de Havilland Chipmunk

Chipmunk T10 of 6 AEF

One of the RAF’s more unusual spyplanes was the de Havilland Chipmunk T-10 – yes the Chipmunk T-10 that many, many Air Cadets and UAS students had their first flight in, also undertook an important role for many years during the Cold War.The Chipmunk was designed by the Canadian de Havilland company as a tandem two-seat primary trainer and first flew in 1946. A total of 217 aircraft were produced in Canada for both civil and military use and a further 66 were produced in Portugal under licence by OGMA. In the UK 1000 aircraft were produced for both civil and military use and in RAF service it was designated the Chipmunk T-10. All marks were powered by a 145hp de Havilland Gipsy Major 10 engine, giving the aircraft a cruising speed of 230km per hour and a range of 730km. The end of WW2 resulted in Berlin being divided between the Russia, America, Britain and France. As the Cold War developed the Russians first blocked access to Berlin by road and rail and later build the Berlin Wall to prevent the East German population from escaping to the West. However, although access to the Russian Zone on the ground was severely restricted, it could still be accessed from the air.

Chipmunk T10 WZ862

Following a number of incidents between aircraft arriving and departing the various airfields in Berlin after the end of WW2, the four powers agreed to the establishment of the Berlin Control Zone (BCZ) that could be accessed by all aircraft. In addition, they agreed to the establishment of the Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC), where representatives from all four powers would co-ordinate with each other the movement of aircraft within the BCZ to prevent any misunderstandings taking place. The BCZ was a 20nm circle centered on the BASC and this of course covered a significant area occupied by Russian and East German forces. The British decided to take advantage of this agreement by not only regularly exercising their right to fly over the Russian area of the BCZ, but also to gather intelligence at the same time using two Chipmunk T-10 aircraft. Starting in 1956 and known initially as Operation Schooner and later as Operation Nylon, the operation was classified Top Secret and was authorised by the Cabinet Office, but fooled nobody. The crew consisted of a pilot who occupied the rear seat and observer in the front seat equipped with a hand-held camera fitted with a telephoto lens. The observer was usually a member of the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany (BRIXMIS), an organisation that was used to gather intelligence on Warsaw Pact forces. Flying as low as 500ft over Soviet controlled areas of the BCZ, the Chipmunk proved to be an excellent platform for clandestine photographic reconnaissance sorties

Chipmunk T10 WG466

Over the years a number of Chipmunks were used in these operations: WG303 and WK587 were used between 1958 - 1966, followed by WP850 and WP971 from 1966 - 1974, followed by WZ862 and WD289 from 1974 until the late 1980s. The last two Chipmunks used in this operation were WG486 and WG466 and, until the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact imploded, one of these aircraft could frequently be seen slowly droning its way over Berlin. The photographs obtained of Warsaw Pact equipment were useful and I imagine the Russians also took many photographs of the Chipmunk photographing them, so they knew exactly what these flights were doing and used their own aircraft for exactly the same purpose. On 29 Jul 94 Chipmunk T-10 WG466 was flown into Templehof and presented to the Allied Museum as a lasting reminder of its unusual role during the Cold War. The other Chipmunk, WG486, is now part of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby where it is used for training pilots in handling tailwheel aircraft before they progress onto the Spitfire and Hurricane. When the aircraft was first designed, I imagine no one ever envisaged that this fairly crude basic trainer would one day be utilised as a spyplane, but with excellent visibility from its cockpit, its ability to fly slowly for extended periods and it’s well known reliability, the Chipmunk was ideally suited for this unusual role and performed the task creditably over the Berlin Control Zone for many years.

Updated - Nov 2008