn’s 50th birthday.  On taxying in I was immediately surrounded by a wildly cheering and a very happy bunch of airmen who would not let me out of the cockpit until I had drunk a considerable quantity of Tiger beer.  My first time drunk in charge of an aircraft.

Having staggered out of the cockpit, I was horrified to see them enthusiastically push my first precious JP off the edge of the concrete and up to its axle in soft mud.  Don’t worry they said with great confidence and about twenty of them got under the wing and lifted the wheel back onto the concrete.  They thought my “kiddie car” was a great toy after their Hunters!.  A quick hose down and they pushed it into the inflatable hangar with no damage.  I’m glad Chiefy Baker was not there to see it.

20 Squadron under the CO Max Bacon, were great hosts and we operated very happily out of their facilities for the first six weeks.  We quickly got the other two JPs assembled and operational.

The trial was run under the stewardship of Don Spiers in London, Gilbert Hoare the charming FEAF Command Scientist and attached to the unit was a young scientist Roger Noades.  Roger was the brains behind our outfit.  He set our flying targets and the balance of dual and solo, airspeeds and heights which were all taped on special Hussenot recorders mounted in the rear fuselage.  We pressed a button on the control column at critical points on the test, e.g. Start of run, overhead IP, contact with the target and then we had to bring back gun camera film of the target taken from a realistic diving attack.


Bob Innes, Roy Holmes and our Scientist-in-charge – Roger Noades


We had some slightly different equipment on our JP4s.  I have mentioned the recorders and we also had gun sights and GR.90 gun cameras.  All these needed harmonising a new skill for the JP.  I also wanted the PTR175 combined UHF and VHF radio.  My experience of trying to establish low level comms with the army on UHF line of sight only, convinced me we would have serious operating problems low level over the jungle and we had to have VHF compatibility with the army ground radios.

Roger chose our target areas in Southern Malaysia, just across the Malacca Straits from Singapore.  We had two Forward Air Control teams allocated to us which was not popular as FEAF were actually at war.  The most experienced team was led by Captain Boulter who, when we started, was actually on board HMS Albion with his team.  Typical Army compromise, the second team was from the Royal Corps of Transport, Lt. Peter Williams and his men.  Unfortunately Pete had never heard of FAC and we had to teach him on the job.  In the end he was more adaptable and better at the role in the jungle, probably because he did not come with previous training.

The teams took it in terms to set up about 6 targets a day for us out in the field and we all flew against them each day.  We finally settled on homing on to a “Day-Glo” red meteorological balloon flying above the jungle canopy which indicated the position of the FAC.  The FAC briefed the position of the target in bearing and distance from the balloon and gave a very detailed description of its location.



Now the targets had to be portable, easily set out and a challenge to find.  We finally chose a 6 foot bivouac flysheet in jungle colours.  Not only was it difficult for the aircrew to pick out but also very hard to identify on the gun camera film.  However it worked well and we used it throughout the trial.


Target in typical location from a G.90 gun camera film blown up.

The problem for the FAC was marking his own position, which was used as the IP, for the aircraft when he was under a 250 foot jungle canopy.  The Met Office had self-inflating balloons which worked by initiating a carbide mixture to generate the gas.  They could lift a 8 ½ ounce flare but in the end we decided we did not need that as given an accurate position on the map the balloon showed up well against the jungle canopy.


Roy Holmes and Max Bacon OC 20 Sqn watch Alan Young use the self-inflating carbide kit to blow up a met balloon which we used for marking the FAC’s position.

The techniques was to fly up to, and outbound from, the balloon at various heights and speeds.  These were some of the parameters of the trial which Roger Noades needed to establish to recommend the best height and speed for the task. I think we tried 250ft above the canopy, 500 ft and 1,000 ft –some even higher at 3,000 feet.  The runs were made at varying speeds from 120 kts, 180, 240 and even 300 knots – although that was pushing the poor old JP4 to the limit.  Mind you I am not sure what the Hunter and the Canberra would have made of 120 kts!

We also had seconded to the unit Flt Lt Roger Austin from 20 Sqn, an absolute asset to the unit and he eventually went on to be a famous Air Marshal in his later career.  One of the advantages of the JP, apart from being a very cheap trials aircraft was that having side-by-side seating it was possible to test for the advantages of having a second member of the crew to lookout for the target.  For this role we had some Flying Officer second pilots from the FEAF Hastings transport force also added to the unit.  This could be a miserable job.  If the captain saw the target first, he pressed the recorder button and tried to get film of an attack as fast as he could.  This usually involved a maximum G turn and pull-up for the dive.

