Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Confessions of an Airshow Announcer – 'The Growler'


Tom Lymburn

WL790, the last airworthy Shackleton in repose on the Oshkosh grass. The radar dome is clearly visible as are the red-white-red tips of the contra-rotating props.

The red-white-red tips began their slow meshing. Gradually, with the deep growl of the four 2450 hp Rolls Royce Griffon 57A's increasing, the contra-rotating blades became a mad blur. If you suffered from migraines, you wouldn't want to watch too closely or too long. The Holman Field ramp was jammed with spectators and cameras.

The long checklist took a while to complete, and finally, the huge blue-gray monster began to taxi off the dried grass and swung ever so ponderously onto the asphalt ramp. WL790 waddled, tail down, and headed for Runway 14 via taxiway Echo, passed the parked single engine trainers to the runup area. The last airworthy Avro AEW Mk. 2 Shackleton, Mr. McHenry, was ready for engine run up and pre-take off check.

A further checklist completed, it turned and lined up on Runway 14, waiting for clearance, then again, ever so slowly, the Shack began its takeoff roll. The thunder of the Griffon 57A's deepened. It plodded along, and finally the tail came up. With stately elegance for an aircraft so large, "The Growler" broke ground.

Some aircraft can be said to be revolutionary. They arrive from the drafting board as something totally new and groundbreaking. The Supermarine Spitfire, North American Mustang, and Lockheed Lightning fall into that category. Others are evolutionary, the result of a long process of modification, addition, and, at times, trial and error. The Shackleton was a product of aviation evolution.

What R. J. Mitchell was to Supermarine and Sidney Camm was to Hawker, Roy Chadwick (1893-1947) was to Avro. Chadwick joined Avro in 1911 as the company draftsman. His early work, under the direction of A. V. Roe, included the classic Avro 504, the Avian, Tutor, Cadet, and the great Anson, of which 10,996 were built in the UK and Canada. But it was a series of bombers, and transport spinoffs, that cemented Chadwick's name into British aviation history.

The family tree that led to the Shackleton, began with the Avro Manchester. It looked good on paper, but in practice was a failure due to its Rolls Royce Vulture engines. Normally, Rolls Royce got it right, but the 24 cylinder X-form liquid cooled engines were insufficiently developed, prone to overheating, caught fire due to lubrications issues, and suffered in-flight seizures. Although the Manchester did see combat, losses were high and production was halted at 201 machines. It was equally unsuccessful as a trainer due to crashes and was scrapped. A solution was at hand.

Lengthening the wing of the Manchester, whose airframe was a good one, and replacing the disastrous twin Vultures with four Rolls Royce Merlins produced the Manchester III, quickly renamed the Lancaster. The prototype was first flown on 9 January 1941, with production aircraft following in October. The Lancaster became operational in March 1942. Chadwick had it right. The combination of the Manchester airframe with the Merlins (and in the Mark II, Bristol Hercules radials) was the right bomber at the right time.

Capable of carrying a normal bomb load of 14,000 pounds, and with fuselage modifications the 12,000 pound "Tall Boy" and the 22,000 pound "Grand Slam," the Lancaster, along with the Handley Page Halifax, took the night war to the heart of the German Reich. Production in the UK and by Victory in Canada amounted to 7377 machines, some of which remained in service in Canada, France, and Argentina

into the mid 1960's. It was in the maritime recon role that the Lancaster set the stage for the Shackleton.

From the basic Lancaster airframe, Chadwick evolved the Lancastrian transport/ freighter, which saw service during the Berlin Airlift, and the York transport, one of which became Winston Churchill's personal VIP airplane. This York, LV633, as named Ascalon and also carried King George VI on wartime tours.

The Lancaster had its shortcomings, and Chadwick addressed those with the Lincoln, which first flew on 9 June 1944. The Lincoln was larger, had more powerful Merlin engines, more fuel, improved defensive armament, and provision for more crew comfort. By the end of series production, 550 were manufactured in the UK and a further 73 in Australia. It should be noted that the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which first flew on 21 September 1942, was a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced bomber. The RAF was forced to acquire 88 Boeing B-29s in 1950, called the Washington B. 1, to replace the Lincoln, until sufficient English Electric Canberras were available for Bomber Command. Avro, itself built 75 Canberras under license.

