Boeing RB-29 Washingtons of 192 Squadron

by Dave Forster, 2003

Washington WZ966 of 192 Sqn

192 Squadron acquired three RB-29As as replacements for its three Lincolns in the first half of 1952. The first two aircraft (WZ966, WZ967) arrived at Watton in April and were joined by the third (WZ968) in June. Work then got underway at the CSE to develop an ELINT fit for the aircraft.

The modifications, carried out by the CSE, involved the removal of all gun turrets and bombing equipment; fairing over of the rear observation blisters; the conversion of the rear pressurised compartment into an Elint compartment accommodating six Special Operators; the installation of three radomes under the rear fuselage for direction-finding (D/F) antennae and the fitting of a number of other external antennae.

The primary tasks of the aircraft were to intercept, analyse and plot the positions of Soviet radar stations; and to intercept Soviet radio communications (including. transmissions between Soviet GCI stations and fighters). The six Special Operator positions comprised two HF/VHF communications intercept positions (AN/ARR-5, BC.348); one metric radar intercept (AN/APR-4) and one metric D/F position (AN/APR-4.AN/APA-17); and two centimetric (X-band and S-band) radar intercept and D/F and positions (ARI 18021, AN/APR-9, AN/APA-11). Wire recorders were also carried to capture signals for later analysis. Modification and installation of the first Washington, WZ966, began in May 1952. After a few minor problems work was finally completed at the end of September and the installation cleared early in October. Work was then started on the remaining two Washingtons. Using the experience gained in the first conversion these proceeded quickly and were completed in December.

During the first half of 1953 the squadron devoted its efforts to the training of its Washington crews and to the installation and trials of equipment in the aircraft. Training Special Operators was a particular problem since the Washington carried three times the number previously carried by the squadron’s Lincolns. The training programme was helped by the acquisition of an unmodified Washington (WW346) in April, primarily for pilot continuation training. This aircraft helped take the load off the three Elint aircraft which were flown intensively on combined navigator/special operator training sorties. Training flights were also made to the Middle East for pilot/navigator training. The squadron took advantage of Exercise Jungle King, a NATO naval exercise, in March 1953 to fly a series of Elint sorties using all three Washingtons to locate and track the ‘enemy’ fleet using radar and voice intercepts.

The first Washington Elint operation carried out during 1953 (Operation REASON) was a one-off operation to intercept the new Soviet cruiser Sverdlov just north of the Shetlands following its visit to the UK in August 1953. This highly successful operation revealed the presence of X-band fire control radar on the ship. The squadron took part in a further NATO naval exercise at the end of September when a Washington carried out two long-range sorties in support of Exercise Mariner. The Washington was tasked with the detection and location of the ‘enemy’ Blue force fleet; the detection of AEW and anti-submarine aircraft radar transmissions; and interception of radio traffic between ships and between carriers and their aircraft on both VHF and UHF bands.

Operational flying began in earnest in October 1953 when two Washingtons, accompanied by WW346 as a support aircraft, were detached to Nicosia. Two operational Elint sorties (six and eight hours respectively) were carried out during the detachment over the Black Sea.

During the next four years the Washingtons were flown on three basic types of Elint operation. The first, and least controversial, was the routine Border sortie. These were daylight sorties over West Germany, flown approximately 15 miles or so from the East German border. Roughly four of this type of sortie were flown each month, although these were often cancelled to make way for more important operations. The second type of operation was the shadowing of Soviet naval units, to obtain intelligence on their radar and communications equipment. These operations were flown on an opportunity basis, often at long range, and occasionally required the diversion of aircraft from pre-planned Elint sorties. Strict rules governed the conduct of these flights, limiting how close the Washington could approach the Soviet vessel or vessels. The third type of operation, and the most risky, was the monthly series of Elint sorties flown in neutral or international airspace along the borders of the Soviet Union and its allies. The main area of operations for these flights were the Baltic Sea (from Watton or Germany), the Black Sea (from Cyprus) and the Caspian Sea (from Iraq). The Washingtons normally operated in conjunction with the squadron’s Canberras – the Washingtons standing-off a minimum of 70 miles from Soviet territory and monitoring reactions to the Canberras, which approached to within 30 miles of the border. Each of these sorties was reviewed and authorized by the Foreign Minister before it was flown. Although these operations were flown in international airspace at a respectable distance from Soviet borders they still risked a hostile reaction. To minimize the risk they were always flown in absolute darkness during the period of the new moon. Since very few Soviet air defence fighters then carried AI radar this offered some protection from interception.

In late 1953 all three Washingtons were modified to allow them to carry a communications intercept suite of four VHF receivers (ARR-5) and two HF receivers (BC.348) as an alternative to their existing general-purpose monitoring fit. One aircraft was detached to Wunstorf for a series of ten VHF/HF communications monitoring sorties in February/March 1954. Similar operations were flown later in the year. In February 1956 Washington WZ966 carried out the first RAF Elint sortie into the Barents Sea. The 18 hour mission was made even more arduous by the failure of the aircraft heating system and the loss of one engine after 12 hours flying. Following this operation the Barents Sea was added to the list of regular operational areas. However subsequent sorties into the Barents Sea operated from Norwegian airfields.

In the autumn of 1956 a single Washington was detached to Malta for several months to compile an Egyptian electronic order of battle prior to the joint UK-French operations to reclaim the Suez Canal. The Elint suite in the Washington was subject to rolling programme of improvements during the aircraft’s service. The main problem was the accuracy of direction-finding, and thus the accuracy with which Soviet radar stations could be plotted. A number of improvements were made to the ARI 18021 equipment, and also to operating procedures; the ARI 18021 was later supplemented by the use of AN/ APA-17 for centimetric D/F. By the time the Washington was replaced by the Comet the intelligence-gathering ability of the aircraft had been transformed. Many of the lessons learnt with the Washington were applied directly to the Comet.

Maintenance of the 192 Squadron Washingtons was complicated by the withdrawal of the type from Bomber Command service in the early 1954. This made spares harder to obtain and as a result the aircraft were sometimes flown with non-essential equipment inoperable. The autopilot seems to have been an early victim of the spares situation. Mainplane corrosion problems were also encountered. By 1956 the squadron was complaining that it was becoming more difficult to meet its tasks as the age and flying hours of the Washingtons increased.

The end for the Washington came December 1957. By then the maintenance situation had deteriorated to the point where it was considered unlikely the aircraft could successfully complete a sortie without some major unserviceability. As a result all three operational aircraft were stood down. Luckily the Washington replacement, the Comet R.2, was nearly ready for operations. In the end only two months were lost in the changeover, the Comet flying its first operational Elint sortie in February 1958.