Often the first thing the co-pilot knew was when he was blacked out and came round half-way down the slope – very sick making when you are not flying the aircraft.  Of course if the co-pilot saw it first he would take control and turn on to the target.

What Roger Noades wanted for his scientific study was not always convenient with what flying we wanted to do.  However, it was absolutely clear that Roger called the shots.  He set us a very ambitious target programme of initially 6 details a day, with two aircraft, 30 runs from each aircraft.  The first phase of the trial was planned for over 2,000 target runs with a carefully calculated, statistically correct, combination of conditions.

One of my concerns was target fixation.  It would have been all too easy in the enthusiasm to bring back a successfully filmed picture of the target against the clock to forget about pull out heights.  In fact the only serious incident we had was not directly from that cause.  One of our very experienced pilots had pulled out from an attack and was climbing away gently when he did not see a loan tree top sticking up above the jungle canopy but which was below the jungle skyline.  He flew through the top of the tree and was very lucky to stay airborne.  It said a lot for the strength of the JP that he could fly it back home.


XS224 after flying through a jungle tree.  This picture was taken inside the inflatable Kidde Hangar at Tengah and shows the damage to the leading edge of the wings.


An example showing how a loan tree on the nearest slope can be camouflaged by the far back drop.

One of the advantages of having put the JPs together ourselves was that we could repair the damage by replacing the wings, which were flown out from UK, with our own unit resources.  Therefore it was strictly a Category 2 flying accident repaired from within unit resources and not a Cat 3, Major Accident, which it would have been under normal circumstances.  I got criticised by “armchair warriors” in MOD later because I got the pilot flying again the next day.  However, both he and I felt it was the right thing to do.  Unfortunately the second trial which continued in 1966, with fresh personnel, but the same airframes, I understand had a fatality with a JP flying into the trees.

After the first six weeks we had exhausted the suitable target areas in Southern Malaysia, which anyway was semi-cultivated jungle terrain.  So we moved everything up to the RAAF base at Butterworth three-quarters of the way up the left side of Malaysia on 11th October 1965.  We operated from there for the rest of the year until the end of November 1965.

Here we were opposite the very rough jungle terrain covering the backbone of Central Malaysia.  The professional FAC team actually deployed fulltime into the jungle by helicopter.  They camped there in the Centre of Malaysia.  It was dangerous country as the guerrillas continually came down from the Thai border and penetrated the jungle in that part of Malaysia trying to create trouble.  Captain Boutlter had his team on stand to before dawn every day to guard against guerrilla bands.  He would then put out up to six flysheets in the edge of suitable clearings anything up to two or three miles round his central position noting features which he felt would help us locate them during his FAC talk-in.

Yes, down there is a 6 ft bivouac flysheet.  All runs were confirmed as successful from the G.90 camera gun film taken during the attacking dive.  Tracking was assessed by Roy Holmes and the FACs confirmed that the target was really where they had put it.  Capt. Boulter had to do this at the weekends after a week in the jungle in Central Malaysia.

The other team under Pete Williams drove out by Landrover from Butterworth every day and set up inside the jungle at different locations.  His team also put out up to 6 flysheets – sometimes in more open partly cultivated jungle but this was realistic as air support was often required against intruders in this type of terrain as well.  Although he returned to base every day, Pete penetrated into some very hairy jungle locations with his LandRovers.



Unfortunately after the trial was over, Pete’s LandRover rolled down a hill and he was badly injured.


During this time of the year in that part of the country the weather was not very suitable.  We tried several combinations but ended up getting up very early and flying our sorties in the early part of the day before the clouds and thunderstorms built up inland.

We had one rather amusing incident which made us appreciate the performance of the JP4.  HMS Ark Royal had an engine problem half way up the Straits of Malacca just opposite Penang Island.  It was decided that she was too much of a target sitting there wallowing, unable to move, and that her aircraft should be flown off and landed at Butterworth.  The night before Bob Innes in his inimitable “Yarpie” style said:”Presumably we’re not flying tomorrow, Boss?”  When asked to explain he said Naval pilots do not do landings they just flypast the carrier and are either hooked out of the sky or go round again until they connect.  Round outs and touchdowns are unfamiliar to them.