From the Lincoln airframe, Chadwick evolved the Tudor airliner and, last in line, the Shackleton maritime recon bomber to replace the wartime Liberator, Halifax, and Lancaster. The Tudor was a failure, and Roy Chadwick was killed on 23 August 1947, when the prototype of the Tudor 2 crashed on take off due to having the aileron control cables crossed.

Avro's Shackleton, Roy Chadwick's last piston engine bomber, went on to serve the RAF from 1950 to 1991. Initially called the Lincoln ASR Mk. 3, it was renamed in honor of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) a noted Antarctic explorer. Powered by four Rolls Royce Griffon 57 or 57A liquid cooled V-12 engines of 2450 hp each, the Shack evolved through four major versions, Mark I to Mark III, with a small number of crew trainers in the mix. Marks I and II were tail draggers, but the Mark III changed to tricycle gear, with some late Mark IIIs adding a pair of Bristol Siddeley Viper turbojets to the outer nacelles to boost takeoff power at high gross weights.

With a crew of 10, the Shackleton Mk. I entered RAF service with No. 120 Squadron at RAF Kinloss in April 1951. During its long career, the Shackleton served all over the world in maritime recon and anti-submarine service, at times being used as a transport and for aerial survey operations. By 1971, Shackleton operations were near an end, but the failure of a Nimrod AEW Mk. 3 replacement, dictated the old "Growler" would get a new lease on life.

As an "interim" replacement for the failed Nimrod AEW Mk. 3 to cover the Iceland-Faroes-Shetland Gap, twelve elderly Shackleton MR. 2's were revamped with surplus AN/APS-20 search radars taken from retired Fleet Air Arm Fairey Gannet AEW Mk. 3's grafted onto the underside of the Shack's nose. The first of these temporary conversions flew in September 1971, and the AEW Mk. 2 was assigned to No. 8 Squadron at RAF Kinloss and later RAF Lossiemouth. It flew long missions over the North Sea, Arctic Ocean, and western Atlantic until standing down in 1991 and replaced by the Boeing E-3D Sentry.

Mr. McHenry, WL790, was delivered to the RAF in June 1953. During her long service, she operated from Northern Ireland, Singapore, and Scotland. When converted to AEW Mk. 2 configuration, she had logged over 7100 hours. On reassignment to No. 8 Squadron, WL790 was named Mr. McHenry, after an elderly gardener who rode a tricycle, from "The Magic Roundabout" children's TV series that ran from 1965 to 1977.

The twelve No. 8 Squadron Shackletons served until 1981, when British defense cuts reduced the squadron to six airplanes. By July 1990, when the first Boeing E-3Ds arrived at RAF Waddington, WL790 had reached 14,461 flying hours. The end came on 15 June 1991 when Wing Commander Chris Booth flying WL790, led WL757 and WL747 in a ceremonial fly over of Buckingham Palace to salute Queen Elizabeth II's birthday.

WL790 was auctioned off to the Shackleton Preservation Trust in September 1991. Due to problems with UK Certification, it was flown to the United States in July 1994 via Iceland. Registered N790WL, it was placed on loan to the Polar Air Museum, and flown to Anoka County Airport in Blaine in June 1997 by Ed Erickson and John Roxbury. During this time, it was displayed and flown at Anoka, Holman Field in St. Paul, and at Oshkosh where it won the EAA's Most Rare Bomber award. The last flying Shackleton, WL790 migrated from Anoka to Midland, TX, on loan to the Commemorative Air Force until transferred by air to the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, AZ, in 2007 where, after repainting, it is displayed never to fly again.

Tom Lymburn

Not quite a "bomber's moon," but the best of Roy Chadwick's design work, the Lancaster. FM213 of the Canadian Warplane Heritage at Oshkosh, in night bomber camo. The grandfather of the Shackleton.

While a couple of ground runnable Shackletons exist in the UK, "The Growler" flies no more. Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, with the Canadian Warplane Heritage (FM213) and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (PA474). I was fortunate to announce at Holman Field in August 1997, when the last major piston engine product of Roy Chadwick's drawing board was still flying. I've called other Griffon engine aircraft, notably a Spitfire 14 and a Firefly 6, in shows, but the distinctive sound of the Shackleton, "The Growler," will remain a unique and historic song.


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