I was not impressed and said we would fly as usual. When I returned to Butterworth from my first sortie the next morning at about 0745, as usual I was low on fuel having come from the centre of the Malaysian peninsula.   When I called joining I was told to stand off as they had one naval aircraft off the runway in the storm drain and another Sea Vixen had burst a tyre on landing and left debris all the way down the runway.  I pointed out that I did not have enough fuel to hold off for long and asked where the Sea Vixen had first touched down.  They said about 4 to 500 yards into the runway.  I said I was going to have to land but only needed the first few hundred yards to stop a JP.  I landed and turned off well before the debris.  I apologised to Bob Innes and admitted that he had been right.  We got the deck chairs out and watched the fun for the rest of the day.

The original plan had been to move the trial to Borneo to use the real terrain where the confrontation was taking place.  However, the operators in Borneo did not want three trial aircraft interfering with their operations.  So instead I was sent to Borneo to fly over the actual terrain and make sure the areas that we were using in Central Malaysian were representative of the war theatre.

When I landed at Kuching I was met off the aircraft by my old Wing Commander Flying at RAF Jever, Wing Commander Geoff Atherton, a very hard Australian who did not mince his words.  As I stepped on to the concrete he shook my hand and said “Hello Mick, F--- off!”  I got the message.  I flew for a few days in Single and Twin Pioneers all over the border areas where there were insurgents.  We had lost a few aircraft because the maps were blank and the border ill-defined.  The C-in-C FEAF had just decreed that the next pilot to cross the border into Indonesia would be court martialled.

One of our Pioneer trips delivering goods and people to the border posts was following the L shaped border where Indonesia was inside the L.  We set off from one short strip and headed off on 230 degrees.  After a while an airfield appeared below with a “Thatched” Hercules transport just off the runway half way down.  The pilots swore and dived back the way we had come telling me in an agitated voice that it was an Indonesian airfield heavily guarded by anti-aircraft guns and that the Hercules was there after we had shot it down - “Thatched” whilst they waited to repair it.  Fortunately they must have been slightly more surprised than we were and no guns fired.



On landing we compared notes on the maps.  All the squadron pilots had been issued with fablon covered maps with the regular routes marked on them permanently, giving heading and time.  I pointed out that our route was mislabelled 230 degrees instead of the 270 degrees which was what was required to go round the inside of the L.  I promised to say nothing as long as he had all the maps withdrawn from all squadron crews as they had all been made up by the Wing Navigation officer with the same mistake.

I was satisfied that the terrain in Central Malaysia was very representative of the Borneo area and that we did not need to deploy the 400 plus nautical miles to Kuching.  I am sure that we would not have been allowed there anyway.

We had a lively time at Butterworth – I was arrested by the RAAF Military Police twice – once for stealing my own LandRover and once for taking a dip in the station swimming pool after a guest night – it all seemed like a good idea at the time!

We completed the number of runs that Roger required for his statistical analysis and apart from a few promotional flights for the Royal Malaysian Air Force in the hope that they would buy the BAC167 Strikemaster– we finished flying at the end of November.  I managed 107 hours, 135 sorties, during the detachment, 64% were actual trial flights.

About half way through the trial, I felt we were due for a break before moving up to Butterworth.  We got on very well with the co-pilots from the Hastings Squadron at Changi and they offered to take us to Hong Kong for an R&R long weekend.  Unfortunately some Movements idiot at HQ FEAF put a stop to this.  Not satisfied with that intervention he couldn’t resist having another go when we were being repatriated.

I had arranged for my wife to indulge out to Singapore by Comet for the last few weeks in December after the flying was over.  We were very kindly accommodated by Gilbert Hoare the Command Scientist.  When it came time for me to return I arranged to fly back on the same Comet that my wife had been given for her indulgence flight home.   This idiot Movements Squadron Leader came down that night to the Departure Hall and misused his powers to cut off the extra indulgence passengers just when it was my wife’s turn to board.  I offered to catch the next flight but he smirked and would not allow it.  He disappeared from the boarding hall.  Whilst all the other passengers were away having the pre-boarding meal my wife and I sat disconsolate in the departure lounge.  The Comet Captain came in and asked the clerks why we were there and it was explained what Movements had done.  The Comet Captain came over apologised and said that he had the authority to include my wife among the passengers - at least as far as Cyprus when he handed over the Comet.  I thanked him and we boarded the flight together and had no further trouble all the way home.  I would have loved to have seen that Movements Squadron Leader’s face the next morning when he saw the passenger manifest!

I never did see the final statistical conclusions of the trial.  I was posted on return to the UK and only heard of the second phase some time afterwards.  My impression was that about 240 knots, 500 feet and single seat was probably going to come out on top – but I stand to be corrected.  We were very good at finding six foot bivouac flysheets – we would probably have flown right past a tank!